From September 1989

Journal of Commerce

(Sometimes you get things right. This is an op-ed written two months before the Berlin Wall came down. The piece corresponds well with my reflection on the death of F.W. de Klerk.)


BARRY D. WOOD | Sep 07, 1989 8:00PM EDT 

·           With the results in from this week’s election in South Africa, 53-year-old F.W. de Klerk is right where he wants to be. True, after 41 years of uninterrupted power his National Party won 25 percent fewer seats than in the last election, but it still has an absolute majority in the whites-only House of Assembly where power resides.

The most significant result of the Sept. 6 election was that the National Party was challenged nearly as effectively from the left as it was from the right. The newly formed Democratic Party, headed by Afrikaner intellectuals – mostly breakaways from the Nationalists – accept the inevitability of majority rule.The Democrats won nearly as many seats as the far-right Conservatives, who fell short of their goal of doubling their parliamentary representation. Mr. de Klerk, who made clear in the campaign that he sought a mandate for negotiations to determine the country’s future, got what he wanted.

Indeed, with the South African economy stuck in stagflation and with white living standards declining for at least the past three years, it is surprising that the National Party fared as well as it did.

Make no mistake, big changes are under way in South Africa. And under Mr. de Klerk, bold and substantive political reforms will be forthcoming.

Those who know South Africa are aware that perhaps the least-reported development there over the past decade has been the steady erosion of white racism, particularly among Afrikaners. It’s not repentence; it is an economic imperative and an instinct for survival. Within the last five years the purchasing power of blacks surpassed that of whites. Simple demographics dictate that white prosperity is now contingent on rising black incomes.

In addition, there is the huge financial cost of apartheid, at least $30 billion a year. Also, sanctions are working and have taken a terrific toll on the economy as has the withdrawal of 550 (mostly U.S.) companies since 1985. For South African industrialists, struggling with idle capacity, long-term growth depends not only on renewed links to international financial markets but on the opening of African markets, long closed because of apartheid.

Elias Links, South Africa’s representative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is quite candid in saying “any rational person knows that this (apartheid) experiment has not worked. We’re like Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, our policies haven’t worked and we must get back on track.”

Mr. Links concedes that sanctions – particularly the 1985 cutoff of new bank loans – have forced policy changes in Pretoria. Mr. Links believes profound changes are just around the corner: “We spend billions on making oil

from coal and Angola, with all its oil, is just next door. The National Party must know that its chances beyond the 1990s are limited by short-sighted policies.”

Mr. de Klerk, a cautious, even-tempered lawyer, confronts fearsome challenges. The independence process for the vast South African colony of Namibia is well under way. And the prospect of the pro-Moscow party winning the Namibian elections in November threatens a backlash by frightened whites. He faces the prospect of toughened sanctions from the Commonwealth nations whose leaders meet in Malaysia next month.

And without meaningful reform within six months, Democrats in the U.S. Congress will push through a toughened sanctions bill, providing a test for President Bush’s commitment to move beyond the discredited constructive engagement with South Africa of the Reagan years.

Mr. de Klerk’s predecessor, P.W. Botha, ruled South Africa with an iron grip for 11 years. Called by retired opposition lawmaker Helen Suzman, “that hateful man,” Mr. Botha nonetheless did two positive things that provide a counterpoint to a legacy of failure. He reversed 50 years of South African defiance and set Namibia on the road to independence. And he had tea with Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned nationalist whom he and his henchmen had always vilified as a terrorist.

The 45-minute July 5 meeting between Mr. Mandela and Mr. Botha makes it easier for Mr. de Klerk to do what he must do: let Mr. Mandela go free.

South Africa will hold its breath those first few hours and days that Mr. Mandela is a free man. As one U.S. diplomat says, “The country will go ballistic.” And yet this and the repeal of the segregationist Group Areas and Population Registration acts are what is required of Mr. de Klerk. Not because the world demands it but because he, his Afrikaner colleagues and indeed most of the country know it is in South Africa’s interest.

There is, under the best-case scenario, a new South Africa waiting to be built. Not one whose structure is prescribed by outsiders, but one determined by South Africans themselves.

This African powerhouse, representing 60 percent of the continent’s gross national product, is waiting to take its place in the family of nations. As a South African friend (colored, in the South African context), said on his recent return from the country: “It’s because we’ve struggled so long with race that it’s just possible we’re now going to be first in the world to build a true non-racial society.”

F.W. de Klerk must lead the way. It is his, and South Africa’s, moment in history.#

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