The Fissures That Followed Mandela

Thirty years after the historic end to apartheid in South Africa, life remains so precarious for so many that uncomfortable questions are being asked of leaders who failed to carry the reconciliation project forward.

Nelson Mandela at home in Qunu in 2011. (Adrian Steirn via Getty Images)

Sisonke Msimang is the author of “Always Another Country” and “The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela.”

There’s a set of traffic lights at a busy intersection in the plush Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank that is often on the blink. Each time the power goes out — “load-shedding” is the technical term; the grid is on the verge of total collapse — cars pile up and stretch out in four directions. It’s a hassle for motorists but a boon for a group of enterprising young men.

As drivers take their turns inching forward, the teenagers spring to action, appearing from the sidewalks and leaping into the middle of the intersection. They are often dressed in elaborate costumes — suspenders on their trousers, jaunty hats, face paint. Sometimes they direct traffic, but often they use the center crossing point as a stage, dancing frenetically as cars crawl past. They gyrate and show off and wave enthusiastically before walking from car to car, hoping that their captive audience will reward their efforts with money.

Like millions of their peers, these men have been pushed to the margins of South Africa’s economy. Their energy suggests their potential, but 30 years after the end of apartheid, they live in a society that has not created opportunities for them. Their situation is emblematic of the hope and struggle that characterize life in South Africa today — a life so precarious for so many that uncomfortable questions about whether the soaring story of racial reconciliation that ushered in a new era in April 1994 came at the cost of economic progress for the poorest.

In May, South Africans will head to the polls to vote in only the nation’s seventh national election. Many consider this the toughest electoral challenge yet for the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Surveys show that support for the party that was Nelson Mandela’s political home until his death a decade ago is plummeting. Just over 40% of voters say they will support the once mighty liberation movement. The ANC faces the very real prospect of being forced into a coalition if it wants to maintain power.

Thirty years the ANC has been in power. It does not surprise me or many South Africans that a change of leadership is for the first time a real possibility. People feel betrayed. The political movement that played a crucial role in ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic order has failed to create jobs, address poverty or put a dent in the challenges of housing, education and a disintegrating health system. On their own, these problems would be enough to turn any electorate against its government, but for many people, the primary source of disappointment with the ANC is that it lost its moral compass and sold out to many of the same economic and political forces that it once fought against.

This is a long-running critique inside the country, where people have argued for years about the negotiated settlements that brought an end to apartheid in 1994. Critics argue that reconciliation made too many concessions to white South Africans, allowing them to keep the land and assets they had accrued over centuries of colonization and racist supremacy, and that the constitution — the culmination of negotiations and the foundation for the society in which South Africans now live — enshrined their judicial and economic power. When apartheid ended and the new constitution came into effect, most of the country’s judges were white. Today, they still represent approximately 30% of the bench, even though whites only make up around 7% of the population.

“The political movement that played a crucial role in ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic order has failed to create jobs, address poverty or put a dent in the challenges of housing, education and a disintegrating health system.”

This is what people — including many within the ANC — call “judicial interference.” Former President Jacob Zuma went so far as to refer to the country as a “judicial dictatorship.” White judges overturn decisions made by a largely Black executive arm of government, a constitutional order that has maintained Black subordination. More than half of South Africans report that they have little or no trust in the judicial system.

In the context of continued white economic privilege, deepening poverty and violent racial incidents — such as the near-drowning of two black teenagers at a pool in Bloemfontein by racist white men on Christmas Day in 2022 or the expletive-ridden verbal attack launched by a white woman who used the k-word 48 times in a four-minute video — South Africans are reassessing their commitment to reconciliation and re-evaluating the institutions they established a generation ago, a dramatic swing that has its roots in the apartheid system the country was so desperate to end.

Apartheid was instituted in 1948 when the Afrikaner National Party swept to power with the goal of “preserving and safeguarding the racial identity of the White population of the country.” Apartheid, which means “apartness” in Afrikaans codified segregation, which had already been in place, and became the law of the land.

Under apartheid, four main race groups were created: Africans, Indians, Coloureds (mixed race or creole people) and whites. There were various “tests” to determine what group people belonged to — for example, a pencil run through a colored person’s hair could decide whether or not they would be reclassified as white. The anti-apartheid movement rejected these terms and stuck to Black (all non-whites) and white as broad categories of description, even though they were at pains to describe the nonracial future they were seeking to create, in which color would no longer matter.

Racism was a matter of daily practice then. Black people were forced to use separate entrances to public facilities and prohibited from eating in the same restaurants, using the same toilets, swimming pools or banking queues as whites, prohibited from voting in the land of their birth, forcibly removed from communities in which they had lived in for generations, denied equal access to housing, healthcare and education, subjected to all manner of daily humiliations, including having to apply for passes granting permission to move from one part of a city or the country to another.

Racism wasn’t simply a legal system — it was an ideology. In some Afrikaner communities, racism was theologically supported. In white communities, race hatred was state-supported and zealously defended by ordinary people who had to demonstrate to authorities and one another that they believed in their intrinsic superiority.

“South Africans are reassessing their commitment to reconciliation and re-evaluating the institutions they established a generation ago.”

Whites benefitted greatly from this social order. They were granted access to higher-paying jobs, had an excellent public education system and received support to attend universities. If you were white, you could vote for your own political representatives under a whites-only parliamentary system. If you were white, you got vast financial and social support to go about your life.

Africans, Indians and Coloureds faced varying degrees of oppression, but in the main they lived under conditions designed to thwart them. They were socially ostracized, punished and persecuted. Keeping apartheid alive required manufactured consent. Newspapers were censored, books were banned (and burned) and white people who dissented paid a heavy price. When apartheid ended, whites too were finally able to live in a free, open and democratic society.

Efforts to dismantle this system accelerated in the 1980s and reached a peak after Mandela was released from prison, in February 1990, after serving 27 years of a life sentence. The ANC and other political parties were free to operate, and within months the countdown began toward a new society.

A palpable sense of uncertainty hung over the series of stop-and-start negotiations that unfolded over the next few years. The white minority was scared of losing power to the Black majority, and the Black majority had little reason to trust that whites would actually end apartheid.

On the morning of April 10, 1993, Chris Hani — a fiery anti-apartheid leader beloved among the youth — was assassinated by two right-wing white supremacists. The murder brought the country to the brink of war, but Mandela was able to restore calm, convincing angry Blacks that the only way to honor Hani’s life would be to go back to the negotiating table and finally put an end to apartheid. With the world watching and Mandela in firm control of the narrative, apartheid’s last president, F.W. de Klerk, came back to talk.

A year later, three decades ago this weekend, millions of Black South Africans voted for the first time. People waited for hours in lines that snaked across the countryside to exercise their new right to choose their leaders. I was studying in America at the time, so together with half a dozen other South African students, I drove to Chicago and voted at the South African consulate. We spent 10 hours on the road, arriving exhausted but giddy. We had waited our whole lives for this moment. Consular staff ushered us in and guided us to voting booths. I marked my X next to Mandela’s face and cast my vote for the ANC. It felt like the most important thing I had ever done in my life.

The task facing Mandela’s new government was daunting: undo the legacy of racial disadvantage that had been built into the economy and the culture, ensure that Black and white South Africans were able to live side by side as equals, and guarantee stability by promoting reconciliation for the entirety of what was sure to be a lengthy process.

“When South Africans speak of feeling betrayed by the political elite, and the ANC in particular, they often refer to the ‘nine wasted years’ when Zuma was leader.”

The society that South Africans have built since the early 1990s is dramatically different from the one they inherited. South Africa is home to a vibrant and free press, fair and regular elections, an active civil society, spirited debate and a respect for free speech. Talk-back radio crackles with spirited political debate, and on social media South Africans are not shy about sharing their opinions about the state of the nation.

Under the apartheid regime, none of this would have been imaginable. Today, we all make jokes about the country’s plight and especially its leaders. Farieda Metsileng, a social media influencer, has popularized a nickname for Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s ineffectual president: “Cyril-the-nana,” an infantilizing colloquialism that here means a baby or child. It encapsulates Ramaphosa’s hapless persona; he seems to be missing in action, not fully aware of everything that is going on in the country or even his own party.

Criticism sometimes takes on a harder edge. In the student movement that began in 2015, those who protested with demands for free higher education and tore down and decapitated statues of the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes were challenging the civility that had characterized race relations until that point. Joined by Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who celebrated their militancy, the students were rebuking Mandela’s more conciliatory approach to addressing the country’s painful past.

In England in 2015, a few years after Mandela’s death, Julius Malema, one of the ANC’s most vocal critics and the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a political party with a small but powerful base among the youth, went so far as to accuse Mandela of starting the “selling out of the revolution.” “The Nelson we [are] celebrating now,” he said, “is a stage-managed Mandela who compromised the principles of the revolution.”

Mandela, according to Malema and his colleagues, as well as a growing number of members of the ANC, tried too hard to appease white power brokers in the early 1990s. Today, these critics invoke the specter of “white monopoly capital” to explain why the poor Black majority remains excluded from the economy.

There is no question that a small and powerful set of economic actors continues to play a disproportionate role in South Africa’s economy. They are not all white, like they once were. And they are not all South African either. One economic analysis shows that more than 55% of the total market capitalization of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is held by international investors. Of the rest, two-thirds is managed by Black investors who participate in the Black Economic Empowerment scheme, and the government pension fund, which is overseen largely by Black bureaucrats. With the encouragement of the ANC, a small group of Blacks (many with strong ties to the party) have become extraordinarily rich — and powerful.

It may be tempting for South Africans to blame Mandela for the country’s failure to address the legacy of apartheid. After all, Mandela — enormously charismatic, recognizable around the world and deeply talented as an orator and statesman — was the face of forgiveness. But Mandela did not act alone. Reconciliation — both the idea that Blacks and whites could live side by side without retribution and the notion that the economic system founded on the respect of property rights and free enterprise would not radically change after apartheid ended — was a model put forward and wholly owned by the ANC.

“Part of the problem is that South Africans have had few political alternatives; all the parties are distasteful in one way or another to the people who need a voice the most.”

A more redistributive model might have better suited Black people. Indeed, this was a raging debate that the left wing of the ANC lost in the 1990s. More radical proposals about expropriating land from white owners without compensation were also defeated within the ANC.

Mandela retired in 1999; the ANC’s failures since then must be attributed to his successors. Thabo Mbeki, who had been Mandela’s deputy, was first to take over. Like Mandela, Mbeki was a visionary — but where Mandela set his sights on the wider society, Mbeki sought to professionalize the public service.

This was an important task. The previous regime had catered only for whites, and under the new system, services had to be delivered to all South Africans, many of them poor. Mbeki served for almost two terms and is credited with raising levels of productivity among government employees, but he was forced to vacate office after an internal revolt in which he was accused of meddling in an investigation of a political rival within the ANC.

He was followed by Jacob Zuma, whose disastrous presidency was dogged by scandal. Zuma spent millions of taxpayer dollars on a lavish refurbishment of his village home, and then ensured that contracts worth an estimated $3.5 billion were awarded to the Gupta family, Indian nationals who he referred to as his “friends.” It turned out they were business associates of his son and had been bankrolling his lifestyle for years before he became president.

Under Zuma, the steps Mbeki had taken to strengthen state capacity were reversed and the efforts to attract investment and build on South Africa’s strong manufacturing base fell apart. The economy suffered greatly because the Guptas — who had started their careers in South Africa selling shoes out of the back of a car — were awarded numerous contracts with parastatals responsible for rail and electricity. Zuma was finally forced to resign after ANC officials revealed that he had sacked the country’s minister of finance at the behest of the Guptas and replaced him with a more pliable alternative in order to facilitate a deal with the Russian government that would have benefited their business empire.

It is hard to overstate the scale of Zuma’s corruption and the effect this had on public trust in the ANC. When South Africans speak of feeling betrayed by the political elite, and the ANC in particular, they often refer to the “nine wasted years” when Zuma was leader.

None of these shenanigans had anything to do with the reconciliation agreements reached in 1994. If anything, the scandals and the internecine fighting that have characterized ANC rule have made it harder for the government to focus on reconciliation.

When people see whites continuing to live comfortably while Blacks struggle, they are quick to point to Mandela as the source of their problems. It is disappointing that the ANC has given permission to politicians within its own ranks to vilify the constitution that Mandela achieved. A few years ago, a senior minister in cabinet published an opinion piece in which she claimed South Africa had a “neoliberal constitution, with foreign inspiration,” and argued that as “interpreters of the law,” African members of the judiciary were “only too happy to lick the spittle” of whites. It was an astounding attack from a senior member of the ANC, which has long enjoyed a significant parliamentary majority and could have enacted laws aimed at addressing those concerns at any point if it had wanted to.  

“Sixty-two percent of South Africans aged 15-35 are unemployed and 60% have never had a job.”

Some critics of the economic path taken since 1994 have suggested amendments to the constitution to make it easier for land to be expropriated. This has been taken up by the ANC, which voted to support this idea at its last major policy conference. Land is an emotive issue in the country, symbolic of what was lost under European rule. Whites owned about 87% of the land in 1994. When it came to power, the ANC promised that within a few years, 30% of that land would be in Black hands. In 2018, after 24 years, that figure stood only at less than 10%. The reasons for the slow pace are varied, but many argue the sticking point is that the reform process is constitutionally contingent on both buyers and sellers being willing to make a deal.

The reality is more complicated. Progress has mainly been slow for the same reasons the government struggles to deliver in other areas. To be sure, land reform has been stalled by white landowners seeking to push prices up and play hardball with the state. But it has also been held hostage to ANC patronage, bureaucratic disorder and poor leadership.

Land reform isn’t even the most pressing issue among most South Africans today; in surveys, jobs, crime and housing consistently come up as the top three concerns of South Africans. For the youth of today, the most pressing problem is unemployment. Sixty-two percent of South Africans aged 15-35 are unemployed and 60% have never had a job.

The solutions to these problems are not impossible. South Africa has a population of less than 60 million people and a sophisticated economy with manufacturing capacity, rich agricultural land and the foundations for technological innovation; Brazil and India are examples of larger and arguably more complex democratic societies that have pulled millions out of poverty in the last few decades.

Part of the problem is that South Africans have had few political alternatives; all the parties are distasteful in one way or another to the people who need a voice the most. The Democratic Alliance continues to appeal mostly to middle-class whites, and though the EFF has a focus on land rights and jobs for Black South Africans, middle-class Black voters (more likely to vote than the disaffected youth the EFF is seeking to attract) are wary of Malema because of his aggressive tactics in parliament and entanglements with financial scandals. Malema apparently also lives in a luxury house owned by an alleged tobacco smuggler. And various ANC leaders, learning nothing from Zuma’s mistakes, have embroiled themselves in scandals, including a minister who received bribes in cash stuffed into a Louis Vuitton bag.

Critiques of Mandela made in the spirit of revisiting the pacts made at the end of apartheid are necessary and important. Less healthy are attempts to revise history so that Mandela is cast as a pawn, a useful idiot who didn’t understand the importance of the decisions he was making.

Mandela and the ANC helped to end apartheid, but the truth is that South Africans freed themselves. Through rallies and marches, in everyday acts of resistance, defying detention and brutality, they won that final, historic act of voting.

The struggle today looks very different but the toolkit for achieving more dignified lives remains exactly the same. This generation has many reasons to be disaffected and to be skeptical of change. I can relate to this. Even as I headed to the voting booth in 1994, I was not sure that we could truly end apartheid. It is easy to forget that democracy today matters as much as it did when we chose Mandela as our leader. Then, as now, an X marked on a ballot paper may be the most important thing young South Africans ever do. Whether or not it’s enough to set the country on a path to a better future is still an unsettled question.