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South Africans' Worth

Apartheid trapped whites as well as blacks in race-based restrictions

`HOW do you as a white person feel giving up privilege?'' ``How do you as a black person feel - can you forgive?''

These questions are being asked by the press after South Africa's election. But they miss the full significance and problem of privilege.

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The struggle against apartheid was in support of a nonracial, democratic South Africa. The national election marked the end of a period in which race was the official determinant of how one was forced to relate to others.

Under apartheid no one, not even whites, had full rights. Race officially imprisoned all, determining where you could live, the neighborhoods you could visit, with whom you went to school, the jobs you could do, and even with whom you could legally hold hands - in sum, who you were and who you could become.

If my child gets his popsicle before his friend and thinks she may not get hers, he is upset and begs for her to have one too. Self-interest is a component of the human condition, but so too is a sense of fairness. The satisfaction of one's self-interest wasn't really enough.

We had to throw off the daily encounter with the deprivation of apartheid and humiliation of others, which was part of the white yoke of enforced privilege.

Though white South Africans officially have given up their privilege, the accumulated advantages of costly education, professional opportunity, access to capital, and residence in the choicest of neighborhoods do not disappear overnight.

Opposition to apartheid was something all races could share. If you were prepared to take the punishment, nothing could stop you from protesting or living by at least some of your principles. But, even though no one was entirely protected from detention, torture, banning, house arrest, or humiliation, race still determined the degree of vulnerability.

There was always fear of arrest when visiting a friend in a black township. The police van could pull up alongside the car where a male friend and I were watching a sunset (such evidence could bring a charge of ``intention to commit immorality''). Friends were detained indefinitely for an unspecified reason, and sometimes those friends disappeared, without even one phone call, so that you had to check hospitals and mortuaries each night for many months. That part of apartheid is over.

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Looking back is not what we are doing right now. But seeing that the question of forgiveness has been raised in the media, even though it was not supposed to be relevant to me because I was born a South African white person, my answer is that I can't overlook it all just yet.

The greatness of the civil rights movement in the United States is that it declared that human worth is innate without reference to race. Apartheid's grotesqueness was also its weakness; it spurred a revulsion, giving rise to a new national consciousness. What will motivate us now? We have just started the mechanism that establishes human worth over racism. Now we must prove the worth of all South Africans. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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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