Nelson Mandela rarely spoke out during the final few years of his life. His last public appearance came at the 2010 World Cup in a football stadium in Soweto. Perhaps this was due, in part, to his disappointment with the state of South African politics. Ever since he left politics in 1999, his legacy has been twisted and manipulated by the ruling party, the African National Congress. Mr Mandela’s greatest achievement may have been the forgiveness he granted former members of the apartheid regime once he was released from Robben Island and was elected into leadership in 1994. Current president Jacob Zuma and his ilk would do well to remember the inclusive spirit that Madiba championed.
At the outset of his presidency, certain critics questioned Mandela’s ability to lead the prosperous but divided country into a functioning multiracial democracy. His early Marxist writings were brought to international attention as an example of his latent socialist tendencies. More worryingly, Mandela had refused to disavow the violent tactics of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), a military faction of the ANC that he cofounded in 1961. Drawing inspiration from Mao and Che Guevara, Umkhonto we Sizwe conducted a campaign of indiscriminate bombing in South Africa over a 30-year period. Mandela’s participation in the violent wing of the ANC, as well as his socialist sympathies, led to leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to refuse to support his campaign in the early 1980s.
Fears over his past political inclinations were largely unfounded; under Mandela’s leadership, South Africa retained its place as Africa’s foremost economy and became a western liberal democracy. Mandela is best remembered for his commitment to reconciliation, eschewing punitive measures towards South Africa’s oppressive white minority and thereby preventing national fragmentation. Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Campaign, which granted amnesty to most of the rank and file of the former regime, ended the cycle of revenge and martyrdom that has characterised so many post-colonial African republics. Instead of creating a divisive political system based on cheap pan-African nationalism a la Robert Mugabe, Mandela correctly reasoned that a lasting and mature republic requires genuine integration and not rule grounded in ethnic divisions. Mandela’s calls for the continuation of the ANC’s dream of an ‘African Renaissance’ were tempered with pleas for moderation and inclusivity.
South Africa under Mandela’s successors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma is quickly receding from Mandela’s original vision. Rising inequality, the introduction of thinly-veiled racial policies, and a perversion of the anti-apartheid struggle for political ends have characterised the regimes of both presidents. Mbeki was fond of railing against ‘global apartheid’ – his shorthand for the inequality between rich and poor states – yet oversaw an increase in economic inequality at home.
One of the few genuine criticisms levelled at Mandela was his unwillingness to tackle the AIDS crisis, though at the time it remained poorly understood. Mandela left this to his successor Mbeki, who patently refused to address the issue and denied that HIV caused AIDS. His steadfast rejection of offers of western aid – most likely stemming from an unwillingness to accept what he considered racist characterizations of Africans as promiscuous – caused an estimated 350 000 deaths that could have been prevented through serious and concerted acknowledgment of the gravity of South Africa’s HIV pandemic. Mbeki was blinded by his perception of western bigotry, evidenced in his 2001 speech at the University of Fort Hare where he denounced western aid agencies and governments for perpetuating what he saw as the illusion of widespread sexual disease: “Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world, they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.” Mbeki’s unfounded suspicions, antiscientific stance, and caustic anti-colonialist tone resulted in a deepening of the entrenched divisions in South African society.
Jacob Zuma took over from Mbeki in 2009, and his promises to turn South Africa into ‘the rainbow nation’ have so far rung hollow. Since Mandela left office, the black professional middle class has grown and prospered, but the most disenfranchised elements of society saw little improvement. De jure discrimination has been eradicated, but economic inequality can still be traced along racial lines. White South Africans today earn an average of six times more than black South Africans. While absolute poverty has declined since 2000, South Africa is home to probably the highest income inequality in the world, as measured by the GINI coefficient. Just under half of all South Africans now live in poverty. This has resulted in a situation in which relatively affluent families cloister themselves in gated communities and hire guards to protect themselves from the masses of destitute poor. The country is home to one of the highest murder rates in the world, matched only by the cartel-driven hotbeds of violence in of Central America.
Labour disputes, especially among miners, have become frequent and increasingly tumultuous – last year saw more civilians killed by police than any year since the end of apartheid. The ANC’s socialist proclivities and Zuma’s talk of nationalization, most notably the profitable mining industry, have scared away investors.
As a result, white professionals are emigrating, fearing a Zimbabwe-esque situation in which they are stripped of property and livelihoods under the guise of ‘land reform’.
But it remains unlikely that South Africa will go the way of Zimbabwe altogether. Mugabe’s disastrous land reforms were aimed at restoring land to black Africans, but he merely expelled the white minority and granted the land to his cronies, causing crop shortages and hyperinflation. Despite the undeniably deleterious effects of Mugabe’s radical pan-Africanism, neither Mbeki nor Zuma have directed South Africa’s considerable political clout into restricting the deleterious ambitions of one of Africa’s worst dictators. Close economic ties, as well as South Africa’s status as a regional hegemon, lend it considerable influence over Zimbabwe, making it all the more lamentable that neither leader has severed their ties with Mugabe. Worrying signs of what has been dubbed ‘new racism’ have begun to grip South Africa. Popular leaders such as Julius Malema of the almost farcically named ‘Economic Freedom Fighters’ have of late risen to prominence, advocating nationalization of most industries and the Africanisation of government. Malema – who has become Zuma’s protégé – does not represent the political mainstream, but voices such as his have become more strident in recent years. His rise does not necessarily herald a move toward anti-apartheid, but it nonetheless damages to South Africa’s reputation as an inclusive state.
While many sub-Saharan African states have witnessed strong economic growth in recent years, South Africa has stagnated. A sub-par educational system, crippling inequality, and cycles of violence in big cities have left poor South Africans entirely without options for social advancement. A new black elite, typified by Jacob Zuma, enriches itself at the expense of the rest of the country, preserving an all-too-familiar cycle of cronyism and tribal politics in the African state. While not as repressive or overtly morally corrupt as the apartheid regime, the current administration has not ameliorated the living conditions for the poorest South Africans. When the richest country in Africa cannot grant a reasonable standard of living to half of its citizens, something is fundamentally awry. Equality should not extend to skin colour alone; Nelson Mandela’s South Africa will not see true equality until society becomes upwardly mobile. Sadly for Mandela’s dream, we may have to wait a while.