Nelson Mandela and the Elusive Rainbow Nation

James N. Kariuki*

download (3)In addition to being the largest economy in Africa, post-apartheid South Africa beats the entire world as the most skewed society worldwide. Discussion of this lopsidedness is not new. It gathered momentum from May 1998 when the country’s Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, stated before the National Assembly that SA was still not a nation, it was merely two nations rolled into one.

To Mbeki, SA was a synthesis of a small and affluent white society whose lifestyles rivaled the superrich of the world. In the other SA, the majority of fellow citizens languished in abject poverty and happened to be black. Mbeki’s statement came to be known as the ‘Two Nations Speech,’ a concise indictment that was heard around the world.

In Mbeki’s vision, it would take a long time for this South African divide, a 350 years’ legacy of ‘inequality,’ to be obliterated and allow the country to evolve the necessary psychological cement to form a bona fide nation. Until then, talk of a rainbow nation was merely a dream deferred. And a dream deferred swells into explosive rage which, ultimately, explodes. Was Mbeki warning about the possibility of racial confrontation?

In trying to grasp the phenomenon, a small school of thought has since emerged that suggests that South Africa’s post-apartheid economic gap originated partly from history and partly from compromised negotiations on the part of the liberation icon, Nelson Mandela. While Madiba was admirably tough on the political front, he was too soft on the economic issues in dealing with the apartheid machine. In the end, Mandela settled for a deficient economic deal for his people. In the view of one prominent analyst, “a great Faustian bargain was struck between the two races. The Whites said to the Blacks: ‘You take the Crown and we will keep the Jewels.’”

This view of economic-soft-to-apartheid approach has been articulated by prominent personalities deeply loyal to Mandela. The list includes his former wife, Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the iconic Pan-African analyst, Professor Ali Mazrui. They do not accuse Mandela of deliberate sell-out but they do suggest that he could have done better for fellow Africans. Neither wrong-doing nor corruption is suggested anywhere. Other than this aspect of Mandela’s leadership, his political legacy is unblemished.

It is arguable that Mandela’s approach to dislodge apartheid was not an accident; it was inspired by older African thought. Indeed, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah once addressed the same question of, given the choice, what should come first target: political or economic power? Nkrumah spoke as an elder statesman of African nationalism in his dictum, ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added unto you.’ This is one of Nkrumah’s three most cited dogmas—ever. Was Nelson Mandela of 1994 acting under the ideological spell of former Pan-African icon?


In all likelihood, Mandela responded to the circumstances that surrounded him, realities that were uniquely South African. He decided to seek a political kingdom first by pursuing reconciliation and nation-building instead of confrontational economic kingdom. He realized that pushing for blacks’ economic sovereignty at that time (for example nationalization of mines and forceful takeover of white-owned land) would have triggered racial violence. Mandela was mindful that SA could not survive the loss of life, white skills and capital that would follow.  He, therefore, opted to go softly-softly on the economic domain to save the nation.


Prof-James-KariukiClearly, Mandela was a profoundly practical man. By sparing apartheid economic structures, he responded pragmatically to the realities that surrounded him. Against this background, his critics, the so-called ‘romantic revolutionaries,’ have tended to be dismissed for their indictment of Madiba for “being too conciliatory, too soft on the whites in negotiating our transition.” What tangible realities did Mandela face?

In the run up to the 1994 negotiations, South Africa was a deeply polarized society; violence and strife were everywhere. Indeed, it is an everlasting tribute to Mandela’s vision that he accepted and engaged the white military leadership, who stood prepared to welcome a racial conflict. After all, military lopsidedness was immense in favor of the apartheid machine.

I once heard Mandela blast his black fellows via the public media to the effect that ‘Some of us talk of revolutionary change as if we are dealing with a defeated enemy; far from it.’ These were code words for: ‘entertaining violence at this juncture is tantamount to mass suicide.’

At just about the same time that Mandela was publicly warning his people of the inadequacies of violence, he was secretly reasoning just as firmly against violence with the superbly trained and armed white right-wing military. As he once told a group of professional Afrikaner solders, “If you want to go to war, I must be honest and admit that we cannot stand up to you in the battlefield…. It will be a long and bitter struggle. Many people will die and the country may be reduced to ashes… but you cannot win because of our numbers. You cannot kill all of us. And you cannot win because of the international community; they will rally to our support and they will stand with us.”

Words of this nature turned the tide from looming deadly racial conflict to reconciliation and nation-building. However imperfect reconciliation might have been, it was infinitely preferable to racial war.

Mandela had considered the option of a civil war in SA and had dismissed it. He understood that demanding further economic concessions from the apartheid monster was crossing the red line. Blaming Mandela for what he did in 1994 is naive. He did what he could with what he had at this disposal.  The challenge is what the current leadership should do given that the circumstances are different from those that Mandela faced.

Mandela has finally died but he left this world a man in peace. He did not see the rainbow nation that he so craved for his country. He left a country more prepared to become a rainbow nation if nurtured carefully. He left the world a frail man but spiritually he was a giant that the world adored in every way possible. Most importantly he left South Africans of all colors shedding tears that their icon was no more.  In unison, they said to him: we will miss you Madiba.  That was enough Rainbow Nation in Nelson Mandela’s spirit.

*James Kariuki is Professor of international Relations and an independent writer. He is a Kenyan based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.








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