Nelson Mandela's Death and South Africa's Next Great Struggle

With the anti-apartheid crusader's death on Thursday, will South Africans finally confront the stark inequalities that still plague their young democracy?

Nelson Mandela, then the African National Congress (ANC) vice-president, addresses a capacity crowd at a rally in Port Elizabeth in April 1990. (Juda Ngwenya/Reuters) 

JOHANNESBURG — In the late 1980s, Jeffrey's Bay's waves were perfect and its politics was simple: white people ruled the roost, and black people were not neighbors—they were gardeners (or, as most people called them, "garden boys"), domestic workers ("maids"), and laborers. Jeffrey's, as it's known to the locals, is a coastal town in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. It's very famous for great surf and attracts wave warriors from around the world seeking the perfect barrel. In 1989, it also attracted my fathera journalist with a young family who was looking for a change of pace and an escape from big city newspapering. So wemy parents and I, with our pet dogsmoved to Jeffrey's and I was enrolled at the local primary school. I was seven. Every morning, my classmates and I sang the national anthem, Die StemThe Callbeneath our country's white, orange, and blue flag. Our lessons were taught mostly in Afrikaans. I had no non-white classmates, which wasn't a big deal because my life had always been that way. I was white. My friends were white. The woman who cleaned my house was black.

For our physical education classes, we were supposed to wear white. One day, my usual white T-shirt was dirty, or lost, and I raided my father's closet for a replacement—I liked to wear his clothes, even if they were a little baggy, because they helped me pretend I was also an important, smart journalist. This T-shirt was emblazoned with the smiling, gentle face of a black man. I put it on for the weekly class and was immediately pulled aside by the teacher. What was I doing, he demanded? Did I know that I was wearing the face of a terrorist? I had no idea what he meant, nor why the smiling black man and the words "Free Mandela" might make my teacher so very angry. I put the shirt back in my dad's cupboard and never told him the story.

Four years later, I watched a different teacher weep as he tried to explain to an assembly of bewildered primary school pupils why it mattered so deeply that the man from my father's old T-shirt was about to become our president.

I've never met a South African who is ambivalent about Nelson Mandela.

To those who cling to him as a sort of talisman, he is an icon, a deity sent down to save us from ourselves. He is Jesus Christ returned, walking among South Africans of all races and guiding us through the frightening dying days of apartheid. Just more than 20 years ago, he was weeks from becoming president and one of his closest allies, South African Communist Party Secretary General Chris Hani, was assassinated at his Gauteng home by a white right-winger. Tens of thousands of South Africans, most of them black, took to the streets of major cities in an outpouring of public grief and rage. Mandela went on national television and told South Africans about Hani's white neighbor who phoned the police to describe the gunman. He called for calm. It worked. This is the Mandela who is invoked by the faithful, the devotees who insist he alone averted a civil war and saved countless white lives.

To others, Mandela is no Jesus. He's more like Judas, betraying his cause and his people for the 30 silver pieces of power. Mandela is the man, his detractors argue, who let the National Party politicians and their brutal lackeys in the police, army, and civil service get away cleanly after their apartheid policies had driven the country to the brink of war.

The detractors loathe those who believe, fervently, that Mandela is the only thing standing between white South Africans and marauding black South Africans determined to take homes, jobs, plots of land, and our lives by force.

So who, and what, was Nelson Mandela, really? His 96th birthday would have been on July 18, but he spent a lot of time in the hospital since last December, his health badly damaged by a bout of pneumonia some years ago. Every time he was admitted to the hospital, the nation immediately divided: some held their breath, praying desperately for just a few more months or days, taking to Twitter to implore him to live to 100. Some of this was, I believe, driven by genuine affection for the old statesman. A lot of it is about symbolism: Mandela is the face of democracy in South Africa—nevermind the many who worked alongside him, both publicly and in the shadows—and his death will force us to face up to what the changes and gains of the past two decades mean to the average South African. For many, it's about fear. What if the right wing has been telling the truth all along? What if we're all slaughtered in our beds? Recently I had a furious debate with an old friend I'd always thought to be quite level-headed. He was amassing a substantial gun collection in preparation for Mandela's death. He felt absolutely certain that Mandela's death would doom the white minority. He planned to emigrate to Australia with his family, but if he can't manage to get there before Madiba's wake, his weapons are loaded and within easy reach.

Then there are those who actively wished Mandela dead. The deification of Saint Mandela, they say, reveals just how deeply racist most white South Africans are—they only respect "good blacks." Others believe his death will clear the path for us to have the really tough discussions that are so crucial in South Africa right now. The African National Congress (ANC) has been the governing party for almost 20 years. A great deal has changed, but South Africa is still a staggeringly unequal society.

In January 2013, a security policeman named Dirk Coetzee died of cancer. Coetzee famously lifted the lid on Vlakplaas, where apartheid activists were tortured and murdered by the police. Mandela and other ANC leaders were heavily criticized, mostly by black South Africans, for allowing Coetzee and others like him to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. Why, people asked, had Coetzee not died in prison, where murderers belong? When, they demand, will we acknowledge that Mandela and his colleagues let killers walk free in the name of reconciliation? Why has there been no real, tangible redress for the victims of apartheid brutality?

Through it all, Nelson Mandela moved quietly between his home in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Houghton and a series of hospitals in Johannesburg and Pretoria. His children and grandchildren make headlines here in South Africa for their sometimes utterly craven attempts to cash in on the incredibly valuable Mandela brand. There are deep faultlines in House Madiba (the statesman takes his nickname from his clan name)—the factions and the friction are like a real-life episode of Game of Thrones. South Africa's newspapers were recently alight with stories about the latest public battle: two of Mandela's daughters trying to take control of his estate. This infuriates those who believed in Saint Mandela, that he is a holy cow who must not be touched by gauche, human issues.

This much is clear: Now that Mandela has died, something will shift in South Africa for good. It will be time to take stock of where we are as a young democracy and realize that ending apartheid was just one battle in a much bigger war. I hope we're ready to fight.