CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- With much hindsight and a little humor, President Nelson Mandela, delivered his last state-of-the-nation address to Parliament here -- a message of hope to a nation beset by crime, corruption and unemployment.
But the 80-year-old president, who will retire after elections expected in May, also acknowledged that post-apartheid South Africa is still "in many respects a sick society."
The freedom fighter-turned-statesman recalled a letter he wrote from prison a decade ago, expressing his concern for a South Africa "split into two hostile camps: black on one side and whites on the other, slaughtering one another."
"It is a matter of public record that elements of those divisions still remain," he told the legislators and a national TV audience yesterday. "We slaughter one another in our words and attitudes.
"We slaughter one another in the stereotypes and mistrust that linger in our heads, and the words of hate we spew from our lips. This must come to an end. For, indeed, those who thrive on hatred destroy their own capacity to make a positive contribution."
With the election looming, his words were noteworthy for their lack of political rhetoric. The two major white opposition leaders -- Marthinus van Schalkwyk of the New National Party and Tony Leon of the Democratic Party -- assessed his speech as "defensive,"
Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, of the rival Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, said: "It was a very appropriate swan song for a big man leaving the scene."
Looking to his retirement, Mandela portrayed himself as a senior citizen, standing on the street corner, like so many beggars here, with a notice saying: 'Please help. Unemployed. No Money. A new wife. And a big family."
As the laughter in the chamber died, he noted that an increase of 20 rand ($3.50) in the old-age pension this year would help keep him off the streets.
He gave a balanced account of the "epoch-making progress made" by the African National Congress-led government and the socio-economic problems persisting as its first term ends.
"The long walk is not yet over," he said. "The prize of a better life has yet to be won.
"We dare to hope for a better future because we are prepared to work for it. But the reality is we could do much, much better."
At one point in his 90-minute speech, he paused to sip from a glass, then quipped: "I had expected that for the final session of this current Parliament, I would be given something a little more stronger than water."
He unveiled his "score card of change." Listing the positives, he cited the delivery of clean water to 1,700 new homes daily, electricity to 1,300, and telephones to 750.
Millions of children now benefit from a primary school nutrition program and free health care, and the government has showed "unprecedented" concern for the disabled.
The government, he admitted, was unable to meet the target of 1 million new homes in its first term but had constructed more than 700,000, developing a system that has the capacity to provide 15,000 houses monthly.
Turning to the negatives, he acknowledged crime, corruption and unemployment as the major challenges.
Most serious crime had stabilized or been reduced, new laws on mandatory sentences and tougher bail conditions had been enacted, and the nation's first detective agency created, but the popular response, said Mandela, was still: "Where are the results?"
"We are the first to acknowledge that the impatience and dissatisfaction among ordinary people are justified," he said. "We can and we shall break out of this bog. There is hope."
He dwelled on the subject of the urban terrorism that has held this port city in fear for the past year, threatening its prospects of attracting foreign investment.
To eradicate another major threat to the nation -- the "scourge of corruption" -- would "require acceptance that, in many respects, we are a sick society."
"The problem manifests itself in all areas of life," he said.
Economically, South Africa had escaped the "paralyzing turbulence" suffered by most Third World countries because its economic fundamentals were robust, he said. "Yet the public is within its rights to ask: If all is well, why is the economy shedding jobs. Is there hope?"
He pointed to a series of government and private initiatives to spur job creation, saying they had the potential to "change the face of South Africa."
Calling for the "reconstruction of the soul of the nation" to engender respect for life, and pride in the new South Africa, he said: "As we confounded the prophets of doom [who predicted the overthrow of apartheid would provoke a bloodbath], we shall defy today's merchants of cynicism and despair."
Pub Date: 2/06/99