South Africa's 'unexplored possibilities'

By , Gary Thatcher, the Monitor's American news editor, has just completed a tour of duty as correspondent in South Africa.

Anyone who has spent much time in South Africa cannot help forming strong feelings about this troubled nation. Alan Paton was right: it is a "beloved country," covered with rolling hills "lovely beyond any singing of it" and vast expanses symbolizing a potentiality few nations can rival.

The Afrikaans word "veld" captures some of the sense of it. Literally, the word means "field." But when South Africans speak of the veld, they signify something more -- a sense of unbounded openness, of unlimited ranges awaiting exploration. And they speak of it with a fondness and deep attachment.

It is one of the sad ironies of history that this openness does not characterize this country's politics. These are quite closed, the product of a narrow vision that would be comical were it not for its tragic consequences.

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For many whites have a single-minded determination that every South African belongs to a "nation," and that each nation must be ethnically exclusive. So whites do not even consider the possibility that blacks can contribute much to the "white" nation besides their labor.

Many blacks, in turn, cannot accept that they are not part of a greater South African nation. They have a growing conviction that whites are unfit to rule it , and power must therefore be wrested from them -- through violent means, if need be. And a sizeable group in between -- a group composed of all races -- fatalistically accepts that conflict between the extremes is inevitable.

Too few people retain a sense of unexplored possibilities, a belief that there could be other futures apart from narrow nationalism or violent transformation. South African thinking needs to be opened to the mere possibility of new structures for black-white coexistence, structures that avoid "winner-take- all" domination.

The drafting of these structures is, of course, up to the South Africans themselves. No one else can or should presume to do it for them. But South Africans need to be convinced that it is within them to do it. Now, too many see the future as inevitably bloody.

The South African government has the power to alter that apocalyptic vision. But it needs the help of the rest of the world's nations.

The following four points might be viewed as a modest proposal -- not for "ending apartheid" -- but for jarring South Africans out of a condition that precludes political exploration.

* End "removals" of black people.

Over the past two decades, the Nationalist government has pushed between 2 million and 3 million black people into desolate, impoverished rural reserves. These enclaves provide few jobs and precious little agricultural land. Forcing people into their desolation and poverty is one of the cruelest aspects of government policy.

Stopping further removals would be a clear signal that something is happening for the better in Pretoria's corridors of power.

* Repeal all "banning" orders.

Banning is a peculiarly South African practice whereby the government silences critics by, for example, forbidding them to address gatherings, be one other person at a time. Banning orders effectively prohibit any signigicant political activity. The government does not give reasons for issuing them.

Currently, there are only 150 or so banned persons. The South African government continually claims it is striking out in bold new policy directions. Ending restrictions on all banned persons would underscore its confidence, showing that it is sure enough of itself to withstand tough criticism.

* Restore habeas corpus and due process of law.

The South African government continually claims to be in the "Western camp," yet its legal system is odious to Western notions of justice and individual liberties. Warrantless and secret arrests are common here. So is detention without trial, and alleged police brutality, even torture. These practices are more common to Eastern and Soviet-bloc countries, not the West.

South Africa has the legal talent to overhaul its laws, reinstituting the right of people to know the charges against them and defend themselves. That would help restore respect for the rule of law.

* Restore South Africa's membership in the United Nations.

This is a "carrot," to be attained when the above steps are taken.

Other nations may not agree with South Africa's internal policies, but they accomplish little by refusing it a seat in the UN. Denial of a seat in the General Assembly does seem to be a clear violation of that body's charter. When "unrepresentativeness" of a government is grounds for withholding a UN seat -- and that is the reason for South Africa's exclusion -- then the General Assembly would be a much smaller body if the rule were uniformly applied.

South Africa's sovereignty is recognized by many of the world's governments. To pretend, as some UN agencies do, that South Africa does not exist is sheer self-delusion.

A better course would be to allow the Pretoria government to take up its seat in the General Assembly, participate in debates, and explain its racial policies to the world.

Most diplomats would, of course, react in a manner ranging from skepticism to outright disbelief. Pretoria might possibly be speeded to an important conclusion: its master plan for creating separate ethnic states for its black people simply won't wash.

That could help spur negotiations with the blacks of South Africa, which is what is desperately needed. For there are a number of people who want to spare the country the throes of insurrection.

The white government could, with the few measures outlined above, give blacks renewed hope. And the rest of the world could lose nothing by supporting the process.

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