Mandela's final achievement

Election: Mbeki to become South Africa's president and face daunting challenges.

June 04, 1999

VOTERS in South Africa overwhelmingly gave the ruling African National Congress a second term in power. That is a triumph for Nelson Mandela, who steps out of public life June 16, a few weeks shy of his 81st birthday.

Mr. Mandela took to the gun to fight oppression in 1960. On trial for his life in 1964, he told the court he "cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." Unlike others who have found it useful to say such things, he still cherishes the ideal.

Freed from prison, he led his party to victory in the chaotic 1994 election and became president. Though power corrupts most who hold it, Mr. Mandela's moral stature only rose in office. He presided over national reconciliation, not revenge, beyond the dreams of possibility of most observers.

Mr. Mandela's protege in exile and office, Thabo Mbeki, has run the day-to-day government for the past two years. He will be elevated to the presidency by the new parliament. A sophisticated student of government and economics, he lacks, however, Mr. Mandela's national stature.

Much remains undone. Mr. Mbeki will need to create wealth, to give more to the vast majority who are desperately poor. South Africa needs growth, investment, jobs and the taxes to create schools and roads and opportunities. The country needs a reduction in crime which, as in Russia, stunts economic growth.

Africa's most developed country also needs peace and cooperation among its sharply divided people. In the election, the white vote largely shifted from the heirs of apartheid to the heirs of its political opponents, but not to the ANC.

But the constitution stands. The election Wednesday was massive and peaceful. Goodwill remains.

Nelson Mandela's final and perhaps greatest service to his country is, like George Washington, after exercising power, cheerfully leaving it.

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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