After Mandela: Mzansi one year on

2014-12-07 15:00

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

What would democracy’s founding president think of SA a year after his passing? Ferial Haffajee makes the first-anniversary assessment

It’s been a year already. One year since the earth shook under our feet, when the founding father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela, died. It felt like one of those moments when you hold your breath to see what happens next.

This was not in the way of that ridiculous meme “When Mandela goes...”, which underwrote a thousand anxieties in white hearts as it predicted anomie and murder. No.

I wondered about the texture of our nation with the loss of the incredible man who had defined our spot in Africa and the world; who had set a nation’s course by avoiding wars of attrition by separatists.

It may seem the unlikeliest of prospects, given that the separatist dream has coalesced only in the harmless hamlet of Orania in Free State, but back then there was a real danger our destiny might have been like Ukraine is today, or like the two perpetually fractured and fractious Sudans. Madiba bequeathed us a nation state and we proceeded to fill it with energy and life.

Ours is a healthy democracy. On the first anniversary of his death, if there is one person who exemplifies the spirit of the founding father, it is Thuli Madonsela. Like him, the Public Protector is a class act. A consummate politician, she knows how to use the media (like him, she has us eating out of her hands) and her leadership is firmly grounded in law and principles.

In us, the people, Madiba leaves his best legacy. To witness the July fever of giving and doing for others suggests a nation that has imbibed the legacy he meant for us: we think of others. A global giving report in City Press two weeks ago revealed that South Africa was high up on the global scale of generosity.

We are also notoriously and unstoppably tjatjarag and cheeky; firmly invested in our democracy and endlessly questioning everything. While Mandela is capped globally as a peacemaker and peace seeker, his first identity was as a questioner. As a young man, he dodged his ordained destiny and later, as ANC leader, he led his movement through periods of profound change and asked the tough questions.

The Public Protector’s office is an example of a further legacy: that of the rule of law and of a democracy girded by institutions. The judiciary is in fine fettle. This week, the Supreme Court of Appeal extended the sentence of Fidentia fraudster J Arthur Brown and found for Vaal environmentalists against ArcelorMittal; the North Gauteng High Court stung Police Minister Nathi Nhleko and said the public was entitled to a full list of national key points.

The state has used apartheid-era national key points legislation to block access to information and to limit protest. The Auditor-General’s office, the SA Revenue Service and the Treasury work, and they work well.

Another legacy is in our style and arts. Mandela was endlessly stylish and was a muse for many a model, artist and writer. If you look carefully, it is in culture that South Africa has found its true north. If a figure represents his spirit, then it is the comedic genius of Trevor Noah, who has now gone global like Mandela, and in media it is Redi Tlhabi’s radio and writing smarts. Our arts community, with its edgy touch, pushes boundaries that find a spot on the global stage in film, literature and music.

Too often, we define ourselves by the quality of our politicians, but this can be a depressing exercise.

The pioneering spirit of Mandela is increasingly to be found in spheres and sectors outside of politics.

It’s an alternative but optimistic way to look at South Africa a year after the death of a colossus.

But it is unavoidable to look at how our standards have slipped. Lately, I don’t take the little shampoos and hand creams from hotel rooms like I used to. This was after listening to Madiba’s beloved aide, Zelda la Grange, relate a story. Madiba was travelling and had been put in the best suite by his hosts. The toiletries were Bulgari. He didn’t use them. On his return from an engagement, a bar of soap was gone.

The only people who had been in his room were his staff. Incensed, he asked La Grange to get then national police commissioner Jackie Selebi on the line. He wanted his detail fired. Then and there. Why? They had “stolen” free soap and it was unacceptable to him.

Aides talked Madiba out of this and he ended up lecturing his staff on why theft and corruption start with a bar of soap. If the person returned it, the incident would be forgotten. The soap was returned; the lesson was never forgotten.

How our moral fortunes have slipped this year.

Corruption is a flood. It is hollowing out the nation state that has been the greatest gift of democracy. Any number of media exposés have little impact – the compact and impact that investigative journalism generally enjoys is shattered. The Public Protector’s reports are wilfully ignored or filibustered through the courts by shameless charlatans.

In this, Madiba’s inheritance of a moral stature has been squandered by the party that made him. And so, while the ANC was a party with a huge footprint under Mandela and his predecessor, OR Tambo, it is now a shadow of itself. Its stance is now defensive and not open. It is spoken about not in awe, but in brawl.

The party also fails to make a dent on the global stage. The 2015 edition of The Economist devotes half a line to South Africa. Look at its cover and see how Nigeria’s leaders have overtaken South Africa’s as the continent’s superpower.

At the AU, chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has run a disappointing term and seems unlikely to seek another. Mandela left a place setting in the world; Thabo Mbeki then gamely took the baton, but now that geopolitical spot has been filled by others.

As we learnt in the celebrations of the ANC’s centenary in 2012, it is a party that ebbs and flows. It has highs and lows. It had poor leaders and great ones.

In impact, influence and stature, it has been big and small. Perhaps it is in a slow phase now, but recent successive efforts at renewal and regeneration have failed. This raises the question of whether Mandela’s party can grasp the nettle of governance. Even he found it hard.

Perhaps it’s easy to emerge from 27 years in jail as a hero and serve only one term as president. Perhaps it’s a stretch to even compare Mandela to the leaders who followed. Great leaders nearly always overshadow their successors and poor ones always make those who follow them look good.

We have survived a year after his passing, if not thrived. But have we thrived? A year is too short to assess the spirit and wellbeing of the nation. Ten years will be a rigorous and realistic marker. The Piscean sentimentalist in me says the ANC will rejuvenate, and politics will restructure sufficiently to end an era of rot and greed. We’ll be fine. The hard-nosed editor predicts the opposite. We are in for a time of decline.

Picture: RCP Media / Hulton Archive


If there’s one area where we have performed pathetically, it is in defining the Constitution’s dream of a nonracial future and how we get there.

The poor man must be turning in his grave at this.

This week’s reconciliation barometer by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation reveals that young, white South Africans know and care less about apartheid or its lingering legacy. Violent racist attacks, largely by whites on blacks, are growing apace.

In business and management circles, the rule of empowerment dons, without any real grounding in the struggle against apartheid or an appreciation of the constitutional principles of non-racialism, is intent on majority domination rather than a fair representation of the economy, which is at the heart of the clauses Mandela and his team inserted into the Constitution.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.