When the victory partying has died and the last shots of jubilation have been fired into South African township skies, Nelson Mandela will face a sobering challenge.

At 75, he has been handed Africa's flickering torch of freedom and is expected by millions to make it light the way to peace and prosperity for a continent that has almost given up hope.Political and economic analysts say South Africa is the last chance for the only part of the world that is regressing, and its new leader the best hope to create the stability and racial harmony required to make post-colonial freedom work at last.

Many believe that with the richest economy in Africa behind him - albeit listing after decades of apartheid - Mandela could succeed where giants such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania failed.

Few doubt his determination to heal the racial wounds of 300 years of white repression and harness the aspirations of the blacks with the economic know-how of the new whites to make South Africa a continental powerhouse. But the task is huge.

"He will wish to go down in history as the George Washington of Africa," said Cape Town University political scientist Robert Schrire.

Mandela is old and sometimes appears frail, but the former heavyweight boxer can show steel.

Claiming victory for his African National Congress in South Africa's liberation election, Mandela satisfied his followers with the usual rhetorical flourishes - "free at last" - but quickly got down to basics that could strike sparks in the new Cabinet.

He thanked outgoing President F.W. de Klerk and other party leaders for their congratulations and said he looked forward to working with them in the national unity government - but warned he would brook no interference with the ANC's plan for economic regeneration and uplifting of the masses.

That was controversial enough. The ANC's $11 billion five-year reconstruction program to provide houses, jobs, education and medical services to millions downtrodden by apartheid has been dis-missed as fanciful by de Klerk, whose party is the most powerful after the ANC.

"If there are attempts by anyone to undermine that program there will be serious tensions in the government of national unity," Man-dela told his followers as they partied at a plush hotel in the center of Johannesburg, the city of gold.

De Klerk, bowing out as Africa's last white ruler a couple of hours earlier, had included in his concession speech a tart reminder that he had no intention of fading into history.

His political task was just beginning, said the man whose toughness turned his party of apartheid on its head. He would ensure "we adopt the right approaches in the economic and social spheres."

Just as he could not rule effectively without the consent of the ANC, Mandela would be ineffective "without the support of the people and institutions that I represent," de Klerk said. He did not have to spell it out: white-dominated big business, the civil service and the white-officered military.

De Klerk's party won control of South Africa's Western Cape Tuesday, securing a regional power-base after the ANC landslide.

ANC Western Cape leader Allan Boesak said that National Party veteran and outgoing law and order minister Hernus Kriel would be the first post-apartheid premier in the region where white settlement of South Africa began in 1652.

The National Party held more than 55 percent of the vote to the ANC's 30 percent in the province, with more than two-thirds of the ballots counted.

The Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party was ahead in the regional race in the KwaZulu-Natal Zulu heartland and was in third place in the national race with 7.5 percent of the vote. The white Freedom Front, which wants a separate white homeland, was fourth place nationally with 2.8 percent of the vote.

Against political demands for thrift, Mandela will have to set his constituents' aspirations for a taste at last of the good life enjoyed so conspicuously by de Klerk's followers.

Walter Sisulu, at Mandela's side over decades of struggle and imprisonment, quakes at the task ahead: 17 million poor and hungry in a population of 40 million, 50 percent unemployment, 7 million homeless, 9 million illiterate, countless millions impatient and nurtured in a culture of violent protest.

"My greatest fear is that the task is too big," he said.

"Apartheid has done a great deal of damage and because of that we are going to take time to reconstruct South Africa. And there becomes the question of people becoming rather impatient."

Mandela told hundreds of supporters Monday night: "This is indeed a joyous night for the human spirit. This is your victory too."

In his concession statement de Klerk praised Mandela as "a man of destiny" and pledged to work with him. Mandela in turn congratulated de Klerk.

Both sides promised to forgive the past and build one nation.

In a symbol of that remarkable spirit, ANC officials stood before their new flag and raised their glasses in honor of the outgoing president, the incoming president and the "new South Africa"

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The winners and the losers

Vote tallies of leading South African parties with over half the total vote counted:

African National Congress 7,099,514 (62.3%)

National Party 2,610,170 (22.9%)

Inkatha Freedom Party 854,969 (7.5%)

Freedom Front 323,206 (2.8%)

Democratic Party 200,881 (1.8%)

Pan Africanist Congress 148,547 (1.3%)

African Christian Democratic Party 55,030 (0.5%)