S. Africa takes on leading role

10 years after Mandela freed, a 'renaissance'

February 11, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Ten years ago today Nelson Mandela walked free from 27 years in prison, and this country is now taking stock of the extraordinary transformation that followed.

South Africa, for almost half of the past century a bastion of white privilege and racial segregation, has become the continent's most powerful black African state.

Formerly a pariah nation, it is at the forefront of a major thrust to turn this continent from post-colonial dependency to 21st century self-reliance, with Africans solving their own problems and engaging in the much-vaunted "African Renaissance."

Democracy is firmly entrenched after the country's second free election produced last year's peaceful transfer of presidential power from Mandela to Thabo Mbeki.

Mandela, 81, has now become an elder statesman and international peacemaker for the continent's conflicts.

In a continent where political leaders frequently view power as theirs for life, Mandela took the unusual step of retiring after one five-year term, which was dedicated to reconciliation of a nation divided by racial, economic, social and cultural issues.

He succeeded to the extent that the transition from white minority to black majority rule here has remained largely bloodless, although whites remain more pessimistic about the future than blacks. "There is a big gap in levels of confidence," said Gregory Houston, researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council.

Mbeki's priorities are clean, efficient government and accelerated delivery of basic services -- water, electricity, housing, schools and clinics -- to those known here as "the previously disadvantaged," meaning mainly blacks and people of mixed race who were treated as second-class citizens under apartheid.

Much of the bitterness of the apartheid era has been expunged by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was sometimes reduced to tears by evidence of the atrocities committed by both sides in the name of white supremacy and black revolution.

The country's last white president, F. W. De Klerk, who freed Mandela and lifted the ban on his African National Congress party in 1990, said last week that his only mistake was to agree to an amnesty for politically based crimes, which enabled perpetrators of "the most gruesome actions against human rights" to escape prosecution.

"People should have stood trial for their crimes," he said in Parliament, adding that he had succumbed to pressure from Mandela's African National Congress and his own National Party on amnesty.

Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who replaced De Klerk as National Party leader, told Parliament, "I believe the most exciting development in South Africa today is that we are starting to see the vague patterns of a strong centrist middle ground emerging."

Many of the government's economic policies are markedly centrist. The ANC, a party with strong socialist roots, has pursued free-market initiatives, enabling the Finance Ministry to predict -- optimistically, most economists say -- that growth this year could reach 4.5 percent.

The government's market-oriented thrust has created strains with its partners in the tripartite ruling alliance, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Speculation about how long the alliance can last is widespread. Labor has embarked on a prolonged protest campaign against job losses, which it blames on ANC economic policies, and the Communists are constantly lamenting the government's retreat from the left.

Tony Leon, leader of the major white opposition Democratic Party, called on Mbeki last week to stop trying to hold the alliance together by "political egg-dancing." He urged increased privatization and less rigid labor laws to attract investment.

"It means staring down the unions, rolling back the regulatory state, and rethinking the role of the government in the economy," said Leon. "It is a full decade since South Africa crossed the political Rubicon. It is time for President Mbeki to cross the economic Rubicon."

Mbeki must spur growth to deal not only with the explosively high rate of unemployment -- advancing toward 40 percent -- but also with myriad other social problems.

The country's education system is in crisis, its health service is ailing, its rate of violent crime is frightening, and the continuing division between the rich and poor is so wide that Mbeki has talked of "two nations."

In four of the past five years, the number of high school graduates has declined. Last year, 48.9 percent passed their final examinations. Rural schools, frequently ill-equipped and poorly staffed, had the worst results.

That prompted Mbeki to warn school principals that they would be fired if they failed to improve student advancement, although, given the strength of the unions, that is probably easier said than done.

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