Bearer of the World's Hopes

South Africans, anxious about their future, host a parade of foreigners convinced of its promise

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THERE is a distinct gulf here between the perceptions of South Africans, forged by their daily experience of spiraling crime and political violence, and the increasingly optimistic utterances of Western leaders and diplomats about the country.

``The international community wants to make South Africa a showpiece,'' says Stanley Uys, a veteran South African analyst and commentator based in London.

``For the sake of southern Africa and Africa as a whole, they need to make a success of the transition in South Africa,'' he says.

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The paradoxes are often very striking.

As worried white South African businessmen discuss the latest economic proposals of the African National Congress (ANC) and black South Africans battle to survive in deprived and war-torn ghettos, the equity and bond markets soar to new heights on the strength of foreign interest and expectation.

Visiting Western leaders and diplomats wax lyrical about the great hope and promise that South Africa holds for Africa and the rest of the world.

``This process [in South Africa] is the most promising thing in the world today,'' said United States Rep. Floyd Flake (D) of New York at the end of a short visit to the country earlier this month.

``Maybe the South Africans can teach the Americans a thing or two,'' chimed in Rep. Cynthia Ann McKinney (D) of Georgia, another member of the delegation.

Britain, with a potential 1 million British passport holders in the country, also has a special vested interest in a smooth transition to democracy.

``I am optimistic,'' said British Ambassador to South Africa Sir Anthony Reeve in a recent interview in the Johannesburg Star.

``If you look at day-to-day events, it is depressing sometimes.... But if you look at where we were three years ago and where we are now, it is a very remarkable transformation,'' Sir Anthony said.

France, which has been chosen to train South Africa's first multiracial National Peacekeeping Force (NPKF), is likely to emerge as one of post-apartheid South Africa's most active allies.

``France is one of the few countries that considers Africa as a priority.... That is why this cooperation with the new South Africa that is emerging on the world scene is so important,'' French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters after a Jan. 17 meeting with President Frederik de Klerk.

Perceived from Washington, London, or Paris, South Africa's achievement in reaching such a wide-ranging consensus on the transition to democracy is a rather awe-inspiring achievement.

It serves as a continuing hope within the democratization process that seemd to get off to such a promising start in Eastern Europe four years ago, but has since faltered.

There are several reasons for the understandable gulf in internal and foreign perceptions of the situation in South Africa.

South Africans, preoccupied with their own anxieties, have difficulty viewing their own country in a global context.

They have even more difficulty perceiving themselves as an integral part of the southern Africa region - let alone the continent of Africa - because of the psychological isolation of the apartheid years.

But they are beginning to sense that they could benefit from the world's conscience about its failure to intervene successfully in places like Bosnia, Somalia, and Angola.

``South Africa will not be allowed to disintegrate as these countries have done,'' Mr. Uys says.

``The international community will try to make amends for its failures in Bosnia and elswehere,'' he adds.

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