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South Africa conflict: lessons from Mideast?

The South Africa government, in its push for ``power sharing'' with blacks, faces a ``Mideast problem.'' The Arab-Israeli conflict offers a near parallel to the task Pretoria has set for itself. The government wants, in effect, to negotiate its way out of a power struggle. The hope is to peel back a legacy of black bitterness and suffering - and convince extremists, black or white, that by sharing power, all sides win.

On paper, it should ultimately work.

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This nation sells half the non-Communist world's gold, generates a gross domestic product of $70 billion for its 30 million people (and enjoys the world's largest per-capita number of swimming pools). Whites with most of this wealth, near-exclusive national power, and, so far, insuperable police muscle should be able to deal away enough of this to greatly improve the lot of blacks without fatally endangering their own.

Beyond the uncompromising rhetoric of some black leaders lie many ordinary blacks who see hope in such a deal. The message came through clearly in a coffee shop in Alexandra, the squalid black township outside Johannesburg, days before last month's whites-only national election. The consensus, even among some avowed supporters of black political violence, seemed this: Let a white man remain President, so long as he cedes an equitable share in policymaking, and of the benefits of power. That is, so long as the opulent homes, top jobs, swimming pools, and tennis courts of white South Africa can also belong to blacks.

Yet a political minefield lies between vision and its being carried out - familiar to the Arabs and Jews of the Middle East, a region that still sways between armed truce and armed conflict 10 years after Egypt's Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem to make ``peace'' with Israel.

The snags that have prevented the Egyptian-Israeli pact from widening to embrace the region's core ``Palestinian question'' nag South Africa:

Mistrust. Agreement means compromise. For blacks, or Palestinians, merely to begin talks with an overwhelmingly powerful adversary requires compromise.

Compromise requires trust. Few blacks seem to believe President Pieter Botha's National Party will deal away meaningful shares of the national pie after decades of white discrimination, wealth, and supremacy. The results of the May election suggest whites fear any genuine redistribution would risk eventual black takeover. The demography of South Africa - a 75 percent black majority - reinforces the fear.

The whites of Natal Province rebuffed candidates peddling the draft Indaba accord with neighboring KwaZulu. That accord includes strong protection for whites. It is not too different from the National Party's vision of national power sharing, except for the likelihood of a black ``chief minister.''

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Sid Levy, a former South African tennis great with a talent for straight talk, elaborates. ``Look at the life we have here,'' he says between sets on a private court in a local suburb. ``I know apartheid is wrong. ... But I admit it is difficult to contemplate giving up what we have.''

Political illegitimacy. To seal a compromise, and succeed, negotiators must be able to deliver constituents.

Among whites, the recent election showed strong support for the National Party, with its vow to seek power sharing without risking a black takeover.

But whites cannot negotiate with themselves. And in black South Africa, political illegitimacy is an ever-present problem. The main leaders currently open to power-sharing talks run township ``councils'' or the governments of tribal ``homelands.'' Both polities were set up by the government. Their leaders often represent only themselves, their families, and beneficiaries of their patronage. They rule, often, with the help of heavy-handed local police. Many township leaders were chosen in ballots boycotted by a great majority of their subjects.

The black leader for whom one hears the widest allegiance in black townships is a 69-year-old who has spent the last 25 years in jail: Nelson Mandela, of the banned African National Congress. Much of this allegiance may be instinctive, symbolic - like the support one hears among Palestians for guerrilla chief Yasser Arafat. Neither Mr. Arafat nor Mr. Mandela has had this popularity tested at the polls. Neither the Palestine Liberation Organization nor the ANC has, or is likely to get any time soon, free access to the ballot box. Both groups seem to tap a shared sense of bitterness, even among people who reject their methods.

But it may prove at least as hard for South Africa to seal a long-term political deal without the ANC, as for the Mideast to do so without the PLO.

One homeland leader, KwaZulu's Mangosuthu Buthelezi, can claim at least regional legitimacy. Through his Inkatha political group, he has mobilized the support of many of the country's 6 million Zulus, the largest tribal community. Any deal including Buthelezi would have to be taken seriously. Yet many ANC leaders, not necessarily including Mandela, reject Chief Buthelezi as a ``collaborator'' with white rule.

The Mideast question is inescapable: Would Buthelezi, even if he joined a power-sharing accord, prove as incapable as Egypt's Sadat of parlaying it into a broader peace?

The limits of economic co-option. Though a move to improve the lot of the ``have nots'' may dampen anger, it does not necessarily dampen political thirsts.

Pretoria is earmarking much bigger sums for black housing, education, and employment. The new budget includes a 40-percent hike in funds for black schools. But this has not yet translated into new support from blacks. This could change. But even middle-class blacks argue that remaining race laws limit the extent to which blacks can be wooed into the established order.

The lessons of the Mideast seem unencouraging. Outside the Palestinian camps of the Gaza Strip, Israel has built new housing for those willing to leave the camps. At first, local pressure against such ``collaboration'' meant there were few takers. That has gradually changed. But the bitterness of most Gaza Palestinians toward Israeli rule remains the same.

``The culture of opposition.'' The phrase comes from Tom Lodge, a leading academic expert on black politics. It refers to the fact that, despite state-of-emergency moves against antigovernment groups, black opposition activity and pressure seem to survive.

Rent boycotts continue in a number of black townships, despite the flagging ability of antigovernment groups to militate for such activities. Intermittent work boycotts have won much support. And even outspokenly pro-government blacks feel compelled openly to criticize the power-sharing offer as inadequate.

So is power sharing unworkable?

Who can say? But the obstacles are enormous. Few people seem more aware of them than Stoffel Van der Merwe, the newly named power-sharing specialist. ``Very hard work,'' he told a local newspaper, lies ahead. The task must begin with a simple message to blacks:

``Here we are. We have the will.''

Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.

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