Mandela’s death will expose a divided South Africa

"After Mandela" considers the country's future without its former president and moral cover

Topics: The Tyee, Nelson Mandela, Apartheid, South Africa, After Mandela,

This piece originally appeared on The Tyee.

The Tyee The news that former South African president Nelson Mandela is once again gravely ill in hospital requires us to reflect on what the country will be like without him. While he is elderly and frail and everyone knows that his passing is not far off, Mandela is not just another former president to be mourned with ceremony and nostalgia.

During his decades of imprisonment under apartheid, Mandela was an unswerving beacon for the African liberation movement, refusing all National Party offers of compromise without a guarantee that South Africa would transition to majority rule. Since his release from prison in 1990 and his election as president in 1994, Mandela has become a moral compass for the country — indeed, for oppressed peoples everywhere. His statesman-like attitude, free of the slogans of revenge, was universally praised for raising the hope that a history of hatred need not define our futures. In short Mandela was not just the head of state, but a symbol of peace whose moral authority has defined South Africa.

So what happens when he dies? Are there others among South Africa’s leaders who can carry on his work, and have the years since 1994 created the institutions that will keep South Africa stable and (mostly) peaceful? These are the questions asked by Douglas Foster in his excellent book After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa. The key phrase in the title is “for Freedom” — note that the author does not say “The Struggle for Equality” or any other ideal. So, “Freedom” from what?

Mandela as moral cover

For some, the story of Nelson Mandela, now elevated to secular saint, has obscured a proper analysis of the problems and contradictions of South Africa since 1994 when, for the first time, the majority black population was allowed to vote. The African National Congress (ANC) was then seen as the proper vehicle for social change and the world invested their hopes in Mandela and his leadership of the ANC to guide the burgeoning “Rainbow Nation.” Since his retirement from the presidency and later from public life, Mandela has continued to provide a form of moral cover that has influenced the way South Africa is viewed by the many in the West. Sadly, this has blunted external criticism of some of the realities of present South Africa, and even criticism from within South Africa. When Mandela goes we will be left with a country in transition that will be analysed more rigorously than has been the case till now.

Of course, we must remember that Mandela was elected president just 19 years ago, too short a time to make everything right in a country burdened by centuries of segregation and racial suppression. In 1994 the ANC inherited a new democracy shaped by the racism that had warped the country’s collective DNA — and this is not easily corrected. But 19 years is enough time to see the themes and tendencies in the process of change and to get an idea where things are headed. This is the task Douglas Foster set himself — to illustrate what changes there are and what signs there are for the future.

To research this book, Foster, the former editor of Mother Jones magazine, visited South Africa many times over several years and lived there for one year. As a journalist he chose to tell the story of the new South Africa through the lives and opinions of three groups of people: the country’s political leaders and their families; civil-society activists; some disadvantaged youth — including street kids from the cities. Through extended interviews Foster allows his subjects to reveal themselves in their own words. Many are amusing, some seemingly trivial — but all shed light on the contradictions at the heart of post-apartheid South Africa. For example, South Africa has a constitution that provides the foundation for a model pluralist democracy, but the present society still suffers from general poverty, widespread corruption and violence, and the ruling ANC party shows an increasing tendency towards authoritarian rule. Freedom of the press is not a given in today’s South Africa.

Two South Africas

After Mandela reveals two separate and competing South Africas that sit uncomfortably side by side. There is the South Africa of the countryside — a world governed by tradition and tribe where the values of culture remain largely unchanged by modernity. Then there is the world of the cities — cosmopolitan, chic and with a sense of optimism — where the country’s present and future elite work and play. The hoped-for benefits of the modern state with their promise of improvements in education, health and job opportunity have been slow to reach the majority of South Africans, both in and outside the cities — so the separation of these two worlds remains. To some of Foster’s subjects this divide appears almost unbridgeable as many South Africans find it impossible to move between these two worlds. To illustrate his case Foster interviews privileged young people in Jo’burg and Cape Town, and then others from poor families who live without any obvious path towards a good education or material success.

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One of the most obvious changes in South Africa is in the status and reputation of the ANC. During its years in exile under apartheid, the ANC proclaimed its commitment to democratic principles. But in government, Foster concludes, the ANC has become the establishment in what is effectively a one-party state. It leadership, exemplified by former president Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma, live a rarified existence in luxury government compounds isolated from the rest of the country. Some of the most entertaining sections are Foster’s many interviews with President Zuma who presents himself as a simple man, one of the common people, and thus distinct from his more cerebral predecessor, Mbeki. His commitment to ‘ordinariness’ is shown by his maintenance of his traditional Zulu values, to polygamy and to his links to his home village. But his daily life seems more urban than rural.

From revolutionaries to establishment

One of the best parts of the book is Foster’s account of the 2007 ANC Convention when Mbeki, then still President, was sidelined by his own party and Zuma elected to the ANC leadership. This sort of reporting is meat-and-drink to political junkies like me, but to the casual reader interested in knowing more about an important country in a changing continent, much of the detail will seem impenetrable and obscure. However, such reporting does illustrate the power struggle that now characterizes the ANC as it seeks to find a definition in a country where it can no longer rely on the uncritical support of the population. The ANC’s transformation into South Africa’s “establishment” was sadly shown in 2012 when police shot into a demonstration of striking miners, causing massive loss of life and raising uncomfortable ghosts of Sharpeville and the 1976 school riots under apartheid. It is unlikely the ANC can still assume it has the unquestioning support of the working poor who make up the majority of South Africans.

Foster’s detailed, on the ground reporting reveals two South Africas.

Part of this change is simply generational. Foster’s lengthy interviews with young South Africans show the wide range of expectations among South Africa’s youth. Many barely overlapped with apartheid and have been schooled in the post-apartheid era, by majority rule and its promise of a better future. For these, the history of the “struggle for freedom” belongs to their parents and to the past — they are more focused on an unsatisfactory present and how to make things better.

Despite all this and the clear evidence of social and political failure, both Foster, and some of his young interviewees maintain a sense of optimism about the future. Some speak of their pride in a South Africa that is striving to overcome its warped history and become the “Rainbow Nation” its promoters dream of. But South Africa’s leaders face the monumental task of providing its population with the hope that comes with improved housing, good education and economic growth. Sadly the economy is slowing and unemployment remains high. It is hard to see how social improvements can be paid for. Thus whatever optimism some of the younger generation retains may be short lived. Foster has pointed out the problems facing South Africa, but there are no clear solutions as South Africa moves uncertainly into the future.

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