Last Wednesday I, along with millions of my fellow citizens, voted in our country's second democratic election. I was voting for the second time in my life. I'm a black South African.
Five years ago, I stood in a seemingly endless queue, slowly inching my way forward to the church hall where I was registered to vote. That three-hour wait mattered little; what mattered were the rewards. Making an "X" on the ballot paper symbolized belonging to South Africa. It was an act of claiming my citizenship in a country that had never been mine. It also signified the death of a system that had narrowed my life to the confines of my race and had defined where I could live and what I could become. More destructive, though, apartheid had told me what I could never aspire to be--an equal citizen in my own country.
This time, standing in a much faster-moving queue, I realized for the first time that our honeymoon is over. We will never again experience the sense of empowerment that the first democratic elections brought. There will never again be that first act of claiming this country for ourselves and the generations that will follow.
Our collective pride and triumph at being the marvel of the late 20th century are eroding. The obstacles that face us--crime, corruption, unemployment, a lack of housing, the growth of the HIV/AIDS epidemic--are daunting.
On a personal level, it would be easy to ignore these hurdles. In comparison with most blacks, I have reaped the rewards of the New South Africa. As a journalist, I work in an environment that cushions me and protects me from a country that is still very much divided. The drive from a wealthy Johannesburg suburb to a black township reveals that divide: At one end are beautifully kept mansions; at the other, roughly made little tin houses that offer no protection against winter. For the majority of blacks, enfranchisement did not transform their lives; economic empowerment has not followed.
It was to them that Nelson Mandela promised, at his inauguration in 1994, that "We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination . . . . We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity--a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."
And it is to them that Thabo Mbeki, our new president, promised this spring in the ANC's election manifesto: "We must act together, in conditions of social discipline, further to give birth to a South Africa of freedom, prosperity and security for all, committed to act together to solve the national problems that confront us all . . . ."
The retiring Mandela, our most visible symbol of peace and unity, will no longer be able to allay our fears that things might have to get worse before they get better. In his place, we will have Mbeki, who carries an aura of otherness; a debonair man, educated in England and schooled in the art of diplomacy. We do not know him, even though he directed much of government policy during Mandela's term in office.
Mbeki remains a distant figure, whereas Mandela was a known and adored president. He personified openness and had an innate ability to listen rather than give speeches. In this regard, he was the people's president. Mbeki, on the other hand, has been a background figure, stereotyped as an aloof intellectual more comfortable with committees than being surrounded by strangers. He talks eloquently about the rebirth of Africa; that a continent destroyed by the invasion of colonial powers and internal strife will rise above its basket-case destiny. Yet until the election campaign, Mbeki did not seem to have a desire to acquaint himself with his countrymen.
He has said that he has no wish to fill Mandela's shoes, that he is sure that the South African public does not wish to know his shoe size or details of his private life. More than likely, Mbeki has wanted to distance himself as far as possible from the cult-like figure that Mandela has become.
But those visible wounds that Mandela has so effectively helped heal--being a country of strangers torn apart by subjugation and racial hatred--have, I believe, comfortably camouflaged the real issues facing our nation.
Underneath the celebration of unity lies searing discrepancies that the Mbeki government will have to address and for which he will be held accountable. Black empowerment over the past five years has been the playing field of a select few. It is with a sense of cynicism that one looks at black former trade unionists and activists and their ostentatious lifestyles: designer clothes, smart cars and expensive houses. The workers and comrades they had fought for and with during the apartheid years have seemingly become distant memories.
The aspirations of the majority of black South Africans, I believe, are relatively small, perhaps even insignificant by First World standards. They want to have proper houses in the place of shacks, to be able to send their children to well-equipped schools, to have jobs and to be safe from crime. It is these aspirations that the new ANC government will have to meet.
Mbeki knows he has to walk a path fraught with the desires for protection of the wealthy and the demands of the poor. He will have to appoint a cabinet that will deliver and will also take responsibility and act aggressively to implement policies that affect issues such as job creation and crime.
During the election campaign, Mbeki traveled the breadth of the South African landscape. Perhaps for the first time since his return from Europe--where he was in exile from 1962 until 1990--he really saw the people of this country. He has found himself screamed at in a hospital in the black township of Soweto. Nurses, angered by crimes committed inside the hospital, demanded that Mbeki explain how he intended to deal with criminals. He couldn't answer.
Mbeki's campaign took him from Gauteng, South Africa's richest province, to the underdeveloped and generally overlooked rural areas of Umtata in the Eastern Cape. He saw--rather than reading in reports from advisers--that his people have little or nothing.
Mbeki and the ANC realize that the next five years will be crucial in terms of delivery. In the party's election manifesto, they lauded themselves for changes over the past five years--750,000 new homes built, 2 million houses electrified, improved health care for the poor with more than 500 new clinics built and implementation of an education system not based on race. More than 543,000 acres of land have been transferred to 68,000 households among a nonwhite population of 33.7 million; whites number 4.2 million.
Our 1994 constitution is regarded as one of the most liberal in the world; workers' rights are protected by a Labor Relations Act. But South Africans cannot eat pride or dress their children with hope. The Rainbow Nation spin has become stale.
Yet last Sunday I watched Mbeki and Mandela at the ANC's last election rally at the First National Bank Stadium just outside Soweto as nearly 80,000 black people surrounded them. The women, men and children who shouted "Viva Mbeki, Viva Mandela, Viva ANC" were not wealthy. They did not arrive driving the latest luxury sedans. They walked, wearing T-shirts with Mbeki's face on the front and clutching ANC paper flags in their hands. They came from township homes where they have lived all their lives. They trusted the ANC five years ago, and they trust the ANC now to continue the fight for them.
Standing there, I realized that my vote for the ANC would be cast for the majority of black South Africa. It was not a noble act. I need Mbeki far less than the "masses" do. My decision was borne out of a sense of shame.
I have a university education, a fulfilling career, a house, electricity to switch on when I come home at night and running water each time I turn on a tap. We journalists often revel in the luxury that distance affords us. Poverty becomes a statistic, a murder is just another story. We talk as if we are separate from our society. But I've watched black mothers standing on the street corners with their toddlers on cold winter mornings. Their little cardboard signs say they want food, jobs, money. And I turn my face away.
When Mbeki wished farewell to Mandela in late March at the close of our first democratically elected parliament, he said: "The sense of wonder still pervades our ranks that out of the tumult and the babble of tongues, the veiled enmities and the bloodless wars, there could have arisen over our devastated land, out of this house, with its own history, the sun of hope."
It will be Mbeki's duty to ensure that the sun of hope continues to shine on South Africa.
Phylicia Oppelt is features editor of the South African Sunday Times.
CAPTION: One of Mandela's promises was to clean up shantytowns like this one in Soweto. Will Mbeki make it happen?