'Frontline' examines South Africa's future through two Mandelas

April 26, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

As South Africa prepares for a historic development -- today's first nonracial elections, which are expected to produce the nation's first black president -- the PBS series "Frontline" offers a worthwhile, albeit pessimistic, portrait of two powerful forces that still rend the country.

No, not blacks and whites. Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

The program, likely to be updated with the latest news on recent bombings aimed at stopping the election, presents separate half-hour portraits -- of Mr. Mandela, who is expected to be elected president, and his estranged wife, projected as a rising power who could become his chief political opponent.

From these reports, it is hard to imagine that the election wilproduce lasting harmony in South Africa -- despite a caution at close that "the danger from the opposition shouldn't be exaggerated." (Washington's WETA, Channel 26, screens the show at 9 p.m.; Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, is delaying it until 11 p.m. because of an evening of science programming.)

"The strength of an old man's will has brought them this far," says BBC correspondent Michael Buerk, of blacks whose struggle against apartheid Nelson Mandela came to symbolize.

"But the promises may have to be left for others to keep . . . [because] after the election, the emotional bonds of the liberation movement will loosen in time, [and] he will face new opposition."

The program sketches the tenuous alliance Mr. Mandela has structured with former foes but suggests his worst enemy may be time -- the time needed to even begin to achieve progress toward wiping out the vast contrasts of means and living conditions in South Africa.

"Two months," responds one woman in Kliptown, a corner of the Soweto district, when asked how quickly she expects Mr. Mandela to achieve his promised improvements in living conditions.

Yet Mr. Buerk goes sailing with a wealthy white dentist who seemingly expects no drastic changes in his lifestyle under black rule.

We learn that the dentist lives across the street from Mr. Mandela, whose opulent home in Houghton, "the Beverly Hills of Johannesburg," contrasts sharply with the more humble residence of his former wife, in Soweto.

More disturbing, Mr. Buerk profiles a regional chairman of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party who continues to aggressively preach words of war to rural herdsmen, and a town mayor who has held on to his power despite long and autocratic collaboration with the white majority.

As for Winnie Mandela, "Frontline" suggests she "has made the most astonishing comeback in South African political history . . . by embracing the pain of apartheid's victims."

The show does not offer anything new on the reasons for her earlier political decline -- charges that her bodyguards murdered a 12-year-old boy and her separation from Mr. Mandela. But it does show us her powerful political skills, as she meets groups dressed in camouflage battle gear, dons traditional tribal clothing in other gatherings and, during a confrontation with white police, even manages to persuade them to release black prisoners.

"She is certain to be elected to parliament and may even

become a cabinet minister," the show predicts.

TELEVISION PREVIEW

What: "Frontline: Mandela"

When: Tonight

Where: 9 p.m. WETA, Channel 26; 11 p.m. WMPT, Channels 22 and 67

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