South Africa : Honeymoon’s over

South African President Nelson Mandela will have been in office for 100 days tomorrow. Derwin Pereira of the Foreign Desk, who was on assignment in South Africa recently, looks at the performance of the country’s first black government. Mandela govt scores some hits, but blacks getting impatient for economic miracle

CONTRARY to expectations that the country’s apartheid past would end in a bloodbath, the first 100 days of President Nelson Mandela’s government have given cause for hope.

Although he faces a daunting challenge in proving that his government has started to turn around decades of apartheid in little more than three months, the general assessment from South Africans is optimistic.

“South Africa has gone through a peaceful political revolution and made a very good start,” said Mr John Kane-Berman, director of the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg. “There is no significant threat from the predominantly white security forces and other rogue elements. A race war is not on the cards.”

Indeed, the possibility of a right-wing insurrection has subsided since the historic all-race elections in April.

This comes 50 years after “the white tribe of Africa”, as the three million or so Afrikaners are sometimes called, had seemed to be in the grip of ethnic paranoia. They had been living at the southern tip of Africa for 3 1/2 centuries, and had come to regard themselves as indigenous. Racial integration was equated with national suicide.

Another achievement is that the government of national unity comprising the African National Congress, the National Party and the Inkhata Freedom Party has also managed to coexist, albeit with the occasional hiccups.

This is remarkable considering that South Africa has never been accustomed to the politics of power sharing. And the strains are beginn-ing to show.

Mr Mandela, whose own reputation is undimmed, admitted recently that the ruling party is in tatters because it lacks leadership.

The ANC was transformed almost overnight from a liberation movement to a party in power, and it needs time to learn the ropes of government administration.

The past 100 days have seen an extraordinary amount of committees set up, and the generation of a relatively small amount of actual legislation to pursue the US$12 billion (S$18.3 billion) Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).

The government has promised to build a million houses over the next five years and distribute state land to blacks. It also has to create 2 1/2 million jobs and improve education and health services.

At the productive end of the scale, Housing Minister Joe Slovo has shown impatience in getting off the ground the crucial task of meeting Mr Mandela’s promise to build one million houses. His first three months have been spent putting in place the infrastructure needed for projects of such a big scale.

A programme offering free medical care to children under six and pregnant women is underway, a school feeding programme in primary schools starts on Sept 1 and about 100,000 homes have already been electrified.

At the other end of the scale is the Education Department, which has failed to take any steps towards change.

Three months is too short a period for the newly formed government to achieve any of its aims. But unemployed blacks are not convinced. Crime rates have soared over this time as a result of the country’s high unemployment, which suggests that the honeymoon period has ended.

Mr Allister Sparks, author of The Mind of South Africa, a book on race relations in South Africa, said: “The second revolution is going to be to eliminate the legacy of apartheid and all its economic inequalities. It is an economic job that now waits to be fulfilled.”

Mr Mandela has said that addressing problems in the economy is the biggest challenge facing his government and that his priority is to achieve a doubling of the economic growth rate.

But emerging as his own harshest critic, he warned South Africans not to expect too much too soon, and has pleaded for more time to implement the RDP.

He told a rally at Pietersburg last weekend: “We work on the basis of carefully thought out plans, and we are busy implementing these plans.”

But the unemployed blacks who voted in Mr Mandela as their “black messiah” are not convinced. Their living standards showno sign of improvement. Dissatisfaction with the government has manifested itself in strikes across the country.

About 25,000 workers in the car industry, for example, went on strike about two weeks ago after wage talks ended in deadlock, raising the number of workers already on strike to about 75,000.

The strikes signal growing tensions between the ANC and its allies, in particular the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Mr Nick Koornhof, a National Party MP, said: “This is the first real test for the ANC. Will it allow the strikes to go on or will it ask the unionists and labourers to get on with their work?”

That is the ANC’s dilemma. By taking a hardline approach towards strikers, it risks losing the support of the congress, which was its ally in the recent elections. It would also be seen as pandering to the interests of the white and business communities at the expense of the majority black population.

Doing otherwise would scare away foreign investors and risk South Africa’s economic reconstruction.

The country could also lose white entrepreneurs and professionals who still control the country’s economy. A study by the South Africa’s Central Statistical Service last month indicated that emigration had increased by 146 per cent compared to the same period last year.

Mr Kaiser Nyatsumba, political correspondent for The Star newspaper, an English language daily in South Africa, said: “The ANC needs to strike a balance between the aspirations of the black majority and the concerns of the white minority and business community. It would be dangerous to play one group against the other.”

This will be the main challenge facing the government in the second 100 days, and the 100 days after that.

Of course, things may go wrong. Like Bosnia-Herzegovina, South Africa has an explosive ethnic mix, and since political negotiations began four years ago, more than 13,000 people have died in political violence.

There is also possibility of conflicts developing between the ANC and Inkhata Freedom Party, particularly in the KwaZulu Natal region.

Yet, the centripetal forces that have brought South Africa this far appear stronger than those that could cause it to fly apart. The inescapable mutual dependency of the black and the white South Africans is what is holding the country together.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Noble Peace Prize winner, said in an interview with The Straits Times: “What we have achieved thus far is a miracle. It will take a great crisis to bring us back to where we were previously, and I do not see that happening.”

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