South Africa After Mandela

The country is struggling economically and politically, but its first post-apartheid president, 93 today, may have given it the tools to find greatness

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Today is Nelson Mandela's 93rd birthday, and South Africa is throwing him a big party. Among other things, 12.5 million South African children will sing him "happy birthday" at exactly the same moment at 8:05 a.m.Mandela's birthday is a fitting occasion to celebrate, but also reflect both on his personal achievements and on the future of the country of which he is truly the father: a democratic and "nonracial" South Africa. Of course, he alone did not create the new South Africa: final apartheid-era State President F.W. de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, trade union leader Cyril Ramaphosa, and former President Thabo Mbeki all immediately come to mind. But, absent Mandela's unifying leadership and vision, it is hard to imagine today's South Africa would have emerged, with its regular, credible elections, and a political culture bound by human rights and the rule of law.

Mandela's vision for his country, which reflects his great strength of character, is based on the inherent dignity of men and women of all races. His courage shares similarities with that of Abraham Lincoln during the American civil war. His inclusiveness toward the Afrikaners that jailed him for 27 years shows an extraordinary generosity of spirit that recalls Martin Luther King. And his dogged determination and high political skills remind us of Winston Churchill in Britain's finest hour. Perhaps above all, Mandela illustrates the crucial role of individual leadership in state-building. And, like Lincoln, Churchill, and King, Mandela has been remarkably successful in securing the support of his fellow citizens for his vision -- in Mandela's case, a "non-racial" democracy.

Sometimes nations are blessed (or lucky) with their founding fathers, as we Americans were. But truly outstanding leadership is rare. Western observers and friends of Africa like to anoint heroes: Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, and Rwanda's Paul Kagame have had that role thrust upon them at some point during their careers. Yet such leaders too often fail their countries, proving to be undemocratic, corrupt, and, at times, violent. Many cling to power. The Mo Ibrahim Prize for an African head of state who voluntarily steps down from office has gone unawarded for the past two years for want of a credible candidate. In contrast, Mandela voluntarily left his country's highest office after a single term, an example of democratic leadership that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation recognized when it designated him as Honorary Laureate in 2007.

Nelson Mandela's South Africa is a genuine African success story. Only a generation ago, civil war seemed nearly inevitable, with a radically segregated multi-racial population, a history of slavery, and an economy organized by a particularly rapacious form of capitalism. But its transition to non-racial democracy helped bring the rule of law and the protection of human rights by an independent judiciary, both near-exclusive to whites before 1994, to all South Africans.

The Democracy ReportLooking forward, can the democratic culture and institutions that owe so much to Nelson Mandela continue to flourish when the economic development of its largest racial community continues to lag so far behind? South Africa has not opened its economic system as much as it has its politics. As a result, its vaunted economy has failed to meet the human needs of too many of its people. More than a quarter of its total population is unemployed in the formal economy. Since the end of apartheid, the country has moved from having one of the poorest distributions of income in the international community to having the absolute worst, according to some South African observers. The white minority, now only about 10 percent of the population, remains the overwhelming beneficiary of the South African economy, followed by the 'Indians' (persons originally of south Asian origin). It is no surprise that members of Mandela's ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has an overwhelmingly black African constituency, are making renewed calls for change, even at the expense of the rule of law and the constitutional protections that, to some, merely entrench white privilege.

Post-apartheid South Africa rapidly reintegrated itself into the world economy under the leadership of Mandela and subsequently the Mbeki and Jacob Zuma governments. But it largely left in place the national economy inherited from the apartheid state, which did not grow fast enough to meet the needs of the country's rapidly expanding population. Economic activity, while diversified, continues to be dominated by large, white-controlled corporations, despite various "black empowerment" schemes that have enriched a small number of the well-connected. Critics deride it as a new form of 'crony capitalism.' Land tenure is another issue that has witnessed little progress since the end of apartheid. While there has been some reform, the present land tenure system still reflects the 1913 legislation that set aside 87 percent of the country's land area for whites.

There are more problems with the potential to inhibit necessary economic development and fuel majority discontent. Two of the biggest are the political failure to improve education for the black population and the two-tiered, apartheid-era health system, which is struggling against a profound HIV/AIDS crisis.

Exacerbating these challenges is the gradual transformation of South Africa into a one-party state dominated by Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), too often the venue of vicious political infighting. ANC youth leader Julius Malema indulges openly in anti-white rhetoric, such as his public singing of the apartheid-era "Kill the settler, kill the Boer," -- and exploits public frustration with such unresolved issues as land reform to advance his personal agenda. While he has little impact on economic policy, he sours the political atmosphere.

Internationally, presidents Mbeki and Zuma have disappointed in their lack of leadership on issues such as Robert Mugabe and the destruction of Zimbabwe, which in turn has resulted in massive refugee flows into South Africa and subsequent bouts of violent xenophobia spurred by intense competition for jobs.

South Africa's politics and economy also show flexibility and adaptability. Politics remain open, public debates are on meaningful issues, and politicians are responsive to the electorate. Leadership at the highest levels is not a closed caste, as Mbeki's ouster from the ANC party leadership and the presidency shows. The Democratic Alliance, once a largely white party, may have the capacity to develop into a multi-racial alternative to the ANC. And the ANC itself may also split between its left and right wings. The security services remain under civilian control and do not act independently. The University of South Africa is probably the largest "open" university in the world, with sophisticated approaches to distance learning with the potential to reach greater numbers. New post-Mbeki government-sponsored health programs may have slowed the spread of HIV/AIDS, and the debate over the future of land reform continues, though it is progressively less civil.

South Africa is all but unique in sub-Sahara Africa. Its political institutions are generations old and have spread from a privileged white minority to encompass the entire population. It is the strength of those democratic institutions, so fostered and supported by Nelson Mandela, that make it possible to be optimistic about South Africa's future.