PRESIDENT Nelson Mandela moves effortlessly across his expansive office to answer the telephone. ``Hello, Raymond, how are you?'' he says as if greeting an old friend.
Raymond Ackermann, liberal chairman of Pick 'n Pay, is on the line. The supermarket chain lost millions of United States dollars last July in a protracted strike by black employees demanding higher wages.
Mr. Ackermann wants to discuss a proposal to promote Cape Town as the venue for the 2004 Olympics. President Mandela assures Ackermann that he is right behind him. Ackermann then makes a remark about the strike and Mandela reassures him: ``Yes, I am very glad the strike is over.''
A day earlier, the Monitor witnessed another side of Mandela as he addressed some 2,000 militant trade unionists at Vista University in Soweto.
Wearing the T-shirt and cap of the 1.3 million-strong Congress of South African Workers, Mandela danced as the unionists chanted. ``The press has been telling us that members of the Cabinet due to appear here will be slaughtered. I didn't want to be the first victim,'' he joked while addressing the group. ``I first wanted to survey the lay of the land. When I was certain nothing had happened to my colleague - Labor Minister Tito Mboweni - I decided to come.''
The humor defused tension and enabled him to lecture the workers on the need to tighten their belts and help create jobs for the 5 million unemployed.
It was one of his toughest assignments since assuming office.
In an exclusive Monitor interview, Mandela sits at ease in the tastefully furnished office that was the domain of former President Frederik de Klerk until the April elections swept the African National Congress to power as the senior partner in a government of national unity.
``The government of national unity is working very well,'' he says. ``So far, I have no reason to fear about its future.''
Mandela has brought his personal stamp to the presidential office in the form of four black-and-white photographs of himself as an amateur boxer 35 years ago. In the opposite corner hangs a photograph of the simple house at Mqekezweni in the former black homeland of Transkei, where Mandela was brought up by his father's cousin - paramount chief of the Tembu's, a subtribe of the Xhosas.
From this office adjoining Parliament, Mandela has set the tone of the new government and provided the leadership that has consolidated the political transformation symbolized by the election.
In the four months since then, he has successfully sidelined right-wing opposition, won the loyalty of the security forces, created hope among investors, and established consensus as the guiding principle in government.
But two long, damaging strikes strained relations with potential foreign investors, who regard South African workers as costly, militant, and unproductive.
The first wave of labor unrest under a democratic government also highlighted unfulfilled black expectations and served as a reminder that failure to rapidly implement the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) could shatter the tenuous unity of the new government and pave the way for a populist regime, which could spark white resistance.
Warning that power corrupts, Mandela urged the unionists to remain independent and criticize government as vigorously as they saw fit. ``But I must warn you: You are in power now, and it is no longer sufficient just to criticize. You must build, too,'' he said.
``The critical challenge facing us is: Can blacks run the country successfully? Can we use the political power we have won to better the lives of the people of our country?'' he added.
There was no doubt who had won the first test of strength between unions and the new government. Mandela was in control.
WE will have to find a way of ensuring that everyone tightens their belts,'' Mandela told the Monitor. ``The problem is that we will be making that call to black workers who have not yet achieved parity with whites.''
He is acutely aware of the two major problems facing him in the months and years ahead: financing socioeconomic development to meet black expectations and combating rising crime in a country where more than four decades of apartheid undermined the law.
``As the government gets a firm grip on the levers of power, I think we will overcome quite easily the culture of violence we have inherited and the disrespect for the law,'' Mandela said.
He added that he was discussing with his deputy presidents - Mr. De Klerk and Thabo Mbeki - increasing the size of the police force and pay to policemen.
``The police force is even more important than the military because they have the task of suppressing crime,'' he said.
``Without suppressing crime - which has reached unacceptable levels - it is going to be very difficult for us to create the environment whereby the RDP can succeed.''
And then, as if to remind himself: ``Once we are able to deliver improvements through the RDP, I think we will enjoy the support of our people.''