Where to now, South Africa?

As the black leaders who broke apartheid pass from the scene, the country's political direction hangs in the balance.

Against the magnificent background of Table Mountain, workmen on Cape Town's seafront are busy building a huge new sports stadium.

It is where some of the World Cup soccer games will be played in South Africa in 2010. Teams from more than 30 nations will compete in various southern African cities over a period of six weeks. The games are expected to bring to South Africa some 200,000 soccer fans from elsewhere in Africa, and 300,000 from the rest of the world. Several thousand visiting reporters will feature South Africa on television and in newspapers and news magazines around the globe. In other cities besides Cape Town, new stadiums are being built, airports expanded, suburban railway lines constructed, and there is a general sprucing up.

It will be a tremendous showcase and the government looks upon it, rather as China does the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, as a sort of coming-of-age opportunity for South Africa as a respectable member of the international community.

South Africa has a dramatic story to recount. After decades of ostracism for its abhorrent racial policies, it has become transformed into a truly democratic multiracial society, with clearly the most advanced economy on the African continent.

On the negative side, it has a serious problem with urban crime, which the government vows to clean up by 2010.

There is also a high incidence of AIDS.

But the critical question confronting the nation is what political direction it will take as a generation of black leaders that broke the bondage of apartheid 13 years ago passes from the scene. The leader of this group, many of whom spent years in exile, is Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years, much of it on Robben Island, within view of Cape Town. He emerged without rancor to head a unity government dominated by blacks but pledged to treat blacks and whites equally. While his influence remains strong, he has become more of an elder statesman. On the occasion of his 89th birthday last month, he announced the creation of a consultative group of elder statesmen – including Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and four Nobel Peace Prize winners – to tackle world problems.

Under Mr. Mandela's mantel, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded him in 1999 as president, has preserved the Mandela legacy of moderation. But Mr. Mbeki is scheduled to leave the presidency in 2009 and the question is who will succeed him and will the Mandela legacy be lasting? The African National Congress (ANC) of Mandela and Mbeki, which brought about the demise of apartheid, is wildly popular and will determine the makeup of the Parliament that convenes in Cape Town. The ANC is the dominant member of a tripartite alliance that includes the unions and the South African Communist Party, the latter favoring such traditional communist policies as nationalization of state enterprises, but having little influence.

The deputy leader of the ANC – a position which makes him a strong contender to succeed Mbeki as president of the country – is the controversial Jacob Zuma. He enjoys the support of unions and leftists whose views are in contrast to Mbeki's centrist and pro-business stance. Mr. Zuma has been in the headlines for various sexual escapades and has also been linked to cases of fraud and corruption, but was acquitted.

While the ANC has largely supported the moderation of Mandela and Mbeki, it is also steeped in its revolutionary history and association with other revolutionaries during its period of exile and harassment. Thus names such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are honored as those of guerillas to be admired. The contributions of European countries and the United States to apartheid's demise are sometimes overlooked. Current US policy in Iraq is a prickly topic.

In 1580, after rounding the Cape peninsula on which Cape Town sits, Sir Francis Drake pronounced it "the fairest cape we have seen in the whole circumference of the earth." Often linked to Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town is also hailed as one of South Africa's most mellow, rich in history. Today, from a single viewing spot, you can visualize the past (where Mandela was imprisoned), see the present (the Parliament where a black government presides over a multi-racial populace), and ponder the future (a stadium where in 2010 a host of visitors will appraise South Africa's progress). The past and the present are well known. The future is more problematic.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, has spent the past month in Africa.

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