The great anti-Apartheid leader and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela is on his deathbed, stricken with lung disease and reportedly on life support. After almost 95 years, this great hero will not be with us for much longer.
This sad fact has sparked something of a debate in South Africa and around the world about what will happen when Madiba dies. Some have argued that Mandela is the glue holds the country together, with The Guardian reporting fears among the white South African community that the death of Mandela will lead to a resurgence of black militancy. So what will really happen when Mandela dies? And what kind of South Africa will he leave behind?
It is first important to remember that South Africa has been living without Mandela at centre stage for a while now. Since he “retired from retirement” in 2004, Mandela has made some public appearances but was discouraged, for the sake of his health, from making overt political statements. This was partially an attempt to give him a decent retirement, to avoid the spectacle of an old man dying in the public spotlight, as well as to afford Mandela the dignity he deserves, that he might be remembered most as a bold activist and great liberator, not as a frail old man. While Mandela has been engaged in some non-partisan NGO work, domestic South African politics is something he has avoided. And without his involvement, South Africa has survived. It has not fallen into race wars, and the ANC has not declared a totalitarian state.
Important to remember is that, while South Africa may seem divided because of its multiculturalism, the country and its people have a remarkable capacity to remain relatively united in the face of the worst adversity.
The period between 1990 and 1994 is a good example of this, and if the country were ever to fall into civil war and disunity, in would have done so then. During this period, desperate to undermine the ANC and Mandela, right-wingers and their allies ruling the Bantustan dictatorships colluded to foment political crises and destabilise the country. Thousands were left dead by fighting between the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC.
But the country did not fall apart, demonstrably, and the peaceful reaction of ANC supporters in the townships to the murder by right-wingers of greatly loved Umkhonto we Sizwe leader Chris Hani was a turning point for the country and the negotiations to end Apartheid. At the time when the country was closest to civil war, it survived and was made stronger. And contrary to the fears of the white right, even when South Africa was in its worst state of turmoil, it was not prosperous whites who were attacked, it was poor black africans in the slums. Despite the attempts by some right-wing groups to provoke a race war, whites were not the target of political extremists.
If South Africa survived the turmoil of the early 90′s, it can survive the death of Mandela.
The opposing argument is that things have changed – increasingly in the mind of white South Africans are frequent reports of attacks on white farmers. Indeed, it had become such an issue that the NGO Afriforum, an organisation with “a specific focus on the rights of Afrikaners”, has launched a campaign: “Stop the murders”, designed to raise awareness and prompt government action. Afriforum insists its purpose is simply to help protect the rights of white Afrikaners, and of the course the killing of white farmers is deplorable behaviour, but there is another side to this narrative, one with Afriforum rejects, but which echoes South Africa’s dark past. Of course the majority of white South Africans do not hold to these views, but there is a noisy and, if South Africa’s recent history shows, potentially dangerous minority that do.
A casual search through the internet on the issue reveals this sort of thing – videos arguing that the “Marxist socialist” ANC plans to instigate the mass slaughter of white South Africans once Mandela dies. Another group, linked to in the video’s description, called “Genocide Watch” echoes these fears, cynically and flippantly placing it alongside the legacy of Rwanda and Srebinica, arguing that the ANC is deliberately inciting the black population of South Africa to slaughter its whites and “redistribute” their land when Mandela dies.
What is the purpose of this fear mongering? By using words like “marxist”, “genocide” and “militant”, these right wingers are appealing to exactly the type of mentality which allowed Apartheid to exist: the idea that black South Africans are savages ruled by radicals who, without proper control and indoctrination, will turn on the “civilised” white South Africans.
Of course there are legitimate fears among many whites – the fear of the breakdown of law and order and public services, the corruption and demagoguery of the ANC and many of its activists, and the seemingly unshakeable rule of the Congress party.
But there is also a political objective to this narrative. This excellent piece in Think Africa Press argued that while the attacks on white farmers are often portrayed as a potential precursor to a Zimbabwe-style violent take over of rural property: “rural crime in South Africa is mostly prompted by astounding – and rising – inequality and a historically antagonistic relationship between white commercial farmers, black labourers and local communities.”
Perpetuating the narrative that there is a correlation between this awful and deeply complex problem and what happened under Mugabe in Zimbabwe serves a purpose: it stalls the moment where the fact that the majority of agricultural land is still owned by white farmers will be addressed seriously by the government.
The fact remains that, despite its success and prosperity, South Africa still faces deep-rooted problems of social injustice. The country’s unemployment rate is at 29%, millions live in a state of dire poverty, and around 50 people are murdered everyday. And the biggest problem, and a great source of South Africa’s current ills, is its extreme disparities of wealth. Modern South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and ranks higher on the scale of income inequality than many African countries with far worse governance.
These problems require radical and bold solutions, and part of South Africa’s great problem is that the African National Congress, supposedly a “radical” party, has in many instances not gone far enough, instead indulging in cronyistic and populist economic policies which, while appearing radical, instead prop up their political allies and line the pockets of the party apparatchiks.
All too often, the ANC is beholden to special interests, not the people who, time and time again, with the best faith and hope, vote for them. A good example of this is the relationship between the ANC and the country’s largest union, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
In the aftermath of the horrifying Marikana massacre, where striking mineworkers in Rustenberg were fired on by police and 44 were killed, the Congress of South African Trade Unions issued a strong statement condemning the police behaviour. But what they did not mention was the strikes were wildcat strikes, not sanctioned by the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers, and that much of the anger of the workers was a result of the NUM’s close relationship to management. Working under conditions the International Labour Organisation criticised as involving “a variety of safety hazards: falling rocks, exposure to dust, intensive noise, fumes and high temperatures, among others”, the workers were dissuaded from striking, from making their voices heard, by the people who were supposed to represent their interests. Some members of the NUM even defended the police, who fired on men who had their backs turned to them.
And this demonstrates the real problem with South Africa – that the so-called radical ANC seems to be no longer determined to fulfil the words of its famous Freedom Charter : “that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities”, and reactionaries are all too willing to perpetuate a dated narrative which, unwittingly, helps the ANC remain complacent. This is not a call for a radical communist South Africa, merely an argument that the supposedly “radical” and social democratic ANC is often nothing of the kind. If anything, it has been too timid in dealing with South Africa’s central problem of income inequality: dealing with tax avoidance by the very rich, the neutering of trade unions, the bribing of public officials and the increasing use of thuggish private security firms to guard the property of the wealthy. The pluralistic social democracy that activists dreamed of creating in the dark days of Apartheid has a long way to go before it is reality.
Will South Africa fall apart when Mandela dies? Almost definitely not, and fear mongering from both sides will not destabilise the country. But when Mandela does go, it will be important to remember him not only for his fight against Apartheid, but for his strong commitment to social and economic justice. South Africa has enormous potential: great mineral wealth, a politically engaged population, and a strong constitution and democratic model. Much can be made of these things, and shaking the political elites until they understand this is not only important but necessary. If anything, the death of Mandela might force the ANC to stop using Mandela as a political tool, and encourage them to start seriously dealing with South Africa’s problems and take on the vested interests which have corrupted the party of liberation and the nation it liberated.
I’ll leave you with this: Mandela’s speech to the dock at Rivonia, his greatest moment of bravery and conviction, and a better epitaph to him than any Jacob Zuma will give: