Without Nelson Mandela
Saturday, December 20 1997; Page A20
AS NELSON Mandela, now 79, steps down from the helm of the African National Congress, the party that led South Africa from apartheid to nonracial democracy, anxiety is evident all around. No other living political leader enjoys the respect he has earned for his legendary personal courage, dignity and vision and for his success in presiding over a delicate, urgent and generally peaceful national rebirth. In his farewell to his party, he noted -- in order to rebut it -- that fear is being deliberately stirred by people muttering "when Mandela goes."
There is reason to believe, nonetheless, that the transition will be managed. His replacement as party chief now and his heir apparent to the state presidency is Thabo Mbeki, 55, his protege and experienced deputy. Democracy and nonracialism may be new and, by President Mandela's own accounting, incomplete in South Africa, but he ensured that they were fairly launched. In his nearly four years in office, he has kept the country on a democratic course and begun creating and distributing the economic and social benefits that many citizens expected the new political order quickly to bestow. Naturally, this goes slowly and even with agony. Mr. Mandela has held to the market policies that promise future growth, notwithstanding pressures for prompt redistribution from ANC constituencies in the trade unions and the old Communist ranks.
A speech Mr. Mandela gave in stepping down from the ANC helm struck a confrontational note in sharp contrast to the conciliatory tone marking much of his career as a national leader. The largely white opposition political parties were depicted as suggestively racist, disloyal and subversive; the media and certain nongovernmental organizations supported by official American aid were harshly criticized. Some South African observers saw in these words the hand and the future agenda of Thabo Mbeki.
At the least these passages hint at tensions buried so deep in the South African multiracial context that not even a Nelson Mandela could resolve them. He acknowledged in his speech that the ANC had left unresolved the key issue of "commonly [defining] national objectives in a united manner, while protecting the identities and public appeal of the separate political parties. . . . We have failed to achieve this result during the last three years."
Mr. Mbeki's own approaches will no doubt evolve as he takes power. For the moment, he may hope to be spared the great mischief that could be done if Mr. Mandela's still-formidable former wife, the criminally involved Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, herself enters the political lists. In any event, with Mr. Mbeki South Africa enters a phase where mere mortals strive. Inside the country, the pressures are more likely to harden than to ease. Outside, the tendency to count on one man -- a tendency born of admiration and of hope for a successful model of racial reconciliation -- is bound to diminish. Nelson Mandela's "new South Africa" is suddenly not so new anymore.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company