In his first speech to Parliament since succeeding Nelson Mandela as president, Thabo Mbeki today described in both poetic and prosaic terms his plans for continuing South Africa's transformation, offering his vision of a "caring society" while also proposing efforts to crack down on crime and invigorate the stalled economy.
Full of soaring rhetoric but few surprises, Mbeki's speech signaled merely that he intended, for the most part, to pursue the social and economic reforms initiated by South Africa's first democratically elected president. But in its tone and subtext, Mbeki's speech seemed to show an acute awareness of the juncture at which South Africa finds itself, five years after the end of white-minority rule.
The new government is faced essentially with rebuilding the nation, providing adequate housing, jobs and protection to the 31 million blacks here who were relegated to menial labor, slums and substandard education during nearly five decades under the system of racial separation known as apartheid. The constitution has been rewritten, and the Mandela government spent five years pursuing similar goals, but unemployment, poverty and crime remain high, and the abiding concern is that the exhilaration of freedom will turn to impatience if the pace of change does not accelerate.
"One of the central features of the brutish society we seek to bring to an end is the impermissible level of crime," Mbeki said today. "Acting together with the people, we will heighten our efforts radically to improve the safety and security of all our citizens." He introduced several proposals, including tougher penalties for crimes involving guns, better training for police officers, community policing programs and new investigative units to weed out government corruption.
Mbeki also touted his administration's efforts to attract foreign investment and bolster the stagnant economy through privatizing state-owned businesses, announcing that a Swiss-owned corporation had purchased a 20 percent stake in South African Airlines for roughly $250 million. And he indicated that his administration is willing to reassess labor laws that business executives contend discourage investment and business expansion.
Overarching Mbeki's specific proposals was the theme of South Africa's metamorphosis from a tyrannical, racist regime to a "caring society" that, with its industrialized economy, can play a pivotal role in the revitalization of post-Cold War Africa.
"The government will also focus on tasks of achieving the objectives of the African Renaissance and ensuring that the next century evolves as the African Century," Mbeki said. "We will therefore contribute whatever we can toward the resolution of conflicts on our continent. We cannot accept that war, violent conflict and [rape] are a permanent condition of existence for us as Africans."