Now, the hard part

June 19, 1991

Considering South Africa's history, it has to be rated something of a miracle that the nation's parliament voted this week to repeal all laws which designate people by race.

Theoretically, this step solves everything. If people are no longer designated by race, it means that every citizen may move about South Africa freely; may gain equal access to all public institutions such as schools and hospitals; may own property and do business where one's economic wherewithal permits; and, above all, may vote in all elections. It follows that if the new law is rigorously respected, South Africa will happily take its place among the democratic nations of the world.

But of course only the most naive person really believes that a single act of parliament will achieve a utopia in which every citizen instantly enjoys the bountiful largess of the rich land. Realists know that apartheid and its evil legacy will not die easily.

To grasp the magnitude of the problems that lie ahead, consider only the status of property ownership: Whites, who constitute 20 percent of the nation's population, own 87 percent of the land; and the 13 percent which is in the hands of the black, Asian and mixed-race majority is poor, often useless land in distant places like the mountainous wild coast.

So once true democracy is achieved, the first task will be fundamental economic reform to reverse the baneful effects of a system which has for centuries systematically channeled the nation's wealth into the hands of the few to the exclusion of the many. That reform will not come easily, and whatever methods are undertaken to achieve that end almost certainly will involve property redistribution in a way that will divide the West sorely in its attitudes toward the new South Africa.

But surely there's one starting point that most people can agree on: A system which permanently places ownership of 87 percent of a nation's wealth in the hands of 20 percent of the people solely on the basis of race is a system that cannot stand.

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