Think Again: Nelson Mandela

The man behind the myth -- and the tenuous future of South Africa.

By , a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.

"Mandela's Legacy Is Unblemished."

"Mandela’s Legacy Is Unblemished."

False. For most of the world, Nelson Mandela is a hero of the struggle against apartheid and for nonracial democracy. The election of Mandela, the father of democratic South Africa, as president in 1994 marked both the end of a racist regime and the country’s embrace of racial reconciliation. As such, Mandela was a figure of hope not only for Africa but for the rest of the world — which was still very much struggling with racism and underdevelopment. Mandela articulated for South Africans of all races his democratic vision and, with then-President F.W. de Klerk, shepherded the country toward nonracial elections and a new constitution.

But there is another side to the story. Most of the commonly accepted narratives about the new South Africa are based on the misconception that apartheid was ended by a "freedom struggle" led by Mandela and his presidential successor, Thabo Mbeki, with international sanctions playing an important role. The less heroic reality is that apartheid’s demise was the result of a political deal between advocates of change and the white establishment, led by de Klerk. This deal, enshrining property rights and the rule of law, largely preserved the economic privileges enjoyed by white South Africans. The anti-apartheid resistance, both violent and nonviolent, never posed a serious challenge to the country’s security services (though it could make townships ungovernable). As a result, the final bargain reflected that balance of power, and the wholesale reconstruction of the economy to right the wrongs of apartheid was never a realistic option.

Even after the political deal had been cut, Mandela’s presidency was only a partial success — though he did face enormous political and economic challenges and much greater legal and constitutional constraints than his apartheid predecessors. During his single term as president, Mandela left the conduct of government increasingly to his deputy and successor, Mbeki. Together they maintained warm relations with notorious human rights violators such as Fidel Castro, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yasser Arafat — all of whom had supported the African National Congress (ANC) during the struggle to end apartheid. Like many others at the time, Mandela and Mbeki also underestimated the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS and were slow to take action. Mbeki, especially, was reluctant to accept the scientific explanation for the disease, and as a result the expansion of treatment by state health services was delayed. (Once out of office — following the death of his son from HIV/AIDS in 2005 — Mandela came around, calling publicly for a more open approach to fighting the epidemic.)

The mythology that has sprung up around Mandela as a champion of nonviolence is also somewhat misleading. The father of democratic South Africa was not always a dove. During the anti-apartheid struggle, he co-founded the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, for short). Mandela launched a guerrilla war against the state in 1961. Initially, he later recalled in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, MK’s purpose was to rally the townships against apartheid, and its focus was on sabotage of government facilities, not killings. It was on sabotage charges that Mandela was later convicted and sent to prison.

At the time of his trial, Mandela justified the MK’s tactics as a legitimate response to the apartheid state’s use of violence against its own citizens, as well as its banning of the ANC and its refusal to enter into meaningful dialogue about change. If understandable in the context of the times, the decision to take up arms was nonetheless fateful. It allowed the South African government to label the ANC a terrorist organization (a conclusion also reached by the United States) and foreclosed for many years open political dialogue between the liberation movements and the apartheid state.

The MK also sought and received weapons and other support from the Soviet Union, which viewed the apartheid state as part of the hostile Western bloc and was ideologically opposed to racism — at least outside its empire. This tied the liberation movement to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and may have had the paradoxical effect of strengthening apartheid hard-liners. The result was heightened repression and, potentially, a delay in the ultimate dismantling of apartheid. The liberation movements also received support from other sources, especially Scandinavia. Nevertheless, only the end of the Cold War could convince many whites that it was possible to negotiate with the ANC.

When, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government in Pretoria finally signaled it wanted a dialogue with the liberation movements, however, Mandela was quick to seize the opportunity. If he had been a hawk, he became a dove when he saw that doing so could hasten the end of apartheid. What struck many as extraordinary was his utter lack of bitterness toward his former jailers. That went a long way toward facilitating a success at the negotiating table and paving the way for South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

"Mandela’s Legacy Lives On Under the ANC."

Yes, but it is increasingly coming under attack. Mandela is rightly celebrated for presiding over South Africa’s transformation from apartheid state to multiracial democracy under the rule of law. Under his leadership, South Africa did not follow in the footsteps of Algeria (where in the aftermath of a bloody independence struggle, the European tenth of the population fled to France) or Mozambique (where almost all the Portuguese population left after independence was won). Instead, Mandela’s presidency was characterized by racial reconciliation, especially with white Afrikaners, which he shrewdly promoted through the use of symbols. For example, he famously supported the predominately white national rugby team when it won the world championship in 1995 and took tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the chief architect of apartheid, in the same year. He also avoided both ANC and black African triumphalism; there was no wholesale change in Afrikaner place names.

Mandela’s commitment to the rule of law was unwavering. Apartheid may have been a crime against humanity, but there would be no extralegal revolutionary justice in South Africa, as there was in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe with disastrous consequences. Instead, there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that offered amnesty in return for confession. Its beneficiaries included MK operatives as well as members of the security services that upheld the apartheid system. Mandela assiduously observed the new, post-apartheid constitution, which enshrined the strongest protections for individual and minority rights anywhere in the world. (Alone among African states, South Africa permits same-sex marriage, though much of the population remains homophobic.)

But both racial reconciliation and the rule of law have come under attack today — in no small part because they are associated with the continued impoverishment of the black majority. (Indeed, Mugabe has accused Mandela of being more c
oncerned about whites than about blacks.) Land reform — for many blacks, an emotional issue — has proceeded at a snail’s pace, at least in part because of the strength of South Africa’s property rights protections (though shortage of government funding is the primary cause of the delay). In response to growing frustrations, especially in the townships, Julius Malema, once the head of the ANC’s Youth League, called in 2011 for the expropriation of white property without compensation. The ANC’s national disciplinary committee expelled Malema for indiscipline over the comments, but his calls for populist land reform still resonate in some townships and rural areas. Many South Africans believe that Mandela too often subordinated the interests of the black majority to those of the white majority, even if they were reluctant to express it openly so long as the former president was alive.

Against this backdrop, some in the ANC are challenging the independence of the judiciary. In the spring of 2013, there were calls for the judiciary to be subordinated to the democratically elected executive. This took the form of a state secrets bill initially promoted by President Jacob Zuma’s administration. Zuma later backed away from the bill, claiming it did not "pass constitutional muster." The bill would have potentially reduced government transparency by tightening the classification of government information as state secrets and weakening protections for whistleblowers. Some feared the bill would stifle criticism of the government and facilitate corruption.

Yet throughout all this, Mandela remained supportive of the ANC, even as it descended into patronage politics and crony capitalism. Perhaps South Africa’s greatest challenge today is to preserve the rule of law and the independence of its judiciary — essential ingredients of Mandela’s legacy — in the face of rising populism and the abiding impoverishment of the majority of the population.

"South Africa Today Is a ‘Rainbow Nation’ of Racial Equality."

Hardly. Throughout his struggle against apartheid — before, during, and after his incarceration at Robben Island — Mandela’s dream for South Africa was a nonracial, democratic "rainbow nation." This, and the rule of law, were cornerstones to his agenda. Although there are signs that popular attitudes are beginning to evolve in a more democratic and less racially conscious direction, both racial identity and racism remain fixtures of South African life. Survey data indicates that South Africans of all age groups and races think that "non-racialism" and "greater integration" are unlikely to occur in their generation. At the same time, interracial marriage remains rare, ranging from 1 to 4 percent of the population under the age of 35, depending on the racial group. The reality is that apartheid has been replaced by self-segregation, with many South Africans living in separate, remarkably disconnected spheres.

An astonishing 43.5 percent of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race, according to one 2012 survey. Only about half reported interacting with people of a different race frequently on weekdays, and less than 20 percent regularly socialized with people of other races. As in the United States, racial interaction does increase as you climb the socioeconomic ladder. The black middle class interacts with other races, but largely because whites continue to control the economy. Many of those who rarely speak to people of differing races are rural or township dwellers with limited mobility — people whose social isolation simply mirrors the country’s starkly racial geography.

Race also remains the most important predictor of voting behavior in South Africa. Despite the historically inclusive character of the governing ANC and Mandela’s policy of racial reconciliation, most of the party’s support comes from blacks. Of late, it has recruited few new leaders from other races. The opposition Democratic Alliance, meanwhile, is the party of choice of most whites and "coloreds" (people of mixed racial origin who consider themselves a distinct racial group). The Democratic Alliance has actively sought to attract black supporters — particularly from the new black middle class — and is recruiting high-profile nonwhite leadership, including Lindiwe Mazibuko, the party’s leader in Parliament, in order to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters. It remains to be seen, however, whether it can succeed in reaching across racial lines. Ominously, survey data indicates that people under age 35 are less likely than older people to participate in multiracial party politics.

Nineteen years after the arrival of "nonracial democracy," racism continues to be a reality about which many are reluctant to speak. Crude racism among whites continues, especially in rural areas, even if it is no longer acceptable in elite company. A more subtle form of racism doubtlessly colors white interaction with blacks in much the same way as it does in other societies divided by race, including in the United States.

Critics of Mandela’ s successors — Mbeki and Zuma — often accuse them of pandering to or exploiting black racism against whites for their own political advantage. Zuma, who has embraced a form of Afro-populism, has even performed militant anti-apartheid songs like "Bring Me My Machine Gun" — a far cry from the spirit of Mandela. Recently, South Africa has also seen the wholesale replacement of Afrikaner place names — East Rand is now Ekurhuleni, Durban is eThekwini, Pretoria is Tshwane, and Pietersburg is Polokwane, to name but a few — usually at the initiative of local governments controlled by the ANC. While not overtly racist, the practice is insensitive to Afrikaners and was something Mandela avoided. The former president’s rainbow nation remains elusive.

"Class Divides South Africa More Than Race."

True, but only because class breaks down largely along racial lines. The deal that Mandela brokered with de Klerk to end apartheid was political and did not address restructuring the economy to address the legacy of apartheid. This, for most black South Africans, did little to change the status quo. However, the establishment of democratic institutions left open for the future the restructuring of the economy, always subject to the rule of law.

In today’s South Africa, however, it is commonly accepted that class is replacing race as the most important social division. In the 2012 survey cited earlier, 25 percent of South Africans polled identified the gap between rich and poor as the most important social fault line, while only 13 percent identified race. Proponents of this view often cite the emergence of the small, black middle class — mostly employed in the public sector — and a few high-
profile black millionaires as evidence of 20 years of progress.

But a handful of black millionaires does not a post-racial society make. The difference in wealth between the racial groups in today’s South Africa remains stark. Indeed, racial inequality between whites and blacks has actually increased since the end of apartheid, not decreased. Meanwhile, access to education and medical services for black South Africans is on par with the rest of Africa, while for whites it approaches that of the developed world. The average lifespan for a black South African is less than 50 years; for a white South African, it’s around 70 years.

At the same time, racial classification remains a crucial administrative tool. Since 2006, the Labor Department has required larger private companies (those with 50 employees or more) to classify their workers by race using the former apartheid categories — white, colored, black, and Indian or Asian. Paradoxically, apartheid definitions are used to implement Black Economic Empowerment, a type of affirmative action for those disadvantaged under the previous regime.

Still, there are signs of modest progress. The presence of black South Africans at formerly segregated institutions no longer excites comment. Multiracial public integration is a reality that enhances black self-esteem and helps shape how South Africans see each other. It represents an important part of Mandela and the ANC’s legacy.

"South Africa Is a Rising Star."

Not yet. Perhaps the starkest reminder of how far South Africa has yet to travel is its citizens’ abysmally low life expectancy. While there are significant racial disparities, the overall life expectancy for South Africans in 2007 was 50 years, down from 62 in 1990. To put this in perspective, South Africa’s supposed peers among the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) all boast life expectancies of 65 or higher. Compared with the developed world, the difference is staggering. The life expectancy for Swedes and Australians is 81; for Britons, it’s 79; and for Americans, 78.

How to account for the overall low life expectancy? HIV/AIDS is undoubtedly the biggest factor, though certainly not the only one. It was only toward the end of the Mbeki administration in 2007 that the country developed effective HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs. In 2010, it was estimated that 5.24 percent of the population was HIV-positive, rising to 17.3 percent for those between the ages of 15 and 49.

But HIV/AIDS is by no means the only reason that South Africans can expect to live substantially shorter lives than their counterparts in the developed world. Poor medical care, limited education, and crippling poverty — which affects diet, housing, and even the quality of child care — all take their toll on ordinary South Africans, particularly blacks. South Africa also retains some of the world’s highest crime and murder rates, both of which negatively impact life expectancy.

South Africa’s economy is also much smaller than those of its BRIC partners. Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term BRIC in a 2001 paper, long contended that South Africa does not qualify as a BRIC country. He only recently changed his stance, stating that South Africa has a role to play as a potential conduit between the BRIC countries and the African continent. However, South Africa’s population (48 million people in 2013) and economy ($578.6 billion in 2012) pale in comparison with those of the BRIC countries. For example, Russia’s population stands at 142.5 million people and its GDP clocked in at $ 2.053 trillion in 2012.

South Africa also continues to struggle with labor issues, particularly in the mining sector. Labor unions are politically active, but wages for miners remain low, poor conditions are the norm, and strikes are rampant. Last year, wildcat strikes at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine turned violent and left 44 people dead.

* * *

In the face of these continuing challenges, however, the core of Mandela’s legacy of nonracial democracy endures. At the time of Mandela’s inauguration, whites generally viewed apartheid as a failure, but few of them saw it as evil. By 2012, in contrast, 83.8 percent of South Africans (of all races) reported seeing apartheid as a crime against humanity. (The proportion of white South Africans that shared these views was smaller, but still significant at 68 percent.)

At the same time, South Africa’s public sphere has become genuinely multiracial and "African" in style. Whites may own much of the media, but the faces in advertisements and on television reflect the demographics of the country. The government agencies with which most people regularly come into contact — the post office, the police, customs and immigration, agricultural extension experts — have also come to mirror the demographics of the country. Repression is over. Human rights are protected by the law. Freedom of speech is absolute — for now. These are major democratic achievements and perhaps Mandela’s most significant legacy.

South Africa today owes more to Mandela than to any other individual. His efforts to bring about nonracial democracy and to achieve racial reconciliation have shaped the promise of modern South Africa. His iconic status is ensured, despite his use of violence during the anti-apartheid struggle, his failure to respond adequately to the HIV/AIDS epidemic while in office, and his uncritical support for the ANC, even in the face of mounting evidence that it was straying from the path he laid down.

In the wake of Mandela’s death, South Africans will be reflecting on his legacy and assessing the future of their "beloved country." Like George Washington in the United States, Nelson Mandela is unquestionable the father of his country. As Washington has been for Americans, his achievements and the myths that already surround his life will be a source of strength for South Africans as they face the challenges of building a nonracial democracy.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy research at the Council on Foreign Relations. A career foreign service officer, he served as ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. His most recent book is Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy With the Postcolonial World.

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