The Mandela Era Begins

May 04, 1994

"After so many centuries, we will finally have a government which represents all South Africans. All South Africans are now free." The speaker of those words was not Nelson Mandela, who as a result of his country's first universal election will become its first black president. It was Frederic Willem de Klerk, triumphantly losing the election to pave a peaceful transition in his country, the outgoing and most likely the last white president.

Mr. de Klerk is not, like Ian Smith, the one-time prime minister of former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, going back to his farm to sulk on the dustbin of history. As leader of the National Party -- which came in second in the election and won the votes of many nonwhites who wanted some check on the power of the victorious African National Congress -- Mr. de Klerk means to go on making history, and said so.

His partnership with Mr. Mandela, so essential for the remarkable and long overdue transition taking place, will carry on. Only now, Mr. de Klerk will be the junior partner, executive deputy president to a strong president, Mr. Mandela. Mr. de Klerk gave notice of his view in calling for "a strong and a vibrant economy based on the tried and tested principles of free enterprise," as necessary "to address the pressing social needs of large sections of our population." That was a warning shot against any implications of Mr. Mandela's long alliance with the Communist Party.

As for Mr. Mandela, at 75 undoubtedly the "man of destiny" that Mr. de Klerk called him, the triumph was vindication of a life well lived, including the 27 years in prison, but he saw its context. "Free at last!" he proclaimed, words long associated with the late American, Martin Luther King Jr.

Many of the nuts-and-bolts political questions were not immediately answered by the slow count of the extraordinary election. The convening of the new parliament, which will write a new constitution, was postponed from Friday to next Monday, for fear of not knowing in time who was to come.

But it is fair to say that Mr. Mandela is not taking over at age 35, like so many of the founding generation of independent African leaders, but at 75, not seeking a career in power but to build a lasting structure to uplift his country and continent. And that means he should seek consensus for the constitution whether the ANC has the votes to write it alone or not. And that he should take significant opposition parties into the transitional cabinet, if they are willing, whether they win the required 5 percent of the vote or not.

Before, Mr. Mandela was reminding Mr. de Klerk of the pluralism of South Africa. Now it may be the other way around. But the partnership for which they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1993, and which achieved one of the great peaceful revolutions of world history, is not over. Its major tasks lie ahead. They know it, and said as much.


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