JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When Nelson Mandela sneezes, the entire South African financial establishment seems to catch cold.
Recent rumors about the 77-year-old president's health caused the currency and stocks to tumble. To prove he is healthy -- and to guard against further anxiety in the financial sector -- Mandela went into the hospital for a very public series of tests.
In time, of course, South Africa will not be able to avoid a more fundamental question: What happens after Mandela? He is such a powerful symbol of the near-miraculous political reconciliation here that life without him is fraught with uncertainty.
This despite the fact that it is almost certain who will ascend to the presidency when Mandela leaves office in 1999. That would be 53-year-old Thabo Mbeki, a soft-spoken pipe smoker who has shown intelligence and ambition during a lifetime in African National Congress politics.
Whatever the fears of financiers and others in South Africa's white community, few think the country would be much different under a Mbeki presidency.
After Mandela was released from prison in 1990, his elevation to the presidency in the country's first all-race election was a given. Two names always cropped up as possible successors: Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa, the 43-year-old labor leader.
The two illustrate the basic split in ANC politics since 1990 between those like Mbeki, who were in exile and worked outside the country, and those like Ramaphosa, who stayed in South Africa and struggled within the apartheid system.
When he returned to South Africa from the ANC's exile base in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1990, Mbeki went to work reassuring white business leaders about the ANC's intentions. Ramaphosa took the front line in negotiations that eventually led to an interim constitution and the 1994 election.
The line of succession became clear after those elections when Mandela named Mbeki deputy vice president. He made Ramaphosa chairman of the Constitutional Assembly, asking him write a permanent constitution.
During the two years it took to do that, Mbeki solidified his position. When Ramaphosa's work was finished, there was essentially no room for him in government. He is leaving to join private business.
"If there is one thing Thabo is good at, it is in manipulating the levers of the ANC organization," says Stephen Ellis, who, as editor of the publication Africa Confidential, followed Mbeki during the almost 30 years he spent in exile.
"In that sense, he is the ultimate insider, like a Bob Dole if you will. But look at the rest of his career. He was educated in England, but then -- and people often forget this -- went to Moscow where he studied at the Lenin Academy and was praised as an excellent student.
"He rose in the ranks of the South African Communist Party, which really kept the ANC together in exile," says Ellis, now an African scholar based in the Netherlands. "He was one of the youngest members of the SACP politburo.
"But then in the early '80s, he moved away from the Communist Party and closer to the Swedes, who were the major funders of the ANC in exile. Essentially, he became a Social Democrat.
"So, is this the sign of a political chameleon or is this a far-sighted and skillful man?" Ellis asks. "Even in [Mbeki's] exile, people wondered if this man really has any principles.
"No one doubts his intelligence, his charm, his diplomatic skills. But the fear is that, in trying to please everyone, he will steer away from making the difficult decisions South Africa will face after 1999, that he is a little bit, dare I say, like Bill Clinton."
If Mbeki's political arsenal lacks a weapon, it is the common touch. This is not a man who will pack township stadiums with thousands of people singing songs in his praise as Mandela can do. Mbeki comes off as an intellectual who developed a taste for the good life while in exile.
"If I have one criticism of him, it is that he tends to pick people for his staff whose main talent is the ability to say yes," says Steven Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies, a Johannesburg think tank.
"Clearly, Mandela wants to pave the way for Mbeki to take over in the smoothest possible way," Friedman says. "Every foreign visitor who comes here meets Mbeki and deals with him. By the time Mandela leaves, everybody will be used to working with Mbeki."
Friedman thinks that Mbeki does not have the instinct for the "grand gesture," the symbolic acts of nation-building that Mandela has been so good at.
Still, says Tom Lodge, a professor of political science at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, little is likely to change. He points out that ANC policy is in place, along with a market economy and a genuine multiparty democracy, factors that will likely keep the country on something closely resembling its current course.
Mbeki's apparent ascension to the presidency shows Mandela's penchant for protocol. Mbeki comes from what has been described as an ANC royal family. His father, Govan, was a chairman of the ANC and was imprisoned with Mandela.
Mbeki was partly raised by Duma Nokwe, secretary-general of the ANC, and after going into exile in 1962 at the age of 20, came under the wing of Oliver Tambo, who essentially ran the party in exile. Thus, much as Mandela was educated in the royal court of the Thembu clan of the Xhosa tribe, Mbeki was educated by his ANC elders to assume this position of leadership.
For many, one of the most important things Mandela will do for South Africa is to leave office. The Third World in general, and Africa in particular, is littered with countries whose founding leaders hung on too long, allowing their countries, and themselves, to confuse the government with the personality of its leader.
The new constitution says that Mbeki also would have to leave, as presidents are limited to two five-year terms.
"People didn't pay that much attention to that with the debate over the lockout and education clauses," says Lodge, "but I think it is one of the most important clauses in the constitution."
This leads to the question of who will succeed Mbeki? In the year 2009, Ramaphosa will be only 57 years old, though many wonder if he would be interested in leaving the private sector or if he can maintain a base of support in the ANC while in business.
Tokyo Sexwale, premier of Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, is a year younger than Ramaphosa and clearly has designs on higher office. He is a veteran of underground activities within South Africa and spent 13 years in prison on Robben Island. But many wonder if he has the strategic sense to match his undeniable charisma.
Patrick "Terror" Lekota, 47, gets high marks for his work as premier of the Free State. He is another veteran of both Robben Island and work within the country during the 1980s. But it is still not clear whether provincial leadership is the way up the ANC ladder.
Within the Cabinet, Labor Minister Tito Mboweni, 37, is tabbed as a potential future president. Like most in the national government, where Mbeki's grip is firm, Mboweni spent most of his adult years in exile.
Mandela's departure will mean the loss of powerful symbolism, and his successor will have to deal with problems that now are often hidden behind the curtain of South Africa's miraculous transition to democracy.
"A lot of South Africa's problems do not just come from 50 years of apartheid -- that was bad enough -- but are classic Third World problems," says Ellis.
"It's got a high population growth, coupled with rapid urbanization, which, as you can see all over the world, leads to instability, violence and crime.
"These are problems Mandela hasn't been able to solve. But like any great leader, he is going to be a hard act to follow."
Pub Date: 5/31/96