South Africa's Lesson For the Rest of Africa

IMAGES of Africa never fail to stir powerful emotions, be they joy or pity. This has never been more true than over the past three weeks when the news shifted from change and reconciliation in South Africa to death and mayhem in Rwanda.

Even for hardened Africa observers, the past month has been a roller-coaster ride. One watched endless lines of black South Africans wait for hours to vote, and then saw rooms full of butchered Rwandan women and children and endless droves of panic-stricken refugees. It seemed that just as the continent was taking a huge step forward, its ``tribal'' past was pulling it back down. That, however, is not quite accurate.

Africa's struggle between good and evil is not unique. But the portrayal of that struggle and coverage of the continent remains simplistic. Either this is due to laziness or it is the result of the low priority given to the continent and the need to sell the story inside news organizations. The need for adequate analysis of Africa, however, has been raised significantly with South Africa's emergence from the politics of apartheid. There is a great expectation that this emergence will lead southern Africa, if not the whole continent, up the road of recovery.

For those who want to end Africa's cycle of political crises, the rest of Africa must be educated about South Africa's great lesson - building, consolidating, and protecting the ``middle ground.''

As important as the April 27 elections were, more important was the manner in which the vote was reached: through compromise, negotiation, and the presence of a strong network of groups and organizations who were not political parties, but who could not and would not be ignored.

The role played by civil society in South Africa was of critical importance. This society included independent press, human rights groups, civic associations, and trade unions. These groups maintained resistance to apartheid and kept the international community aware of the need for continued pressure. When the negotiating process began, these groups helped create the middle ground necessary to keep the transition moving forward. Political parties eventually negotiated with these groups.

Building a middle ground, negotiating, and ending the zero-sum game of power, are lessons to be learned and applied throughout Africa. The thinking that suggests that to be in power requires killing the opposition must end. This is a lesson South Africa must constantly relearn.

For the rest of the continent, the need for checks on governmental power becomes evident by reviewing sweeping repressive legislation, control of the courts, and actions of security forces. Study of the crises in Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia, and Zaire will reveal similar patterns: The use of power to eliminate any kind of dissent. Rwanda is a chilling glimpse of the abyss - beyond eliminating political opponents to eliminating populations. The simple explanation of this as a Hutu-Tutsi vendetta obscures the killing of moderate Hutus who wanted reconciliation with Tutsis.

As South Africa begins the difficult process of re-creating itself, the new government faces incredible demands. It has limited resources. Sustaining the middle ground and curbing extremism will be a great challenge. This is true for the rest of the continent, with a significant difference: In many countries the governments themselves are the most violent interest group.

South Africa needs strong, independent nongovernmental institutions to protect human rights and hold government accountable. So does the rest of Africa. If Africa is to keep from falling into violence, it will have to focus on the mundane work of building the middle ground. It must end its swings between hope and despair. There must be no more Rwandas. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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