Reconciling majority and minority rights

Patrick Laurence comments on two articles in this issue: one by Pallo Jordan, and one by Alf Stadler.

The two articles that follow, written respectively by African National Congress (ANC) parliamentarian and historian Pallo Jordan, and former university professor Alf Stadler, have been placed in deliberate juxtaposition. Though written independently, they complement and, paradoxically, challenge one another.

Jordan eloquently states the case for the African National Congress as the majority party. Its legitimacy derives from more than its size and widespread support from nearly two-thirds of the electorate. It is reinforced by its largely uncontested status as the party that most successfully garnered support from, and fought for, the historically deprived indigenous black people.

Another point emerges between the lines in Jordan's article: the ANC's tactical flexibility, reinforced by its long established alliance with the Communist Party, enabled it to fight for the rights of the black underclass without degenerating into a black chauvinist party. Jordan offers an insider's audit of the ANC's achievements on behalf of the poor since it came to power. They include the provision of potable water, health care, school meals and affordable housing to many black people throughout the country.

Stadler, however, focuses on what he labels the "downside of legitimacy", stressing that legitimacy, in the sense of majority rule, is not an absolute guarantee of democracy. A majority party can behave undemocratically by not respecting minority rights. A party whose hold on majority support seems beyond challenge for the foreseeable future may be especially vulnerable to the temptations of power.

While the ANC government has not taken the path leading to oppression of minorities, Stadler observes that the Democratic Alliance's right to mobilise and represent the interests of the minority communities is viewed with suspicion and even hostility by the ANC. It raises the unsettling question of whether, further down the line in circumstances of diminishing ANC support, that right might be challenged and even denied.

It is pertinent to recall that the Democratic Party's "fight back" slogan in the 1999 election was interpreted as a "fight black" exhortation rather than an attempt to rally the party's disheartened supporters after the trouncing it had suffered in the 1994 election when it won a minuscule 1,68 per cent of the vote.

It is, furthermore, relevant to note that the ANC's attitude to its solemn promises to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Freedom Front, which represented important components in the Zulu and Afrikaner communities, borders on cavalier indifference.

It has not yet honoured its commitment to the IFP, made in the memorandum of agreement and reconciliation of April 19, 1994, to submit "outstanding issues" to international mediation "as soon as possible" after the 1994 general election. The outstanding issues include the status of the Zulu monarchy and IFP demands for greater power for provincial governments.

The accord with the Freedom Front, signed on April 23, 1994, provides for the establishment of Volkstaat Council to examine the feasibility of establishing an Afrikaner volkstaat. But the ANC, having averted an Afrikaner nationalist rebellion by signing the accord at a time when armed revolt could have posed a serious threat to the prospective ANC government, has still not responded to the final report of the Volkstaat Council. Submitted more than two years ago, the report has been relegated to a historical footnote. It is presumably gathering dust in a government office.

These unfulfilled promises should be appraised in the context of a recent statement by Danie Goosen, chairman of the Group of 63. Goosen protests against attempts to link the Group of 63 with the Boeremag because of its warning that the Boeremag - which is suspected of responsibility for the Soweto bomb explosions in October - is a product of rising discontent in the Afrikaner community.

Goosen, a philosopher by training, complains of "a worrisome lack of tolerance for those who publicly place the problems of the Afrikaans minority on the national agenda".