SOUTH Africa's transition to a smoothly functioning multiracial democracy has faced tremendous hurdles of political factionalism and economic inequity. But for many South Africans, the chief obstacle may be the razor-wire-crowned fences going up in Johannesburg suburbs.
South Africa's hopeful future could snag on something not unknown to Americans: fear of crime. The country can ill afford what could come in the train of this fear: the flight of middle-class and affluent citizens who would take vital know-how with them. And, even more, the potential flight of needed foreign investment and tourism.
The latter, so far, has not happened. Investment remains strong, and the government has provided special protection for tourists where needed.
The sources of burgeoning criminality in South Africa are complex. The country has a 40 percent official unemployment rate, which some observers peg even higher. There is the lingering legacy of apartheid - from violent emotions to stockpiled weapons. The police force, meanwhile, has had to be virtually reconstituted, since its old job was more political control than crime-fighting.
As in other newly democratizing lands, when the old repressive system was lifted, the social cauldron boiled over. Travel restrictions were lifted, and impoverished people with no means of support poured in to squatter towns around the cities. In black townships, crime is a deepening problem, and residents sometimes resort to vigilantism to address it.
But crime has spread to the suburbs too. Suburban housewives carry pistols; homes become fortresses. Johannesburg experiences as many as 24 car-jackings a day. It's not hard to sympathize with the people who choose to leave. But it's critically important to sympathize with, and support in every practical and prayerful way, those who remain to build a new South Africa.
The work of providing basic services, including education, to a long-deprived black population has hardly begun. A well-intentioned government takes on what projects it can while refraining from heavy social spending. But the country's poor, black majority needs to see continuing progress, no matter how slow. That can shrink crime.
Job opportunities have to be expanded, not only by foreign investment and tourism, but through restructuring of the labor market. Economic growth, at 3 percent, is decent but far short of what's needed.
Good-will and shared goals have gotten South Africa's democrats to their present stage of accomplishment. Their way of dealing with crime has been to hold to fiscally sound economic policies and patiently build a more efficient, crime-fighting police force, all the while keeping newly established civil liberties intact. It's slow, hard work, but it should pay off.