The passing of Nelson Mandela is particularly on my mind not only because he was a great man, but also because I’m heading back to South Africa in two weeks for my sister-in-law’s wedding.
When I was there last time, I had the opportunity to explore Johannesburg and one memory particularly sticks with me. As you leave the Apartheid Museum, you enter a gallery bisected by beams of light. On the walls are quotes with hope for the future. It is a very different message than the one you get leave Yad Vashem. Instead of “Never again!”, the message of the end of Apartheid is one of reconciliation and hope. That, as much as anything, is the ultimate tribute to Mandela. Remember the past, but move to a better future.
With that in mind, I wonder if for all his contributions, Mandela’s passing will also open an opportunity for the country. While he was alive, it was impossible for alternative political parties to get real power outside of tribal and white-dominated districts. This has resulted in single party rule since Apartheid ended in 1994. All four presidents have been ANC and the ANC has dominated the National Assembly, most of the time with a supermajority sufficient to unilaterally amend the constitution. I believe that much of the stagnation, corruption and missed potential of the South African government can be attributed to this fact. When king-making happens within a single party and elections are essentially pre-determined, winners tend to be those who excel at patronage, not those who deliver for the voters. This isn’t uniquely South African by any means – it’s true all over the world. And this isn’t a condemnation of the ANC – no organization flourishes without real competition.
Rightly or wrongly, while Mandela was still alive, loyalty to him helped keep the party together. While he will be sorely missed, a competitive South Africa would not be a bad thing. Maybe now it can move forward and realize more of its potential as the economic powerhouse of the continent, providing essential services and lifting its citizens out of poverty. Mandela gave it a chance. Now it’s up to the country to seize it.