With a wave of his hand and a few humble words, South African President Nelson Mandela bid farewell to his nation Wednesday but left behind a rich legacy of democracy and racial reconciliation. His successor, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, sworn into office immediately following Mr. Mandela’s retirement, now faces the difficult task of moving South Africa from racial reconciliation to social transformation.
There is no other statesman alive who enjoys greater moral authority and international prestige and affection than South Africa’s first black president. Emerging from nearly three decades in prison, Mr. Mandela not only managed to win his people’s freedom, but did so without resorting to violence or vengeance against a white populace that had oppressed South Africa’s black majority for decades. At a time when lesser men would have urged their followers to seek revenge, Mr. Mandela instead preached reconciliation and for the most part South Africans listened, enabling the country to make the transition from a racist state to a multiracial democracy.
The fairness and orderliness that marked South Africa’s recent elections attest to Mr. Mandela’s success in firmly establishing the roots of democracy in this nation of 40 million. And the time that he spent healing the country’s racial divides at home was matched by the energy he devoted to promoting South Africa abroad and winning for it the respect and support of the international community.
While Mr. Mandela’s accomplishments are enormous, his administration had more than its share of failures. With unemployment hovering at 40 percent, the crime rate soaring, a still-gaping discrepancy between black and white standards of living and an AIDS epidemic that has infected a quarter of the population, South Africa remains a deeply troubled country.
Many of the shortfalls stemmed from the president’s hands-off management style. Although any new administration has its share of teething pains — much less the first black-majority government in South African history — Mr. Mandela never undertook a major reshuffling of his Cabinet or replaced ministers who did not measure up to the task. Perhaps a reflection on his years spent underground fighting South Africa’s apartheid regime, loyalty rather than competence often seemed to be the character trait most prized by the president. And as time passed, Mr. Mandela left most of the day-to-day running of the government to then-Deputy President Mbeki and other officials, and increasingly spent his time performing ceremonial functions at home and abroad rather than participating in the solution of pressing issues facing the nation.
A large number of critics, mostly blacks, even find fault with Mr. Mandela’s greatest legacy: racial reconciliation. They complain that the president spent too much bridging the racial divide — an action seen by some as “coddling whites” — and too little time working on the transformation of the country from one of apartheid to one of equality in reality as well as word.
Such criticism is not without truth. During Mr. Mandela’s administration, for example, no major program was launched to improve the country’s abysmal education system, which is of vital importance if South Africa’s black population is to enjoy equal opportunity. In addition, the majority of South African blacks still cannot find decent jobs, and Mr. Mandela has done next to nothing to combat South Africa’s devastating AIDS epidemic.
President Mbeki is well aware of the daunting problems facing his nation. In his inaugural address he spoke eloquently of how “No night can be restful when millions have no jobs, and some are forced to beg, rob and murder to ensure that they and their own do not perish from hunger.” He views the African National Congress’ triumph in the recent elections as a mandate to speed up what he calls his “transformation” program aimed at giving black South Africans a bigger piece of the socio-economic pie.
To achieve this goal, Mr. Mbeki will need to continue to walk the tightrope followed by his predecessor. He must create opportunity for blacks through a skillful blend of social and economic policies while avoiding shortsighted moves that risk damaging the economy and alienating foreign investors and the mostly white business community on whom the country’s prosperity still largely depends.
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