A simple graph shows the profound impact of Nelson Mandela

December 6, 2013

(LEON NEAL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES )

One of Nelson Mandela’s enduring legacies is nothing less than the existence of South Africa itself.  The country still faces important political disagreements and racial inequality, but it nevertheless endures — despite apartheid and the intense period of violence and uncertainty after apartheid’s end.

Integral to the creation and health of any country is a shared sense of identity among its citizens — what the political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan call “stateness.”  Countries lack this stateness, they write, “when there are profound differences about the territorial boundaries of the political community’s state and profound differences as to who has the right of citizenship in that state.”  Apartheid was precisely the kind of system that created profound differences as to who had real civil and political rights in South Africa.

One sign of apartheid’s impact was evident in a simple survey question: “How proud are you to be South African?”  This is a question that has been asked in many countries in multiple years and it almost always elicits an strong sense of pride.  But in apartheid South Africa, there was a striking gap between whites and blacks:


In 1982, whites were nearly unanimous in expressing some degree of pride as South Africans (98%), but barely half of blacks (57%) did so.  This gap is a stark reminder of how deeply the effects of apartheid were felt. It was not just a question of opposing a white-led government.  Among blacks, there was a profound alienation from the state itself.

But the release of Mandela from prison in February 1990 and the early signs of apartheid’s end — such as negotiations between the white-led government and the African National Congress that spring and summer — appeared to close this gap.  In the 1990 survey, which was fielded in October and November, 93% of whites and 90% of blacks expressed pride.

Mandela’s legacy may be even more visible in how little white and black South Africans’ patriotism has changed since then.  Although his leadership — indeed, any one person’s leadership — could never eliminate racism or racial tensions, whites and blacks continued to express high levels of pride.  The transition to a black-led government under Mandela and later Thabo Mbeki did not make white South Africans any less proud to be South African.  Blacks too remained similarly proud, despite the disappointments that they have experienced and the challenges they still face.

Of course, one survey question cannot fully capture the nuances of how black and white South Africans feel about their country, their government, or each other.  But Mandela’s death gives reason to appreciate how his and others’ leadership fostered a stronger common identity among all South Africans.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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