De Klerk Deserves A Nobel Peace Prize

OVERSHADOWED by events in the Gulf, another important region of the world is moving steadily away from what seemed certain to be chaos and bloodshed, and instead toward the distinct prospect of peaceful evolution. The country is South Africa, long riven by the excesses of apartheid.

For decades, white minority Afrikaner governments brutally repressed the black majority. So ingrained were the racial prejudices that a nationwide explosion seemed inevitable, probably leading to terrible urban guerrilla warfare as frustrated blacks sought to achieve by revolution what they had failed to achieve by nonviolent means.

The consequences could have been dire: many people killed and wounded; a flood of white refugees to Britain and the United States; stoppage of production of uranium and gold and diamonds and South Africa's other mineral riches.

Instead, although there are still hurdles aplenty to be overcome, such a national upheaval now seems far less likely. There is a significant drive by leaders black and white to produce an integrated, multi-racial society with a franchise for the black majority and a protecting mechanism for the white minority to be displaced from power.

In part, this dramatic change has come about because of external pressure upon South Africa, coupled with long and sturdy resistance to apartheid's injustices by South Africa's own blacks.

But it could not have happened without the remarkable conversion of an Afrikaner politician named Frederik de Klerk.

South Africa's white population is made up mainly of two streams, English-speaking South Africans of British background, and the Afrikaners descended from the Dutch, and usually adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church. Although most South African whites have either actively or tacitly supported apartheid, there has been a long history of courageous white individuals bucking the system, and often paying a heavy price for their defiance.

Many of these white liberals have been English-speaking South Africans, but as one wise South African political commentator once told me: ``When an Afrikaner sees the light and turns his back on racial intolerance, you see a reformer like you've never seen before.''

Mr. De Klerk has had no long background of liberalism. But he seems to have appointed himself the dismantler of apartheid for two reasons. One is a genuine religious conviction that it is fundamentally un-Christian. The other is a pragmatic realization that South Africa's white minority faces extinction if it tries to stem the accession to power of an increasingly restless and increasingly numerous black majority.

And so, in the face of often formidable resistance from conservative whites, De Klerk, since his election to the presidency of South Africa in 1989, has set South Africa on a fast track to reform. His boldest step was to free from prison the legendary African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. And for his part, Mr. Mandela has responded with statesmanship, cooperating with the white regime as it strives to integrate blacks into the political system.

Last week De Klerk took yet another significant step, one so breathtaking in South African terms that it caught the African National Congress by surprise. He called for the elimination of all remaining apartheid laws, including the infamous Population Registration Act, which classifies all South Africans at birth in separate racial boxes. Coming hard on a peace accord between two major black adversaries - the African National Congress and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party - it offered much hope for progress (especially if blacks can end the internecine violence that has claimed 5,000 lives in recent years).

Now we have seen the strongest signal one could ask for that the De Klerk government is serious about finally moving South Africa out of apartheid's stultifying grip. It is a step that has earned South Africa the right to ask for the abandonment of economic sanctions against it by the outside world.

It is a step that ought to qualify De Klerk as a candidate for the Nobel peace prize.

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