Mandela's Troubled Legacy

Nelson Mandela outside his Soweto home in 1990, three days after his release from 27 years in prison.

Nelson Mandela outside his Soweto home in 1990, three days after his release from 27 years in prison.


Gideon Mendel/Corbis/Getty Images

July 18 is the centenary of

Nelson Mandela’s

birth, and across the world events are planned to mark it. In South Africa, Bikers for Mandela will rally, and muffins for Mandela will be baked. There will be a Mandela soup kitchen, Mandela Day kennel building, Golf for Good on Mandela Day, a special performance of the Mandela Trilogy opera, Mandela Day Yoga, Mandela Day marathons and galas and Mandela T-shirts, bearing his prison number, 46664. The Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on this centenary year will be delivered in Johannesburg by President

Barack Obama.

And just in time for the celebrations, the bulging bookshelf of Mandelobilia is getting various new additions, including “The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela” and a brisk new biography by the former antiapartheid activist (and U.K. Labour Party minister) Peter Hain. Later in the year, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and African artists including Femi Kuti and Wizkid will perform at a Mandela centenary concert in Johannesburg. Oprah Winfrey will open with a keynote address. Her subject: Mandela’s legacy.

So what exactly is Nelson Mandela’s legacy? A truly global icon, he is probably more widely admired today than Gandhi, Churchill, Kennedy,

Martin Luther King,

Solzhenitsyn or Mother Teresa. Yet in 1963, at the age of 44, Mandela the man disappeared behind prison walls. He was absent from public view for 10,052 days—27 years.

Mandela re-emerged in 1990 as a hero, negotiated an end to the moral stain of apartheid and was elected the first president of the new South Africa, serving from 1994 to 1999, when he retired from active politics. Like George Washington, he could have continued in office but instead stepped down. He wanted to show that clinging to power was not conducive to good governance. Mandela died nearly five years ago. Now he belongs to history.

The aura of Mandela is that of turning the other cheek to historical injustice—the ills of colonialism, of oppression, of exploitation.

There are three tines to the trident of Mandela’s legacy: his party, the ANC; his country, South Africa; and his personal philosophy, most of all, his example of forgiveness, his lack of bitterness after he emerged from prison. Of this trio, only the last—his astonishing magnanimity—has escaped disappointment. But in many ways, it is the greatest, the most universal and exportable. He serves as a lasting bellwether of our better nature, the quintessential highroad-taker, the patron saint of forgiveness of historical sins.

This iconic power has been seized upon with particular fervor by white South Africans, the erstwhile beneficiaries of apartheid. For them (and as a white Zimbabwean, I get it), Mandela’s reassurances were essential. For them, Mandela was, and remains, totemic. They tend to deploy him like a crucifix to ward off the vampire of racial retribution. They speak of “Madiba,” his single-name moniker, as though invoking a deity, a godhead without whom their land and property may be seized, without whom they may be driven into the sea.

To some extent this is also true of privileged populations everywhere else. The aura of Mandela is that of turning the other cheek to historical injustice—the ills of colonialism, of oppression, of exploitation. In that regard, Mr. Obama seems an apposite speaker at Mandela’s centenary. He too is a black man who appears to bear no real racial animus. Perhaps partly because he had a privileged upbringing, perhaps because his mother was white. Perhaps because his father was an African immigrant, his black heritage free from the agonies of slavery. Perhaps because, like Mandela, he simply rose above it.

A young girl with a temporary Mandela tattoo attends a June event in Soweto celebrating his legacy.

A young girl with a temporary Mandela tattoo attends a June event in Soweto celebrating his legacy.



Sello Hatang, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said of Mr. Obama as a centenary speaker, “We thought to ourselves, ‘Who can best represent the legacy of Madiba? Who took the baton when he became president of his own country? Who would be able to deal with issues of democracy in a world ripped apart by corruption?’”

In South Africa, however, there are those, like

Julius Malema,

expelled as head of the ANC youth wing for being too militant, who have gone into opposition. Mr. Malema heads a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. He feels that Mandela was too conciliatory, that he forgave whites before they had apologized, let alone atoned, and that black economic liberation is still a distant dream. He urges the appropriation of white property without compensation, as

Robert Mugabe

did next door in Zimbabwe, with catastrophic results.

Indeed, though there is now a small but very wealthy black elite in South Africa, many of them the beneficiaries of policies of black economic empowerment, and a much larger black middle class, whites there are even wealthier compared with blacks than they were at the end of apartheid. South Africa’s Gini index—a formula for measuring economic inequality—is now almost the world’s highest.

Many of South Africa’s recent economic travails have been the direct result of the nine-year misrule of the former president

Jacob Zuma,

who presided over the moral collapse and debasement of the ANC. Under Mr. Zuma, the government became a trough for the enrichment of party and state officials. He betrayed all that Mandela stood for.

The fact that

Cyril Ramaphosa

finally ascended to the South African presidency in February may help to restore this aspect of Mandela’s legacy. In a dynastic play that Mandela would have disliked, Mr. Zuma had tried to hand power on to his ex-wife

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

But to give the ANC credit, they didn’t go for it, albeit by the slightest of margins.

Mr. Ramaphosa is still struggling to take over the levers of power, fighting off the remnants of Mr. Zuma’s cabal. Once the head of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers and a major negotiator of the postapartheid constitution, Mr. Ramaphosa closely reflects Mandela’s vision. He was Mandela’s original choice as successor (the ANC executive voted for

Thabo Mbeki

instead, and Mr. Ramaphosa went on to become a major mining titan). And the constitution that Mr. Ramaphosa helped to put in place is another of Mandela’s achievements. It includes a comprehensive bill of rights that guarantees an independent judiciary, multiparty democracy, a free press and a robust civil society.

Mr. Ramaphosa has pledged to tackle corruption and to reform the state institutions that Mr. Zuma (who now faces multiple criminal charges for corruption) did his best to undermine. In Mandela’s centenary year, the man he thought most able to channel his plans for a new South Africa is finally in a position to do so. He may just manage to restore his mentor’s legacy at home.

Around the world, Mandela’s ideals continue to inspire, as they should. In one of his prison letters in the new collection, he wrote, “We can be frank and outspoken without being reckless or abusive, polite without cringing, we can attack racialism and its evils without ourselves fostering feelings of hostility between different racial groups.”

Mandela rejected identity politics, of which apartheid was an extreme expression. He refused to measure people by their culture or skin color. Today, as we veer toward identity as our primary polity, his example seems more important than ever before. In a world where angry, abusive populism seeks to exacerbate our various divisions rather than to heal them, his voice carries an even greater maturity, integrity and wisdom. It makes one terribly nostalgic for real civil discourse.