How did the young Nelson Mandela, a radical, hothead and freedom fighter, become a worldwide icon of peace?by Justice Malala / February 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
A Johannesburg mural: when Mandela joined, the ANC was “a rich black man’s debating society.” He went on to form its military wing © AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
They were singing freedom songs in Soweto that morning. A common, mournful tune, sung in the Sesotho language, was among the more popular as dawn approached: “Nelson Mandela! Nelson Mandela! Ha hona ya tshwanang le ena! No one compares to him!”
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s greatest and most famous son, had passed away at 8.50pm local time on 5th December, President Jacob Zuma announced. A hush fell over the nation, and then a cacophony of commentary and tributes poured in from world leaders around the globe. Speeches were made, and sadness shared, everywhere from Washington to London. Outside Mandela’s family home in Johannesburg crowds gathered; tears covered every face—and smiles, too.
South Africa mourns Mandela. On social networks, in the media, the outpouring of grief is huge; and it will only intensify as we prepare for his state funeral. With it, however, is an immense pride that a human being of the stature of Mandela lived here, walked among us and led us. As South Africa prepares to celebrate 20 years of democracy, the ideas and person of this great man are omnipresent.
When we speak of the “Rainbow Nation” that South Africa has become, it is him we credit with its creation. When we speak of the institutions of democracy that now stand at the centre of our nation and its politics, it is Mandela’s vision and name that epitomises them.
In a country that was divided by 46 years of apartheid until 1994, black and white sang together outside Mandela’s home in Houghton, Johannesburg. Over the past year, as he was frequently hospitalised, and as South Africa’s political atmosphere soured with the elections scheduled for 2014 looming nearer, Mandela always managed to bring South Africans together. The morning after his death, in the harsh light of a world without him, he still unites us. As I write this at 2.38am, it feels as if everyone I know is up and calling each other, tweeting, touching, mourning. Celebrating.
These scenes of joyful remembrance that outside his house in sleepy, suburban Johannesburg are being replicated in Soweto and other parts of the country. Yet there are also fears about what the future might bring. The key political debate haunting many has been the “After Mandela” question: what happens when the great man goes? What happens to the idea of reconciliation, of a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa? Many have speculated that this South Africa will disintegrate without the glue that is Mandela to hold it together.
Over the past few years, as the country’s economy has slowed precariously and racially-tinged rhetoric has increased, many commentators have ventured that the “honeymoon” is over. This, of course, ignores the fact that Nelson Mandela has been out of power for 14 years since he stepped down from the presidency in June 1999, and finally retreated from South African politics in 2002. Since then he has been virtually absent from the national discourse—except for a crucial intervention in the fight against HIV/Aids in the mid-2000s, after the disease claimed the life of his eldest son. Otherwise, apart from the impressive shadow he casts over us, he has had no real role in public life.
South Africa faces massive challenges today. Economic growth has slowed to an anaemic 2 per cent, youth unemployment is at 52.8 per cent, and a rowdy election campaign is underway. There are fears surrounding the growing influence of the expelled ANC youth firebrand Julius Malema, leader of the new Economic Freedom Fighters, who advocates Zimbabwe-style land grabs and mine nationalisation. Labour disputes are increasing and many remember the killings by police in 2012 of 34 mine workers who were demanding pay rises in a country considered one of the most unequal in the world.
The future of Mandela’s beloved African National Congress is also uncertain. This is a party which many believe is riddled with corruption and which has drifted away from its democratic roots. Zuma has a habit of making disrespectful statements about women (he said that marriage is good “training” for them), the rest of the African continent and his political opponents. Under his leadership, the party has pushed through a draconian secrecy law that will criminalise investigative journalists and their sources; has defended apparently corrupt practices; and, crucially, acted callously against the poor. Zuma is no Mandela, and the party he leads is not the moral ANC of the Mandela era.
The likely political outcome of Mandela’s death is that the ANC’s grip on power will disintegrate and voters will continue to defect. Mandela’s party could be out of power as soon as 2019, predict analysts including Moeletsi Mbeki, Deputy Chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Yet, to see Mandela’s death as a possible trigger for the collapse of the democratic South Africa he fought so hard to build would be misplaced: his contribution was greater than that. Mandela demonstrated that even with these endemic problems, South Africa is united by the need to build a new country that is divorced from its race-divided past.
There will be nostalgia, mourning, weeping and the celebration of a great life, lived well. Then we will move on. The political scandals will return. An election will be held. The front pages will revert to their staple diet of greed and gossip.
We will go back to being a troubled, struggling country that faced ruin in 1990, and was taught by one man and his comrades that change was possible. That is why they were singing outside Mandela’s house that morning, and why they are still singing now— celebrating a great man whose legacy of reconciliation will out live many of us.
Justice Malala is a journalist and political analyst in Johannesburg