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The last hope for a peaceful change in South Africa may be in the hands of Nelson Mandela

The historic sight of Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) taking his first steps into the sunshine of freedom, hand in hand with his beloved Winnie, his pride and defiant spirit unbowed, his devotion to the black majority's struggle for freedom, justice and democracy unbroken, deeply moved me. It also brought back a flood of memories from the days of my childhood and youth in Alexandra, a South African ghetto near Johannesburg. In 1964 I was only four years old when Mandela wassentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, the Bastille of South Africa. My mother later worked as a washerwoman in Rivonia, a white suburb of Johannesburg, where Mandela was betrayed and arrested. I and my generation grew up without ever seeing or hearing this eloquent and intrepid leader, who was incarcerated for organizing Umkhonto We Sizwe, the ANC's military wing, so blacks could defend themselves after decades of non-violent protest had only brought them detention, torture, exile, death and more draconian laws. Books on Mandela and writing by him were banned.

In the government-run tribal schools we were prohibited from reading about him, quoting him or displaying pictures of him. These attempts by the authorities to wipe his memory from the consciousness of black people failed. The legend of Mandela refused to die. Songs were clandestinely sung in honor of his courage and dedication to the struggle for black liberation. Stories of his legendary exploits in various defiance campaigns in the 1950s were often whispered by the elders around the fireside.

Gradually he became a hero of mythic proportions. He became a powerful inspiration, an inextinguishable beacon of hope, a sort of messiah destined to lead his people out of bondage into the promised land. The youth of my generation became imbued with his ideals and spirit of sacrifice. In 1976 we took destiny into our own hands and revolted against a segregated and inferior education system designed to rivet the mental chains of our servitude. This act forever altered the political landscape in South Africa and pierced the aura of invincibility that had surrounded apartheid.

Of the many statements made by Mandela one remains lodged in my mind as the best description of the character of the man and his principles. He first uttered it during his trial 27 years ago, and he repeated it upon his emancipation.

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

The last hope

These words make me believe that Mandela along with President F.

W. de Klerk are South Africa's last hope for peaceful change. They are key players in the unfolding drama, fraught with possibilities and dangers, of charting a new course away from apartheid. Both have proven to be pragmatists. Both are on record as being opposed to white domination and black domination. And both have committed themselves to a democratic form of government based on universal franchise.

However, crucial questions remain unanswered. Can de Klerk rein in white extremists who insist on a return to white domination and rigid racial segregation? Can Mandela unite the various black factions behind a common agenda?

De Klerk already has implemented some fundamental reforms. He recently removed the ban on the ANC and numerous other anti-apartheid groups; released some political prisoners and commuted the death sentences of others; and loosened the 3-year-old state of emergency and restrictions on the press. He also recognizes that apartheid must be completely abolished if black discontent is to be ended, further sanctions warded off, the economy resuscitated and South Africa accepted back into the community of civilized nations.

Yet he faces, like Gorbachev with his perestroika, the daunting task of dismantling a massive bureaucracy that is part of his power-base, and that has a vested interest in perpetuating a vitiated system.

The course for de Klerk .

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One course he can take is to align himself squarely with the growing middle ground of enlightened whites, both English-speaking and Afrikaner, who welcome change and negotiations with blacks, rather than attempt the futile task of placating extremists like the Conservative Party and the fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement.

Enlightened whites constitute the majority of the white electorate. During the last election, 21 percent voted for the liberal Democratic Party and 48 percent for de Klerk's National Party. The sooner de Klerk allies himself with this group, the better the prognosis for South Africa.

The key to peaceful change is for this middle ground to form a majority coalition with moderate blacks to counter black and white extremism. This is where a liberated Mandela could clearly play a pivotal role as a voice for black moderation.

This will only be possible, however, if De Klerk takes the additional steps necessary to create a climate conducive to negotiations and to allay an obstinate suspicion among blacks that his regime, despite its public declaration to extirpate apartheid, is craftily seeking ways of giving blacks the semblance of power while retaining the substance in white hands.

He should completely abrogate the state of emergency, grant a general amnesty to all exiles and political prisoners, and pledge to move swiftly in dismantling the remaining pillars of apartheid, such as segregated education and housing.

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. and Mandela

As elder statesman, Mandela enjoys enormous respect among the various anti-apartheid factions, which collectively represent the interests of the black majority. And given his immense popularity with the masses, only he can possibly unite these factions behind a common moderate agenda.

Mandela has even taken a conciliatory position toward Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the Zulus, who is shunned by most anti-apartheid group for his attacks on black radicals, and for his acceptance of Pretoria's self-serving concept of a Zulu homeland.

Equally important, Mandela is an avowed nationalist. A stubborn suspicion among whites is that the ANC, notwithstanding its pronouncements that it is committed to peaceful democratic change, is infested and controlled by members of the South African Communist Party, the ANC's chief ally, who are bent on their Marxist-Leninist goals.

The democratic revolutions sweeping Eastern Europe, by discrediting communism, should help dispel the white minority's fears that emancipated blacks would erect a communist state upon the ruins of apartheid. Black South Africans have no need of a failed ideology. Like East Europeans, they are first and foremost nationalists.

Mandela himself, long before events in Eastern Europe confirmed communism's failure, perceived that system's inapplicability as a solution to the problems of South Africa. Like Poland's Lech Walesa, Mandela believes in taking what is best in all political and economic systems and adapting it to the talents and capabilities of all South Africans and the unique conditions under which they live. Clearly he is somebody whites can trust.

The politics of the young

Will young black radicals who dream of a socialist millenium follow Mandela? Chances are they will. Most of them became radicalized not because they love communism but because they hate apartheid.

Several factors contributed to their radicalization. During the 1980s, despite President Botha's limited reforms, the decade saw brutal crackdowns by his regime on black dissent, and the imposition of successive states of emergency which virtually outlawed all non-violent protest against apartheid.

Sanctions and divestment, while effective in forcing the Pretoria regime to move away from apartheid, shriveled South Africa's economy and led to massive black unemployment, especially among teen-agers. Repeated raids and shutdowns of black schools drove waves of students into exile, where many joined Umkhonto We Sizwe.

Then there was the widespread perception among blacks that the two Western democracies with leverage over the Pretoria regime _ American under Reagan and Britain under Thatcher _ were instead its apologists.

Beyond apartheid

What should be the nature of a post-apartheid South Africa? First, it is important to recognize that whites, despite their long complicity in apartheid, have legitimate interests. So do the 800,000 Asians and the 2.8-million coloreds (mixed race), minority groups which in 1984 were co-opted as junior partners in a segregated and white dominated parliament.

Happily these coincide in many ways with the reasonable demands of the black majority and can only be secured in a South Africa that, after being emancipated from the shackles of repressive white rule, becomes truly democratic.

No black person of sound mind wants to exchange white tyranny for black despotism. Thus a new South African must have solid protections for the rights of minorities, a free press, an independent judiciary, liberty of conscience, regular and multiparty elections and other checks and balances necessary to prevent majority-rule from degenerating into one-party dictatorship as in several African countries.

There also must be a market economy which will provide companies and individuals with incentives to be productive, while at the same time ensuring that education and health care are freely available to all citizens.

Whether these benefits of a rational liberty are best procured under a federated system of government modeled after the U.S. or after Sweden and other democratic-socialist countries, is a complex issue to be resolved at the bargaining table, where full account should be taken of the traditions, aptitudes and inclinations of South Africa's diverse peoples.

These changes, if they occur, will constitute a glorious revolution in South Africa _ but a bloodless one. The rest of Africa, much of which now groans and bleeds under sundry despotic regimes, will stand to benefit from an example of a real and prosperous democracy on the beleaguered continent.

And Mandela and de Klerk, for their courage in defying the extremists among their people to inaugurate this dawn of hope, will deserve the praise and thanks of humankind.

Mark Mathabane is the author of Kaffir Boy and Kaffir Boy in America.

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