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South Africa's Modest Momentum

As apartheid is weakening, and black leaders appear set for a protracted civil rights struggle

THERE are outward signs that apartheid is crumbling: A black policeman breaks ranks and takes up the human rights cause.

A white newspaper editor drops a long vendetta against the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and acknowledges the morality of its opposition to apartheid.

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Black guerrilla leaders give 120 white liberals a warm reception in the ANC's Lusaka headquarters in neighboring Zambia.

About 1,000 whites stage a march for peace into a black township in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth.

The white Mayor of Cape Town leads the biggest anti-apartheid protest through the city in 30 years.

These are but some of the signals of a modest momentum for change in South Africa.

``The real tragedy of apartheid was its success in completely fragmenting our society and creating an island mentality,'' says Johan Heyns, head of the Dutch Reformed Church, which conceived apartheid and gave it moral justification for 1.7 million white Afrikaner adherents.

A call for new attitudes

Unlike the more cohesive trends in Eastern Europe - where a spontaneous surge of public protest has swept aside governments and transformed the ideological landscape overnight - change in South Africa appears set to take on the form of a protracted civil rights struggle.

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``In many cases the law has changed, but people's attitudes remain the same,'' says Anil Nathoo, an Indian shopkeeper in downtown Johannesburg who recently had his family barred from a public swimming pool.

``Things are on the right track and I think the process is irreversible,'' he says. ``But there has to be a change in the psyche of the people.''

The major political changes that would enable the black liberation struggle to take on the civil rights format have yet to be made.

But the country crossed a vital Rubicon in 1989, as moves toward change superseded the forces of reaction.

``People of different races have begun to forget their hostility toward each other,'' says Lebo Chanza, a black researcher who is planning to study medicine in the United States. ``Traveling in integrated buses, I can see that people - through contact - are beginning to overcome fear and ignorance of the other person.''

Like thousands of other blacks, Ms. Chanza lives in an apartment in nominally white downtown Johannesburg, which has already taken on a post-apartheid air. Hotels, cinemas, and public amenities are fully integrated.

In parts of the city, blacks outnumber whites by 10 to 1 and black minibuses - a thriving enterprise - outnumber cars on the crowded streets. Black consumers fill shops and hotels. A proliferation of black vendors are changing the face of the city.

The black middle class is emerging. It can be seen in Soweto, the massive black residential district southwest of Johannesburg. Middle-class housing projects are mushrooming and the sprawl of matchbox-like government-built houses is being transformed by home improvements.

Pressure for total change

``Most black people are capitalist-oriented,'' says Chanza, unimpressed by the emergence of the red flag of the South African Communist Party at political rallies. She believes that President Frederik de Klerk has not been given the credit he deserves for his role in eliminating apartheid structures. Yet she is not sure if he will go the whole way. ``If people acknowledged the changes that have been made, and stepped up the fight for what has not been changed, he might be pushed into going the whole way.''

Former President Pieter Botha tried to cross that Rubicon four years ago. Instead he ended up wagging his famous index finger at the world with the injunction: ``Don't push us too far.''

This provided a focus for the world, and international pressure in the form of trade sanctions and disinvestment intensified.

Mr. Botha bowed out as an isolated and uncompromising figure, unable to adapt to the changing mood. He could no longer inject credibility into his reformist rhetoric.

Mr. De Klerk brought a dramatic change of style that transformed a national mood of despair into one of hope and expectation. By allowing peaceful protest, he acknowledged the legitimacy of black grievances.

In freeing jailed black leaders and releasing hundreds of emergency detainees, he created hope. By scrapping segregation on beaches and in public amenities, he took a small step toward restoring human dignity.

De Klerk's rhetoric about reform and social justice began to sound more sincere than his predecessor's promises did.

``What De Klerk has done in six months is remarkable,'' says Anil Nathoo, an Indian shopkeeper. ``But it will take a long time to educate the Afrikaner who still clings to the ideas of his forefathers.''

As most whites have accepted the inevitability of change, blacks have glimpsed the new South Africa through the widening cracks in the apartheid monolith.

``I like the way De Klerk is doing things,'' says Lynne Khuvutlu, a waitress in a multiracial coffee shop. ``If people can sit down together and talk, there can be changes.''

But a substantial minority of blacks maintain that this is not the time to negotiate but rather to step up the pressure on white rulers to ensure eventual black rule.

It took tens of thousands of deaths and untold human suffering before whites would admit that black South Africans and the international community were correct and apartheid was wrong - however it was dressed up.

Anti-apartheid resistance has continued despite repression. International sanctions - sporting, diplomatic, academic, and economic - have helped to get the anti-apartheid message through.

Atmosphere of reconciliation

Black trade unions have played a major role in getting the influential business lobby to pass on some of the pressure to government. After years of minimizing the impact of sanctions, white businessmen and government officials began this year to acknowledge the considerable damage caused by sanctions.

Perhaps the most compelling internal impulses for change have been the economic and demographic realities that have brought 5 million whites to the realization that they cannot continue to suppress 30 million blacks.

The progress that has already been made, including legalization of black trade unions and the scrapping of some economic restrictions on blacks, has begun a silent revolution of black economic empowerment. The scrapping of the pass laws opened the floodgates of urbanization as millions of blacks stream to the cities.

With growing economic muscle, as consumers and in collectives of small traders, blacks are better placed to demand political power. But the nature of white power - a sophisticated industrialized economy and a formidable security apparatus - cries out for a compromise, a word that gains currency in black political circles.

Here major changes in the international scene have played a role in urging groups like the ANC to opt for negotiation rather than hold out for total victory.

The Soviet decision in 1986 that regional conflicts should be resolved by political means, opened the way for an accord on Namibian independence. Pretoria withdrew troops from that territory after 74 years of rule.

The atmosphere of reconciliation that followed the Namibian independence election in October has raised hopes that a political settlement in South Africa might be more likely.

``The major force for change now is the realization than we have come to the end of a social experiment which has become a complete failure in human terms,'' says Mr. Heyns.

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