During its first two years of democracy South Africa has had a meek and loyal opposition. This was necessary: watching over the infant body politic as it took its halting first steps required the attentions of the country's entire, extended political family. But sooner or later the child must walk on its own two feet, without the clucking uncles and aunts. It might be argued that de Klerk's Nationalists should have waited a little longer before abandoning the infant but they have demonstrated a deeper wisdom: that a healthy democracy requires a vigilant and outspoken parliamentary opposition.
In the short term there will be a price to pay. The Rand plummeted after de Klerk's announcement. The foreign investment the country so badly needs to help redress apartheid's economic inequities will not be pouring in just yet. But if there is one lesson South Africa has absorbed better than most countries it is that without pain there is no gain. Or, as the old activists' slogan went, "patience is bitter but the fruit is sweet".
De Klerk would not have made his dramatic move if he believed it would plunge the country into chaos; or even that it would undermine the chances of a safe transition to a durable multi-party democracy. The man who ordered Nelson Mandela's release and persuaded white South Africa to relinquish apartheid invested far too much toil, energy and prestige in building the new order to allow the edifice to crumble on a party political whim. De Klerk's place in history is assured but he would like to be remembered as a man of courage and vision, not as a reckless, petulant fool.
When de Klerk said that his party's departure from Mandela's government should be seen "as an important step in the growing maturity and normalisation of our young democracy", he was not engaging in hollow, self-justifying rhetoric. Yes, there were party political interests at play. There was pressure from within the party to break ranks with Mandela's African National Congress. There was also the feeling that to make a dent in the ANC's 64 per cent majority come the 1999 election the National Party had to distance itself from the government of national unity and define itself as a plausible alternative.
But, before taking his party concerns into account, de Klerk the statesman looked and saw that for all the market jitters South Africa has made remarkable progress since the elections in April 1994. A democratic constitution was ratified on Wednesday, one which, with one or two misgivings, the overwhelming majority of members of parliament supported; President Mandela enjoys more legitimacy across colour and political lines than any national leader anywhere; the army and police remain white-led but show no signs of flagging in their loyalty to the new regime, even though Magnus Malan, the former defence minister, and other retired military men of high rank have been in the dock charged with apartheid war crimes.
The rule of law remains entrenched, Mandela setting an example when, refusing to abuse the privileges of his position, he subjected himself to the humiliation of testifying at the court hearing on his divorce.
The nation-building atmospherics have been good, occasionally glorious. When South Africa won the rugby World Cup a year ago the entire nation joined in the celebrations. Rugby had always been "the oppressor's sport". Before the international boycott of the Eighties those few blacks allowed into segregated corners of Ellis Park Stadium would cheer, without fail, for the visiting sides. Yet when Mandela walked into the stadium before the final match in the Springbok colours, he sported a shirt with the number six on the back worn by the team captain (Francois Pienaar, blond son of apartheid), and not one black South African thought to complain.
Six months later white South Africa returned the compliment. Soccer is traditionally "the blacks' game". But Soweto's First National Bank Stadium was jammed with white people when South Africa reached the final of the African Nations' Cup. One group of young suburbanites arrived in the stands with the new South African flag painted on their faces and carrying drums, and led their initially bemused black compatriots in a festive dance.
It has not all been plain sailing. The devil has been in the detail, and his name is Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party amply fits the caricature of tin-pot, tyrannic African leadership. Wilful, envious, deceitful, cruel, Buthelezi has snarled his way through the good times and the bad. An ally of apartheid, a black man who was more powerful under white rule, no one has lamented more than he the passing of the old order. In his efforts to frustrate the country's first all- race elections he unleashed his Zulu warriors into the townships and precipitated South Africa's worst bout of bloodshed since the Boer War. The killings continue today in his erstwhile fiefdom of KwaZulu-Natal, as Inkatha Zulu fights ANC Zulu.
For all Mandela's spiritual munificence, the mechanics of ANC rule have not always been all that elevating either. Some of the ministerial appointments have been far from inspiring, notably Alfred Nzo, the nice but vacuous foreign minister, and Joe Modise, the sullen minister of defence. Both are suspected of holding the jobs through seniority rather than suitability. On the other hand, the manifestly brilliant Pallo Jordan was fired from his post as minister of telecommunications and Cyril Ramaphosa, the architect of the new constitution, has announced that he is quitting politics.
There are strong suggestions that Jordan and Ramaphosa are no longer in contention for the leadership because Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's deputy president and heir apparent, does not want them to be. A smooth operator and close confidante of Mandela, Mbeki has done much to persuade both white business and the white right that they have nothing to fear from the ANC. He is also ambitious. With Ramaphosa and Jordan neutralised, the way is clear for Mbeki to assume both the party leadership and the presidency into the next century.
Some will question whether he has the necessary qualities. Leaders such as Mandela appear in the life of a country once every thousand years; no one expects a comparable successor. But many doubt that Mbeki could even keep the ship on a steady course. He has a tendency to cronyism (he is rarely without a retinue of toadies in his wake) and, in times of tough personal choices, exhibits a dubious attachment to principle.
These are all good reasons for South Africa to have a strong opposition, one which will denounce abuses of government power. South Africa's parliamentary system provides a solid platform for dissent and the media is still free to criticise political leaders.
The danger, though, is that Mandela's non-racial dream could dissolve if party political allegiances divided along black and white lines. That danger was there before the National Party's defection from government. The best way to address it would be for the opposition forces to realign and create a new power bloc and a genuine two-party system.
The possibility exists, and there are many opposition figures working behind the scenes to see that it happens, with the National Party merging in due course, they hope, with the Democratic Party, a Buthelezi-purged Inkatha and the more pragmatic members of the Afrikaner right. Even the hitherto all-black Pan-Africanist Congress might join, if the alternative were extinction. Such a party could count on the support not only of the white majority, but also of the "coloured" (mixed-race) majority - most of whom voted for the National Party last time. It could attract a significant number of black voters, some of whom are already grumbling about the ANC's failure to keep its economic promises.
Such a scenario would offer the best chance of South Africa keeping de facto one-party dictatorship at bay.
John Carlin was South Africa correspondent from 1989 to 1994.Reuse content