Economics Can Defeat Apartheid. Empowerment of blacks is the key - but that process is only just beginning

MOST of us can accept, as a goal for South Africa, rapid movement with minimum violence toward a nonracial society. The means to this end, however, are often lost in the heat of demanding instant results. We place blind faith in a belief that political power leads to greater welfare all around. Unfortunately, the odds are against this scenario in South Africa. The political transition will come, one way or another, and probably within 20 years. The critical choice is just how to achieve this. The path chosen will determine not only the outcome but whether nonviolent change is feasible at all.

South African reality suggests that the cutting edge of change must be economic reform. Political reform cannot be abandoned. Shared power must be visible on the horizon. But logic indicates that economic growth will lead to political advance. The reverse is seldom true in Africa.

Just how big is the economic challenge? Viewed from the townships or the homelands, South Africa's blacks are constrained more by economic than political factors.

The first of these is very low incomes. Forty percent of blacks live in poverty. The daily struggle for basic needs preempts what could be a better life if time and resources permitted.

Second, income disparities are polarizing. White incomes average eight to 10 times those of blacks. Social distances mirror this gap and will not close until black incomes approach parity.

Third, unemployment is severe, especially among young blacks. Not only is unemployment personally degrading, it also destabilizes communities. Unemployed youth instigated the upheaval that led to the current state of emergency.

Fourth, black workers remain concentrated in unskilled and semiskilled occupations. Experience is management and administration is desperately needed if they are to share in governing.

Fifth, educational parity is the basis for social and political parity. Enormous qualitative and quantitative deficiencies in black schooling must be removed.

There can be little serious opposition to erasing racial inequities through black economic development. Economic opportunity is liberating and economic advance is humanitarian. Economic equality can become the foundation for broader participation in other arenas.

Building on the present economy could raise incomes for all South Africans while inequities are being reduced. The threat, seen by whites, of falling to third-world levels of living can be largely avoided. Whites will voluntarily support greater parity for blacks only if they see their own economic future improving as well.

Rising incomes set in motion a cycle of rising aspirations. Initial black gains will lead to demands for more. In short order, this motive becomes the fuel for speeding the pace of change. INCREASED black incomes are also essential to expand the tax base. Achieving an equitable society will be expensive. Social services must be upgraded. Millions must be trained and educated. The largely white tax base simply cannot meet these needs.

Only the strength of the present economy promises an outcome in which all groups emerge better off. In a sense, black economic advances can become self-reinforcing.

John Kane-Berman, director of the South African Institute of Race Relations, writes about black ``empowerment'' in which economic clout spawns new social roles and relationships. Mr. Kane-Berman sees black economic power as the direct cause of recent erosion in apartheid's rules. Government, he says, is legitimizing changes already set in motion by the collective action of lots of little people.

The white South African government has recognized the imperatives of economic reform for over a decade. The Riekert and Wiehahn Commissions (1978 and 1979) crafted blueprints for sweeping reforms in the labor market and the workplace. Black unions and concerned employers are seeing to their implementation. Government has extended union rights to blacks, set up an independent industrial court system to deal with unfair labor practices, and abolished all job reservations laws.

In 1981, government adopted economic decentralization to address black rural poverty and unemployment. Private-sector support was enlisted through heavy subsidies. The 1981 De Lange Commission laid down a mandate for equality in schools. Government responded with massive public expenditures on black education. Property ownership rights are being extended to blacks. This should alter the fact that 90 percent of property incomes now accrue to whites. Black incomes have, by government policy, risen faster than those of whites for 15 years and income inequality measures have declined by 25 percent since 1970. THIS partial list of recent changes and their results are evidence of Kane-Berman's empowerment. Each opens new doors for blacks, redressing old imbalances. Each removed one or more legal tenets of apartheid. And each has improved human welfare measurably.

Black enfranchisement is under way from an economic base; in the workplace, in property ownership, growing educational achievements, rising real incomes, and expanded purchasing power. Once begun, this process is not easily reversed. Can it be long before blacks approach the political bargaining table with considerable strength?

However, the process has only just started. The evolution must be accelerated. The South African government has clearly committed to economic reform as one basis for a nonviolent future. But the enormity of the job ahead will likely stretch their fiscal capability and political will almost to the breaking point.

Might it not be appropriate for the foreign community to assist with economic enfranchisement, knowing where it must lead? Economic development for the black majority is a foreign policy that will be welcomed by South Africa. And black empowerment is legitimate, even called for, under the US Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.

Forcing rapid political change without restructuring the economic base promises a major reduction in everyone's income and quality of life, especially for blacks. It could be decades before South Africa rebuilds to current levels. Even then serious inequalities will likely remain, defined along tribal rather than racial lines. Using the economy as the engine of change, however, can avoid this.

The result could be a society in which race relations are based on newly found economic and social parity, where these roles are more important than racial distinctions.

Will power-sharing be far behind? More important, is nonviolent power-sharing even possible on any other basis?

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