Nelson Mandela's Living Legacy

As South Africa's most celebrated leader lays in hospital, his party must find a way to serve the youth whose support it desperately needs.



The worldwide clamor over Nelson Mandela's deteriorating health last week provided an eerie curtain-raiser for Sunday's opening of the national convention of the African National Congress. Mandela is 94 and the liberation party he once led is 100 years old. But if you were reading the lavish praise for Mandela pouring in from around the world in what amounted to pre-obituaries, side-by-side with dispatches by foreign correspondents about the state of the ANC as a party in government, you'd be tempted to think that Mandela and the movement that defined his identity came from separate galaxies.

This was the old pattern for observers from outside the party as they tried to square a saintly view of Mandela with a stark conclusion that his successors, both of whom he'd supported, were clueless, corrupt clowns. On Saturday, Mandela survived gallstone surgery as thousands of delegates arrived in the Free State province to elect national party leaders and set policy about everything from economics to land reform through 2017. On the surface, things seemed rather bleak. Growth is down, unemployment up, and measures of inequality, in one of the most unequal societies on the planet, were still running in the wrong direction. A spate of assassinations already had exposed brutal jockeying for power and patronage within the party. As the opening session began, you could hear supporters of the incumbent president, Jacob Zuma, threaten in song to "bring the war" to their hero's rivals. The spectacle suggested a rude question: Was the ANC headed for its deathbed too?

How should we square this view of the situation, taken from the outside in, with the remarkable staying power and enduring popular support of Mandela's party through a century of organizing and nearly two decades in power? As I watched a contest over top offices in the ANC play out on the screen, the voices of young South Africans washed back over me. In hundreds of interviews over the past five years, in cities, townships, informal settlements, and far-flung villages, I'd been chronicling the lived experience of South Africa's young.

Forty percent of the country's population is 18 years old and under. For these so-called "Born Free" South Africans, the events that shaped the worldview of current ANC leaders -- the end of the extreme system of racial segregation known as Apartheid and the arc of Mandela's remarkable life from shoeless country boy to lawyer to guerrilla to prisoner to triumphant president -- seemed like ancient history. Soon enough, by virtue of their vast numbers, the fate of the historic effort to establish a nonracial, non-sexist, and egalitarian society at the southern tip of Africa will land in their hands. An assertion of truly post-liberation views will put an older generation of leaders to the test, but not necessarily immediately shake the party's hold on power, as I discovered in my travels.

In the wake of the World Cup in 2010, my son and I visited Nelson Mandela at his mansion in Johannesburg. He was frail and quite hard of hearing, but he greeted us from a high-backed armchair with a blazing smile and a stunning line: "It's nice that young people still come to see an old man who has nothing new to say." Shortly afterwards, I set off again on a long drive north to Limpopo province, one of the most impoverish regions in the country, tracing the distance from the exclusive suburbs of Houghton, where Mandela lived, to the struggling village of Bungeni.

After a long absence, it was easy to see things had improved considerably for the Mabasa family and for the 12-year-old son I'd met on the soccer field in town. Vunene Mabasa looked, then, like a collection of arms akimbo and knobby knees. Now, he was 15, and he'd stretched out tall and beanpole thin. He led me through a newly constructed home where there was space for a bookshelf in a corner where he could study. Vunene had an earnestly assertive way of expressing his firm intention to become the first medical doctor from his village.

When supper was over, he led me out to a narrow concrete stoop. Above, under an inky night sky, the Milky Way spread out in a brilliant creamy smear. Some of his friends had lost faith entirely in the African National Congress, but he never tired of arguing with them. "My dad is owning a house because of what Mandela did for him -- and did for me," he said, pointedly. "Mandela is also an African hero. Go around Africa and look at all those countries that gained independence. This is the only country that won independence without fighting." Here was the kind of tribute to the iconic figure that an outsider might expect. But, in my years of interviewing teens over the years, I'd grown accustomed to waiting through the unsurprising in order to register the twist. And here it came: "Mandela is our hero here," he went on. "He's like Jesus. As they say, Jacob Zuma is Black Jesus. That means Nelson Mandela is Extreme Black Jesus."

Vunene glanced skyward, perhaps because he was a devout evangelical Christian. Of course, the ANC was always a "broad church," as its leaders liked to say, bringing together socialists, trade unionists, traditional leaders, businessmen, and churches. In 2009, during the most recent national election campaign, President Zuma had played heavily on religious themes, emphasizing his status as a victim "crucified" by the media, for example, and presenting himself as a thoroughly repentant sinner who'd fallen and been redeemed. When urban sophisticates from Cape Town or Johannesburg celebrated the life of Mandela, they often implied that the ANC's succession from Mandela to Mbeki to Jacob Zuma was a matter of devolution. In conversations with young partisans around the country, though, I'd seen how respect for the icon had become indivisible from faith in the party as a whole.

This suggested an obvious risk for the ANC as it entered its 101st year, of course. It wasn't formal opposition parties, or criticism from elites or foreign observers, which posed the biggest threat to its continued dominance, but rather the accumulating effect of ANC's failure to deliver to its most patient young true believers. For Vunene, there was visible evidence of the government's efforts to combat poverty in new homes and provide piped-in-water, electricity, and new roads. During the past year, though, party leaders had betrayed the schoolchildren of Limpopo in a profound way.

The chief avenue of social mobility for most young black South Africans, lay in access education and job training. In Limpopo province, the public schools were poorly provisioned and inadequately staffed. What's more, no textbooks in key grades had been delivered all year long, in the ANC's much-vaunted and celebrated centennial year. President Zuma underscored this as a blot on the historical record of the party, in his opening address to the ANC delegates on Sunday. The result of the debacle was that Vunene had his new bookshelf but none of the texts he needed to prepare for the massive exam, run a few weeks ago, that determines whether a young person can go on to college.

When I reached him by telephone last night, Vunene reported without a hint of self-pity that it had been rather difficult to study for the massive exam without textbooks. He and his friends squirreled away their notes, compiled printouts from a few sessions at pricey Internet cafes, and pooled materials sent to them in solidarity by university students. "We used our friends' memories," was the way he put it. Results would come in on January 3. He was doing his best not to worry, and would not be shaken from his dream of becoming a doctor. "There's a big need here, because of tuberculosis and HIV," he'd already told me.

His voice passed through the line loud enough now to drown out speeches from the conference. He'd been thinking of his hero, Mandela. "In life, we do die, it's ordinary. But accepting his death is very hard," he said, adding that he thought it was unfortunate, and strange, that so much fighting should be going on at the ANC convention while Mandela lay in hospital. He hoped party leaders would at least drive out the corrupt and incompetent people who'd failed the schoolchildren of Limpopo. It occurred me that his confidence in the party had faltered, and when the ANC loses the support of its core among young black stalwarts, the party will be over.

Hearing Vunene's voice whisper through the phone reminded me of the tens of millions of lives squandered under Apartheid and also the millions more whose potential, now, remains largely untapped. In this sense, the legacy of Nelson Mandela is still being shaped. It's a flesh-and-blood legacy bound up the lived experience of a new generation, its outcome contingent on the ability of his successors to regain their bearings, correct their course, and fulfill the party's promise.