Life after Mandela

Published: Wednesday | December 11, 2013 Comments 0
President Barack Obama kisses Nelson Mandela's widow, Graša Machel, during the memorial service for the former South African president in Soweto yesterday. - AP
President Barack Obama kisses Nelson Mandela's widow, Graša Machel, during the memorial service for the former South African president in Soweto yesterday. - AP

By John Rapley

Might there be another Nelson Mandela? South Africa must be hoping so.

Few are more deserving of the tide of accolades he is getting, though it bears repeating that he did not struggle alone against apartheid. His extraordinary life emerged out of a generation of extraordinary leadership, both in South Africa and much of the developing world.

The African National Congress (ANC) was able to take the reins of an independent South Africa because of the skill of its leadership in always adapting and getting ahead of national opinion.

Mandela used to say that he honed his techniques as a shepherd boy, when he learned that you led from behind. A young firebrand, he gradually adapted his vision and tactics as he interacted with the wider cross section of South African society. And his legendary ability to bring his enemies over to his way of thinking was one he shared with some of the other leaders of his organisation.

Perhaps not all of them lived up to the billing as he did. It is that adherence to core values for which he will likely most be remembered.

What would Nelson think?

As Mandela withdrew further from public view in his final years, a parlour game of sorts became commonplace at South African social gatherings, a kind of "What would Nelson think?" What would Nelson think of the 'tenderpreneurs', black entrepreneurs who had grown rich off government contracts obtained from political friends, and who celebrated their wealth in lavish parties at which guests ate food off the stomachs of tight-bodied models?

What would Nelson think of the grasping corruption into which his beloved ANC has fallen? What would Nelson think of the fact that South Africa is today even more economically unequal than it was under white racist rule?

What would Nelson think of the dominance of a new elite, in which a white business class formed ties with a black political class, and repressed most everyone else?

What would Nelson think of police massacres of innocent protesters that rivalled the horrors of apartheid's dark days?

The presumption any time the conversation arose is that Nelson would have wept that he spent 27 years in a prison to give way to this. That the work of dismantling apartheid is far from complete is clear to anyone. But that does not detract from Mandela's own achievement.

In a continent where leaders often would sooner die than give up office, and in a time when leaders around the world leave office to translate political power into lucrative post-careers on the lecture circuit and consultancy mill, he served but one term, then repaired to quietly enjoy his dotage among his family. He had done his job, and then some. The baton had been passed.

No match for Mandela

To say that those who took it up were no match for him is not especially controversial. As the euphoria of the birth waned and the country began to drift aimlessly, the economy slowed. Inequality worsened, crime spread into the suburbs, police repression reappeared. The new South Africa might yet fail.

That is not a qualification to Mandela's legacy. On the contrary, from the start, the odds were tilted against a peaceful transition. That Mandela could have won people of all classes and races to his vision was a testament to his exceptional charisma and charm. He bought his successors time to build a truly democratic and egalitarian South Africa.

And in fairness, progress has been made. South African democracy has been vibrant and lively. Provision of basic services denied black people by apartheid, if still lagging, has come a long way. And while the ANC is splintering under the weight of corruption and self-serving politicians, it is holding together. Angry populism may be rising, but it will probably be a while, if ever, before the country abandons its consensual politics.

Only time will tell if South Africa really does emerge into a new dawn, and the jury is very much still out. But should South Africa's current crop of leaders fail to transform their country, the responsibility will be theirs (just as nobody would blame our Independence leaders for Jamaica's contemporary crises).

South Africa may well need another Mandela or two. But a country so blessed by its history to have received one Madiba should be able to find room for another.

John Rapley, a long-time Gleaner columnist, teaches at the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. Email feedback to and

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