Today, many younger South Africans suggest that Mandela made too many compromises. Twenty-six years into the new era, there is a lively, angry, often chaotic debate about the role and place of the father of our nation.
When the student protests began a few years ago on South Africa’s university campuses some of the young activists accused Nelson Mandela of betraying the revolution. They called him a sell-out. The elders were alarmed and hurt, but the young ones were convinced. I am of the generation that lies between the two: I was not old enough to fight for freedom but I am old enough to remember Mandela. I know that he was no sell-out.
I agree with one point the youth made however: the revolution was betrayed. I do not place the blame at Madiba’s feet though. The blame for that lies squarely with the generation of leaders who followed him—my parent’s generation. The freedom fighters whom I respected and loved in Lusaka and Nairobi, returned home. They put down their guns and they picked up their spoons and they began to eat. Many of them have not stopped eating since. I can think of only a handful of them who I would trust with my future.
Mandela’s successors have all been lacking in one key respect or another. Thabo Mbeki’s cerebral approach to government did little to inspire the ANC’s rank and file. Jacob Zuma was a corrupt and ineffectual huckster masquerading as a populist. Cyril Ramaphosa is a multimillionaire who, while inspiring confidence among the business and middle classes, will struggle to earn the confidence of millions of South Africans who are either unemployed or underemployed.
The best hope for protecting Madiba’s legacy would be an honest and good faith attempt at solving South Africa’s structural problems — historical legacies of apartheid, lack of dependable (manufacturing) jobs, quality of education, and a fraying social sector (with crime topping the list).
Unfortunately for everyone involved, so far the country has oscillated between boardroom politicians scared stiff of the (forex) markets, and a cast of “populists” eager to exploit their control of the state for personal enrichment.
My view is that Mandela’s legacy will survive the ongoing process of undoing the legacies of colonialism/apartheid. As Msimang points out, Mandela was not a pacifist saint but a strategic politician driven by his quest for the total liberation of South Africans. To that end he was willing to play politics or resort to armed resistance, as needed.