South Africa's great luck is that its twisted history has producedprecisely the two men needed for the treacherous march to racial equality.
Even many of us who have been insisting on the necessity for his release are delighted beyond our expectations that Nelson Mandela could leave prison not merely with his health intact but also with his authority, dignity and humanity undiminished. We had thought of him as a necessary man, but we were not, I suspect, quite prepared to see a man of such obvious greatness.
And those of us who have anticipated that some combination of internal struggle and external pressure would force the South African government to take the first steps toward negotiating a new racial arrangement could hardly have anticipated that it would be done with the boldness and grace exhibited by President F. W. de Klerk.
It will take more than luck, of course, for South Africa to set itself right. It is one thing for the majority of South African whites to accept that apartheid must go; quite another to negotiate its end.
That will require extraordinary good faith on both sides: a second wind of patience on the part of blacks and the abandonment of half-measures by whites hoping to forestall the inevitable.
What optimism there is rests almost entirely on the character of Mandela and de Klerk: their boldness, their vision, their ability to see events from each other's point of view and their manifest esteem (not to say affection) for one another.
It's easy enough, watching the TV coverage out of South Africa, to
appreciate the importance of Mandela. His calm demeanor, his call for an end to black in-fighting, his homage to all who have participated in the anti-apartheid struggle, his insistence that the rights and safety of whites must be assured - all these right notes augur well for the difficult days ahead.
Less easy to see but equally important are the boldness and humanity of de Klerk. By abandoning the step-by-tiny-step approach of his predecessors, he has changed dramatically the conditions under which negotiations will take place. Whites, except for the irreconcilable right-wing racists, already have been brought farther along than they might have been prepared to go.
Not the least of de Klerk's virtues is his obvious regard for Mandela. Those who have never been a member of an oppressed minority might well underestimate the importance of simple human respect. But it is a matter of enormous importance that these two men can look across the historical chasm that divides them and see each other as good and decent men. They seem to sense that each is doing what the other might have done had their circumstances been reversed.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world can do little more than hope things go well. President Bush has made the right moves. He has decided not to push for an immediate end to the sanctions that helped to produce the current situation. He also has invited de Klerk and Mandela to Washington, and he seems ready to play whatever mediating role is available to him.
Beyond that, he can only wait with the rest of us and hope that the boldness, dignity and mutual respect of these two heroic figures can permeate the country they share and that peace and justice will at long last prevail.
Washington Post Writers Group