The African National Congress (ANC) seems certain to win the June 2 elections announced last week by retiring President Nelson Mandela, but that doesn't necessarily mean people are happy with the way he and the party have governed since 1994.
If anyone embodies the optimistic view of South Africa's future, it is Mkhuseli Jack, a former political activist once tortured by the apartheid police blamed for killing black-consciousness leader Steve Biko. The effervescent Mr. Jack is now a successful building contractor in Port Elizabeth and determined to accentuate the positive.
The ANC government "has done a wonderful job," says Jack. "The opposition parties say that everything has failed, but the government has managed to house my mother, with electricity, water from the tap, things she's never had...."
Jack's children, coming from an upwardly mobile home, see things differently.
"My children are just two and five years old, and they observe their grandmother's one-room house and say, 'Mr. Mandela must not like Mkhulu [grandmother], or he would have given her a bigger house!' Which is exactly what the opposition leaders say, because they, too, look at things from the point of view of privilege."
Jack's sister "is one of those fuming because she hasn't gotten her house yet" under a government program for the country's shack dwellers. "Your level of satisfaction with the government depends on whether you've been touched by it," Jack adds.
The government has raised the percentage of people with safe drinking water near their homes from 70 percent in 1994 to 80 percent today. Households with electricity rose from below 40 percent in 1994 to 63 percent today, with telephones in houses increasing from 25 percent to 35 percent.
Satisfaction with government is split along racial lines. Survey results released in late January showed that 59 percent of blacks think the country is going in the right direction, versus 11 percent of whites.
The ANC hasn't much to worry about at the polls: A survey in December turned up 54 percent support for the ANC, with the formerly powerful National Party set to win just 9 percent.
But the ANC knows its Achilles' heel is its failure to control crime and unemployment. "The men who tortured me can't hurt me anymore, but jobless criminals can," says Jack.
Thabo Mbeki, the country's deputy president slated to fill Mandela's capacious shoes, has made crime prevention his top priority. He already enjoys the confidence of 69 percent of people surveyed by the independent Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa. He is trying to shed his image as an enigmatic, shrewd, back-room player. He has taken to the hustings with a vengeance, insisting he will instill discipline and the rule of law in the new South Africa.
Mr. Mbeki repeatedly points out that political liberation did not mean the freedom to rape, steal, or fraudulently use sick leave, and that applies to many ANC politicians whom he recently referred to as tsotsis, or gangsters. They run for office, he said, "because they want to line their pockets."
Added one of his officials: "Too many South Africans have an advanced sense of their rights without a concomitant commitment to their obligations. There is a permissiveness in which people harbor criminals, buy stolen goods, refuse to cooperate with police. Mr. Mbeki will engender a sense of and obligation to order, lawfulness, and discipline."
MBEKI has promised zero tolerance for corrupt officials, and a corruption hot line has been set up for reporting crimes to one of several corruption-busting units. But many South Africans were disgusted to see that the ANC list of candidates for the next Cabinet includes several convicted criminals and others caught in scandal, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The Mandela government has been accused of addressing every crisis, be it in education, crime, or health care, by calling for a committee or a white paper.
Particularly cited has been its failure to tackle rampant crime in the Western Cape, where gangsters and a tiny Islamic fundamentalist group are blamed for a wave of pipe-bomb attacks, and in KwaZulu Natal where political warfare means several murders each week.
"There is a sense that now with Mbeki, there will be more delivery [of governmental action]," says political analyst Dumisane Hlophe of South Africa's University of Durban-Westville.
One key challenge for Mbeki's government will be to rid the civil service of apartheid-era hacks protected by the nation's labor law, which demands proof of misconduct or underproductivity by staff members before they can be fired.
"From now on we will go about it [dismissing civil servants] very methodically," says the ANC official. "We will have performance appraisals and will build our cases."
Many South Africans have no time for a methodical approach. A young day laborer, Xolani Jezele, is looking for an African "strongman" to replace Mandela, and he's not thinking of Mbeki.
"I will vote for Bantu Holomisa" of the United Democratic Movement, formerly a military leader in one of the disbanded black homelands set up under apartheid, he says.
"Holomisa was a general in the Army, he knows about discipline," says Mr. Jezele, who was stabbed in the face on New Year's Day by a man trying to steal meat from his beach barbecue. He and his friend Sandile Ngwenge are from Mr. Holomisa's home turf in the Transkei region. "Holomisa looks after his people," says Mr. Ngwenge.
Whether or not Holomisa and his party fit the bill, it is precisely such voter sentiments in favor of "strongman" patronage politics - rife in other parts of Africa - that disturb promoters of democracy in South Africa.