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Dismantling South Africa's apartheid no easy task.

Anyone who watched South Africa's Nelson Mandela walk free that day in 1990, old but unbroken after nearly 28 years in prison, could not help but feel that something fresh was indeed afoot in the world. What it was or where it might lead us, God only knew.

In the years since, South Africa has continued to dismantle its infamous system of apartheid (legally, at any rate), more slowly than communism crumbled in Eastern Europe, to be sure, but with similar uncertainties and mixed messages for nearly everyone concerned. Talks between the F.W. de Klerk government and Mandela's African National Congress have limped ahead, at times halting altogether after police killings in black townships.

Extremists in both camps sharpened their knives, threatening blood before racial equality. Even Mandela's estranged wife, Winnie, has veered further left and castigated black moderates for slipping between "silken sheets" with the white oppressors.

Against that precarious backdrop came word last month that the ANC had agreed to a government-of-national-unity scheme that would effectively guarantee the white minority a voice in the executive branch of any blackled government, as well as in parliament. All any party of whatever race had to do to be represented was win at least 5 percent of the national vote.

For some, that agreement refueled the engine of hope. Others, white and black alike, saw it as a damnable compromise. Whatever the case, a lot of dangerous ground has to be crossed between now and any election that, with blacks voting for the first time, would no doubt leave Nelson Mandela presiding over a multicolored cabinet.

Mandela is compromising the ANC goal of majority rule in the hope of a peaceful end to apartheid, in practical as well as legal terms. To paint the most positive face possible on the government's position, it is not inconceivable that de Klerk is doing something of the same.

If so, he will have to convince whites, including an Afrikaner minority of neo-nazi bent, and also those pompous puppet chieftains of the so-called black homelands, with their heavily armed security forces, that be is not bargaining them into political oblivion. Mandela will have to assure not only his Young Turks, but also the more moderate heirs of slain black-consciousness leader Steve Biko, for example, that he is not snuggling between the white oppressor's silken sheets.

Those are tough rows to hoe under the best of circumstances. But the actual circumstance is that, despite some cosmetic changes, the practical reality of apartheid endures. No black has ever voted. Blacks in police custody still die by the dozens. "Suicide" is the usual verdict. The black majority still owns less than 9 percent of the land. Ninety percent of whites graduate from high school, only 30 percent of blacks.

Horror stories from the black townships abound. Gangs of petty crooks are 'elevated" under police auspices into vigilante shock troops against ANC constituents. Homes are burned, stores looted, while police look on. One woman told of seeing local thugs hack her teenage son to death while two policemen stood by and ignored her cries for help.

One day such atrocities will come home to roost. If, as some suspect, the South African government is playing cat and mouse with the ANC, with the aim of postponing the inevitable end of white domination, it will be able to play the game only so long before the agents of violence on both sides take up their weapons and force the issue.

For now, Mandela and de Klerk deserve the benefit of the doubt. If they can effect the change to majority rule with anything like a peaceful transition, it will be a great gift to South Africa and a symbol of hope for the world. The odds against it are still formidable, but if South Africa can do it, why not other lands where racial and ethnic upheavals divide and destroy?
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Title Annotation:Yugoslavian civil war
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 5, 1993
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