With Nelson Mandela resting at home after a lengthy hospital stay that many feared would see his demise, reflection on his place in South Africa’s history is in order. Mandela was not a good president in practical terms, but he will be remembered, indelibly, for his huge personal courage and fortitude in jail, his policy of racial reconciliation, and his determination to get all South Africans to think of themselves as one nation. Neither thing will ever be forgotten. And because he has been so hugely popular with all races, he also helped all South Africans get used to rule by the African majority.
How much of that legacy remains? Not much. To be sure, a few lunatics apart, no one regrets the end of apartheid or wants minority white rule to return. Everyone will remember Mandela's courage. But it will be just that, a memory.
Most potent was his dream of racial reconciliation. Today one may find even young Africans who support the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition, because they don't like the “policies of racial revenge” of the ruling African National Congress. But that is what we've got. The government is openly antiwhite and often hostile to the Asian and mixed-race minorities too. And although the ANC was formed in 1912 precisely in order to overcome tribalism, Jacob Zuma's party is increasingly a vehicle for Zulu tribalism. Africans from other groups are increasingly and vocally rejecting this movement.
The truly bizarre thing about South Africa is that the ANC was dominated in exile by the Stalinist South African Communist Party (SACP), and today that remains true to a considerable extent. There are many SACP Ministers in the government, all the leaders of Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which has veto power over the government) are Communists, and the ANC formally rules through an alliance with Cosatu and the SACP—a coalition that is two-thirds Communist.
Ronnie Kasrils, an old Communist who was until recently a government minister, has lamented that the ANC was pulled off course in 1991-96 by its compromises with corporate capitalism and that this is the source of the corruption which now threatens to overwhelm the party. His belief, in common with many others, is that South Africa should have created a People's Democracy when the ANC came to power in 1994. The SACP naturally agrees. It has a Zulu leader, Blade Nizimande (a cabinet minister), and the Party has recruited strongly in Zuma's wake, so it too is a primarily Zulu party. Both the SACP and Cosatu continually demand that the government should break through into full-blown socialism. Naturally, they gave President Obama the most hostile reception they could when he visited in late June.
The Kasrils thesis is, of course, nonsense. The ANC in exile was both corrupt and Stalinist (it supported Soviet intervention both in Hungary and Czechoslovakia), and the ruling ANC today is much the same. Inevitably, it is warm friends with Cuba, North Korea and Iran. What is different is that South Africa is the continent’s richest economy, so the feeding frenzy is fiercest here. Increasingly, the ANC is a federation of corrupt regional and municipal warlords. They mouth socialism, but their hands are in the till. Zuma himself gives the example with the multimillion-dollar homestead he has built for himself at Nkandla with government money. Every mineworker and taxi driver knows about Nkandla, feeding extreme union demands (such as 100 percent pay increases) in a sick economy. At bottom, everyone knows that the elite is robbing the country blind, and they accordingly all want their share.
The opposition DA party is essentially the country's only hope. Not accidentally, it has fully embraced Mandela's legacy. In the last nineteen years it has advanced from 1.7 percent of the vote to nearly 25 percent at the last local elections, and it is recruiting more and more discontented Africans. In the 2014 elections it is bound to gain further, though the ANC will still hang on to power. The real question, as power begins to slip from the ANC, is whether they will respect the results of free elections.
Already, in a desperate throw, the government has put together a trade union and Chinese-led consortium to buy out almost all South Africa's morning papers, which will now become ANC propaganda sheets. This is unlikely to work. The distemper with corrupt governance is simply too great, and newspapers that try to cover that up will go bust.
Elections themselves are policed by an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) that has, however, always been stacked with ANC trusties. The likelihood is that poll rigging will now take off and the IEC will look the other way. But this too won't work: there is too big an opposition constituency; government corruption is too blatant; and already the online press is too strong.
The ANC is aware that its support is slipping and it is already in a state of semipanic. Far too many people have been made rich through corruption or have been politically empowered despite their Stalinist beliefs—and they are sometimes the same people—to easily accept the simple verdict of a grievously disappointed electorate.
Looming in South Africa is a great battle for liberty and democracy in which Mandela's party (and he belonged both to the SACP and ANC in his time) will be decisively on the wrong side. It is perhaps just as well that the old man probably won't be around to see it. Many Western countries still have a sentimental attachment to the ANC as Mandela's party. But it is high time that they realized that they do not want to see another People's Democracy—of all things—rear its head in Southern Africa, a peculiar throw-back to a happily dead era.
R.W. Johnson is an emeritus fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught politics and sociology. His most recent book is South Africa’s Brave New World. He lives in Cape Town.
Image: Flickr/Tommy Miles. CC BY-SA 2.0.