WASHINGTON — A few years ago, the troubled southern Africa region seemed destined to become just another polarized Third World backwater, from which the dynamic parts of the world would simply disengage. But that scenario is not inevitable.
Last week's meeting between imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and South Africa President Frederik W. de Klerk in Cape Town symbolizes the reality that human events are shaped by individuals as well as by ideas and historical forces. All three factors will play a role in making South Africa's future. The South African drama, moreover, is not unfolding in a vacuum. It is an integral part of the broader southern African context as well of the global dynamics of our age.
The watershed Namibia-Angola settlement of December, 1988, could open the door to a brighter future for 150 million people. Political reason prevailed over reflexive behavior, permitting leaders to design a negotiated settlement in which everyone wins. Today, South African soldiers have come home from the wars in Namibia and Angola and the Cubans are leaving Angola on schedule. African National Congress guerrillas are also leaving Angola, the last of South Africa's neighbors to host them.
Namibians have just participated in one of the most democratic experiences in African history. The South-West Africa People's Organization, SWAPO, which won a bare majority in the November elections, has joined its rivals in drafting a constitution based explicitly on a set of principles negotiated in 1982 that enshrine the concepts of Western liberalism. Conceivably, an independent Namibia could even join company with Botswana--up to now the only bastion of Western liberalism within thousands of miles. Angola and Mozambique, in their separate ways, are exploring ways to end their hideous domestic strife and find the road to reconciliation.
The doctrines of violence that have tormented this region for years--armed struggle, destabilization, official hit squads and "necklacing"--have all been discredited. If South Africans can find a common language and apply the lessons of Namibia-Angola at home, southern Africa might escape a grisly fate.
But there is nothing easy or automatic about this scenario. We in the Western world talk loosely about the "end of history" and celebrate the victory of Western liberalism in the centuries-old battle of ideas over how to organize society. These, however, are abstract propositions for the majority of people around the world who still live under authoritarian systems.
In most of the Third World, including Africa, the battle of the "isms" continues. Marxism is a continuing plague that amounts in practice to ministerial ownership of the means of production. Leninism is far more prevalent than liberalism because Leninism answers the question of how to seize and monopolize power in transitional societies where governments are politically accountable only to themselves.
Of all the isms, nationalism--not liberalism--is what serves as the dominant political idea outside the Western World. It comes in many flavors: irredentism, separatism, chauvinism, fundamentalism, racism and, in many post-colonial societies, a nationalist litany of anti-Western slogans that remind citizens of the one thing they can agree on: their departed imperial enemy.
Southern Africans still take nationalism seriously as the basis for organizing politics. It remains the primary source of legitimacy for the governing elites of the Frontline States; for SWAPO, in Namibia; for the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress and their internal allies within South Africa, and for De Klerk's governing National Party. Throughout the region, nationalists have won the battle for independence from foreign control. But, internally, the conflict of competing nationalisms is harder to resolve.
Apartheid is best understood as the vision of the victorious and exclusive Afrikaner nationalism that swept into power in 1948. Afrikaner empowerment was the goal; it would be achieved by institutionalizing white control and channeling the black majority into separate, tribally defined homelands. This, in other words, was to be an African version of the Soviet political and constitutional structure, complete with geographically delineated "national" republics, nominal "sovereignty" and the reality of imperial control from the center.