SOMETIMES it is necessary to step outside one’s own country to get a clearer perspective of its true role in the global scheme of things. What strikes me each time I travel abroad is how rapidly the global village is shrinking, its populations integrating, how much tension this is causing and how important South Africa is as a test case on how to deal with this transformative historical phenomenon.

With our polyglot population, we are the world in one country.

Perhaps it is because I have four sons living on four different continents that I have become so acutely aware of this global shrinkage. It strikes me as I sit down to breakfast with one of my sons here in Hong Kong, as I am doing now, to realise that, by picking up a small hand instrument, I can speak to another member of the Sparks brood as he sits down to dinner with his family in Santiago, Chile — yesterday!

Yet this increasing closeness is not producing neighbourliness. On the contrary, it seems to be causing people to recoil from the proximity of "the other". The developed countries of the West, in particular, are tightening their immigration laws, strengthening their visa requirements and building separation walls and fences — all apartheid measures really — to keep out the great unwashed.

Everywhere, illegal immigration is the big issue. Yet what Franz Fanon called "the wretched of the earth" keep crossing the Mediterranean and the Rio Grande, despite the arrests and imprisonments and deportations, just as they did during apartheid.

At the same time, like Arthur Schopenhauer’s porcupines on a freezing night, many ethno-national groups, which once huddled together for warmth, are pricking each other and want to move apart again, where they will undoubtedly freeze once more: members of the old Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, maybe even the eurozone.

The UK wants to loosen its ties with the European Union, Scotland is thinking of severing its membership of the UK, Catalonia wants to secede from Spain and Western Sahara has pretty well done so from Morocco. The Greeks and Turks have separated from one another on the tiny island of Cyprus, the Irish will remain forever divided between Catholics and Protestants and, as for the Israelis and Palestinians, they remain at daggers drawn even though both belong to the same Semitic family of the human species.

Yet, here we are, a country of different races, colours, cultures and languages; of several historically conflicted ethno-nationalisms, which have fought each other in a dozen civil wars in a single century, and waged a bitter political struggle in the century that followed, trying now to merge ourselves into a single nation with a common sense of unity and a shared patriotism.

It is an extraordinary experiment. I don’t believe anything like it has been achieved before. Yet that is the way the world as a whole is inexorably moving and its many peoples will have to follow the course South Africa has embarked upon, of trying to forge greater intercultural harmony, if it is not to destroy itself. For this shrinking world is also a world of equally inevitable nuclear proliferation.

So we are the global pathfinder.

What a paradox this is. For generations, we have trailed the rest of the world in matters of human relations. We entrenched racial discrimination while other nations were abandoning it. We tried to establish our own internal colonies just when the great imperial powers were letting theirs go free. And even at the birth of the new South Africa, we found ourselves flirting with communism just as the Soviet empire was collapsing in ruins. Now, in this matter of nonracialism, we suddenly find ourselves ahead of the rest.

Willy-nilly, we are the social laboratory in which the practicality of multiracial and multicultural harmony is being tested. That is what makes the new South Africa such a fascinating country. It is a task the iconic liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill, thought impossible, but which the more visionary Arnold Toynbee actually envisaged.

As the Stellenbosch historian, Hermann Giliomee, notes in his book, The Last Afrikaner Leaders, Toynbee wrote as the National Party came to power in 1948: "The Afrikaner nation is faced with the most difficult, and at the same time most important, spiritual task, which it is bound to have to undertake without having any choice of refusing. It seems to me that in South Africa, you are faced already with a situation that is going very soon to be the common situation of the whole world as a result of the ‘annihilation of distance’ through the progress of our western technology. There will never be room in the world for the different fractions of mankind to retire into isolation once again."

It certainly isn’t easy. Even the East and West Germans found reunion difficult after only 45 years of separation, although they were people of the same race, history, culture and language. How much more difficult for multiracial, long-conflicted South Africa?

But the big question is whether we are being true to this important role into which destiny has thrust us? Are we making its achievement our primary role? Are we even aware of it?

I doubt it. Former president Nelson Mandela certainly was. He made the goal of nonracialism the central theme of his presidency, winning the acclaim of the world as he did so. But with his departure, the vision began to fade. Former president Thabo Mbeki’s central theme was the idea of achieving an "African Renaissance", a worthy objective in itself but, like Jan Smuts, his grand international vision diverted his attention from the primary need to build a strong, united home base and he paid the price of domestic political neglect.

As for President Jacob Zuma, his vision is restricted to his own personal security. This has induced a national culture of "me-ism", of greed, corruption and self-advancement. Nothing is further from Zuma-ism than thoughts about the great role to be played by South Africa in the world.

Some members of the African National Congress (ANC) refer to Mandela’s commitment to nonracialism and the constitutional negotiations that followed as a betrayal of the "national democratic revolution". Others forget that the opening sentence of the Freedom Charter declares that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white."

All they choose to remember of the ANC’s founding document is its much vaguer reference to nationalisation.

Meanwhile, Zuma defines democracy in terms of majority rights. He also seems more intent on building a strong Zulu power base than a broad South African consciousness.

All this amounts to a betrayal of our global mission. We need to get back on course.

If Zuma’s ANC can’t do it, then the combined opposition parties must.

It is a challenging theme that could reignite the stimulating spirit of those early Mandela years. The opposition parties should make it their common platform for next year’s elections.

• Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.