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Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Nelson Mandela passed away today in Johannesburg at the age of 95. Earlier this year, during Mandela’s illness, Eve Fairbanks prepared this assesment of his life and legacy. 

Soon after I moved to South Africa in 2009, I rode through Soweto, the historic black township south of Johannesburg, with a young black journalist and p.r. guru named Brian Mahlangu. The editor of a new design magazine, Mahlangu wanted to show me the township’s nascent sexy side. But the more we drove around, the more agitated he became. Soweto has some glorious houses, but where the lawns end and the sidewalks begin sit drifts of bleached-out Coke bottles, cheese-curl packets, empty KFC containers, chicken bones. South Africans litter profusely; Soweto’s parks are landscaped with garbage. Mahlangu told me he thought this was because young blacks still lack a “sense of ownership” of South Africa’s common spaces and of the country itself. Then he said something startling: “I blame Mandela.” He gestured out our taxi window at a median strip dusted in a snow of Styrofoam. “This trash is his fault.” 

Make no mistake: The achievements of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, put him up there with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of rare men who guided transitioning nations with an otherworldly vision. Imprisoned 27 years by the country’s white Afrikaner minority, Mandela emerged in 1990 ready to forgive his oppressors and use his power not to pursue revenge but to create a new country founded on racial reconciliation. With his cheerfully colored Madiba shirts, his beatific smile, and his beautiful speeches, he became a kind of totem for the new South Africa, not only initiating but continually ensuring the peace. In 1993, a year before the end of white rule, the assassination of the black-liberation leader Chris Hani by a white right-winger threatened an outbreak of crippling violence. Then Mandela went on television and movingly deracialized the incident:

Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate ... committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. ... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for—thefreedom of all of us.

But there is also this reality: Many South Africans under 40 feel little connection to the father of their nation. Articles about Mandela’s many health scares late in life often featured laudatory quotes from two kinds of South Africans—whites and older blacks—while leaving out the voices of young blacks, who have a more ambivalent relationship with their founder-saint. Some even resent him.

Last year, I went to a new township called Diepsloot to speak to a group of young people about the change that had occurred in their country since 1994. Diepsloot is an unintended creation of South African freedom: a massive squatter camp sprung up on a swath of nearly uninhabitable marshland outside Johannesburg. It is populated by aspirants from South Africa’s deep rural regions. Apartheid had trapped blacks in the countryside with intricate restrictions on their movements. Once it began to crumble, a belated and swift process of urbanization began, in which rural blacks flocked to the cities to flee the joblessness in their native regions. The problem is, they haven’t found nearly enough jobs in the cities, either.

“The children of the people who participated in the 1976 uprising”—a famous black protest action under apartheid—“are destitute,” complained Masie Malemela Malomela, a soft-spoken 35-year-old in a black trench coat who spoke with me in a sleepy, dusty street outside a row of corrugated-aluminum shacks. We met at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, but the street, he explained, was just waking up, having no reason to rouse itself earlier. Depending on which statistics you trust, South African unemployment today sits between 25 percent and 40 percent, with the situation most dire among young people: Some 71 percent of South Africans between ages 15 and 34 do not participate in the formal economy. Despite having finished high school, Malomela himself has been unable to find work. Searching for an explanation for what seemed to him to be an abrogation of the basic promises of freedom, he, like Brian Mahlangu, had settled on Mandela: The only way to account for such a disappointment was to conclude that the hero himself had made some kind of mistake. The devil had been hidden in the details of the much-touted Mandela-led reconciliation. “There was a decision to share” power with whites in 1994, Malomela explained. But “that sharing was not fair. The blacks said, ‘We’ll take the political power.’ And the Afrikaners took the economy.”

It’s true that white South Africans have fared remarkably well financially post-apartheid. Only 9 percent of the shares of the top 100 companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange have moved into black hands, and whites still comprise 70 percent of senior management. Meanwhile, the truly eye-catching black economic advancement has been relatively confined to a high-flying class of black-liberation-movement veterans or their friends, the so-called “black diamonds” who now sit on the boards of formerly white-run corporations and drive tricked-out BMWs.

A 30-year-old friend of Malomela’s, Mothakge Makwela, recounted how his perception of the black political leadership had shifted over the course of his youth. As a small child, Makwela loved Mandela. He also didn’t yet see himself as destitute. “But you start noticing economic disparities [between yourself and the black diamonds] when you pass matric,” the high school graduation exam. “When you get [to college], you start to notice you cannot pay. You start to notice you are very poor.” His ultimate conclusion, he said, was that “Mandela sold us out.” In the democratic transition, the black-liberation leaders “were representing themselves. ... Look at the Mandelas—the whole family is making a killing.” Mandela personally has never particularly flaunted his wealth, but his house is in Johannesburg’s version of Westchester—a leafy estate of soaring mansions and stately tree-shaded avenues—and his foundation is known for fiercely protecting the copyright on his iconic smiling visage, so that the wealth it produces redounds only to the family. His grandson led a heavily capitalized mining company that was later prosecuted for defrauding its workers. His granddaughters cashed in with a reality TV show.

How much truth is there to the perception that the terms worked out by Mandela and his fellow negotiators during South Africa’s democratic transition enriched a few blacks at the expense of the masses? I asked Pierre de Vos, a University of Cape Town–based constitutional scholar. “If you look at the final constitution, the African National Congress”—the ANC, Mandela’s party—“got about eighty percent of what they wanted,” de Vos told me over the phone. “I think the ANC out-negotiated the [Afrikaner] National Party completely.” However, there was also “a deal that was made outside” the constitutional negotiations, de Vos added, a “gentleman’s agreement” between Mandela and “the commanding heights of the economy.”

Prior to Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990, the ANC had long advocated radical economic change, projects like the nationalization of mining and more equitable sharing of agricultural work and profits. When Mandela was released, he began to make the rounds at Western economic summits, where he was quickly persuaded that such dramatic moves would be folly. “The arguments were that ... there would be a flight of capital and the economy would collapse,” said de Vos. An understanding emerged: The ANC wouldn’t touch big business if big business agreed not to leave the country and to incorporate blacks into top management. Unfortunately, this deal also resulted in a lack of entry- and mid-level job creation and the further entrenchment of an apartheid economy designed only to employ an insufficient number of low-level workers in fields like mining with little room for personal creativity or advancement.

The past year has seen an increasing number of strikes and protests over poor blacks’ lack of economic advancement. “There will be radical change,” Malomela predicts. “You see what happened in Egypt.” If a consensus builds on the South African street around the idea that most blacks didn’t profit substantially from their liberation—if the belief hardens that the country is due for a belated revolution—then the national understanding of Nelson Mandela’s era may shift.

The legacies of major leaders are always evolving. Oliver Cromwell was given a king’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, only to become the object of such general British revulsion several years later that his body was disinterred and posthumously hung and the head then impaled on a stake. Centuries later, as Cromwell’s record was revised upward, a grand statue of him was unveiled near where his pierced skull had sat. It amazes me that there are so few substantial biographies of Mandela. So much about his full record is yet to be assessed. There will be many obituaries for him, but today the story of how we will remember him is only beginning to be written.

Eve Fairbanks, a writer living in Johannesburg, is working on a book about post-apartheid South Africa.