Loss clouding future of a rainbow nation

What next for South Africa? Jacob Zuma facing into severe test of presidency

Nelson Mandela in May 1996 with his deputy presidents, Thabo Mbeki (left) and FW de Klerk, after a new constitution was approved. Photograph: AP

Nelson Mandela in May 1996 with his deputy presidents, Thabo Mbeki (left) and FW de Klerk, after a new constitution was approved. Photograph: AP


The death of Nelson Mandela will shake South Africa to its core, no less than the deaths of John F Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales delivered shell-shocked newscasters, public demonstrations of grief and interrogations of the American and British psyches. That death in old age does not fit the proper definition of “tragedy” will not console the millions who grew up with him as a constant presence, like a grandfather, and feel the loss just as keenly.

There will be days of mourning that will probably bring the country together as never before. When Mandela’s body lies in state, the line of citizens paying homage is likely to dwarf even the snaking queues of voters who put him in power in 1994. Drawn from all races, they will conjure much talk of a rainbow nation united in diversity.

But what next? Mandela’s mortality will also be a source of bewilderment. Robbed of the founding father who defined its sense of self, South Africa’s teenage democracy suddenly stands alone.

“I don’t think anybody can call what psychological impact it will have,” said Verne Harris, head of the memory programme at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in a 2009 interview. “Those of us who work for him and see him on a regular basis have no idea how it’s going to impact, but I think it’s reasonable to expect it will be huge. What direction that will take is hard to say.”

That gives Jacob Zuma one of the severest tests of his presidency. In the first hours and days he will be expected to hit the right tone and capture the nation’s mood – striving to emulate Tony Blair’s “people’s princess” tribute to Diana. South Africans will also look to Zuma to provide leadership at a time of national mourning and, some say, national crisis. They will need him to move swiftly and decisively to quell fears that Mandela’s rainbow project might lose its moorings, stoking racial tensions and political instability.

Zuma charges
This will be all the harder because Mandela looms like a one-man Mount Rushmore over his successors, throwing their flaws into sharp relief. And Zuma has flaws. Charges of racketeering, corruption, money laundering and fraud were controversially dropped against him shortly before he was elected in 2009.

Since taking office his reputation has suffered a series of setbacks. In 2012, it emerged that 206 million rand (€14.5 million) of taxpayers’ money had been spent upgrading his residence in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal province, officially for security reasons. Meanwhile, Zuma was criticised for a sluggish response to the police massacre of 34 miners at Marikana.

This, and a perceived sense of drift amid high unemployment and inequality, has led some to question his competence and draw unflattering comparisons with the first black president. One striking cartoon by the satirist Zapiro shows South African leaders evolving from ape-like figures to Mandela, who stands tall as a man, only to regress back to an ape-like Zuma.

No doubt aware of his inexhaustible political capital, Zuma has often sought to bask in Mandela’s glory, frequently citing him in speeches and kneeling before him during the former’s 2009 inauguration. Such tactics appeared to backfire in 2013 when Zuma and other ANC leaders visited Mandela at home shortly after he was discharged from hospital. The televised meeting, in which Mandela appeared frail, prompted cries of exploitation from family members and viewers.

Much will depend on the presidential spokesman, Mac Maharaj, who like Mandela and Zuma is a former political prisoner on Robben Island. After chaos and discord around communications during Mandela’s hospital stays, it was decided Maharaj would be the point man for the global media bombardment. He has issued regular statements during health scares but some journalists and others accuse him of not being straightforward.

Crisis communicator
Maharaj (78) is a seasoned political operator but not an experienced spin doctor or crisis communicator. He is pursuing legal action against a newspaper that linked him to an arms deal and raised allegations of kickbacks being paid into a Swiss bank account, which he denies. For him the death of Mandela will be first and foremost the loss of a friend at a time when cool heads are required.

But one asset Zuma does possess is an easy charm that wins over even political foes. He will need every ounce of it as leaders fly in from around the world to witness South Africa’s first, unsteady steps into the post-Mandela era.

Mandela was truly loved in a way that can seem quaint in the post-heroic age of politics. Buildings, bridges, streets and squares were named after him in life, commonplace in a dictatorship but remarkable in a democracy.

When the national broadcaster organised a poll to find the 100 greatest South Africans, one man dominated the vote in a way hard to imagine in any other country.

But in truth, Mandela had not been active politically for a long time. Even as president, he was largely a figurehead who left the day-to-day running of the country to his deputy and successor, Thabo Mbeki.

After 1999, apart from occasional interventions on issues such as HIV/Aids, he slowly but surely left the stage. The ANC continued to exploit his star power at rallies until 2009, but by the time of his death he was a virtual recluse and politically mute. Notably, South Africa did not implode.

Allister Sparks, veteranpolitical analyst and journalist who knew Mandela well, said: “I don’t think his death will have political implications at all. Most people outside the country think we’ll fall apart when it happens, but they thought we were going to fall apart before he came out anyway. There’s a kind of theological pessimism, particularly in Britain, about South Africa.

“He’s a saint. It’s rather like the Queen Mother. She was very old and the whole country loved her. The whole country loves this man. It’s going to be very similar to that. But he hasn’t played a political role for a long time.”

Lauren Beukes, a novelist and journalist, said before his death: “People who think the whole country will go downhill the moment he dies ... it’s ridiculous, it’s preposterous. He’s an icon of this country, he represents an amazing change in this country, but he isn’t South Africa and we will endure without him.”

More difficult to quantify, however, was Mandela’s symbolic power. He was described as the glue that held together this most disparate of nations. He persuaded white people that he was not a terrorist and dissuaded black people from seeking vengeance for apartheid. While he lived, so did his spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, making conflict unthinkable.

Genocide myth
One urban myth has it that black people have been waiting until Mandela’s death before unleashing “Operation Uhuru”, which proponents claim means “night of the long knives” (it actually means “freedom”) – a genocide of whites to “cleanse” South Africa. This has reputedly spurred a tiny number of white South Africans to stockpile food in bunkers or prepare to flee. They point to murders of white farmers and a perceived threat of Zimbabwe-style chaos. However, the longer Mandela has lived allowing democracy to mature without him, the more the myth has been sapped of its power.

Political economist Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of Thabo, dismisses talk of a race war but believes a different kind of unrest is possible. “Ironically, if there is a conflict, it will not be between black and white,” he said. “That story is past history. If there is any conflict, it will primarily be a class conflict among the blacks, which is where we’re heading.

“There are massive inequalities that have emerged among blacks. There’s huge corruption that is galloping from the black leadership who are running the government in South Africa, massive poverty in the black population and de-industrialisation of the economy because of wayward policies of the black government.”

This is the mountain facing post-Mandela South Africa. Unions claim that inequalities have become worse even than under apartheid, with the second-worst Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) among 136 countries. The top 5 per cent of earners take home 30 times more than the bottom 5 per cent. One in three South Africans are unemployed, often having dropped out of school into an underclass scarred by poverty and crime.

The racial dimension remains. Wealth and management positions are still dominated by the white minority. A 2007 survey estimated that white South Africans earn eight times more than black South Africans. A black male earns an average of 2,400 rand a month while a white male earns 19,000 rand. A white person born in 2009 can expect to live for 71 years, while a black person born that year is likely to die aged 48.

There is a school of thought that holds Mandela responsible. Some African nationalists say he “sold out” too easily in the negotiated settlement at the end of apartheid. While he secured political freedom for the black majority, he failed to guarantee their economic freedom too. He left the job unfinished, with the power base of “white monopoly capital” virtually unchallenged.

This will not be a popular view in the coming weeks. Mandela’s defenders insist he was hardly negotiating from a position of strength against a militarily superior adversary. But it is evident that many of the contradictions and poisonous legacies of the apartheid era remain unresolved. Not even Mandela could work more than one miracle.

Now South Africa will have to search for the next miracle within itself. It must prove to the world that it is no longer a problem country, but rather a country with problems. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.”

– (Guardian service)

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