South Africans now considering post-Mandela phase

September 28, 1995|By Michael Clough

JOHANNESBURG -- Recently, as I listened to South Africans describe the challenges their country faces, I sensed that something big had changed: The Nelson Mandela phase of the post-apartheid era is drawing to a close.

It began when Mr. Mandela walked out of prison in February 1990 and continued on through his successful negotiations to end three centuries of white domination. High drama and miracles marked this phase. At times, the country was held together only by the sheer force of Mr. Mandela's personality.

During the past five years, South Africa's leaders have successfully met two major challenges. The first was to persuade both the white minority and the black majority to accept a gradual, negotiated transition. Nelson Mandela's reassuring presence and unceasing efforts to promote reconciliation gave white voters the confidence they needed to entrust their future to a black-led government. At the same time, Mr. Mandela's commanding role in the liberation struggle enabled him to keep in check black demands for an immediate seizure of power and swift retribution against the old regime.

The second challenge was to prevent a civil war between supporters of the African National Congress and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party. Here, too, Mr. Mandela's moral stature and ability to stand above the partisan fray was crucial both in forcing Mr. Buthelezi to abandon his threat to boycott elections and in preventing ANC supporters from launching a war of retribution against Inkatha.

Political desegregation

TC Today, white South Africans appear to have completed their psychological trek from domination to multiracial democracy. The National Party, which created the apartheid system, is busy reinventing itself. In talks with foreign visitors, Frederik W. de Klerk now emphasizes the party's growing nonwhite constituency, which includes a majority of the country's Afrikaans-speaking colored population and Indians.

Within the black community, there is discontent with the pace of change. Too few jobs have been created. Too few houses have been built. For most of the population, living conditions have not dramatically changed. But this dissatisfaction is no longer directed against whites; nor is it likely to lead to an outbreak of violence or calls to abandon the new constitutional framework.

A dramatic indication of the extent to which the South African agenda has shifted was provided by one leading National Party member who told a visiting delegation that he did not consider the drafting of a permanent constitution to be a major priority. Far more important, he contended, were efforts to promote economic growth, control crime and institute effective local governments.

The long-term peace and stability of South Africa depends, first on the ability of its government and its private sector to open up the economy and promote growth with jobs in an increasingly competitive global environment.

Apartheid's legacy

This is not an easy task. Unemployment in many parts of South Africa is running at up to 50 percent. The legacy of apartheid schooling and township unrest has left a large, undereducated and poorly skilled black labor pool. Ownership of South African industry, which had been highly protected and often subsidized, is concentrated in the hands of a small number of traditionally minded conglomerates. Exchange controls have created a large pool of captive capital that is likely to flow abroad as soon as restrictions are lifted. The country's tax base is small. Demands for public services are immense and growing.

But the government's economic team, which includes an unlikely mix of erstwhile communists, former National Party technocrats and others, is extremely capable. Talk of nationalization of industry has evaporated. Instead, priority is being given to creating ''a stable macroeconomic environment'' for sustained growth. In practice, that has meant a remarkable degree of fiscal restraint.

For the South African economy to grow, two things must happen: Foreign investment will have to flow into the country, and ways must be found to promote the emergence of small- and intermediate-sized businesses. Neither is going to happen overnight, but there are signs of progress. Almost all the foreign businesses that left South Africa in the 1980s have returned, and they are being joined by a host of new investors. Increasingly, the biggest complaint of potential investors is that existing South African businesses are trying to block their entry. This should change once the big South African conglomerates are free to shift their own capital out of the country and the government begins to privatize some of the large parastatals that were created during the apartheid era.

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