South Africa's elimination of racial labeling for all itsnew-born citizens clears the way for a new social compact that could have far-reaching global impact in redefining representative democracy for a world that is increasingly being made up of multi-cultural societies and states.
Ethnically diverse nations in the Soviet Union, China, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent seem incapable of creating a workable politics to deal with the ingrained prejudices resulting from centuries of shifting borders and pogroms. South Africa's situation is historically recent and therefore more open to flexible solutions.
The creation of African homelands was an early attempt to graft the territorial imperatives of Western-style democracy onto the South African situation. Such representational government is based on geographical districting that preserves the dominance the majority culture. The solution didn't take in South Africa because the empowered majority culture dwindled to a numerically untenable minority status, leading ultimately to a collective despotism.
The United States is well on the way toward being in a similar quandary. America's minorities are turning into a patchwork urban quilt of majorities all across the nation. The resultant realignment of local legislative districts is part of a normal process by which representational democracies adjust to the demographic facts churned up by the decennial census.
The unusual bitterness of the rhetoric this time, punctuated by such scenes as a black Baltimore councilwoman angrily waving her shoe at a redistricting debate (giving the symbolic boot to the white power structure), suggests that more than the usual Democratic-Republican gerrymandering is at work.
Fancifully shaped electoral districts sunder cohesive communities as newly emergent majorities seek local control of the legislative as well as the executive branches of government.
But cities with glittery cores and crumbling neighborhoods, like Baltimore, are little more than ''homelands'' relative to the affluent surrounding suburbs. It is only a matter of time before the Anglo-European majority in America nationally reflects the minority status that has already overtaken it in some urban enclaves.
Will we handle the transition any better than the South Africans whom we have tried to ''sanction'' and ''embargo'' into changing? Hopefully, the South Africans will develop a solution that will be a model to the world, as important to socio-political development as the transition from monarchy to nation-states.
The main difference between the United States and South Africa is that there was never any risk in encoding full rights for minorities in the U.S. because it was inconceivable at the time that these minorities would ever dominate American culture, given the unlimited capacity of the ''melting pot.'' But the most important difference was the creation of a system of social benefits that enhanced minority status in the United States in ways alien to South Africa's blacks.
These special benefits, now threatened as minorities move toward majority status, are reasserted under the philosophical rubric of minorityism: when a minority acts, talks and thinks like a minority even after it becomes a majority. All those past-due rights and privileges that were institutionalized by liberal courts and legislatures are now in jeopardy. In defense, minorityism transfers emphasis from the objective count to the objectionable effects. Numerical superiority doesn't automatically liberate a group from the clutches of the ''dominant culture,'' as the tribal South Africans already know.
If America is moving toward a new subjective and relativistic standard for minority status, then nothing short of recasting the social compact in multi-cultural terms and rewriting the Constitution will suffice. Perhaps the answer will be as imaginative as a third house of Congress apportioned according to ethnic and racial lines or as simple as deleting a few key phrases from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in order to give group rights precedence over individual rights. The South Africans, already in the process of dismantling their system, may have a better chance at successfully converting from a geopolitical to an ethnopolitical system.
Too many generations of Americans have become acculturated to minority status and have developed the political acumen to wring economic advantages from the system. But as mainstream politics in America shifted from liberal to conservative, the dominant culture's ''guilt button'' became harder to push.