PRESIDENT Nelson Mandela, in his first major speech since assuming office, outlined an imaginative vision for the socio-economic transformation of a society ravaged by more than four decades of apartheid.
Mr. Mandela, who received a standing ovation from the 490-member Parliament, chose the words of a white Afrikaner poet, Ingrid Jonker, to open and conclude his maiden speech in the country's first democratically elected Parliament on May 24.
``In her glorious vision she instructs that our endeavors must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man, and the liberty of the child,'' he said, quoting Jonker's tribute to the African child written in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of unarmed black protesters by white policemen.
In a 45-minute speech devoted almost exclusively to social and economic development, Mandela announced measures to achieve rapid upliftment in black living standards while maintaining tight fiscal discipline.
``Our single most important challenge is therefore to help establish a social order in which the freedom of the individual will truly mean the freedom of the individual,'' Mandela said, following a ceremonial opening of Parliament, which included a 21-gun salute and a flyover by the South African Air Force. He stressed the importance of restoring the human dignity of all South Africans, especially women and youths.
Mandela revisited the themes of reconciliation and nation-building, and promised that amnesty for criminal offenses committed in pursuit of political objectives would be addressed in a ``balanced and dignified way.''
He announced that the government would contribute an initial $700 million to the Reconstruction and Development Program drawn up by the African National Congress (ANC), which is now backed by the government of national unity and the business community.
He said this amount would increase each year, rising to nearly $3 billion by the fifth year.
``The government of national unity has reached consensus ... on many elements of a plan broadly based on the Reconstruction and Development Program,'' he said.
The new president stressed that the rehabilitation of marginalized black youths would form a cornerstone of the program.
He announced immediate plans to provide free medical care to children under six years and pregnant mothers and a nutritional feeding scheme at primary schools.
Mandela outlined a development program based on the principles of economic growth and financial discipline that would include the maintenance of present taxation levels and the stepping up of the fight against inflation. He also announced steps to address the housing backlog, education, and the provision of electricity.
Hours before Mandela spoke, ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa, who waived a Cabinet appointment after losing the post of first deputy president to rival Thabo Mbeki last month, was elected chairman of the Constitutional Assembly with former Manpower Minister Leon Wessels as deputy.
Mr. Ramaphosa said shortly after his election that he would encourage the involvement of civil society - business, churches, and community groups - in the constitution-making process.
The opening of the first working session of the new South African Parliament was to be marked by key events on May 25 that symbolize the country's return to the African and international folds:
* In New York, Deputy President Mbeki was to attend a session of the United Nations Security Council where the 16-year-old arms embargo against South Africa was expected to be repealed.
Mr. Mbeki said that the UN had chosen Africa Day for the historic event, symbolizing the country's readmission to the international community; South Africa will formally take up its seat in the UN General Assembly in September.
* In Addis Ababa, Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo was to attend the raising of the new South African flag at the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity on May 25, the organization's 32nd anniversary. South Africa's formal admission to the OAU will take place at the next full summit in Tunis on June 13-15.
In his speech to Parliament, Mandela also announced plans for South Africa to rejoin the Commonwealth, a grouping of 52 former British colonies that form a mutual- support system of aid and development programs.
Mandela's plan to combat poverty will be advanced in the new government's first budget, which is to be presented to Parliament by Finance Minister Derek Keys on June 22.
The week-long parliamentary session will set up remaining structures created under the interim constitution, a document signed by multiparty negotiators last November.
The most important of these are the Constitutional Court, the Constitutional Assembly, and a series of parliamentary standing committees that will hold their hearings in the open for the first time.
The Constitutional Court, which is set up in terms of a detailed and independent procedure by the Judicial Services Commission, will act as the custodian of a sovereign constitution and adjudicate in conflicts between the constitution, a bill of rights, and the law.