South Africa sees its law-breakers become law-makers: Mandela: 'The task at hand will not be easy, to change South Africa from a land in which the majority lived with little hope to one in which they can live with dignity and self-esteem'

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SOUTH AFRICA'S new parliament might be described as a reformed criminals' club. Few of the 400 law-makers gathered for yesterday morning's inaugural session have not been accused or convicted of a crime.

President Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid state. With few exceptions, his 251 fellow African National Congress MPs have been jailed, detained, banned or exiled for 'furthering the aims of a terrorist organisation'.

The Deputy President, F W de Klerk, has never endured the wrath of the law. But for 17 of the 21 years he served the old National Party government in parliament, he stood accused by the United Nations of perpetrating a crime against humanity. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader, has never been tried or jailed. But in the eyes of many black South Africans he was a detested warlord.

As for General Constand Viljoen, leader of the Afrikaner Freedom Front, as chief of the South African Defence Force in the early Eighties, he bears responsibility for bloodshed on a vast scale in Angola, Mozambique and at home.

Yesterday all sat under the same roof in Cape Town's ancient monument to apartheid and joined hands in a ceremony of reconciliation.

Mr Mandela arrived at parliament led by a police motorcycle escort. He walked into the chamber to thunderous applause. Before taking his seat he stepped across the floor to shake hands with Mr de Klerk, General Viljoen and Chief Buthelezi. Everybody cheered. Everybody had a lump in the throat.

There was Ronnie Kasrils, a former chief of ANC military intelligence. Once the most wanted man in South Africa, he had shed his trademark T-shirt, brown leather jacket and jeans, to appear in a double-breasted suit.

There was Johannes Shabangu, who blew up a petrol refinery in 1980 and went to jail. There was Melanie Verwoerd, whose grandfather-in-law - the architect of apartheid - would have shuddered to see her in the colours of the ANC.

There was Raymond Suttner, an ANC Communist, who was beaten so brutally in prison he lost an eye.

Presiding over events was South Africa's Chief Justice, Michael Corbett. He read prayers in English and Afrikaans, took the oaths of the new MPs and, the solemn climax of the morning, asked for nominations for the post of president.

Albertina Sisulu, the mother of two other MPs, Lindiwe and Max, nominated Mr Mandela. Her husband Walter, who spent 25 years in prison with Mr Mandela, and now, at 82, has bowed out of politics, watched proudly from the public gallery.

No one opposed Mrs Sisulu's nomination. 'Accordingly,' declared Justice Corbett, 'I declare Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela to be the duly elected President of the Republic of South Africa.' At the judge's words, the chamber erupted. The election of the Speaker followed.

Winnie Mandela, the one common criminal in parliament, stepped towards the microphone to make a nomination speech. Her ex-husband turned his back. The choice, unopposed, was Frene Ginwala, a diminutive Indian lady, a former ANC representative in London. She took over the chair from Justice Corbett.

The stage shifted to the steps of parliament. Framed by two tall, white columns, President Mandela, Mr de Klerk at his side, contemplated the magnificent prospect of Table Mountain.

The brass band of the South African Defence Force, led by a white conductor, played the anthem of liberation, Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika.

Lifting his eyes to the horizon, Mr Mandela promised his people change - but not an easy ride.

'The task at hand will not be easy,' he said. 'But you have mandated us to change South Africa from a country in which the majority lived with little hope, to one in which they can live and work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the future.'

Mr de Klerk, a picture of dignity, shook the hand of the man who had deposed him. Mr Sisulu, the grandfather of the ANC, strolled down the steps towards a group of reporters. 'This', he said, 'is the greatest hour of our lives.'

(Photograph omitted)