Mr Mandela was only a single-term president in South Africa, but a significant touchstone figure for the country, and it is somewhat insulting to Mr Mandela to suggest his lifetime’s work will unravel at the end of his life. Of course, this would be nowhere near as insulting for the man’s legacy if his lifetime’s work did actually unravel upon his death. But it is more likely his legacy will remain intact, as will the country.
Mr Mandela certainly remains a nominal figurehead in South Africa, but his last public appearance was back in 2010. His illness is a South African state secret and he appears to be losing his mental faculties (as many older people inevitably do). Ultimately though, the African National Congress (ANC) is working fine without his leadership, and has for a number of years.
Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa recently re-elected, has leant heavily on Mr Mandela’s strong legacy to bolster his own credibility. So in the event of his death he’ll have to strike out completely on his own. Just how that will affect Mr Zuma’s leadership is unclear, but the narrative of South Africa’s future will likely change with Mandela’s death.
The real fear is that politics in South Africa will become much more raw and ruthless once he passes away. “The rot has been evident for some time, spreading ever deeper into the very soul of the organisation,” says veteran liberal journalist, and ANC sympathiser, Allister Sparks. “We have become a corrupt country. The whole body politic is riddled with it. We have reached a kind of corruption gridlock.
“When so many people in high places have the dirt on each other, no-one dares blow a whistle. When the President of the country has managed to get off the hook on a major corruption case [charges relating to bribes associated with the country’s multi-billion dollar arms deal with Britain and other European Union countries], how can he crack down on corruption anywhere else in his administration?
“We have gone backwards on the two core principles that carried the ANC through all the long years of its liberation struggle, through the tough constitutional negotiating process and into the dawn of the new South Africa – the principle of non-racialism and the principle of clean, honest government that would deliver a better life for all.”
The opposition parties are not much better. The firebrand ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s rants have poisoned the national atmosphere to a degree not seen since Apartheid days.
For a long time, there has been an echo of liberation pulling the country’s politics along. With the death of Mr Mandela, South Africa will have to contend with the death also, of an era he so magically encapsulates. Capitalism is more important to the people of South Africa these days, more so than the ideas of freedom long since gained. Transition from Apartheid is moving further into the past as the younger generation feel less affinity with the movement of their parents and are happy to live the lives of an advancing economy.
South Africa is a radically diverse and complicated country. It's people are generally friendly and hopeful. It's inventive, a bit wild west, and a land of opportunity. There are so many factors at stake, that the chance of any negative polarisation leading toward a Zimbabwe style outcome is low. Business has carried on through the transition, with all the trappings of wealth that result. Leading to a new middle class of black African people springing up, none of whom are keen on anything radical bucking the system.
Wealth is now the overriding divide in South Africa, not race. If there is going to be any unease after Mr Mandela’s death, his death will be co-opted as a springboard for groups looking to gain more political power, and wrest the current power away from Mr Zuma’s ANC government.
A good example of this is the striking miners last year. As the mining industry demands less and less unskilled workers to operate their mines, the job market tends to contract and stresses the South African labour force. The gap between skilled workers who can operate the highly-advanced coal-to-liquid and gas-to-liquid technologies, plus the gold, platinum, and diamond mines and unskilled diggers or truck drivers is expanding. More and more Africans are losing jobs because of these changes and placing greater pressure on the state.
High unemployment is a recipe for social instability. And South Africa is struggling to supply jobs to its population. Ironically, because Mr Zuma’s opponents can leverage the unemployment problem to fight his rule, there is no incentive to create jobs for the unemployed. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.
At the moment there simply isn’t the potential for the majority of South Africans to climb the socio-economic ladder as there aren’t enough labour-intensive jobs for them to fill. Tertiary education figures as percentage of population in South Africa are 15.2%. To put that in perspective New Zealand figures are 69.2%. Skilled labour does actually exist in South Africa, but it generally comes from highly-educated immigrants who follow their national industries to South Africa.
South Africa holds together not because of Mr Mandela, but because of what he did and what he set up. The country is in relatively good shape, considering the trouble it has experienced over last century. There is a strong media industry in South Africa, elections are more or less fair, and the judiciary is competent and relatively free.
Jacob Zuma made it back into power last year and this, more than anything, will increase the tension in the country. It is possible to think of South Africa as already living in a post-Mandela era. The man has been out of South African politics for a number of years now and his successors Mbeki and Zuma have had no end of problems with their rule. If the country is to fall in the future, and some cynics suggest it already has begun the spiral of collapse, Mandela’s death will probably not be the catalyst.
Unless the social and employment problems can be addressed, a task easier said than done, South Africa’s security situation and economic maelstrom will remain intensely volatile. There certainly is potential for instability after his death, but it probably wouldn’t be because of his death. Everyone dies, and Mr Mandela is mortal just like the rest of us.The underlying politics of South Africa are in a different place today and are bigger than one man.