Mbeki's South Africa Transition: By retiring from top ANC post, Nelson Mandela starts transfer of power.

December 25, 1997

NELSON MANDELA will remain South Africa's president until his term ends in 1999. But the daily running of the government has already largely shifted into the hands of Thabo Mbeki, his 55-year-old deputy who last week was elected president of the ruling African National Congress.

Africa's post-colonial history is full of freedom fighter presidents who could not relinquish power. Mr. Mandela, 79, decided he would not go down in history as having stayed on too long. He insisted that his initial timetable for the transfer of power be adhered to. He is ready to assume the role of elder statesman, letting a younger generation take charge.

Mr. Mbeki's elevation to the ANC presidency signals a momentous change for the African continent's oldest existing liberation organization. It is far more than a generational transition. As leaders of Mr. Mandela's generation retreat, traditionally powerful ANC affiliates see their influence wane and purpose questioned.

A case in point is the Women's League. Long headed by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the league had ceased to be a cutting-edge women's advocacy group even before the president's former wife became entangled in legal troubles. It probably will never reclaim its former prominence within the ANC.

As ANC president, Mr. Mbeki has to remold the old liberation group into a big-tent political instrument that satisfies the needs of the urban and rural proletariat as well as smaller constituencies, ranging from upwardly mobile black executives to mixed-race South Africans, Indians and whites. The task may turn out to be impossible; analysts predict growing fragmentation of traditional ANC alliances.

Mr. Mbeki must deal with constituencies that feel the ANC has not met expectations that the end of apartheid would produce an economically egalitarian South Africa. Some of that criticism comes from trade unions, an important ANC constituency.

Thabo Mbeki has shown himself to be a skilled negotiator, but he lacks Nelson Mandela's personal magnetism. It is his tough challenge to lead the ANC from euphoria to sober realization that building the new South Africa will not be an easy task.

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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