Learning to Live with Majority Rule

May 01, 1994|By ANTERO PIETILA

So far, South Africa has been lucky.

In the run-up to the transfer of power, there has been plenty of sporadic bloodletting. But none of the doomsday scenarios hatched in fearful minds over the years has come to pass. There has been no all-engulfing civil war; no jetliners have been shot down over Johannesburg.

And all the fanciful -- and potentially disastrous -- academic and political schemes that over the past decades recommended carving the country into artificial, ethnic homelands have mercifully come to nothing. The new South Africa will be a unitary state.

Can this seemingly auspicious situation last as South African whites -- a mere 14 percent of the country's population -- dismantle a ruling machinery they developed over more than three centuries, including the structures of 46 apartheid years?

The answer is a resounding "yes" -- even though the difficulties ahead are awesome. Under the pragmatic leadership of Nelson Mandela and President Frederik Willem de Klerk, many potential disasters have been averted. Psychologically, a new, democratic South Africa has a chance at its birth.

As the Afrikaners -- "the white tribe of Africa" -- do soul-searching about their changed future, certain parallels are inevitable.

Every Afrikaner child learns early in life that, the Afrikaners, too, were ruthlessly oppressed after being defeated by the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902.

Their political organizations were outlawed, their religion ridiculed by the British, who characterized Afrikaners as "shiftless." Yellowing photographs purport to show how school children were forced to wear derogatory signs after they were discovered speaking Afrikaans.

Other photographs, taken during a 1920s study financed by the Carnegie Foundation, show destitute Afrikaner farmers living in squalid mud hovels, just as blacks still do in many parts of South Africa.

Yet by the 1980s, the Afrikaners had gone through an amazing transformation. They had elevated themselves from a largely impoverished and backward rural underclass to a wealthy and well-educated urban population.

Much of this transformation was made possible by policies which gradually deprived all non-whites of basic political and economic rights.

But that was not the sole reason.

Mobilized by its two ideological beacons, the Dutch Reformed Church and the secretive Broederbond fraternal society, Afrikanerdom pooled its initially meager resources together. Progressing according to a detailed and deliberate educational program, this clannish but cohesive tribe developed a mighty economic muscle through such banking giants as Volskas and Sanlam. In short order, the political masters of apartheid also became its economic masters.

As political power now changes to the black majority, most Afrikaners have no other country to escape to, even if they desired to do so. Because their ideologues believed in white power longer than most of the white business community, the stakes of Afrikaner financial powerhouses are still largely in South Africa.

Cultural and linguistic self-preservation is the paramount concern of Afrikaners. For that reason alone, their institutions -- which are closely linked to the ruling National Party -- have to negotiate the best deal they can with Mr. Mandela's African National Congress. The transfer of political power may be the easiest part in a country where inequalities -- compounded by vast educational differences -- are so stark that the white minority owns nearly 90 percent of the land and controls about the same percentage of formal economy.

The triumphant ANC now has to decide how it can keep its promise and make a more equal share of wealth available to the blacks -- but without scaring off white investors.

The infrastructure challenges alone are incredible. South Africa's million whites enjoy all the conveniences that come with one of the world's highest standards of living -- from swimming pools to luxury cars. In contrast, many of the 35 million blacks, "coloreds" or Indians lack basic services such as tap water and electricity.

Because of the highly commercialized atmosphere of urban South Africa -- and because so many work in the white economy and can observe themselves -- the disadvantaged are keenly aware of how the privileged live. And now that the majority of South Africans are under 21 years of age, they may not have the patience for change of their elders.

Most of the current government's long-term development plans were made only with the white minority's needs in mind. South Africa's power grid, for example, will be woefully undersized to handle the explosive demands of black consumers, many of whom expect to have electricity among the first fruits of majority rule.

Nelson Mandela has been deliberately vague about his economic agenda. This is not surprising; he does not want to upset the apple cart. As the imminence of ANC rule became evident, some 16 billion rands (about $4 billion) were transferred out of the country last year alone.

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