Why it’s wrong to blame South Africa’s woes on Man­dela’s com­pro­mises

Steven Fried­man is Pro­fes­sor of Pol­i­tics, Uni­ver­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg.

African Times - - News -

If he were alive to­day, Nel­son Man­dela would prob­a­bly be puz­zled to find that it has be­come pop­u­lar among South Africans frus­trated with the pace of change to join for­mer Zim­bab­wean pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe in cast­ing him as a vil­lain.

The charge against Man­dela, who be­came South Africa’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected Pres­i­dent on May 10 24 years ago, is that he let white South Africa off the hook by bar­gain­ing a deal which left the racial mi­nor­ity in charge of the econ­omy and so­ci­ety. His rec­on­cil­i­a­tion pol­icy, it is claimed, made whites feel good but did lit­tle for blacks.

How jus­ti­fied is this? Should South Africans blame Man­dela for the sur­vival of racial bias, poverty and in­equal­ity? Or does he re­main an in­spi­ra­tion? The an­swer lies some­where in be­tween th­ese two poles.

Be­fore ex­plain­ing why, it’s as well to warn against the ten­dency to see apartheid’s end as Man­dela’s work alone. As he never tired of point­ing out, he was part of a col­lec­tive: key strate­gic roles were played by for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki and the coun­try’s cur­rent leader Cyril Ramaphosa, among many oth­ers. This week 24 years ago saw the be­gin­ning of demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, not rule by one man.

Whether Man­dela and his col­leagues could have done bet­ter de­pends on what their crit­ics think they should have done. If the an­swer is that they should have in­sisted on far more rad­i­cal change, how were they to achieve this since the apartheid sys­tem was not de­feated mil­i­tar­ily? And how was

the new or­der to feed its peo­ple if it fright­ened away the cap­i­tal which re­mained in the white mi­nor­ity’s hands? Missed op­por­tu­nity

Man­dela’s rec­on­cil­i­a­tion mes­sage may have partly re­flected his view of the world. But it was also a prod­uct of the African Na­tional Congress’ (ANC) view then that the mi­nor­ity re­tained the power to de­stroy the new democ­racy and so a com­pro­mise with it was es­sen­tial.

This some­times led to skewed pri­or­i­ties. Pre­vent­ing a white back­lash was at times taken more se­ri­ously than black opin­ion out­side the ANC which was also not sure about the new or­der. But the ANC’s view that apartheid could only be ended by a com­pro­mise was, essen­tially, ac­cu­rate. Those who con­tinue to com­plain that Man­dela and his col­leagues set­tled for far too lit­tle have never said cred­i­bly how it would have been pos­si­ble to get much more.

Crit­ics are right to in­sist that some­thing was miss­ing from the set­tle­ment which made Man­dela pres­i­dent. But the prob­lem is not that there was too much com­pro­mise; it was that there was not enough.

The com­pro­mise which pro­duced 1994 con­cen­trated on chang­ing the po­lit­i­cal or­der so that ev­ery­one be­came a cit­i­zen with equal rights. That was es­sen­tial. But it left un­touched an econ­omy, so­ci­ety and cul­ture which, like the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, worked only for the few. The po­lit­i­cal bar­gain should have been fol­lowed by a sim­i­lar ne­go­ti­a­tion on open­ing up the econ­omy. It should also have tack­led the bi­ases in the places where ideas and knowl­edge are pro­duced - schools and uni­ver­si­ties, for ex­am­ple, and those in the wider so­ci­ety where in­her­ited priv­i­lege in ac­cess to health care, trans­port and other es­sen­tials have limited the ef­fects of th po­lit­i­cal changes Man­dela and oth­ers achieved.

This was a missed op­por­tu­nity be­cause the years lead­ing up to the set­tle­ment which pro­duced the 1994 demo­cratic gov­ern­ment saw par­al­lel ne­go­ti­a­tion on the econ­omy, so­cial is­sues and ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ture. This could have set the stage for a bar­gain on change in th­ese ar­eas but the op­por­tu­nity was ig­nored. This has pro­duced the bit­ter­ness that sees Man­dela as a prob­lem, not a solution.

This flaw needs ur­gent at­ten­tion. Un­less it is ad­dressed, South Africa will re­main what it is to­day: an­gry and frac­tured, still trapped in many of the chains which apartheid cre­ated. Man­dela and those who worked with him hoped for more – a so­ci­ety in whic the old bar­ri­ers would break down, no one in which they re­main, al­though on new foun­da­tions. What they hoped for has not been achieved partly be­cause they failed to find a strat­egy fo ad­dress­ing the ills apartheid cre­ated. Build­ing a new so­ci­ety

But the new so­ci­ety for which they hoped will not be cre­ated un­less the val­ues which they cham­pi­oned at the time are re­vived. The mes­sage that South Africans share a com­mon hu­man­ity is not a sham. It is es­sen­tial a so­ci­ety which re­mains deeply di­vide It does not mean ig­nor­ing in­equal­i­ties it makes it es­sen­tial that they are tack­led, but in a way which recog­nises what peo­ple hold in com­mon.

The spirit of self-sac­ri­fice and servi which prompted Man­dela and oth­ers fight apartheid and seek to build a new so­ci­ety is equally es­sen­tial in a coun­try in which how much you own is val­ued more than how much you con­trib­ute, one of the many causes of cor­rup­tion which con­tin­ues to scar the coun­try.

The deal over which Man­dela presided was not enough to build a work­able fu­ture. But the val­ues he and those with whom he worked en­dorsed will need to play a core role if that futu is to be­come re­al­ity.

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