A Big Step for Mankind

Visitors from another galaxy might well call home with word that South Africa is a key spot for further study.

Why? Because South Africa is running the most dramatic experiment in multiracial society on earth - far larger than than those of Hawaii, Miami, and southern California.

It's an experiment in which the black majority and white and colored minorities have set out to learn to live, work, battle, and sometimes play, together. In its search for multiracial harmony, South Africa comes closer than white-majority America to being a microcosm of the planet's population. So what happens in its historic experiment should be of abiding interest to the whole human race.

But attention from outsiders has dwindled since the dramatic days of Nelson Mandela's rise from prison to the presidency. The obvious reason is that the deeply felt personal story of Mr. Mandela and F. W. de Klerk is likely to be enshrined as a lasting folk tale, like the saga of Joseph and Pharaoh or Richard the Lion-Hearted.

In contrast to such personal high drama, this week's overwhelming parliamentary vote for a permanent South African constitution (effective 1999) seemed almost routine to outsiders.

Dwindling world attention is understandable. The American revolution - even Ben Franklin's bifocals and glass harmonica - caught average Europeans' attention more than did the negotiations of the constitution- writers in Philadelphia.

But stop and think a moment. What Mandela and De Klerk started man-to-man has now been codified by the core representatives of the black and white communities. What was literally unthinkable less than a decade ago - a constitutional multiracial state - has won a resounding vote in the parliament where apartheid was born.

Yes, problems abound for politicians and individual South Africans: behind-schedule housing for millions of African slum-dwellers, extremist resisters, and persisting tribal clashes (Zulu-nationalist leaders boycotted the constitution vote). But South Africa has joined other democracies with a majority party and loyal opposition party wrestling out solutions. And it now has a detailed constitutional chart to guide them. As Americans know, that's an immense help.

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