Mandela’s South Africa: A complex legacy

The passing of Nelson Mandela has returned the world’s attention to South Africa in a way last seen at the advent of majority-rule in 1994. Much has happened in between those years, but the coverage by international media seems very similar in its praise of Mandela at the cost of reflecting his entire legacy and that of the party he led to victory, the African National Congress or ANC. As a young South African born after the dismantling of Apartheid’s most oppressive legislation, I reflect on two decades of one-party rule and have to wonder what became of the promise of freedom and democracy. This should not take away from the argument that South Africa avoided civil war and that Mandela furthered racial recoconciliation, regardless of whether or not his motive was to encourage big business to stay, but is my attempt at correcting skewed coverage.

I’m not sure when it happened. Was it when the current president said that our ancestors would punish us if we did not vote for the ANC or when he abused millions of my tax money to vastly expand his own country home and fund his many wives and children? When he was acquitted on a technicality of raping his friend’s daughter, forcing her to flee to the Netherlands and then claiming that taking a shower prevented his contraction of HIV? Was it when the head of our highest court was chosen because he was a government lackey, ignoring the warnings of legal professionals who showed his incompetence? Perhaps it began even sooner when the previous president, Thabo Mbeki, denied the link between HIV and AIDS, attributing it to poverty and, like so much else, to conspiracies by White people. These were the same White South Africans who were pushed to the back of the employment and every other line as Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action was implemented, while they suffered daily insults from ministers and were blamed for all of Africa’s problems. Such race-based legislation was justified as “transformation”, but it has become firmly entrenched with common racism, nepotism and the employment and granting of government contracts to party members. The latter has especially provided a small group with great wealth, creating the term ‘tenderpreneur’. Alas, I think it started right at the beginning, when under the Mandela government a long chain of incompetence and blatant corruption began with the placing of people into positions not because of their skills and individual desire to grow together, but because they were friends, family, and political allies.

Much is made of mass-electrificication, sanitation and housing construction, but as many South Africans know now, electrification without the construction and maintenance of power stations has led to frequent power cuts, which in turn led to dramatic price rises to fund new projects. Basic sanitation is still lacking even around major cities and housing projects led to cheaply built, easily destroyed and one-house-one-lot boxes over sprawling areas far from transport and jobs. Millions live in much poorer conditions, putting a few planks, zinc and plastic together to form ramshackle homes that house large families. Most tragic of all are those many, many foreign Africans who have fled war and economic ruin, resulting in South Africa having the most refugees in the world, only to find violent xenophobia. They often live on the margins of South Africa’s townships if not under bridges or in open fields. South Africa’s porous borders and official disregard continue to aggravate the situation.

As a young South African I look at the daunting prospect of finding work in a country where 70% of those under 35 are unemployed, combined with my unsuitability for affirmative action purposes, I worry about my future. I worry because South Africa has some of the highest levels of violent crime in the world, something I have personally experienced. But most of all, I worry that in this populist and increasingly undemocratic society, my Western views are unwelcome and that I will never be accepted as an equal South African because of the colour of my skin.

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