In Sandton the nibbles are impressive but the news is bleak. "Empowerment in the corporate sector has reached a new low," says the author of a report for the conference. "Deal flow is down, market performance of black-controlled companies is in crisis and global and economic prospects offer little relief." Sakumzi Macozoma wins black empowerment businessman of the year. His job title, deputy chairman of the Standard Bank's investment division, is the latest in a series of reinventions. Born to a black working-class family in Port Elizabeth, he has been a student activist, a prisoner on Robben Island, an African National Congress official, an MP and now, at only 44, a successful businessman. The man who marched at the head of the student movement now glides along marble floors in the bank's plush downtown offices.
"We are a new elite and that is an inevitable consequence of transformation," he says. Macozoma fully understands the contradictions sitting on the other side of the table from his former allies who remained in the trade union movement."It is quite a challenge because people relate to you very differently, although there are a number of us in the same position. We are living in what they call one of the 'privileged moments of history'," he says, sounding like a dot.com millionaire before the bust. "I am a beneficiary of that."
Such is the power of any transition. The pace of change is such that individuals cease to live in real time. Human journeys that under normal circumstances take decades, if not generations, are completed in a few years, if not months. So the prisoner becomes president; law breakers become law makers; armed guerrillas become arms dealers. The person who slept on your floor only 10 years ago, after a wild party, is now a government minister with an entourage.
"It is interesting to see who still carries their own briefcase," says one former ANC activist. "These are people I've known for years when we were in the field. Some of them are still great but some of them have become very pompous. When you have a car and a driver and you're travelling first class, some people change."
South Africa has been in perpetual motion for more than a decade now. Seven years ago, shortly before the first democratic elections, I celebrated my 25th birthday in the garden of the Guardian's correspondent in Johannesburg, playing chess and discussing Arsenal's fortunes with Ronnie Kasrils, the former head of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe. When I returned in 1999 for the second elections, almost every South African I had met five years previously had changed jobs at least once and most had moved house too. The day I arrived, Kasrils was there again, watching Arsenal in the FA Cup final. This time I was sharing a beer with the deputy defence minister.
It is easy, and for some convenient, to forget how far and how fast South Africa has travelled in recent times. In 1994, it stood not only on the brink of democracy but also on the verge of chaos.
Throughout the province of KwaZulu/Natal political violence raged between the ANC and Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party. A gun battle between the two parties left a trail of dead bodies on the streets of central Johannesburg, where, shortly afterwards, disgruntled Afrikaaners set off car bombs.
So to return seven years, two general elections and a change of leader later, to a row about an alleged plot to discredit the president feels like progress. Those desperate to claim there is no difference between the new South Africa and the old forget two things. The first time FW de Klerk went to the polls before the entire country he was defeated heavily. The first time Thabo Mbeki presented himself to the people he increased the ANC majority. And if the people don't like him in 2004 they can get him out. These are the two principal achievements of the ANC - democracy and stability.
Mandela was released just a year before the anti-Gorbachev coup, which signaled the end of the Soviet Union. Yet unlike Russia, there is no organised political gangsterism, mafia-inspired contract killings, or civil war. There are no state-sponsored death squads, imprisoned politicians or the banning of parties, as there was under apartheid. Both Aids and crime are rampant, as they were to a lesser extent under apartheid, and the government's response to the former has been problematic and to the latter largely ineffective.
But the social meltdown, mass exodus or civil war, on the scale that was predicted, is nowhere in sight. "I was reading about Berlusconi the other day," says one ANC veteran. "It said he had been under investigations for money laundering, complicity in murder, connections with the Mafia, bribing politicians and judges and all of that. I thought, 'God - our president's done some stupid things and this plot thing is crazy, but imagine what the world would be saying about us if we had someone like that as our leader.'"
The alleged plot is more than crazy. It is a mixture of the banal and the bizarre. The security minister, Steve Tshwete claimed on national television that black business leaders were raising funds to support candidates who would challenge South Africa's President Mbeki within the ANC and were influencing the media to show him in a bad light. He then went on to name the plotters as Cyril Ramaphosa, the former ANC secretary general who had negotiated the transition to democracy for the party, Tokyo Sexwale, the former premier of Gauteng and Matthew Phosa, the former head of Mpumulanga province. The three men, claimed Tshwete, were trying to implicate Mbeki in the murder of the late Chris Hani, a popular and sorely missed ANC leader gunned down outside his home in 1993.
Banal because, were it true, (the murder aside) it would be no more serious than the kind of story that emanates from most political parties. Bizarre, because the fact that it is evidently untrue - the source of the allegations is a man under investigation for 77 counts of fraud and embezzlement - casts serious doubts on the judgment of the ANC leadership, including Mbeki, for airing them in the first place. But, for all that, it is important.
The link between governance and competence is often racially connoted. It does not have to be. Ask any commuter or farmer in Britain and they will point to several examples of incompetent white people. Similarly, talk to a Nigerian who lived under the dictatorship of Sani Abacha, or a resident of Washington DC, where the former mayor, Marion Barry, was filmed smoking crack with a prostitute, and you will hear black people tell you that black leaders can mismanage affairs too.
But in countries where black people were once kept away from the levers of democracy on the grounds that they were intellectually incapable of operating them intelligently, charges of incompetence made by whites have a specific currency. That does not mean that they should not be made or that they may not be valid. One look at recent events in neighbouring Zambia and Zimbabwe indicate there is a lot to criticise. But those who make them should not be surprised if they are met with the accusation that their criticism is informed by racism.
Since he came to power, racism has been Mbeki's retort to almost every attack on his government. When Max du Preez, the editor of an Afrikaaner-language anti-apartheid weekly, Vrije Weekblad, accused Mbeki of being a womaniser, the ANC's spokesman accused him of "irresponsible and undermining" behaviour that "bordered on hate speech". Often Mbeki's responses are coded. If he lambasts "enemies of transformation" or those intent on "subverting the new democracy" he is talking about whites. Mbeki is by no means alone in this. An advert in this weekend's Sunday Times, paid for by prominent black professionals, accused the media of launching an "apartheid-style disinformation campaign [comprising] rightwing forces made up of white so-called liberals".
A similar mood is growing in the townships. When I stayed in Alexandra township in 1994 I remember desperately trying to tease out of black people what they thought of whites, only to be met with blank expressions. It took me a little while to work out that while they were keen to get rid of apartheid they didn't think about whites at all. They were too busy worrying about feeding their families and keeping their homes. Today, the townships provide fertile ground for ANC claims that white interests are behind the criticisms of the president. "They want to stay on top," says Elizabeth. "We don't want to bring them down or make them suffer. But they must share some of the pain."
It's not hard to see her point. For most white South Africans the new South Africa looks very much like the old one. They have kept their maids, houses and cooks and they can travel freely all over the world, watch their national teams in international competitions. The price they pay for this is that they have to live in a democracy. But for many even this is too much. They look on 1994 not as the first year of democracy after centuries of oppression but as year zero, after which all slates are wiped clean and all debts cleared. As though the sun had risen at dawn over the rainbow parliament in Cape Town, without ever having set the previous day on the Voortrekker monument. After years of state-sponsored white supremacy, they have belatedly discovered the principle that jobs should be awarded on merit and are bitterly upset by affirmative action and black empowerment.
Like blacks, they are upset and scared by the high levels of crime. But unlike blacks, they have seen a sharp increase because previously much of it was contained in the townships. Their reaction is to fortify their homes with higher walls and more powerful electric fences. Over the past 10 years, spending on private security has increased 12-fold to 12bn rand (£1.1bn) - more than three times the housing budget of 1999/2000. They have far more than blacks and they complain far more too. A private memo, sent by the chief executive of Standard Bank, told senior staff: "With the current emphasis on transformation I am concerned that the specific views of white male managers are not being taken into account." White men make up 54% of the management at the bank; they are 7% of the population.
At times it has indeed seemed as though some people would like the new South Africa to fail, since it would fulfil their deep-seated belief that the move to democracy was a bad idea. Given Mandela's iconic status on the international scene this was a difficult argument to pursue when he was at the helm - as if emerging from 27 years in prison without bitterness was the sole human quality white South Africans could accept for a black president. So they concentrated on his successor. In 1999 broadcaster Lester Venter published a book, When Mandela Goes, which predicted widespread chaos and violence ahead. Meanwhile, emigration consultants did a roaring trade in fear as they set out to facilitate the passage of those who wanted to leave the country at a price. At a meeting for would-be emigrants in 1999 I saw one such consultant hold up Venter's book and tell the 100-strong audience: "People, this book is a wake-up call. The bad news is the paw-paw's really going to hit the fan. The good news is the fan won't be working."
The problem with Mbeki's criticism of whites is not that racism is not a problem - it clearly is - but that his use of it is so blatantly cynical and opportunistic that it debases him far more than it does those whom he accuses.
"It's awful now," says one long-standing white ANC activist. "Any time you try to criticise the party or the leadership you are told you're just representing the interests of the whites. If black people do it then they're lackeys of the whites. Mandela was too lenient on the whites. He tried to brush everything under the carpet and say everything will be all right and really let them off the hook. Now Thabo's gone to the other extreme."
It is one more example, says a black activist, of how Mbeki's heavy-handed leadership is stifling debate in the movement. "Internally the ANC used to be a very democratic movement," he says. "We used to discuss everything and then abide by the decisions. Now the decisions are made before the discussions even start and if you don't like it then you will be chastised on some spurious grounds."
Others believe his intolerance of opposition stems from his experience in exile. Groomed for the leadership as a young man by the late ANC leader Oliver Tambo, Mbeki rose quickly through the ranks abroad. But he left the organisation for two years after he was accused of being a traitor. Moreover, there has been a long-standing tension between those activists who remained in South Africa and fought, and those who campaigned outside the country. The latter had greater educational opportunities but in many ways lacked the credibility with their core support living under the tyranny of apartheid. But they had a different political education too. "The exiles had to work in tight cells to avoid infiltration by South African security services," says one former inmate of Robben Island. "At home we had to lead debate so that we could lead the people. Even in the prisons there was a kind of democracy." Mbeki's experience could not have been more different. While his contemporaries at Sussex University in Brighton were wearing kaftans and smoking dope, he was clad in tweeds and puffing on a pipe. He may have been a revolutionary, but he was never a rebel.
But the most common explanation given for both his general aversion to criticism and his most recent outburst over the alleged "plot" is psychological. Aloof and introverted, Mbeki is an awkward man who is apparently never more happy than when surfing the web at night on his own. The only plot you will find in government, say his sternest critics, is the one Mbeki has lost.
The trouble with psychoanalysis, where political leaders are concerned, is that diagnosis is always in the eye of the beholder and tends to be made with their strategic interests in mind. Saddam Hussein was sane when he was fighting Iran, and mad when he invaded Kuwait. Thabo Mbeki was a suave, western-educated man the world could do business with seven years ago when Mandela named him as his heir apparent; now he is paranoid.
The truth is that, whatever his state of mind, Mbeki has good reason to fear a challenge from within the ANC. Partly because that is how mature political parties operate in democracies. And partly because, like most political leaders, he has made some serious mistakes. Chief among them is his position on HIV and Aids. The scale of the epidemic which is blighting South Africa can hardly be exaggerated. Roughly 4.7m people in South Africa live with HIV - about one in nine of the population as a whole - and the number of confirmed sufferers is increasing at a rate of 12,000 a week. Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Mbeki refuses to admit that there is a link between the HIV virus and full blown Aids, claiming instead that the primary cause of Aids is poverty.
Though Mbeki has stopped espousing this view in public, it has has attracted sharp criticism not just from his political opponents but key allies in the trade union movement, nurses, doctors, gay rights groups and even Mandela himself. "It's not just his own crackpot ideas that are the problem," says one senior ANC activist. "It's the fact that his position makes it very difficult for those who could make a difference elsewhere in government to speak out. It's really dangerous."
Mbeki has also come under criticism for his handling of last year's land crisis in Zimbabwe, where some believe he could have been forthright in his criticism of Mugabe. But the key problem for the government is that its core supporters are beginning to get impatient with the slow pace of change. While Mocozoma may be enjoying "a privileged moment of history", those in the townships feel they have waited too long and received too little.
Alexandra township is just a few miles away from the Sandton conference centre where Mocozoma collected his award, but it may as well be on another continent. It is Sunday morning and the voices of the faithful from the Zion Christian church are mixed with the smell of frying fish and chicken from wooden stoves on the roadside and the beeping horns of the minibuses ferrying people to and from town. The self-built corrugated iron shacks are still there, along with the dogs scavenging on open rubbish tips. It is wash day and women troop with buckets full of water from standpipes to washing lines that are fit to snap.
Jobs and numbers may change in town but here you never need change your address book - people stay just where they are because they cannot afford to move anywhere else. That is not to say there is no change. The roads are tarmac, new clinics and schools have been built and over the stream, in what they called the Far East, West Bank and East Bank, new, comfortable houses have been built. There is even a Nando's chicken takeaway on Rooseveld Avenue - heavily fortified with barbed wire and metal bars.
To drive into Alex in a minibus is to roll into a different political and social paradigm. No longer are your doors locked against potential car-jackers having motored up the highway in your own private domain. You have staggered there, taking three or four times as long, with at least 10 others, stopping and starting to pick up and drop off people on the roadside on their way to and from work in the white areas. Away from the vast dwellings and high walls of the suburbs, they live cheek by jowl here - what looks like one house's front garden is often the entrance to a yard for six or seven families.
When I first came here in 1994 I quickly realised just how out of touch most liberal whites were with the concerns of the vast majority of the population. While liberals voiced concerns about the propriety of the ANC including Winnie Mandela so high on its electoral list and outrage at the ANC guards' shooting of Inkatha supporters outside the ANC's then headquarters in Shell House, these issues did not come up in Alexandra unless I brought them up.
There, Winnie remained one of the most popular figures on the list after Mandela. Ask them about the Stompie Seipei affair and they would shrug their shoulders. "Our children have been dying here for years because of poverty or disease or apartheid soldiers. Why are they now worried about this one boy?" they asked.
The same rift between black and white priorities is evident today. When a provincial committee banned Shakespeare because his work was "too gloomy" and Nadine Gordimer on the grounds of racism - their decision was reversed and immediately condemned by the ANC nationally - it went all around the world. But it never made it to Alexandra, where those I spoke to neither knew nor cared.
Similarly, the alleged plot against Mbeki is viewed very differently in townships, a fact illustrated by a recent Harris opinion poll. The poll was split into those who responded online on the internet - far more likely to be white - and those who were questioned offline in predominantly black areas.
A total of 60% of those interviewed offline believed that Mbeki had better watch his back as there "is substance" to the "plot" against him; the online figure was only 36%. For Mumsey, the mother of the family I stayed with and a former ANC organiser, Mbeki's claims are entirely credible. But their general willingness to believe it also implies a growing cynicism with politics in general. "They are always up to something," says Elizabeth. "They all want the top job or the big car." At the local elections voter turnout dropped to below 50% and the ANC vote also nosedived. It was the first indication that black voters' loyalty to the ANC and patience with the pace of change were finite.
The ANC did not win a war, they negotiated a peace. The terms of the truce were hammered out with the former apartheid regime. But the true nature of the pact demands an accommodation not with politicians but international and domestic capital. The ANC has decided that without a substantial injection of capital investment, which is still largely in white hands, there will not be sufficient wealth to redistribute. White businessmen understand that a government committed to a large programme of public investment will have plenty of lucrative contracts.
In that sense the new South Africa is beginning to look much like America's new South where economics and politics have shifted and culture and society are struggling to keep up. In hotel lobbies and airports the once radical and the still unreconstructed are awkwardly pressing palms and self-consciously rubbing shoulders. For once the deals are done there is little to talk about. "Sometimes I am taken aback by how backward some of them can be," says Mocozoma. "Not when you're doing business because they know better than that. But after a few beers they start to talk more freely and you realise that for a lot of them have really not adapted to the new situation at all."
But the real problem for the government is that, so far, the deal they thought they had struck has not been honoured. The plan, following liberation, was that a stable, tightly run economy would attract the capital that would, in turn, help to alleviate poverty. But despite their policies of fiscal rectitude, controlled inflation and restrained spending, and the praise heaped upon them from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the investment has not been forthcoming. "There is a sense of frustration that the government has done everything that international capital has asked of it," says Mocozoma. "But the political cost of that has not been rewarded and in some ways has even been punished by speculation against the rand. In retrospect I think we were a bit naive."
For some the political cost is beginning to prove too great. Trevor Ngwane was an ANC councillor in northern Johannesburg when he wrote an article against privatisation in a Sunday newspaper. By the Wednesday he had been suspended from the party. He believes the ANC has put the interests of its investors before those of its own supporters. "All governments are constrained by the forces of globalisation," he says. "But after liberation we had more space to manoeuvre than they were prepared to use. The world would have understood that it would take a huge amount of public investment to get rid of the legacies of apartheid. But the ANC chose a different path."
The failure to deliver substantial changes to the bulk of the population is putting a serious strain on the ANC's alliance partners in the trade union movement and the South African Communist party. COSATU, the main union movement, has already threatened to hold national strikes over the government's privatisation plans. "The alliance should be using its power to tilt the balance of forces in favour of a transforming agenda. But it is not working in the manner that it should and if it continues in a particular way it will die a natural death," says COSATU leader Zwelenzima Vavi. "There is no consultation and the other components of the alliance feel that we need to have more say than just encouraging our supporters to vote for the ANC. The ANC alone cannot drive the transformation agenda."
Here lies the nub of Mbeki's vulnerability - the threat that the broad church of the ANC, which was united by its opposition to apartheid, might split into its component faiths. While this is unlikely to happen any time soon, the very fact that it is being discussed breaks a taboo. The process by and pace at which this might take place contains an element of risk. But the fact that it is taking place at all is not a sign of crisis but the maturing of a new political democracy.