Empowering Blacks in S. Africa

Wednesday's South African elections are only the third ones since the end of white rule in 1994. On the surface they will bring few surprises. The African National Congress (ANC) will dominate once again, President Thabo Mbeki will be given a second term, and South Africa will remain a model democracy for Africa.

But that only masks a disillusionment among many South Africans.

The ANC finds it more difficult to deliver on basics such as housing and jobs. And despite Mr. Mbeki's attempts to reverse his aloof style and campaign down with the people, he remains under suspicion.

It's not that the most important leader in Africa is not as popular as Nelson Mandela. Or that he refused to debate his main opponent, rule out a third term, or tell voters whom he will select as his deputy president.

No, the question hanging over Mbeki is how far he will take "black economic empowerment" in his second term. That's the government's way of forcing mainly white-run companies to transfer assets to blacks (many of them with ANC connections).

As president, Mr. Mandela made a strategic decision not to ruin the economy by booting out whites from their businesses. He did, however, push affirmative action in hiring. Mbeki and the ANC are more impatient to uplift blacks, but they risk degrading the economy if they shift the racial balance in corporate boardrooms too swiftly or stuff them with cronies.

Mbeki's tolerance of Zimbabwe's rough treatment of white farmers and crony politics is a bad sign. Let's hope this election sends the right signal.

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