SOUTH Africa's long and tumultuous march to democratic rule moved toward a joyous conclusion yesterday as President-elect Nelson Mandela began assuming power after a symbolic hand-over by President Frederik de Klerk on May 2.
Mr. Mandela met with Mr. De Klerk - the man who freed him from jail four years ago and will become his second deputy president - in private discussions to work out the details of the transition of power, which will be formalized with Mandela's inauguration on May 10.
Even as the ANC achieved a commanding victory of more 60 percent of national votes, the count in Natal Province moved slowly - with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the lead - making it the one area of possible discord in a remarkably peaceful election.
Mandela set the tone for the incoming government at an emotionally charged ANC celebration May 2 in Johannesburg: ``There should be no tensions in any region in which we have not emerged as the majority party,'' he said. ``Let us stretch out our hands to those who have beaten us and say to them that we are all South Africans. We had a good fight, but now this is the time to heal the old wounds and to build a new South Africa.''
The new South African Parliament - including representatives of the country's black majority for the first time in the country's 342-year history - gathers in Cape Town May 6 to go through the formalities of electing the president. And May 5, the newly elected assemblies of the nine provinces meet for the first time to inaugurate premiers who will play a key role in a restructured political system that has restored some provincial powers after years of centralized rule under apartheid.
De Klerk's speech May 2, in which he conceded an ANC victory in the country's first all-race ballot, was acclaimed in political and diplomatic circles as the most statesmanlike of his career.
ANC officials complimented De Klerk on the gracious and conciliatory manner in which he conceded power. (South Africa's political history, Page 3.)
``After so many centuries, we will finally have a government which represents all South Africans,'' said a clearly emotional De Klerk. ``After so many centuries, all South Africans are now free.''
He struck a fine balance between conceding electoral defeat and claiming a major role in the country's transition to a more stable order.
``While we admit that another party obtained a majority of the votes, we in the National Party [NP] say that our second place is not a defeat, but a victory for the course that we stand for,'' he said.
He also pledged his full support to Mandela: ``Mr. Mandela has walked a long road and now stands at the top of the hill.
``As he contemplates the next hill, I hold out my hand to Mr. Mandela in friendship and in cooperation.
``As far as my own position is concerned, I would like to make it clear that I believe that my political task is just beginning.... I shall be handing over the presidency to Mr. Mandela, but I shall not be leaving government,'' he said.
Mandela said he had received telephone calls from De Klerk, right-wing Freedom Front leader Gen. Constand Viljoen, Democratic Party leader Zach de Beer, and Pan Africanist Congress Deputy President Johnson Mlambo pledging their full support.
He hinted that he would appoint members of the FF, DP, and PAC to the coalition cabinet, despite their failure to achieve the qualifying 5 percent threshold of votes. Mandela made no reference to IFP leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
The country continued to experience unprecedented tranquillity as election results trickled in for the fourth successive day, and the final result appeared at least another two days away.
With about 60 percent of votes counted, the ANC had won 62 percent of the vote. The ANC has won seven of the nine provinces but conceded defeat to the NP in Western Cape Province - the seat of Parliament.
The NP was in second place with about 22 percent of the vote, and Inkatha - the only other party likely to be represented in the coalition cabinet by virtue of votes won - in third place with about 7 percent.
The latest computer projections of the final result give the ANC 65 percent of the vote - just short of the 66.7 percent it would need to write the final constitution without having to consult other parties. The NP is given about 20 percent of the vote.
The result in strife-torn Natal Province, where Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha maintained an early lead with less than a third of the results known, is still in the balance and causing increasing concern in political and diplomatic circles.
Rumors of massive fraud in Inkatha strongholds persist, and peace monitors fear that an Inkatha victory would be widely perceived as the result of systematic cheating.
On the other hand, the clear IFP lead in votes counted has fueled already rampant expectations in Inkatha ranks of a provincial victory.
``Either way, things are not looking good,'' says a concerned Western diplomat. ``If the ANC wins, IFP supporters are likely to cry foul, and the threat of more political violence will increase. If the IFP wins, militant ANC supporters who control the urban areas are unlikely to take it lying down.''
Mandela, trying to calm tensions and prevent a backlash in provinces secured by the ANC's opponents, appealed May 2 to his supporters to accept the reality of defeat.
As balloons in the black, green, and yellow colors of the ANC were released, and corks popped at the ANC celebration, National Chairman Thabo Mbeki recalled the words of Martin Luther King Jr. -
in the presence of the civil rights leader's widow, Coretta King -
to capture the most emotional moment in the nation's history: ``Free at last, God Almighty, we are free at last.''
Several hundred ANC members and their guests danced late into the night as hundreds more supporters gathered in the streets below, and the townships erupted in an outpouring of joyous celebration.