JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The post-Mandela era opened here yesterday with a shift in political priorities from reconciliation of this racially divided society to its economic transformation to benefit the poor.
Thabo Mbeki, successor to President Nelson Mandela as leader of the ruling African National Congress and heir apparent to the state presidency in 1999, used his keynote speech to the party's national conference to set the agenda for taking the country into the next millennium.
"We are the ANC," he said, "because we are committed to the reduction of poverty and can never say our work is done while, with our own eyes, we see the suffering of the rural masses and the blight of the squatter camps that surround our towns and our cities."
Mbeki, who is identified with the Africanist wing of the ANC and who has been effectively running the government for the past year, has previously warned whites here that transformation does not mean maintenance of their privileged status quo, but a greater sharing of national resources.
He has told them that if they do not accept change voluntarily, it will be forced on them.
One of the major undercurrents here is concern over what will happen after the departures of Mandela, with his towering moral authority, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the embodiment of racial reconciliation and restraint, from the political scene.
Mandela, who retired from the ANC presidency last week, steps down as state president at the 1999 general elections.
Tutu, already retired from his church role, is fighting cancer.
Both have urged majority blacks to be patient for the improvements in living standards, health care and education for which many fought and died in the struggle against apartheid.
Mandela, transferring what he called "the baton" to Mbeki, said: "The time has come to hand over to a new generation, secure in the knowledge that, despite our enormous mistakes, we sought to serve the cause of freedom."
Mbeki, who acknowledged yesterday that this remained "a JTC society that is racially divided and marked still by tension and distrust," indicated that socioeconomic issues would be his top priorities.
Mbeki, 55, whose father was a prisoner with Mandela on Robben Island, noted that the ANC conference had reaffirmed the major domestic and foreign policies of the Mandela government, which he has helped to implement since the black majority won power in 1994.
"What all these decisions mean," he said, "is we must transform the machinery of state as completely as possible to ensure it becomes an instrument that serves the interests of the people."
Three years after the election of the Mandela government -- and despite "our truly heroic efforts," Mbeki said -- many South Africans are still landless, homeless and unemployed, lacking fresh water, food and education.
"It means we must continue to pursue high and sustained economic development to achieve visible improvement in the standard of living of the people, with especial emphasis on the poor," he said, adding that increased public resources would be devoted to "meeting the social needs of the people."
In a forward-looking speech that contrasted with Mandela's farewell address criticizing the opposition parties, counterrevolutionaries within the ANC, the white-controlled media and interfering foreign governments, Mbeki laid out his blueprint for a more equitable future:
"We must continue to reach out to build a movement of solidarity in favor of freedom, peace, development, and the eradication of poverty and backwardness."
While narrowing the enormous social disparities here is his priority, he identified crime and corruption as two other major challenges.
South Africa has one of the most violent crime records in the world, and its provincial governments are riddled with corruption.
The opposition parties have repeatedly lambasted the ANC for its failure to deal effectively with either.
Mbeki described the party's new leaders, elected at last week's conference in Mafikeng to deal with the nation's problems, as a "formidable team."
"To say merely we emerged from conference more united than ever is to understate the principled cohesion which binds all of us together," Mbeki told the delegates, adding:
"You are ANC, and your only purpose is to serve the people of South Africa."
Pub Date: 12/21/97