EDITORIAL: Remembering Madiba is a bittersweet affair
Ten years after his death, SA is struggling to convert its potential into prosperity and peace
Today, the world joins South Africans in observing the 10th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death. Yet the country he fought and suffered so much for — and his dream of creating a nonracial, nonsexist, democratic and prosperous nation — is facing an existential crisis.
Our energy utility Eskom cannot keep the lights on. As if not to be outwitted, Transnet, the state-owned freight logistics company, is failing to move commodities to export markets, and its ports are too congested to receive imports. It is hammering our economy and heaping unbearable strain onto an already frayed social fabric.
Crime and corruption are rampant, as are poverty, unemployment and inequality. Race relations, one of Mandela’s emblematic projects when he became SA’s first postapartheid president, are sometimes still uneasy.
In a way, SA’s decline mirrors the dysfunction of Mandela’s own legacy projects. His foundation, the custodian of his legacy, is without a full-time CEO. His museum at his native Mthatha has yet to properly memorialise him, the iconic children’s hospital is running suboptimally while thousands of children need hospital beds. His family often makes news for the wrong reasons.
Mandela’s family problems cannot be blamed on his ANC. However, most of the country’s problems — including the state of the economy and rising crime, corruption, inequality, youth unemployment and poverty — are largely attributable to the ANC of the past 15 years.
None of today’s problems should ever diminish our memory of Mandela’s contribution to giving life to an SA free of apartheid and colonialism. His achievements mean he is remembered as one of the most consequential figures of our era. When he was released from prison, he accepted the unimaginably hard task ahead with the fortitude of a rare great leader.
At the price of great personal sacrifice, Mandela’s most important contributions centre on five themes: bringing back the country from the precipice of a race war in 1993; steering the country towards a relatively peaceful transition to all-race democracy; negotiating a liberal constitution; championing reconciliation; and fixing apartheid’s chaotic public finances.
Few would forget how Mandela expended his political capital in 1993 to prevail upon angry ANC and SACP supporters after the murder of Chris Hani. In hindsight, only Mandela could have done it.
During pre-election negotiations he made critical concessions that moved the country towards the polls. These included so-called sunset clauses, elements of federalism and a mixed economy.
Once in power, he proved accommodative to his opponents with whom he shared political and administrative power. He preached and lived genuine reconciliation. And yet he is often misremembered only as a kindly old man who tousled the hair of a boisterous young rainbow nation in his dotage. It is important to remember the founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe — the Mandela of 1961 — as well as the Mandela of 1993.
On the economy, he showed pragmatism and quick adaptation. He held back his Communist, trade union and nationalist allies from wholesale nationalisation of mines, banks, land, free education and chemical industries.
In office, his administration, made up of mostly inexperienced ANC officials, learnt fast. His first test as crisis manager of the economy came early in his only term. Two white nonpolitical finance ministers — Derek Keys and Chris Liebenberg — resigned in quick succession. Mandela appointed Trevor Manuel, an ANC leader, to be SA’s first black finance minister.
Ten years after his death, SA is crying out for a principled leader of such pragmatism, decisiveness and humanity. Regrettably, they don’t come around very often.
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