Winnie Manela’s recent conviction shows that something like the rule of law survives in South Africa after the unconditional release of her husband. On a visit to Johannesburg several months ago, I found myself more than once, to my amusement, arguing the court had to convict Winnie Mandela, to South Africans who smiled at me in disbelief, a measure of their demoralization. The release of Nelson Mandela without the renunciation of violence P.W. Botha had required of him served to put the slogan that had carried Mandela through 27 years of imprisonment on the lips of ordinary white South Africans, and worse still, maybe in their minds: I mean the notion that the so-called violence of the government, usually called apartheid for short, justifies murder and terrorism, a simplistic view of Western history more current in our universities than in the townships of South Africa.

South Africa is a difficult country to visit because almost everything you see contradicts, or at least raises questions about, what you have heard. I went there for a three-week visit in March, almost two years after I had completed Prisoners of a Dream: The South African Mirage, a book that had turned out an unwitting defense of this country I had never visited. I went to see the living country with the dread that I would have to acknowledge horrors I had denied in writing but that a visit would force me to see. Once there I found that the country was better than I expected, and even harder to understand. Some of the best South Africans I met told me the country bewildered them also. I was moved by how often I was asked what I thought of them. Almost nobody I met spoke as if he had the answers.

I came to South Africa little more than a year after Mandela was released and the ban lifted from the ANC, SAC, and other terrorist groups on February 2, 1990—”Red Friday,” as some of the tougher-minded people I met called it. Nineteen-ninety was a year accurately perceived to have turned everything upside down, most of all the way people spoke and thought, the hardest thing to change. But I met nobody who sounded as if he were repeating a party line, except occasionally someone in government.

The most dangerous tendency I saw was the tendency to reject the entire past, especially on the part of Afrikaner political leaders, whom a South African journalist described as “tooling around the country on bended knee crying mea culpa, mea culpa.” This wholesale rejection is extremely dangerous because unless South African leaders know the strengths of their past they will not be able to face down the increasing irrationality of the present. The very capacity of ordinary Afrikaners, the obvious backbone of the country, to doubt themselves, and to admit they may have been wrong, in part, without repudiating themselves, testifies to the strength of their past, not to its weakness. I met many people who were as much for change as they were against negotiations with the ANC, an attitude that shows up markedly in government polls not only of whites, but of coloreds and Indians also. By April 1991 there were signs of disillusionment with the ANC even among blacks, disillusionment the terror in the townships probably kept largely silent.

One of the best journalists I know in South Africa says the country is in a revolutionary situation, probably a correct judgment. But it is a revolution nobody really wants, not anybody in the country, at any rate. The ANC, after any number of membership drives, probably has no more than one hundred and fifty thousand members, in contrast to the Inkatha Freedom Party’s one million members, among them at least fifty thousand whites. Moreover, ANC strategy has not changed, only the tactics. In fact, ANC violence has continued and even increased since the ban was lifted, a fact the ANC denies and the government ignores. By the end of 1990, the worst year of violence since the beginning of reform, there were ten killings a day. The killing increased precipitously in the two weeks following the ANC’s supposed renunciation of violence on August 6. (The words the ANC actually used were “suspension of violence,” words P.W. Botha and the foreign minister had rejected in 1986 because they implied no more than a cease-fire the ANC could cancel at will.)

Numerous black leaders were murdered, including about one hundred fifty Inkatha leaders; an important editorial writer for The Sowetan, the largest newspaper in South Africa, who had opposed the ANC; and rival terrorist leaders in the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). There was also a marked increase in attacks on town-councillors and off-duty black policemen, largely ignored by the Johannesburg press except for occasional reports [edited]. The press, like the government, did not want to hear any evil about the ANC—with the exception of Business Day and The Citizen. To my astonishment the press even criticized the government for not moving quickly enough on reform, as if the only obstacle to change lay in the minds of government ministers.

In late 1990 and 1991 the ANC began to force the government to recognize ANC men instead of the elected town councillors it had been killing and terrorizing since 1984. The attack on the township governments was paralleled by a systematic attack on the governments of most of the homelands. Everywhere the aim was to intimidate and destroy black leadership independent of the ANC, and with regard to the townships, to make the government complicit in this destruction. The release of Mandela meant increased suffering for the blacks, suffering Mandela probably wanted to harden them and to increase their sense of abandonment by the whites.

To gain control of the townships the ANC exploits the government’s compassion and remaining sense of responsibility. After Mandela’s release, the refusal to pay rent and electric bills that had occurred sporadically since 1984 spread wildly to many townships. Many townships were forced to recognize the ANC after the medical authorities ordered the restoration of power to prevent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid that might break out because power shut-ofFs also cut off water. The final twist: recognition of the ANC did not necessarily mean payment of bills. “What other country in the world do you know where millions of people do not pay their electric bills and rent?” a young Afrikaner woman asked me, amusement lighting her eyes.

The primary responsibility for the clashes between the ANC and Inkatha lies with the ANC, especially in the townships. If the government will not control the ANC, the Zulus and other blacks will. “Only the blacks are now fighting the communists,” a tough young white missionary told me. In a sense the ferocity of the Zulus in the townships measure the extent to which the government is out of touch. Somebody in the country has to know where freedom is. Buthelezi has put the responsibility for the violence squarely on the blacks, while Mandela instead has tried to blame it on the government, calumny that the media did not swallow.

At a prayer breakfast on March 7 in Durban, Buthelezi said he regretted the violence, and wept. The questions on everybody’s mind were: had he wept spontaneously (as if tears could be anything but spontaneous)? And was this weeping a confession of weakness? (In the Transvaal—a rougher, more unforgiving post is hard to imagine—I heard one of Inkatha’s men, Musa Myeni, more than once announce to whites that weeping did not necessarily mean weakness.) In his speech Buthelezi observed that the time was not yet ripe for reconciliation and repentance, but he also pointed out that the blacks themselves had much to admit to. He meant that the situation in South Africa was not the exclusive work of the oppressors but also of the oppressed, who had not known how to fend for themselves. I could hardly believe my ears.

Buthelezi profoundly hates violence, but as early as 1985 he also argued for the rationality of fighting back. He is a man, in short, who can live with contradictions in his soul. This capacity to endure contradiction makes it possible for Buthelezi to understand that the distinction between real negotiations with limited aims and negotiations that mask a transfer of power depends on faith, a word that he does not have to utter to make its presence felt in South Africa.

Not even a week later, on March 12, with the country still wrapped in the riddle of his tears, Buthelezi faced De Klerk and delivered another remarkable speech, this time upon the occasion of De Klerk’s trip to Kwa Zulu, the first visit of any South African head of state to the homeland. He said he had never taken up violence because he had thought change possible in South Africa without violence. He probably meant that change was only possible without violence. He meant also that he had always known the Afrikaners could be reached.

He praised De Klerk for his readiness for the reconciliation that had transformed the country, but he criticized him severely for his almost exclusive attention to the ANC. He pointed out that any partnership or entente with the ANC would lead to the destruction of both the ANC and the National Party. He argued that if the whites really want to share power they must deal with the actual black leaders, leaders that they have to respect. He meant also that nothing short of dealing with these few leaders will cut the ANC down to size and show the extent of its fear of responsibility. A South African friend had pointed out to me in my first hours in South Africa that he suspected the government feared the real black leaders, perhaps the most profound observation I heard during my trip. Buthelezi told De Klerk the same thing to his face. He meant that De Klerk feared the spread of freedom, an understandable and even a rational fear, but one that has to be faced openly, for otherwise the country will be vulnerable to even greater destruction than freedom could bring.

The choice De Klerk and his government face is between men who have respected the Afrikaners enough never to hold a knife to their throats, and those who do hold a knife. But choosing between them does not mean excluding the ANC from negotiations, as Buthelezi himself emphasized when he insisted on keeping the ANC “in the peace process.”