Charting Change in South Africa

November 30, 1991

It was almost as momentous as the Madrid peace conference on the Middle East. Sixty-two delegates from 21 political parties gathered at a Johannesburg airport hotel yesterday for a marathon talk-in scheduled to end today. The subject: South Africa's future.

What was unthinkable a few years ago has begun. Black and white South African politicians together are starting to design a multi-racial regime in which the black majority will have full participation and rights.

Like the Madrid conference, the most crucial and irreversible progress came in the first 30 seconds. Sworn enemies, people with prices on their heads, long-time exiles and long-time rulers sat down and exchanged pleasantries. That was the key breakthrough. On matters of more specific substance, there was little. That will have to await a similar gather on Dec. 20. This meeting was to plan the next gathering.

Actually, Friday's session got off to a better start than had the Madrid talks. Rather than endure each others' windy speeches, the delegates rather quickly picked two judges to be their chairmen and agreed to call the December meeting a "convention." And that was just the first day. It did not, however, mean that they could agree on such other matters as how to represent the people in constitution-making and how South Africa would be governed during the transition.

One political party that matters, the Conservatives, stayed away. They had, the day before, won a seat in the white parliament from the ruling National Party of President F. W. de Klerk in a special election. And some of the parties that did show up do not count for much. They were there largely because they swear they are political parties and they wanted to come. But the big three, the National Party in the white community, and the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party from the black communities, were there. That was what mattered.

It is almost impossible to imagine how all this will work out, given South Africa's over-powering and tragic past. But it is also impossible to imagine this process being terminated, at least for very long. Whether you date it from President de Klerk's announcement of Feb. 2. 1990 declaring that the opposition ANC would no longer be banned, or from the airport hotel meeting yesterday, a process has begun that cannot be reversed. There is no going back.

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