AS recently as 1955, there were nonwhites on the official voting lists in Cape Province, the southernmost part of South Africa. That condition was a holdover from the turn of the century, when the voting laws in the Cape Colony were officially ``colorblind.'' True, there were property and other qualifications for voting which effectively denied the voting franchise to most nonwhites. But Cape Province might well have evolved toward a politically colorblind society had the tendency of those earlier times been protracted and expanded rather than reversed.
Think how different conditions in South Africa would be today if gradually, beginning 85 years ago, first Coloreds (mixed race), then blacks, had gradually been admitted to participation in the political and economic evolution of all of South Africa.
By this time there would be a third generation of a politically experienced black elite moving gradually into the control fabric of the country. The black majority would not yet be enjoying equal terms with whites, either in political or in economic terms. But the future would not be closed to their children. There would not be a reason for the pent-up frustration which has developed explosively and violently within the black and Colored communities in South Africa.
The decisive turn in South African history came in 1948: A new government made up of the Afrikaners won power and soon began applying the doctrine of apartheid, or strict racial segregation. The hope of an ultimate share in the wealth and rule of the country was methodically taken away from the blacks. There has been mounting trouble ever since.
People who expect a steady improvement in their lot seldom become violent. People who see a worse future in store for themselves and for their children can become violent. It is a lesson from history. The white leaders in South Africa are today confronted by the consequences of a policy that denied hope to the 241/2 million blacks of South Africa.
This is the challenge to statesmanship in South Africa.
The present condition of almost daily violence and of repression by whip and gun cannot be ended by whip and gun. Blacks have discovered that they have leverage. The South African economy has been built upon the widespread use of nonwhite labor. It cannot function without that labor. Hence, the withdrawal of that labor can cripple the economy.
Dependence on black labor is the Achilles' heel of white South Africa. The practical question today is whether the white leadership in South Africa is capable of putting forward those measures that will defuse the violence by restoring to the black majority a confidence in an improving future.
It does not mean handing over the government to blacks tomorrow, or even holding out the promise of ultimately handing it over. It does mean that the blacks must be given a convincing prospect of gradually entering the corridors of power and of gradually gaining a share in the wealth of the country approaching their contribution to the economy.
A sudden handover would be economic disaster for the country. The more experienced black leaders understand this. The evidence around them is overwhelming. No all-black-ruled country in Africa has yet achieved a stable democratic government along with a successfully managed economy. Kenya is probably the most successful so far, though it has become a one-party state. Zimbabwe is threatening to become a one-party state. Its economy is still strong, thanks in part to the contribution of the white minority .
The blacks of South Africa will benefit most if their emergence into government and industry is gradual. But the vital first step, if an economic tragedy is to be avoided, is the restoration, among the black community, of confidence in an expanding future.
This is the point where Washington has its best chance to play a constructive role. It can probably be done more easily by quiet persuasion than by legislated sanctions. The great hurdle for the white government of South Africa will be having to admit that apartheid cannot work because it has denied to the black majority the political power blacks feel is necessary to ensure them a fair share in the wealth of the country, and thus triggered a black rebellion.
It can never be easy for any government to recognize the failure of a major policy. It will be a tremendous wrench for the government in Pretoria to abandon apartheid, even with the leaders of business and industry joining the chorus of those who say it must be done. The firm voice of Washington might help the process along.
It may be too late for a peaceful and gradual transition to mixed rule and wealth sharing in South Africa, but it would be criminal to evade the effort to find exactly that kind of transition. To assume that it is impossible would make it so. To assume that it is still possible keeps open the road that would be best for all concerned.