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A New South Africa

SOUTH Africa's government of national unity has encountered rough waters lately. Ethical storms have engulfed prominent figures like Winnie Mandela, estranged wife of the president, and former anti-apartheid activist and minister Allan Boesak. And these squalls are dwarfed by the turbulence caused by massive unemployment and underemployment.

But who would have expected smooth sailing for a country that only a little over a year ago shook itself loose from apartheid and set a course toward real democracy?

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Considering that recent history, the positives outweigh the negatives: growing business confidence and investment; a populace that has shown a remarkable inclination toward centrist, nonconfrontational politics; a thorough, if barely implemented program of reconstruction; and, not least, President Nelson Mandela himself.

South Africa's first popularly elected leader is a revered figure among both blacks and whites. Polls indicate that South Africans are willing to exercise patience as Mr. Mandela strives to keep the confidence of the country's business establishment while providing some evidence of tangible progress for the black majority.

For all the inadequacies of housing, jobs, and education, average South Africans have maintained the optimism evident last year as they elected their first representative national government. This year, in October, the country holds its first all-races local elections, where many citizens could gain a say in decisions affecting streets, water, and other basic services. Registration to vote has so far been slow - a familiar story with local elections in many democracies. But it ought to pick up as people become more aware of the stakes involved. Grass-roots participation is needed to invigorate the structures of democratic government and carry Mandela's work beyond his own tenure in office.

As one new democratic structure, the country's Constitutional Court bears watching. It's made up of jurists from diverse backgrounds, and its first major case could decide whether South Africa, which used to execute dozens of people yearly, will countenance capital punishment under its new Bill of Rights. That issue is hard enough for democracies in their third century, let alone one only a year old. However the new court settles the issue, the decision will have a legitimacy that would have been impossible under apartheid.

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