State President PW Botha yesterday delivered his first direct invitation to black South Africans to participate in national government – behind the massed guns of several hundred soldiers, police and township “green bean” police. He chose as the first recipients of the invitation to sit on his National Council, and a future Council of Council, Mayor Esau Mahlatsi and the town councillors of the Vaal’s Lekoa township complex, who are among the least representative “black leaders” in the country. And even they said “no” to Botha.
The day was full of unexpected moments, such as when the Lekoa flag was raised upside down and the crowd drowned out Die Stem by singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Mahlatsi and his colleagues have lived behind barbed wire in a specially-constructed and heavily guarded compound since the Lekoa council increased local rents in September 1984, sparking a wave of nationwide unrest which has not yet abated despite two States of Emergency, ushering in a nationwide rent boycott.
But behind the guns which surrounded the Sebokeng civic centre yesterday afternoon these minor details were forgotten as Botha, flanked by a phalanx of cabinet ministers, flew in by army helicopter to gracefully accept the “freedom of the city” delivered, on behalf of 346 000 rent-boycotting residents by Mahlatsi whose council has been so strapped for cash by the 32, month boycott they had to beg the R15 000 for yesterday’s ceremony from local white businesses.
Throughout his 21-page acceptance speech, Botha made not one reference to the first and continuing cause of unrest – rents – concentrating instead on the National Council and the “reforms” he said were mandated by white South Africa in the May 6 election. But if the several thousand-strong crowd which turned up to watch left disappointed by Botha’s failure to announce rent relief, Botha himself may have been equally disappointed.
After granting his president the freedom of the six Lekoa townships, Mahlatsi said: “We would have great reluctance in participating in the National Council. We seriously urge you to abandon the idea of operating this body. “It is our belief that the reform you have been mandated to pursue will be an exercise in futility if it does not have (as its objective) the ultimate participation of blacks in parliament on a par with whites.”
Botha had clearly not brought along his ministers of defence, law and order, information, constitutional affairs, foreign affairs and of education and development aid in the expectation of rejection. But the “freedom ceremony” was not a stunning success for Botha or Mahlatsi: After the Lekoa flag had been raised upside-down, and dignitaries began singing Morena Boloka (the Sotho version of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika) and then Die Stem, hundreds of those beyond the guns shot their fists into the air and began singing the more widely-recognised Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.
Consensus among journalists present was that the crowd won the singing. Their demands, featured in a widely-circulated pamphlet from the Vaal Civic Association yesterday morning, were less immediately successful. They included an end to high rentals and the Delmas trial (which focuses on the Vaal uprising of ’84), the resignation of all councillors, the release of the “Vaal Six” (currently awaiting execution for killing a councillor in ’84) and an end to evictions.
After the ceremony, Botha and his cabinet ministers departed for a tour of Sharpeville where, in a sense, his troubles began 26 years ago. His reception in Sharpeville was in sharp contrast to that in Sebokeng. In Sebokeng there was no enthusiasm, no shouting. But when he entered Sharpeville’ s George Thabe Stadium after a brief tour of the township, Botha was given a rousing reception by close to 1 000 primary school children.
Law and order minister Adriana Volk commented: “It is a very wonderful experience for me. How can they receive us like this? Reminded that thousands of children of the same age had been in detention, he said. “You heard this week that only 11 children remain in the cells. In any case, this is not my indaba. The State President is responsible for the State of Emergency.” Asked when the State of Emergency would be lifted, he said: “Ask the State President.”
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper