South Africa - bridging global inequalities Post-apartheid: A once-racist society can become the model for dealing with Earth's most basic conflicts.


Johannesburg, South Africa - From global pariah to international paradigm, that is the next extraordinary transition facing this country which so recently escaped the inhuman horrors of apartheid.

Its incredibly bloodless transition from white minority to black majority rule is setting an example in reconciliation that could well serve not only the rest of Africa but the world.

If South Africa can continue to overcome its chasmic gap between rich whites and impoverished blacks with neither revenge or ruination, it will set the model for bridging that most explosive of all global economic inequalities - the north-south divide.

So far the auguries are set fair. In three years power has passed, with shockingly little pain, from ruthlessly autocratic white power to blessedly forgiving and patient black rule.

The whites, of course, still control most of the economy, still live in the big houses, still enjoy what for many are the ill-gotten gains of apartheid. In contrast most blacks still occupy the menial jobs, still live in the townships, still endure the trials of poverty.

But while they continue to be economically disadvantaged, they are no longer second-class citizens. That, and the prospect of better times ahead, has so far prevented what otherwise would almost certainly be a blood bath.

There are many here and abroad, of course, who are not optimistic. South Africa, in their minds, is doomed to follow the post-colonial precedent of this largely hapless continent into bloody decline.

It is true that the peaceful transition is a measure of the awesome moral stature of Nelson Mandela, the prisoner of apartheid who became president. Significantly, he has put the mechanism of national exorcism into the hands of the one man in this country who commands comparable respect - Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the puckish prelate whose voice resonated throughout the years of repression.

dTC Tutu chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a confessional in which admission of atrocity bears the prospect of amnesty, a lure that has brought both white and black terrorists into the open, seeking to protect their freedom if not elicit forgiveness, with true but terrible testimony.

The Mandela-Tutu aura has kept the lid on violent national outrage over what has been experienced and is now being retold. But both are old men, Mandela , AGE, and due to leave office in 1999, Tutu, AGE, and suffering from cancer.

How South Africa got to be where it is today, is an epic of human determination, demographic inevitability, political opportunity and economic reality. It is a tale crisply told in Patti Waldmeir's "Anatomy of a Miracle -- The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa" (W.W. Norton & Company, 269 pages, $27.50).

Waldmeir is a former African correspondent for the Financial Times of London, who spent the crucible years of 1989 to 1995 as the Johannesburg bureau chief, witnessing the human and political struggle for power in all its bloody fury.

She reminds us how unlikely a prospect was peaceful transition, recalling former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger's 1969 assessment: "The white minority has a monopoly of force which it does not hesitate to use, and of power which it will not voluntarily yield."

The whites laid down their arms and ceded that power reluctantly and frequently violently, while the blacks, often in conflict among themselves, steadfastly pursued their goal of majority rule.

Forces at play

Step by step the blacks advanced, often allowed forward by white self-interest. The opening of the labor market and the improvement of black education, two of the seeds of change, were both permitted only because they strengthened the white economy.

"Whites and blacks were far too economically interdependent to live apart," asserts Waldmeir

There is another strange affinity between two of the major groups. Like the blacks, the Afrikaners are an African tribe. So long have they been here, that they have no other home. As surely as the Zulus, they are African. Unlike the Anglo immigrants they cannot cut and run. They are "the white tribe of Africa." This is where they belong.

Outside forces were at play too. The 1989 end of the Cold War ended the Kremlin's support of overseas insurgencies, forcing the exiled African National Congress, the major black organization, to turn to resolution rather than revolution.

At the same time, the collapse of communism reassured whites, who automatically equated class war with race war - as well they might - that they might one day see a peaceful transition of power.

The international community lent its weight to the campaign to legitimize the ANC and to free the political prisoners, foremost Mandela.

Finally, the death knell of 350 years of white supremacy in South Africa was sounded on Feb. 2, 1990, when Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk told a stunned parliament: "The prohibition of the African National Congress ... and a number of subsidiary organizations is being rescinded. ...The Government has taken a firm decision to release Mr. Nelson Mandela unconditionally."

But if de Klerk ended apartheid, the groundwork for the historic ++ change was done by his predecessor, P.W. Botha, who introduced the initial improvements to the lot of blacks. He was the unlikeliest lifter of the yoke, an arch conservative who to this day is a voice of doom on the prospects of black-ruled South Africa.

"For P.W. Botha was a child of the old, old South Africa, his political consciousness shaped in the days of Afrikaner inferiority," writes Waldmeir.

Those were the days when Katie Makanya, a black woman whose South African life spanned the colonial era and the apartheid experience, was looking at the world through very different eyes to Botha's.

The daughter of a road gang foreman and a Christian teacher, she was born in 1873 with two gifts - a thirst for education and a beautiful voice. The two helped shape her life, giving her extraordinary insights and experiences. By the end of his second year in school, she could speak English, Dutch, Xhosa, and her father's native Sotho.

She even traveled to England as a member of what was then termed a "Kaffir Choir" to sing for Queen Victoria - "a little old lady standing there in the doorway, as short and round and fat as Ma, wearing a simple black dress and white lace bonnet and no jewelry at all except for rings on her fingers."

We know all this because, at the age of 81, she visited an old white friend, Margaret McCord, and asked her to write her life story. At first, McCord demurred, saying: "We lead such different lives."

"What does that matter?" said Katie. "When you were little you slept in my bed, ate my food, played with my children."

So for weeks, the two sat in McCord's Durban apartment beside a tape recorder. The result is a lyrical biography "The Calling of Katie Makanya, a Memoir of South Africa" (John Wiley &Sons;, 353 pages, $24.95).

Future beckons

That South Africa has gone forever. There are, of course, still many Kate Makanyas, striving for an education, working for white folk, struggling to earn a living and lead fulfilled lives. But the future now beckons them to put rancor and revenger aside and show the world how the races can live in harmony.

"It's a miracle," Archbishop Desmond Tutu told me in a recent interview. "God probably has a mission for us. God is saying 'Precisely because you are such an unlikely lot, I am setting you up as an example for the rest of the world.' "


Gilbert A. Lewthwaite is The Sun's South African correspondent. He is a veteran of overseas reporting, having served in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Central America and Europe. Before joining The Sun in 1971, he worked for the London Daily Mail.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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