If this week’s mass action was Nelson Mandela’s “referendum” he has clearly won a handsome mandate. He has proved that with the help of Congress of South African Trade Unions, he can call out the country’s workers and close down the cities with targeted disruptive “occupation”.
If anyone doubted that the African National Congress could wield significant learn clout, those doubts should now be settled. But the comparison between the President PW de Klerk’s March poll and Mandela’s August showdown does not end when the sun sets on referendum day.
After his March victory, many analysts wondered exactly what De Klerk’s referendum had proved about his constituency. White voters were asked a very widely phrased and imprecise question. A broad cross section of white opinion drew a “yes-X” even though they would not support De Klerk and the National Party, in an election. In other words the “yes vote” total masked the complexity of voter feeling.
While he obviously commands majority white backing the extent of support for De Klerk’s party, policy — and even person — could not be established from merely, counting the crosses.
Mandela faces a similar problem in assessing what the mass action results “say’ about his constituency. Granted the stayaway was bigger than any such action in the past. But here too the question heard in the townships was imprecise: if you want peace and democracy, stay home. That call would bring together many people including some who might not vote for the ANC in an election. Similarly the intimidation factor cannot be ignored.
Even if the ANC membership behaved in an exemplary fashion, as it clearly did in many areas the history of kangaroo-court punishment inflicted on “sell-outs” is fresh in everyone ‘s memory. The Monday message of burning tyres on some township roads made the intended impact.
In addition many people had no choice. Without transport, they simply had to stay home, regardless of their political position. Even more important for the country however is what immediate use
Mandela intends to make of this referendum result.
When De Klerk won his March victory, it seemed he had been given a powerful enough mandate to meet his two most serious challenges: getting on with negotiations for a just new political-dispensation, and taming both the rightwing and the security establishment. He did neither.
Instead he behaved as though he had won an election rather than a referendum, and regarded his success as an endorsement of NP policies. He immediately took a harder line on negotiations, apparently reading the poll as carte blanche to squeeze the ANC on behalf of whiles and to ensure political longevity for NP bureaucrats. And he continued to back the security forces almost without question instead of mounting a serious cleaning-out operation reaching high into the command structure.
To a large extent the future of negotiations and therefore the-likelihood of relatively peaceful transition in South Africa, depends on whether Mandela follows De KIerk’s disappointing lead. Just as De Klerk was influenced by factions within his cabinet in deciding how to interpret the referendum results, so too Mandela will have the views of the multi-faceted alliance to consider in deciding his next step.
Will he take the mandate of the people as power enough to enable tough action against members, of his organisation who terrorise their neighbours simply for not toeing the party line?
Will he interpret this August acclaim as a signal to take a hard line rather than a conciliatory attitude?
Like De Klerk will he try to turn the screws on big opponents, and make demands the other parties simply cannot accept?
Or does the conciliatory tone many heard in his Pretoria speech indicate he will show the statesmanship so many had vainly hoped for from De Klerk?