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’.

Medicine for South Africa: the need to preserve Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has entered his sixth day in a Johannesburg hospital where his pneumonia is said to be improving. The global media has tracked Mandela’s health carefully in the past few months, ever since an extended stay in hospital in December led some to fear the worst that his long life may finally soon come to an end.

In South Africa, of course, there is widespread concern for ‘Madiba’, as he is affectionately known. The man who led the country’s anti-Apartheid struggle and became its first democratically-elected leader is highly revered. His popularity is almost as strong with whites as it is with the blacks and coloreds he initially supported. This results from Mandela’s decision to forgive his former white oppressors and, instead of seeking vengeance, encouraging reconciliation for the benefit of South Africa.

Without such a laudable promise it is possible that South Africa’s white population, decreasing as it is, may have altogether vanished. Concerns remain that, should Mandela die, the black majority – particularly those millions yet to escape a life of grinding poverty – may at last seek revenge against their former white rulers. A repeat of the land grabs in Zimbabwe under the Mugabe regime are envisaged by some in South Africa where large, profitable white farmsteads still exist, especially in the Western Cape.

Some of those living in South Africa's many slums believe white farmland should be handed over to needy blacks
Some of those living in South Africa’s many slums believe white farmland should be handed over to needy blacks

Mandela has struggled with lung trouble for some years. He is thought to have contracted tuberculosis whilst imprisoned on Robben Island, when he worked in a quarry. Ironically, his status as a national safeguard against exacerbated racial tension has made him a prisoner today, at the age of ninety-four. Mandela has often spoken of his determination to live out his days quietly in the rural village of Qunu, his homeland in the Eastern Cape. On strict doctor’s orders, however, he has been forced to stay at his Houghton home in the Johannesburg suburbs so that he is close to expert medical attention should the need arise.

Mandela's rural retreat in Qunu is a far cry from the suburbia of Johannesburg
Mandela’s rural retreat in Qunu is a far cry from the suburbia of Johannesburg

Unfortunately, that need is increasing at an alarming rate. Aside from his extended stay in December, Mandela visited hospital in February for a stomach condition. His detention in Johannesburg has likely arisen out of political necessity as much as from a genuine concern for his well-being. The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since Apartheid ended, is decreasing in popularity. Its leadership under President Jacob Zuma is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective, unable or unwilling to alleviate the vast income gap between the country’s rich and poor or confront the social and healthcare issues that continue to blight South Africa.

Zuma uses Mandela as a political tool. He portrays the two as being close and is always eager to convey his sincere concern each time the elder statesman falls ill. By associating himself with the country’s hero, Zuma hopes to retain a vestige of popularity that will need to carry him through another full term as the country’s leader. Whilst the ANC is losing supporters, no viable alternative has emerged to assume the mantle of leadership in South Africa. Zuma therefore, whilst confident of remaining in power, needs public support to increase or at the very least not to deteriorate further if his second term is not to become mired in discord and conflict.

Last year’s mining strikes and the subsequent shooting at the Marikana mine diminished his standing further and the challenge by youth league leader Julius Malema (who was subsequently expelled from the ANC) and his supporters suggests Zuma is no longer in touch with the country’s younger generation.

Young populists like Malema threaten to wrest control of the ANC from the older generation
Young populists like Malema threaten to wrest control of the ANC from the older generation

Therefore, it is in his interest for Mandela to live on as an ANC icon. How could a true South African, particularly a black South African, vote against Madiba? By using Mandela’s legacy of struggle and reconciliation, Zuma hopes to hold the country, and his administration, together. Whether this is just delaying an inevitable trauma which will erupt on Mandela’s death remains to be seen. What appears clear, however, is that the man revered throughout South Africa is being given little choice about how he wants to live the final few years of his life. And that is a tragedy that ranks among so many others in his lifetime.