Mandela’s Centenary Is Marked by the Rise of Close Friend Ramaphosa
The centenary of the birthday of Nelson Mandela is on July 18, and the UN has therefore established it as “Mandela International Day” to commemorate the values of South Africa’s first “non-racial” president and his service to humanity. It is a major public holiday in South Africa. Among other celebrations, the Nelson Mandela Foundation sponsors an annual address. Former President Barack Obama will give this year’s address in the presence of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. The venue will be a Johannesburg stadium, with an audience of fifteen thousand expected.
Nelson Mandela is associated with democracy, the rule of law, racial reconciliation, social justice, and an outward looking South African foreign policy that has a strong focus on human rights. Far from trying to hang on to power, he served only one term as president. However, some African radicals, notably Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, have accused Mandela of “selling out” the country’s black majority to the white minority, thus preserving white economic privilege. President Obama is widely popular in South Africa though he faces criticism for not having devoted enough attention to Africa during his presidency.
Mandela’s democratic values and the rule of law were severely tested during the presidential administration of Jacob Zuma, which lasted from 2009 to 2018. Zuma's administration was tarnished by accelerating public corruption, personal corruption scandals, and an authoritarian style of governance. Under Zuma, South Africa followed an increasingly inward looking forward policy with a greatly diminished focus on human rights. The former president is currently facing corruption charges in court. His son, a business associate of the notorious Gupta brothers, is now under arrest for corruption. The Guptas are widely accused of “state capture”—exercising undue influence over the Zuma administration—and are currently sought by the police.
Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa since January, was a close colleague of Nelson Mandela and regularly associates himself with the Mandela legacy, seeking to restore the late president’s values as South Africa’s lodestar. Domestically, overcoming corruption and cronyism is difficult and progress is slow. With respect to foreign policy, however, Ramaphosa appears to be moving quickly to reinstate Mandela’s values and to reassert South African leadership. Ramaphosa has successfully secured one of the “Africa” seats on the UN Security Council, and has already signaled that protection of human rights will be a theme. His foreign minister, Lindiwe Sislulu, is the daughter of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, two major icons of South Africa’s struggle for non-racial democracy.
Ramaphosa was a close partner of Mandela. He was the leading negotiator for the African National Congress at the Congress for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the forum where South Africa’s transition to “non-racial democracy” was negotiated. He was also actively involved in framing South Africa’s constitution, which has among the most sweeping protections of human rights of any constitution in the world. Mandela privately wanted Ramaphosa to succeed him as president, but he deferred to ANC party cadres that supported Thabo Mbeki, who had been in exile during the anti-apartheid struggle.