Washington -- OUT OF Africa," said the ancient Romans, "there is always something new." Recently, the news from Africa has been almost all bad. Famines in Ethiopia, genocide in Rwanda; chaos in Somalia and AIDS spreading everywhere. At times it seems that all of Africa south of the Sahara is headed toward chaos.
The only exception to the dismal trend has been South Africa, where the transition to non-racial democracy in the richest sub-Saharan country has given new hope for the whole region.
After decades the many ethnic and racial groups in the country have reached the conclusion that their common interests are more important than grievances and ancient hatreds.
While divisions remain, they've found unity in the miracle of a peaceful election and the transition to majority rule. Out of the chaos and confusion a consensus for democracy and peace has somehow emerged.
The consensus starts with patriotism. White South Africans used to be ashamed of their country's isolation; the flag and the national anthem were symbols of oppression for blacks. Now white South Africans are delighted to find they are no longer international pariahs; and blacks, many for the first time, are learning what it means to be free citizens.
The second point of consensus is President Nelson Mandela. Die-hard segregationists praise his political maturity; poor blacks believe him when he says he will do everything possible to help them. Along with this trust comes another asset: patience. Nobody expects change overnight.
The third consensus point is that something must be done to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Conservative business leaders agree with radical activists: South Africa faces a social explosion unless conditions of the poor improve.
The final point of South Africa's political consensus concerns South Africa's relationship to the rest of the continent. Once again, black and white South Africans agree: South Africa can and ultimately must turn its attention to the problems of its neighbors -- but not yet. South Africa must solve its own problems first.
South Africa faces daunting economic problems: 40 percent of the work force is officially unemployed, living standards for all have either stagnated or declined during the past decade. Worse still, the scourge of AIDS is making rapid inroads into the population.
But even with these caveats, the situation is clear: South Africa is the last best hope of the African continent for peace and prosperity. If the United States is to have any African policy at all, it must begin here: with the continent's most promising economy and society.
The miracle of South African democracy offers the Clinton administration a much needed opportunity for a foreign-policy success. Opportunities this good don't come knocking often; let's hope the administration makes the best of it.
Walter Russell Mead recently returned from a month-long stay in southern Africa. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.