First of two articles

They are two seasoned soldiers, veterans of ugly wars, each proud of the pair of stars on his South African National Defense Force uniform. But in the not too distant past, Maj. Gen. Andre Bestbier and Maj. Gen. Lungile Pepani fought on different sides: Bestbier as hunter, Pepani as prey.

Bestbier commanded special operations in the South African military when it cut a swath of instability through southern Africa to root out "terrorists" fighting white-minority rule. Pepani was one such "terrorist," hunkered down in Angolan exile at a base of Umkhonto weSizwe, known as MK, a black liberation movement founded by Nelson Mandela in the early 1960s to lead the fight for black majority rule.

But as history transformed South Africa in the ensuing years, MK and the apartheid military were transformed, too. The high-tech military force and the outlawed guerrilla movement that it sought to destroy ultimately merged into an institution that became a blueprint for the delicate and often uneasy amalgamation of old adversaries throughout South African society.

"It was war, but now let us forgive," Pepani says.

Bestbier agrees. But like many soldiers from the bad old days, he is wary about how his past fits into the present. "In South Africa," he says obliquely, "the dust hasn't settled."

South Africa's military is but one example of how a nation torn by decades of conflict has implemented its grand historic compromise. When apartheid ended five years ago, power was not simply handed over to the country's black majority. Hard-fought compromises were forged that allowed longtime enemies to find a common way forward through elections that laid the groundwork for what has been called a miraculous transition to democracy in a fractured nation whose people once seemed headed for mutual annihilation.

Power in numbers and anti-apartheid rage had enabled blacks to render South Africa ungovernable, especially through MK and its spinoffs. But whites controlled the conventional military and the economy. Out of this checkmate flowed a cascade of compromises that has shaped South Africa.

In many ways, the five years since South Africa's first truly democratic election in 1994 have been a grace period, a time when the country adjusted to the fit of its compromise settlement; a time when a new and inexperienced government could attempt to get a grip on what it inherited from the old order; when former adversaries could get used to the dramatic reversal in their fortunes.

"Whites had to get accustomed to their loss of power" and "the [black] majority had to realize that the loss of white power didn't mean instant redress of inequalities," says Frederik van zyl Slabbert, who was part of a small group of white Afrikaners of the ruling ethnic group who opened dialogue in the 1980s with the outlawed African National Congress -- now the nation's ruling party.

But the strain has been intense, and the hope that greeted the dawn of democracy has given way to a harsh reality: Even a miraculous compromise has its costs.

Implementing the deals has proved unwieldy at best and in some cases downright untenable. The government has been saddled with a complex balancing act between interests it hoped would converge, but instead have remained in competition. Black needs compete with white fears. Transformation competes with reconciliation.

Myriad tensions and new issues to negotiate have arisen wherever the old order and the new have come together, be it in the civil service, Parliament, schools, businesses -- even in the nation's history books. In the military, the stakes have been highest: The whole political settlement reached before the 1994 election would have gone up in flames if the former enemies could not be brought together.

Throughout this fragile phase, President Mandela has served as the nation's moral guide. A political prisoner for 27 years, his history of personal sacrifice made him ideally suited to market compromise, to sell South Africa's volatile populace -- especially the old soldiers -- on the concept of reconciliation and change.

But Mandela's passing from power after Wednesday's national election will start a new phase. If all goes as expected, his deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, will become South Africa's second democratically elected president.

With his symbolic and moral leadership, Mandela has helped to make South Africa special, one of the few nations able to make a peaceful transition to democracy after a fractious ethnic conflict.

Mbeki, an economist who operates in politics like a CEO, now must make South Africa normal, analysts say -- make it a nation in which democracy's promises are real for the majority.

That means closing the apartheid-era gaps between black and white: creating jobs, uplifting the poor, opening new opportunities. While not intended to antagonize whites, Mbeki's anticipated shift of emphasis from reconciliation to speedier transformation could end up having that effect, analysts say. Broad change in society and its institutions can only mean the erosion of the privileged position that whites have maintained despite apartheid's demise.

But Mbeki has repeatedly warned that black needs left unmet are a time bomb waiting to explode. "The impact of this is that you will focus on Africans," Mbeki said recently, "not because there is any ideological commitment, but because the reality of South Africa says you've got to address this."

Military Transformed

"The most important thing that each individual should accept in South Africa is that change had to take place and change is taking place and, if you accept that, then you understand the changes taking place."

That is Maj. Gen. Bestbier, explaining his view of the reconciliation and transformation that has swept through the military that the men of his family grew up in. Bestbier, 53, a soldier for 35 years and now director of joint operations planning, says that soldiers here, as everywhere, are "the most adaptable creatures you will find." If they wanted to remain soldiers, they had to accept that a brand new world was unfolding.

At the dawn of democracy in 1994, many of the white troops in the military were bitter. Their political leaders had negotiated apartheid out of existence. A military culture once geared to fight the swaat gevaar, or black peril, would be led by black commanders and politicians. White troops feared affirmative action in the ranks, as well as a perceived lowering of professional standards with the introduction of guerrilla fighters lacking conventional military training.

The black liberation fighters had their own fears. They were bitter about integrating into a force with white supremacists. They wanted the old defense force dismantled and new standards implemented. They also wanted their fair share of the new ranks in the unified military.

But many black demands had to take a back seat to reality, at least in the beginning. At the time of the transition, Mandela's government -- with Mbeki playing a leading strategic role -- knew that the old military posed a substantial threat. For the sake of stability, the ANC agreed that soldiers, like civil servants and the police, would have job guarantees in the new order. Mandela appointed Gen. George Meiring, an apartheid holdover, as the military's chief commander, responsible for maintaining the loyalty of the old soldiers overseeing the integration of the new ones.

The reality that the ANC faced was that, after Mandela's inauguration, "the new government would be totally dependent on the old order for the conduct of business the following day," says Vincent Maphai, a political scientist. "The army had the capacity to overthrow the new government in five minutes. . . . The compromise was not the result of moral generosity; it was the result of power geometry."

Through months of reeducation, training, restructuring and administrative nightmares such as the absence of files for the newly emerged underground guerrillas, the military muddled toward its goal. Some wondered, especially early on, whether the process would succeed.

Tensions reached a head five months after the election, when thousands of MK troops mounted a brief revolt against what they said was racism in the integration process and discrimination in the parceling out of ranks.

"You had these people with different military cultures, completely different values, different ethics, different allegiances, and these forces had to be brought together," says Pepani, 45, who joined MK 22 years ago and now is the defense force's chief of communications. "It was a process with a lot of teething problems because of the suspicions, the mistrust."

Today, South Africa's military comprises troops from eight separate and previously adversarial forces: the apartheid-era military, two liberation armies, plus the security forces of five of the black "homelands," which were created during apartheid but dissolved with democracy.

When integration began, the force was an unwieldy 130,000; since then, it has been streamlined to 80,000 through voluntary severances and attrition, says Pepani. Blacks predominate, with the vast majority in the lower ranks. Of the military's 150 generals, only 44 are black. But that's progress: In 1994, black generals numbered zero.

"I think the [new military] is the pride of South Africa," says Bestbier. "I think it's the first institution that made a major contribution to nation-building."

`Passive Resistance'

The military also has been a microcosm of how South Africa's compromises have sometimes gone awry.

Only last year, the defense establishment was rocked by what its top officials characterized as the last gasp of a die-hard apartheid clique in the upper ranks.

A bizarre military intelligence report surfaced that purported to warn of a conspiracy to overthrow Mandela's government, hatched by some of the most loyal and prominent people in his party, including his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, and the highest-ranking black general, Siphiwe Nyanda.

Meiring, the defense chief, handed the report directly to Mandela, unverified and not cleared through established intelligence channels, around the same time that a military intelligence chief whose unit produced the report leaked it to the Afrikaner press.

After a bitter round of finger-pointing, officials dubbed the report "fantastical" misinformation. Military intelligence was purged and Meiring forced to retire. Nyanda, a former MK commander who was Meiring's deputy, became defense chief, as he was slated to be.

Deputy Defense Minister Ronnie Kasrils said at the time that disloyal elements still lurked in the ranks and warned, "The dirty tricks, disinformation game is clearly still alive and kicking."

Accusations of old-order subterfuge also have cropped up in the police force, in schools and the civil service -- institutions that likewise have been contested terrain as South Africa's transition has evolved and its compromises implemented.

In some cases, "the ANC did not have an understanding of what were the implications of those compromises," says Sipho Seepe, a political analyst.

In the civil service, the jobs of white, apartheid-era holdovers were guaranteed under the new order -- and some have injected a level of inertia or subtle sabotage in the path of the new government's policies, says Maphai, the political scientist, who headed a commission that studied the civil service.

Characterizing the tenor of the old-era civil servants, Maphai said: "It was much more in terms of passive resistance. The success of this government stands or falls on its program of delivery," which old civil servants were well-placed to thwart.

The same can be said of some South African schools, where compromise has sometimes served to continue old discrimination.

A constitutional concession sought and won by Afrikaners -- the descendants of South Africa's 17th-century Dutch and French settlers -- allows schoolchildren to be taught in the language of their choice and permits schools to teach in one language only. South Africa has 11 official languages.

Some Afrikaans-language schools have used language rights as a barrier to keep black children out, which flies in the face of another constitutional guarantee: that no child will be denied an education. The South African Human Rights Commission recommended early this year that the government reconsider the language guarantee, a move that could spark bitter Afrikaner protest.

De Klerk Outgunned

At the core of the compromise that pulled South Africa out of the fires that burned in the early 1990s was the power-sharing deal that put apartheid's last president, Frederik W. de Klerk, into Mandela's cabinet.

The arrangement was intended to be a transitional bridge. It would help to hold the nation's fractured political groups together in a cabinet representing all parties that won a significant share of parliamentary seats in the watershed 1994 elections.

De Klerk had hoped that his National Party, and by extension the white minority, could secure significant influence in the government that would replace his, even some kind of white veto. He ended up accepting a deal that would make him a deputy president. Technically, he was on par with Mbeki in rank, but when the new "government of national unity" took office, he was clearly outgunned in the majority-ANC cabinet, whose agenda certainly was not what he and his constituency supported.

Only two years into the unity venture, de Klerk quit the cabinet and took his party into full parliamentary opposition. Though hailed as a reformer for releasing Mandela from political imprisonment in 1990 and launching unprecedented reforms, de Klerk had "opened a door through which he could not walk," as a newspaper headline here put it a year later, when de Klerk resigned from party politics altogether.

More than an end to the unity cabinet, de Klerk's withdrawal also signaled the limits of his party's compromise and, by extension, the failure of the experiment in formal political reconciliation.

"To have historical enemies in one unity cabinet working together was remarkable," Jakes Gerwel, Mandela's director general, said in a recently published interview. "De Klerk did his party and country a great disservice when he left."

Truth and Reconciliation

"If this is reconciliation, then I prefer the sword."

That is Constand Viljoen, a retired general who once led the apartheid military, denouncing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission before Parliament. That day in February, during a marathon debate on the truth commission's report, denunciations of one sort or another were flying fast and furious.

Afrikaners such as Viljoen felt the truth panel had conducted a witch hunt against them. Indeed, much of the commission's work had centered on those from the old security forces who had maimed, tortured and killed anti-apartheid activists.

But in the bargaining that created the truth commission, the ANC paid a price for stability and reconciliation: The panel was empowered to grant amnesty to killers in exchange for full confessions. There would be no political trials. Rather than justice, there would be, in theory, forgiveness.

Thousands of security officials put their fate in the truth commission's hands and sought amnesty. Their political leaders, however, claimed they had nothing to confess.

South Africa's two living former presidents -- de Klerk and his predecessor, Pieter W. Botha -- ended up in battles with the commission over whether they knew about abuses committed under their rule. Both said that whatever might have happened did not happen on their authority or with their knowledge, though evidence has emerged that both men might have known far more than they have let on.

The rancor over the truth commission's work did not end there. Though the commission was very much the ANC's brainchild, the ANC became a target of its work. Punching a hole in the perception of the ANC's inherent moral high ground as leader of the fight against apartheid, the truth body branded MK and other ANC-linked organizations as gross violators of human rights, though to a far lesser degree than their erstwhile enemies.

The ANC went to court in a vain attempt last October to have sections of the panel's report rewritten.

"National unity and reconciliation in our country cannot be based on the denunciation of important parts of our struggle . . . as gross violations of human rights," Mbeki said that day in Parliament. "We cannot accept such a conclusion, nor will the millions of people who joined in the struggle to end the system of apartheid."

It was a bitter moment for the ANC. One of its key compromises -- reconciliation, not prosecution -- had blown up in its face. Though intended to heal, the process had also produced bitterness among ANC supporters. Many blacks felt they had been asked to forgive so much of the past and get on with their lives, only to watch killers go free and the former white leaders recoil from attempts to extract moral contrition or the truth.

George Bizos, a leading South African human rights attorney who appeared before the truth panel on numerous occasions representing families of apartheid's victims, says that, for all its flaws, the truth-telling process was an important mechanism to ease black anger by putting faces to the old white terror and getting perpetrators to speak of their crimes.

"Had it not been for this, there would have been generalized race hatred," Bizos said. Blacks would simply conclude " `the whites did it. I don't know which ones, but it was the whites.' "

The grand compromises circumscribing South Africa's long-term quest for reconciliation might yet succeed. But the very truth-telling process that Mandela's government set in place to kick-start that reconciliation effort has produced perhaps as much pain and confusion as healing.

That day in Parliament earlier this year, though he hailed the truth panel's efforts, Mandela seemed to apologize to the little people, the people who had suffered, when he said in his formal way:

"The practical consequences of the compromise that gave birth to the amnesty process as an instrument of peaceful transition are painful to many of the victims of human rights violations and their families."

Tomorrow: The torch is passed

The New South Africa

Five years after the end of apartheid and the first free election, all South Africans have equal rights under the law, and all races may vote in Wednesday's second all-party national elections. But despite many efforts, the economic chasm between blacks and whites remains.

POPULATION: 40.6 million

RACIAL GROUPS

77% Black

3% Indian/Asian

9% mixed race

11% white

HOUSING

54% of the population lives in urban centers.

Nearly 60% lives in formal housing; 40% in shacks or traditional rural housing.

LIVING STANDARD

Unemployment: 35% of the workforce; rate is far higher in rural areas. (It was 17.4% in 1995.)

POVERTY

95% of those in poverty are black; 1% are white.

70% of black children live in poverty.

65% of blacks are poor; 1% of whites are poor.

Black economic empowerment: The market capitalization of black-controlled companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange has risen from 1% in 1995 to 6% today.

A recent public opinion poll conducted by Markinor Polling found that:

60% of blacks believe the economy will improve over the next five years; 70% of whites believe it will deteriorate.

81% of blacks believe the education system will improve; 65% of whites believe it will get worse.

63% agreed with the statement: It will take a long time, but we will eventually become a united nation; 22% said the nation will always be divided.

44% agreed that blacks and whites will never trust one another. 24% disagreed and 28% had no opinion.

SOURCES: South African Institute of Race Relations, South African government, BusinessMap, United Nations

CAPTION: Maj. Gen. Andre Bestbier, left, who commanded special operations in South Africa's military when it hunted anti-apartheid activists, meets with officers from other African countries for a training exercise. Still in the military, he says that "change had to take place."

CAPTION: Maj. Gen. Lungile Pepani was one of the "terrorists" hunted by the South African National Defense Force, in which he now serves. "It was war, but now let us forgive," he says.

CAPTION: The vast majority of black South African soldiers are in the lower ranks. Some were role playing during training exercises earlier this month.