`No News' Is Good For South Africa

SCANNING the front pages of the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal, I am struck by a remarkable phenomenon: For days now, there has been no front-page story from South Africa.

This is one instance where no news is good news.

In the run-up to South Africa's historic April election, daily headlines chronicled the bombings, assassinations, and violent rioting as extremists both black and white sought to subvert the process. They failed. South Africans of all races turned out in millions to vote in their first democratic election. Long lines snaked to the polling booths. Says a colleague just back from monitoring the elections, ``It was as though the lines brought them all together. It was the collapse of their Berlin wall.''

Since then there has not been the outbreak of violence feared by some as triumphant blacks sought vengeance against former white rulers. Nor have white diehards who vowed never to accept black rule unleashed a campaign of terror. One of the most remarkable transitions has been the manner in which the police and Army, formerly the instruments of the white minority, are preserving order for a black president and a multiracial government.

Instead, the new government is grappling with economic development, the redistribution of land, and amnesty for past political crimes - problems that do not dominate the headlines.

The economy is the most formidable of these challenges. Although South Africa is rich in natural resources and is the most industrialized country on the continent, it has a two-tiered standard of living - a first-world standard for whites and a third-world standard for blacks. Equalizing these will take time and a lot of foreign investment and aid. So President Nelson Mandela is wooing international corporations with reassuring words. Top government officials are popping up at investment conferences in Atlanta, London, and Tokyo. Companies like PepsiCo, Inc. are returning and appointing blacks as chief executives and board members. The white press monopolies are seeking to divest operations to black-run trusts and corporations.

Accelerated development of the South African economy has far-reaching implications for all of Africa. Visionaries like Aggrey Klaaste, editor of the largest-circulation newspaper in South Africa, say that if the country can be prosperous and stable, it can be the engine that drives development throughout much of the continent. Mr. Klaaste dreams of his own paper, the Sowetan, becoming an African USA Today distributed in dozens of countries.

One of the new South Africa's questionable ventures into the rest of the continent may be the export of arms. Freed by the United Nations from an embargo against arms exports, the South African state arms manufacturer, Armscor, now projects that its exports could double within a year. It is already the world's 10th-largest arms exporter and has been a major supplier to Rwanda. Mr. Mandela, with an eye on jobs and generating foreign exchange, has approved the exports but promised that arms will not go to suppressive governments, a difficult promise to enforce.

Another difficult problem is land redistribution. In the era of apartheid, blacks were forced into ``homelands'' with poor agricultural potential that totaled 13 percent of the country. Now they want their own land back. The Mandela government must juggle their rights against the rights of the present white owners to promised compensation for expropriation.

Then there is the question of pardon and indemnity for political crimes. A Commission of Truth and Reconciliation is to consider petitions for amnesty and recommend compensation for victims. But the granting of such awards to both left- and right-wingers, black and white, is fraught with political tension.

These challenges to nation building in the new South Africa are immensely complicated. But better these problems than the wave of bloodletting that preceded the election.

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