Blonde movie star Charlize Theron may not immediately suggest Africa, but for the woman who comes from a working class town in South Africa, and her thousands of local fans, skin colour was irrelevant when she won this year's Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Monster. In celebrity-starved South Africa, Theron's victory was milked for all it was worth. During her trip home soon after the Oscar ceremony she was welcomed like visiting royalty. In turn, Theron made obligatory appearances alongside politicians, on talk shows and on magazine covers, before returning to Hollywood. Public relations windfalls like this have been rare over the past decade. Since Nelson Mandela walked free, a memorable television moment if there ever was one, South Africa has battled to live up to the wave of goodwill it enjoyed in the years following the end of apartheid. Its star diminished as the world lost interest. In the end, Theron's victory was only one of an array of headline-grabbing events in 2004 that have left South African's somewhat giddy at the unaccustomed self-confidence they have brought. Coincidentally, this year was also the 10th anniversary of the country's first non-racial elections, and as it turned out, South Africans had plenty to celebrate. The country was awarded the hosting of the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, to the delight of millions of soccer-mad South Africans who despaired they might never be entrusted with such a large event. South Africa's bid for the 2006 cup failed because of back-room skulduggery that left it one vote short. At the time, the national mood of defeatism was so prevalent that nobody was surprised when the tournament went to Germany. This year was different. Signs of change began early in the year when the national currency - down more than 100 per cent in recent years - began a long, seemingly unstoppable climb against the American dollar and other world currencies. Once the dog of currency traders, the rand is now among the world's best-performing denominations against the greenback, putting unexpected wealth in the pockets of its citizens. The country's president, Thabo Mbeki, an intellectual with a taste for writing poetry, was especially pleased when J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for literature. Unlike Theron, the reclusive writer failed to return home for a photo-op with the president. The social, cultural, and economic successes of the year formed the perfect stage for South Africa to assert itself and it was a couple of Britons, Simon Mann and Mark Thatcher who allowed the government to announce it had usurped western powers as the dominant player in the continent. South African intelligence learned of a plot to overthrow the despotic regime of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Mann and Thatcher were suspected of putting together a mercenary band to carry it out, and South African agents infiltrated their ranks and began investigating Thatcher's business dealings. A trap was laid and Mann ended up behind bars in Zimbabwe. Thatcher is still free - but only just. He is confined to his Cape Town mansion while police continue to build their case. Mann's jailing and the humiliating revelation of his 'wonga list' - his letter to cronies begging they put up bribe money to get him freed - was probably the South African government's most gratifying publicity coup of the year. In one moment it showed that educated, moneyed, gun-toting white men could be taken down by a bunch of Africans. No longer would the 'moustaches' have the run of the continent, with their tribal bearers trudging obligingly behind. The Mann affair put firmly to rest the era when Europeans could dictate the fortunes, and fates, of Africans. Mr Mbeki is in no doubt that Africa is still in a sorry state. His recalcitrant neighbour, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, is a source of endless trouble. Further north, ceasefires are broken almost as soon as they are made in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast, two of the nations where the South African government is trying to secure peace. But the old dictators' club, the Organisation of African Unity, no longer exists and its successor, the African Union, an Mbeki initiative, is busy putting together a peace force of its own to intervene in regional conflicts. South African troops are already acting as peacekeepers in half a dozen countries and the cycle of wars and coups may be dying down. Even Mr Mugabe is still talking to Mr Mbeki, something British Prime Minister Tony Blair cannot say. For South Africa, 2004 may be looked back on as its best year since Mr Mandela walked free. If Mr Mbeki has his way, the country will now begin to lead other African states on a long road to freedom from conflict.