BY any reckoning, South Africa has added its name to the list of late 20th-century improbables.
The joy and awe apparent in the voices of black South Africans as they voted for the first time should serve as a reminder to jaded Western electorates of the preciousness of their franchise.
That the reins of power so far have shifted relatively peacefully from the morally repugnant and deeply entrenched apartheid system to black-majority rule is cause for gratitude. Yet if statesmanship was needed to bring the country this far, it will be all the more important during the next five years, as South Africa develops a more permanent government structure.
At this writing, the elections have propelled the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, into its anticipated leadership position. Outgoing President Frederik de Klerk is almost assured a role as one of two deputy presidents in the five-year government of reconciliation. And even Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who heads the Inkatha Freedom Party and who kept the country on edge until the final week of the campaign by threatening to boycott the elections, appears to have earned a cabinet seat.
What remains to be determined is the ANC's margin of victory. If it captures 67 percent of the seats in the national parliament, it will be able to write the country's new constitution virtually unchecked. The burden to resist a winner-takes-all mentality from setting in could fall on Mr. Mandela's personal persuasiveness, which is said to be considerable. With less than 67 percent, accommodation with other parties will become a political necessity. That need is indicated by the strong showing in provincial legislative races by the National Party in Western Cape Province and by Inkatha in Natal Province. Inkatha in particular has held out for a more federal system that grants greater authority to the provinces than would the ANC, which wants a strong central government.
To his credit, Mandela is setting the right tone for the transition. In news interviews during recent days, he has offered an amnesty to law enforcement officials who killed or tortured blacks for political reasons during the apartheid. Only people who committed such crimes recently would be prosecuted. He indicated that the government would continue to help underwrite the cost of schooling for ethnic minorities, while still trying to narrow a 2-to-1 funding gap that favors whites. And he said he favors holding taxes down to attract foreign investment.
That investment will be critical to South Africa's future. In that regard, the 43 remaining state and local governments in the United States that still have anti-apartheid sanctions on their books should remove them. It is insufficient to say that legislative calendars are clogged; they were opened speedily enough when sanctions were enacted.