S. Africa's Black Press Has a Key Role in Democracy Bid

IN a few brief years, we have seen an astonishing transition for the better in world affairs: The fall of the Berlin wall. Communism's collapse. Prospects of peace in the Middle East.

Now South Africa is about to undergo dramatic change. Its first democratic elections are scheduled April 27, 1994. The result will be a black government. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC), will probably be the country's first black president. But two huge problems cloud the future. One is the extent of current violence - political and criminal, between blacks and whites, and black upon black.

If the violence can be contained and elections are held, the second problem will be disappointed expectations thereafter. Many blacks believe, unrealistically, that a black government will somehow produce for them economic equality with whites. That may happen eventually, but not overnight.

Is post-apartheid South Africa, then, headed for disaster? Not if South Africans like Aggrey Klaaste have their way. Mr. Klaaste, who has just been visiting the United States, is editor of the Sowetan, the largest newspaper in South Africa. He is black. His newspaper's readers are black. Some 230,000 of them buy it every day, most of them in the area just outside Johannesburg called Soweto, a string of townships that are home to more than 3 million blacks. The Sowetan, developed by the white Argus newspaper group to reach black readers, now outsells the group's white papers.

To avoid criticism that blacks have no media ownership role in South Africa, the Argus company intends to divest itself of the Sowetan and sell it to black investors.

Klaaste has undergone the years of harassment that have beset most black South Africans, and particularly black journalists. An earlier newspaper he worked for was banned by the white government. He was jailed for seven months, although never charged or told what his ``crime'' was. Today, with apartheid disintegrating, his tribulations are far from over. When some factions among his readers don't like what his paper says, they burn it. Death threats are almost routine.

Klaaste thinks that there have been political mistakes aplenty. He wishes Mr. Mandela would talk more about being a leader of all South Africans, rather than members of the ANC. He thinks white President Frederik de Klerk, although trying to ``free himself from the apartheid stranglehold'' is still ``very much an Afrikaner.'' (Afrikaners are the whites of Dutch descent who imposed apartheid.). He thinks Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi made a critical mistake in collaborating with the white government's earlier plan to confine blacks to segregated ``homelands,'' and now is desperately striving to regain face and stature.

In Klaaste's view there are tough times ahead, and perhaps more bloodshed. But he has a vision for South Africa for which he and his newspaper are working. He thinks that after April's elections have taken place, ``leveling the playing field,'' there should emerge a government of national unity in which all parties, including the Zulus' Inkatha Freedom Party and the white Conservative Party, should have a say.

He thinks South Africa has a superb infrastructure and diverse people of extraordinary talent. ``Blacks and whites,'' he says, ``we need each other. We have nowhere else to go.'' He believes that if South Africa can get its act together it can be the economic powerhouse for the rest of the African continent. I believe that journalists like Aggrey Klaaste, and papers like his that want to build rather than destroy have a critical role in South Africa. Let us hope that such visionaries see their aspirations fulfilled.

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