South Africa's Road Allows No U-Turns

IN a world focused on the tragedies of Bosnia and Rwanda, it is well to remember that miracles do happen. Seemingly irreconcilable forces do overcome bitterness and find paths to peace. Such a miracle is happening with the peaceful interracial elections and the installation of Nelson Mandela as president in South Africa.

No one who has been touched by that beautiful land can fail to admire what various groups and their leaders have accomplished. I first visited South Africa as a journalist in 1941; then in the midst of World War II, it was deeply divided between the Afrikaner Boers and people of British descent. The black community's press for recognition had barely begun. When I next visited, with a class of the United States National War College in 1960, the Sharpesville massacre had brought the black-white issue to the foreground. In my last visit, as assistant secretary of state for african affairs in 1972, accompanied by a distinguished African-American, Mr. Beverly Carter, I experienced firsthand the divisions in the country.

Obstacles to lessening those divisions included not only the racial antagonisms, but differing concepts of their root causes. To blacks and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to those of Indian descent and mixed race, the issue was the need to correct the inequities in every aspect of life and to permit participation in the political process. Members of the white community stressed that the outsider did not understand their situation and that, by and large, the black population ``like things the way they are.'' To the visitor from white America, they attributed unrest to communist agitation and urged recognition of South Africa's strategic importance to the Western world.

Similar arguments bedeviled the politics of the US through several administrations. Americans who saw the world in strategic terms insisted that the geography and resources of southern Africa should outweigh concern over the region's internal racial policies. They were bolstered and encouraged by active lobbying. The African-American community saw allegorical analogies between their own civil rights struggle and the demands for equality in southern Africa. Increasingly they found allies in white America to support disinvestment, legal challenges to apartheid, pressures for fair employment practices, and economic sanctions.

The international community, through the United Nations, isolated Pretoria through embargoes on arms, sports, investment, and trade. That isolation undoubtedly played a role in furthering change. So did the successful transitions to majority rule in neighboring Zimbabwe and Namibia. Ultimately, however, change came to South Africa because of the courage and vision of leaders, both black and white. Frederik de Klerk and Mr. Mandela dared to think the unthinkable: that white and black could work together to create a new system.

The story is far from over. Serious problems remain to be resolved. Inequities marked by the shanties in the townships, the decrepit black schools, and the discrimination in the workplace will not immediately vanish. Television pictures of long lines waiting to vote and interviews with ecstatic Africans bespeak the high expectations for radical and sudden changes in their lives, expectations fanned by campaign rhetoric that may be hard to satisfy. News reports also document the uncertainties of white South Africans, both over their individual futures and the attitudes of the majority toward the country's economic structure. It would be unrealistic to believe that the explosive conflicts that have cost countless lives will disappear overnight.

The positive aspect, however, is that the fundamental changes engineered by Mandela and Mr. De Klerk are irreversible. Undoubtedly, efforts will be made by some to resist the abolition of the apartheid system and the elimination of the special privileges of the white minority. Such efforts will receive media attention, but too much should not be made of these. All communities in South Africa have joined in choosing to remake the society. The road may be rocky at times, but there will be no turning back.

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