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South Africa and Madiba's uncertain legacy

By David Robinson - posted Monday, 9 December 2013

Nelson Mandela inspired many millions of people around the world throughout the course of his life, his 27 years spent in prison embodying the sacrifices and determination of South Africans who each fought Apartheid in their own manner. After years of declining health he died peacefully on Thursday evening at the age of 95, his passing now commemorated by world leaders from South Africa's own Jacob Zuma, to America's Barak Obama and China's Xi Jinping. Most without hesitation classify him as a great historical figure, and a moral leader comparable to other twentieth century icons like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Hidden beneath the tidal flow of praise is both the West's own historical relationship with Mandela (the CIA helped have Mandela arrested in the 1960s and Margaret Thatcher maintained he was a terrorist, while Pretoria's Apartheid government was hailed as a loyal Western ally), and the reality of modern South Africa in which the population still suffers from the world's highest levels of inequality despite the African National Congress's long-professed socialist ideology and alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP). The racial hierarchy of wealth developed since South Africa's colonisation remains mostly undisturbed, and the wealthy elite were virtually unaffected by the end of Apartheid.

Mandela was personally involved in many of the most important moments of resistance to Apartheid. He helped to form the ANC Youth League in 1944, led the 1952 non-violent Defiance Campaign, and convene the Congress of the People that developed the ANC Freedom Charter. Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 he created the ANC's armed wing (Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Nation) to carry out sabotage against South African infrastructure, with the plan of escalating to guerrilla warfare. As part of these activities he was arrested in 1962 and subsequently sentenced to life in jail.


In the 1970s South Africa began to face economic slow-down, combined with revitalised popular resistance, and a growing international divestment campaign. Township rebellions, union militancy, and burgeoning political organisation pushed the Botha government into a state of emergency, and began to scare away foreign investment. By the late 1980s it was clear that radical concessions would be necessary from the regime, and they entered into discussions with Mandela even as he remained imprisoned on Robben Island.

Mandela would thus be freed by F.W. de Klerk in February 1990 in order to negotiate the path from apartheid to majority-rule democracy. With South Africa facing the possibility of civil war Mandela sought reconciliation with the white minority, receiving the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and leading the ANC to victory in the 1994 multiracial elections. Mandela was personally integral to the peaceful transition from apartheid to the new Rainbow Nation. His election hailed the beginning of a new period of hope, with a highly progressive constitution written, the nation's demons faced through the Truth and Reconciliation process, and symbols of unity such a new national flag and anthem put in place.

But these changes also coincided with the end of the Cold War and the declaration of capitalism's triumph, symbolised by Francis Fukuyama's highly premature declaration of the End of History. South Africa's new liberal democracy would also embody the rigours of neoliberal economic orthodoxy, and the ANC's old visions of nationalising the wealth of the great South African companies would be abandoned. Despite a feeling of betrayal amongst many anti-Apartheid activists, the authority of the ANC and its SACP allies helped to seal these conditions of transition.

Although initially introducing the vaguely Keynesian 'Reconstruction and Development Program', the ANC soon accepted IMF Structural Adjustment conditions and by 1996 implemented its World Bank-supervised 'Growth, Employment and Redistribution' (GEAR) plan. Political Economist Patrick Bond argues that since then, "The reality is that South Africa has witnessed the replacement of racial apartheid with what is increasingly referred to as class apartheid - systemic underdevelopment and segregation of the oppressed majority through structured economic, political, legal, and cultural practices".

As Pretoria undertook measures to make big business happy, such as cutting corporate tax rates and restricting social spending, they oversaw an actual decline in the incomes of the average black African household. Poverty intensified as South Africa's rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Privatisation of services led to rising water and electricity prices, and increasing numbers of the nation's poorest being cut off from these services altogether. Millions of Africans have been evicted from their homes or land since 1994. Along with generally limited lack of access to medical services, South Africa's HIV crisis has also been left to continue with little government intervention.

While the biggest scandal in South Africa today is the appropriation of tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer's money by President Jacob Zuma for the construction of his personal residence, the more serious ongoing reality is one in which the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) says race and class are still interlinked, poverty has increased since liberation to 47 percent, and there are more than 10 million jobless people (with 70% of under-35-year-olds out of work). While there is generally a feeling that racial relations have improved, in the IJR's recent study "almost 40% of white South Africans surveyed disagreed with the statement: The apartheid government wrongly oppressed the majority of South Africans". Today in South Africa it is not that controversial to argue that the old freedom fighters of the ANC took over and perpetuated many of same oppressive social relations that they once opposed.


In recent years sparks of popular resistance in the form of Shack Dwellers' movements, and dissident politicians such as ANC youth leader Julius Malema, have demonstrated a widespread will to challenge the neoliberal paradigm. The recent Marikana massacre of 44 platinum-miners highlighted both growing labour militancy and the ANC's alienation from what was once their core constituency. In fighting for South Africa's future let us hope that the spirit of Mandela will live on - and inspire people to achieve better results than what has become his actual legacy.

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About the Author

Dr David Robinson is a Lecturer of History at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He completed his doctorate in African History in 2006, and now teaches courses on Global History, Human Rights and Genocide. His research focus is post-colonial Africa and Cold War conflict.

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