Building a democracy: a decade after apartheid

International | SPECIAL REPORT: South Africa celebrates 10 years of freedom and equal rights. Its successes-and failures-are signposts for democracy-builders in today's terror-torn lands

Issue: "Ugly truth of partial-birth," April 17, 2004

When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president, he stood on a podium encased in bulletproof glass. The white-haired freedom fighter had just succeeded in tearing down the country's racist apartheid system and needed protection as he brought the country out of a past not so different from the terrorist present in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

Unifying whites, blacks, Indians, and mixed-race &quotcoloreds" segregated for decades would be tough. But he promised then in 1994 that the nation reborn as a democracy would &quotnever, never and never again" see racial oppression.

Hyperbole aside, Mr. Mandela's vision is largely succeeding 10 years later, with the country's third free elections on April 14. Black South Africans move about without internal passports. They live in once white-only neighborhoods. The sweeping black backlash of violence that many whites feared after apartheid's fall did not materialize. And to heal old wounds, the new government set up a unique Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine past atrocities.

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For most South Africans, voting for Mr. Mandela's ruling African National Congress party in nationwide elections this month is a given. After his retirement in 1999, they handed the ANC a landslide victory in parliament, and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, skated to the presidency. An initially anxious business community is also pleased with the party's economic record: It largely ditched its Marxist ways for capitalism after the Soviet Union's collapse, and adopted stiff fiscal discipline that has kept down inflation and reduced the national debt. In all, Mr. Mbeki's second term looks assured.

But there are widening fissures in the ANC's popularity, particularly among Christians. They have watched newfound liberties slip into license on a host of social questions. In the last 10 years, predominant ANC lawmakers have legalized abortion and pornography. They abolished the death penalty even as violent crime spiked.

Christians are finding themselves battling a culture war much like that facing their American counterparts. South African women have had 350,000 abortions since the procedure was legalized in 1997, in a country of 45 million people. Pregnant girls as young as 11 can abort without telling their parents or getting their permission.

The ban on pornography was lifted a year earlier. Where complete nudity in the media was once a no-go, commercials for sex now run during regular prime-time television. Child pornography isn't illegal either-only distributing it is unlawful.

&quotThe biggest challenge is the breaking down of the moral foundation of the country, which results in the breaking down of families," said Kenneth Meshoe, president of the opposition African Christian Democratic Party. &quotFor years people have been told what to do-now it's like the floodgates have been opened."

The ANC has also earned a reputation for being soft on crime, refusing to consider reinstituting the death penalty despite widespread citizen support for it. About 25,000 murders take place every year in South Africa. That makes murder nine times more common than in the United States.

As burglaries and theft have exploded, affluent South Africans now live in virtual garrisons. High walls crowned with razor wire surround homes fitted with automatic security systems. To avoid carjackings, some residents of commercial capital Johannesburg run red lights when driving late at night.

The country's rape rate is also about four times greater than in the United States. And there are more than just a few cases of men gang-raping infants younger than 6 months old. That practice spread along with the belief that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.

South Africa has even vaulted past the United States on other culture issues: Homosexual couples have been able to adopt children since 2002. The government is considering dropping the age of consent for homosexual acts from 19 to 16. And another law currently under consideration will make it possible for children to press charges against parents who use corporal punishment.

Part of the rush to liberalism can be attributed to South Africans' wariness of anything resembling old apartheid immorality and penal laws, which helped entrench racial inequality.

Apartheid -meaning &quotapartness" in Dutch-derived Afrikaans-was born in 1948. Over the next decade, the ruling Nationalist Party codified the segregation with a series of laws that often mixed good with bad. Sodomy and abortion were illegal along with mixed marriages. Membership in the ANC or other African resistance movements carried the possibility of life imprisonment. The death penalty existed for crimes such as murder, but was applied rarely to whites.

Since abolishing apartheid's last traces, the ANC has generously dished out legal rights to previously trampled groups-blacks, women, children, and homosexuals. Now many of those protections have become special rather than equal. And it isn't because of party squeamishness over apartheid excesses, warns Christian activist Peter Hammond.


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