24 MAY 1986, Page 13


Stephen Robinson concludes that P. W. Botha preferred to take on

the ANC than opposition at home

Cape Town AS NEWS of South Africa's latest military adventure broke this week, there was no dancing in the streets of Cape Town, although a snap opinion poll conducted by the main Johannesburg daily newspaper revealed overwhelming support for the government's action. More affluent whites Who have not yet bought their traveller's cheques for the year's European holiday might worry about the rand's renewed downward potential; but in the main, South Africans derive a vicarious pleasure from outraging and defying world opinion. And of course official spokesmen, as well as the amateur political philosophers in the local pubs, wasted no time in pointing to the alleged contradictions of the American administration's public dismay at the raid: what is good for Gaddafi, they complain, is apparently not on for Oliver Tambo and the rest of the ANC command.

One can only assume that the British and American governments were joking when they expressed 'outrage and disbelief at the 'unfortunate' timing of the raid. There was absolutely nothing coincidental about the timing, and something big had clearly been on the cards ever since the minister of defence, General Magnus Malan, last week expressed his profound admiration for President Reagan's courageous hand- ling of the Libyan issue. This was followed two days later in parliament by President Botha himself. Nationalist politicians always look decided- ly queasy when events require them to deliver reformist speeches. When the going gets rough they are wont to resort to tub-thumping. The president's effort last week was an absolute peach, encompassing all the traditional targets of Nationalist venom — communist merchants of terror, lily-livered liberals, and (most pointedly) meddlesome foreigners. He was particular- ly keen to stress that the South African government was not about to abdicate Power, whatever may be the impression created by the steady stream of visiting foreign busybodies. It was a rousing per- formance, and even the far-right opposi- tion parties were forced to express grudg- ing admiration. That said, the military dimension to this week's raid was puzzling. Clearly, guerrilla wars are not won by blowing up offices in the middle of Sunday night and dropping bombs randomly on refugee camps. It was a half-hearted operation, especially as someone had apparently tipped off the ANC refugees in Harare, and the main target had been safely evacuated several hours in advance.

But the key to understanding the raid lies not in military requirements, nor in the Afrikaners' penchant for acts of gratuitous belligerence, but in the political realities of life in the Northern Transvaal. I was travelling in the region a fortnight ago, and it was clear that the ruling National Party is in very serious electoral trouble in the whole of the province. Along the Zimbabwean and Botswana borders, the farms teem with defence force personnel, and armoured trucks patrol the dirt roads. The Army endeavours vainly to prevent ANC cadres crossing the Limpopo river and planting landmines which terro- rise the local inhabitants. Twelve mines have exploded in Transvaal border regions in recent months; many more have been dug out of the gravel roads. The area bears all the scars of an intensive guerrilla war; twenty-foot-high security fences surround the homesteads, and the Army has issued all the local farmers (and their wives) with semi- automatic rifles. 'If you see a group of terrorists,' one hotel owner thoughtfully explained, 'don't be tempted to tackle them on your own — come straight back here for support.' Many farmers claimed they could actually see the terrorist camps on the other side of the river, although when I asked to have a look they had mysteriously disappeared. Needless to say, the government was accused of being far too soft on terrorists operating from across the border. Afrikan- er children are dying, they complained, while Pik Botha sips cocktails with Amer- ican diplomats in Cape Town. One farmer had even trained his six-year-old daughter to chant 'P. W. Botha is a baboon', for the entertainment of drinkers in the local pub. She had perfected the performance in both English and Afrikaans, and was working her way through the main African lan- guages as well. Before this week's raid, the Conservative Party was cheerfully predict- ing it would take the whole of the Trans- vaal at the next general election; even cautious National Party strategists admit- ted they would lose half the Transvaal's 76 parliamentary seats.

But more significant than the niceties of the electoral swings is the proliferation of far-right extra-parliamentary groupings, especially the Afrikaner Weerstands- beweging (AWB). On the more naïve level the AWB is a romantic throwback to Boer fundamentalism, but its members double up as Afrikanerdom's heavily armed neo- nazi Praetorian guard. All members are pledged to uphold Afrikaner exclusivity and to resist — by force if necessary — any efforts towards integration with the black majority.

The organisation's latest strategy is to march through town to disrupt National Party meetings. Three weeks ago the AWB forced a senior cabinet minister to abandon his speech by physically occupying the platform: significantly, the police refused to intervene. Flushed with the success of this venture, the leadership now boasts that the National Party will never again be able to hold a public meeting in the Transvaal. At the time of writing, the AWB was putting the final touches to its plan to disrupt a speech this week by the South African foreign minister Pik Botha in a Northern Transvaal town.

Against this background, it would have been provocative for the government to have announced an agreement with those sensible gentlemen from the Common- wealth Eminent Persons Group. This is the particular significance of the timing of the raid. The EPG had spent the previous week in South Africa conducting top-level negotiations with members of the cabinet. They had then travelled north to mull it over with the ANC leadership. On the day of the raid, they arrived back in Cape Town for the final round of talks before their return to London to draw up their report next month. In other words, the moment of truth had arrived — the South Africans would have been required to cross the Ts and dot the Is on a series of unpalatable proposals, including the un- banning of the ANC and the start of negotiations with black leaders.

Rather than simply refuse to adopt the EPG's proposals, the cabinet opted to go out with a bang and gain the support of conservative Afrikanerdom. It is always easier to rage against the external enemy than against internal dissent, for family fights are always the most bitter. The hawks in the cabinet decided that for the time being the AWB, armed as they are with automatic rifles provided by the Army to fight the terrorists, were a more formid- able threat than the African National Congress and punitive economic sanctions.