Nelson Mandela Square can be found in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, an asphalted enclave of vast shopping centers and tinted office blocks. A generation ago, during the era of apartheid, the New York Times correspondent Joseph Lelyveld likened the place’s aesthetic to “Dallas-on-the-veld.” It’s only gotten wealthier, glassier and more garish since then, as South Africa has undergone a thoroughgoing metamorphosis. White rule has given way to black governance, repression has been replaced by tremulous coexistence, economic sanctions have fallen and Sandton has become, arguably, the nation’s true nerve center. Corporations, banks and even the national stock exchange have moved there, taking flight from Johannesburg’s decaying downtown. Though an air of danger looms over much of the city–South Africa’s murder rate is six times that of the United States, and burglaries and carjackings are rampant–rich people, and especially rich white people, have found a relative haven in Sandton, hunkering down inside fortified luxury homes. Nelson Mandela Square is a centerpiece of the suburb, and by extension, this new South Africa. It is both a monument to a founding father, and, not secondarily, a well-guarded mall filled with expensive boutiques.
Malls occupy an important place in the social life of contemporary Johannesburg; in a walled and wary metropolis, they are precious islands of public space. On weekday evenings, the cafes that fringe Nelson Mandela Square’s pleasant outdoor piazza, constructed atop a parking garage several stories above street level, are full of relaxing office workers and bargaining businessmen, whites and blacks united in South Africa’s renewed common purpose, moneymaking. Looming over the brick expanse is a twenty-foot bronze statue of Mandela. The sculpture–a poor likeness, if truth be told–depicts South Africa’s first black president in a clench-fisted pose, as if readying to box or dance. As they pass in and out of the mall, shoppers and tourists often stop to touch the statue. In their devotion, they have rubbed it shiny in patches.
The monumental figure of Mandela–a man once imprisoned as a terrorist and now venerated like a patron saint–cannot help but dominate any discussion of South Africa’s contemporary history. Madiba, as he is affectionately called by his countrymen, turned 91 this year and is increasingly sheltered from the public eye. But he remains a living symbol of South Africa’s great achievement. As I write, the nation is rushing to finish its preparations for the 2010 World Cup, an event that is likely to double as an international celebration of South Africa’s peaceful transition from a white supremacist state to a multicultural democracy. From the far side of the abyss, it’s worth casting a look back and reflecting on just how perilous this passage was. At the conclusion of his damning book Move Your Shadow, published in 1985, Lelyveld wrote:
The question, it seemed to me, was not whether there would be violence in South Africa but whether there would ever be an end to it. There are lots of ugly possibilities of what could happen along the way to make self-fulfilling the whites’ prophecies of disaster after power slips from their hands. There could be an Argentine-style junta, possibly with a brown or black front man, to bid for Western support. Eventually the whole society could implode on itself as in Northern Ireland or Lebanon. Or, worst of all for the present ruling minority, blacks could govern according to the values that whites have displayed. It is also possible to fantasize a reasonably open and stable society that, having removed the cancer of racial law, begins to fulfill the country’s enormous promise as a model for Africa and the world. Those who now hold power have been hearing about that dreamy possibility from blacks, wayward whites, and interfering do-gooders from outside for decades, and occasionally now, to flatter the outsiders and themselves, they pretend to believe in it. But they don’t, not for a moment. That is why apartheid existed in the first place and why it still survives.
At the time Lelyveld made this prognosis, many South Africans (black and white) presumed that apartheid might conceivably endure for decades. Instead, five years later Mandela was released from prison, and an improbable scenario began to unfold. Confounding the cynics, the African National Congress, Mandela’s movement, took power through a process of negotiation, and governed compromisingly. In politics the party struck a tone of racial inclusiveness; in economics it favored a market-based pragmatism. As for dealing with past injustices, it created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Over the course of a few heady years, Mandela won his divided nation’s love and the admiring world’s acclaim, making himself into an idol and an impossible act to follow.