South Africa's Shame

An extraordinary eight-year study, sponsored by Carnegie Corp. and carried out by more than 400 South Africans, has detailed more thoroughly than ever before the appalling depths of South Africa's poverty, the pervasive suffering of its black majority and the inexorable change taking place that may--or may not--lead to democracy and liberation from racism. It is a study of historic consequence, illuminating the opportunities for change as well as the terrible obstacles that could force a deepening of the racial conflict.

The report, co-authored by South Africans Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele, rejects the present-day strategy of their government to eliminate piecemeal some of the elements of apartheid. "Apartheid cannot be reformed," the report affirms. "Renewal of South African society is not possible without the defeat of the racist ideology which sustains the current ruling elite." The report also rejects half-way measures on the road to democracy. Only universal suffrage, it says, will allow the profound changes required.

The authors see no quick solutions. "Our starting point is that the structure of power currently in place in South Africa is such that there is virtually no likelihood of the present government (or some revised version of it) either voluntarily handing over power to democratic rulers or finding itself coerced by guerrilla activity, economic sanctions and other pressures into negotiating away its entrenched position in the immediate future . . . . The struggle for liberation in South Africa has gone on for many years and our assessment, alas, is that it still has long years to run."

Even if "there is no painless way to change, no easy road to freedom," the report says that much can now be done to prepare for a more constructive future. It challenges the people of South Africa to get on with those steps because "it is surely true that the shape of South African society in future, 'after the revolution,' will depend critically on the foundations that are laid now."

"The agony of South Africa is due primarily to the fact that those with political power have left no room for those who would change the society to use legitimate democratic channels to do so," Wilson and Ramphele write. They make clear, however, that democracy itself will not guarantee an end to the poverty gripping the nation. Which is why everyone in the nation, in and out of power, needs now to become engaged in the serious study of solutions.

South Africans themselves, by all accounts, will be stunned by the picture that the report paints of poverty among the black majority of the population. This is the first penetrating and global study of the horrendous situation. Some black families in rural areas are literally starving to death, reduced to misery by the still-rampant rule of apartheid that forces them into ghettoes, both urban and rural. Half of all South Africa households have incomes below the minimum living level, a figure that includes more than 60% of all black households and more than 80% of black households in outlying tribal areas. As a result, infant mortality among blacks is eight times that of whites; the rural water supply for blacks is about 5% of what whites receive per capita, and two-thirds of black households have no electricity, even though South Africa generates more than half of all the power on the continent. The fuel situation is so desperate that residents of one bantustan have been forced to harvest branches from their own fruit trees for fuel to cook their meals. But there is "profound ignorance" of all this in government and among the public, according to the report.

Wilson is a professor of economics at the University of Cape Town. Ramphele is also on the faculty there and is a celebrated figure in efforts to end apartheid. They share the credit with 450 others--scholars, researchers, experts in special fields--who generated about 300 separate study papers that were the basis for the final report.

The report is being published as a book, "Uprooting Poverty, the South African Challenge." It is already on sale in South Africa and will be available soon in American bookstores. It is required reading for anyone who would seek to understand South Africa and try to facilitate the cause of justice there.

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