A political icon, a revolutionary, and a moral standard for the country, Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 after the infamous Rivonia trial, which, barely sparing him a death sentence, imprisoned him for life at Robben Island. After 27 years in prison, he was released in 1990, when former South African State President FW de Klerk dismantled the apartheid system.
Upon gaining power in the first democratic elections in 1994, Mandela lived true to his ideals: equal rights for all – black and white, majority and minority. He steered a remarkable transition in a society damaged by decades of discrimination. The African National Congress’ (ANC) rise to power saw the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which aimed to establish a common history and promote forgiveness and reconciliation.
As news of the passing of the first president of a democratic South Africa swept international media, questions arose regarding what will happen in the country, and how the nation will face its biggest challenges.
Many of the problems of the apartheid system have still not been solved by the policies of the current government. Economic inequality is one of the highest in the world, with the average white South African still earning four times more than a black citizen. Almost 20 years since the first democratic election, 47 percent of South Africans are considered poor. There are high levels of xenophobia, the escalation of which we witnessed in the 2008 attacks on immigrants in Johannesburg. The rates of HIV/AIDS remain high – almost 20 percent of South African children are AIDS orphans – which carries severe social and economic consequences.
None of these problems are new. They existed during Mandela’s presidency and they have remained on the agenda for the past fifteen years. The challenge after his passing will be to find another public figure, or a group, in South Africa to symbolically lead the fight for social justice, and use social influence to pressure decision-makers into enacting reforms.
Mandela had also long been the symbolic leader of the ANC – he was its president from 1991 to 1997, and was a founding member of its Youth League. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC has consistently won over 60 percent of the votes.
In recent years, however, the party has seen some internal disagreements, and new political parties have been established by former ANC leaders, including Congress of the People (2008), Agang (2013), and Economic Freedom Fighters (2013) which is the new party of Julius Malema, the former Youth League President. These have certainly diversified the political landscape of South Africa, but they haven’t grown strong enough to challenge the “political monopoly” of the ANC.
The splintering of the party indicates that ANC has reached its goals as a social movement – liberation and racial equality – but that it has not fulfilled its promises as a political party. The party has been losing its voter support over the years. In 2014, they will probably resort to “playing the Mandela card” ahead of elections, but the strategy of relying on old fame and the enormous popularity of their late leader cannot last long. The ANC is inevitably headed towards an identity crisis, and as the disaffection of its electorate grows stronger, its leaders will have to think of a different rhetoric, and deliver results to regain support.
Mandela was also largely seen as the father of the “New South Africa”, not only because of his historical role in the anti-apartheid struggle, but also because of his success in uniting a nation ripped apart by a racist, segregationist regime. After his death, there is no other prominent figure to lead the way to unity and cohesion of the nation.
The white minority already has fears that South Africa might become a less tolerant, more racist society. Since the end of apartheid, and especially in recent years, the idea of “South Africa turning into Zimbabwe” in terms of rights and land ownership of the white community has been steadily spreading within this part of the population. This idea is exaggerated, as the circumstances in South Africa differ significantly from Zimbabwe, and it is unlikely that Malema’s calls for land appropriation will materialise.
Those claiming that the white minority in South Africa will have much to fear after Mandela’s passing, usually refer to the high crime rates and attacks on farms. However, research by the Institute of Security Studies indicated that whites are less likely to be murdered in South Africa than any other racial group. Violent crime in the country happens mostly in the poor, black neighbourhoods and a large percentage of murders take place due to “a mix of social and economic factors“, and interpersonal assaults.
Regardless of whether the white community’s fears are substantiated or not, South Africa is facing a problem, as a significant number of its white citizens have left the country in recent years. It is yet to be seen, after Mandela’s passing, whether Zuma can reassure the white community and prevent further fear-provoked emigration.
Although South Africa has suffered a great loss with Mandela’s death, it is unlikely that the country will disintegrate or fall into chaos and violence. As the nation and its politicians mourn, it is important that his ideals and legacy are remembered and applied in future policy-making. And what better political ideal to follow than the one expressed in his words:
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina.