South Africa inaugurates Thabo Mbeki as its second democratically elected president on June 16 in a ceremony meaningful because it lacks originality. Once an anniversary of rage and suffering, June 16 this year becomes a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit and the value of the routine.
Kosovo has provided more than ample evidence of the dark and murderous depths the human soul can reach, on any continent, at any time. The racially peaceful South Africa that Mbeki inherits from Nelson Mandela demonstrates that nations also surprise themselves by discovering reservoirs of tolerance, cooperation and mutual respect if their citizens look long and hard enough.
Something similar may be going on in Indonesia, which held its first free election for a parliament in four decades the other day, and in Nigeria, where democratic rule has been reestablished after an eternity of wantonly criminal military governments.
But the Indonesian and Nigerian experiences with democracy and fair play in politics are still highly tentative. Those nations begin long and uncertain roads heavily dependent on the character of politicians whom the voters favor at the moment rather than on the strength of their institutions.
That formula led to disaster in much of the Third World after decolonization and independence. Fragile new states imploded. The military, charismatic demagogues or corrupt elites took power and refused to yield it in African state after African state.
Looking north, South Africa's white minority adopted a grim rejoinder to the demand for black majority rule and an end to apartheid: It would not be one man, one vote, the whites said. It would be one man, one vote, one time.
Predictions by the white community's tiny liberal faction were no more optimistic. In "Cry, the Beloved Country," author Alan Paton suggested that the cruelty of apartheid would ensure that when whites finally repented and turned to loving their fellow man, the blacks would by then have turned to hating.
Mbeki is the black leader many South African whites thought would never exist -- the second one to win a free and fair election in the Beloved Country, and the one who has promised and worked hard to see that the whites are not done unto as they did unto blacks for three centuries.
Two caveats obtain: South Africa is not yet paradise. Mbeki, a shrewd, charming and seasoned political leader at 56, faces ugly challenges to national stability.
Surging violent street crime, continuing heavy unemployment and disinvestment in the economy demand immediate attention. His promises to speed up the transfer of wealth and to stress nonracialism in public institutions raise white fears that this new presidency will not be as strife-free as Mandela's.
Second, the magnitude of the victory of Mbeki's African National Congress (ANC) party at the polls on June 2 makes it easier for Mandela to transfer power to his chosen heir. The ANC won 266 of the National Assembly's 400 seats in a huge, orderly turnout.
That voting was testament to Mandela's healing talents and to the true nature of democracy. Dozens of minor African despots have styled themselves as the George Washingtons of their countries. Only Mandela merits the comparison. He chose to deemphasize himself and directed his people's attention and energies to strengthening their institutions. He disdained any hint of monarchy or absolutism.
Democracy works best as routine. It is prophylactic and practical, not mystical and sacred. It flourishes in countries where those with positions of power and special interests lack the originality (or the nerve or the cruelty) to think of ways to take office other than by a fair count at the ballot box. A nation that goes to the polls as automatically and reflexively as its citizens brush their teeth is a nation with a chance at political happiness.
But symbolism also has an important role in politics, as shown by the fact that inauguration day in South Africa falls on June 16. On that date in 1976 in the township of Soweto, African schoolchildren marched to protest second-class education and white police shot them down.
The authorities thought they had crushed all hope of majority rule with their violence. But the Soweto rebellion cracked the foundations of white tyranny. Gradually whites and blacks came together to work out alternatives to racial war.
They chose a national hero to lead them out of apartheid. This time South Africa's voters have done something more difficult and important: They routinely and peacefully chose a mere mortal and took another step toward investing their faith in a system rather than in miracle-makers.