WASHINGTON — WITH its first all-race election ended, South Africa is now embarked on one of the greatest political experiments of modern history. Its results will say much about the prospects for reconciliation in a world too often split into white and black, rich and poor, weak and strong, us and them.
A peaceful result is far from assured. It is a truism of geopolitics that revolutions, even gradual ones, often spin out of the control of those who begin them. But for now it is hard not to see freedom in the lines of South African blacks who waited, sometimes for hours upon hours, to cast the first vote of their lives.
The election was an occasion of particular satisfaction in Washington. Despite South Africa's minor strategic significance to the United States, its fate has long been an important issue here, with apartheid a target of condemnation across the entire US political spectrum. It is one part of the globe where the US tendency to moralism in foreign affairs has made perfect sense, and thus to US officials last week's events were easy to judge a triumph of good over evil.
In his weekly radio address April 30, President Clinton said ``the miracle of South Africa's rebirth as a nonracial democracy is an inspiring testament to the courage and vision of its citizens.''
``I'm proud of America's role in helping to make the miracle happen,'' said Clinton. ``Private citizens, religious leaders, and members of Congress worked for years to rally public opinion and impose economic sanctions against Johannesburg.''
THAT a day of peaceful change would ever come to South Africa was far from assured. The process that led to multiracial elections was unusual in that its cause was a de-polarization of South African politics.
In recent years a number of factors began pushing both the white-dominated National Party (NP)and the African National Congress away from the political edges and towards moderation, point out US analysts.
Statesmanship was one cause of this movement. NP leader Frederik de Klerk realized that the current ANC leadership was likely the most moderate whites would ever face; Nelson Mandela eschewed retribution and began building links to the crucial white business establishment.
The press of international economic sanctions helped make it clear apartheid was not a viable long-term strategy. And, perhaps most importantly, once negotiations began they became a self-fullfilling prophecy. Both the NP and ANC realized that their fates were now inextricably intertwined, and that to pull out risked institutional destruction. The Middle East peace process has now reached an analogous situation. Israel and the PLO are likely stuck with each other.
``Once parties have a real stake in negotiations, they find it extremely difficult to exit,'' points out Timothy Sisk, a fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
The hard part now will be continuing the negotiation's culture of compromise. The ANC may have to resist flexing all the political power that is suddenly at its disposal; the NP might need to refrain from the temptation to manipulate the still white-dominated military and civil service.
Currently South Africa's painstakingly crafted new political structure appears robust enough to withstand the shock of transformation. But the new government will have to move quickly to satisfy the expectations of the downtrodden.
``The main danger in the long run comes from unemployment and poverty,'' judges David Hirschmann, a South African who is a professor of international relations at American University.
This will take money - both domestic and foreign. The US, for its part, has announced that it intends to double aid to South Africa to some $140 million.
Vice President Gore is expected to give more details of the forthcoming aid package when he travels to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's inauguration as president.
The new package is likely to include both cash and investment incentives for US business, such as Export-Import bank financing commitments and federal investment insurance.