CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Fifteen years after its black majority took political power, South Africa is a country combining boundless promise with pressing problems, its optimism about the future tempered by today’s realities.

Unlike many other African countries, democracy has taken firm root. Last month’s presidential election, the fourth since the white minority ceded control, went off without a hitch despite last year’s power struggle that forced out former President Theo Mbeki and lingering doubts about new President Jacob Zuma.

White and black South Africans from this cosmopolitan city to the bush, hail the country’s selection to host soccer’s World Cup next year as a sign the world recognizes its growing maturity as a nation.

But political tensions with racial overtones remain. To overcome them, the son of Eastern European immigrants said, “will take a long time perhaps two generations.”

A week spent on vacation in so large and complex a country is hardly enough to become an expert on its politics. But the visit to see our son, who has been studying African history and government at the University of Cape Town and touring the surrounding region, left some strong impressions.

This country clearly has made enormous progress since its brutal apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s under domestic and international pressures and Nelson Mandela led the once-banned ANC to governmental power.

Mandela, still a revered figure at 90, deserves substantial credit for the progress toward national reconciliation from his positive tone after his 1990 release from prison.

“The time for healing of wounds has come,” he declared in his 1994 inaugural address. “What is past is past.”

In one of several symbolic acts, he visited the widow of Hendrik Vervoerd, a principal architect of the rigid racial policies during the National party’s four-decade rule that subjugated black and colored (mixed-race) South Africans to depersonalizing prohibitions limiting their jobs, homes and personal lives.

Mandela’s example still echoes. A former political prisoner, conducting a tour of the notorious Robben Island prison where he, Mandela and most top ANC leaders were held, stresses it marks the triumph of the human spirit.

Politically, the dominant ANC, which won two-thirds of the election vote, has become an umbrella coalition. Zuma’s Cabinet includes the remnants of the National party and its long-time nemesis, the Communist party.

In his inaugural speech, Zuma vowed to lead the movement toward democracy throughout Africa and pledged a government of integrity, reconciliation and economic renewal.

But he already has incurred criticism for the size and cost of his 34-member Cabinet and doubts about his commitment to fighting corruption. He declined to publicly criticize his transport minister when contractors gave him a Mercedes, two cows, a flat-screen television and wine glasses, though the minister ultimately returned the car and the cows.

Zuma’s major problems are the economic woes of a country with one of the world’s biggest gaps between its mostly white rich and mostly poor blacks and his personal legacy of corruption. He was cleared of a variety of charges in a controversial judicial proceeding before the election but remains a polygamist with a less than savory private life.

The one-sided election has not stilled these controversies. When Helen Zille, his main presidential rival, was criticized for naming an all-male Cabinet in her new job as premier of this area’s Western Cape province, she accused Zuma of sexism.

She said he put “all his wives at risk” by the 2005 incident in which he was accused of raping an HIV-positive woman and claimed he protected himself by taking a shower afterward. (This in a country where more than 10 percent of its residents suffer from HIV/AIDS.)

But the country has far bigger problems. Along the highway from Cape Town to its international airport stand rows and rows of tin-roofed shacks, the legacy of the townships into which thousands of black and colored residents were resettled during the apartheid era. Nearby are a smaller number of newer communities into which the government hopes to move many residents.

Last year, the country was forced to ration electricity. Unemployment is officially 25 percent but almost certainly far higher. The crime rate is high. And the country has been belatedly hit by the global recession, though officials hope the World Cup influx of tourists may shorten it.

Zuma talked big in the campaign, said a black taxi driver. “Now we are waiting to see what he will do.”

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: [email protected]


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