Last week, South Africans took pause to commemorate the defining chapter in their country’s history. Some twenty years ago, on Feb. 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from the Victor Vester Prison after 27 years of political captivity. His famed “long walk” back to public life foreshadowed the end of apartheid—the vicious social framework that had segregated and disenfranchised black South Africans for decades. Mandela offered his countrymen a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” and dedicated himself to making that dream a reality.
The original arbitror of hope and change, Nelson Mandela’s liberation made for international headlines, and ignited the sort of “where were you when…” buzz that defines a generation’s political perspective. The nation’s first democratically elected official came to power in a frenzy of optimism as the African National Congress catalyzed the “disciplined force of the left.”
To his credit, Mandela made good on his principal undertaking. He overwhelmed apartheid with a personal dignity that had endured his imprisonment. He spoke of resolution and forgiveness despite having spent the prime of his life behind bars for his political determination. In a show of good faith, he cut ties with the more radical elements of the ANC and its sister organization, the South African Communist Party, which threatened to impede his vision for the party with neo-Marxist claptrap and the risk of racial vengeance.
As he stated at the presentation of his Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, “At the southern tip of the continent of Africa, a rich reward is in the making, an invaluable gift is in the preparation, for those who suffered in the name of all humanity when they sacrificed everything – for liberty, peace, human dignity and human fulfillment.” With these words, Mandel presented himself to the world as a man who demanded a simple equality rather than settling of scores, after some five hundred years of colonization and subsequent white-minority rule in Africa.
Now a fragile 91 years old, Nelson Mandela serves primarily as an historical exemplar. Noble sentiment notwithstanding, Mandela’s dream is yet to be realized. The case can be made that his party is to blame.
Jacob Zuma, the current party boss and president of South Africa, is besieged by questions about his character and competency. Last week, Zuma took the stage on the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison to deliver his state of the nation address. Suffice to say, he faced a considerably different political atmosphere than his predecessor. Currently wedged at the rock-bottom of his administration’s 10-month tenure, Zuma is struggling to cope with a failing education system, staggering rates of unemployment, rampant crime and one of the worst’s AIDS epidemics on the planet. Public outcry surrounding the lovechild produced by a recently exposed extramarital affair did little to calm his audience.
In fairness, the hullabaloo surrounding Zuma has become old-hat. A Zulu traditionalist, South Africa’s current president has no formal schooling and is practicing polygamist. Paternity cases aside—and there have been many—charges ranging from rape to corruption and racketeering have pockmarked Zuma’s political career. Although he’s avoided prosecution—by a whisker when it came to the $5.4 billion arms deal he allegedly brokered in 1999—close associates have not been so fortunate. Now, his close ties to the country’s powerful trade unions and communist party is cause for concern among some observers who fear Zuma may attempt to “redistribute” the country’s wealth, in light of the first recession it has faced since becoming a multi-racial democracy.
Naturally, a politician of Zuma’s character is bound to make some enemies. And despite the ANC’s ascendance, it will come as little surprise that political rifts are well entrenched. While the party has enjoyed a stranglehold on South African politics since Mandela’s reemergence, in 2008, it faced an existential crisis as Zuma out-bludgeoned his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in a hotly contested election for party leadership.
A substantial rupture within party’s internal dynamic was exposed by this contest. Before Zuma’s rise, the ANC had not witnessed a contested election in over 57 years. Undoubtedly driven by the party’s singular objective to concentrate and preserve its power, some suggest the rift will ultimately benefit new voices of democracy in South Africa, despite the political uncertainty it has created in the short-term.
Such maturation is necessary. Despite Mandela’s vision, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. The country, which has been walloped by the global recession, has lost 870,000 jobs this past year. Rampant unemployment has sidelined over one third of the labor force. Reports find that the number of people living in absolute poverty has doubled since 1994. The once vibrant economy that served as the keystone of South Africa’s national stability has been severely undermined. However, if today’s ANC chooses to define itself by the rigidity and coercion of its communist antecedents, rather than the inclusive vision of Nelson Mandela, it’s a safe bet that political intolerance will hamstring South Africa’s political and economic future.
The country has already suffered the symbolic loss of Mandela’s moral focus. The elderly leader has retreated from political life and the country’s current president is better known for his personal excess. Twenty years after the Mandela’s long walk to freedom, the forgotten promise of the ANC slogan, “a better life for all,” has led many to question what will come of this dream deferred.
Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. His graduate work at American University’s School of International Service was focused on the politics of Shi’a majority in Iraq.