Mandela’s Difficult Political Legacy: the challenges facing the ‘new’ South Africa

The passing of Nelson Mandela has been understandably mourned and the former freedom fighter and South African president has rightfully been praised for his attempts at reconciliation in the post-Apartheid era and for his genuine attempts to create an inclusive society.

That said, by the time Mandela left his position as president in 1999, South Africa was on the brink of political and social turmoil, a brink on which the country now teeters dangerously. For reasons often far beyond his control, Nelson Mandela’s political legacy in South Africa is far more open to debate than the humanitarian legacy that people the world over admire.

Mandela had the unenviable role of South Africa's first democratically-elected president
Mandela had the unenviable role of South Africa’s first democratically-elected president


The government of South Africa is often held up as one blighted by corruption, an accusation which has become increasingly frequent during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, yet a problem that has been apparent for some time.

South Africa's political hierarchy is rife with corruption
South Africa’s political hierarchy is rife with corruption

Within a few months of the African National Congress (ANC) taking power in 1994, it was obvious that newly-appointed ministers and bureaucrats, particularly those further down the rungs of the political ladder, were abusing their new power status as a means of enrichment.

Part of this was a legacy of the patronage networks developed during the Apartheid era but primarily it resulted from an inexperienced political class, long subdued, that naively thought that the spoils of public office was compensation for the years of repression.

Mandela reacted slowly to this problem, finally appointing the Heath Commission in 1997 to investigate corrupt practices in government. Despite collating over 1,000 cases, it took intense media scrutiny for any senior officials to be forced to resign. The failure for a swifter and more severe clampdown on corruption resonates today.


Perhaps the biggest challenge of the Mandela presidency was overhauling the education system, to create an integrated state structure that provided equality for white, African and Indian pupils alike.

Re-integration was partly successful in state schools although, perhaps as a result of this, the matriculation rates of African students actually decreased during the late 1990s. Furthermore, the ability to provide even the most basic educational provisions to the very poorest in society proved a desperate struggle, a struggle still not being met today.

White families, rather than rely on the new integrated state schools, saved more money to fund private education for their children and therefore some of the Apartheid system was retained within the educational establishment.


Crime in South African cities is a persisting problem, far worse than during the Apartheid era. Incidences of rape, in particular, are shocking, and gang rape is an all-too-frequent occurrence in the inner city.

Politicians and judicial officials procrastinated on the rape issue throughout the Mandela presidency and it was only in 1999, after public outcry by domestic and international human rights groups, that tougher sentences for rapists were passed. Even now, leniency for offenders and police inaction are common due the ‘commonality’ of the crime.

The drug trade has also taken root in the major cities, particularly Johannesburg, where unconstrained immigration of Nigerian gangsters has turned once attractive districts into slums.

Once an attractive inner suburb, Hillbrow is now the site of frequent drugs raids
Once an attractive inner suburb, Hillbrow is now the site of frequent drugs raids


Contraction rates of AIDS in South African remain high (approximately 15% of the population). The Apartheid government did little to address an issue than had reached epidemic proportions amongst black South Africans by the mid-1980s.

The governments of Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, likewise were slow to respond to an issue that had already ravaged poorer sections of society. Whilst Mandela was instrumental in highlighting the plight of AIDS sufferers to the international community, he was unable to generate policies or societal awareness that could effectively combat the prevalence of the disease at home.

The Legacy

The issues listed above are among the most severe facing South Africa today, a South Africa now devoid of its spiritual and moral leader.

Nelson Mandela is, of course, not to blame for the challenges facing his country. He inherited a nation divided by class, economy, politics and, most notably, race. Without his stewardship, it is very possible that a civil war or a violent assault on white South Africans may have taken place.

However it is possible that Mandela was simply overwhelmed by the difficulties confronting a new democracy, for his government was characterised by inaction, inefficiency and corruption, all of which have contributed to the problems faced today. These problems now have the potential to incite the violence Mandela himself helped prevent.

A country with a history such as South Africa’s is always going to be impossible to rule effectively; colonised by two white powers, encompassing a variety of ethnic groups and tribal affiliations, unity is not natural.

Even Nelson Mandela, despite his efforts, fell short of creating a stable and prosperous ‘Rainbow Nation’.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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