BUFFALO, N.Y. — The future of democratic South Africa may well depend on whether it is condemned to walk in neighboring Zimbabwe's footsteps. Seven years after the abolition of apartheid - the system of official racial segregation - major economic and social indices paint a devastating picture of South Africa's black majority.
A political and social cataclysm awaits on the horizon, unless President Thabo Mbeki and the ruling African National Congress implement a bold program of genuine economic transformation.
South Africa and Zimbabwe are eerily similar. But media coverage of the unraveling of Zimbabwe has been woefully inadequate. It has failed to draw the necessary parallels. Before black majority rule, both states were for centuries governed by a brutal and violent white minority that completely excluded blacks from any meaningful citizenship. In both countries, whites owned almost all land and exclusively controlled all the major industries, commercial farming, the professions, and the instruments of political governance.
Blacks, in effect, became unwanted aliens in their own lands.
It is against this daunting backdrop that the struggle for democracy and liberation from white minority rule was waged in both South Africa and Zimbabwe. The thrust was to demarginalize blacks. Black faces in high offices and within the bureaucracy would not achieve it alone. Land, in particular, would have to be returned to African peasants and black farmers, many of whom were freedom fighters. Political power without economic control would be a farce.
Predictably, that is exactly what happened in Zimbabwe. When Robert Mugabe became the first black head of state of the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980, he inherited the political - but not the economic - kingdom. White Zimbabweans continued to control the country's economic life, and particularly its arable farm land.
Britain, Zimbabwe's colonial power, and other Western countries promised, but never delivered, financial assistance to buy white farmlands and reallocate them to blacks. The lack of land reform and the inability of the state to spur economic growth have led to massive unemployment, incredible poverty, and lawlessness. Zimbabwe's military involvement in the Congo crisis has drained the state of its already meager resources.
These dire conditions now threaten President Mugabe and his party with political extinction. Once a hero of the independence movement, Mugabe has turned to political demagoguery to stay in power. He has exploited the country's economic failures - and the crucial land question, in particular - to fan the flames of black nationalism. He has encouraged and authorized the militant invasion and occupation of white farmlands. In the process, several white farmers have been murdered.
Capital has fled, and foreign investment disappeared. Critical sections of the judiciary and the press have been silenced or ousted. Undaunted, a growing multiracial opposition, which Mugabe has connected to the former white minority government, continues to grow, despite government repression. A volcanic explosion is in the making.
South Africa is certain to repeat Zimbabwe's mistakes if it stays on its present course. There is no doubt that the peaceful transition in 1994 of political power from whites to blacks, headlined by the mythical Nelson Mandela, must rank among the 20th century's most astounding occurrences. But very few hopeful things have happened since.
Although official apartheid is gone, its legacy has been privatized. Blacks occupy the high political offices, but whites dominate industry, the professions, the bureaucracy, the best educational institutions, and the judiciary. Most significant, whites own most of the land - including virtually all arable land - in South Africa.
Ironically, the lot of black South Africans appears to have worsened since the end of apartheid. Unemployment among blacks is more than 50 percent. Property crimes are at an all-time high, and the murder rates are the highest of any major cities in the world. Meanwhile, AIDS has unleashed its fury on South Africa, which now bears the dubious distinction of having the highest infection rate in the world. The youth and the middle class, those most needed in the country's reconstruction, have been stricken hardest. An air of despair hangs over the black majority.
President Mbeki and the African National Congress must act quickly to forestall the economic and social collapse of what could be the anchor of a broader economic recovery in sub-Saharan Africa. Once, the ANC talked about a Reconstruction and Development Program. The ANC has backtracked on implementing the program, because it was thought to scare off foreign investment.
Those fears were unfounded. Only real economic reform, including a comprehensive land reform plan to bring the black majority into the economy, will save South Africa. Otherwise, besieged by an angry black majority, the South African state may turn undemocratic and repressive. Instead of demonizing Mugabe, we should learn from Zimbabwe's woes to avoid a repeat in South Africa.
Makau Mutua is professor of law, and director of the Human Rights Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo.