TRB from Washington

South Africa's second post-apartheid general election, held several weeks ago, turned into quite an intriguing affair, although you would hardly know it from the American press. The media focused on Nelson Mandela's retirement and his replacement by faithful lieutenant Thabo Mbeki--a story line that fits the fairy-tale narrative into which post-apartheid South Africa is so often shoehorned.

But, on the ground, real politics were taking place. In particular, the National Party, the party of F.W. de Klerk and of 50 years of apartheid, collapsed. Five years ago, when South Africa held its first multiracial contest, whites overwhelmingly voted N.P. and the party won 82 of the 400 seats in the parliament. De Klerk became Mandela's deputy president, and, when his party left the national unity government, it became the official opposition.

This time, the N.P. lost two-thirds of those seats, falling to 28. It would have dropped even further had it not (in an ironic twist) retained widespread support among "coloureds," the Afrikaans-speaking mixed-race population that it disenfranchised in the early years of apartheid. But whites deserted the N.P. en masse, switching overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party. The D.P., which won a mere seven seats in 1994, now boasts 38. Overnight, it has become the official parliamentary opposition and the primary voice of white South Africa. And, on the surface, that would seem like a very good thing.

The Democratic Party is synonymous, in South African parlance, with liberalism. Its leaders are the political heirs of Alan Paton and Helen Suzman--white South Africans who disliked apartheid because it trampled individual rights but suspected that the Marxist-aligned organizations fighting to overthrow it might be less than committed to those rights themselves. White South African liberals defended capitalism, opposed violent resistance, criticized apartheid's brutalities, and (their critics were quick to note) lived lives of apartheid privilege. A decade ago, most commentators on South African politics would have agreed with two propositions: first, that the liberals were basically decent people and, second, that they were basically irrelevant to South Africa's post-apartheid future.

It has not turned out that way. One reason is the implosion of white political alternatives. Despite rechristening itself the New National Party, the party that conceived and implemented apartheid has been unable to shed its historical baggage. Blacks continue to despise the N.P. And more and more whites believe that the party's leaders, reared in an intellectually stultifying, patronage-laden political machine, lack the brains to effectively challenge the African National Congress's urbane, foreign-educated cadres.

Into the vacuum has stepped Tony Leon, the relentless, egocentric, razor-sharp D.P. leader. Leon, the scion of a prominent Jewish family from Durban, has banished all traces of the apologetic, self-effacing style that used to characterize white South African liberalism. In its place, he has created a slick, macho, American-style political movement with an uncanny ability to tap into white fears. While other white politicians have treated Mandela with deference, Leon has taken him on with the brio of a Southern African neocon, labeling Mandela as too beholden to South Africa's labor unions and its Communist Party. When Mandela invited Fidel Castro to address the South African parliament, Leon boycotted the session. When Mandela asked the D.P. to join the government, Leon refused, vowing that "we won't be muzzled." And Leon has charged the ANC with indifference and incompetence in the face of a crime epidemic that has left white South Africans in panic. His proposal: a state of emergency.

A state of emergency? Not exactly the most liberal of solutions, especially in a country that still remembers the brutal state of emergency that President P.W. Botha imposed in response to black protest in the mid-'80s. But this is the irony of the D.P.'s success. It has confounded the experts who said a liberal political party could never flourish on South African soil. Yet it has simultaneously proved them right--for, as the D.P. grows more popular, it is revealing just how illiberal South African liberalism can be. For all of its commitment to individual rights and clean government (a popular anecdote tells of a man who registers with the D.P. and announces that "I'm not going to vote for you, but I'm registering here because I don't trust any of the other parties with my registration form"), the D.P. has essentially become a party of white backlash. These are liberals who got carjacked. Leon wants a referendum on the reimposition of the death penalty. He protested the draping of green cloth over statues of apartheid leaders so they would not serve as a visual backdrop to Mbeki's inauguration. He condemns "reverse racism" as South Africa's biggest problem--an absurd charge in a country where whites have retained virtually all their wealth and where rates of racial inequality remain near the highest in the world. A D.P. slogan boasts that the party will "restore merit, justice, and honesty"; of course, for black South Africans, there is no history of "merit, justice, and honesty" to restore.

In short, the D.P. is liberal about everything except race. And black South Africans know it. In a poll last year, blacks rated Leon less favorably than every white South African politician except for neo-fascist Freedom Front leader Constand Viljoen. When Dr. Bukelwa Mbulawa, one of the D.P.'s precious few black leaders, left the party earlier this year, she called her former colleagues "the new custodians of popular right-wing politics. Their only camouflage is their magical phrase `liberalism.'"

Mbulawa joined the ANC, and it is true that, unlike the D.P., which has no real connection to black South Africa, the ANC is a marvel of genuine multiracial community. That is largely because its cadres, most of whom were exiled or jailed during apartheid, were cut off from their inherited communities and had to form new, ideological ones. People may fret that Mbeki surrounds himself with cronies, but they have to admit that those cronies come in all hues. (Mbeki is closer to Essop Pahad, an Indian South African who lived with him for decades in Britain, than he is to his own siblings.) But, unfortunately, part of what bonded the Africans, Indians, whites, and "coloureds" who joined the ANC during apartheid was Marxism. And, although the orthodox variety is no longer fashionable, many ANC leaders intuitively support centralized governmental power and view individual rights as a barrier to economic transformation. In short, if the D.P. is liberal about everything except race, the ANC is liberal about nothing but. These are the mirror images that will structure politics in the wake of South Africa's second free national election, an election in which liberalism won big and lost big at the same time.

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.