Time has come

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 1994, 12:00am

THE outcome of the South African elections was predictable but the enthusiasm and optimism of the voters - and the flexibility and wisdom of the electoral authorities - exceeded expectations. The images of happiness, hope and, above all, patience that will continue to be associated with the country's first free elections provide a basis for confidence that the new South Africa might really be a place where people of all races work together for the common good, a place where the African National Congress slogan - ''Our time has come'' - is a promise, not a threat.

The combination of a right-wing terror campaign, panga -rattling by Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and electoral teething trouble that left frustrated voters queuing for hours in the baking sun could have proved combustible in a country far less volatile than South Africa. Instead, good humour, common sense and restraint took the nation across the threshold of democracy and into a new era in which the same qualities will be essential for successful nation building.

Serious trouble may still lie ahead. Some supporters of the ANC view the organisation's leading role in the struggle against oppression as giving them the right to enjoy the spoils of liberation. The South African Communist Party will for the first time play a central role in government, just as countries around the globe are abandoning communism as a failure. On the extreme left of the spectrum, the Pan-Africanist Congress will be ready to exploit the frustrated aspirations of black voters - and could become a real force in the next election.

On the right, the racists will still be able to cause trouble. But after the pre-electoral fiasco in Bophuthatswana, where right-wing gunmen ran away when people started shooting at them, it is hard to take them too seriously. The apparent success of the authorities in quickly netting the key figures in the bombing campaign also suggests that the intelligence apparatus established under apartheid can now successfully be turned against its architects.

But the greatest reason for confidence in the new South Africa is the quality of its leaders. Nelson Mandela's moderation and forgiveness after almost three decades of incarceration, and the torture and murder of countless friends and colleagues by the agents of the National Party, is impressive. Outgoing President Frederik de Klerk's vision and political courage in volunteering to give up power are remarkable. (How unfortunate it is for the rest of the continent that those African leaders who have been so critical of South Africa are not similarly moved.) South Africa's time indeed has come and the nation needs all the help it can get to become a powerhouse for African economic development and a model for the continent's political development.