Moving on, after Mandela

Transition: The South African president's greatest feat will be to quietly hand the reins of power to a fairly elected successor.

May 30, 1999|By Michael Hill

ON WEDNESDAY, when South Africans go to the polls for their second nationwide democratic election, their country will start learning the answer to the question that has been asked for more than five years: What happens after Mandela?

From the moment Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison near Cape Town in 1990, his ascension to the leadership of whatever nation emerged from the ruins of apartheid seemed certain. When he not only lived up to but surpassed the image of Nelson Mandela constructed by his supporters during his 27 years in prison, his presidency of the new government became inevitable.

It became reality just over five years ago. Mandela and his African National Congress were swept to power in April 1994 in the country's first democratic election. Once in office, Mandela grew in stature.

So powerful was Mandela, in action and image, so gracious in forgiveness, so right in reconciliation, so strong in nation-building, that many could not imagine South Africa without him. But, from the start of his presidency, Mandela never swayed from his promise to serve only one five-year term. He pointed out that he would be 80 in 1999, when, he said, it would be time for younger leadership.

A constant worry

That has been a constant worry for the country during Mandela's term. For the vast majority-black population, his retirement would be the loss of the man who had led them to the promised land, who had sacrificed his life so they could be free. For the economically powerful whites, it would be the loss of the black leader whom they had come not only to respect but admire, whose lack of anger at the past and focus on the future allowed them to think that this could be one nation, after all.

However, it can be argued that of Mandela's many monumental actions, none will be more important to the future of South Africa than the one he takes next week -- leaving office.

The continent that his country anchors is full of examples of once-revered leaders who failed to leave office in a timely fashion. From Mobutu in Zaire to Banda in Malawi, from Tolbert in Liberia to Kaunda in Zambia, the story is tragically the same: If these men had stepped down after eight or 10 years, they would have gone down in history as nation-builders who led their countries out of colonialism and into independence.

Instead, in far too many cases, these leaders confused the future of their countries with their personal fates. They were corrupted by the wealth and trappings of office and by the corrosive effects of absolute power. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe finds himself headed down this slippery slope.

It is easy to dismiss this as an African problem, but many European countries have suffered similar calamities -- for example, Hitler and various dictators of eastern European countries.

Indeed, it is interesting to speculate on how U.S. history might have been altered if our first president had not been reluctant to hold the office. George Washington wanted nothing more than to work on his farm in Virginia, but he saw it as his duty to answer the request that he become president.

After eight years, he said he had had enough and returned to Mount Vernon, setting a precedent that remained inviolate until Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms. After FDR, the two-term presidency was attached to the Constitution.

But, imagine if after eight years Washington had decided he liked being president; if a whole cadre of sycophants had grown around him, people who figured out that they did not work for the government but rather for George Washington. They would flatter and praise their boss, making sure he stayed in office and they kept their jobs.

All the members of the government apparatus -- bureaucrats, armies, judges -- could see their fates tied to his and, no matter what the law or Constitution said, enforce his edicts with absolute authority. And when he died in office, either another strongman would emerge to rule in a similar fashion or the country would be torn apart as factions fought over the spoils.

Government of laws

This is exactly what happened in most of post-colonial Africa, and you wonder if it might have happened here had Washington not left office after two terms. When he did, another president was elected, and the nation learned that this was a government of laws, not men.

South Africans have known from the first days of Mandela's term who would be their next president, when Thabo Mbeki was tapped as vice president over Cyril Ramaphosa, who left the government and became a wealthy businessman.

Barring the greatest upset in the history of electoral politics, Mbeki will be chosen president in Wednesday's vote. He is an extremely intelligent man who has played a key part in running the government for much of the past five years. His background, however, raises questions about why he was Mandela's choice.

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