THEY have made the transition from heroism to politics," a lawyer said. He was speaking of Nelson Mandela and the others who spent years in prison or exile or jeopardy for resisting apartheid.
The three years since the prisoners were released have been a time of violence and thwarted plans for political change. But now at last change is coming, in good part because Mr. Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress have moved it from the romance of liberation to the give-and-take of politics.
By the end of this summer, barring last-minute hitches, South Africa will have a Transitional Executive Council including representatives of the ANC and other groups as well as of the white government. Next April there will be an election: the first in which the majority of South Africans will be able to vote.
The ANC made those steps to democracy possible by concessions at the negotiating table. It agreed to regional power, for one, and to a multi-party government of national unity for five years after the election.
Mr. Mandela and his colleagues decided that what mattered was for the ANC to be in government rather than maintaining old postures outside. They may also have felt that a five-year transition was a wise way to reassure the nervous whites who run the economy -- and to share political responsibility in what will surely be difficult times.
The truth is that the new South African democracy will face daunting problems. Not least will be the inevitable clash between popular expectations and economic realities.
The country's economy has been going downhill. The gross domestic product fell 2 percent last year, and fixed investment a chilling 10 percent. Population is increasing 2.5 percent annually, and there is less than no economic growth to cover it. Unemployment is estimated at a staggering 40 percent.
The deprived and frustrated residents of the black townships will expect quick benefits from a democratic government: jobs, housing, schools. But if the government tries to meet the demands at once, it will strain resources and feed inflation.
Apart from popular expectations, there is an urgent social need to repair the damage of apartheid. The system deliberately imposed inferior education on blacks, for example, and township schools are often scandalously ill-equipped and understaffed. Township residents, however enterprising, have little access to capital. And so on.
Violence will surely be a threat to the new government. There are millions of guns in private -- mostly white -- hands. Black divisions are serious. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of KwaZulu, who tried to block the setting of an election date, has warned that unless his views on the nature of a new political system are entrenched now in a constitution, "then we'll have the same experience as Angola."
The killings that are devastating the townships around Johannesburg can probably be dealt with effectively only when, and if, a government with legitimacy creates a police force that commands respect in the community. That is a large order.
To list the problems is to understand how large are the shadows on South Africa's future. But for all that, there are reasons for hope.
So much has changed already. At the negotiations, government ministers joke in the delegates' dining room with men who spent 10 years as prisoners on Robben Island. The totalitarian repression that gripped the country has lifted; you can say what you want without fear.
And without waiting for a new government, people are creating new realities on the ground. South African generals meet with ANC military commanders. Civic forums make plans for education, housing, local government. The building industry agrees to use "labor-intensive construction systems" to create jobs. Lawyers talk of ways to get black judges on the bench.
Behind it all there is a feeling of commitment to change. The right-wing whites threaten, as do black extremists. But when Chris Hani, the popular Communist Party leader, was assassinated in April, the negotiations did not collapse; the government and the ANC were both more determined to reach agreement.
South Africa has such great resources, human and material, that success here could uplift much of Africa. With all the difficulties, my bet is on success.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.