Nelson Mandela

End of an era

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 May, 1999, 12:00am

Nelson Mandela is one of this century's truly great statesmen. Few people could find cause to disagree with that statement, not even political opponents. But this week when Mr Mandela bows out of his seminal role in South African politics following the country's second all-race elections, it will be the right time for him to go.

His age is the clinching reason for his departure (he is 80); but it is not the central reason for its appropriateness.

Mr Mandela's achievements have been remarkable. Through his visionary leadership, his particular brand of reconciliation, he is leaving the country stable, more unified than most people thought possible, and firmly established as a liberal democracy. These are great achievements for a country, not only wracked for years by an inhuman political system, but also situated on a continent where brutal civil wars and unstable governments are the norms.

Mr Mandela's rainbow nation flourishes, a mere five years after the fall of apartheid. But now new achievements are called for. The foundation Mr Mandela leaves behind is what makes them possible; and yet transforming the economy and satisfying the hungry expectations of the people will take a different kind of leader.

Fifty-seven-year old Thabo Mbeki, the man who will almost certainly be the next leader of the country, may well be the right man for the job.

He will never be the great statesman Mr Mandela is. But he does possess the energy, the education in economics, and the technical know-how to tackle the issues that are now most pressing - reviving the economy, establishing more effective law and order and raising standards of education.

But while the task ahead calls for a new man in a new era, all South Africa would be wise never to lose sight of the powerful legacy of inspiration from the country's greatest leader.