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Africa: Nelson Mandela Resigns

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 18 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- One of the most remarkable political figures of the century, South Africa's President Nelson Mandela, this week stepped down from his position as head of the ruling African National Congress.

Although he remains South Africa's state president until 1999, his relinquishment of the powerful ANC post marks the beginning of the end of the Mandela era. For the 79-year-old statesman, the "Long Walk to Freedom", as he terms his life story, is nearly over. For more than half a century he has dedicated himself to the cause of racial equality. He never wavered in opposing white supremacy despite his 27 years in jail as a political prisoner.

Since the first all-race elections in 1994 he has achieved what many believed impossible. With unflappable calm and dignity he has successfully led South Africa in its transition from a white-dominated police state to a multi-ethnic democracy.

However, his marathon four-and-a-half hour retirement speech to the ANC on Tuesday was anything but a gentle farewell. He railed against white supremists who he said are only awaiting an opportunity for counter-insurgency. He lashed out at prophets of doom who he said are spreading word of economic collapse and uncontrollable crime. He said these false prophets are whites who feel threatened by the ANC, or blacks who feel the ANC is protecting white privilege.

He explicitly named the National Party, the party responsible for imposing the doctrine of strict racial separation 50 years ago. He said that party has not abandoned its strategic objective of destroying the ANC. And he launched into Marxist-style rhetoric in denouncing the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, the whites. He spoke of the difficult road ahead before the peoples of South Africa are truly united.

Mandela's speech, which is being described as the harshest of his presidency, will heighten tension a notch of two in a country where all racial groups live in more or less perpetual fear. Fear of violence, whether politically motivated or merely criminal, is rooted in all the country's racial groups, black, white or Asian. The National Party, in a statement read to RFE/RL, rejected Mandela's comments, calling them paranoid, highly irresponsible and disgraceful.

In effect Mandela, in stepping down, was warning the ANC faithful of the dangers ahead. But there's no reason to believe his dark vision signals any worsening of the country's actual socio-political situation.

That's difficult enough as it is, with the possibilities of extremism on either side of the racial divide ever-present. Some 75 percent of South Africa's population of over 45 million people are black, and most of them are poor. Millions of them live in the vast, bleak apartheid-era townships which encircle the big cities. The population is growing fast, and analysts say that what the country needs now is not rhetoric but quicker economic growth to raise the standards of the majority.

The paradox is that, just as in the apartheid era, there is a shortage of skilled labor to fill well-paying jobs. What is urgently needed is better access to higher education for the majority. The chief economist with the Merrill Lynch brokerage in Cape Town, Jos Gerson, told RFE/RL that this will take time.

Everyone knows that in practice it will take a generation or more to uproot long-standing inequalities in the distribution of skills in the country. There is no "quick fix" to this problem, and the government is impatient and will beat the drum on this.

Gerson also says it's too early yet to say whether South Africa will make a success of the new era in economic terms, but that he's generally optimistic.

As for economic growth and prosperity in South Africa, I believe that the jury will be out for many years. I'm quite optimistic about the next 10 years or more, but that it remains to be seen how the political and economic system settles down in the long-term.