Winds of Change in Africa

June 09, 1991

Even while his negotiations with the African National Congress stall over tribal strife, President F. W. de Klerk makes sanctions against South Africa harder to sustain. The repeal of the historic Group Areas Act and Land Acts dismantle the principal legal buttresses of South Africa's apartheid. One giant legal pillar remains, the Population Registration Act, which provides for everyone to be classified by race. The government does not know how to maintain the separate parliamentary chambers without that registration, so it looks like that law stays on the books until the next regime is negotiated.

Simultaneously, the 51-member Organization of African Unity, meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, with 32 heads of state present, called for the maintenance of economic sanctions against South Africa, but acknowledged change. "Should the South African government adopt measures which lead to positive, profound and irreversible change toward the abolition of apartheid, we commit ourselves to review the question of sanctions with a view to readmitting South Africa into the international community," it declared.

The South African government is doing just that, at its own pace, and some members of the OAU won't wait for the others. Kenya, Madagascar and some others say they are resuming trade with South Africa. Several countries that say they don't, do. An official end to African sanctions appears less than a year away, after which continued American sanctions would make decreasing sense.

But if democracy is necessary to South Africa, why not for black Africa as well? Most of the countries gathered at Abuja are one-party states, some with presidents-for-life. Speaker after speaker, and notably the host, Nigeria's military president, Ibrahim Babangida, called for democracy and a dismantling of "unrepresentative power" across the continent. The summit produced a treaty creating an African Common Market on the European model, which does not mean much now but will if industry grows.

President Babangida heads the OAU for the next year. He is that rare strong man who seems genuinely committed to democracy. He has a continuing role to play in South Africa's readmission to African counsels. He is a good man to have play it.

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