Fourteen years ago, as Nelson Mandela prepared to step down as South Africa’s president, his fellow anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu described him as an “icon of reconciliation and forgiveness” that prevented the country’s disintegration. “I do believe that without him it would not have been possible to hold together those disparate parts that were flying all over the place. And that, I think, is his greatest legacy,” he said.
Today, with Mandela gone, Tutu’s assessment holds up. South Africa has not fallen apart. Its democracy is flawed but stable. Mandela’s African National Congress is challenged on both the right and the left. The once revolutionary movement faces criticism that it has not done enough to reverse the economic effects of white rule on South African blacks. But these are now political debates. They speak to a strength of a democracy that, before apartheid’s end, seemed unlikely to succeed.
It is easy to forget that two decades ago lethal violence between supporters of the ANC and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party threatened South Africa’s democratic transition. It is widely believed that elements in the white security forces played a role in stoking this conflict. “The only question is who at the top knew what and who was giving orders,” says Peter Henshaw, a South Africa specialist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “Mandela’s approach was to be very forthright in condemning it, but not then to abandon negotiations or call for violence in response. He did exert a very calming influence at some critical moments.”
Mandela’s tactics were similar when it came to addressing the fears of South Africa’s white minority about what the end of apartheid would mean for them. He stressed the ideals for which he is is most remembered and that Tutu believed he epitomized: racial unity, peace, pardon.
This hadn’t always been Mandela’s approach. “Mandela was never a pacifist or someone who was worried about loss of life,” Joe Matthews, a former ANC comrade, told PBS’s Frontline in 1999.
But as president, Mandela disavowed divisive politics. “He completely lacked that racial animus that [his successor Thabo] Mbeki had. He wasn’t afraid of strong people of whatever colour,” says James Myburgh, editor of Politicsweb, a South African online news site. “Then there was this policy of reconciliation and this huge response, from white South Africans particularly who very much invested their faith in him, and also internationally. It turned him into—if he wasn’t already—this moral icon, the great reconciler.”
This warm and perhaps cautious approach to navigating what was in effect a revolutionary change in the way South Africa was governed was not uniformly embraced by black South Africans, including in the ANC. But Mandela was shrewd enough to see the political value and even necessity in reconciliation, regardless of its moral worth. Responding to criticism about his reconciliation policies by senior black journalists, Mandela said they wrongly assumed whites had been defeated on the battlefield and “are now lying helpless on the floor begging for mercy.
“They are not aware, for example, that a few weeks before the election we discovered a plan where the right wing wanted to stop the election by force,” he said. “We had to adopt strategies that would prevent whites from being driven into the arms of the right wing. That weapon of reconciliation saved the country from bloodshed.”
Mandela was able to convince South Africans that reconciliation could work, that blacks and whites could build a country together, in large part because of the strength of his personality. “People said he’s been through so much, he’s had the harshest punishment of life in prison. If he could forgive and be conciliatory, so could they,” says Belinda Dodson, an associate professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario, who grew up in South Africa and lived there through the end of apartheid.
It also helped that South Africa had established democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary and a free press. Democracy wasn’t alien to South Africans. The country “had essentially 150 years of practice at running nominally democratic legislatures,” says Henshaw.
Still, that inheritance likely would not have been enough to successfully guide South Africa into the post-apartheid era without Mandela. When he stepped down, as promised, after only one term, his departure forced something of a reckoning on South Africa: Was its new rainbow-nation democracy strong enough to flourish without him?
It was, but with mixed results. Mbeki governed as more of an old-school African nationalist, with a touch of paranoia thrown in. He began to politicize the state’s prosecutorial services. He believed in racism-fuelled Western plots. And he infamously rejected the scientific consensus regarding the cause of AIDS, a sickness ravaging South Africa. According to a Harvard University study, some 300,000 people died as a result.
Under current President Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s prosecutorial services remain partisan, says Myburgh, and the ANC’s elite is so riddled with corruption that this is unlikely to change as long as that party remains in power. But South African civil society has been reawakened, he adds, and the country is more democratic and pluralistic than it used to be. Though the ANC still dominates, the opposition Democratic Alliance, whose parliamentary leader is 33-year-old Lindiwe Mazibuko, is making inroads. “It feels much more like a democracy than it did 10 years ago—a democracy in the Western sense.”
This has placed the ruling ANC at a crossroads. It began as a classic African liberation movement. Its 1955 Freedom Charter says the country’s national wealth “shall be restored to the people” and proclaims the right of all “to occupy land wherever they choose”—a measure aimed at addressing the fact that much of the country’s best farmland was—and remains—in the hands of the white minority. But Mandela did not nationalize South African industry, or overhaul land ownership. Land redistribution was a gradual process based on a “willing buyer, willing seller” principle.
Now, almost 20 years after the end of apartheid, many blacks are frustrated by the persistent poverty in South Africa. The ANC and Zuma are under pressure to more aggressively transfer land and resources to the black majority. “We are for unity. We are for reconciliation. But there can’t be unity in a class-divided society,” says Castro Ngobese, spokesman for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. The union is pushing for a greater redistribution of land, with compensation paid to white landowners. “There can’t be reconciliation when the vast majority of our people, particularly Africans, are still subjected to the same conditions that were during apartheid,” he says. Ngobese warns that without government-led land redistribution, poor blacks may forcibly seize land themselves.
His union remains committed to the ANC, so these calls are not a political threat to Zuma or the ANC. But another group, led by a former leader of the ANC’s Youth League, aspires to be. Julius Malema is a young populist who likes to wear a beret, insult his political opponents and sing songs advocating the shooting of Boers. Once an ally of Zuma, he has been suspended from the ANC and now leads the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new political party formed last summer.
Floyd Shivambu, a member of the party’s central command team, says land redistribution should be forced. He doesn’t accept the argument that a similar process in Zimbabwe caused economic collapse there, blaming the result instead on Western sanctions. Mandela, he says, was necessarily cautious in order to bring all South Africans political freedom. “But there is no economic emancipation. That political power is not being used properly now to bring about economic change to benefit all people.”
Shivambu and Ngobese represent one trend in South African society that may push its government toward more radical redistributive economic polices. Ngobese rejects the idea that these may destabilize the country. “The same false argument was advanced in 1994,” he says, referring to the end of apartheid.
Others, such as Myburgh, believe such an approach would be disastrous, akin to “going after the goose that laid the golden egg and cutting it up.” He instead advocates reforms to the education system and labour market, which he says are inefficient and poorly managed. He still believes South Africa has enormous potential but believes a government not led by the ANC will be necessary to fulfill it.
That’s not going to happen in the immediate future, but it’s no longer inconceivable. In May, citing corruption and persistent inequality, Desmond Tutu said he wouldn’t vote for the ANC again.