It is doubtful that any political accomplishment by a single figure during the twentieth century quite matches what Nelson Mandela accomplished in South Africa. By negotiating a peaceful end to apartheid from his prison cell he may well have spared his country and the continent as a whole a protracted conflict of immense proportions.
Mandela’s uniqueness reposes in the fact that long before he finally walked free from prison he had become the most important figure to the future of his country and one of Africa’s most distinguished leaders, and yet the question had arisen since the end of his presidency as to whether the legacy which he left South Africa would survive him.
The issue, inevitably, has risen again with his passing. After his death on Thursday Mr Mandela’s successor in the presidency, Thabo Mbeki, sought to provide assurances in an interview that Mr Mandela’s pursuit of the political option of racial reconciliation would remain intact in his death. Mbeki appeared hopeful rather than optimistic.
There was another sense in which Mr Mandela was unique. His sheer stature, his moral probity recruited some of those who might have felt most threatened by an end to apartheid to that very cause. Recall that it was a 1992 ‘whites only’ referendum favouring an end to apartheid that finally persuaded the government there that the game was up.
The dream of an end to apartheid without terrible bloodshed could easily have been sabotaged by the violent clashes between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party that followed Mandela’s release from prison. That may well have been a ruse to undermine his quest for reconciliation. He held both his nerve and his poise and South Africans kept faith with him.
The point about all this is that Mandela is gone and so too, perhaps, are his moral stature, his political skill and the symbol that he remained for the people of South Africa. Without Mandela there would probably have been no one anywhere near influential enough to put a brake on the thirst for the recrimination that would have been disastrous for South Africa, for the continent and for the international community as a whole.
His presidency was a triumph of the reason and rationality embedded in the reconciliation that he sought. Some, perhaps many black South Africans would have felt entitled to some kind of reprisal. It was Mandela’s moral suasion, largely, that held them in check.
No less significant was his handover of power after a single term in office. He did not need the presidency, after all, both his authority and his legacy having long been assured.
Healing all of the ills of South Africa was beyond Mandela. The problems that apartheid had left behind – social and economic inequality, a system that dehumanized blacks, high unemployment (reportedly in the region of about 20 per cent) and high levels of crime – can only be solved by material investment in removing those ills. Correcting the ills of South Africa requires time and Mandela’s time has come and gone. It is whether his legacy will hold good in an uneasy South Africa that is the salient issue.
That brings us to the issue of the African National Congress (ANC). Its image has been rendered threadbare by its delinquencies, not least the quagmire of corruption-related scandals in which it has become stuck. Both of Mr Mandela’s successors have had weak report cards in important areas of governance. The alleged transgressions of the serving President, Jacob Zuma – particularly his penchant for profligate spending of public funds on his private acquisitions ‒ served to drag the South African government and more specifically the ANC into further ridicule even as Mr Mandela lay dying. Perhaps the biggest challenge to Mandela’s legacy is the ANC which he loved. In the immediate term, at least, it has no serious political challenger, in which circumstance it may well have become reckless, even arrogant. More than that, the ANC is believed to be caught up in a bitter power struggle that has led to internal splintering. More worrying, perhaps has been the fact that both the government’s economic and human rights records have slipped badly over the past year.
Whether ‒ in circumstances where it is confronted with a serious political challenge – the ANC will continue to embrace democracy, or whether it might make strong-handed moves to protect its power is, of course, another matter.
Post-Mandela South Africa’s headaches do not end there. Whether the assurances of ethnic reconciliation embraced by Mr Mandela will remain set in stone beyond his death is not a matter that should be dismissed lightly. Continued economic inequality between blacks and whites may well witness the kinds of ethnic tensions and more that have occurred in Zimbabwe.
It is – even in his condition of protracted illness – what Nelson Mandela symbolized that makes his passing a challenge for South Africa.