One of the great lessons of the Nineties is that democracy can be a doomsday machine: some states - Yugoslavia, East Germany, the Soviet Union - are unable to survive its coming. This may be the year in which we see whether South Africa is one of those that can. With the launching of Codesa - the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, whose first plenary session was held on 20-21 December - the march towards a democratic, non-racial South Africa has entered its climactic phase. Nineteen of the country's political groups attended, but ominously, the absentees included the extreme Africanist Left - the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress) and AZAPO (Azanian People's Organisation) - and, perhaps more significantly, Treurnicht's Conservative Party and such far-right groups as Terreblanche's AWB. 'More significantly', because the white Right may now command 40 or 50 per cent of the white electorate and because these whites are often armed to the teeth. Currently, at least, the PAC and AZAPO lack that sort of political and military firepower. On the other hand, some of those who did attend, such as the generally unelected Bantustan oligarchs and the various Asian groups, represent comparatively little. Nonetheless, the summoning of Codesa - its working parties are in session now and will report to another plenary meeting in March - represented a great day in South African history. The road ahead is studded, no doubt, with symbolic walkouts, furious ultimata and all the other necessary histrionics of a meeting, called after centuries of oppression and exclusion, to re-found a great and divided country. But no one, after all, is going to die of histrionics: the real dangers lie elsewhere.
LRB 13 February 1992 | PDF Download