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    Global Focus: Talk About Nelson Mandela

    Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's president-elect, at an election rally March 31.
    On the heels of South Africa's second democratic elections, a new president prepares to take office while the 80-year-old Nelson Mandela, the former political prisoner who became the country's first democratically-elected president, retires June 16. What does Mandela's retirement mean for his successor Thabo Mbeki and the ruling African National Congress party?

    Phillip van Niekirk, editor of the Mail & Guardian, joined us from Johannesburg on June 14 and discussed Mandela's retirement and the future of South Africa.

    Read the transcript below. Thanks for joining us Phillip. Thabo Mbeki was sworn in today as South Africa's president. Can you give us a brief profile of the new president and what he promises to accomplish during his tenure?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Thabo Mbeki is the son of one of South Africa's leading political figures of the Mandela generation, Govan Mbeki. He grew up within a family in the Eastern Cape who were highly politicised, active members of the African National Congress. As a young man he went into exile first in Britain, where he studied at Sussex University, and subsequently in the Soviet Union. He represents the more moderate, pragmatic wing of the ANC in exile, as opposed to the side that sought to win through armed struggle. He played a key role in the negotiations that led to the creation of a democratic South Africa.Highly intelligent, a bit aloof, one of the more enigmatic people in South African politics.

    No. Virginia: Please summarize the recent election returns, summarizing ANC power ... and whether they have any credible political competition.

    Phillip van Niekirk: The ANC effectively represents the overwhelming majority of black South Africans. Its only competition is, unfortunately, from parties representing whites and other minorities. The opposition is thus tainted by not being able to make inroads into the majority of South Africans, and thus will not be able to contest for power for many years. The only hope for a broader opposition is if a split happens within the ANC itself. This is not likely at the moment.

    Northern VA. : Mandela is truly a hero of his people. I don't know another man who would voluntarily stay in prison for 27 years in order to hold true to his beliefs. In your opinion, what has been Mandela's greatest achievement, either as a leader, or as a freedom fighter?

    Phillip van Niekirk: His greatest achievement was being able to rise above history and unite the South African nation, achieving both emancipation for black people while securing a future in Africa for the white minority. Truly a major achievement against all the odds.

    Arlington, VA: Phillip,

    What is the current mood in South Africa now, after the elections? Are people hopeful, fearful of the future, or are they excited about the prospect of a lasting democracy and freedom?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Black South Africans, as a whole, are feeling hopeful about the future and believe the Mbeki presidency will start delivering what the Mandela period only promised to. Many whites are fearful and scared of the future, thinking of emigrating or hiding behind tall suburban walls.

    Los Angeles, CA: Phillip,

    What are Mandela's plans for retirement? Do you think he will be on the permanent, $100,000-a-pop speaking tour?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Mandela is not a politician in the US-style. I believe him when he says he wants to spend more time with his wife, Graca Machel, and his grandchildren. He might find some of the pleas he gets to mediate peace in far-flung corners of the world a bit hard to resist, particularly if he has a role to play in Africa. He might also want to keep an eye over Thabo Mbeki's shoulder to see how he's doing. Don't expect lecture tours or such like.

    Washington, D.C.: You mentioned in a previous answer that the ANC would not be likely to split. Can you tell us why?

    Phillip van Niekirk: As the majority party with control over many facets of life in South Africa, the ANC controls access to jobs and potential prosperity for previously disadvantaged people. There might well be a break-away of some left-wingers disenchanted with the ANC's conservative economic policies, but they will not be able to mount a sufficient challenge. The best and the brightest, the upwardly mobile, will want to stick with the ANC for some time to come.

    New York, NY: Phillip,

    One rarely hears people say bad things about Nelson Mandela---at least as far as the news here goes. At worst, people say he is a bit egocentric. Does the press tend to protect Mandela because they know what a great leader he is, or is it simply the case that he is, in addition to being a great leader, a decent person as well?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Mandela has been criticised in South Africa - for instance, for his tendency to butter up dictators who were friendly with the ANC or who now support it financially. At times he has intemperately attacked the media, or shot from the hip on other issues. But he is hard to dislike. He is a real human being who has had to struggle with some major personal crises - such as over his wife Winnie - while leading the country to the promised land. Takes some doing and even the most hardened hacks are in awe of the man.

    Herndon, VA: Mr. van Niekirk,
    What plans does Thabo Mbeki have for addressing the disparities in education, housing, and economic status? How does he propose to deal with the horrific crime problem which must be scaring away tourists? Whereas Mr. Mandela had the challenge of establishing a multi-racial democracy, Mr Mbeki has to deliver a better quality of life. Can he do it?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Mbeki's plan has been government policy now for more than two years. its called Gear, and it basically proposes that economic growth must precede too much redistribution. ANC handling of the economy has been astute, but as an emerging market SA has been buffeted by the storms in the global economy. Mbeki is aware that the disparities need to be tackled urgently because the ANC's record up till now has been fine rhetorically but not great in practice.
    We await the announcement of the new cabinet tomorrow with interest. Education and crime should top the list in order of priorities.

    Washington, D.C.: During the transition period to democracy in 1994, Mandela had to make some concessions to members of the apartheid-era military. What kind of deals were made? What is Mbeki's plan for military personnel?

    Phillip van Niekirk:
    One of the most successful areas of transition has been the military. The South African National Defence Force now has a black commander - Siphiwe Nyanda - and most of the whites who remain in the military are committed to the new order. Those who don't are gradually being eased out.

    Maputo, Mozambiqu: Do you believe that South Africa's dominant economic influence in the region can continue, given current economic problems, high crime rate scaring off investors, etc.?

    Phillip van Niekirk: South Africa remains by far the largest economy in the region, with or without its current economic problems and high crime rate. The fear is the other way round: that it will become too dominant.

    Washington, D.C. : With Mandela leaving, what will be the influence of Inkatha Freedom Party chief, Mangosuthu Buthelezi? He used to be Mandela's main opposition before Mandela invited him into the cabinet. What is Buthelezi's relationship with Mbeki?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Buthelezi has a very close relationship with Mbeki. We expect him to be appointed deputy president this week. Buthelezi showed during the election that he was able to hold onto his rural Zulu support base. Between the ANC and Inkatha, who will be in government together, they represent 75 percent of the electorate and more than 95 percent of the black vote. We're roughly half-way through this live discussion with Phillip van Niekirk. Please submit your questions using the hyperlink below.

    Arlington, VA: I think many around the world still marvel at how South Africa made a peaceful transition to democracy ...ending apartheid. How much of that success has to do with Nelson Mandela ... and how much of it has to do with other conditions and factors in the country?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Mandela was the towering figure in the change-over. But there were a number of other factors such as the strength of civil society - business, trade unions, the media, civic organisations - who fought apartheid internally and who sought a democratic outcome. The ANC must take credit for seeing its primary task as securing a peaceful transition for the country, one in which vengeance and racial retaliation formed no part.

    Alexandria, VA: I recently saw an interview with Archbishop Tutu and a documentary on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Has there been any lasting impact as a result of the commission, both in terms of people feeling their stories were heard and in justice being served for the crimes of the police during apartheid? How are people moving forward, particularly with a new government?

    Phillip van Niekirk: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been an extraordinary event in the life of South Africa. Many victims felt that the crimes of the apartheid era had at last been acknowledged. Many whites were brought face to face with what had been done in their name, whether they liked it or not. But the wounds are still raw and the full truth is still to be told.

    Cleveland, Ohio: Mr. van Niekirk,

    How would you evaluate Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Did it do the job of helping the country come to terms with apartheid and the years of violence? Has it proven effective in helping the country get the past behind it?

    Phillip van Niekirk: South Africa has taken a few steps towards coming to terms with its past. But human rights abuses on this scale cannot be swept away overnight. There is still a lot of pain and a lot that is not known about what happened.

    Washington, D.C. : At the transition from Mandela to Mbeki, has there any acknowledgement of the role of de Klerk in moving the country toward democracy? After all, de Klerk did something that few leaders have the gumption to do: he took himself out of power.

    Phillip van Niekirk: No one can take away the role that De Klerk played in effectively surrendering power. His role before and after the unbanning of the ANC, release of Mandela and negotiations leading to democracy - are viewed in a more negative light. De Klerk wrote an autobiography this year in which he sought to justify his own role in the apartheid era. It did not receive rave reviews. While his place in history, many whites believe he sold out and many blacks don't quite trust. But then Gorbachev is not viewed as a prophet in his own homeland either.

    Washington, D.C.: I've heard that Afrikaners are pushing for their own homeland . Is this movement gaining any momentum?

    Phillip van Niekirk: The idea of a homeland for Afrikaners is all but dead. Many Afrikaners voted on June 2 for the Democratic Party, which during the National Party era opposed apartheid as liberals.
    The old Afrikaner parties did very poorly.

    Rosslyn, VA: Was the African National Congress a communist organization and how does it define its politics today?

    Phillip van Niekirk: The ANC for many years had close links to the Soviet Union and the South African Communist Party is still a close ally. However, it also been a broad church fighting firstly for liberation of the oppressed majority and has a range of economic ideas within its ranks. The ANC government has followed a very moderate pro-capitalist economic policy since coming to power.

    Kingwood, Texas: I am a former resident of South Africa and one of the main reasons I left South Africa was the level of crime in the country and the inability of the Government to combat it.

    My question is how are you going to combat the cancer that is devouring our beautiful country, whether you intend to re-introduce the death penalty?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Unless the ANC defeats the intolerable levels of crime South Africa is going to remain in deep difficulties. There is no chance that the death penalty will be reintroduced but I think Mbeki realises that greatly increased resources are needed to rebuild the justice system and the police force. Up till now the ANC has not shown the necessary will to deal with these problems, but issues they will have to face include: keeping criminals in jail, improving crime intelligence, cracking down on illegal fire-arms, and defeating corruption within the police force itself. Its a tall order and in the short term I do not believe they are going to win. The appointment of the police and justice ministers tomorrow will be a critical first step in understanding where Mbeki intends to take things.

    Herndon, Va : Mr. Mbeki's education in the former Soviet Union -

    Is he likely to try to move toward a more socialistic economy?

    Phillip van Niekirk: No, Mbeki is not a socialist. The ANC was forced to find friends where it could during the years when the US, Britain and the rest of the west would have nothing to do with it and were supping with the leaders of apartheid SA.

    Washington, D.C. : Phillip,

    Many South Africans are still quite poor and have yet to benefit from the transition to democracy. How would you evaluate the Mbeki's plans to help spur the economy, and I take it, follow Mandela's lead of encouraging foreign investment?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Mbeki has been effectively in control of the country's economic direction for several years. He wants foreign investment into a stable, market-orientated economy. But the enormous problems of poverty will have to be tackled if the country is to remain stable and other issues such as crime, which are also keeping out investment, are to be effectively tackled.

    Greenbelt, Maryland: What steps do you think Mbeki can take to raise the standards of living of the Black majority? Do you think it is possible to do so without any consequences to Whites?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Economic development will bring benefits to both black and white. It can't be a zero sum game,

    Rosslyn, VA : How do you begin to tackle class problems in South Africa ... try to level or decrease the gap between rich and poor? Isn't that the number one issue facing South Africa today?

    Phillip van Niekirk: Raising black living standards will be good for all South Africans, including whites who fear the current crime wave. Foreign investment and better economic management will benefit both white and black equally. That's all the time we have. Thanks to everyone who participated and thanks to Phillip van Niekirk.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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