Freedoms in Africa

African-American leaders are rightfully proud of their efforts to push the US - both businesses and government - to oppose apartheid in South Africa. Now, a group plans to set up a permanent lobby for all of Africa.

Lobbying for a big continent of many nations and big problems won't be as easy as, say, lobbying for a single nation, such as Israel or Greece. Choosing priorities will be difficult.

Right now, the Clinton administration's priority in Africa is economic. That's all well and good, but a focus on trade and aid can sometimes blind people to a more fundamental need: ensuring basic principles of freedom and democracy.

Dictators have a lousy economic record in Africa. That's why the US should pay more attention to the ups and downs of African democracy.

This week, in a referendum in Zimbabwe, voters shot down President Robert Mugabe's attempt to enhance his powers and seize white-owned farmland without compensation. A majority of them did not want to disrupt the only economic sector - agriculture - that's generating export earnings.

But just how far up the democratic scale this vote takes Zimbabwe is unclear. An April parliamentary election will tell more. Mugabe's party has a tight grip on Parliament, and he retains popularity in the countryside. Land reform remains a live issue in a country where fewer than 2 percent of the people - mainly white - own 70 percent of the land.

Still, this week's vote indicates Zimbabwe's politics at long last could be opening to more than one dominant voice.

One "down" is happening in South Africa, which had been expected to to be a model of democracy and economic freedom for Africa.

The government's Human Rights Commission has subpoenaed many of the country's newspaper editors, in effect, ordering them to testify on alleged racism in their hiring, staffing, and coverage. This is not what one hopes from the new South Africa.

The commission may have some legitimate issues to discuss with the editors. For instance, the media is nearly fixated on the country's rampant crime to the exclusion of other, positive developments. But the way to nudge editors toward fresh thinking isn't with a subpoena tantamount to government interference with journalistic freedom.

South Africa is trying to deal with its past through an honest national dialogue. That process won't be aided by assuming that editors have racial motives in running negative news stories - as seems the Human Rights Commission's tendency.

As an arm of government and thus influenced by the ruling African National Congress, the commission is heading down a dangerous road. An independent press is a cornerstone of democracy.

What happens in Africa - genocide, civil wars, AIDS, starvation - does matter to the world. These deserve everyone's attention.

But the history of the 20th century shows that fighting for political principles must come first. Get that right, and the economic uplift follows.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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