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South Africans mourne and celebrate the life of former president Nelson Mandela shortly after his passing. (Stephane de Sakutin, AFP)
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Nelson Mandela is
increasingly but wrongly blamed for South Africa’s current government
failures, inability to redress continuing apartheid-era inequalities between
black and white and rising racial tension.
A particular charge
made against Mandela is that he during the negotiations for a democratic South
Africa (Codesa) gave away too much to the ancien regime, entrenched white
privilege in the public, private and society sectors and because of
constitutional compromises made it difficult for subsequent governments to
Firstly, Mandela did
not singlehandedly negotiate on behalf of the ANC with the National Party. Although the leader of the ANC, he was part of an ANC collective.
For another, the ANC
negotiating collective consisted of a broad front, the Mass Democratic
Movement, consisting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu),
South African Communist Party (SACP) and civil society organisations that were
part of the then disbanded United Democratic Front (UDF), the internal alliance
of the resistance against apartheid from the mid-1980s onwards.
Within the ANC, let
alone among the different formations within the front, there were strongly held
views on constitutional negotiation policies. ANC negotiators had to consult
with them and policy positions frequently changed, hardened or watered-down,
depending on the demands of the affiliates within the broad ANC front.
Therefore, Mandela, in
spite of his political gravitas could not force his personal views down on such
diverse groups. For another, Mandela was at heart a consensus-seeking leader,
and therefore, sought consensus on almost all contentious negotiations issues
within the broader ANC alliance.
With the hand he was
dealt by history, Mandela made his contribution within his capabilities, within
his context and within his own sphere of influence – which was albeit wide. The
rest is our responsibility.
Nevertheless, blaming Mandela for our current faults conveniently
shifts introspection from the mistakes that the ANC and leaders subsequently
made in power.
Blaming Mandela for
all that has gone wrong, is to give others – the ANC leadership, business and
civil society – a free pass on what they could have done better, and to ultimately
shirk responsibility from what we can do as individuals to make change happen.
Mandela’s historic contribution to the
infant democracy was to help cobble together a broad-based consent for the new constitutional
democratic order. The Mandela era will
indelibly be associated with the early formative years of the new democracy:
the new policy-making process, building the new democratic institutions, the
legislative overhauls, and the early trust building – so essential – between
the different groups who once stared at each other over the barrel of a gun.
Throughout the transition, his leadership
helped to maintain the black and poor majority's trust and loyalty towards the
ANC and for the new democratic order, as well as ease the fears of the
predominantly white middle class, business and society frightened of black
Mandela was South Africa’s first national
leader with cross-racial appeal, trusted by large majorities of all ethnic
groups. This was crucial in the transition to bring suspicious blacks and
whites together across the divides. Mandela’s catch-all embrace is the reason
why he contemporarily can be so many things to so many people.
Mandela is no longer an ANC symbol.
Mandela is a South African symbol.
He left behind a crucial historical
endowment for the future: a leader who groups that fought each other over
centuries can jointly own. When forging together divided peoples, like the case
in South Africa, it is crucial that there are uniting founding fathers and
mothers which all conflicting groups readily embrace.
He also left South Africa a golden standard
of leadership we can refer back to, when current and future leadership fails. Mandela
espoused leadership that is both
ethical and honest, a sense of duty, and governance according to the values of
the democratic constitution and in the interests of the widest number of people
rather than for personal enrichment or the interests of a small elite, ethnic
group or political faction.
He spent almost three decades
imprisoned by the apartheid regime for his political activism against the
brutal system. His ability to overcome his personal anger, bitterness and
resentment to his former oppressors for a life lost, and partner with them to
build a new more inclusive, just and equitable society, gives us an example of
almost un-human individual compromise for the greater good of society.
Mandela is also the father of our
constitutional dispensation. Mandela, extraordinarily unlike most African
independence leaders and his ANC peers, firmly believed in democratic
constitutional governance, even while he was a liberation fighter.
More recently there has been
criticism, wrongly, of provisions of the Constitution that it allegedly
undermines redress policies. Yet, the Constitution provides rules within which
we govern, exercise power and resolve societal conflicts – and with ample space
to pursue redress of historical wrongs.
nationalism was far more embracing and inclusive and non-racial in outlook than
the narrow Africanism, populism and tribalism espoused by many leaders in the
ANC today. Mandela, while a fierce opponent of apartheid, was also a fierce
opponent of the abuses, corruption and autocratic behaviour exhibited by fellow
black leaders. For him, black solidarity stopped when his fellow black leaders
behaved undemocratically or were corrupt or uncaring.
Mandela showed that individuals can make a difference. To follow
Mandela’s example, individuals must become more involved in public activities,
whether it is sitting on school boards, attending meetings of local
municipalities or supporting community organisations and charities with money
Government failure at
multiple levels has prompted many citizens to withdraw where possible from
using public services. Those who can afford go private, and do not use
crumbling state hospitals or schools; they employ private security, instead of
relying on the undependable police.
But many citizens who
care deeply about South Africa are also now increasingly withdrawing from
democratic activities and public life, understandably to focus inwards to
personal, immediate family and group interests.
They often argue as
individuals there is little they can do to change the rising corruption,
indifference and lack of accountability by government and elected officials.
Some white South Africans
perceive, because of their "whiteness" they are not wanted in,
neither can they influence public life, dominated by a predominantly black ANC
government and elected representatives. Yet again, some black South Africans
argue as individuals they are powerless, because they are not politically,
socially or through family connected to the small ruling elite dominating the
As paradoxical as it may sound, with government and elected
representatives increasingly failing to perform their public duties, individuals, non-government actors and
civil society organisations will have to not only double efforts to hold
government and elected representatives accountable; they will also have to fill
the public service delivery gap left by government and elected representatives’
In fact, as government
and public representatives disappoint, we urgently need a more social role for
individual citizens, to counter such failure. Social solidarity with
disadvantaged individuals from whatever colour must underpin the new social
role for individual South Africans. Social solidarity across race will not only
help break racial barriers and distrust, but it will lead to social stability,
and help foster a common South Africanness.
Not only would such a
new social activism slowly, but surely help build the South Africa of our
dreams, it will also bring individuals new positive meaning and purpose to
their own lives.
In practical terms, forming lobby groups to protest for example,
anything from potholes to corrupt policemen or laws that does not make sense.
Make sure that such groups have members of other race groups also: such issues
affect all, no matter race. As individuals we must support organisations on
issues that we believe in: if a trade union criticises something you agree
with, support it, even if you may not support the trade union per se.
But individuals must shame, shun and protest corrupt government
and elected officials in their families, communities and social life, and
support honest ones.
Skilled South Africans
who want to could help in poorer communities. Volunteering to teach in a poor
school, whether it is teaching mathematics, life skills or a sporting skill,
will make a difference. Mentoring a
poor child in a poor household, "adopting" a child’s education in the
township or "adopting" a poor township family, by regularly helping
and getting involved in their lives will make a difference.
Or more practically,
if possible, give your domestic worker or gardener practical skills – driving,
reading and writing or first aid; or paying for the education of their children
will change lives for the better. More well-resourced schools can adopt or twin
with poor township schools.
Companies could push
for more sustainable forms of empowerment, such as giving their ordinary
employees shares in their companies, instead of signing deals with politically
connected individuals. Companies and groups of companies in a sector must in a
different kind of BEE, train artisans – plumbers, boilermakers, electricians en
Companies could, like
those in post-Second World War South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, provide their
employees with skills, housing and bursaries for their children. But
members and supporters of all political parties must become more active in
holding their leaders accountable and elect more responsible leaders.
In the absence of responsible government and elected leaders
corporate, civil and church leaders must show exemplary leadership, as alternative
models of responsible leadership. Mandela would have wanted us to lead within
our own sphere of influence.
- William Gumede is
Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. He
edited and wrote the introduction the updated edition of Mandela: No Easy Walk to Freedom (Tafelberg, 2013). A shortened
version of this article was originally published in
Wits University's research magazine, Curiosity.
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