Whites face tough game on a level playing field

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A BLONDE woman stood under a set of traffic lights on Wednesday afternoon, five minutes' drive from the World Trade Centre, where Nelson Mandela, F W de Klerk and others were applying the final touches to South Africa's first democratic constitution.

The woman could have been 20 or 60. Her hair was lank. Her clothes were greasy. Her belly bulged. The lights turned red. Stock still, eyes blank, she held up a square of cardboard with a message to the waiting drivers: 'No work. 3 x children. No food. No money. Please help.'

Thirty seconds passed. The lights would soon turn green. Another hope dashed. Then a horn tooted. The woman's head turned in the direction of the sound. A black hand beckoned out of a car window. She ran, bowed, cupped her hands, accepted the coins, joined her hands around them as if in prayer. 'Thank you, sir. Thank you.'

Eight hours later at the centre, Nelson Mandela was making a speech. 'Together . . . we can build a society grounded on friendship and our common humanity . . . Let us join hands and march into the future.'

The document that the president of the African National Congress was blessing was the new constitution. It opens with these lines: 'In humble submission to Almighty God, we the people of South Africa declare that . . . all South Africans will be entitled to a common South African citizenship in a sovereign and democratic constitutional state in which there is equality between men and women and people of all races'.

The words anticipate the future, but the new South Africa is already here. Society is catching up with politics. Though some right-wingers are trying to stop the clock, the momentum is unstoppable.

Apartheid, that gigantic affirmative action programme for whites, is crumbling.

Blacks were thrown out of the cities; jobs were legally reserved for whites; Afrikaners were packed into the civil service. Today in the factories, where there is a choice, it is whites that are fired, not blacks. Blacks belong to the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Blacks have the muscle, and whites no longer have the law on their side.

Even Miss South Africa is black - brains and social sensibility having triumphed, for the first time this year, over Barbie- doll looks.

This time next year the country will have a black president: the man who set the wheels in motion when he wrote to the government from prison in 1988 that what South Africa required was a historic compromise. An accord, Mr Mandela called it, which would reconcile black demands for majority rule, with guarantees for whites that majority rule would not mean apartheid in reverse.

Nearly six years later, that goal has been met. No laws will be introduced to make whites suffer for what they did. For some years, most will retain their privileges, safeguarded by a bill of rights and the rule of law. Most blacks will remain poor. But, to paraphrase Mr de Klerk, the playing fields will eventually be levelled.

The black elite - perhaps a million of them - who slipped through the apartheid net and somehow acquired an education, is already moving into the jobs that whites used to own. People like the lady at the traffic lights, who were taught by their government to fear communism, have far more to fear from the free market.

The rich will stay rich and, until investment comes, the poor will stay poor. For those in between, it will be better to be black. Middle- and working- class whites will have to learn to adapt and fight like never before to hold on to what, until very recently, they considered to be a right.

It will not be easy. Take the white lady in the Pretoria suburb who - the Johannesburg Star swore the story was true - came across a black man outside her house and asked him to do some digging in her garden. Two hours later, the sweat glistening on the man's brow, the lady thanked him and handed him 10 rand.

'No, ma'am,' the black man replied. 'I can't accept that. I'm your neighbour.'