Accessibility links

Western Press Review: South Africa's Election, Ocalan

  • Joel Blocker
  • Anthony Georgieff

Prague, 2 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators today touch on a variety of subjects. They include the presidential election in South Africa, which marks the end of Nelson Mandela's five-year leadership of the country, and the ongoing trial of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey.

WASHINGTON POST: Mandela willingly ceded power

The Washington Post today pays tribute to what it calls Mandela's "gifts to his country [which the paper says] have been many and incomparable." The editorial enumerates Mandela's gifts as "his leadership in the fight against apartheid, his courage in captivity, his forgiveness of his enemies, his dignity and wisdom as president after apartheid. But," the paper goes on, "perhaps no contribution will prove more significant than his willing ceding of power and his deliberate preparation of a new generation to take over."

The WP continues: "The routinization of democracy is a great accomplishment, but...the government fell short in other ways, and inevitably left huge problems. Chief among these is poverty and its many components. Roughly one-third of South Africa's work force is unemployed. AIDS is rampant. Many schools are overcrowded and underequipped. Crime is frighteningly common."

"Given South Africa's history," the paper says, "it comes as no surprise that these problems have a racial dimension. Most of the white minority is still relatively well-off, too much of the black majority still impoverished." It also notes another great "challenge, [the] continuing political dominance of [Mandela's African National Congress, or ANC]. One-party states," it concludes, "inevitably slide toward corruption and arrogance.....Just as Mr. Mandela has set an example by removing himself to his small hometown, so the ANC must do what it can to encourage political competition."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The challenges Mandela leaves behind are daunting

The Los Angeles Times Syndicate today carries a commentary by U.S. journalist David Goodman, who has visited South Africa many times over the past 15 years. Goodman calls "Mandela's achievements... breathtaking," writing: "He inspired, cajoled and browbeat his compatriots through a peaceful transition to democracy and made racial reconciliation the focus of his tenure. In the process, South Africa taught a skeptical world a lesson about how former antagonists can bridge the racial divide."

"But," the commentary continues, "the challenges Mandela leaves behind are equally daunting." Despite its formal abolition, he says, "apartheid lives on. It continues in the chance encounter of a former activist and the man who tortured her -- a cop on the 'new' South African police force. It lives on in the squatter camps that swell like the sea, lapping ever closer to the heart of the cosmopolitan cities. Most of all, it endures in the profound contradictions between white wealth and black poverty."

Goodman says: "For many South Africans, there has been a revolution without change. Blacks have assumed top leadership roles in government and some businesses. But these new leaders have been reluctant to bring about any dramatic economic transformation that would broaden opportunities for the poor." He adds: "It is remarkable that South Africa has not boiled over into open warfare. But the absence of war should not be mistaken for true reconciliation. 'Reconciliation' implies a sense of reciprocity and mutual acknowledgment of wrong-doing between former antagonists. 'Peaceful coexistence' more accurately describes the fragile post-apartheid truce."

AFTENPOSTEN: South Africa may be on the way to becoming a one-party state

In a commentary for Norway's daily Aftenposten, Elisabeth Randsborg focuses on the same political problem. She writes: "South Africa may be on the way to becoming a one-party state as a result of today's elections. The ANC is set to win an overwhelming majority of the votes, more than it got at the country's first post-apartheid poll five years ago. This will likely have two effects on its democratic development: the ANC may win more than two-thirds of the votes and therefore be able to exert full control over the South African politics, including making changes in its constitution, and, second, the other parties taking part in the elections may be unable to form a functional and credible opposition."

The commentary goes on: "No-one suspects Mandela or his successor Thabo Mbeki of cherishing dictatorial ambitions, but the one-party model is not as alien to South Africa's incipient democracy as it is for Western nations with older parliamentary traditions." She goes on to note that "South Africa now has one of the world's most liberal constitutions, [the result] of compromises between the ANC and the...National Party, the former apartheid-based political group."

"As it stands," she sums up, that "constitution puts a lot of checks and balances on whoever holds power. The ANC may be tempted to change it if it gets more than two-thirds of the votes today."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: Within the ANC today, there are many authoritarian tendencies

In Denmark, Berlingske Tidende voices the same concern in its editorial: "If the ANC wins more than two-thirds of the vote today, as many optimists within the party hope, many of its rank-and-file may be tempted to abuse their political power, as many pessimists fear. Democracy in South Africa is only five years old, and the ANC's long history as a guerrilla movement may have left it with a deficiency in respect for internal democracy."

The paper continues: "Within the ANC today, there are many authoritarian tendencies. This is true of party leader Mbeki, the likely next president, who may -- just like the former freedom-fighter and now Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe -- evolve in a more authoritarian direction. There are other reasons to be skeptical as well," the paper adds, noting that "Winnie Mandela [Nelson's former wife, who has been charged with criminal behavior] is expected to do well at the elections and regain much of her old power -- despite her tolerance and encouragement of violence."

Berlingske Tidende concludes: "South Africa has many problems, [To cite only one,] it lost half-a-million jobs last year. Without peace and democracy it will be unable to hold its economy together."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The economy deserved to elicit more intelligent debate

For South African economic journalist Adrienne Roberts, her country's economy is "the forgotten issue" in today's elections. Commenting in the Wall Street Journal Europe, she says: "It was predictable that this year's campaign would be more humdrum than the last. But there is one issue -- the economy -- that deserved to elicit more intelligent debate. With unemployment topping more than 50 percent in many communities and GDP [gross domestic product] growth expected to be negligible...this year, South Africa is in desperate need of ideas of how end stagnation."

Roberts continues: "Specifically, there has to be a more lively national discussion about the government's economic program, the so-called Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy.... Mandela began his rule on the crest of a wave of optimism. Mbeki begins his in economic slump. He must make several tough and controversial decisions in order to make GEAR work."

Roberts says that Mbeki "must succeed. Failure will only increase the pressure -- not least from his own allies -- for more interventionist measures. Abandoning the [free-market] course outlined in GEAR can only lead to economic stagnation."

MUENCHNER MERKUR: Ocalans execution would turn him into a martyr

Several German newspapers comment briefly on the Ocalan trial, which began yesterday near Istanbul. The Muenchner Merkur calls the trial a "farce" with, the paper's editorial says, a certain outcome: "Ocalan will be sentenced to death, but he will not be put to death."

The editorial explains: "As long as Ocalan is imprisoned, but alive, he cannot do any harm. His execution, however, would turn him into a martyr for the Kurdish people -- and provoke a wave of international outrage. But that's the last thing Turkey needs right now -- after all, the country still wants to become a member of the European Union."

RHEIN ZEITUNG: The trial could mark the beginning of some kind of understanding

In its editorial, the southwest German Rhein Zeitung urges Turkey to use the trial against Ocalan "as an opportunity to establish some kind of peace process in the country's Kurdish regions." It says that "a fair trial could be an important signal to both militants and moderates among the Kurds. And if, at the same time, the Kurdish groups [in Turkey] would refrain from violence, the Ocalan trial could mark the beginning of some kind of understanding."

SAECHSISCHE ZEITUNG: There is little room for hope

But the Saechsische Zeitung, published in Dresden, is less optimistic. "There is little room for hope," the paper's editorial says, "if the manner in which the Turkish authorities have so far handled the case is any indication.... In dealing with Turkey, the West should always keep in mind that it could become an important bridge between the Occident and the Orient. But," the paper concludes, "democracies should never accept double standards when it comes to universal human and civil rights."

LUEBECKER ZEITUNG: It seems there are good separatists and bad separatists

On Germany's Baltic Sea Coast, the Luebecker Zeitung believes, however, that the West is doing exactly that. The paper's editorial points out that "in Kosovo, another rebel army is fighting for autonomy -- with the support of NATO. This week, the [political] leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army was received with all honors by the European Union. It seems there are good separatists and bad separatists," the paper concludes.