WASHINGTON - Forgive me a personal word about South Africa. I first visited that beautiful and beleaguered land more than 30 years ago. A few years later I returned with a group of scholars. Still later I went back to lecture at two South African universities. Meanwhile I read intensively on the subject. What have I learned from all this? Only that I know nothing, really, about this vast subcontinent. And most of those in the United States who are whooping it up for Nelson Mandela and an end to apartheid know less than nothing about South Africa.
It is out of our enormous national ignorance that Mandela's release has been greeted with such jubilation. If the American South could accommodate itself to desegregation, say the simplistic thinkers, South Africa should be able to make the same accommodation: one man, one vote; equality for all; an end to any form of discrimination based upon race. All that is required is that the bigoted white leadership commit cultural suicide. Nothing to it. A piece of cake.
We are talking of a nation in which the white population is outnumbered almost 6-to-1 by the blacks - roughly 28-million to 5-million.
I still have my old notes on the languages of South Africa. The Bantu tongue is subdivided into Nguni, Sotho and Tsonga, but the Ngunis speak 12 dialects and the Sotho speak 11.
This is going to be a long haul for everyone in South Africa - for liberal whites, for hard-line Afrikaners, for Zulu and Swazi, for Indians and Coloreds. Mandela and his African National Congress do not have a single constituency. Back in the bush, nationalism is a mirage;
the old loyalties and mores of tribalism still widely prevail.
Perhaps the leadership of Mandela on the one hand, and President F. W. de Klerk on the other, can find some path toward a not intolerable solution. But don't bet on it. On his release from prison, where he served 27 years for high treason in the form of armed insurrection, Mandela made a speech that merits careful reading.
He began by saluting the military wing of the ANC. He saluted "the South African Communist Party for its sterling contribution." He singled out Communists Bram Fisher and Moses Mabhida for particular recognition. He saluted the ANC's president, Comrade Oliver Tambo. Said Mandela: "I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress. I am therefore in full agreement with all of its objectives, strategies and tactics."
Jubilant Westerners should take Mandela at his word. His commitment to "all" of the ANC's objectives, strategies and tactics is an ominous portent of trouble to come. The ANC may not be "dominated" by Communists - the verb is subject to fine lines of definition - but there is no question that the ANC is riddled with Marxist adherents.
De Klerk has gone about as far as he can go. In his dramatic speech of Feb. 2, he pledged his administration to "universal suffrage." He lifted the ban on the ANC and the South African Communist Party. He abolished emergency regulations governing the media and the schools. He pledged the immediate release of political prisoners.
It is now up to Mandela to meet conciliation with conciliation.
Here at home, the Bush administration can help by promptly lifting major economic sanctions. Members of Congress - I think especially of such ornaments as Sen. Alan Cranston and Rep. Ron Dellums - could contribute by knocking off the demagoguery. Our national interest lies in seeing a South Africa oriented toward the West. Mandela's interest lies somewhere else.
Universal Press Syndicate