South Africa Changes

April 26, 1994

The election today through Thursday in South Africa will change that country forever. It is a source of pride to most of the black majority that, like Nelson Mandela at 75, they are voting for the first time. But it is equally a source of pride for most in the white minority that now they can hold their heads high, no longer ostracized by the world.

Not only will this election provide a black-led government while a permanent constitution is written; it will also determine whether Africa's most dynamic country can lead the continent forward. The negotiated revolution will have worked. If elections can create consensus among South Africa's tribes, the practice may be taken up with greater confidence elsewhere.

Mr. Mandela's resilience, statesmanship and moderation after 27 years in prison under the white apartheid regime will serve him well as president. No less remarkable is Mr. Mandela's Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, adversary, jailer and partner, outgoing President Frederik Willem de Klerk. He came to power in 1989 appearing to be a more flexible version of his predecessor, P. W. Botha, someone who might compromise to save apartheid, not dismantle it.

Shortly after his election, Mr. de Klerk was challenged by the black majority through protests against apartheid and for the banned African National Congress. He authorized the protests, effectively unbanning the ANC. The next February, on opening the parliament, Mr. de Klerk did so explicitly. Expatriate guerrillas could come home again.

Since then, progress has been a rocky negotiation between Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela, each keeping one foot planted squarely in his own tribal base, sometimes breaking relations, always returning to the table. With steadfast confidence, Mr. de Klerk brought along the National Party, the greater part of the Afrikaner people, the army and police. He is a great tribal leader.

Perhaps he is the Gorbachev of South Africa, unaware and unintending of the changes that he is bringing to his ossified society. But on his own terms, he succeeded. South Africa is back in the Olympics and freed of economic sanctions, a pariah no more.

Mr. de Klerk always represented more than one man's vision. The South African journalist Allister Sparks described in the April 11 New Yorker a back channel between the government and Mr. Mandela going back to November 1985. Even under the "Old Crocodile," President P. W. Botha, the regime knew that apartheid was a dead end and that a transition had to be managed. Mr. Botha hardly seemed the one to do it, but his invitation to prisoner Mandela to tea can be seen as part of a process under way.

South Africa's trials are not over. But in these three days it crosses the watershed. In all likelihood, the partnership of Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk will be maintained. By the weekend, Mr. Mandela will be the senior partner.

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