One hundred days of quietude: Critics have been too quick to carp: Mandela's New Deal is solid, if sluggish, says John Carlin

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HERE is a sample of headlines from the front pages of this month's South African newspapers: 'Snatched baby found'; 'War on criminals'; 'TV licence fees go up'; 'Mine union holds strike ballot'; 'Nelson: we must tighten our belt'.

By contrast, here are some of the headlines four months ago, in the run-up to the 27 April election. 'Buthelezi warns of civil war'; 'Far right threatens terror campaign'; 'Army will back us, says right'; 'Last-ditch mediation bid collapses'; '9 die, 92 hurt in car bomb blast'.

Since Nelson Mandela became President 100 days ago, South Africa has lost its epic uniqueness. The country's 40 million people are no longer players in a universal moral drama, no longer is the government the world's scapegoat for humanity's inability to resolve racial conflict.

Before the election, politics was a matter of life or death. Today the preoccupations of the man who was once the world's most famous political prisoner are altogether more commonplace: fighting crime and spurring economic growth. These are also the main concerns of the man and woman on the street, though judging from the calls in the last week to Johannesburg's popular radio phone-in programmes, the nation is only marginally less anxious about a recent spate of baby-snatchings, the possible sacking of the Springbok rugby coach and the incapacity of the national soccer team to make any impact on the 1998 World Cup.

President Mandela and his multi-racial, multi-party government of national unity have delivered a measure of political stability not seen in half a century. In the absence of any visible threats to the state, one could look back beyond apartheid and argue that the body politic is in better health than at any point since the arrival of the first white settlers in 1652.

A few scores are still being settled after eight years of Zulu-on- Zulu, Inkatha-African National Congress war in KwaZulu-Natal, but otherwise political violence, the most pressing issue of the last four years, no longer exists. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader, has been given the Home Affairs ministry and is busy drafting legislation on censorship, passports and immigration.

The bombing campaign during election week proved to be the last hurrah of the lunatic white right. After the police, as loyally on board now as the army, had briskly rounded up 40 suspected terrorists linked to Eugene Terreblanche's Afrikaner Resistance Movement, President Mandela set it as his priority to defuse the emotions of those remaining right wingers who had boycotted the election and still clung to the belief that an Afrikaner homeland offered the only refuge from godless black Communism.

He has had numerous meetings with the leader of the recalcitrant Conservative Party, Ferdi Hartzenberg, the upshot of which has been that the lone voice still calling the Afrikaner volk to arms is Eugene Terreblanche. 'ET', diminished from Boer freedom fighter to Boer buffoon, was reduced last week to denouncing Mr Hartzenberg, his last ally, as a traitor.

The three great terrors of those ordinary Afrikaners who sought a Boerestaat were that under an ANC-led government they would lose their language, their religion and their land. Since the government has failed to live up to expectations on all counts, the right wing has lost its political platform.

As for General Constand Viljoen, of the Afrikaner Freedom Front, his main intervention in his new capacity as a member of parliament has concerned his fear of 'a porn explosion' following Chief Buthelezi's announcement of initiatives to end censorship. Warrior Moses turned Mary Whitehouse, the general has also declared his support in parliament - to loud cheers from ANC backbenchers - for President Mandela's New Deal, the reconstruction and development programme.

The articles of faith of the RDP are contained in a document drawn up by the ANC before the elections and incorporated now as the philosophical pillar of government policy. The main focus is the economy, with the emphasis on providing improved housing, education, health, water and electricity for the most needy. Every party in parliament supports it.

What this flowering of national consensus around the RDP helps to demonstrate is that the Mandela government enjoys a measure of political legitimacy, and a degree of active support, which the leaders of other democracies must envy.

Mandela's cabinet consists, in proportion to the general election results, of 18 ANC ministers, six from the National Party and three from Inkatha. The only tensions have emerged from the anxiety the NP and Inkatha feel at the prospect of losing their identity by the time the next elections come around in 1999. Both the NP leader, deputy president F W de Klerk, and Inkatha's Chief Buthelezi have indicated that they will pull out of the government of national unity before then, in sufficient time to to put some political distance between themselves and the ANC.

In parliament the biggest problem is boredom. Save for the minor controversies generated by Winnie Mandela's occasional operatic flurries, the 400 MPs have found they have precious little to do. Debate in the manner of the British parliament simply does not exist, so general is agreement on all the essentials of policy. Already there are calls from within parliament and beyond to reduce the number of MPs, so that the talents available may be put to better use in the civil service or local government.

As for Mr Mandela himself, his stature continues to grow at such a pace among the population that if an election were to be held today the ANC would probably increase its majority. At the opening of an Anne Frank exhibition in Johannesburg on Monday, the invited audience, overwhelmingly white and well-heeled, gushed with approval as speaker after speaker sang the President's praises.

There are rumblings, however. One of Mr Mandela's aides at the same function remarked, in an aside, that perhaps the reason why the white people in the audience had fallen in love with their first black president was that he had done nothing to undermine their traditional privileges.

In contrast with the early liberation regimes in Africa, Mr Mandela has deliberately avoided imposing an ideological stamp on his presidency. Determined to offset any possibility of a military rebellion and a drain on human and capital resources, he has promised the civil servants (the generals included) that they will not be dismissed, he has not increased income tax and he has committed himself unequivocally to the free market.

His dilemma is that he has also promised the black majority he will improve their standards of living. So far the only evidence of his change in economic priorities has been the extension of free health care to pregnant mothers and children. There are no signs yet of the promised housing boom, and the Ministry of Education, which faces a Herculean task in black schools, has acquired the tag 'Ministry of Paralysis' on account of the minister, Sibusiso Bengu, having been confined to bed through ill health for much of his tenure.

Confusion and frustration have also attended the twin tasks of redirecting the old civil service and establishing a whole new set of power structures in provincial and local government. Hernus Kriel, the National Party's new regional premier of the Western Cape, told one of his colleagues recently that he would love to finance a certain project, 'but I haven't got my chequebook yet'.

Getting the infrastructure of government up and running remains Mandela's challenge, and while the prevailing view among black South Africans in particular is 'you can't expect miracles overnight', people's patience might wear thin if the RDP does not yield fruit within the next 100 days.

Impatience might manifest itself, for example, in the form of strikes. Already in the last six weeks more than 100,000 workers have downed tools. This cannot be called a crisis yet, since this number represents only a small fraction of the labour force - the current union disruption does not begin to touch the scale of the chaos witnessed in recent years. But potential investors have been worried both by the unrest and by the evidence that the unions will be quite prepared in future to fly in the face of government, however strong their sympathies for President Mandela.

Also threatening to undermine the RDP's best-laid plans is the extraordinarily high incidence of crime. 'Affirmative shopping', as the wags in Soweto call it, may be seen partly as an indication of people's desperate need to redistribute the existing cake instead of waiting, in line with Mr Mandela's recipe, for it to grow bigger. Poverty, however, does not explain a per capita murder rate seven times as high as that of the United States. The Minister of Law and Order, Sydney Mufamadi, is said by friends to have become an insomniac, so beset by worry is he at the prospect of having to transform the police force from an instrument of political repression into an effective crime-fighting institution.

And Mr Mufamadi made the point in Soweto last week that it will not be possible to build new houses, instal new water pipes and electricity lines if the building materials are routinely stolen and the technicians who go and work in the black townships live in constant danger of death.

All in all, as Mr Mandela will probably concede in his speech to parliament today, the government has made a sluggish start. But start it has, pragmatically and on solid political foundations. The predominant view among black people, possessed of an immeasurable new sense of dignity, is that at last there is reason to hope life might materially improve.

Mr Mandela's conundrum is this: in the measure that he succeeds in transforming South Africa into a normal society, so people's demands become more normal, less focused on the public good, on liberation, and more on their own private economic needs. Mr Mandela has battled heroically for many years but, as he has been the first to point out, the present phase of struggle promises to be no less demanding than the last.

(Photograph omitted)