South Africa, Indonesia - rays of democratic hope

For several months we've been assaulted by harrowing pictures of man's cruelty to man in Kosovo.

Against this background, it might seem naive to suggest that the world is making progress toward civility and democracy. Ethnic divisions remain. Wars sputter, as between India and Pakistan. Tensions simmer, as between North and South Korea.

Yet there are some positive signs. In South Africa and Indonesia - two hugely important countries for Africa and Asia respectively - the tender shoots of democracy are flourishing in lands that many of us feared might be heading for repressive self-destruction. Though problems remain in both countries, elections have been held in each. They are on their wobbly way to democracy. Thus they follow such countries as the Philippines and South Korea, which have shrugged off dictatorship in Asia. South Africa's example gives heart to another huge African country, Nigeria, which last month installed its first elected president in a generation.

The tide of freedom, though sometimes sluggish, grows stronger and wider. Even from the anguish of Kosovo there are some positives, despite indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic's continued reign. NATO and the Western world went to war not to defend their own territory, but in defense of a powerful moral principle: that a small oppressed people should be protected against obliteration and should enjoy security and freedom. It is a stirring moment in history.

South Africa's recent election consolidates the political rule of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, following an election five years ago that spelled the end of apartheid. The intervening years have been difficult because President Mandela hasn't been able to meet the economic expectations of the black majority after the end of rule by the white minority. Thus crime in the form of robbery and car hijacking has become commonplace. But Mr. Mandela, now stepping down from the presidency, has preached an impressive sermon of reconciliation. He has kept South Africa reasonably tranquil, has kept it on the road to democracy when revenge might have destroyed its prospects.

A political giant in Africa and many capitals around the world, Mandela will be succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, an ANC veteran who lacks Mandela's stature but inherits some of his unresolved problems. The greatest is the need for economic advancement of the black majority.

If the political process seems established and reaffirmed in post-apartheid South Africa, Indonesia's progression from dictatorship to democracy has been more tortuous and subtle. More than 30 years ago, the father of Indonesian nationalism, President Sukarno, was deposed after an inept reign that brought his country to the brink of economic ruin. He was succeeded by President Suharto, an army general for whom many had high hopes. But though Suharto developed Indonesia's resources and infrastructure, much of the new wealth went into the pockets of his family and cronies.

History caught up with Suharto last year. He was forced from office by rioting and widespread discontent, which compelled recent national elections. The outcome of these elections is unclear as ballot counting continues. While there may be much maneuvering once the returns are in, to see who can put together a coalition and who will be the next president, the fact remains that Indonesia has successfully completed its first democratic elections in 50 years.

It remains a nation of disparate religions and cultures. Its Chinese minority is routinely harassed. Separatist movements rumble on the outer islands. Much of its prosperity is confined to its cities. Its population continues to explode. It was hard hit by Asia's recent economic crisis. But as the fourth most populous country in the world, it plays a significant role in Asia and its progress toward democracy is widely noted throughout the third world. Challenges remain, but clearly the old way of doing things has passed.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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