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Nelson Mandela was born on July 1, 1918, and passed away on December 5, 2013. So, this year marks the centenary of his birth and December 5 the fifth anniversary of his death. At the huge FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on December 2, more than one hundred thousand people participated in the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100, sponsored by the Motsepe Foundation. The event raised some $7 billion in commitments for the relief of poverty across the African continent, from big corporations, governments, and small donors. Performers included Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Usher, and speakers included a variety of South African political, economic, and traditional leaders, as well as Mandela’s family. In the audience was Oprah, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and numerous other heads of state. The event, hosted in part by South African comedian Trevor Noah, showed that Nelson Mandela’s international appeal is undiminished.
Within South Africa, Nelson Mandela remains the national icon and a unifying figure in a society fractured by race and class. Nevertheless, criticism of him persists and is growing, especially among radical political figures. Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe dictator deposed by his deputy and military in November 2017, has been especially vocal in his criticism. He, along with some South African critics, argued that during the transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy, Mandela conceded too much to the white minority and preserved their white privilege. They note that the gulf between the wealth of white people and everybody else is greater now than it was under apartheid. (The event itself was marred by numerous muggings as the crowd broke up to go home.)
The persistence of black poverty and the slow pace of social change fuels criticism of Mandela. Among these critics, there is little understanding of the limits imposed by political and power realities at the time of the transition: the apartheid state retained full control of the security services and was far from defeated. The transition was therefore a negotiated settlement in which the apartheid government, led by the National Party's F.W. de Klerk, ceded political power to the black majority while preserving white economic power.
Some years after their death, national heroes often face critical reappraisals which take historical realities little into account. With respect to Mandela, that process has started in South Africa, but the dominant narrative remains that Mandela’s achievements in bringing South Africa to non-racial democracy in the context of the ideals of racial reconciliation were extraordinary.