Former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, June 2, 2009. (AP Photo/Pool-Theana Calitz-Bilt, Pool)
I returned home to South Africa a few days before Nelson Mandela was readmitted to hospital. This is the fifth and longest period he has been under observation by doctors since last December, and many here are convinced this may be his final visit. Mandela has not been active in South African politics for at least a decade, but he remains a potent symbol of the promise of the “rainbow nation.” The anxiety is apparent—especially in the media: What will happen when Mandela goes? Andrew Mlangeni, who served more than two decades with Mandela on Robben Island prison, told a Sunday newspaper that South Africans had to release Mandela spiritually and let him go. Most ordinary South Africans have resigned themselves to that fact and are saying their goodbyes, though some wish he’d stay with us a bit longer. School children and clerics turn up at the hospital to pray for him and leave messages. Though some in the press wanted to turn the lack of detailed updates by government spokespeople on Mandela’s condition into a “press freedom” issue and a scandal, local TV and radio coverage is mostly somber.
Even as the vigil continues, South Africans debate Mandela’s legacy and the history he so powerfully embodies. For example, despite Mandela’s lifelong membership in the governing African National Congress, these days an opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (a largely white political party which governs Cape Town and the surrounding province and commands only 20 percent of the national vote) claims it—and not the ANC—is Mandela’s true heir. It has even released advertisements with Mandela’s image and have been pilloried for inventing history (though the campaign seemed to have galvanized their supporters). President Jacob Zuma, who is also the leader of the ANC, corrected them: “The way he is being portrayed by the DA is as if Madiba was born in 1994—there was no life before.”
But one can see why the DA cannot help but overreach. Mandela is the most recognizable figure in twentieth-century South African, and perhaps world, history. In the popular imagination, both at home and abroad, he is as close as our world gets to a saint. Mandela personifies the narrative of the righteous struggle against legal apartheid, as well as the supposed miracle of racial reconciliation at the twentieth century’s end. This is a tremendous story, and a good deal of it is true. South Africa today is dramatically different than the one Mandela re-entered from prison in 1990. It has a black government, a growing black middle class, vibrant media, stable and vital democratic freedoms (with three sets of free elections and counting) and a growing economy.
Mandela can take credit for convincing white South Africans of the virtues of liberal democracy, thus ensuring the economy’s stability in the wake of 1994, if at the cost of preserving the white population’s disproportionate wealth and influence. Subsequent presidents have continued in this vein. Despite an initially heavily armed white population (and the persistence of racist views among some whites), today race makes little political turbulence. To be sure, some whites gripe about discrimination and “reverse racism” and organize themselves in “civil society organizations” (like the Afrikaner-led organizations Afriforum and Solidarity, which, among other things, oppose renaming streets and affirmative action). But in general white South Africans have never been more prosperous, mobile and free.
A recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations—a frequent critic of the ANC government—concluded that whites are actually doing way better than expected since the end of apartheid. A separate study revealed that the majority of CEOs and managers are still white, and Africa Check, a South African version of factcheck.org, corrected inflated statistics about white poverty (touted by Afrikaner interest groups): “The claim that 400,000 whites are living in squatter camps is grossly inaccurate. If that were the case, it would mean that roughly 10% of South Africa’s 4.59-million whites were living in abject poverty. Census figures suggest that only a tiny fraction of the white population—as little as 7,754 households—are affected.” So white South Africans are doing very well in post-Mandela South Africa, and many are therefore anxious about what will happen to them when Madiba passes.