South Africa transformed but not perfect

Wednesday's Elections in South Africa remind me of those historic days in April 1994 when that country's women stood in line for many hours to participate in the nation's first fully democratic vote.

How have South Africans fared since then? Did the groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose work followed the 1994 election, successfully heal the wounds of earlier decades? What does the country's future look like?

Democracy's record in South Africa thus far looks mixed. Certainly, life is better for many newly enfranchised nonwhite citizens. The government, dominated by the African National Congress (ANC) which retained its parliamentary majority in the polls Wednesday, has made a priority of delivering safe water, electricity, roads, and schools to far-flung black communities. Meanwhile, many whites have seen living standards decline after the privileges they once kept for themselves were stripped away.

(Some mixed-race "coloreds," and "Indians" also speak of such a decline.) It has not helped that revenues from the country's huge gold-mining and other extraction industries have stayed low.

HIV/AIDS has spread alarmingly fast. The UN estimates that more than 20 percent of South Africans between 15 and 49 years of age carry the infection. The government's response has been marred by ideology, and until recently has been very ineffective. In many communities, a high proportion of teachers and other professionals have already died. Partly because of this scourge the country's score on the UN's Human Development Index, an indicator of physical well-being, slipped significantly between 1995 and 2001.

Matters of physical well-being are certainly crucial for people lacking basic human needs. But democracy has other important goals, too. One is to support institutions through which differences can be addressed without the use of force. In this respect, South Africa's democracy has indubitably triumphed.

Can anyone name another country where a power-wielding minority has negotiated the handover of power to the majority; where that handover has occurred with so little violence; and where the minority continued afterward as part of the new democratic nation?

Those are South Africa's crowning political achievements. Credit for them lies principally in the hands of the courageous white leaders who saw that such a future was possible, and opted for it, and in the ANC leaders who long ago broadened their vision to make a place within the "nation" they sought to build for their white compatriots. (Indeed, many significant ANC leaders have been white.)

Of course, building a new relationship between the white former powerholders and South Africa's massive nonwhite majority has not been easy. One of the most inspiring mechanisms through which this transformation has occurred was the TRC. This body was created in a most unlikely way: as the result of a fairly sordid political deal.

Back in 1994, in the run-up to the first democratic elections, the leaders of the white dominated security forces told ANC head Nelson Mandela that they would not assure security for the elections unless he promised them an amnesty for their past actions.

The TRC was the body through which applications for that amnesty were processed. But under its inspirational head, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it became much more than that. It was also a place where survivors of apartheid's worst atrocities could tell their story in public, and have their own suffering publicly acknowledged. The TRC established an incontrovertible record of the deeply inhumane nature of apartheid, and thus laid the moral basis for the huge affirmative action campaign the country has seen since 1994.

The TRC submitted its final report to the government last year. It had accepted more than 5,000 of the 8,000 amnesty applications submitted. It had also received 22,000 statements from people who during the apartheid era suffered from politically motivated violence - from either side. Those statements and the videotaped record of the 1,400 or so public victims' hearings held around the country now constitute a powerful record of some of the era's worst abuses. No whites can any longer reasonably claim they "do not know" how badly the long decades of apartheid used to harm their nonwhite compatriots.

What the TRC had no mandate to address was the huge transfer of land and other resources from nonwhites to whites that occurred during apartheid and preceding centuries of white colonial rule. Finding redress for those coerced transfers was left largely to a separate Land Claims Commission. Recent violent events in Zimbabwe have shown the extreme urgency of this issue. The South African government has tried to seek satisfaction of land claims on a consensual basis, primarily by "buying out" the white landowners concerned and restoring those lands to nonwhite claimants. In a 2003 report, one South African official wrote that 36,000 of the 79,000 valid claims had been settled. But no one thinks that completing the land restitution will be quick or simple.

Might South Africa yet go down the tragic path taken by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe: the path to one-party dictatorship and populist violence based on land claims or other grievances from the colonial era? One person who says "no," is Frederik de Klerk, the visionary white leader who negotiated the country's democratic transformation with Mr. Mandela. He recently said that South Africa's strong record of constitutionality, the base of multiracialism that it has now built, and the strength of its private business sector would protect it from that.

I tend to agree. But huge problems do remain. South Africa, like the rest of that ravaged continent, will need real support from the rest of the world for many years to come.

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.

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