From the point of view of most sub-Saharan Africans, the South African elections mark the end of the process of decolonization of European colonial holdings in Africa that began in the post-World War era. South Africa has come last because its complex circumstances of racism and imperialism have been the most difficult to liquidate.
With Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, currently beguiled by its own internal political woes, Africans now look to South Africa as the nation that portends the continent's future -- thus exaggerating the significance of the South African elections well beyond its territory. Despite its enormous prospects, however, South Africa faces challenges that no other African country has had to confront.
As a late comer to the process that Africans regard as independence, South Africa can draw upon Africa's varied experiences -- ranging from complex constitutional engineering in multi-ethnic Nigeria to profound compromises in multi-racial Zimbabwe (former British settler colony of Rhodesla).
South Africa is unique in several respects. First, it has the important distinction that a sizable fragment of its European population, mainly the Afrikaners, have no other country they call home, having lost much of their cultural, linguistic, and especially social ties with their original homeland in the Netherlands. Unlike Zimbabwe, whose mainly British settlers had several choices of abode following black rule, South Africa remains the homeland of several million Europeans whose ill-educated ancestors settled in the Cape of Good Hope in about 1652 in miserable circumstances. The South African situation will demand greater compromises than have ever been worked out on the African continent -- on the clear understanding that many Dutch whites (the Afrikaners) will, despite the logic of history, become patriotic citizens of the new South Africa, not sharing their loyalties with some European country.
Second, South Africa is the only African nation that is attaining black rule in the post-Cold War era. Its post-apartheid developments may be least distorted by the cruel logic of the Cold War, making room for genuine economic and democratic developments that have largely been absent from other African nations. This is ironic, of course, since no other people suffered more from the Cold War, for long the mainstay of apartheid, than black South Africans. Much is expected of South Africa and its acts of governance will be subjected to minute international inspection.
Third, South Africa is remarkably different from the rest of Africa in its peculiar relations with the U.S. African Americans have largely been distant from the rest of postcolonial Africa. But they have contributed enormously to South Africa's new freedom, having compelled the Congress and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to join the crusade against apartheid, African America is likely to be more prominent in the U.S. relations with South Africa than it ever was in the rest of Africa. Will African-Americans play a major economic role in South Africa? That is a question whose answer deserves to be awaited.
Finally, South Africa's greatest blessing may be its seasoned leadership. Nelson Mandela and the cohort of his fellow freedom fighters have matured far more than any comparable black leadership in Africa at the time of independence. Similarly, the Afrikaner leadership, and its semi-secret organization, the Broederbond, have pleasantly surprised Africa-watchers by their rapid graduation from apartheid, clearly seeing that their self-interest in the post-Cold War era lies in contentious compromises rather than in the absolutism of racist ideologies. Despite obvious impending difficulties South Africa seems poised for historic compromises that beget responsible governance.
PETER EKEH, Ph.D., is chair of African-American Studies at the University at Buffalo.