During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
— Nelson Mandela during his 1964 Rivonia Trial
A man of great moral fortitude has left the world. Many millions around the globe will mourn the loss of the legendary freedom fighter and South Africa’s first democratically elected and black president. After a protracted battle with lung illness, and a long and tumultuous life that led from tribal royalty to armed struggle and, after 27 years of political imprisonment, to an overwhelming victory in the country’s first racially inclusive democratic elections, Father Madiba — as the former President was affectionately known by his people — is finally at rest. He will now stand beside Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the pantheon of iconic freedom fighters.
Sadly, though, Mandela’s country remains torn apart by grinding poverty, rampant inequality, murderous crime, a deadly AIDS epidemic, pervasive political corruption, and a resurgence of brutal state oppression. The story of post-apartheid South Africa, and the mixed legacy of Mandela’s heroic struggle for freedom, must certainly qualify as one of the most authentic tragedies in modern history. As I wrote in a lengthy essay during a visit to Johannesburg last month, a pernicious form of socio-economic apartheid continues to segregate the country into two polar extremes. The newfound vanities of the emerging interracial upper class are mirrored only by the nauseating proliferation of slums on the outskirts of the cities. Apart from the right to vote, not much has changed for the average black South African.
Today, 47% of South Africans live in poverty, more than in 1994 when Mandela came to power and made his “unbreakable promise” to eradicate poverty and secure “housing for all”. Two decades later, the amount of South Africans living in slums has doubled. Unemployment formally stands at 25 percent, but the rate goes up to 50 percent for young black men. The reproduction of socio-economic segregation and old-fashioned forms of state oppression continue unabated. Last year’s Marikana massacre saw 34 striking mineworkers murdered by police, with several unarmed men summarily executed at close range while lying face-down in the dust. Violent evictions surrounded the preparations for the 2010 World Cup, and townships around the country continue being razed to the ground to make way for shopping malls and industry, or simply to clear “illegal settlements” from the unused property of wealthy landowners.
Meanwhile, the ANC leadership has become a thoroughly corrupt super-elite extracting maximum privilege from the country’s effective one-party regime while displaying glaring disregard for the plight of the people. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, chose to blatantly ignore the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic (his Minister of Health infamously claimed that a diet of garlic and beetroot would help cure the disease). When current President Jacob Zuma was charged with the rape of an HIV infected woman, his only response was that there was no problem, since he took a shower afterwards to decrease the risk of infection. The ANC’s former firebrand youth leader, Julius Malema, who now leads his own populist party, built himself a R16 million palace and faces various charges of corruption, fraud and money laundering.
Back in his 1964 Rivonia trial, in which he was sentenced to life in jail, Mandela famously iterated that he fought not only against white domination, but equally strongly against black domination. Today, it is clear that Madiba’s long and arduous struggle is far from over. As a young shackdweller put it in the award-winning documentary Dear Mandela, “what he has been jailed for has never been achieved.” Now that the legend has passed away and his liberation movement has caved in to its own short-sighted desire for state power and material riches, new freedom fighters are emerging on the scene — in the form of autonomous movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Mandela Park Backyarders — who, fighting to defend the livelihoods of poor South Africans, stress their independence from political parties and instead seek to enact direct democracy in their everyday struggle for survival, dignity and liberation.
While Mandela’s symbolic leadership helped unite a country that teetered on the brink of racial violence or even civil war, a new form of political activism will be needed to help South Africa emerge from the deep-rooted socio-economic divisions and widespread political abuse that still persist. The Mandelas of the future will be faceless and plural; they will be nameless multitudes of disaffected poor people — those who grew up in the Rainbow Nation and have learned as much from Mandela’s unrivaled moral fortitude as from the many mistakes he made on his long march to freedom, not least his embrace of a neoliberal economic policy framework.
Today’s liberation movements are here to remind us that the only appropriate way to honor Nelson Mandela’s legacy is not to beatify the man but to take his struggle to its logical conclusion.