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South African Election Guide: When a dying order faced up to the facts: Apartheid collapsed under weight of numbers but its legacy survives, says Richard Dowden in Johannesburg

IT IS SAID that the moment a few years ago when the white South African cabinet quailed and decided to give up occurred when they were given the statistics. Statistics such as these: white women were bearing an average of 1.7 children, black women 4.7 children; 32 per cent of the white population was under 21 years old but 50 per cent of the black population was under the same age; and 46 per cent of the economically active population, 5 million people, were unemployed. No new jobs were created overall in the Eighties and gross domestic product per capita was falling.

With no new investment coming into the country there was little prospect of turning the economy round. The cabinet knew the trends could only worsen. Perhaps the African National Congress knew the answers.

Bureaucracy and statistics fed on the apartheid system and its figures were always carefully compiled and published. The racial breakdown was always explicit. The old black/

white division is now blurring into a non-racial rich/poor division but the legacy of apartheid which kept blacks poor and helped whites get rich is still clear.

Take health: in the last years of apartheid the government spent pounds 120 per head a year on health for whites and pounds 27 per head a year on blacks. The number of children who die before the age of five is 8.6 per thousand among whites and 52 per thousand among blacks. That is high even by African standards.

Some 42 per cent of households, consisting of 17 million people, live below the minimum subsistence level of pounds 110 a month. About 4 million of these, all of them black, are close to starvation. In a country which has developed hi-tech medical equipment, 12 million people have no access to drinkable water and 23 million have no electricity. Most of these are in rural areas but only 5.5 per cent of South Africa's 24,619 doctors work in rural areas.

Overall South Africa is a medium-size country of about 39.5 milion people with a highly developed First World sector and a huge marginalised Third World comparable in size to Argentina. In racial terms South Africa has about 30 million black people and 5 million white. Just over 1 million are of Asian origin, while 3.4 million were classified as Coloured(mixed race). More significant from now on will be the urban-rural divide. An estimated 43 per cent of South Africa's population live in rural areas but many are drifting to rural slums near cities, where agriculture is still carried out. Those living in rural areas are far less likely to have access to education or medical facilities.

Education also shows up the legacy of apartheid. Over 90 per cent of people over 18 who have no formal education are black, while 84 per cent of the population with university education are white. In 1987, pounds 500m was spent on educating a million white children, while about the same amount was spent educating 5 million black children.

That gap is narrowing rapidly. The black/white spending ratio was 18:1 in 1969 and by 1990 it was 4:1. Income - directly related to apartheid laws that preserved jobs for whites - still shows a marked discrepancy. In 1990 per capita income for blacks was pounds 32 a month, while for whites it was pounds 260 a month.

Perhaps the most poignant and telling statistic of apartheid is the infant mortality causes, which show that most black children die from water-borne diseases. Most white children die from swimming-pool accidents.