🔒 FT: Young South Africans are rethinking Nelson Mandela’s legacy

In the shadow of Mandela’s legacy, a new generation of South Africans grapples with disillusionment. Born after apartheid, they question Mandela’s compromises, seeking answers for persistent inequality and economic despair. Some find inspiration in Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s radical activism, challenging the ANC’s direction. As the nation faces a pivotal election and societal fractures deepen, the once unassailable reverence for Mandela is questioned, revealing a complex struggle for justice and identity in post-apartheid South Africa.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

By David Pilling in Soweto and Monica Mark in Qunu

Some of those born after the end of apartheid are taking inspiration from the radical politics of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Not far from Vilakazi Street, where the house in which Nelson Mandela once lived has been turned into a museum-cum-shrine, Kenneth Khoza is canvassing for uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), a new political party named after the former armed wing of the African National Congress. “Mandela was a fake,” he says. “He sold us out.”

Chris Lebona, who was born and raised on the now famous road in Soweto, is an MK supporter. He blames Mandela for persuading the ANC, then the main liberation movement, to suspend the armed struggle in 1990 before the conclusion of a post-apartheid settlement to end white minority rule.

“The ANC is not one man and he started to negotiate outside the ANC structures,” Lebona says, referring to the secret talks Mandela held initially with then president FW de Klerk when he was still prisoner number 466/64. “We were given a raw deal,” he says, reflecting a commonly held view that the Black majority was short-changed by the terms of the transition. “That’s where the problem started, and the ANC has suffered the consequences by losing the support of the people.”

Thirty years after the end of white minority rule and weeks before an election that could deprive the ANC of the absolute majority it has commanded since 1994, the fact that some people are questioning Mandela’s legacy underscores the deep disillusion many South Africans feel about the state of their country.

To most of the world, Mandela remains a moral giant whose willingness to forgive his white oppressors was the key to unlocking a negotiated end to the morally bankrupt system of apartheid. In South Africa, too, Mandela’s legacy as the father of the liberation struggle has endured among a majority. Many believe that without Mandela’s almost saintlike ability to compromise with his oppressors, South Africa could have descended into violence and never transitioned to democracy at all.

But some young people born after the end of apartheid want answers over what went wrong in a country where every second youth is unemployed, crime is rife and inequality along racial lines remains blatant. The optimism of the early post-apartheid years has drained away to be replaced by disaffection and a conviction among some that the old guard of the ANC should have taken more radical measures to right the wrongs of the apartheid era.

“My generation believes that Nelson Mandela was a sellout,” says Busisiwe Seabe, an activist born in 1994, the year Mandela became president after the ANC’s victory in the country’s first multi-party elections. “He abandoned the pursuit of Black liberation, including economic emancipation.”

As the South African economy enters a second decade of stagnation — there has been virtually no growth in per capita terms since 2008 — and as opportunity fades for Black South Africans without political connections, an increasing number of people are starting to blame Mandela and the liberation-era leaders. At its core lies the accusation that Mandela allowed white people to keep the wealth and privilege they had amassed under a racist system that deliberately kept Black people poor and uneducated.

Although the ANC is expected to emerge from the May 29 election as the biggest party, polls show that a growing anger with its performance could push it below 50 per cent nationally, ushering in a new, potentially volatile, era of coalition politics. It is also in danger of losing key provinces, including the industrial heartland of Gauteng, home to Johannesburg and Tshwane, formerly Pretoria.

The chipping away at Mandela’s reputation has been accompanied by another phenomenon: the rise in appreciation for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a fierce anti-apartheid activist and Nelson’s wife during his 27 years of incarceration. “She does represent an alternative means of understanding our current predicament,” argues Seabe. “Attaining political freedom meant nothing without economic freedom.”

“What is bubbling is a sense that we’ve been conned, that we’ve been duped and that this promise will forever be deferred,” says Joel Modiri, head of jurisprudence at Pretoria University, referring to the now-fading belief that the end of apartheid would bring real economic opportunity to the Black majority. Instead, he says, most Black people remain trapped in poor townships — the dumping grounds of the apartheid system — with a substandard education and few job prospects.

The geography of apartheid’s racial segregation persists and services like electricity and water are at breaking point owing to chronic under-investment, corruption and vandalism.

All of this is “building discontent towards the ANC, towards the white community and towards foreign nationals”, Modiri says. “The transition placed reconciliation ahead of justice and certain important questions were papered over, assumed never to return. And now they are returning virulently.”

The standard explanation for South Africa’s current woes is that the ANC managed the economic and political transition reasonably well for the first 15 years, when it courted foreign investment and oversaw economic growth of as much as 5 per cent a year.

When Jacob Zuma became president in 2009, this view holds, the ANC descended into corruption and cronyism, the country’s institutions were eroded and growth stalled.

One senior technocrat, and life-long ANC supporter, likens the past 30 years to a football match with a strong performance in the first half and a series of own goals in the second.

Thirty years of the ANC

But many South Africans question that view of the post-apartheid era. Sisonke Msimang, a political analyst who wrote a book The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, is one of many who argues that the ANC was too timid from the outset in pursuing a more progressive economic agenda. Instead, Mandela’s government adopted the neoliberal orthodoxy of the time, she says. Enacting a self-imposed structural adjustment of the sort favoured by the Washington consensus, it reduced tariffs, cut fiscal deficits and ran a hawkish monetary policy that persists to this day.

“We wanted to outdo the neoliberals,” says Msimang, adding that a desire to prove a Black government could govern responsibly led the ANC mistakenly to “out World Bank the World Bank”.

One result of that shock therapy, say some economists, was to expose the previously protected manufacturing base to outside competition too quickly, nearly halving manufacturing as a share of output from 21 per cent to 12 per cent in the 20 years after the ANC took power. When the commodity supercycle ended and the global financial crisis hit in 2008, growth rates plummeted with an inevitable knock-on effect on living standards.

Hoping to capitalise on the frustrations with the ANC are two parties offering a more radical view of how South Africa should be governed. The first is MK, led by disgraced former president Zuma, and the second is the Economic Freedom Fighters, headed by ANC breakaway youth leader Julius Malema, which could together amass 20 per cent of the vote in next month’s elections.

Both parties adhere to a programme known as “radical economic transformation”, which envisages a systematic challenge to “white minority capital” through land expropriation and imposing more control over the commanding heights of the economy, including possibly the central bank.

The ANC is not one man and he started to negotiate outside the ANC structures. We were given a raw deal

It is not only those who are pushing for root-and-branch solutions to the country’s woes who have lost faith in Mandela’s vision of a harmonious rainbow nation. There has also been a rise of populism and xenophobia, which flies in the face of Mandela’s principles of tolerance and pan-Africanism, the belief that Africans across the continent should make common cause. That has led to a plethora of new parties constituted on narrow ethnic lines.

The Patriotic Alliance appeals mainly to communities that identify as “coloured”, some of whom feel marginalised by the Black majority. Its leader Gayton McKenzie, a former bank robber, has been accused of playing identity politics and has approvingly retweeted videos showing policemen in Russia beating foreigners. He has promised to halve youth unemployment by “mass deporting” illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Front Plus, a rightwing Afrikaner party, is backing the independence of Western Cape, the province that includes Cape Town, from the rest of South Africa.

Even the ANC, under Mandela the symbol of a new non-racial South Africa, has become an increasingly Black party, with very few senior members from the Indian, “coloured” or white communities. “The ANC has lost its non-racial ethos,” laments one senior official.

The re-evaluation of Mandela’s legacy from across South Africa’s political spectrum has been accompanied by a revival of appreciation for Winnie, who was put in solitary confinement, tortured and sent to a remote internal exile by the apartheid authorities.

“She bore the brunt of the apartheid regime’s attacks on Black people,” says Jonny Steinberg, author of Winnie & Nelson, a book that re-examines their dual legacy. “She said, ‘I was physically engaged with the enemy because my body was being battered while you [Nelson] were wrapped in a cocoon.’ Her story was that he negotiated away his people’s future because he was no longer truly a Black person, he’d been turned into somebody else inside prison, whereas she was the embodiment of people’s suffering.”

In the west, Winnie’s appeal as a valiant struggler against apartheid was badly tarnished by her support for using violence, including her defence of a practice known as “necklacing”, killing suspected informers by putting burning rubber tyres around their neck.

But in South Africa, Winnie’s death in 2018 sparked a resurgence in her reputation and her adoption as an icon by Malema, leader of the EFF. In her defiance and refusal to compromise with her oppressors, many younger Black South Africans have come to regard her as a metaphor for the path not taken.

Seabe, the activist born in 1994, argues that Winnie did not believe in her husband’s economic agenda, which preserved many of the structures and institutions of the apartheid era. “The ANC government failed Black South Africans by negotiating something that wouldn’t tangibly add benefits for [us]. We’re still living in squalor, we’re still living in poverty packed into the townships like sardines and we’re still subjected to institutional racism,” she says.

If Winnie represents the aspiration of a more radical economic alternative, it is far from clear what that would have meant in practice, says Steinberg, especially given market jitters when the ANC took power.

Winnie, he says, represents “distilled populism and a set of feelings; it’s not supposed to be translated into the nuts and bolts of what to do”. He characterises those conjuring an alternative reality of a command economy as pining for “bizarrely stale ideas from Brezhnev’s Russia”.

Still, the desire to blame Mandela for alleged mis-steps exists even around the place where he grew up in Qunu, a rural village in Eastern Cape province. Londiwe Khubeka, at 30 also part of the “born-free generation”, says she was taught to “deify” Mandela. But as she has grown older, her views have changed. “Mandela’s legacy has been questioned a lot and I do share the same sentiments of him giving us political freedom and not economic freedom,” she says.

Winnie, adds Khubeka, was “fearless, gritty and unapologetic”. She would never have been so criticised if she were a man, she says, and her vilification, including by her husband, “robbed young girls of a role model”.

Many older South Africans who lived through the struggle against apartheid are adamant that the younger generation has got it all wrong.

“When people say Mandela compromised, it’s complete nonsense,” says Mavuso Msimang, an 82-year-old veteran of uMkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. Mandela, he says, achieved everything the ANC ever wanted including the right to one person, one vote, and even the right to expropriate land without compensation, which is enshrined in the constitution but which has never been used effectively.

“Where things went terribly wrong goes back to the very beginning, when the ANC became vulnerable to being corrupted. We failed to manage power,” Msimang says. He accuses leaders like Zuma and Malema of dressing up their desire to loot the state in ideological terms. “Malema is a demagogue. If he were ever to gain power, it would be chaos,” he adds.

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a legal scholar, agrees that the ANC went wrong, not because Mandela somehow led the party astray, but because the party abandoned the core values he represented, including honesty and non-racialism. “Mandela’s strategy was that there were certain things you were not going to achieve immediately, but you had to create enough political space to achieve them over time,” he says. The ANC, particularly in its tolerance of a huge Black underclass, has failed to take advantage, the academic adds.

Moeletsi Mbeki, a political analyst and brother of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president, says that the existence of a huge Black underclass has ironically helped preserve the ANC’s political longevity. The grant system — through which 27mn of South Africa’s 60mn people receive some form of social security — guarantees loyalty to the party, especially in rural areas, he says.

Nokwanele Balizulu, a traditional chief of Qunu, was Mandela’s nearest neighbour when he retired to his childhood village after leaving office. The small business owner, now in her fifties, runs a small “spaza” convenience shop in front of her home. Her flowery skirt is paired with an ANC shirt.

Malema is a demagogue. If he were ever to gain power, it would be chaos

She believes there is room in the ANC pantheon for both Mandelas. Nelson helped her husband, who was a political prisoner on Robben Island, while Winnie was a tower of strength during those difficult years. “She visited often, and told me I should take courage because he was in prison for a righteous cause. She fought for many rural women who didn’t have a voice,” she says.

Balizulu rejects the idea that ANC elders mishandled the transition. “Things were great in Mandela’s first five years as president. I wish he could have continued another term,” she says. Mistakes followed later. “A lot has not gone right. So many projects have gone wrong,” she says. Still, a litany of problems, from lack of running water to youth crime, will not deter her from voting ANC again.

Steinberg, the author, says that despite the frustration of South Africa’s young people and the ANC’s manifest failings, one should not underestimate the staying power of the party that overthrew apartheid.

Whatever happens in next month’s election, he expects the ANC to get twice the number of votes as the next biggest party. “There’s a deep hinterland of sentiment, which still regards Mandela as precious and the ANC as having, to an extent, changed the world.”

Read also:

© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd.

Visited 602 times, 7 visit(s) today