Africa's experience since the withdrawal of the colonial powers has been awful. Its governments have been dictatorial or corrupt or incompetent and often all three. Its politics have been dominated by ethnic rivalries, often descending, in Rwanda and Somalia, for example, into strife of appalling brutality. Many of its economies are ruined. Africa's share of world trade has fallen by 50 per cent over the past two decades; income per head of population is down by more than 15 per cent since 1980; gross domestic product for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa is roughly equivalent to that of Belgium. Africa has nothing to compare with the 'tiger economies' of Asia. Why should South Africa be different? It has the same problems in embryo: the deep ethnic and cultural divisions, the corruption, and the huge discrepancies between rich and poor. It has suffered a severe flight of capital and it has failed to invest in skills which might develop new directions for the economy.
And nobody should underestimate the scale of what has to be done: black and white may be equal at the ballot box this week but they are so unequal in everything else that they might as well be living in different centuries. Twelve million people have no access to drinkable water and 23 million have no electricity. More than one black child in 20 dies before the age of five. Blacks will not expect to take over the white man's house and car next week, but they will expect the grosser inequalities to change quickly. Yet whites will not expect - and have been assured that they should not fear - any diminution in their living standards. South Africa's dignified transition to democracy has been a miracle; despite the terrible township killings, it has been easier than anyone dared to hope. The danger is that its people will come to expect more miracles.
But there are reasons for believing that South Africa will not go the way of its sub- Saharan neighbours. First, many of the African National Congress leaders know at first hand the mistakes that were made further north. They lived in exile in Zambia, Angola and Mozambique as those countries failed. To step from a miserable broken city like Lusaka or Luanda into a dynamic glittering city like Johannesburg is to understand what is at stake. Second, the ANC has shown, by its conduct of its own affairs, that it can be a mature democratic political party. Its power struggles have not resembled those in the rest of Africa, where the price of coming second is exile at best. And in Mr Mandela it has a leader of generosity and stature.
Third, South Africans, of all races, are forging their own constitution rather than being handed an off-the-peg version manufactured by former colonial masters. Elsewhere in Africa, politicians inherited political systems that they neither understood nor liked. Many - Kenyatta in Kenya, Obote in Uganda, Banda in Malawi, for example - treated the prize of statehood as if it were their personal property, moving rapidly not just to a one-party state but almost to a one- man state. Change in South Africa is more gradual; ANC leaders are moving to power in partnership with other political groups.
Fourth, the ANC comes to power in a world where the seemingly easy solutions that undermined an earlier generation of African leaders have been discredited. High borrowing, huge and poorly-costed public works programmes and protected economies are now anathema everywhere. The danger is of the opposite extreme - blind faith in free- market solutions being pressed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - with the consequences that Eastern Europe and some other parts of Africa have experienced. But, here again, South Africa may prove fortunate. Free-market ideology is less rampant than it was a few years ago; and the country's leaders have the political, moral and economic weight to resist outside pressures, arguing that a large degree of state activity is necessary to right the huge and destructive imbalances of the past.
Finally, one of Africa's greatest evils - military dictatorship - is not even on the horizon in South Africa. The army is professional and it has shown no interest in direct political activity except in support of the state.
These are causes for hope. They should be no more than that. Some awful event - an assassination, a successful terrorist attack, Mandela's death - could destroy the country's fragile new unity. And, like nearly all democratically elected governments, South Africa's will eventually be judged by its economic success or failure. The economy is bigger and stronger and its industrial and financial sectors older than any in Africa. The difficulty is to see how it can grow. South Africa's manufacturing base - textiles, food, cars - is uncompetitive and largely outdated. A single company, Anglo-American, owns 48 per cent of the companies quoted on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The hi- tech diversification that enabled Asian economies to take off is far distant in South Africa, partly because the educational neglect of the majority of its population has left it pitifully short of skilled labour.
The world, then, will hold its breath as the new South Africa takes shape. It wants desperately to believe that racial harmony can be achieved, just as it wanted to believe that liberal democracy offered a better prospect than Communist oppression. Television often brings us terrible images: of war or starvation in Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia. Yet it also brings us the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and Arafat and Rabin shaking hands on the White House lawn, images that, in their way, are as memorable and astonishing as men walking on the moon. When Nelson Mandela descends the steps of the Union Buildings in Pretoria as the first president of a multiracial South Africa it will be another such moment, one of which millions have dreamed for years and which reminds us that this is not, perhaps, such a bad time to be alive. But perhaps all of us are now wise enough to understand that these are no more than symbols, that they represent a beginning, not an end.Reuse content