Miracle worker

Nelson Mandela did not transform the economy or eradicate poverty. He did something bigger — he unified South Africa and steered it away from conflict.

Published: December 7, 2013 1:57 am

Anthony Black

Nelson Mandela did not transform the economy or eradicate poverty. He did something bigger — he unified South Africa and steered it away from conflict.

Nelson Mandela dedicated his entire adult life to the struggle for freedom in South Africa,and in 1994 became president of the country’s first democratically elected government. On February 11,1990,Mandela was released from 27 years of imprisonment. I recall going to Cape Town’s Grand Parade,where he was going to give his first speech. His arrival was delayed due to security concerns. As darkness fell,the atmosphere was electric. From the periphery,shots could be heard as police fired birdshot at looters. Mandela eventually stepped onto the balcony of the City Hall to a rapturous welcome from the huge crowd. Next to me was a man in a trance-like state,chanting “Mandela the prisoner… Mandela the saviour…”

Walking to the Parade earlier that day,I fell into conversation with a security guard,an occupation notorious for long hours and low pay. He was confident that with Mandela now released,people like him would soon have good houses. The 1994 election manifesto of the African National Congress (ANC) promised “a better life for all”,but the reality is that people’s lives have not improved very much. The middle and upper classes have done well and the black middle class has expanded hugely. There has been a significant increase in the supply of housing,electricity and running water to low income groups,but health and education outcomes remain dismal for a middle income country. The unemployment rate,always high,has actually increased and is currently 25 per cent. South Africa remains an unequal and fractured society and if it were not for the largescale roll-out of social grants,poverty would have increased since 1994.

Mandela was not the leader who transformed the economy and eradicated poverty. Indeed,the economic struggle is proving even more intractable than the political struggle. There are those who will call this a failing of Mandela’s term. But they are wrong. In the central role he played,following his release and in his tenure as president of the country,Mandela created the possibility of a better life for all by steering South Africa away from conflict and unifying a nation riven by racial oppression. There are others who say that he focused too much on reconciliation and too little on righting the wrongs of Apartheid. They are also wrong. It was Mandela who launched the armed struggle against the Apartheid government,but this was done in a disciplined manner. He had the moral authority to push unpopular positions,to move towards peace when he saw the opportunity.

In the early 1990s,South Africa was in turmoil. The province of Natal was riven by bloody internecine strife between supporters of the ANC and the Zulu nationalist organisation,the Inkatha Freedom Party. Soon after his release,Mandela addressed militant ANC supporters,urging them to take “your knives,your guns and your pangas,and throw them into the sea”. It was this authority,both amongst his own supporters and on the wider stage,that allowed him to play the central role in the negotiations with the still powerful white government,leading to the miracle of the relatively peaceful transition to democracy.

In the words of Jonathan Jansen,Mandela “embraced the enemy”. After he became president,he invited to lunch Percy Yutar,the notorious prosecutor who had argued for the death penalty at Mandela’s own “Treason Trial”. He went to visit Betsie Verwoerd,the wife of the architect of Apartheid,who was living in self-imposed exile in the whites-only rural enclave of Orania. And of course,there was the famous event at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995. As president of South Africa,Mandela arrived to meet the players wearing a Springbok rugby jersey at a time when the Springbok was still a controversial symbol associated with whites-only sport. These were not calculated political strategies but genuine gestures,which symbolised Mandela’s recognition of the common humanity of all,no matter their position.

Mandela is revered across racial,class and national boundaries,and his legacy is of worldwide significance. In South Africa,he is held in high esteem across the political spectrum. If he is ever criticised,it is in the form of a gentle chiding more than castigation. Mandela made mistakes but had the strength to recognise these and change course. One example was his government’s slow response to dealing with the gathering AIDS pandemic. Mandela later accepted this had been wrong,apologised and became a leading global activist in fighting the disease.

Always popular but never a populist,Mandela was a political leader but not a politician. A reluctant president who had to be pushed forward by the ANC to take up this position; and from the start announced that he would only serve one term. South Africa’s politics is more sordid now. The ANC has lost the aura of the early days of democracy and the “rainbow nation” is just another country. But Mandela will continue to inspire us as to what is possible when our actions are guided by human values.

The writer is professor of economics,University of Cape Town.

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