“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to the 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 live 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 an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” — Nelson Mandela
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s remarks at the end of the 1964 “Rivonia” trial, which led to his 27-year incarceration, transformed him into a global icon.
Mandela – “Madiba” as he is known in South Africa — has now finally passed away, aged 95, after a protracted illness; and few would argue with the widespread belief that he was one of the most impressive individuals that the human race has ever produced.
“Selflessness, vision, a deep love for humanity, integrity, honesty, determination, commitment, courage, a talent for mobilizing large numbers of people to participate in the fight against injustice, an ability to find effective new strategies to meet changing situations and a readiness to sacrifice his life for freedom that has inspired so many people in South Africa and the world over.” This is how Professor Denis Goldberg, a onetime “technical officer” of the armed wing (Umkhonto we Sizwe or Spear Of The Nation) of the African National Congress (ANC), summed up Mandela’s strengths when I interviewed him.
Goldberg, the only white man to be sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Mandela and 8 other Rivonia Trialists, has received several awards for his contribution to the struggle that eventually dismantled Apartheid. And he feels that Mandela deserves a hefty chunk of the credit for the “wonderful” democratic constitution that South Africa has had in place since majority rule was established in 1994 (the year Mandela became president of the Republic).
Goldberg admits that the Martin Lutheresque dream Mandela articulated in his stirring l964 court statement has yet to be fulfilled. But he rejects the suggestion that his late friend’s legacy has been compromised by the fact that genuine racial harmony and equal opportunities are still in short supply in today’s South Africa.
“Our society is still very flawed,” Goldberg told me. “The average black worker still earns much less (2000 rand per month) than the average white (8000 rand) worker. But progress takes time and I see the glass as being half-full not half-empty. Mandela, his successors and the ANC were expected to achieve in one generation what other countries took 5 generations to achieve. But we have made enormous strides….
“… Nearly 3 million homes have been built for people who were homeless. Clean water is now available to those who didn’t have it before. Less than 50 percent of black children were in school during the Apartheid era. Now the figure is 90 percent.”
Lela Kogbara wholeheartedly agrees with Professor Goldberg. Kogbara, a senior local government executive of Nigerian extraction, lives in London, and was the chair and vice-chair of action for Southern Africa (previously the Anti-Apartheid Movement) for 18 years and enjoyed the privilege of accompanying Mandela to Buckingham Palace when he was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth in 1996.
“There is disappointment in South Africa and internationally because the black majority has not been lifted out of poverty,” she said. “But I don’t think that any of us in Britain’s Anti-Apartheid Movement expected Mandela to totally transform the damaged nation he inherited in such a short time. He was only in charge for 5 years and his Presidency was the beginning as well as the end of a long journey.”
“I have,” adds Kogbara,” seen with my own eyes significant steps made on many fronts – massive progress made in education, housing, water, sanitation and so on. There is still a long way to go; but Mandela handed on the baton of hope; and it was up to the leaders who followed him to turn that hope into a reality.”
People were expecting ‘instant Utopia’
One of the leaders who followed Mandela was Thabo Mbeki, who was president of South Africa from 1999 till 2008. I spoke to Thabo’s brother, Moeletsi, an economist and analyst, and asked him whether he thinks that critics of post-Apartheid governments are being fair to Mandela and his political heirs.
According to Moeletsi: “there HAS been huge dissatisfaction for nearly 2 decades because many people have been expecting Instant Utopia since Mandela took over. But Utopia doesn’t exist anywhere on this earth! And we Africans must stop looking for overnight miracles and start changing the way we organize ourselves.”
Moeletsi feels that while Mandela and the ANC should be applauded for avoiding the bloody civil war that could easily have ensued when whites were pushed out of the corridors of power, blacks have not done well enough since they took over.
“Economic growth is stagnating, corruption is rising in the public sector, there is incompetence at all levels, various systems are being very badly managed. And we have to ask ourselves what we must do to get out of this terrible malaise,” Moeletsi said.
Moeletsi has witnessed the chronic ethical problems, destabilizing chaos, vicious infighting and shameful human rights abuses that have characterized most African countries since white colonialists withdrew and left us to run our own shows. And he quotes many depressing examples of indigenous misrule – like Kenya, where land that was supposed to be allocated to landless peasants was greedily grabbed by Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya’s first post-Independence president) and his cronies.
“The African Elite has failed to deliver necessary benefits all over this Continent; and those who expected influential black South Africans to be different from their counterparts elsewhere were too optimistic; and I won’t be surprised if things degenerate to the point of serious conflict,” is Moeletsi’s bleak conclusion.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Will the loftiest aspects of Mandela’s admirable perfectionist yearnings ever go beyond the drawing board stage?
Will South Africa gradually get better and better or gradually get worse and worse? Will it, eventually, hit the high point that Mandela desperately wanted it to reach? Or will it, in perpetuity, be a precarious place that never quite Made It?
Time will tell.
Donu Kogbara is a writer/broadcaster who has a weekly column in the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard, and who has worked for the BBC, Channel 4, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Economist Intelligence Unit and other news organizations. Follow her on Twitter at @donukogbara.