Keep an Eye on South Africa

South Africa, eight years after the end of apartheid, is a country with no shortage of tough promises to keep.

On some, like the promise to improve the economic status of its black majority, it has a very long way to go. On others, like becoming an engine of development for the southern African region, it has at least made a start.

By one key measure, its ability to sustain a democracy in a part of the world where democracies are few, it's doing well. The standard of tolerance and peaceful transfer of power set by Nelson Mandela still holds.

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The African National Congress still rules as the dominant political force. But other voices are heard. The criticism heaped on President Thabo Mbeki for his controversial stand on AIDS treatment testifies to the vigor of South Africa's free press.

So this country at the tip of Africa, which combines industrial might with unemployment of at least 30 percent and widespread poverty, remains a place to watch. If South Africa can sustain its democratic institutions, educate and uplift its poor, reduce a horrendous crime rate, and attract the investment it needs to expand its economy, it will set an example for the whole continent.

And the example is badly needed. Look no farther than neighboring Zimbabwe. There, President Robert Mugabe is sparing no tactic - from physically intimidating opponents to race-baiting - to win this weekend's election. South Africa's Mr. Mbeki and other regional leaders have tried to persuade Mr. Mugabe to reconsider his support for the violent taking of white-owned farms.

On this emotion-laden issue, too, South Africa might be able to show a better way. Its best farmland also is held disproportionately by whites, a legacy of apartheid rule. A commission is at work settling land claims by black farmers who were evicted under apartheid. The government has committed itself to accelerating this work. Mbeki says he wants to complete the process of land redistribution in three years. If that ambitious schedule can be kept, the benefits in reduced political tensions and increased stability in the farm sector will be great. Most important, South Africa will have shown fellow Africans, and foreign investors, that Zimbabwe's problems need not be "contagious."

Indeed, trying to contain neighbors' problems is high on South Africa's agenda. It has peacekeeping troops in a number of hot spots, such as Congo and Eritrea. South Africa's efforts to organize peace talks to end the war in Congo haven't yet succeeded, but its diplomats will no doubt keep trying. Ending the region's simmering wars is a key step toward development.

Other countries may not always welcome South Africa's economic inroads - particularly if white-owned businesses are among those making the deals. Yet those countries know their neighbor has what they need - from the ability to rebuild railroads to setting up cellphone networks. Such commercial ventures are already under way from Cameroon to Kenya.

But South Africa's best export will be its experience as a democracy capable of showing that economic and racial divides can be truly closed.

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