Nelson Mandela’s Missed Opportunity

South Africa’s former president had the chance to launch a massive program of regional economic integration but failed to seize it.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
People sit atop a yellow billboard featuring a photo of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress logo, and the slogan "Vote for Jobs, Peace and Freedom."
People sit atop a yellow billboard featuring a photo of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress logo, and the slogan "Vote for Jobs, Peace and Freedom."
African National Congress supporters sit atop a billboard while waiting for Nelson Mandela in a township just outside Durban before a preelection rally in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa, on April 16, 1994. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images

Late in former South African President Nelson Mandela’s historic career, my editors at the New York Times asked me to leave my assigned region of West and Central Africa and take up temporary residence in Johannesburg to report from there until another reporter arrived to take up a new assignment covering South Africa.

This was in 1995. The aged Mandela was already visibly slowing down, and this was already a time of intense jockeying over a future when people with his prestige and unassailable moral standing would no longer be running the country. As positive as my editors were about the way Mandela had governed after leading negotiations to end apartheid, some of my predecessors at the Times urged me to be on the lookout for what one of them called the return of “real Africa.”

That formula grated on me. I understood it to signify that South Africa was an outlier on its continent—a country that had built great wealth, albeit only for some, based on statutory and violent racial discrimination—and that there existed an alternate Africa where severe misrule and poverty were not just the norm but a more fixed, even permanent feature of life. The tip I had received was meant to alert me to the possibility that after the Mandela interlude, South Africa’s seeming exceptionalism might evaporate, turning it into a “normal” African country.

Late in former South African President Nelson Mandela’s historic career, my editors at the New York Times asked me to leave my assigned region of West and Central Africa and take up temporary residence in Johannesburg to report from there until another reporter arrived to take up a new assignment covering South Africa.

This was in 1995. The aged Mandela was already visibly slowing down, and this was already a time of intense jockeying over a future when people with his prestige and unassailable moral standing would no longer be running the country. As positive as my editors were about the way Mandela had governed after leading negotiations to end apartheid, some of my predecessors at the Times urged me to be on the lookout for what one of them called the return of “real Africa.”

That formula grated on me. I understood it to signify that South Africa was an outlier on its continent—a country that had built great wealth, albeit only for some, based on statutory and violent racial discrimination—and that there existed an alternate Africa where severe misrule and poverty were not just the norm but a more fixed, even permanent feature of life. The tip I had received was meant to alert me to the possibility that after the Mandela interlude, South Africa’s seeming exceptionalism might evaporate, turning it into a “normal” African country.

This is not a column about South Africa’s complicated and tragic racial history, nor about its equally unique post-apartheid political life as a democracy governed by a party, the African National Congress, that until only recently was strongly dominant. Those are rich topics for other occasions. Rather, this is a look at a road not taken by South Africa in the Mandela period and its immediate aftermath—and the weighty consequences, both economic and geopolitical, that flowed from the country’s choices in that era.

South Africa today is beset by two increasingly grave challenges, one of them long-standing and obvious and the other of more recent vintage and in its early phases. The first is the stark socioeconomic inequality that was baked into the formula of apartheid right from its origin and has not abated anywhere near the degree hoped for since the legal separation of the races ended. The second is a crisis of stalled economic growth that walls this inequality in, threatening the country’s future.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought on steep, temporary economic decline, South Africa had suffered a decade of very slow growth, its expansion measuring only 0.1 percent, for example, in 2019. As a frequent commenter on African economic life recently noted on Twitter, using data that conforms with World Bank figures, in 2010, South Africa’s GDP was 10 times higher than Kenya’s. Today, just over a decade later, it is only three times larger, prompting him to comment that “in twenty years it may just be another African country.”

Over the last decade or so, unemployment in South Africa has risen to shocking levels, as have other common symptoms of systemic crisis that some say hint at state failure: unchecked xenophobia against migrants from other African countries; the dismal inability of the national electrical power system to keep up with demand; and, more recently, soaring rates of violent crime.

What does any of this have to do with geopolitics and the choices of 1990s South Africa? Plenty. In terms of the country’s approach to the rest of the continent, the Mandela years were marked by two things: a thank-you tour to the many African countries that had supported South Africa’s long liberation struggle, often at considerable sacrifice, and diplomatic good offices aimed at helping end crises in other African countries, such as Mandela’s brokering of failed peace talks that I covered in 1997 between the Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila, the Rwandan-backed rebel leader who soon overthrew him.

These were both acts of statesmanship worthy of a figure like Mandela, but the grand thank-you-tour diplomacy also involved a widely overlooked strategic mistake that has been costly to Africa and hard to recover from. In his modesty, Mandela took pains not to appear to lecture other African countries about their political problems. He also took care not to play big brother in any way, meaning not to come off as the representative of a far richer and more economically diversified and capable country than almost any of the places he visited.

The appeal of this sort of humility is obvious and is consistent with Mandela’s overall classiness. It also reflected a misunderstanding of the intertwined workings of geostrategic opportunity and power, and it inflicted a huge loss of opportunity on both South Africa and its region.

A far better way for Mandela to express his appreciation for his neighbors’ support during apartheid would have been for South Africa to launch a massive program of deep economic integration with its region. South Africa had the combination of technology, economic development experience, and well-funded and competent companies to roll out its own miniature Marshall Plan for southern and Central Africa.

This should have included a huge increase in infrastructure building to modernize and expand road and rail networks—not just with the former British colonies among its close neighbors, but also as far north as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), as well as Angola and Mozambique. South Africa should have simultaneously led the creation of an enormous, integrated electricity-generation system for the region, catalyzing the construction of long-dreamed-of new hydrological dams on the Congo River, which could have ranked among the most powerful ever built. South African companies could have also led the way in expanding the then-still-new mobile phone networks that were proliferating on the continent.

Some obvious objections arise, but they are not hard to overcome. One is that as rich as 1990s South Africa was on a per capita basis compared to some of its neighbors, it had nothing like the kind of wealth needed for an undertaking like this based solely on its own finances. The other objection is that corporate South Africa then still almost exclusively meant white South Africa, and that neighboring African countries would scarcely have been enthusiastic about granting such access to new wealth to what had only so recently been a pillar of its neighbor’s white power structure. Improperly handled, Black South Africans too might have seen this as an unacceptable gift to their erstwhile oppressors.

The intervening years have amply shown that the best way to address South Africa’s most serious problems is by enlarging the proverbial cake of wealth and opportunity, rather than fighting over dwindling subdivisions. With political creativity and persistence, the concerns about South Africa’s inadequate financial means, as well as the possibility of concentrating yet more advantages in the hands of an entrenched white elite, might have unleashed strong solutions.

On the first score, Mandela should have invested more of his international prestige to push for international reparations and reconstruction funding for the entire region, pulling other African heads of state together in this effort. In the drive to build new networks of physical infrastructure, power, and communications, the Mandela government could have insisted on dramatically increased employment, training, and promotion opportunities for Black South Africans, contracts for Black-owned companies, and even equity positions for citizens in major companies that benefited from the huge new opportunities in project work. Efforts like these could have lastingly boosted national growth while also greatly increasing prosperity regionally.

What happened instead is instructive. Already by the early 2000s, it was becoming clear that if southern Africa was to become more integrated, this was going to occur under the impulsion not of a local power, South Africa, but rather of a foreign one: China. This should not be taken as an indictment of that country, which was seeking economic opportunities overseas to fuel its own continued growth and correctly perceived a vacuum in southern Africa.

Nevertheless, South Africa’s inability to move on that same opportunity has been costly. By becoming the lead network-builder in the region, China ensured that most of the profits would rebound to its own construction companies, manufacturers, and suppliers. With its long record of supporting white rule in South Africa, the West has often criticized China for its alleged predatory behavior in Africa; yet the West itself has demonstrated little political interest in and provided scant financial backing for helping Africa move forward economically.

South Africa, meanwhile, has turned inward as its economic situation has grown more difficult. It used to be that whites in South Africa spoke of the rest of Africa as if it were situated on a separate continent, but this, sadly, has now become common among many Black South Africans, too. Instead of seeking to build new wealth and employment opportunities far and wide beyond their own borders, many Black South Africans are lashing out at Africans from other countries who come to their land in search of work.

This is all part of a larger tragedy we can think of as the “African neighborhood dilemma.” All African states are held back to one extent or another by the poverty and weakness of their neighbors.

Nigeria is probably the best example of this. It is Africa’s demographic giant but a severe underperformer economically that is also beset by chronic poor governance. A much more prosperous Nigeria would radically improve the prospects of people throughout West Africa. Instead, economically, it is barely a factor in their lives, while politically, they must all silently weigh the consequences of its eventual failure or collapse.

Conversely, no matter how much good economic news one might get from countries such as Ghana or Ivory Coast, given their modest relative size, their impact on the welfare of the entire region will always be limited. And the same is true for South African neighbors such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola.

This is not a recipe for sitting on one’s hands and waiting for the continent’s largest states, many of which are locked in crisis or dysfunction, to get their acts together, though. To a degree that too few African leaders seem to grasp, the prospects for greater prosperity for the peoples of the continent depend on their countries building much stronger economic links with each other, something their colonizers rarely anticipated or promoted.

Some of South Africa’s advantages from the 1990s have dissipated, but in taking the lead in regional integration, late is still far better than never.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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