A nation turns its lonely eyes to him

This is the end of an era. Nelson Mandela, the prisoner who became president and an icon of this century, will leave South Africa's political stage after tomorrow's election and retire to the hills and valleys of his childhood village.

"I don't know what we are going to do without him," says Nkosi Mophiphi tearfully, as she watches Mr. Mandela wave to a roaring crowd at a campaign rally in the black township of Soweto where she lives. "He has done so much for this country."

And now?

"We will have to depend on ordinary people to get the job done. We will get on with our lives," says Chris Landsberg, at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.

"Nelson Mandela is a saint. But in a weird sense, it will be a relief when Mandela leaves.

"For too long," he explains, "we have been treated as this abnormal nation with this great, moral leader, this icon. But we have to normalize."

Mandela's government has had its share of shortcomings. But, in the five years since his election in 1994, more than 500 laws were passed to dismantle apartheid and restructure almost every facet of life in South Africa. For the first time, basic human rights are enshrined in the Constitution. Racial integration has swept government offices, hospitals, the police, and the military.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission began to heal some painful apartheid wounds. Past wrongs are slowly being redressed with provisions for land restitution, workers' rights, and black business empowerment.

An ambitious development program has substantially improved the lives of many impoverished blacks neglected by the old regime. Millions of people now have access to safe drinking water, electricity for stoves and lamps, and phones that connect isolated rural areas to the outside world.

Some 700,000 families have moved out of shantytown shacks into subsidized homes. Hundreds of health clinics have been opened, and primary care is free to all.

On the negative side, the education system, while more integrated, is still underfunded and ineffectual for many. Corruption is rampant, crime is soaring, and unemployment is at 30 percent. But few can argue when Mandela says proudly: "Things that were unimaginable a few years ago have become a reality."

And, when the world looks back on the Mandela era, the policies of his government will probably seem like mere details. He will be most remembered for his deft ability to give expression to black anger while soothing white fears.

"Whites are fellow South Africans," he told journalists the day after his apartheid jailers released him in 1990. Three years later he single-handedly averted race riots when Chris Hani, the popular Communist Party leader, was assassinated by a right-wing militant.

"Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together," Mandela said in a national television address. And the country was calm.

As president, Mandela was equally comfortable sharing tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, and consoling the impoverished black mother of a baby killed by a white farmer. He cajoled dozens of wealthy business leaders into building schools and health clinics.

Some critics say Mandela's judgment was at times clouded by his loyalty for old comrades. Despite numerous scandals - government support for a quack AIDS cure, corruption among housing officials, scams in school- lunch programs - the president did not cut a single Cabinet minister loose.

Mandela's foreign policy was clumsy, according to Tom Lodge of the Electoral Institute of South Africa in Johannesburg. An invasion of Lesotho, for example, was ill planned. Human rights activists were often angered by Mandela's continued friendship with countries they deplored that had supported the ANC's anti-apartheid struggle.

But his oft-questioned tie with Libya's Muammar Qaddafi paid off this year when he brokered a deal that saw Libya release for trial two men suspected of bombing the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. This may stand as his major foreign-policy coup.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A nation turns its lonely eyes to him
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today