Unlike most African leaders, South African President Nelson Mandela believes in leaving a party while everyone is still having fun.
While his people would have him stay, this week the man who symbolizes South Africa's more- or-less peaceful transition to multiracial democracy managed to get one foot out the door.
Yesterday, Mr. Mandela retired as president of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), foreshadowing his retiring as head of state in 1999.
Ever since Mandela was elected president in 1994, South Africans and the international community alike have worried about the WHAM factor - What Happens After Mandela. In 1994, he seemed to be the only person capable of smoothing the ragged cloth of South African society rent by generations of white-on-black and black-on-black conflict.
Will the new South Africa survive the departure of its beloved "old man," or will pent-up tensions explode between blacks and whites, Zulus and Xhosas, capitalists and communists?
Mandela's careful, very public grooming of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki as his replacement has gone a long way to gutting the much-anticipated WHAM factor. Mandela engineered Mr. Mbeki's uncontested nomination as president of the ANC this week, from
As Mandela Takes Bow, S. Africa Ponders Life Without Its Icon
which position he is a shoo-in for state president in the 1999 national elections.
In highly public gestures, Mandela already has devolved power to his deputy. Mbeki chairs Cabinet meetings, and Mandela has moved much of the budget for the president's office over to his deputy's office.
The somewhat mysterious Mbeki is a consummate back-room operator as well as being a policy wonk, leaving the limelight to the beloved Mandela. The president has conducted himself less like a politician and more like a king with the common touch: Whenever he attends an official banquet, he greets the waiters before he greets anyone else.
Mbeki is in charge of day-to-day government business; Mandela performs ceremonial functions, dips into foreign affairs, and applies the "Mandela touch" in considered dollops to certain constituencies - particularly children, athletes, and communities devastated by violent crime.
It seems the world has started to accept that aprs Mandela, Mbeki will ensure there is no dluge. This week, while South African society pondered the president's measured departure from public life, international financiers voiced their confidence in Mbeki, predicting stability for the South African rand through 1998 and an increase in investor confidence.
On Tuesday, as Mandela headed to the podium to deliver his final speech as ANC president, he walked with a slow, stiff gait to deliver a feisty, very political rendering of the country's brief history as a democracy. He said with the ANC at the helm, there had been "no breakdown in the system of government, whatever the limitations and occasional mistakes, if any."
Fiery farewell speech
Mandela warned, as has Mbeki in recent speeches, that the first post-apartheid government's emphasis on national reconciliation between races would soon give way to an emphasis on redressing economic and other imbalances between the races. Whites were still not prepared to give up their privileges, the president said.
"Whenever we have sought real progress through affirmative action, the spokespersons of the advantaged have not hesitated to cry foul, citing all manner of evil such as racism, violation of the Constitution, nepotism, dictatorship, inducing a brain drain, and frightening the foreign investor," Mandela railed. He said elements of the former apartheid government, including unreformed members of the civil service and security forces, were likely to "launch or intensify a campaign of destabilization."
He also attacked the white-controlled media for "propaganda" about the failure of the ANC to deal with crime. (Murders have declined marginally in South Africa in recent years to an average of 65 per day - seven times the rate in America.)
By targeting whites, Mandela was "giving his supporters a reason why they haven't had any change under this government," says opposition Democratic Party leader Tony Leon. Mandela was "positioning his party for a range of excuses."
Mandela's speech shocked whites because generally the president has been eager to ensure they (and their capital) remain comfortable in the new South Africa. There are no affirmative-action quotas in the private sector, property rights take precedence over land reform, and capital moves easily in and out of the country.
As the Cape Times wrote recently in an editorial, Mandela has succeeded in "a careful, three-legged egg walk between expressing the black anger of the past, keeping the confidence of the status-quo business establishment, and showing sympathy for an understanding of a defeated Afrikaner nation."
'First prize for S. Africa'
"Mr. Mandela has been absolutely first prize for South Africa," says Helen Suzman, who for decades fought a lonely battle against apartheid from within the all-white legislature. "Mr. Mandela has a deep-seated sense of values, of humanity and human rights, and is a very good communicator of all that.
"He is irreplaceable in many regards," Ms. Suzman adds, "but there are younger people coming up who have had experience in governance over the past three years, so we're not entirely rudderless."
Still, to the poor blacks who make up 70 percent of South Africa's 38 million citizens, Mandela is the government. "I thank God for the house Mandela gave me," says former squatter Beauty Gqirana, oblivious to the complexities of the national housing plan that promises 1 million houses for the poor by 2000.
A survey by Johannesburg's Center for Policy Studies shows black South Africans "are not happy with their lot, but they are surprisingly patient," says director Steven Friedman. Mandela's government hasn't delivered the 400,000 new jobs promised by the end of the century: Employment outside the farm sector fell by 1 percent in 1996 to more than 20 percent. But since 1994, electricity has been extended to 1.2 million houses; another 1.7 million South Africans have ready access to clean water. "These things make a tremendous difference in people's lives," Mr. Friedman says.
But Mandela has been criticized for not running a tight ship of state. His justice and security ministers have not reined in crime to any appreciable extent. Scandals in everything from school feeding programs to the multibillion-dollar housing program have not shaken a single minister out of the Cabinet. "Party loyalty is more important to him than delivery to the people," Mr. Leon says.
Within the party, Mandela has been criticized for engineering the election of his preferred candidates over those with grass-roots support, particularly for the post of ANC deputy president. Mandela's candidate is the uncharismatic Jacob Zuma. There was some question that grass-roots ANC activists would elect Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in a protest vote. But yesterday Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela declined the nomination.
Mandela's reputation has suffered the odd wobble internationally as well. He thumbed his nose at human rights activists this year when he awarded South Africa's highest honor to Indonesia's President Suharto and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, in thanks for their support of the ANC during the apartheid era. However, Mandela has made some headway in bolstering the Southern African Development Community as a defense and economic alliance.
Overall, Mandela's enduring legacy will be his role as national peacemaker, his example in "setting a positive tone for race relations in this country," says Shaun MacKay of the Institute for Race Relations in Johannesburg.
Regardless of his diatribe Tuesday against white privilege, Mr. MacKay says, "he has symbolized the South African ideal."