By Andrew Quinn

Most South Africans, both black and white, believe the country was better run under apartheid and say unemployment and crime are the government's top challenges, according to two new polls released this week.

The polls, part of the "Afrobarometer" series of public opinion surveys, found South Africans had generally positive assessments of how their country was governed, and were growing increasingly optimistic about the future.

But they also revealed a growing sense of "apartheid nostalgia" as South Africa grapples with high crime rates, increasing corruption and rising joblessness following the end of white rule in 1994.

"It's not that they want to return to apartheid, but in retrospect it was a time when trains ran on time," said poll director Robert Mattes on Wednesday.

"It was a harsh, repressive, but seemingly efficient government."

Overall, the polls showed that about 60 percent of South Africans felt the country was better run under apartheid, with both blacks and whites rating the current government less trustworthy, more corrupt, less able to enforce the law and less able to deliver government services than its white predecessor.

The surveys also found respondents giving more positive assessment of apartheid-era policies.

Whites had the highest levels of nostalgia, with 65 percent now identifying positive elements to whites-only rule compared with 59 percent in 2000 and 39 percent in 1995.

But black respondents were also beginning to wax nostalgic, with 20 percent now giving a positive rating to certain aspects of life under the apartheid regime, compared with 17 percent in 2000 and eight percent in 1995.

"This suggests that as time has passed and memories of what life was really like then become dim, people tend to positively emphasise the things that they do not see under the present system and de-emphasise the more harsh aspect," said one poll.

Mattes said the rise in pro-apartheid sentiments among blacks could reflect both the growing income inequalities within South Africa's black community - where many have actually grown poorer since the end of apartheid - as well as difficulties in dealing with government bureaucracy.

Despite growing nostalgia for the past, the poll found South Africans becoming more positive about their government and its direction for the future - although they rate unemployment, poverty, crime and Aids as serious challenges.

A total of 54 percent gave positive marks to the country's current system of government, up 18 points from 1995.

Among whites, 46 percent gave the current government positive ratings, compared with just 12 percent in 1995.

Seventy-four percent of respondents expressed optimism about how the country's political system would develop over the next 10 years, with long-term optimism among whites rising to 44 percent from 24 percent in 1995.

"As people, especially racial minorities, become more accustomed to the new order, they seem to be coming to terms with it, even as they moan and grumble about all its faults," said the poll.

The Afrobarometer polls are conducted as a collaboration between the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the Centre for Democracy and Development in Ghana and Michigan State University.

The latest South African polls, which interviewed a racially representative sample of 2 400 South Africans in September and October, had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.