SA ministers clear the air for a new style of government

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the things which Nelson Mandela used to enjoy in the old days when he visited F W de Klerk at the presidential office in Pretoria was the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

When Mr Mandela took possession of the office last week, he remarked with just a little sadness that the aroma had gone. Mr de Klerk, he discovered, had taken the coffee machine away. Indeed, the new deputy president had stripped everything save the furniture. Had it not been for the kindness of officials in another government department, President Mandela would have had to start his first day at work in the Union Buildings without any stationery.

One of Mr Mandela's African National Congress ministers got his own back at the first cabinet meeting. Alert to the fact that the new Health Minister, Nkosazana Zuma, is allergic to cigarette smoke, the minister in question - a chain-smoker himself - magnanimously proposed there should be no smoking at cabinet meetings. Mr de Klerk, who often sneaks off to the corridors during parliamentary sittings for a puff, had no option but to bow once again to the will of the majority.

Thus, in lots of small ways, has the new order imposed itself on the style of government.

Mrs Zuma's aversion to nicotine, to take another example, does not extend to incense, the burning of which is a ritual commonly employed by witchdoctors, known locally as sangomas or traditional healers. The Health Minister announced on Wednesday that traditional healing would become 'an integral and recognised part of health care in South Africa'. She did note, however, that the exercise of traditional medicine would be regulated to prevent 'harmful practices'. Among these she might have included an old Zulu favourite - making potions out of human body parts.

Talking of wounds, a few old ones will need healing if the coalition cabinet is to serve the nation with the requisite harmony of purpose. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Minister of Home Affairs, might have been expected to behave with typical prickliness, having been called every name under the sun over the years by ANC officials - 'snake' and 'dog' come immediately to mind - and having been accused by Mr Mandela himself on one occasion of having his hands dripping with the blood of black people. But the word from cabinet sources is that Chief Buthelezi has so far proved to be tame and friendly as a puppy.

Just how Mr de Klerk will hit it off with the Minister of Prisons, another Inkatha man by the name of Sipho Mzimela, is another matter. In January this year Mr Mzimela said of Mr de Klerk: 'He was born a liar. He grew up a liar. He will die a liar. He will be a liar in hell.'

Senior civil servants at the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry will be anxious to know whether their new minister, Kader Asmal, is also a liar. On Thursday afternoon Professor Asmal, a law lecturer of Indian extraction who taught at Trinity College, Dublin, for 27 years, gave his first press conference. In a country subject to periodic drought where half the population do not have domestic access, at the best of times, to running water, his portfolio is not unimportant. But interest at the press conference focused on the fates of the half-dozen white bureaucrats sitting, apprehensive as rabbits, in the front row.

Tinus Erasmus, the department's suddenly humble director- general, assured Prof Asmal that he and his department were committed to serving the government of the day and were looking forward to building a mutually fruitful relationship.

Would Minister Asmal fire Mr Erasmus, the journalists wanted to know? 'Well, no, ahem, I'm lost for words. Ah, I mean, the question does not arise, does it?'

Mr Erasmus, Mr Coetzee, Mr Audie and Mr Krige stared at the floor. Later, over cocktail snacks, none of the bureaucrats had the temerity to point out to Prof Asmal, who was smoking a cigarette, a sign on the wall in Afrikaans requesting no smoking. However, a journalist did so and the minister promptly did what Mr de Klerk will be doing a lot more of in the coming years and left the room.