The reality in South Africa, though, is more hopeful than the prevailing images suggest. Yes, there is violence, but it is mostly concentrated in a few areas. Alongside it a countrywide process of integration is going on between the incoming African National Congress and the South African government.
This knitting together is happening from top to bottom of both organisations. It reflects a shared interest in avoiding civil war and in maintaining effective government across the transition. For the ANC, taking over the only well-run administration and economy in Africa is an enormous prize. For the whites, the goal is to preserve as much of their position as possible, and to avoid having the country slide down to the dismal standard of most of its neighbours. To do this they have to encourage the emergence of a black middle class.
The joint goal is to reform the existing state machinery so that it serves a much wider national constituency without losing too much of the efficiency with which it previously served the white elite. This fusion means that a nationwide conflict is not the main probability. It cannot be ruled out, especially if a key figure such as Nelson Mandela were to be assassinated, but the greater likelihood is that the country will succeed in making the transition from apartheid to democracy.
When it does, what will the new South Africa look like? One answer is: 'rather like the United States'. The parallel is not exact, but the similarities between the two societies are striking. Most obvious is their common ethnic diversity. Although the composition is different, both are cultural and ethnic kaleidoscopes, composed of many races and many mixtures.
Woven through this ethnic fabric are strong threads of religion. In both places, active but diverse observance of Christianity is pervasive. In South Africa this mixture could suggest horrifying parallels with Bosnia, but one of the most hopeful features of the transition is that almost all of the participants in it, including the most powerful, are committed to keeping the country together. The white right and the Zulu nationalists represent the main secessionist forces, but both are too weak and fragmented to be able to dismember the country. Inkatha's belated agreement to take part in the election is an acknowledgement of this.
The American and South African populations, as well as being similarly composed, also relate to their landscapes in parallel ways. In both cases, the geography and climate are large, diverse and often harsh. In both cases the dominant populations, black and white, are not indigenous peoples but historically recent immigrants who displaced earlier populations. Their cultures share a tough, macho, frontier quality underpinned by pioneering myths. Mining and agriculture play a big role in their economies. Their cities are largely modern, and are arranged into highly differentiated, often ethnically defined ghettos.
There are strong regional identities within both countries, backed by distinctive differences of style and culture. In other words, these are both big, young, energetic and rather raw societies. They share many attitudes and styles. Each hums with the energy of potential cultural and ethnic fusion, most obviously in music, but each also confronts the tension and turbulence of racial mixture. Both are trying to put behind them a historical period of institutionalised racism which, although no longer supported in law, is still rooted in society.
The most disturbing parallel is that both societies are riddled with guns. The United States has always been unique as the only Western democracy that took a constitutional decision not to disarm its citizens. The rest of the world has watched the consequences of this decision with a mixture of horror and fascination.
There is no desire in South Africa to copy the Americans in principle, but in practice there is no alternative. Much of white society was armed because of apartheid. Black society is now catching up, and the dying civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, as well as some unscrupulous arms dealers, provide a nearly bottomless supply of cheap AK-47s to anyone who wants to buy them. The long borders cannot be sealed against an arms traffic supplied by desperate, sometimes starving people who have little else to sell.
A long-term intention behind the American attitude to guns was to prevent the government from oppressing the people, and this might have considerable relevance for South Africa. But America's experience suggests that crime is the main short-term consequence of having an armed citizenry. High rates of violent crime are already a reality in South Africa, as they are in the United States, and they will almost certainly remain a feature of it.
An armed population necessitates heavily armed state security and police forces. This is a difficult issue in transitional South Africa. In the run-up to the election the waning National Party does not have the legitimacy to use heavy measures against the black population, and the internal security forces are widely discredited by their association with apartheid and their apparent willingness to take sides between Inkatha and the ANC.
But after the elections these constraints will melt away. It will be a priority of the ANC government to maintain acceptable levels of domestic order and it is unlikely to hesitate in creating and using strong internal security forces.
A further parallel between the United States and South Africa is that both are powerful states surrounded by weak neighbours. Militarily and economically, each towers over its region, making it both attractive and threatening to adjacent countries.
In South Africa's case, the move away from apartheid has triggered a transformation in regional relations that can be compared with that in Europe accompanying the ending of the Cold War between 1986 and 1991.
From being a reviled enemy engaged in sustained hostility, intervention and confrontation, South Africa has now become a beacon of hope and a pole of attraction. Suddenly countries as far away as Cameroon and Kenya want to become part of southern Africa, hoping to attach themselves in some way to the only strong economy on the continent. There are widespread expectations, often inflated, that the opening of relations after the long siege against apartheid will stimulate the economy of the whole region. There are parallels here with the United States and the European Union acting as the cores for regional economic co-operation and development.
This transformation of attitude will be long-term, and will greatly shape the new South Africa. The country will be able to play a major role in reviving the agriculture, transportation and electricity networks of the region. It will be able to provide regional security, not least by winding down the power of its armed forces, a process already under way. Like other core powers, it will find itself pressured to take on more commitments than it can support, and it will have to deal with rising pressures of migration from poorer neighbours.
Given a choice, not everyone would choose to copy the United States as a social and political model. But many would, and like it or not, the new South Africa inherits many features that will push it in that direction. The main alternative parallel, Brazil, is distinctly less appealing.
If this comparison holds, then like the United States, the new South Africa will inspire mixed feelings. We will love it and hate it, fear it and admire it all at the same time. We will be afraid to visit it because it is violent and turbulent and unpredictable. But we will want to do so because it is beautiful, stimulating, exotic, inexpensive and part of our history.
The author is Professor of International Studies at the University of Warwick, and a project director at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Research, Copenhagen.
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