JOHANNESBURG — Johannesburg. -- When South Africa's president Frederick W. de Klerk announced that he was freeing Nelson Mandela and unbanning the African National Congress, it was only one note in the chorus of good news that was resounding across the world.
Apartheid seemed like just another of the oppressive systems of government buried under the bricks falling from the Berlin Wall. Communism was dead. The Evil Empire was no more. All that we had been taught was wrong with the world now seemed right.
The assumption was that people freed from the shackles of oppressive governments would naturally choose liberal democracy with a strong dose of individual civil liberties. Indeed, so widespread was that belief that serious attention was given to the thesis by Francis Fukuyama that we had come to the end of history as we knew it because all would live under the same system of government.
In hindsight, that assumption seems pitifully naive. These days, one almost yearns nostalgically for the rationality, however misguided, of communism when confronted with the irrationality ethnic strife, thought to be long-buried in the ruins of World War II, that has so often emerged in the wake of its demise.
The faces of grief from Sarajevo to Somalia have taken away the joy of the victory of Western democracy. The united Germany is faced with economic burdens and the emergence of neo-Nazis. The Russian invaders leave Afghanistan, and years later the war for control still continues.
Even the latest symphony of good news, the possibility of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, seems to be playing out an unpleasant coda as an historic handshake is proving no match for generations of animosity.
And so the world is left with South Africa as the last, best hope for liberal democracy. It is ironic because South Africa seemed the most intractable of the problems whose solutions began to emerge a half decade ago. The mixture of colonial, racial and tribal animosities tangled the country in a knot that many thought would never unravel.
And today, as South Africa begins a year crucial to its future, it still seems to be a structure too fragile to bear the weight of the world's expectations. But thus far, step by halting step, the country has managed to hold up under the load. And, though 1994 is clearly fraught with danger, there is good reason to believe that it's going to make it.
The complexities of its situation actually helped South Africa. Unlike many Eastern European countries, where there seemed to the belief that free markets and a real election would quickly solve all problems, South Africa has gone down a rugged road these past four years.
Though some claim that they were rushed, more were impressed, perhaps bored, by the painstaking nature of the negotiations that led to the interim constitution and set the date for the first non-racial election.
The result was not a perfect document, but still a very workable one. More importantly -- since plenty of totalitarian governments operated under splendid constitutions -- it is one in which key players have invested their energy and their very persons. That should be an important factor in ensuring that this piece of paper will demand the respect of the new government.
There is general agreement that the ANC will win the April 27 election and that Mr. Mandela will be the first president drawn from South Africa's vast majority of black citizens. The main election question is whether the ANC will get a two-thirds majority needed to control the writing of a permanent constitution, and, if it does, whether the ANC will use that power to run roughshod over the desires of the other political parties.
The end of the Cold War should help temper any desires within the ANC to veer off the liberal democratic path. It can no longer go running to its East Bloc friends for assistance. If South Africa is going to play on the world political stage, it has to follow the capitalist text. And Mr. Mandela and the ANC know they will need the sympathy and financial aid of the world that once condemned apartheid if the poverty that envelopes most South African citizens is to be alleviated.
Mr. Mandela and his allies can look at the wreck that is the economy of most African countries, many of them failed attempts at socialism as their leaders emulated their allies in the anti-colonial fights. The ANC will probably not make the same mistake.
But what concerns many people as much as the potential problems after the election is what will happen between now and April 27. Certainly, there will be violence. Certainly, people will die. But right now it looks as if little can derail the train to democracy.