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The World : South Africa's Strength: A Bias for Moderation

May 15, 1994|Henry A. Kissinger | Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger writes frequently for The Times

NEW YORK — The post-Cold War world has witnessed what may prove to be one of its most hopeful moments: the emergence of the first democratic multiracial government in Africa.

The election of Nelson Mandela and the creation of a government of national unity in South Africa is only the first step of what is bound to be a long and difficult journey. Conflicts among and within ethnic groups, devising a balance between central and provincial authorities and the possible insistence by the newly enfranchised majority on more rapid social and economic progress than the system can bear have the potential to defeat the promise.

South Africa encompasses more ethnic groups than almost any other country: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Cape Coloreds--descendants of the original Hottentot population in the Cape province. The European population is divided between those of English and Dutch origin who fought each other earlier this century and continue as political rivals. Within the African population, the Zulu leadership claims autonomy from the Xhosa-dominated African National Congress, a federalism perceived by many in the ANC as the forerunner of secession.

Ethnic rivalries are complicated by what Mandela describes as the tendency of veterans of the anti-apartheid resistance to apply a definition of democracy relying on consensus and intolerant of opposition. Nor is proclivity to violence confined to one group.

Inkatha has a militia and the European Community's militant wing has always rejected a multiracial solution. Moreover, societies reared on the British parliamentary system find the concept of checks and balances alien. Even Mandela has expressed perplexity with the idea of judicial review, on the ground that a non-elected body should not be able to overrule an elected one.

Nevertheless, these problems are being addressed by an extraordinary array of leaders. When defending himself against the charge of treason in 1964, Mandela, whose career is the embodiment of endurance made possible by spiritual depth, affirmed his devotion to a multiracial society. He has kept his word.

The transformation of Frederik W. de Klerk is equally astonishing. Until he came to power, apartheid had reigned supreme for half a century. Its end occurred with a speed unimaginable even a decade earlier and with only a minimum of violence. By 1991, De Klerk could pronounce as an Afrikaner goal what had only yesterday been illegal:

"We want to make all South Africans proud; we want to build a South African nation in which, yes, all the various composite parts can feel safe, in which there will be acceptance of joined and common goals. . . . A new vision for our country is crystallizing, a vision of justice, fairness, equality and democracy."

As an essentially tribal leader, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi had less reason to change. His insistence on autonomy and some kind of federalist solution has remained constant. Still, he deserves credit for raising a crucial challenge to South African democracy: how to reconcile the rule of the majority with the rights of ethnic minorities. For as long as voting largely follows ethnic or tribal lines, the minority can never hope to become a majority. At the same time, the ANC has reason for its concern that if the ethnic divisions are enshrined as sacrosanct, unity may remain elusive.

In overcoming its problems, however, South Africa has advantages that transcend personalities. The legitimacy of the state is well-established, and the existing groupings have considerable experience in dealing with each other within a larger political framework.

While governments of national unity are generally more useful in papering over differences than in resolving them, the interim institution created by Mandela and De Klerk--in which every party achieving a certain percentage of the votes also achieves representation in the Cabinet--creates a useful framework for the practice of mutual cooperation in the crucial early stages of power sharing.

Few countries have as much to gain from a moderate evolution as does South Africa. It has vast resources, a well-established infrastructure, significant manufacturing base and higher level of education than any of its neighbors. Furthermore, the very multiplicity of its ethnic groupings provides a certain insurance against civil conflict. For once that Pandora's box is opened, the consequences are ultimately unpredictable.

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