Mandela's heir apparent Thabo Mbeki: Three years in advance, South Africa works on an orderly succession.


PRESIDENT NELSON Mandela is an extraordinary man. He emerged from 26 years of isolation in South African jails without evident bitterness or thirst for revenge. He resumed his anti-apartheid leadership as if he had never been away, providing wisdom and pragmatism as his country began dismantling its white-supremacist political system and institutions. A measure of his achievement is that whereas many whites previously fretted about Mr. Mandela coming to power, they now worry about what will happen after he leaves office.

There is little to worry about. Although the 78-year-old president's term does not end until 1999, he is grooming 52-year-old Vice President Thabo Mbeki to take over. Indeed, the order of succession is so clear that Mr. Mbeki's main rival, African National Congress general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, read the handwriting on the wall earlier this year and decided to leave the government for the private sector.

Although journalistic shorthand often refers to the Mandela government in South Africa as black rule, that is incorrect. One of the unique features of ANC is its commitment to non-racialism. Thus, ANC hopes to bridge the gulf not only among many rival African groupings but among South Africa's whites, the mixed-race population and Asians. Practicing non-racialism -- and making this political philosophy last -- are awesome goals, particularly in a country where different shades of skin color for the past several decades have translated into starkly contrasting economic and social standings.

ANC's doctrine of non-racialism has come under periodic attacks -- and not only from white supremacists. During the 1960s and 1970s, both the black consciousness movement and the Pan-Africanist Congress tried to undermine the outlawed ANC's clout, arguing that only black people were entitled to a real role in the country's emancipation struggle.

It is likely that Mr. Mbeki, who is currently visiting the United States, will encounter similar criticism of ANC's non-racialist doctrine, particularly if the government cannot redress the unequal economic positions of the various racial groups. He is the heir apparent but his real test will come when he has to defend non-racialism against charges that it does not do enough for the black majority of South Africa.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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