Sorry, De Klerk, the UDF beat you to it

De Klerk, in a bid to avoid the embarrassing uncertainty of not knowing whether President George Bush will see him in Washington, has turned down the invitation to see Secretary of State James Baker. This comes only weeks after De Klerk’s government was forced, under pressure, to waive the restriction orders on UDF leaders and return their confiscated passports to allow them to go to Washington, London and Brussels to meet world leaders. 

As it is, De Klerk had to take his place in the queue to see Bush behind the UDF leaders-Albertina Sisulu, Alhar Cachalia, Titus Mafolo and Sister Bernard Ncube - who were personally invited by the US president, and an earlier delegation of church leaders campaigning for the isolation of De Klerk’s government. The message of the UDF leaders to Bush was clear: don’t believe De Klerk’s promises of reform and don’t see him until he proves he is serious about political change.
This was dubbed an “anti-diplomatic mission” by Cachalia. “I don’t think that we were the only reason, but I think we were one factor in getting Washington to rethink the De Klerk visit,” he said this week. Their visit was followed by a letter from over 100 US congressman asking Bush not to see De Klerk next month. It seems the UDF visitors, who met the full spectrum of American political leaders, started a wave of opposition to De Klerk, raising the prospect of pro· tests when he visited. 

Bush, whose administration had not confirmed a meeting with De Klerk but had set tentative dates for it, suddenly backed down when an official yesterday said the invitation was for the South African leader to see Baker. This would be in keeping with the new US president’s stated desire to stand with the Democratic Party-controlled Congress in setting a new South African policy, and is the first clear signal of a significant change in attitude from the previous Reagan administration. De Klerk hurriedly said he was too busy to go to Washington, an apparent attempt to avoid the embarrassing uncertainty of the status of his visit. The visit was planned to come before the September elections, and would have been an important part of the National Party campaign. 

De Klerk is much less likely to get an invitation to Washington after the election, because once he is installed as state president, such a trip would require all the pomp and formality of a state visit. The message now coming back from most of the outside world seems to be: we’ll wait and see what De Klerk does. This was echoed by Mozambican leader Joaquim Chissano, who told De Klerk on Wednesday that South African could be accepted by its neighbours if there is change in the country. The UDF delegation, led by Sisulu, have seen Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

This week Cachalia and Eric Molobi met with the Belgian foreign minister, Mark Eyskens, and European Community leaders in Brussels. Eyskens told them that he, like many Western leaders, was “sceptical” of the intentions of De Klerk’s government. Thatcher now appears to be the only Western leader who does not share this scepticism. The new-look National Party leadership may have won some space in the international community, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this goodwill is dependent on internal changes in South Africa. Meanwhile, the international standing of the government’s opponents has clearly been raised by their mission.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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