In South Africa, Nelson Mandela has left behind a democracy that is at once unified by his memory and fractured by it. His African National Congress (ANC) political party, the single most dominant force in public life since the end of apartheid in 1994, is entrenched and corrupt, seemingly beyond electoral rebuke but incapable of delivering meaningful or consistent economic growth. Challengers are emerging from within, as in the case of Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth leader whose Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) offer up a racially-conscious, Marxist take on the country’s explosive income inequality. The usually-loyal National Union of Metalworkers is forming its own party. And of course more business-friendly alternatives are making their case; Mamphela Ramphele, a favorite of the Davos set, is on her way to a strong showing in next year’s elections.
And yet none of the major political forces out there seem to offer a credible way forward, one that likely will need to redistribute wealth without touching off a virulent backlash in the business world or among the white population generally. Race still determines economic destiny in the country, a dynamic Mandela seemed to determine was acceptable in the short-term so that political and social rights might be universalized. Now, some two decades after his ascent to power, Mandela’s South Africa was finally coming out of his shadow even before his departure, with the tales of his personal bravery and heroism growing less and less resonant in the battle for public opinion. His death has only accelerated an urgent national act of soul-searching, leading to questions about the staying power of President Jacob Zuma, Mandela’s quasi-successor. ANC elders are wondering out loud if it might be time for him to step aside; a mini-scandal over his use of public funds for lavish upgrades to his personal compound officially was squashed this week by a state investigation but remains a ripe target for attack and a symbol of just how transactional most pols are in Johannesburg.
Of course, it’s difficult to envision the ANC undertaking a serious batch of internal reform unless and until it suffers a stinging defeat at the polls. The only question is whether voters will continue to look on the party with the same reverence now that its spiritual godfather is no more. At the same time, the potential for violence or chaos as new parties gain favor is real; mineworker protests in Marikana last year reminded us that the government is still capable of resembling its old, apartheid-era self, at least in how it handles some forms of unrest. Segments of the youth vote have been radicalized by such incidents, as well as general poverty trends, which feed a persistent sense that national politics are intractable. Mandela left behind a party but not a vision for the future, for how to complete this process of national reconciliation. His allies are left to claim his legacy as their own, but the fact is that Mandela’s politics never offered a path toward economic harmony. As the national conversation turns from his greatness to the shortcomings of modern life in South Africa, the class divide looms large.