When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he brought a vision of forgiveness and reconciliation to rebuild a nation marred by the legacy of white rule. But the South Africa he leaves behind is still a work in progress, far from living up to the promises ushered in by his freedom and the ideals of justice and equality that he espoused.
South Africa has made tremendous strides since the end of apartheid, the brutal system of white rule that gripped the country for decades. Under apartheid, blacks and other non-whites were racially separated in every manner possible: education, hospitals, public transport, even beaches. They were forcibly removed from homes, denied citizenship or a vote; any dissent was violently suppressed by the state. Today, all South Africans are considered equal under the constitution.
The nation, thanks in large part to Mandela, is no longer an international pariah but is able to participate freely in the global economy, sports and other arenas. South African companies have expanded across sub-Saharan Africa and are a vital economic engine for the continent. South Africa, diplomatically and militarily, is playing a leading role in efforts to defuse crises in Congo, the Central African Republic and other trouble spots on the continent.
But at home, the record remains mixed, a place where Mandela’s hopes and dreams remain largely unfulfilled. South Africa is a nation where racial and economic inequalities still tear through the consciousness of the black majority. Although some progress has been made, the majority of blacks live in poverty, and many still lack basic necessities such as electricity, proper housing and clean water. Education and health care for impoverished blacks remain poor. It is a nation where the economy is still largely controlled by whites and a relatively small group of black elites.
“The cause of Mandela was that he articulated an aspiration for a non-racial democratic South Africa,” said Robert Schrire, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town. “But the reality is that as long as whites are identified with wealth and blacks with poverty, genuine reconciliation will never be possible.”
Mandela was hardly interested in the “nitty-gritty of governing” and focused on symbolic gestures to bring blacks and whites together, such as having tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, widely considered the architect of apartheid.
“Perhaps a criticism of Mandela, and I think it’s a fair one, is that he concentrated too much on the symbolic side of reconciliation and didn’t do nearly enough to try and bring a better life for the population,” Schrire said.
South Africa is also a nation where there’s growing disillusionment with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party that Mandela helped create and nurture into the revolutionary force that dismantled apartheid. Today, the party and its leadership are facing allegations of corruption and of ignoring the needs of impoverished blacks, the very constituency that Mandela fought so long and hard to emancipate and empower.
“We have pockets of individuals, institutions and groups who are pushing Mandela’s ideals,” said William Gumede, a political analyst. “But there has also been backsliding among the ANC leaders in espousing Mandela’s hopes and dreams. His death has left a real gap, and the current leadership is not up to filling this gap.”
When he became South Africa’s first black president after winning the nation’s first multi-race elections in 1994, Mandela actively wooed foreign investors. Instead of nationalizing companies, he persuaded the ANC to move away from its socialist ethos and embrace a free and open economy, which fueled South Africa’s economic growth for years.
Today, however, that legacy is under fire. Unemployment remains at nearly 25 percent; white people on average earn six times more than their black counterparts. The ANC’s youth wing has lobbied hard for the nationalization of banks and mines; according to the Municipal IQ, a Johannesburg-based research group, last year there were a record 173 protests, many of them violent, over a lack of housing, jobs and basic services. According to World Bank statistics, South Africa remains one of the world’s most economically unequal societies.
The most violent upheaval came in August 2012, when police killed 34 mine workers waging a strike at a platinum mine in the town of Marikana. It was the deadliest action by police in post-apartheid South Africa. The ANC responded by charging the striking miners with the murders of their co-workers, triggering popular anger at the storied party.
Politically, allegations of corruption have touched the highest levels of office — something that would have been unthinkable under Mandela’s single term in office. President Jacob Zuma is facing a government probe, accused of spending about $20 million in state funds to renovate his luxurious private residence in KwaZulu-Natal province. In 2006, he was acquitted of rape charges. In 2009, charges that he took bribes from arms dealers were dropped, paving the way for his presidency.
In the famed township of Soweto, on Vilakazi Street where Mandela once lived, youths protested and fought the apartheid regime in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Today, many young people here express concern about their future in a post-Mandela South Africa.
“Madiba wanted us to have peace and no racism,” said Thandeke Belle, 14, a middle school student, using Mandela’s clan name, as many people in South Africa do. “I still feel there is racism although it was not as much as apartheid. The whites are still at the top, and we blacks are stuck down at the middle.”
“Poor people are going to become poorer and the rich will get richer because of what’s happening,” said Belle’s classmate, Thato Tshabale, 15, who was standing next to her. “If you are a normal person with no connections, you will be nothing in today’s South Africa.”
Tshabale said his ability to achieve his dreams of going to college and acquiring a healthy income are limited. “I don’t think apartheid has ended,” he said. “Right now, in order for us to learn, we need money. But the whites always have money, and they get a lot more chances than blacks.”
Papallo Chapedi, 15, said his mother had been waiting more than 10 years for government-subsidized housing, while some of his friends’ relatives were able to get housing because of their ties to the ANC. He criticized Zuma’s leadership, saying that he “does not even come close to Mandela” in terms of what he has provided to South Africans.
“I feel a huge animosity towards the ANC,” Chapedi said. “It’s not empowering our needs. There is a lot of corruption; there’s propaganda. I would like to see change.”
Patrick Hanratty, 64, had brought some Italian tourists to look at where Mandela had lived. For the white tour operator, Mandela’s vision for South Africa had been partially realized.
“There have been successes, and there have been failures,” Hanratty said. “We are living in a society that has a measure of justice, whereas before we were living in a very unjust society. The feeling of guilt is still there of having benefited from the misfortune of our black brothers, but it is less than it used to be.”
He added that whites “still live in a very privileged position,” but he said this was also partly because the government was being careful not to alienate whites.
“You can’t dismantle an economy and make everybody equal,” he said. “To do that would endanger the development of the country. The government is following a pragmatic approach. They don’t want white flight. They want to keep as many skills and as much capital in the country” as possible.
Perhaps the biggest impact Mandela’s vision has had on whites, Hanratty said, is that they are no longer ostracized by the world, particularly in Africa.
“You can be a white South African and can go all the way to Cairo without being considered a pariah,” Hanratty said. “You can show your passport with pride. South Africans can play sport anywhere in the world. This helps our national identity very much.”
Despite all the challenges South Africa faces upon Mandela’s death, many South Africans expressed gratitude that they were led by a man who by example showed how leaders should govern their nation, imbued with the principles of democracy, justice and equality.
“He was our [George] Washington,” said Gumede, the political analyst. “In his personal and public life, he created a gold standard and way of governing that showed us how our leaders should govern. . . . We know what is possible. Not many leaders in Africa can set that kind of example.”