HERE is nobody like him.” These were the simple words of President Jacob Zuma recently as South Africa and the world braced itself to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela.
“His biggest legacy – to South Africa and to the world – was that he helped people to find a way to talk to each other,” said Public Protector Thuli Madonsela on the same day.
“We are respected throughout the world for this – and the finest way to respect his legacy will be for us to keep on talking to each other as South Africans.”
Historians and analysts will, for years ahead, try to assess what his real legacy has been.
For respected political analyst and author William Gumede, Mandela will always be the person who set the standard of what it means to be an exemplary, democratic leader.
“We can hold him up as the ideal for setting a personal example of democratic leadership for others round the world to follow,” said Gumede.
“For the next 100 years, he will be recognised as the founding father who played this role.”
Key for Gumede was that Mandela exercised his leadership inclusively.
“He governed in the interests of everyone, not just for the dominant leadership. This was crucial in a diverse country like ours. He taught us that, even if you are the leader of a dominant group, you must govern in the interests of even the smallest minority, all the time… and that everybody must feel part of that decision-making.”
A further attribute of Mandela’s legacy, Gumede said, was the fact that he was a forward-looking leader.
“At all times, he projected a positive future with all of us together.
“His message was that the past is horrendous but we have an inclusive vision for the future, a positive message of nation-building.”
A further legacy, said Gumede, was Mandela’s ability to persuade opponents to be part of his vision.
“This, unfortunately, is missing in today’s leadership. Such vision is vital in generating economic growth and in getting all South Africans excited about starting new national projects. What Mandela did was to make us all feel part of a great project.”
Susan Booysens, political analyst and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power, believes one of Mandela’s greatest legacies will be his association with an “era of hope”.
“Life for the ANC was easier under Mandela. It had not yet been exposed for so long to the corruptive power of being in government.
“But South Africans are no longer in that era of hope. When Mandela left government, it was seen as just a question of time before these things would be fixed. There is little doubt the ANC believed they had the capacity to do that, and the political will was there. Fifteen years later it is much worse.
“But no matter how different it is, and no matter how untrue to the Nelson Mandela legacy, a little of his unique journey and its lessons will forever rub off on South Africa and even on the current ANC leadership,” she said.
Political analyst and newly appointed vice-chancellor of Wits University, Professor Adam Habib, believes Mandela’s greatest legacy was his reconciliation drive.
“This is despite it having been seen by many in the black community as too accommodating of white interests, and not sufficiently focused on the transformation agenda.
“The real genius of the reconciliation project – including tea with Betsy Verwoerd – was that he bought South Africa time and, by creating a cross-sectoral legitimacy, he allowed democratic institutions to become rooted in society.
“So, years later, when the challenges emerged, from economic inequality to the Secrecy Bill and others, those institutions remained robust enough to, at least, be openly critical. The media is one example of this, as is the fact that political elites, for all their other faults, have been committed to resolve things through the rule of law.
“Take Jacob Zuma as an example – he has tried to pack the courts sometimes, but he has never rejected a court’s decision.”
Habib continued: “Madiba’s greatness is also tied to the fact that he gave up political power. Most politicians don’t. In doing this, he inherited a soft global power of legitimacy which not many other people have. It is an irony that most politicians don’t want to give up political power – but, in the case of Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, they gave up power and became global icons.
“But we must not romanticise this too much. Mandela came to power when he was 74 and retired when he was 79. When you are 79, you view life differently. I am not sure he’d have given up power had he been 49. That’s not to take away from his abilities and greatness, but it is important to locate him in context.
“Additionally, we must not forget that his administration 18 years ago had strengths as well as weaknesses. His administration made some very serious mistakes: the whole HIV/Aids debacle started under him, as the state failed to address the challenge as it emerged. This is also true of economic policy: The Gear policy, which was adopted in 1996 and the polarisation it created happened, in part, under Mandela.”
Habib said South Africa would, to a certain extent, romanticise the strengths of Mandela’s legacy, and forget the weaknesses.
“He will be hailed as the father of the nation – what Gandhi is to India and what Lincoln is to the United States.”
Habib continued: “Given all the debates about his legacy, he was a great figure. And there cannot be a better figure than him to be our hero.
“He presented the best of us and what we could be.”
Independent political analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni said Mandela’s death comes at a time when many people are questioning the true dividends of liberation and democracy.
“Some are asking, when faced with dire economic and other hardships, whether the symbolic reconciliation Mandela brought about should have been accompanied by a concrete improvement in social and economic justice.
“…They acknowledge that he helped bring about a procedural democracy with good institutions, but that perhaps there has been insufficient transformation of the deep structural and systemic legacy of the past.”
Fikeni continued: “When Madiba goes, there are different Madibas which will be projected in terms of his legacy. People in different sections of the population will remember different Mandelas. Some will highlight the reconciliation aspect and others his earlier role in advocating for radical transformation.
“So there is no immediate agreement on what Mandela’s legacy represents.”
Political analyst and futurist Daniel Silke believes Mandela’s key legacy was to provide South Africans with an impetus towards nation-building – “a critical national characteristic which also inculcated accountability and sense of belonging”.
“Mandela managed to reach out to his political enemies and win their respect, even though he never won their political support. Making his enemies feel comfortable, and even wanted, in the new South Africa was an exceptional aspect of his leadership.
“His reconciliatory ethos allowed him to transcend the narrow, often petty, confines of party politics. While obviously an ANC president, he became South Africa’s president and a respected president of all the citizens – whether you voted ANC or not – an exceptional accomplishment.”
Silke said given his limited fiveyear term, Mandela accomplished more on the deep-rooted healing of the wounds aspect of South African life, rather than on delivering the fundamentals of the much-vaunted “better life for all”.
“Perhaps South Africa really needed a second term of Nelson Mandela. Five years was too short to inculcate all these values, and provide the necessary continuity to a future generation of leaders. Perhaps the moral degeneration within the South African body politic is partially due to South Africa not having enough of the ‘Mandela’ effect.”
FORWARD-LOOKING LEADER: Nelson Mandela is remembered by many in many ways.
INSUFFICIENT: Somadoda Fikeni says people will remember different Mandelas.
TOO SHORT: Daniel Silke thinks SA should have had a second term of Mandela.
RECONCILER: Adam Habib says unity was Mandela’s greatest legacy.
INCLUSIVE: William Gumede hails Madiba’s positive message of nation-building.