In 1899 there was the siege of Mafeking, as it used to be called, during the Anglo-Boer war, in which British pluck was rather exaggerated by the town's commander, Robert Baden-Powell, who later founded the Boy Scout movement. Almost a century later, just weeks before the arrival of black majority rule, the Boers again attacked Mafikeng.
Several thousand khaki-clad members of the white-supremacist AWB invaded the town to "defend" the independence of Bophuthatswana, a "homeland" into which blacks were corralled under apartheid. The brief reign of terror by the swaggering bullies was halted when a black policeman shot dead three AWB members. As their blood spilled across the gravel, South Africa seemed to have reached a defining moment in its history.
Last week Mafikeng was the setting for another turning point, when Nelson Mandela handed over the leadership of the ANC to his deputy Thabo Mbeki. The changeover was accompanied by an uncharacteristically caustic - not to mention paranoid - speech in which President Mandela, whom Mr Mbeki will almost certainly succeed as South African president in 1999, gave notice to whites. The time for "reconciliation" was over; the gloves were coming off.
ANC minister Pallo Jordan, the party's chief spokesman, said later that the transformation of society and the economy would be speeded up, and predicted that tensions within South Africa would rise. President Mandela, not Thabo Mbeki, delivered the harsh message to "prevent the attribution of those tensions to the new leadership". Mr Mandela's frustration at white indifference, after three years of "nation-building", is apparently heartfelt, but Mr Mbeki, sitting a few feet away on a conference platform, undoubtedly shaped the speech.
The official line is that the transfer of power heralds no major policy changes. But as Mr Mbeki, and a new generation of ANC leaders, take control a harder-edged era has almost certainly begun. Just what kind of South Africa emerges in the millennium now hinges on the tiny, dapper, soft- spoken man with the intelligent eyes and the greying beard. Yet Mr Mbeki, an uncharismatic public speaker, remains an enigma. Few people claim to know who he is or what he stands for.
The future president is steeped in "the Struggle". He is the son of the 86-year-old ANC stalwart Govan Mbeki, jailed in the 1960s with Nelson Mandela. While Mbeki senior languished on Robben Island, with the rest of the ANC's high command, Mbeki junior was at Sussex University, studying economics. The urbane and scholarly Thabo followed this up with a spot of military training in the Soviet Union. Like his father, he was a member of the Communist Party.
But it was as a diplomat that Mr Mbeki won the admiration of the ANC's older generation. As adviser to Oliver Tambo, the head of the ANC in exile in Lusaka, he lobbied for the liberation struggle all over the world. His foreign government connections, and his assumed world view, helped make him the succession favourite of the imprisoned old guard, isolated for decades from a rapidly changing world, and strengthened his hand against his main post-apartheid ANC rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, who had fought the good fight at home.
At the ANC's Mafikeng conference Mr Mbeki, who sat centre stage in his yellow ANC T-shirt, looked inoffensive enough. Puffing on the trademark pipe he looks more university professor than Machiavellian politician but according to critics - both inside and outside the ANC - this image hides a consummate schemer.
After the end of apartheid a power struggle ensued in the ANC between the exiles and those who fought apartheid at home. The exiles won and Mr Mbeki, his detractors say, then set about neutralising all his main rivals - including Mr Ramaphosa, who resigned as ANC secretary general to join the private sector, the former Gauteng premier, Tokyo Sexwale, and the former Free State premier, Patrick "Terror" Lekota.
Critics complain that Mr Mbeki is draining the leadership of talent by surrounding himself with toadies - a concern to which Mr Mandela referred in his valedictory speech yesterday - though grassroots revolts in recent months against Mbeki-approved candidates suggest a resurgence of the old home leaders. Mr Lekota, controversially removed last year from the Free State, had sweet revenge when he trounced Mr Mbeki's man, Sports Minister Steve Tshwete, to become national chairman of the ANC.
Mr Ramaphosa's enduring popularity was confirmed yesterday when he led the poll for the ANC's 60-strong national executive on the final day of the conference. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, humiliated in her attempts to become Mr Mbeki's deputy, against the leadership's wishes, finished 15th.
Whites worry more about Mr Mbeki's Africanism, whispering that he is a racist and that there are no whites on his burgeoning staff. In Mafikeng last week there was only a smattering of whites among the 3,000 delegates, although the podium boasted many whites and Indians. Watch, say the critics: by the next conference, in 2000, the ANC executive will be almost wholly black.
It is possible that lack of information about the reticent Mr Mbeki, who is married but childless, is stoking white paranoia. For there are those who believe that he is - like Mandela was - the man for the times. Last week the President had no reservations. "He is a man of exceptional qualities - very respectful, very warm, very sensitive to the sufferings of our people."
The truth is that though everyone loves Mr Mandela - there is no greater statesman in the world today - he has proved a liability on the international diplomatic stage. Thabo Mbeki's unquestioned political skills, it is argued, will be needed for a reign during which black impatience at the slow rate of change will rise, and whites grow angry as they are stripped of their old privileges. The drive from Johannesburg to Mafikeng, through the AWB strongholds and the squalid black squatter camps, shows the size of the task ahead.
Although Mr Mbeki has promised there will be no legislation forcing companies to fund affirmative action and training, business, still white-dominated, will undoubtedly now be squeezed to do more. While he will turn up the heat at home, internationally President Mbeki will aim to balance close relations with the West with his dream of an African Renaissance. He wants South African businesses to look to Africa for new markets and for South Africa, by far the richest country on the continent, to take a leading role. He wants nothing less than Africa's economic, social and spiritual rebirth; and an end to its reputation as the world's basket case.
It is significant - and comforting to those now predicting South Africa's demise - that despite the revolutionary rallying calls to the party last week, white business likes Mr Mbeki. It views the man who has in fact been running the country for some time as essentially a pragmatist, and approves of his conservative fiscal and economic instincts. Despite the pressure from the unions and the South African Communist Party - the ANC's allies - Mbeki has resisted demands for more left-wing economic policies.
But a good business environment does not guarantee democracy. There are two clouds over the country's chances of a democratic future. One is the talk of merger between the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC. That might end the violence between the country's two largest black parties but the resulting union would ensure a one-party state for years to come. Couple that with the watershed speech's suggestion that multi-party democracy is not a priority in a South Africa still in the grip of revolution, and there is cause for anxiety.
The other concern is Mr Mbeki's antagonism towards the press, and threats, applauded by delegates, that the government might curb media freedom. Mr Mbeki regularly bashes the press, while his associates - and it is through them that he often prefers to speak - have complained the press is Eurocentric and suggested a regulatory body be established.
On a continent where multi-party democracy and freedom of speech are so rare, the tone of the Mandela-Mbeki transition is troubling. It is to be hoped that the leadership was simply playing to its grass roots. Otherwise Mafikeng may be remembered as the town where South Africa's early promise began to evaporate.Reuse content