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Should Mandela have done more?

South Africa
Nelson Mandela illustration

dignidadrebelde under a Creative Commons Licence

When South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed that Nelson Mandela had died, he hailed him as South Africa’s ‘greatest son’. As the world’s citizens come to terms with Mandela’s passing, focus has fallen onto his legacy.

There can be no denying the fact that Mandela represented the last breed of the African continent’s value-driven politicians, who catalysed change in South Africa. He was the longest-serving political prisoner on the continent in recent history, an icon of resistance against oppression and racism and, in many respects, a model of reconciliation.

Mandela is to be credited, also, for introducing modern-era parliamentary democracy in South Africa. Since South Africa’s independence in 1994, it has been possible for successive presidents to come to power without bloodshed or complaint of vote-rigging or malpractice. One can argue that by so doing, Mandela provided inspiration both for people in leadership and for aspiring leaders. He served his term and left power without having to be ejected or rejected by the people. When he relinquished power, he sat back and let the new rulers run the show without interference.

Those who have benefited from his struggles and his brand of leadership include both the young and old, female and male. Mandela allowed a discussion about gay and lesbian rights in South Africa; the country now allows same-sex marriages. To that extent, Mandela was for all-inclusiveness and a plural society.

He ensured that there was some parity and equality between the sexes. If one looks at the African National Congress (ANC), which he led, one realizes that it represented women very broadly and, perhaps thanks to the foundation Mandela and his administration built, women in South Africa today hold key positions in government and industry. The country has one of the highest proportions of women in parliament in Africa and a substantial number of women holding ministerial and other senior positions.

It is hard to say what kind of laws came into effect during Nelson Mandela’s tenure and to what extent they promoted the welfare of women and children. Nevertheless, with respect to access to education, Mandela and his administration did well; today, female students are well represented in the country’s institutions of higher education. This can be seen as a major achievement.

Mandela’s many positive legacies notwithstanding, one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is his ‘selective amnesia’. Having walked that often-cited long walk to freedom and come into power in southern Africa’s biggest economy, he did not, contrary to what might be expected, acknowledge the contribution of the many countries that were battered by South Africa as it pursued independence. Those countries include Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

One would have expected Mandela to have gone an extra mile in the journey that was started by another African, Kwame Nkrumah, who famously declared that the independence of Ghana would not be good enough unless and until the rest of Africa was independent and that Pan-Africanism as an ideal was to be pursued, or words to that effect.

Accordingly, one of Mandela’s negative legacies is that South Africa is today to a large extent closed to the rest of Africa. It is more open to white people than to Africans. You are more likely to be required to produce a transit visa in Johannesburg if you are a black person from Africa than if you are from Washington.

One would have expected Mandela to have been at the frontline of acknowledging the support of countries that stood by South Africa in its hour of need. The downfall of apartheid did not come merely by Mandela being in prison for 27 years. Many other people and countries – especially the Frontline States – played a major role in South Africa’s struggle.

Prior to his death, Mandela spent a long time in hospital. Few African leaders visited him or said anything substantial about his health. While this trend is difficult to read, one can put it down to respect for his privacy and acknowledging that the end was not too far for the man who once famously said that one of his greatest regrets in life was that he never became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. But the debate around his legacy will rage on, long after he has been laid to rest.

Moses Magadza is a Zimbabwean journalist and editor. He is broadening his mind in the University of Namibia’s School of Postgraduate Studies.

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