The collapse of the Berlin Wall was perhaps more significant in world history. But the collapse of apartheid will inspire more widespread celebration. No cause has had more resonance around the world than the cause of black South Africa. No political issue has generated greater unanimity. No outrage has provoked more universal condemnation. Apartheid, the United Nations said, was a crime against humanity. With the possible exception of Alfredo Stroessner's Paraguay, no one outside South Africa disagreed.
Never mind the governments. Individuals in Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, everywhere, turned the anti-apartheid movement into what sullen officials in Pretoria would describe during the Eighties as the world's biggest growth industry.
But, as state officials did not realise then but do now, the apartheid question provides no scope for intelligent discussion. Any argument in favour of the notion that it is right and proper legally to discriminate against an individual on the basis of an accident of birth is a non-starter. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, might we not just as easily say that because a person has a long nose or red hair he or she should be deprived of the right to vote?
You have to search long and hard today in South Africa to find someone to defend apartheid. Most of those who will refuse to take part in these elections because they want their own Afrikaner volkstaat will agree that it was wrong to deny citizens' rights to black people. It is from the depleted ranks of those few whose minds have never deviated into light that the bombers have emerged these last few days.
The terror campaign that began on Sunday, claiming 21 lives since, was the work of desperate, crazed people entirely lacking, among other things, in political acumen. Far from discouraging people from going to the polls, the bombings have reinforced, across the colour lines, a budding sense of national solidarity. The mood yesterday, not least among the elderly people who were granted a special day of their own to cast their votes, was one of defiance. As Nelson Mandela put it yesterday in the last press conference he will give as a member of the disenfranchised majority: 'Years of imprisonment could not stamp out our determination to be free. Years of intimidation and violence could not stop us. And we will not be stopped now.' And Archbishop Tutu said of yesterday's voting: 'It is an incredible feeling, like falling in love.'
The colossal pressure the world put on the South African regime to abandon apartheid would have counted for little had South Africans themselves not displayed such resilience in pursuit of liberation. Mr Mandela has become the incarnation of 'the struggle'. But, as he himself never tires of pointing out, countless others have sacrificed at least as much, if not more. There are those who died, like Chris Hani. There are those who were tortured, harassed by the security police, driven into exile. Certainly, there were many horrors committed in the name of justice. But anyone who has spent any time these past years in the townships knows that the 'publicity secretary' of the ANC Youth League in Maokeng, the treasurer of the ANC branch in Thabong, the ANC chairperson (for it will be the 'non-racial, non-sexist new South Africa') in Khotsong, have a nobility, a heroism and a generosity that defy logic.
The single most extraordinary thing about South Africa is the absence of racism among the vast majority of the black population. Any white journalist covering the township violence will tell you that, almost always, a minimum of courtesy will be repaid tenfold with kindness. The logical, the natural thing to expect after so many years of racial oppression would be a stoning, a beating, a lynching.
If there is a key to the success of the constitutional negotiations whose culmination, after four years, has been today's historic event, it lies in this miraculous absence of rancour among black South Africans. Mr Mandela merely gives voice to it when he speaks of the need for all South Africans, black and white, to stand together and build a new nation.
Apartheid, unlike the Berlin Wall, has undergone a calculated collapse. Mr Mandela began it with his secret talks with the government while he was still in prison in the late Eighties. The scene shifted in 1990, with Mr Mandela's release, to the presidential offices, to the negotiating chambers. Compromise, creative thinking and unflinching determination assured that the goal was reached.
That determination was severely tested. Battle was not conducted only at the level of civilised constitutional debate. On the streets of Thokoza, Soweto and Katlehong, Inkatha and its sinister friends in the security police and military intelligence bargained with the traditional methods employed by the apartheid state to perpetuate its rule. Blood will have blood and small wars sprouted in various parts of the country.
But lurking unseen, as a backdrop to the visible power struggle, was a force no less important. Quietly, gradually, the layers of ignorance and racial mistrust accumulated over the centuries were falling away. The impetus has come from the blacks but the whites have not been unresponsive. Mr Mandela, simply through his exposure in the media, has charmed and reassured the white population. Few whites will vote for him but few will fear his presidency.
In praising Mr Mandela one should not forget F W de Klerk. He comes from a conservative political background even by the standards of the long-ruling National Party. He had the wisdom to see that apartheid could not go on and that the best option for his people was to negotiate the transfer of power. Failing to anticipate either the dimension of the ANC's support or the political skill of the likes of Cyril Ramaphosa and Joe Slovo, he imagined at the start that he would cut a better deal than he eventually obtained, that white political control could be perpetuated for longer than it has. But now is not the time to quibble. The fact is that in the final months of negotiations last year he pushed hard to achieve a settlement the outcome of which, he knew, was that Mr Mandela would replace him as president.
The measure of Mr de Klerk's stature is that in the last weeks he endeavoured with as much commitment as Mr Mandela to persuade both Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha and General Constand Viljoen's Freedom Front to take part in the elections even though he did not doubt for a minute that he would lose votes to both. Mr de Klerk chose to place the stability of South Africa, the health of the new democracy, ahead of his own party's interest.
The problems will be vast, especially in satisfying black people's demands for housing, health, education and, above all, jobs. There will be plenty of time to analyse these thorny issues later. Now is the time to celebrate a unique historical achievement. For black South Africans have obtained what Walter Sisulu, the grandfather of the liberation struggle and Mr Mandela's fellow prisoner for 25 years, defined in an interview as the goal for which he had striven during the 82 years of his life: 'ordinary respect'.
Ordinary respect is not something only black South Africans will enjoy. The pact South Africans have made will allow all to take their place in the community of nations without shame. To have achieved this through negotiation is, as Mr Mandela has said, a triumph of the human spirit. The world is a better place today.
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