BREAKING THE CHAINS

By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Sunday, April 3, 1994

JOHANNESBURGAgainst a backdrop of hope and fear, a nation’s epic march toward democracy has entered a bloody home stretch.

The people of South Africa—including, for the first time, the majority black population—will go to the polls later this month and alter the course of their bitter history.

They will elect a new national government and officially close the door on apartheid—the code of racist law by which some 5.6 million whites kept 24 million blacks and others of mixed race in symbolic chains for nearly half a century.

“It’s a liberation election that finally puts the beast of apartheid in the grave,” said Larry Shore, a Hunter College professor who, like many white activist South Africans, left the country long ago out of fear or disgust.

Polls show they will also vote themselves a new leader—Nelson Mandela, the main symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle. At 75, he’s been crisscrossing the turbulent nation, urging conciliation and promising followers a better day.

F.W. de Klerk, Mandela’s chief rival and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been on the campaign trail too, portraying his National Party as a reborn agent of freedom and the best hope for peaceful change.

The quest for peaceful change was dealt a severe setback last week, when 31 people died after a march by black Zulus who want their own country erupted into the worst violence the commercial core of this city on edge has ever seen.

Elsewhere in the factionalized country, the trail of blood has also thickened: Election rallies near Durban have become armed showdowns between men with axes, spears and automatic rifles. Political offices near Cape Town have been bombed.

Since de Klerk freed Mandela from from prison four years ago, political violence has claimed the lives of 15,000 people—more than in any of the worst periods of resistance and repression.

The violence is partly a legacy of apartheid. Most of it is related to the impending demise of the nation’s contrived, ethnic-based “homelands.” They were created to deny blacks citizenship and to herd them away from whites; their leaders stand to lose power and money.

In the last three weeks, election unrest in two homelands—Ciskei and Bophuthatswana—has caused South African officials backed by troops to take them over.

The most explosive situation lies ahead in KwaZulu, and pits Zulus who support Mandela and his African National Congress party against Zulus who support Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Polls show the ANC would win a fair election in KwaZulu during the April 26-28 balloting, but Buthelezi and his nephew, the king of the Zulu tribe, refuse to recognize the election’s legitimacy and have vowed a fight to the end to retain their power.

“There will be no democratic settlement for South Africa, and there will be no peace to follow, until there is a settlement of the KwaZula issue,” Buthelezi thundered.

Buthelezi has been undermined by allegations linking him to death squads backed by a cabal of white South African police officials intent on fomenting instability, but he remains powerful enough to unleash civil war.

White neo-Nazi right-wingers, descendents of the Dutch who settled in South Africa three centuries ago, pose another threat. They are a small, but heavily armed group that’s vowed to oppose a black-run government.

“The Irish Republican Army has only a few hundred members and it has Britain on its knees,” a neo-Nazi recently fumed. “We are 50,000.”

Beyond the danger of black strife and white resistance is the potentially greater fury that might be unleashed after the election, if millions of young, poor and angry blacks grow impatient with the pace of change.

Most live now in chicken-coop like squalor. It will take decades to build an economy and a society that offers them hope and opportunity. Meanwhile, though they may be taxed at higher rates, most whites will hold onto the prosperity they’ve enjoyed because they’re needed to run the country.

“Disgruntled expectations, rather than ethnic violence, is the real threat,” said Michael Osborne, a New York lawyer who also left South Africa. “It might take 100 years for the country to be a peaceful, prosperous place.”

The election itself is for a 400-member assembly, which will elect the president. With polls showing the ANC winning enough seats to assure his election, Mandela has sought to expand his appeal among blacks and to reassure whites—most of whom, polls show, have come to terms with the idea of majority rule.

In a speech in Sharpeville—where, in 1960, the ANC struggle to liberate South Africa gained worldwide support after police killed 69 protesters—Mandela promised to try and give blacks jobs, education and peace.

But he also sounded a conciliatory note: “The majority of the police force is comprised of honest men and women, black and white. We need them.”

“Mandela is bending as far as he can to keep his nation together,” said the Rev. Leon Sullivan, an early leader in the international sanctions campaign that forced de Klerk and his National Party to the negotiating table.

Mandela has also criticized his own supporters for committing violence, for organizing sloppy campaign rallies and for trying to halt de Klerk campaign speeches.

With whites accounting for 14% of the population of 40 million, de Klerk’s party won’t win, but will likely get enough votes to propel him into a major job in the “unity” government that will serve for five years.

The man in the eye of the storm, though, is Mandela; an interim constitution gives the president great power. He will be the one making the hard decisions.

“We have stopped thinking in terms of color,” he recently told a white man worried about his fate in a black-run country. “We think only in terms of human beings.”

INTO AFRICA

Late this month, a historic election will take place in South Africa—a vote that will change the destiny of a nation.

The Daily News is proud to send Gene Mustain and Michael Allen there to provide our readers with the best coverage of this epic drama.

Mustain has won numerous awards and has traveled widely in a News career that began in 1986. In 1991, he covered Mayor David Dinkins’ trip to South Africa. Allen joined the News’ City Desk a year ago. This is his first assignment overseas.