Can Mandela's Man Make The Dream A Reality?

For Thabo Mbeki, 56, winning South Africa's June 2 elections should be the easy part. But President Nelson Mandela's handpicked successor as head of the African National Congress faces a daunting task: He must redeem the dream of prosperity for the masses that his charismatic predecessor spun but failed to deliver.

The crunch may come early in Mbeki's five-year term. Mired in recession last year like other emerging countries, South Africa is expected to show paltry economic growth--no more than 1% this year. Instead of creating jobs to relieve the 33% unemployment rate, the Mandela administration presided over more than 500,000 job losses in five years. And rather than booming, as foreseen under the government's Growth, Employment & Redistribution (GEAR) program, long-term investment inflows fell to $4.5 billion last year from $6.5 billion in 1997.

The shattering of black voters' aspirations for a better life has already taken a toll on the ANC. Its popularity has sunk as low as 51% in recent polls from a high of 64% in 1995. But facing an opposition splintered among small parties ranging from black nationalists to white separatists, the ANC still stands to win 60% or more of the seats in the next Parliament, according to political analysts at Pretoria's independent Human Sciences Research Council.

"THINGS MUST CHANGE." All the same, Mbeki, currently deputy president, will have to move quickly to placate his long-suffering black constituents who hanker for jobs and better lives. At present, a quarter of the population earns as little as $88 a month. Says 41-year-old Martha Khoza, an unemployed seamstress living in Johannesburg: "I believe in the ANC, and I am patient, but things must change." Mbeki seems to be listening to such voices. Warned the foreign-educated Marxist turned free marketeer in one speech: "I am convinced we are faced with the danger of a mounting rage to which we must respond seriously."

But as he moves to bridge the chasm between blacks, 77% of the country's 40 million people, and whites, he could cause friction. If he alienates the white-dominated business community, which must invest and provide jobs, a bad economic situation could turn worse. Already, a wave of violent crime and affirmative-action labor laws are fueling a "white flight" of skilled professionals. And there's what the local press refers to as "corporate brain drain" as companies, such as South African Breweries, move their primary listings to London.

Lately, Mbeki has stressed redistribution of income as his preferred way to square the political circle. That is alarming business leaders who bristle at the notion of a wealth tax bandied about by some left-wing ANC stalwarts. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel seeks to reassure business by saying that taxes cannot be increased. Still, some analysts argue that business must cough up more cash eventually. "I know this is not popular in business circles, but they also must realize that it is actually an investment in social stability in the long run," says Sampie Terreblanche, a political analyst at the University of Stellenbosch.

But even if Mbeki's call to ease poverty riles some business leaders, others profess increasing respect for him. "People accept [Mbeki's call] as strong leadership, and that makes people feel confident," says Ben van Rensburg, director of economic policy at the South African Chamber of Business.

That measure of respect might give Mbeki just enough room to maneuver between the competing demands of voters and business. But it will be a long, hard slog as workaday reality supplants the political magic of Mandela's presidency.