The hand-over of power from white to black in South Africa has taken place with preternatural restraint and good will. This may equally be taken as the best of omens for the future, or as a moral summit from which there can only be descent.
Certainly South Africa has the astounding good fortune to have seen the encounter of two great men, capable of negotiating the peaceful liquidation of a situation both unjust and unsustainable.
F.W. de Klerk understood that the South Africa of apartheid and repression had reached the end not only of its historical rationale but of its political possibilities. In this respect he was like another man whose merits are temporarily obscured but who will eventually be recognized as a major figure of his period, Mikhail Gorbachev, who in the 1980s had the courage to act upon the evident truth that the Soviet system was intellectually and politically bankrupt, and that the Soviet Union could not go on as it was.
Mr. de Klerk understood that this was equally true of South Africa, a democratic white society superimposed upon a disenfranchised black society, by whose labor the white society prospered. He too had the singular courage to act upon this recognition.
Now the deed is done, the non-racial democracy founded and ratified by the election to its presidency of another man of astounding qualities, Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 28 years of persecution and imprisonment with a restraint, a forgiveness, a lack of vindictiveness and a political sensitivity that have few parallels in contemporary politics. He and Mr. de Klerk are men not only made for one another, but together made for the future of an Africa badly in need of wisdom and restraint, and -- to use a vocabulary out of contemporary fashion -- of spiritual vision.
Not only South Africa is in their debt today. Africa itself, awakened from its ancient history by European imperialism, its own social institutions and continuity destroyed by a colonialism that lasted for less than three generations, now is increasingly a devastated social terrain, desperately in need of a demonstration that its society can be reconstituted and can progress on a new basis, with both racial justice and representative political systems capable of defending individual rights. Can this example be provided by the new South Africa?
There are enormous obstacles. It may be a great mistake that South Africa has chosen a constitutional structure of centralized power. Decentralization, a systematic federalism, could have not only defended tribal, racial and regional interests but provided a structural barrier to the tyranny of the majority, which in the South African case is obviously a serious danger to the future of democracy. On the other hand, it could have meant a crippling factionalism.
Multiracialism is an admirable goal and a convenient slogan, but in a country that throughout its history has defined individuals in terms of their tribal or racial identity, multiracialism is not a political and social condition that is going to be achieved in any simple way, even if good will is present and prevails.
In the atmosphere of celebration and optimism surrounding the Mandela government's installation this week, the darker possibilities in South Africa's future have been pushed aside. The political unsophistication of the mass of its voters, the fears of its black tribal minorities as well as of the white and mixed-race populations, the possibilities of capital flight and of accelerated emigration by white managerial and professional classes are all serious threats to the country's future and to its peace.
The same threats existed in 1979 in what then was white-ruled Rhodesia and now is Zimbabwe. Events have proved them wrong there. But a good many other former colonies in Africa have suffered vast and sanguinary tragedies, the complexities and scale of which deter international intervention. Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Angola are contemporary examples.
South Africa is different because it is a rich and sophisticated economy and society, with an able and urbanized black middle class and proven leaders. It nonetheless is vulnerable. If it proves a success, that success could change the course of much else in Africa. A success could even convey a lesson to the United States, where the political as well as human relations of blacks with whites today seems to be worsening rather than improving.
And if South Africa fails, that failure will have immense repercussions for the relations of races elsewhere, an issue central to humanity's prospects in the 21st century.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.