Nelson Mandela: the Man and His Legacy

*James N. Kariuki

“If a man doesn’t have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty… He merely exists.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mandela The image of Nelson Mandela was largely shaped by his three decades of imprisonment for daring to challenge apartheid. While he sat in an apartheid cell, his struggle was continued by his foot soldiers in South Africa and beyond.

Many continental Africans learned about the agonies of SA and Mandela, not from South Africans, but from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere who also detested apartheid-SA for condemning its black citizens into refugees in their own country. Conceivably, Nyerere did more to publicize the inhumanity of apartheid around the world than any of his contemporaries. This was until black South Africans could dispatch their own emissaries abroad.

Julius Nyerere survived long enough to relish first-hand a democratic SA and shake hands with Nelson Mandela as a free man. Meanwhile, in his lifetime, the anti-apartheid mission to which Nyerere had also dedicated himself and his country was embraced by continental Africa. Ghana had come to know and care deeply about the inhumanity of apartheid; so did Nigeria and others. They all swore to its demolition sooner than later.

In Africa, Europe, US and even the United Nations apartheid came to be known as a monster of un-freedom, an evil and racially oppressive system. The outside world did not know many details about the horrors of racist SA; apartheid shielded its ugly face from public view the best it could. Unwittingly, continental Africa also came to feed into that enigma by endorsing a policy of isolation of pariah SA from the outside world as a form of punishment.

Inevitably, Mandela became the most eloquent face of diabolical SA under apartheid, the ultimate symbol of victimhood for black people. His image gave life to the agonies of black folk in SA, Africa, and everywhere. Almost every black child in London, Harlem-New York, Southside-Chicago, Watts in Los Angeles, Havana etc knew the name of Mandela. There were calls everywhere to free Mandela, code words for ‘dismantle apartheid.’

When Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, the entire world held its breath. Most of it expected a feisty, angry, and vengeful man. But the newest prison graduate stunned mankind by declaring publicly that his intention was to build a new SA for all those who lived in it. In quest for a ‘rainbow nation,’ Mandela went to great lengths to comfort his former tormentors. He was serious; he was not playing politics about racial forgiveness and reconciliation.

To substantiate the spirit of suffering without bitterness, Mandela resorted to potent symbolic gestures. Among others, he donned a green jersey of the SA national rugby team and attended the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. That simple act charmed and thrilled millions of Afrikaner rugby enthusiasts. Until then, South African rugby was by tradition a preserve of the whites while soccer was a blacks’ domain.

A year earlier, in May 1994, Mandela had startled friend and foe alike by inviting his prison warden to his presidential inauguration. But it was in August 1995 that many black South Africans felt that Mandela went too far by having tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the unrepentant wife of the main architect of apartheid.

Detractors objected to what to them appeared like appeasement on Mandela’s part to the former perpetrators of apartheid. But admirers saw that generosity of spirit as what made Mandela unique, a global icon. Some even stood prepared to confer sainthood upon him. Inside SA, Mandela’s majestic presence and the force of his personality were seen as the ‘Madiba magic.’ He was truly the ultimate humble giant.

MandelaIt is commonly accepted that Nelson Mandela delivered convincingly to all South Africans a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. On the other hand, an undercurrent of thought exists that Madiba accepted a bad deal for black South Africans; economically they were left on the outside. Democratic freedom was fine but, it was not enough without removing the shackles of economic deprivation for the majority blacks. As distinguished Professor Ali Mazrui once noted, a Faustian deal was struck in 1994: “the Whites said to the Blacks, ‘take the Crown and we will keep the Jewels.’” As racial apartheid was outlawed, economic apartheid was entrenched.

Mandela was mindful that economic apartheid remained intact, that post-apartheid SA was a society of excessive white wealth in an endless sea of black poverty. As he explained later, this was not an accident, a case of oversight or a quest for personal glory. Rather, the surrounding circumstances compelled him to concede to the dictum of his Ghanaian predecessor, Kwame Nkrumah, who once said, “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added unto it.”

Mandela followed a well-considered strategy. He was aware that, in a racially and economically divided SA, a sudden nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy (i.e. land and mining) was likely to explode into bloodshed and flight of white skills and capital. Post-apartheid SA could barely endure either, let alone both. Mandela thinking was driven, not by ‘sentimental fancies’, but by practical imperatives of a nation’s survival.

Mandela did bring political kingdom to SA, but fusing economic equality into it has turned out to be difficult. Two decades after demolition of political apartheid, Black SA remains horrifically poor in absolute and relative terms. Indeed in 2009, the country sidelined Brazil as the most skewed society in the world. How to close this gap between the white haves and black have-nots, how to rectify this politically explosive lopsidedness, has been the most pressing challenge in post-apartheid politics.

MandelaPost-Mandela SA remains a nation divided; a viable and united SA is still a dream deferred, a work in progress. Phase one of political freedom is indeed in place, thanks to Nelson Mandela. Step two requires injecting economic freedom for all into it; fusing what former President Thabo Mbeki once called South Africa’s two-nations into one. This is a more difficult challenge than defying apartheid, one that requires inviting to the table more than just a single Mandela. The starting point must be that each of the existing two SA nation-states accepts that it is to its interest that a merger occurs.

*James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer.  He is based in South Africa. Views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.


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