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Many lessons can be drawn from the extraordinary transformation that South Africa has undergone over the past 50 years and more. Without being soft-headed about it, one may say that the most hopeful of these lessons derives from the example offered to his fellow-citizens by Nelson Mandela, the first black president to rule over the country. Condemned to prison under arduous conditions because of his leadership of the armed resistance to the apartheid policies of the Afrikaner Nationalist government, Mandela never ceased to work for the radical reconstruction of the social and political life of the country.

Shaking off his indebtedness to the largely white leadership of the Communist Party of South Africa, while at the same time steadfastly refusing to respond to the bribes and threats dangled before him by his jailers, Mandela emerged after 27 years of imprisonment to win an overwhelming victory in the country's first genuinely democratic elections. What is more, after holding office as the country's president for the following five years, he then resigned at his own wish from that position - which is more than can be said of most other ageing politicians.

Not, of course, that all is now sweetness and light in the new South Africa. Poverty is widespread, the country is scourged by the malignance of violent crime and financial corruption exercises a sway of its own over many areas of civic life. Nevertheless, if one compares the condition of the country today with the years of apartheid, when the Nationalists pursued their mad dream of ruling forever over a society of docile blacks safely confined by law to their "own areas", and yet available at all times to work for minimum wages at the command of their white masters, one can only marvel at the changes that have taken place. To read this autobiography by the Afrikaner novelist André Brink is to be sharply reminded of just how much taken for granted - by most English-speaking South Africans, as well as Afrikaners - were the vile means used by the whites to "keep the Kaffirs in their place", as the hideously commonplace phrase went in those days.

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