(Mandela votes for the first time/ Wikimedia Commons)


[This editorial was first published in the May 20, 1994 issue of Commonweal]

The revolution that ended forty-five years of apartheid in South Africa last month---complete with universal suffrage, new flag and national anthem ("Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika," "God Bless Africa")--was not a velvet revolution à la Eastern Europe. But like the collapse of communism in 1989, it was an achievement of the highest order and a triumph of the human spirit. The courage and dignity of those voting for the first time offered a lesson for a world beleaguered by ethnic wars, religious controversies, and single-party rule. True the legacy of apartheid, built on three hundred years of colonialist subjugation in South Africa, will not be expunged soon, if ever. But South Africa gives hope that even in the most retractable of circumstances, new beginnings can be made when there is the will and the wisdom.

South Africa arrived at this moment because of the remarkable leadership of Nelson Mandela, "a leader of enormous stature, a man of firm principle and generous spirit, and a better politician than any had hoped for" (Economist, April 23). It did so because of the political change of heart fostered in white South Africans by the ruling National party leader, F W de Klerk, and by those white liberals who fought for the repeal of apartheid from the day of its imposition. But the changes in South Africa happened in no small measure because of moral pressures exerted from abroad. At a time when Randall Robinson of TransAfrica Forum has been fasting to bring the attention of Americans to the fate of Haitians, it should be remembered that the sanctions and boycotts advocated by Robinson and others against South Africa helped create the critical opening that Mandela and de Klerk navigated so effectively. It was international sanctions that gradually helped to convince the dead souls in Pretoria's government that majority rule in South Africa was the country's only hope for a future.

The revolutionary changes now legally under way in South Africa were born of the blood of martyrs. Plentiful though such blood was, it alone does not account for the historic change we are witnessing. That change was achieved through painstaking organizing at the grass roots and around the world. The real miracle of last month's plebiscite was not that it was peaceful, but that it took place at all.

April's election happened because of a series of timely accommodations by all the parties concerned, brokered at critical points over the past four years since Mandela's release from prison in 1990. Credit goes to de Klerk for releasing Mandela, and for correctly gauging that the fall of the Berlin Wall opened new possibilities for change in South Africa. With the end of the cold war, de Klerk reasoned, the world would be looking ever more closely at South Africa and bringing pressure to bear on it. But the African National Congress (ANC) and its Communist allies would have to adjust as well to a post-Communist world where the failure of command economies had become apparent to all. De Klerk was not disappointed. Mandela and the ANC quickly made room for free markets where before only nationalization would do.

Wishing to avoid a repeat of the white flight and the incitement of tribal rivalries that have destroyed much of post-colonial Africa, the ANC made other critical political concessions to guarantee that the new South Africa would not be a land only for the black majority "To be dismissive of opposition," Mandela told a TV audience recently, "that is what was done in Angola and Mozambique. We must not make that mistake." Thus while the ANC insisted on one-person-one vote, it agreed to a five-year government of national unity that will be representative of all voting constituencies in South Africa. Rather than a winner-take-all setup, the ANC concurred that any party with 5 percent of the vote would be granted a cabinet position, as well as guaranteed seats in the new parliament. And on the local level, the ANC signed onto an agreement that residents of existing white, Indian, and colored areas would elect a minimum of at least 30 percent of local representatives.

To induce the Zulu-led Inkata Freedom Party (IFP) of Mangosuthu G. Buthelezi to participate, in February the ANC agreed to a double ballot in the elections, one for national office, the other for nine regional elections. While Chief Buthelezi held off on participating in the electoral process until a week before the plebiscite, it was the ANC's concession that weakened IFP resistance to participation. Finally, when the election itself proved poorly administered and too slow in many Inkata areas, the voting was extended a day.

This is in no way to forget that 13,000 people died in partisan political violence in South Africa since the ANC was legalized in 1990. Nor is it to say that future cooperation will be the rule in South Africa. The new government faces immediate problems of immense size and complexity: the unemployment rate of the African population is nearly 50 percent, 53 percent live below the poverty level, compared to 2 percent of whites, whites have a personal per capita income 95 times that of Africans; over generations, tribal violence was fanned by deliberate government policies; and white racism remains deeply entrenched.

But if gestures carry significance, perhaps one will stand out in the years ahead, a gesture candidate Mandela made to de Klerk during a debate in April. After strongly criticizing de Klerk throughout the debate, Mandela reached over to his opponent, took him by both hands, and said "My criticism of Mr. de Klerk should not obscure one fact. We are a shining example of people drawn from different race groups who have a common loyalty, a common love for their common country."

The shining example of a South Africa that has made peace with itself while maintaining its diversity would be a timely gift for all of Africa. Mandela has pointed out that all of southern Africa was the victim of South African apartheid. South Africa's military adventures left 2 million dead and an estimated $62 billion of damage for its neighbors. Its exports of arms fueled tragedies abroad, including those of today. In 1992 South Africa sold an estimated $6 million in light arms to Rwanda.

The birth of a genuine, multiracial democracy in South Africa--one that fosters the well-being of all its peoples, particularly apartheid's most aggrieved victims--is the most important development in Africa in the last quarter of a century. It is a process we should foster with our money, our creative energies, and our prayers.

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