from Africa in Transition

Nelson Mandela Freed Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

February 11, 2015

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In 1964, Nelson Mandela was convicted of sabotage in conjunction with the armed struggle against apartheid in the Rivonia Trial. He was sentenced to life in prison. His statement at his sentencing was an anthem for a democratic South Africa free of racism. Because Americans may be less familiar with it than South Africans, it is worth quoting part of it here:

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is also an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

On February 11, 1990 the government of South Africa led by State President F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison. The rest is history. The new, democratic South Africa constructed over the past quarter of a century has been a remarkable legal and constitutional achievement. But, social change has been slow and economic growth disappointing.

Economic growth is currently at about 2 percent, and is likely to remain at that anemic level, too low to lift millions of South Africans out of poverty. HIV/AIDS and other diseases remain a scourge, and despite massive public expenditure, educational services for the black majority remain poor.

Official corruption is a matter of public preoccupation. The current disillusionment of many South Africans is focused on the current president, Jacob Zuma, and scandals surrounding the expenditure of public money on his private estate, Nkandla. Critics of Zuma’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), claim that it has lost its way in a fog of cronyism and that gradually institutionalized corruption and cronyism have created a small clique of oligarchs detached from the millions of impoverished in the townships and rural areas of South Africa.

Judith February, a senior researcher at the institute of Strategic Studies in Pretoria, has written a brief analysis of the country’s current sour mood that is well worth reading. Her primary focus is on a breakdown in parliamentary behavior by the president, who refuses to come clean over Nkandla, and a dissident party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF is a new far-left party that threatens radical change, including the appropriation of white owned land.

However, there are positive signs for South Africa. Jacob Zuma will not be president forever; there is much talk of his resigning before his term is up and speculation about his health. His deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a likely successor and has a strong reputation within the international business community. It is widely believed that he was Mandela’s choice for the presidency when Mandela declined to run for a second term as president in 1999. Not to mention after multiple escapades and internal clashes, the EFF already seems to be losing support. The likely emergence of a new left-wing political party with close ties to the trade unions could both revivify the ANC and suck out the oxygen of public support from the EFF.

The current sour mood is not predestined to last forever.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa

Civil Society

Politics and Government

Heads of State and Government

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