Gentle touch fails to impress President's foes

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The Independent Online
Women and disabled people made up the guard of honour for Nelson Mandela when he opened Parliament yesterday. Mary Braid in Cape Town says they could not shield him from harsh criticism over rising crime and other failings.

It may have been the most politically correct opening of parliament in the world. When Mr Mandela walked down the red carpet to open his last full parliamentary session before the country's second democratic elections, he was flanked by 60 disabled children and wheelchair-bound adults.

Although the military men lined up for his ascent of the stairs into parliament's Great Hall, the guard of honour for the first time was entirely female. After the political fireworks of six weeks ago at the ANC party conference in Mafikeng, it was a surprisingly soft occasion. At the Mafikeng conference he appeared to serve notice on the privilege of the white minority, in an attack on what he said was their lack of effort to achieve racial reconciliation.

Yesterday the President, who has handed his party and day-to-day running of government to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, dropped the language of accusation for a more moderate appeal to conscience. All South Africans, and especially whites, should perform voluntary community service, to give back to society what they had gained. He called for "moral regeneration" and a "new patriotism" to fight crime and unemployment. "This is our call to all South Africans, to firm up the moral fibre of our nation ... not because the government says so, but because it is in our common interest to do it."

Although he defended the government's record in delivering basic services to the poor, he admitted for the first time that the government would not meet its election promise to build 1 million houses in five years. It was a significant admission, given that elections are only a year away. Financial analysts were happy with his continued commitment to fiscal targets and with his promise that the numbers working in the public sector would be cut.

But the announcement will have dismayed many in a country where unemployment among blacks is rampant. However, a new employment bill is designed to encourage companies to employ more blacks. Political analyst Steven Friedman said he was surprised the President had chosen to broach the subject of cutting an estimated 1.2 million public- sector jobs ahead of next year's elections. "It is a daunting task for them in a pre election year," he said.

President Mandela declined to sugar the pill for ordinary voters. But he did not bow to business leaders who criticise the new employment bill. The government would not be deterred by the "sirens of self-interest" being sounded in defence of privilege, he said, or by insults that equated women, blacks and the disabled with low standards. Opposition parties condemned the speech as lacklustre. They were particularly scathing of the President's insistence that the country's crime problem was being exaggerated and that most crimes had decreased since his government came into power.