CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — President Nelson Mandela and his suave prime minister, Thabo Mbeki, have spent their first three years in power soothing the white minority that still controls South Africa's wealth, jobs, and resources.
The two former revolutionaries have stuck to stern, pinstriped economic policies, with the result that inflation and the deficit are down, the currency is steady, and foreign investment is up.
But the kid-glove treatment of the white minority could not go on forever.
In a media blitz launched this month to signal a new phase in his government, Mr. Mandela's Cabinet announced a spate of affirmative-action policies in jobs, sports, and land, mineral, and water resources. They're clearly a main plank in the African National Congress (ANC) platform for the 1999 elections.
"Affirmative action is corrective action," Mandela said at the opening of Parliament recently. "We shall not be discouraged by the sirens of self-interest that are being sounded in defense of privilege, and the insults that equate women, Africans, ... coloreds, and the disabled with a lowering of standards."
So far, the end of apartheid has yielded little change in South Africa. The richest 20 percent of the population, mostly white, earn 65 percent of all income, while the poorest 20 percent, mostly black, earn only 3 percent.
The Employment Equity Bill directs companies with more than 49 employees to work out affirmative-action programs to promote the careers and improve the pay of those historically kept on the lower rungs. The bill is confusing in that it does not set quotas but speaks of "numerical goals" that will have to be met. Companies that fail will face possible fines of up to 900,000 rand ($200,000).
Political analyst Khehla Shubane of the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg says the ANC's affirmative-action policy is partly inspired by a need to "reassure blacks after three years of reassuring whites."
Even more important, he said, was the need to use affirmative action to create a black middle class to replace the whites who are slowly leaving the country.
The South African Institute for Race Relations, a libertarian think tank funded partly by USAID, is a strident critic of the ANC's affirmative-action plan.
The institute says the bill will give rise to reverse discrimination lawsuits and points out that affirmative action requires the categorization of staff by race, seemingly a return to the bad old days of apartheid. Many critics have pointed out that apartheid started as a form of affirmative action through which jobs and educational opportunities were reserved for poor whites.
Mandela has accused the institute and the opposition Democratic Party of "scaremongering" and defending white privilege. Even the newspaper Business Day, voice of the white business elite, calls the legislation "an unobtrusive bill to address historical inequities and contemporary political pressure which, if not remedied, could lead to economic instability."
Response to affirmative action in mining policy has been more muted, even though it involves the most powerful white interests in South Africa. Mines Minister Panuell Maduna proposes that, over time, mineral rights now held by individuals or corporations should revert to the state.
The government then would issue licenses for their exploitation, preferably by blacks. Unexploited licenses will be revoked and reissued. Mr. Maduna has not given any details about his proposals to empower small-scale black mining concerns.
Similarly, Water Minister Kader Asmal proposes abolition of rights through which landowners own water on their property. He wants to free up water resources for use by blacks.
Interestingly, frustrated white entrepreneurs have applauded the water and mines initiatives because they break the stranglehold "old money" has had on those resources.
Agriculture Minister Derek Hanekom said his department would continue its policy of negotiating, at market price, land purchases from whites as restitution for blacks who lost property under apartheid.
But he added that intransigence on the part of some farmers may lead him to start expropriating land.