One of the most unsettling thoughts about this country's future is that so much is riding on one man. Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who is expected to become president of a free and democratic South Africa in next month's elections, may be indispensable to this historic moment.
That explains why his security and his health are a constant topic of conversation. What if the aging liberator of the country's black majority should fall victim to an assassin or even die suddenly of natural causes? It is a thought that makes even South Africa's white minority cringe. Mandela rides in an armor-plated limousine and is protected by bodyguards trained by the U.S. Secret Service. To see Mandela on the campaign trail, however, is to realize how vulnerable he is to harm. It is also to marvel at the vigor of this 75-year-old man who wears orthopedic socks and a hearing aid. He still follows the exercise regimen he developed in prison, but by the end of a long campaign day, his pace slows, his voice weakens. Yet, he keeps pushing himself, saying it is "my duty" to reach as many people as he can.
Nelson Mandela is the rock of South Africa's "negotiated revolution," at least in the critical transition phase. Its success depends to a large degree on the moral authority of this man who spent 27 years in prison for his opposition to apartheid. It is Mandela, more than any other leader, who has been able to control the more radical elements of the African National Congress, a liberation movement turned political party. It is Mandela who is being counted on to chart a course of moderation that is vital to South Africa's political and economic future.
As a speaker, Mandela often comes across as tired and wooden. But as a presence, he is a powerful political force who embodies the dreams of most of the country's 73 percent black majority. "Mandela's genius these past four years has been to understand the possibilities inherent in being Mandela," wrote Paul Taylor of the Washington Post. "He knows he can approach every transaction from the moral high ground."
It is unlikely that any other black leader could have accomplished what Mandela has in the four years since he emerged from prison to negotiate an end to more than three centuries of white rule.
Taylor wrote: "He had to transform the "world's oldest liberation movement,' as the African National Congress likes to call itself, from an underground, exiled, imprisoned organization into a government-in-waiting. He had to unlearn the shibboleths of socialism that had been discarded by most of the rest of the world while he was out of circulation. He had to engender a culture of trust in a society that had spent more than four decades codifying its racial fears and hates into a grotesque body of law. He had to teach blacks not to wallow in bitterness, and whites not to fear retribution. He had to persuade a generation of supporters younger and angrier and more traumatized by apartheid than he was _ a generation spoiling for war _ that the negotiating table was every bit as legitimate a theater of struggle as the battlefield. And he had to manage all this while his wife was entangled in a soap opera of criminal, financial and sexual scandal that destroyed their marriage."
After the April 26-28 elections, in which the outcome is not in doubt, Mandela will face an even greater challenge _ building a multiracial society in which free elections, a free press, free political activity and civil liberties become entrenched. It won't be a pretty sight at first. The seeds of democracy are being sown on rocky ground. Apartheid's legacy includes a culture of violence and intolerance. The words of the politicians sound reassuring in the campaign, but all of the major political parties have strong authoritarian tendencies.
The interim Constitution tries to touch all the right bases. It protects gays and women from discrimination, and it specifically supports press freedom, although it is written in vague language. How tolerant will a new government be of a critical press? A free press is not a tradition here, and in covering this election campaign journalists are being threatened, roughed up or even killed by political agitators.
How does one campaign against South Africa's version of George Washington? President F. W. de Klerk, who shares a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, is still trying to figure that one out. He campaigns as the man who freed Nelson Mandela and set South Africa on the road to democracy. He suggests that Mandela is being used by ANC radicals who are too undisciplined, too militant and too communist to be trusted with power.
There is not another Mandela in waiting, but the line of succession has become clearer in recent months. Second and third to Mandela in the ANC leadership is Cyril Ramaphosa, its general secretary, and Thabo Mbeki, its chairman. Neither rivals Mandela in stature or moral authority. Ramaphosa, who founded and led the black National Union of Mineworkers until he stepped down in 1990, scored political points for his hard-nosed bargaining with the ruling National Party in recent months. Mbeki, who spent 30 years outside the country, is known for his instinctive moderation.
The ANC membership is both diverse and fragile. One-third of its candidates are women. Communists have long been prominent in the ANC's top ranks. Not even Mandela has been able to paper over some of the divisions, including the tensions between unionized workers and the forces of capitalism. Young militants are impatient with what they view as Mandela's agenda of half-hearted reforms. They are eager to settle old scores, against both white Afrikaners and members of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) that is threatening a boycott of the elections.
Last week, after the latest round of negotiations, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the IFP, announced that the ANC had accepted his party's demand for international mediation of the new Constitution. He said the IFP is prepared to participate in the elections if some details can be resolved. But the two sides have been close to an agreement before, only to have Buthelezi add new conditions at the last minute.
In the last four years, more than 12,000 South Africans have died in mostly black-on-black political violence between the Zulus and the ANC. The killing continues on a daily basis. The violence has only reinforced the anxieties of white South Africans who have become fearful and deeply cynical about the future.
Whites in Cape Town tell of black maids who have been led to believe that they will be given the houses and belongings of their white employers after a black government is installed. A young white policeman, who accepts the end of apartheid, wonders if he will have a job after the elections. Many of the wealthy already are leaving the country. But, the officer asks, what is to become of working people like him?
If the future holds uncertainty for the country's 4.5-million whites, what about its 33-million blacks, who have for so long been deprived of freedom, human dignity, education, skilled jobs, basic health care and decent housing? How will Mandela's government balance their utopian expectations against the imperative of maintaining political and economic stability?
The greatest challenge facing the new government will be how to achieve both economic growth and economic redistribution. If it moves too aggressively toward nationalization and redistribution, that could chill the investment climate and suffocate economic growth. Yet, black South Africans have suffered too long not to have their needs _ housing, education, health care and jobs _ at the top of the new government's priority list. Apartheid not only morally disfigured South Africa; it also distorted its economy and created the unconscionable disparities between rich and poor, white and black, that now must be addressed: a jobless rate of almost 50 percent, 10-million people living in squatter shacks, 87 percent of the land owned by 12 percent of the population. Something has to give.
The ANC platform is not that radical. In the United States, a liberal Democrat could stand comfortably on its planks. It calls for a massive public works job program, the construction of at least 300,000 new houses each year and the delivery of clean water and electricity to millions of people who have neither. It also calls for redistributing up to 30 percent of the country's farmland, but only when there are "willing sellers."
Business communities both here in South Africa and abroad clearly are nervous about the prospects of nationalization and government intervention in the economy. On some issues, such as its plans for taxing wealth, the ANC leadership is being vague.
In a recent speech to the International Press Institute meeting in Cape Town, Mandela said little to ease the anxiety of the country's business community and foreign investors. He blamed the economy's structural weaknesses on apartheid and made it clear that it will not be business as usual under an ANC government.
"We are convinced that left to their own devices," Mandela said, "the South African business community will not rise to the challenges that face us. The objective of our policies is to create employment as our highest priority. While the democratic state will maintain and develop the market, we envisage occasions when it will be necessary for it to intervene where growth and development require such intervention. Among these will be the employment of mechanisms of affirmative action to redress the effects of past discrimination against blacks, against women, people in the rural areas and the physically disabled."
On the campaign trail, Mandela is trying to strike the delicate balance between raising black hopes and tempering black expectations. He asks for patience, explaining that it is going to take time to close the gaping chasm that, as the Economist magazine put it, "stretches between black and white, between leafy villa and tin shack, high-tech heart transplant and untreated typhoid."
The case for optimism starts with the recognition that economic growth is as indispensable to South Africa's future _ especially to the hopes of the black masses _ as Nelson Mandela is to the peaceful revolution unfolding here.
South Africa is the continent's economic giant, with a sophisticated infrastructure and a solid industrial base to build upon. If the new black government is to lift its people out of poverty, it is going to have to depend for the foreseeable future on the whites who make the country's economic engine run. It cannot afford white flight, at least not now.
How will the ANC government explain to this generation of blacks why it should not expect to share fully in the economic success of the richest and most powerful black-run country in the world? It presents an awesome challenge even for a leader of Mandela's stature.
"If the economy fails to meet the minimum needs of the population and the unemployment rate continues to soar, there will be rising crime and unrest," Allister Sparks, one of South Africa's most respected journalists, said in a speech in Cairo last year. "One can also foresee a future black opposition emerging, a militant socialist workers opposition which may not be able to aspire to power but again could disrupt the fragile political agreement and send the country down the spiral."
Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the Times.