For millions of South Africans, Nelson Mandela’s passing signalled the end of an era. Returning home to cover the story, journalist Azad Essa finds his countrymen looking a little lost, insecure of the future, even as they celebrate the life of a great man. Essa travelled around his native South Africa to track the mood of the nation. He notes the deification of this global icon despite the muck and grime of the great swathes of poverty that remain in South Africa two decades after the fall of Apartheid. The celebrations reminded him of contradictions he had seen elsewhere: India.

At seventeen, Mpho Matshimawe, living in the Waterkloof informal settlement just outside Johannesburg, is younger than South Africa’s democracy. She is one of the ‘born frees’, as they are known in local parlance. With no rhythm or rhyme, no lived experience of apartheid. She stood outside her mother’s shack, and projected her voice over the vast puddle that flooded the front yard and separated the two of us. I was visiting the informal camp to ask residents how they felt about Mandela. She will miss him, she told me.

‘I will be eighteen years [in May 2014] but I will not be voting. I will vote when I see things starting to change, but nothing ever changes here.’

Sixty per cent of Africans still farm and graze animals as their primary livelihood, as they have for hundreds of years. Nelson Mandela himself was a cattle herder as a young lad on the hills of Mqhekezweni, in the Eastern Cape. It’s from these same hills where Mandela was born and raised that many of the miners who work the underground for gold and diamonds hundreds of kilometres away, near Johannesburg, also come from. It is also here where so many tears were shed when thirty-four miners were shot dead by policemen at a platinum mine outside the town of Marikana on 16 August 2012.

Described as the most brutal police operation since the end of apartheid, the Marikana massacre is also a cogent reminder of the continued inequality strangling the country. The incident also pushed the ruling ANC to turn against its own supporters, grinding at their loyalties. The workers, in this instance, had had enough. In the past a strike against employers would go on until the ANC would call the unions and instruct an end to the intrusion on business life. This strike however was different. In the days leading up to 16 August, Marikana saw the rise of a new trade union, called the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), who rejected the collusion of the existing National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at the time, the largest trade union in the country, with employers,.

The demands for a wage hike drew ridicule from the middle classes in the cities. Why did rock drillers want a 300 per cent wage rise, they asked. Few wanted to understand the bigger story here. The collapsing rural economy were forcing thousands to the cities and the mines for work. Each miner was supporting 15–20 people in the farms, where subsistence farming was like flogging a dead cow. The miners were killed when their homes hundreds of kilometres away were already dying.

The project of reconciliation in this country battered by racial hatred and selective privilege and humiliation has always been unfathomable, even unreasonable without the advent of real equality. The incongruity remains a harpoon firmly fixed in the guts of the much cherished rainbow nation democracy, and the hurt is expressed in the serial convulsions of severe criminality, gender abuse, including rape and xenophobia. Both India and South Africa also endure embarrassing accounts of rape, gang rape, corrective rape, gender mutilation and paedophilia. In a society built on patriarchy across all levels, class, race, caste, must we wonder why the disenfranchised are so easily provoked, so easy to ‘snap’, when their everyday is a form of abuse?

Apartheid was a system of separate development, built to retain economic and social dominance, through the fear of ‘the other’. Through the new dispensation, the structure in which this country operated, economically and socially, never altered. The country might have been declared non-racial, but little was done to refocus the ways of seeing each other, especially when there remained tangible differences in the material wealth of different race groups.

The miners of Marikana were described as ‘militant’, ‘dogmatic’, ‘armed’—as the
black folk were once described in this country.  Their demands were ‘unreasonable’ considering the economic climate, ‘regressive’, not unlike the tribals in the backwaters of India.

The conviction with which Mandela sold the dream of coexistence without revenge was the real miracle of South Africa. He managed to almost single-handedly slice though the white minority’s fear of ‘the other’—that is, the black majority—built up through decades of racist dogma of white supremacy. Mandela convinced most whites to buy into the new South Africa; he got most of them to stay.

He allowed white South Africans, and even the other minority, the Indian population, to feel they too could belong. His relationship with Ahmed Kathrada and other struggle veterans from the community, especially the valiant Fatima Meer, tied this community to the fortunes of the ANC.

But the fact that he had to tiptoe close to sainthood, through grandiose calls for forgiveness, offer peace without necessarily offering justice through platforms like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and then succumb to foreign economic logic, to be deemed a near saint, is nevertheless deeply troubling.

It is an also an expression of deep-seated racism where his ordinary flaws were subsumed by the personal wants of a minority and the expectation that Mandela’s example guaranteed that the oppressed and black population would remain civil despite their subjugation. As if Mandela had hypnotized a rabid population baying for the blood of the white man that only his death could unravel.

Despite his achievements, the construction of Mandela as a larger-than-life figure, and deity, like Gandhi, is an impossible feat to replicate: a meta-source of future failure for all who follow. Be it leader, or citizen, the pressure on ordinary men and women to follow in the footsteps of a figure whose feats only continue to grow is untenable.

To the outside world, Mandela’s style and rigour came as a huge relief, and his celebrity status did not arrive without problems. He became a darling to the Western world, appealing to liberals and their recent concerns with human rights, justice and political equality without radically upsetting the status quo. The image of Mandela, built up as the anti-Christ, commie-apostate to the white population during his years in prison, was upended overnight. He was the kind of black man they could do business with.

In this way, Mandela the statesman is sometimes compared to Nehru
the statesman after Independence. But a distinction must be made. Whereas Mandela stepped down willingly from politics, Nehru allowed his family to take the reigns of Congress. Moreover, despite Nehru’s ardent opposition to nationalism, which Mandela oft-repeated, the Indian prime minister banned the written or oratory questioning of India’s territorial integrity, holding on to Kashmir forcibly, quashing rebellions in the northeastern states with a bloodied fist.

Mandela’s legacy, flawed as it might be, was in contrast, fiercely democratic.

Twenty years on, however, the expectation of celebratory forgiveness without material improvement to the lives of millions of South Africans, without unhinging the social and economic structure that allowed the separated worlds, or apartheid, to continue in its different forms, is fast becoming untenable itself.

This is not to suggest that South Africans, of all races, have not benefited from an almost bloodless transition under Mandela, or to dispute the fact that some part of the foundation of the country has been laid for it to become the home for all who live in it. It is easy to renounce colour if it protects your privilege. But when colour still, to a large extent, determines access to a better life, it’s only so long before the farce reveals itself.


In our new column, ‘Drum Beat’ author and Al Jazeera journalist, Azad Essa distills the soundscape of an emerging new Africa.

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