Some South Africans are rethinking Nelson Mandela’s legacy


Youngsters question whether the late president made too many concessions

Apr 25th 2019Print edition | Special report

SINCE THE 100th anniversary of his birth last year the world has been busy celebrating Nelson Mandela. In December pop stars such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Ed Sheeran appeared at a “Mandela 100” concert in Johannesburg. In February a museum exhibition curated by his family foundation began its global tour in London. A month earlier viewers of “Icons”, a British TV show, voted Madiba, the clan name by which he is affectionately known in South Africa, as the greatest figure of the 20th century.

Yet at the same time as being feted abroad, his legacy is being rethought at home. Prompted by the persistence of inequality and economic hardship, some young South Africans are questioning whether the late president did enough to emancipate black people economically. “There’s a growing sense of anti-Mandela,” says Eugene Dhlamini, a 29-year-old from Soweto. “As our generation studies history we are making up our own minds about the decisions he made.” Some feel Madiba made too many concessions to whites during the time of democratic transition.

It is a sentiment supported by the left-wing of the ANC and its offshoot, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Julius Malema, the thuggish populist leader of the EFF has called Madiba a “sell-out”.

Some correction to Madiba’s shiny image is perhaps useful. The idea, often pushed by his family, of the man as a secular saint was apparent at events like the Johannesburg concert. It is also there in the Mandela-branded tea that visitors can buy at the gift shop on Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in jail.

All of which may make it harder to point out, for example, that he was soft on corruption within the ANC or that many other people in the struggle have been crowded out by his deification. And there is a genuine debate to be had about the economic policies of the 1990s. It does South Africans no favours to elevate anyone to cult-like status.

Yet there is a danger of inaccurate revisionism, and of being taken in by the cynical posturing of the likes of Mr Malema. Madiba was undoubtedly a brave, moral person who was a visionary leader. To read “Long Walk to Freedom”, his autobiography, is to learn of innumerable personal sacrifices made in the name of the cause.

The notion of Madiba selling out black South Africans is also laughable. Leaving aside the self-evident success he had in winning equal democratic rights for non-white South Africans, it is worth remembering the circumstances of the negotiations over transition in the 1990s. The country was broke and in a three-year recession. Violent elements, often supported by far-right groups, were killing dozens of the ANC’s own members. Some thought civil war a real possibility. Madiba not only prevented that but broadly achieved everything he sought in the negotiations (thanks in part to Mr Ramaphosa, who led the ANC team in talks with the National Party).

Plenty of young South Africans are unwilling to besmirch Madiba. ‘They say the negotiations were a sell-out,” says 17-year-old student, Onthetile Aphane. “But it was a ‘sell-out’ that gave us our human rights.”

Back