Fergal Keane: Another icon worthy of the beloved country

'A soft-spoken, pipe-smoking president doesn't fit the template we have constructed for South African freedom-fighters'
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A few weeks back, thousands of people crowded into central London to pay homage to a foreign country. I can't think of it ever having happened before. Trafalgar Square crammed with Londoners cheering for a faraway land. In fact, they were paying homage to Nelson Mandela, the universal "good" leader whom right, left, centre, and people of no politics at all love to love. Mr Mandela's skill is that he has seemed to be above politics and to represent the human embodiment of certain elevated values: principally, forgiveness, gentleness and wisdom.

He is an icon whose very human feet of clay were long ago burnished with gold leaf; his mistakes we forgive easily and his more angry comments ­ and believe me I have heard plenty of them ­ are erased from memory. That is partly to do with knowing he spent 27 years in jail to defend the idea of freedom, and because he turned lofty ideals into practical action. At several critical points in the transition to democracy, Mandela's personal intervention ensured that black anger and impatience did not bring the process crashing down.

Mr Mandela was an intensely political man and as attuned as any western politician to questions of party loyalties and divisions. The beaming grandfather was one of the toughest and shrewdest politicians in the world. But he made a marvellous job of convincing us otherwise. His winning manner, his iconic status, and South Africa's appalling apartheid legacy, protected him from the kind of scrutiny that goes with being the leader of a modern democracy. When he faltered or failed, we rushed to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Does anybody seriously question Mr Mandela's failure to grasp the extent of the Aids crisis during his tenure as leader? It was the failure of his administration that presented the Mbeki government with the disaster that is now unfolding across South Africa. Granted, Mr Mbeki's government has handled the situation with appalling ineptitude, but he did inherit a nightmare.

Mr Mbeki is denied the generosity of spirit extended to Mr Mandela. Ever since his accession to power, the commentators have questioned his suitability for office. And the western public who fall over themselves to welcome Mr Mandela? Well, you will look hard to find them when Mr Mbeki begins his official visit to Britain next week. The soft-spoken, pipe-smoking President doesn't fit the iconic template we have constructed for South African freedom-fighters. He didn't go to jail after all. Nor was he tortured or shot. In the negotiations for the transfer of power, it was the charismatic Cyril Ramaphosa who took centre stage.

And yet I was living in South Africa throughout this period, and I recognise a different Mbeki to the figure who has been so strongly criticised (by myself among others) in recent months. The Mbeki of that period was a wise and calming influence on an organisation perilously balanced between the demands of political pragmatism and the revolutionary instincts of its young activists. I only met Thabo Mbeki in the company of other correspondents, but my memory is of being impressed by his moderation and good sense.

So he didn't go to jail? Well he was driven out of the land of his birth to live in exile. He did endure the relentless threat of assassination at the hands of the security police. When he went into exile, and during the long wilderness years when white government seemed an eternal fact, there was no prospect of political power dangling in front of the young Mbeki. To stay in the game in those days you needed a very deep reservoir of conviction.

Similarly, the fact that the ANC gained the kind of international support whose echoes we still hear in Trafalgar Square is in no small measure due to Mbeki's work. Where others charmed the crowds, Mbeki worked the embassies and foreign ministries, reminding the diplomats that one day the ANC just might be the government of South Africa. The fact that Mrs Thatcher stopped calling the ANC "terrorists" and backed the Foreign Office policy of engagement with the exiled leadership had a great deal to with Mbeki's quiet persuasion.

So despite the disaster of the Aids programme, despite his failure to exert influence on Robert Mugabe and despite the witless behaviour of his acolytes in promoting conspiracy theories and attacks on white liberals, I am willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to Thabo Mbeki.

Let us leave President Mbeki out of it for a few moments. Suppose I was to write an advertisement for South Africa. What would I say to induce you to visit or to invest? I would tell you that it is still the most beautiful country in the world (subjective I know, but please trust me!), that in terms of day-to-day relationships between races it is a far more comfortable place than the US and many parts of Britain (racism is the deep wound but at least it is debated openly), that there are values of community and of the human spirit that would put our own selfish societies to shame.

I would also say that this was a country that 15 years ago was on a rollercoaster to civil war, and that by the greatest leap of faith in modern history, the protagonists instead decided to embrace a shared future. Harking on about how terrible it might have been isn't a scientific or morally efficacious way of assessing the present, but it does serve to underline the scale of the country's achievements so far. It is a country still racked by violent crime, but it feels a great deal safer than the country I knew in the terrible mid-Eighties or during the township wars of the early Nineties.

You wouldn't guess this from a casual glance at the news from South Africa. There is one relentless story: crime. More particularly, crime as it effects the citizens of wealthy white suburbs. Yet there is so much more to crime than the anguish of suburban whites. The real story is in the black townships where the rule of the gangsters is unchecked by security firms, high walls and vicious dogs. A better trained and paid police force is part of the answer. But the fundamental issue is economic: South Africa's violent- crime rate will remain a national crisis while the economy fails to stimulate the jobs for alienated young men. To create the jobs, you need a growth rate of at least five per cent a year, and that will remain elusive while the investor community is frightened away by crime and the government's inability to get to grips with the problem.

But please, Mr Businessman, don't be scared away. South Africa demands patience but if you are in for the long term, the rewards are there to be reaped. And likewise Mr and Mrs Tourist. I don't know of a place that needs you more or that will send you home feeling so changed and so warm.

The country over which Mr Mbeki rules has left behind the euphoria of liberation, but it retains a capacity to inspire. The trick for Mr Mbeki is in repeating the kind of successes he scored as a diplomat. If he can deliver on the jobs, education and in the battle against Aids, the terrible mistakes of the last few years may be forgotten. Thabo Mbeki may yet become an icon worthy of the beloved country.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent