South Africa After Mandela: No Easy Walk to Freedom

The day Nelson Mandela died, I was boarding a flight to Nairobi.  Seeing my itinerary, a member of the airport staff commented off-handedly, “Africa—why are there always so many problems there?” “Perhaps we just hear more about the problems, and not the good things,” I said. “Think about Mandela.” Immediately, her face lit up with big smile.

The power and magic of Mandela: the mere mention of his name, even on this sad day, is enough to make people smile. I spent much of my journey reading the tributes to Madiba, from world politicians, academics and activists. I cried, and I laughed in equal measure. I cried for his sacrifices and losses, and for the world’s loss of “a universal symbol of goodness and wisdom.” I laughed when the South African journalist Mark Gevisser told the story of Mandela calling the Queen ‘Elizabeth’ and giving her a big hug. While the assembled courtiers and diplomats were terrified, the Queen just blushed and giggled: “Nelson!”

Thanks to Nelson Mandela, and the other giants of the anti-apartheid movement, all South Africans now have their freedom.

With Mandela we have lost one of the world greatest leaders, a shrewd politician, a moral beacon, a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation…. The list could go on. As the many wonderful obituaries and tributes published over the last few days show, Mandela’s contribution to South African, African and world politics is unrivaled. This is why South Africans do not so much mourn Mandela’s life, but celebrate it.

The question now is what next for South Africa? In assessing Mandela’s legacy, there is an underlying fear that the post-apartheid bargain will unravel, that without the moral authority of Madiba, things will fall apart, power will be abused, and the ‘rainbow nation’ will become even more of a distant dream.

It is true that South Africa still faces many challenges. It remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, and there are some indications that inequality has increased in the last few years. Life expectancy is only 48 years, in large part due to a still-devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic. Unemployment is staggeringly high, standing at 25 percent officially but probably in reality much higher. Progress on land reform has been slow, and life in the rural areas has changed little since Mandela’s childhood.

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Then again, it would be naïve to think that the structures of apartheid could be easily undone. Its legacies are enduring, structuring the lives and possibilities of blacks and whites in today’s South Africa. Nevertheless, much has been achieved in the 20 years since Mandela and the ANC won the country’s first free elections in April 1994. Life expectancy has increased, 10 percent of the black population is now classified as middle class, and massive improvements have been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. While this is one of the issues for which Mandela is sometimes criticized, he was actually crucial to breaking the wall of silence that surrounded the disease. When his son died of AIDS, Mandela called for a ‘war’ against the epidemic.  His decision to meet with Zackie Achmat, the leader of the activist group the Treatment Action Campaign and the bête noire of the AIDS-denialist President Thabo Mbeki, was a turning point in the fight against AIDS. Later, Mandela appeared in a ‘HIV Positive’ T-shirt, alongside people living with HIV in the poor township of Khayelitsha, again speaking truth to power, but this time to the ANC. The resulting treatment plan is now estimated to have saved 2 million lives, and is the largest chronic disease program in the world.

South Africans go to the poll again in April, two decades after Mandela was triumphantly voted into power. This time around there is no politician of equal stature on the ballot papers. The ANC is struggling with the transition from liberation movement to government, and while there are reasons to be disappointed about its performance and to worry about indications of growing corruption, the South African miracle has not come to an end. Thanks to Nelson Mandela, and the other giants of the anti-apartheid movement, all South Africans now have their freedom; and an activist civil society and vibrant political debate will ensure that Mandela’s fundamental belief in the freedom and equality of all human beings is kept alive. As Nelson Mandela knew better than anyone, there is no easy walk to freedom. In South Africa, the struggle continues.

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