“Though the majority of South Africans revere Mandela and the ANC for defeating Apartheid… Others will be indifferent to the celebrations for Mandela’s birthday because they have nothing to celebrate. But in some instances the demand for citizenship takes a more sustained and organized form (even if its still disparate and local)—and they often take their inspiration from Mandela.” Sean Jacobs looks at the man, the myth, his meaning after 94 years.
The legacy of Nelson Mandela—who turns 94 today is as fraught and complicated as postapartheid South Africa itself.
On the one hand Mandela personifies the narrative of reconciliation and the long, triumphant march against legal Apartheid. In some ways, South Africa today would be unrecognizable to the one Mandela re-entered from prison in 1990. South Africa has a black government, a growing black middle class, a vibrant media, democratic freedoms (with three sets of free elections and counting) and a thriving economy in some quarters.
Mandela is also credited with convincing whites of the virtues of liberal democracy. Despite an initially heavily armed white population (and the persistence of racist views among some whites), the transition is passing with little political turbulence. Whites may complain of discrimination and “reverse” racism (a symptom of entitlement), but they’ve have never been more prosperous, mobile and free. As artist William Kentridge told a writer for The New Yorker a few years ago: “The main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans. No sacrifices have been required. No one’s lost their beautiful house.”
On the other hand Mandela aided the empty “rainbowism” which draws on sports victories (especially rugby) while presiding over a disastrous economic policy for the country’s poor majority, resulting in South Africa remaining the most unequal country in the world today by most measures. That inequality is very much defined by race, although inequality amongst blacks has also expanded. Since 1994 the numbers of South Africans living on less then a dollar a day has doubled. Successive South African governments have been reluctant to implement any meaningful land reform or tamper with racial residential patterns (most new housing developments are still built farther away from city centers), for example.
Though many associate the postapartheid government’s overly market-friendly economic policies, the GEAR (which has had numerous name changes but retains its substance), with Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki, it was Mandela himself who in mid-1996 presented GEAR as “non-negotiable” to his supporters. Government since then has been mostly, in the words of some its critics, intent on “out-IMFing the IMF.”
Though white men still make the really big money, the state is fast becoming the preferred way to accumulate private wealth for a new black elite. (As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the time a government minister, told a group of businessmen: “Blacks should not be ashamed to be filthy rich”).
Mandela’s name has been commodified to no end. Two years ago Mandela’s eldest daughter and grandson launched “House of Mandela” wines and last year the Nelson Mandela Foundation launched an “international clothing line,” that exploits his prison experience and is out of reach of most South Africans.
Though the majority of South Africans revere Mandela and the ANC for defeating Apartheid (they still return comfortable majorities for the ANC), many are realizing that true citizenship means taking on the ANC. For many of the poor the ANC has come to represent a callous government whose police evict them from already cramped and substandard housing, who shut off their water (cholera is on the increase in some provinces) and who can find money for sports stadiums but not for new schools.
Some showed their disappointment by joining the internal ANC power struggle to unseat Thabo Mbeki. Having succeeded they are growing impatient with the new president, Jacob Zuma. (The current president, it seems, only resurfaces to claim victimhood.) Others will be indifferent to the celebrations for Mandela’s birthday because they have nothing to celebrate.
But in some instances the demand for citizenship takes a more sustained and organized form (even if its still disparate and local)—and they often take their inspiration from Mandela.
Like the characters in the new film, “Dear Mandela,” where young activists growing up in squatter communities outside Durban on South Africa’s northeastern coast at one and the same time chide Mandela and invoke his name as they resist slum clearing laws by the local municipality.
Halfway through the film, one of the young people at the heart of the film, Mazwi Nzimande, tries to fire up the crowd. He denounces people who “disrespect our leaders … discriminate against shack dwellers.” He also picks on an obvious target, the local opposition party, the IFP. Then, however, he shouts “Down with the ANC party, down!,” and he is greeted with silence, reflecting the hold of the ANC, personified by Mandela’s lead of past struggles, over the political imagination of South Africans.
But things are not that straightforward.
In the same film, another activist Mnikelo Ndabankulu, speaking after a fire that destroyed 200 shacks in his neighborhood, responds to criticism by ANC and government supporters: “They say, ‘Why are these people marching because these times [of oppression] have gone. We are in a democracy. What are they marching for?’ [However] the real motive behind our struggle is this thing [pointing to conditions in his squatter community]. It is not a matter of fame, it is a not a matter of power hunger. It’s not a matter of disrespecting the authorities. It’s being serious about life. This is not life.”
Then, channeling Mandela’ single-mindedness before he was sentence to life in prison in 1964, Ndabankulu says: “You don’t need to be old to be wise. That is why we think we need to show our character while we are still young so that when your life ends, it must not be like a small obituary that said, ‘You were born, you ate, you go to school, you died.’ When you are dying you must die with credibility. People must talk about you saying good things, saying you were a man among men, not just an ordinary man.”
Mandela would be proud.
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, teaches international affairs at The New School in New York City. He tweets as @africasacountry.