After Mandela: 2014 will be a difficult year for South Africa

Zuma and the ANC will win next year’s general election, but they will be weakened as a political force

People comfort each other outside the residence of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Photograph: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

People comfort each other outside the residence of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Photograph: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko


‘I just wasn’t ready for a world without Mandela, ” a tearful, white Afrikaans woman said to me a few days ago. The year 2013 will be remembered by the world, but especially South Africans, for the year we said goodbye to our beloved Nelson Mandela, or Tata Madiba (father Madiba) as we referred to him. The last few weeks of last year were filled with grief for the nation of my birth and it is pain and sadness I personally experienced very intensely.

Yet, having just returned to South Africa I also felt a real sense of pride for the way Madiba’s death was handled. Of course many, highly embarrassing mistakes were made. There was the disaster of a sign language interpreter that we would rather forget, the army which marched in different directions, the family having a fight and Archbishop Tutu being left off the guest list. Yet, in between the mess- ups, there was also the white young man who tightly hugged an elderly black African woman when she became overwhelmed by grief outside Mandela’s home and a white woman being comforted by a black police woman after seeing Madiba’s body.

There was the emotional final journey watched by millions when his remains finally left Pretoria and were flown to his homestead in Qunu, accompanied only by an African lament, Hamba kahle, hamba kahle, Madiba (Go well, go well Madiba).

Yet the question kept on being asked as it did for months, if not years, by foreign journalists and analysts who have predicted a collapse of South Africa once Madiba dies. “What happens after Mandela?” This is the question I was asked most by foreigners during the last 20 years as an MP and an ambassador. My answer was always the same: “Nothing. Nothing, apart from a period of grief.” But is that really true?

Now as the initial mourning period has passed, is the rainbow nation truly ready for a world without Madiba? Will the democracy and sense of nationhood hold or will it, as so many predicted, spiral into violence and anarchy?

There is no doubt that 2014 will be a difficult year for South Africa. Apart from economic challenges, the fifth general election since the birth of the democratic state will be held in April or May. All elections bring a period of instability – especially in developing countries, and South Africa will have it too. Unlike many other countries in Africa there are no real indicators of an escalation in violence. However, political turmoil will most certainly increase more than at other stage since Mandela became president in 1994.

In fact it has already started. Unexpectedly it seems to have gained momentum with Madiba’s funeral. It was as if the happenings in the FNB stadium provided the spark that brought together various incipient opposition forces. It started with booing the president. It was generally agreed that it was not the time or place for that, yet there is also an acknowledgement that it shows the strength and robustness of South Africa’s democracy. And it showed that President Zuma has not been able to keep Mandela’s party together.

Shortly after the funeral the biggest trade union, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, withdrew its support from the ANC, quoting Mandela extensively and basing its actions on the protection of his legacy.

This move has serious implications for South African politics, as it takes votes and financial support from the ANC. More seriously, it puts the alliance between the national trade union federation, Cosatu, and the governing party under strain.

This does not mean the ANC will lose the next election. They will win and Jacob Zuma will remain president. But what it will do is weaken the ANC and possibly see more coalition government at a provincial level in former ANC strongholds – something thought to be impossible before.

But these serious political shifts do not mean things will fall apart. The Mandela structure is intact and will stay that way, because it was always bigger than Mandela itself. South Africa’s strength is in its diversity and complexity. But it is far more.

The structure and integrity of society is protected by its diversity as reflected in the press, judiciary, constitutional structure, business sector and civil society engagement. When outsiders see the complex nature of this rainbow nation, they often see only the fault lines. They miss the solid structures that hold it all together. These structures are Mandela’s legacy. His biggest gift to South Africa was ensuring what he created outlived him.

On an emotional level, South Africans of all races are finding it hard to deal with the reality of Tata Madiba’s absence. Mistakes will continue to be made as the democracy enters its adolescence. But as a nation there is no question that the country will get it right and thanks to our founding father, hold it all together.

Melanie Verwoerd is a former South African ambassador to Ireland

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