Grant Farred, Ithica Journal
It is at once discordant and historically appropriate that Nelson Mandela’s passing should have been announced by the current South African president, Jacob Zuma. There could not be a sharper contrast between two leaders.
The iconic Mandela, the first democratically elected South African president, champion of racial reconciliation and democracy, has nothing in common with a successor whose tenure is tainted by corruption, personal excess and scandal. Zuma’s presidency has seen the increase, especially in his home province of Kwazulu-Natal, of state violence against poor black citizens; it has also seen the rise of xenophobic violence against foreign blacks, many of them refugees from other African countries.
For this reason, Mandela’s death presents itself as the occasion that demands explanation. How did Mandela’s vision of a “rainbow nation,” in which the basic needs of all citizens would be met, mutate into a South Africa in which only a small black elite, and the white citizenry, has benefited from the demise of apartheid?
In 1997, Mandela promised that his would be a government free of graft. For his own part, admirably, he was true to his word. So was his immediate successor, Thabo Mbeki. And yet, how did South Africa become the second most unequal society in the world, with shack dwellers barely surviving while $27 million is spent on “securing” Zuma’s compound with a swimming pool and a cattle corral?
The answer begins, but does not end, with Nelson Mandela.
Successful as he was in preventing a race war between blacks and whites, today’s racialized inequity is the cost of that largely peaceful reconciliation. In guaranteeing white property and moving away from the ANC’s historic commitment to redistribution, Mandela wrongly put his faith in the belief that reconciliation was the path to material equality — that equal education, the right to housing, electricity, running water and safety from violence would follow from nonracial democracy.
Mandela governed South Africa well, but he failed to lead. He did not act in the interest of the nation’s most historically vulnerable citizens. Mandela often spoke in the name of the poor, but his party has not in the last 19 years brought sufficient redress to those whose daily and long-term needs could only have been met through the reallocation of resources, those who desperately needed jobs for themselves, better schools for their children, better access to hospitals and health care, and greater state protection for women from rape, for the youth against the ravages of drugs, for the nation against the proliferation of firearms. Reconciliation means little in the face of social devastation. When presented with a historic opportunity, Mandela made no demands on the white population. To do so would have risked even greater white flight to Australia or North America. Consequently, the opportunity was missed, the effects of which have been catastrophic for the black poor in South Africa. The reallocation of resources was certainly not on the agenda of the scholarly Mbeki, laying the ideological ground for the populist Zuma to oust Mbeki at the 2007 ANC conference. The country was set on its ruinous current path.
But an icon’s death is nothing if not a serious moment of public political accounting. At Mandela’s state funeral, President Barack Obama was cheered, loudly and reverently. Mbeki, too, was acknowledged. Zuma was booed. In those different responses, haunted by the ghost of the not-yet-laid-to-rest Mandela, resides a thoughtful evaluation of South Africa’s democratic past, a very recent thing and profound concern about its present.
The trajectory from Mandela to Zuma represents South Africa’s painful confrontation with itself. The question of record is only in part: What has South Africa become? The singular challenge that has long awaited South Africa has been too easily postponed by the simple fact of Mandela’s living presence. That challenge must now come into its own.
In order to achieve a future in which race-based economic inequality is eradicated, South Africa must simultaneously refuse Madiba’s legacy and make it anew; make it, for the first time, true to his deepest beliefs. It is proper to laud him, to give credence to his place in history. It is much more important to recognize that Mandela foreswore, whether strategically or not, his commitment to equality, and that the moment is nigh to make out of his failure South Africa’s new political project.
South Africa’s primary goal, only possible under new leadership, must be the eradication of the extant widespread material disparity. To do so would be to return Mandela to his most honorable ideological roots. It is also the only fitting tribute to a life devoted to political struggle.
Ironically, Zuma’s discordance in relation to Mandela recalls his predecessor’s best political instincts. In announcing Mandela’s death, Zuma inadvertently reanimated Mandela’s dedication to an equal and just South Africa.