In his struggle, his imprisonment and the dignity with which he emerged from it, Mr Mandela earned our admiration and respect. In his presidency of the new South Africa, he earned our gratitude and awe. With his white counterpart, FW de Klerk, whose contribution also deserves to be remembered, he held together the handover from minority to majority rule, a process which could easily have descended into mayhem.
It is one of the hardest tasks of leadership, however, to safeguard your legacy without stifling your successors. Ensuring an orderly transition to an able successor may be a second-order test of a leader, but the skill with which Mr Mandela has handled it has nevertheless been impressive again. Thabo Mbeki has in effect been running the country for some time, so the transition will be smooth. This was effectively confirmed by the African National Congress at Mafikeng yesterday.
But there was cause for alarm in Mr Mandela's speech on Tuesday. It was not simply the length of it, at four-and-a-half hours, although that was ominous. Nor was it, ultimately, the attack on South Africa's free press and the warning of a white conspiracy against the new social order, paranoid though they were. In a sense, Mr Mandela is right to complain that white attitudes have not adjusted to the revolution. However unwilling Winnie was to face the truth at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least she was there, while most of the white defenders and enforcers of the apartheid system refused to attend. Mr Mandela may even be right that some whites are hell-bent on armed resistance and subverting the South African state - which, incidentally, has probably the most liberal and democratic written constitution in the world.
The echoes of Robert Mugabe's plaint against whites and a free press sent a shudder down the spine, as our correspondent reported yesterday. But it would be a serious mistake to predict, as some of Britain's right- wing press did yesterday, that South Africa was embarked on an inevitable course towards a one-party state.
There is a double confusion in this view. On the one hand, South Africa is judged according to the standards of mature western European democracies, when in fact it should be seen as a society in transition and under great stress. On the other, it should hardly shock any European that a party leader will rouse his own faithful with a ferocious speech at a tangent to public policy.
One of the biggest problems Europeans have with South Africa, as the British did with India, is that they think of it as a European culture that happens to be located on another continent in another hemisphere. In South Africa, not just the history but even the landscape and the climate are European. But the first prerequisite for understanding South Africa is to remember all the time that it is African. It is a big, diverse country, containing several strong African cultures, which united in the ANC to liberate themselves.
And the ANC grew up in exile, in prison and incommunicado, adhering to a dated Marxist theology which remains central to its identity. This was the most worrying aspect of Mr Mandela's speech, reflected in its Stalinist length: that so much of it was framed in the context of the forward march of international labour, and other such antiquated gibberish.
If the new South Africa is to succeed, it must throw off this meaningless dogma. Mr Mbeki has many good qualities (quite properly detailed below in a letter from the poet Adrian Mitchell); but the one criticism of him that carries weight is that he is too wedded to that irrelevant revolutionary ideology. The ANC's white critics are right to this extent: a successful future for South Africa's blacks rests on economic growth as much as on political stability. This will not be secured by answering every demand from the shanty-towns. It depends on two things: ruthless suppression of the crime wave, combined with an intensification of the crusade to educate the black population, so that their economic energies can be released.
That means that both whites and blacks must accept things they do not want to accept. Whites have to accept that their well-maintained public services will deteriorate: roads will become crowded and pot-holed, clean and spacious airports will no longer be swept every half hour. But blacks have to come to terms with the fact that the ANC will not provide milk and honey for all. The frustrations of the mass of the population cannot be appeased by Marxist jargon: they have to be channelled into capitalist growth.Reuse content