UNTIL this month, probably the most symbolically inspiring event of most of our lives was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. But now an event of even greater moral magnitude has taken place.
Who could have dreamed in past decades, when South Africa became the world's symbol for racial oppression, that 70 percent of South Africa's white voters would go to the polls on March 17 and vote to end apartheid? Who would have imagined the degree to which on that historic day, as President F.W. de Klerk put it after the vote, the South Africans "rose above themselves"?
The Berlin Wall came down, yes, and millions of people were suddenly freed -- but it came down for external reasons: Mikhail Gorbachev's liberating policies and the East's own economic collapse.
But in South Africa, white South Africans actually brooded and blustered for years over apartheid and finally, of their own volition, simply changed their minds about the human condition. More, they voted in effect to give up their exclusive, and not inconsequential, power. As political scientist Hermann Giliomee explained the extraordinary phenomenon in the Cape Times newspaper:
"Here the South African whites, who have become a byword in the world for myopic bigotry, endorse a process which is most likely to reduce their political representation in a year or two to a minority in an elected legislature. To make it even more exceptional, whites have done this from a position of relative strength and in the absence of any sense of imminent defeat."
One can tick off the external reasons for this -- pressures from outside, foreign disinvestment, isolation from the world in sports, to name just a few -- and pundits in South Africa duly tended to opine that probably most whites voted for negative reasons. They feared the white supremacists on the conservative side, and they were terrified of a coming race war.
But even if that is true, it does not negate the astonishing thing that happened. Through the masterly political guidance of de Klerk, the quintessentially "good" man, and through deep moral searchings, white South Africans basically decided that the life their nation was living was not "right" and that it must be changed.
If anyone can think of an analogous situation, where the educated and powerful minority of a country has voluntarily given up power in the service of the long run and a higher ideal, I'd like to hear it.
Last Tuesday's astonishing vote does not, of course, solve everything. It only points the nation in the right direction. (Black // unemployment is estimated at a whopping 55 percent, to name only one of many dismal indicators.)
Now de Klerk and his daring sailors must navigate the new South Africa through the treacherous waters of forming an interim government, of putting a new constitution in place by 1994, and of calling multiracial elections by that same year. Yet, the very fact that the process is realistically scheduled (and built, now, upon the agreement of the whites) makes plausible its success.
Moreover, far more than South Africa depends upon a successful outcome of this saga; indeed, at this point in time, it is not improbable that the future of the black-rule African nations will hinge upon the stability -- or instability -- of economically powerful South Africa.
"South Africa now has the potential for being the engine for democratization in the entire subcontinent," commented South African journalist Anton Harber, editor of the Weekly Mail, to a group of specialists at the Carnegie Endowment after the referendum.
"We are now in the situation where it's so important that support from outside for democratization continues. It's almost like a boxer and his trainer. The trainer takes him through his rehearsals and in his final bout, the trainer says, 'You don't need me now.' That is not the time to walk away."
The editor made a good point. American individuals and groups who have been so active in bringing South Africa to this hopeful point and this promising position could now breathe a sigh of relief and disappear.
That would be a tragedy. For the transformation is only beginning now, and both South African whites and blacks are going to need all the help they can get in building the civil society so long dreamed of.
Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column on international affairs.