South Africa: At the Crossroads

Nelson Mandela may soon be free, but is South Africa ready -- or able -- to take the road to a nonracial democratic society?

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Mandela. The name reverberates like a mantra through South Africa these days, half in excitement, half in anxiety. Mandela will soon be free. Mandela will solve the problem. If Mandela can't do it, who can?

South Africa is at a crossroads. For the first time since the National Party came to power in 1948 and began introducing the laws of apartheid, or separateness, there exists a widespread acceptance of the need to change. With the exception of a diehard minority, most of South Africa's 5 million whites have gradually resigned themselves to the fact that they cannot continue forever to dominate 26 million blacks politically, economically and socially. Blacks, who have fought so ineffectually for almost 80 years, have come to feel that their long struggle has not been in vain. In the climate of flexibility fostered by the reform-minded government of State President F.W. de Klerk, the vast majority of South Africans expect a new kind of country to emerge. But the races are still far, far apart on what kind of country that will be.

In one of those astonishing ironies of history, many have invested their hopes in Nelson Mandela, the aged black revolutionary now endowed with almost mythic stature. Imprisoned for life for sedition, unseen and largely unheard from for more than 27 years, he is somehow expected to lead South Africa to salvation. But can any man perform that miracle? Is South Africa really ready to be led out of the wilderness of apartheid into the promised land of . . . of what? The black dream of a nonracial democratic society -- in short, black rule? Or something less, a revision of the old system in which white power would not be transferred but only shared, in effect preserving white rights and privileges?

If the current wave of hope has an epicenter, it is at the end of a dirt lane on the grounds of Victor Verster Prison Farm, 35 miles east of Cape Town, where Mandela remains confined. There, in a comfortable three-bedroom former warder's house overlooking the vineyards of the Franschhoek Valley, Mandela rises early each morning to begin another day of appointments. The government suggests that his freedom is imminent, but even while still behind a prison fence, Mandela is already playing his self-appointed role as "facilitator."

His choice of that word seems to indicate that he has accepted the job of wresting tangible results from this moment of opportunity. For three years Mandela has held periodic meetings with a team of government officials, and since November he has had sessions with Cabinet ministers as well as almost daily talks with anti-apartheid leaders to try to find a common meeting ground. The 71-year-old prisoner, still tall and distinguished looking, his smooth face barely lined, his black hair just flecked with gray, greets each visitor with a smiling embrace.

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