Commit to South Africa

The Bush administration decided not to send high-level representation to the United Nations' antiracism conference in Durban, South Africa. But it can - and should - make a separate contribution to the global fight for intergroup tolerance by paying sympathetic attention to the needs of the conference's host country.

Just a dozen years ago, the idea that South Africa might ever host a UN conference against racism would have seemed implausible. Back then, Nelson Mandela was still in jail. The 85 percent of the country's people who didn't qualify as "white" had no meaningful political rights. And the UN was leading a worldwide boycott of the apartheid state.

So much has changed! But as visits to this sprawling mining center and a couple of other places in South Africa have shown, South Africans still face huge challenges in translating the vote that their majority populations won in 1994 into true equality of opportunity for all their citizens.

This was an emotional visit for me. Growing up in Britain in the 1960s, the question of apartheid in South Africa was the first "international" issue that seized my imagination. I followed and supported the struggle of the South African democrats from afar. In 1990, my kids were amazed to find me glued to our TV, tears rolling down my cheeks, the day African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela walked out of jail. But I never got to travel to South Africa until this summer.

Johannesburg is an exciting city whose go-go, multicultural bravura seems tinged with sadness. Perhaps this angst stems from the collapse in the price of gold - the city's 100-year raison d'être - and the decision of many local mining conglomerates to move their headquarters elsewhere. Perhaps it's the eerie physical legacy the conglomerates left behind: vast rhomboidal dumps of toxic tailings that dominate the city's landscape. Or that other, more human legacy: the huge population of former employees of mining and linked concerns - nearly all of them black - who now eke out lives in Soweto and other low-income areas that stretch many miles southward onto the harsh surrounding veld.

From here, the project of the South African democrats seems inspiring - but also daunting. South Africa and Zimbabwe are the only places in the world where groups of colonists of European origin, who had claimed land on distant continents during the heyday of Europe's global power, actually sat down and negotiated a democratic settlement with representatives of the majority, indigenous people. Elsewhere, either the European colonists fled their colonies after governments back in their European "homes" agreed to de-colonize - as in Algeria, or much of the rest of Africa. Or, as in Australia and most of the Americas, the indigenous people lacked the power to force any fair negotiation, and the former colonists ended up controlling nearly everything.

The moral courage of Frederik W. De Klerk, the apartheid-era president who negotiated a democratic transition with Mr. Mandela and his ANC colleagues, should not be underestimated. The South African whites signed an agreement whereby their control of the political system would be wiped out via democratic elections. But most whites agreed to stay on in the country they'd come to love, and to help build a new, multicultural society. Most of the white South Africans I met seemed deeply committed to this challenge.

In return, the ANC agreed that whites and others who had committed gross rights abuses under apartheid could apply for amnesty from prosecution. The ANC also tacitly agreed (by omission) not to open up at that time the thorny question of the control that the whites still enjoyed over most of the country's land and other economic resources. That control goes back at least to 1913, when the wholly white local parliament passed a law that prevented most blacks from buying land outside the tiny "reserves" (reservations) to which they were confined.

Now, seven years after the country's first democratic election, the issue of the deep continuing disparities along color lines has returned to haunt the country's ANC-led government.

Economic discontent runs deep in the black communities. On the eve of the UN anti-racism conference, the country's powerful labor federation staged a partially successful two-day strike to protest government plans to privatize many state-owned concerns. The strike was particularly notable, given the long, close links between the ANC and the unions.

Meanwhile, the government faces a huge challenge in trying to find ways to finance the extension of decent (and equitable) public services to the 85 percent of the population that, until 1994, had been given almost none at all. In 1991, for example, the government spent more than four times as much educating each white pupil as it spent on each black pupil. Trying to equalize the provision of basic public services is a truly massive undertaking.

Americans have a big stake in supporting South Africa's experiment in building a robust, multicultural democracy. We should urge the International Monetary Fund not to be too harsh in its requirements for privatization and other forms of "structural adjustment," and do whatever else we can to make sure the South African experiment has a good chance of success.

If South Africa succeeds, that will strengthen the forces of inter-group tolerance and democracy throughout Africa - and worldwide. If it fails, as it yet might, we will all be diminished.

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