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Choosing the Path To S. Africa's Future

SOUTH Africa's first all-race election, which begins tomorrow and runs through Thursday, is the most important event in the country's history. In some respects, it is unprecedented. Not only did the government voluntarily divest itself of power, but black leaders, many of whom spent years behind bars for their political affiliations, negotiated peacefully with the people who, in essence, put them there.

Fears remain - of the legacy of apartheid, of racial and ethnic tensions, of unrealistic expectations, of violence and crime, of inexperience, of hardened ideologies and inefficiency in the new government, of militant white rightists and black leftists, and that South Africa will repeat the failures of the rest of black Africa. Yet the achievement of those who have brought the country this far is historic.

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What, then, are the prospects?

Despite apartheid's moral and economic ravages, the new government will inherit a substantial base upon which to build. The economy is the largest, most developed in Africa. Technically advanced, it has a modern infrastructure and efficient banking system, the 12th largest stock exchange in the world, and a business sector toughened by years of sanctions. It has extensive mineral deposits. And although its agricultural sector is vulnerable, in most years it is a net exporter of food. It is considerably underborrowed, particularly when measured against other developing economies. Its economy is market-based, with a strong, independent private sector, which distinguishes it from just about the whole of the rest of Africa. To potential foreign investors, it represents their best opportunity to establish a foothold on the continent. Because of rapid urbanization, modernization, and rising expectations, a domestic market of considerable potential remains to be exploited. Finally, South Africa is now the logical point through which the potential of Southern and Central Africa can be more effectively developed.

The new government also will inherit the legacy of colonialism and apartheid: racial and ethnic tensions; stark income disparities; a badly structured, uncompetitive, underperforming economy; and a young generation that knows more of political dissent and turbulence than of education and stability. Most of these problems defy short-term or easy solutions; but they are not intractable.

The new government's first responsibility will be to address political violence. The welcomed decision of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party to participate in the election has removed the most immediate cause of this violence. Although rivalries will persist, violence is likely to subside to a level considerably lower than what was feared even a week ago. With a legitimate government in place rather than a lame-duck regime, the police also will have greater legitimacy. The army, whose rank and file is predominantly black, has been effective and professional; at present, there is every reason to believe that proper control will be reestablished and that violence will not reach a level that threatens society's stability - even during the forthcoming period of uncertainty and adjustment.Apartheid was always inimical to the economy. South Korea's economy, for example, outperformed South Africa's economy by nine times over a 25-year period, starting in 1960. Restrictions on the movement of labor, a lack of proper emphasis on education and skills training, Byzantine tariff structures, and vast misallocation of resources in the pursuit of self-sufficiency were only some of the reasons for South Africa's underperformance. There is now far greater recognition of the reasons for the country's economic problems. With renewed access to foreign capital, foreign aid, and World Bank and IMF assistance, South Africa is now in a better position to address these.

There is evidence to suggest that the fear of unrealistic expectations among blacks is exaggerated. Violence, while intense in some areas, has not been countrywide. Soweto, the largest black city, has been almost totally free of political violence. The majority of black South Africans are likely to demand evidence of progress rather than radical restructuring.

RECENT African National Congress pronouncements emphasize commitment to encouraging investment and to pursuing moderate policies - bearing in mind the needs of its constituency. But details have not been spelled out. The ANC remains allied with the South African Communist Party, which has strong representation among the alliance's leadership. Some of those slated for important positions in the new government have made statements that hardly differ from doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist principles. This baffling adherence to dead ideology is causing concern, particularly when economic growth is the key to the future.

In addition, the interim constitution fails to limit power at the center. There are legitimate concerns that structures will evolve through which excessive state control could be imposed on the economy. But common sense suggests that the guiding principle will be the need for a pragmatic approach. The failure of communism and African socialism are well known.

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South Africa has a vigorous civil society with extensive connections worldwide, which is likely to exert a powerful moderating and stabilizing influence on the society. South Africans harbor a deep desire to rebuild a successful society out of the wreckage of apartheid. Despite the negatives, the prognosis is good. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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