‘Who is my Mandela?’ South Africans consider icon’s place in a changing world

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa —  As millions of South Africans reflect on how Nelson Mandela led them away from segregation, many others see the former president as a figure firmly rooted in the past with limited impact on their future.

“For my generation, the heroes are not political icons, as incredible as they are,” said Gugu Ximiya as he boarded a minibus packed with Sowetans travelling to work in the rich, white neighborhoods in the country’s largest city. “We have our own problems and the political leaders do nothing.

“My icons are the sports stars, movie stars, people who make money. To me, they’re the people who have really made it,” the 23-year-old security guard when he was asked about the former president. Mandela, 94, was admitted to a hospital in Pretoria on Saturday to receive treatment for a lung infection.

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Mandela is often described as “the father” for leading South Africa out of apartheid without a violent transition. His country is very young.

Democratic South Africa, the so-called Rainbow Nation, is now 18 years old. Most of its people were children or not even born when Mandela was released from prison in 1990.  A whole generation of people have been “born free” since racial segregation ended with the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

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Now, almost 60 percent of South Africans are under 35 years old — 29 percent are younger that 15, according to the country’s most recent census.

For those who remember the euphoria of their first taste of freedom in 1994, Mandela often represents hope that has not been replicated since. The generation that does not remember that great moment often cannot feel the same closeness to Mandela.

“I wasn’t there. My parents tell me all about it, and I get it. But who is my Mandela? What he did is great, but it is fading from our memory,” Ximiya said.

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