Mr Mandela gave short shrift last week to rebellious former members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the African National Congress guerrilla movement he himself founded in 1961. Aggrieved by what they perceived to be shabby treatment and squalid conditions they encountered upon integration into the still largely white-led South African army, thousands of former Umkhonto combatants went absent without leave earlier this month, refusing to resume their duties until their grievances had been addressed.
The President travelled to their base north of Pretoria on Thursday, and, after lending a seemingly sympathetic ear to their complaints, informed the rebels that their choice was a simple one: either they adhered to the rules of military discipline or they were out on the street. As for those 3,000 Umkhonto soldiers who had refused to return to barracks from leave since the beginning of the month, if they were not back within seven days they would be discharged from the army.
A group of 150 Umkhonto men had been demonstrating outside the President's office in Cape Town on Tuesday, demanding free transport north. Mr Mandela said he had no plans to reward ill-discipline.
The ANC's other, informal paramilitary wing, the self-defence units (SDUs), which emerged in the townships in recent years in response to Inkatha violence, have also received a seven-day ultimatum from the President. He announced last weekend, at a rally in Vosloorus township east of Johannesburg, that all those in possession of unlicensed weapons had a week in which to hand them over to the police. Otherwise, they should brace themselves to face 'the full weight of the law'.
His message was addressed to those owning illegal firearms, but the spur action was provided by an incident three weeks ago, when two young SDU members in Katlehong township were arrested in possession of AK-47 rifles.
The local police station was promptly occupied by 200 of their SDU colleagues, who left the station commander no option but to release the two offenders.
Mr Mandela's decision to quell the potential for mob rule flows from the priority which guides him in all things: the need to put South Africa on the road to economic recovery. Quite apart from the intrinsic imperative of law and order, what he fears is that the perception of lawlessness and instability created by the likes of the Umkhonto rebels and rogue SDUs will inhibit local and foreign investors.
General criminality also works against the government's attempts to develop the infra- structure of the townships - the murder recently of two telephone workers in Soweto made the point with brutal eloquence. A no less thorny dilemma for those in government whose job it is to nourish the economy, South Africa's new theatre of struggle, has been provided by a post-apartheid phenomenon baptised 'the culture of entitlement'.
One expression of this mind-set has been a recent spate of wildcat protests by, among others, Johannesburg bus drivers, who two weeks ago chose to dramatise their demands for better pay by blockading the city centre during the evening rush hour.
While prompt interventions by government have limited the damage caused by these spasms, where the 'entitlement' factor has entered the equation most insidiously has been in the refusal of substantial sectors of the black population to accept the fact that services must be paid for.
One of the most damaging legacies of the resistance against apartheid ironically inherited by the new government has been a 10-year boycott of rent and services in the townships. Far from pulling together in the national interest, black South Africans have intensified the de facto boycott since the April elections.
At the beginning of the year, 33 per cent of township residents were paying rent due on their predominantly council- owned homes as well as rates for electricity, water and rubbish collection. By June only 20 per cent were paying up and, according to the Ministry of Provincial Affairs, the figure is dropping all the time.
What this means is that however noble the intentions of central government, local government is stretched in its capacity to deliver. One minister whose ability to make good on electoral promises depends on the fiscal good faith of the black community is the Communist Party chairman, Joe Slovo. A critical part of his job as Minister of Housing is to persuade the banks to provide loans for low-cost township housing.
Mr Slovo, who issued strong eviction warnings to would-be squatters last month, said in a speech on Thursday that the boycott strategy, originally designed to bring pressure to bear on the apartheid regime, 'had in all too many cases made way for a private strategy of convenience and self-interest'.
Resolved 'not to allow the spirit of populism to dominate our practice', Mr Slovo announced an agreement between the government and the banks whereby the banks will provide 2bn rands ( pounds 357m) in mortgages for cheap housing in exchange for a government commitment to deploy the security forces, if necessary, to repossess defaulters' homes.
A source close to Mr Mandela, remarking last week on the dangers that lurked if the authorities stood passively by in the face of social anarchy, said that the ANC leadership had a choice between taking the indulgent 'moral' option instinctive to a popular movement or exercising a policy of tough and effective management based on the rule of law.
The indications, to quote Mr Mandela's words last weekend on disruption in the black schools, are that the government has decided the time has come to 'stop the nonsense'.
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