South Africa - bridging global inequalities Post-apartheid: A once-racist society can become the model for dealing with Earth's most basic conflicts.

The Argument

March 23, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

Johannesburg, South Africa - From global pariah to international paradigm, that is the next extraordinary transition facing this country which so recently escaped the inhuman horrors of apartheid.

Its incredibly bloodless transition from white minority to black majority rule is setting an example in reconciliation that could well serve not only the rest of Africa but the world.

If South Africa can continue to overcome its chasmic gap between rich whites and impoverished blacks with neither revenge or ruination, it will set the model for bridging that most explosive of all global economic inequalities - the north-south divide.

So far the auguries are set fair. In three years power has passed, with shockingly little pain, from ruthlessly autocratic white power to blessedly forgiving and patient black rule.

The whites, of course, still control most of the economy, still live in the big houses, still enjoy what for many are the ill-gotten gains of apartheid. In contrast most blacks still occupy the menial jobs, still live in the townships, still endure the trials of poverty.

But while they continue to be economically disadvantaged, they are no longer second-class citizens. That, and the prospect of better times ahead, has so far prevented what otherwise would almost certainly be a blood bath.

There are many here and abroad, of course, who are not optimistic. South Africa, in their minds, is doomed to follow the post-colonial precedent of this largely hapless continent into bloody decline.

It is true that the peaceful transition is a measure of the awesome moral stature of Nelson Mandela, the prisoner of apartheid who became president. Significantly, he has put the mechanism of national exorcism into the hands of the one man in this country who commands comparable respect - Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the puckish prelate whose voice resonated throughout the years of repression.

dTC Tutu chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a confessional in which admission of atrocity bears the prospect of amnesty, a lure that has brought both white and black terrorists into the open, seeking to protect their freedom if not elicit forgiveness, with true but terrible testimony.

The Mandela-Tutu aura has kept the lid on violent national outrage over what has been experienced and is now being retold. But both are old men, Mandela , AGE, and due to leave office in 1999, Tutu, AGE, and suffering from cancer.

How South Africa got to be where it is today, is an epic of human determination, demographic inevitability, political opportunity and economic reality. It is a tale crisply told in Patti Waldmeir's "Anatomy of a Miracle -- The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa" (W.W. Norton & Company, 269 pages, $27.50).

Waldmeir is a former African correspondent for the Financial Times of London, who spent the crucible years of 1989 to 1995 as the Johannesburg bureau chief, witnessing the human and political struggle for power in all its bloody fury.

She reminds us how unlikely a prospect was peaceful transition, recalling former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger's 1969 assessment: "The white minority has a monopoly of force which it does not hesitate to use, and of power which it will not voluntarily yield."

The whites laid down their arms and ceded that power reluctantly and frequently violently, while the blacks, often in conflict among themselves, steadfastly pursued their goal of majority rule.

Forces at play

Step by step the blacks advanced, often allowed forward by white self-interest. The opening of the labor market and the improvement of black education, two of the seeds of change, were both permitted only because they strengthened the white economy.

"Whites and blacks were far too economically interdependent to live apart," asserts Waldmeir

There is another strange affinity between two of the major groups. Like the blacks, the Afrikaners are an African tribe. So long have they been here, that they have no other home. As surely as the Zulus, they are African. Unlike the Anglo immigrants they cannot cut and run. They are "the white tribe of Africa." This is where they belong.

Outside forces were at play too. The 1989 end of the Cold War ended the Kremlin's support of overseas insurgencies, forcing the exiled African National Congress, the major black organization, to turn to resolution rather than revolution.

At the same time, the collapse of communism reassured whites, who automatically equated class war with race war - as well they might - that they might one day see a peaceful transition of power.

The international community lent its weight to the campaign to legitimize the ANC and to free the political prisoners, foremost Mandela.

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