The Last Hero-Devil Comes in from the Cold

TOM TEEPEN

September 29, 1993|By TOM TEEPEN

ATLANTA. — Atlanta -- The folks who like their heroes neat -- or for that matter, their villains -- will be confounded by the new Nelson Mandela. Wasn't Mandela the last pure revolutionary? Or, alternatively, the last pure Communist devil?

Then who was this man who stood last week before the United Nations and, his revolution far from complete and looking more like an evolution anyway, called for ending economic sanctions against South Africa?

It was, of course, the Nelson Mandela who hopes soon to lead South Africa, and who, of all the possible outcomes before him, wants least to become the leader of a nation simultaneously in political upheaval and economic collapse.

President F.W. de Klerk has long pronounced apartheid dead and the movement toward majority rule in South Africa irreversible. Indeed, last week, Mr. de Klerk's white-led parliament voted to establish a transition council in which blacks and whites will share power until elections next spring.

It is an even more compelling confirmation of the process's irreversibility that Mr. Mandela should call off the sanction dogs before the process has run its full course.

In his first, dramatic visit to the United States after his long imprisonment, Mr. Mandela preached the rhetoric of black power and the fulfillment of his people's long struggle. In his more ZTC discreet tour this year, much of it in the carpeted quiet of corporate boardrooms, he talked the language of business -- rejecting nationalization, admiring the profit motive and free markets, and speaking understandingly of the need for foreign investors to repatriate capital. The old revolutionary could have been an old-school MBA kicking back with the boys at the club after a hard day of merging and leveraging.

Mr. Mandela's African National Congress unapologetically made common cause with South Africa's Communists, and Mandela won't disavow them now. They were allies when the ANC had few and were brave against apartheid when others, though also appalled, hemmed and hawed. But the economic policy that is emerging for a majority-ruled South Africa owes far more to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal than to Lenin's New Economic Policy.

Mr. Mandela means to redistribute the wealth, all right, but through social programs such as education, job training, land reform and health care rather than expropriation.

If there is any hope of cooling out South Africa's violent black youth now that their violence is no longer needed, and perhaps even of winning a grudging benefit of the doubt from some separatist whites, it is by revving up the sanctions-stymied economy to a hum of credible promise before power fully changes hands.

It was exciting, and not a bit dangerous, for Mandela's international supporters to join him from afar in an act of romantic revolutionary solidarity.

But there's real risk in investing. Will America' armchair revolutionaries -- who to their credit helped topple apartheid by ending U.S. support for South Africa and urging corporate disinvestment -- work just as hard now at the less glamorous but urgent business of turning the faucets back on?

Tom Teepen is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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