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RECLAIMING AFRICA : S. Africans Agree on Goal Now, How to Attain It?

July 10, 1994|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin). He just returned from a monthlong stay in southern Africa

WASHINGTON — "Out of Africa," said the ancient Romans, "there is always something new." Recently, the news from Africa has been almost all bad. Famines in Ethiopia, genocide in Rwanda; chaos in Somalia and AIDS spread ing everywhere. At times, it seems that all of Africa south of the Sahara is headed toward a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

The only exception to the dismal trend has been South Africa, where the transition to non-racial democracy in the richest sub-Saharan country has given new hope for the whole region. Though last week's resignation of South Africa's respected finance minister, Derek Keys, shows the new government will not escape severe tests.

The conservative, pragmatic Keys was a major figure in South African politics. As a member of the formerly pro-apartheid Nationalist Party, he served as finance minister in South Africa's last whites-only government as well as in its first multiracial one. In the tough, behind-the-scenes negotiations over the budget, he is credited with putting together a tight budget that nonetheless increased social spending for South Africa's poor. His continuity in office reassured local and foreign investors that President Nelson Mandela's government would pursue sensible, pro-business policies--that although South Africa was under new management, it was still open for business.

His sudden resignation--for unexplained "personal" reasons--left Mandela with a problem. The president quickly appointed leading banker Christo Liebenberg to Keys' post. But even naming the former CEO of South Africa's fourth-largest financial-services company couldn't quite calm investor jitters.

Yet, this shouldn't overshadow the main story in South Africa: After decades and, in some cases, centuries of conflict, the many ethnic and racial groups in the country have reached the conclusion that their common interests are more important than grievances and ancient hatreds.

Only a few years ago, South Africa was at war with itself. Whites, in general, hated and feared blacks, and vice versa. But each camp was divided within itself as well. Afrikaans-speaking whites and English-speaking whites didn't trust one another. Indians and people of mixed racial backgrounds were not fully accepted by either whites or blacks. Among blacks, tribal rivalries and political infighting divided the liberation movement and created opportunities for the government to pursue a policy of divide and rule. As recently as last spring, many South Africans feared their country was headed down the road of Bosnia and Rwanda.

But then came the miracle of a peaceful election and the transition to majority rule. South Africa is still no paradise, and its divisions remain, but out of the chaos and confusion a consensus for democracy and peace has somehow emerged.

The consensus starts with patriotism. White South Africans used to be ashamed of their country's isolation; the flag and the national anthem were symbols of oppression for blacks. Now all that has changed. White South Africans are delighted to find they are no longer international pariahs; and blacks, many for the first time, are learning what it means to be free citizens in a free country. In squatter camps around the cities, black South Africans talk about their new-found pride in a flag and the new national anthem--a song banned under white rule.

The second point of consensus is Mandela. Die-hard segregationists praise his political maturity; poor blacks believe him when he says he will do everything possible to help them. Along with this trust comes another asset: patience. Nobody expects change overnight; and, at least for now, virtually everybody trusts Mandela to make the right choices.

The third consensus point is that something must be done to alleviate the suffering of South Africa's poor. Conservative business leaders agree with radical activists: South Africa faces a social explosion unless conditions in the squatter camps and in the rural poverty zones improve. While nobody likes taxes, wealthy South Africans seem to accept the necessity of reasonable sacrifices to make the future more secure.

At the same time, a broad consensus exists that the new South Africa must avoid the economic and political errors so many black African countries have made. South Africans of all races and political stripes agree, by and large, that the state socialist policies of many African governments would lead to disaster in South Africa. The other error of so many African nations--substituting a one-party system for democracy--is also condemned by South African society. Recent attempts by, among others, Winnie Mandela to control the free press have met with wide condemnation in the African National Congress, as well as outside it.

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