The problem with South Africa today isn’t Zuma, it’s Mandela

South Africa has faced mounting criticism since the shooting of 34 striking miners by police at Marikana. A recent article in The Economist, titled “Cry, the Beloved Country,” laments South Africa’s downward spiral from its heyday under Mandela. In the search to determine what went wrong, president Zuma is an easy target. A polygamist with a talent for eluding corruption charges, Zuma has been lambasted by the media for his flashy consumption and dubious financial dealings.

Yet the tendency to blame South Africa’s deterioration on poor leadership since Mandela left politics is misleading. While critics act as if they are watching South Africa derail, many of these negative developments are not a betrayal of Mandela’s legacy, but products of its realization.

Mandela’s central achievement during the transition was forging a grand bargain between the ANC, its Zulu rival the Inkatha Freedom Party, the ruling apartheid National Party, and traditional leaders. The result was a new South Africa, predicated on a delicate balance of pluralism, populism, and pragmatism. While Mandela’s stature made this project possible, he also benefited from an atmosphere of optimism. Today, the rifts inherent in the new South Africa continue to grow.

The clearest example of increasing tensions between pluralism, populism, and pragmatism is the trade-off between political and economic revolution. While economic redistribution was a key goal of the ANC and its governing allies, COSATU and the Communist Party, Mandela agreed to protect property rights and continue conservative macroeconomic policies in exchange for full political equality. By perpetuating this apartheid-era growth path, however, the economy continues to benefit a highly skilled minority while leaving millions of black South Africans structurally unemployed. The ANC’s main economic reform, Black Economic Empowerment, created a rich black elite. Economic conditions are the greatest source of discontent. Populist pressures forced nationalization into ANC policy discussions and account for the popularity of Julius Malema, now expelled from the party and known for his calls to confiscate wealth in white hands.

The second key fault line in Mandela’s legacy is the constitution. The constitution was developed as an antidote to the legally instituted dehumanization of non-whites during apartheid. It includes extensive socio-economic rights and government obligations to improve citizens’ quality of life. In effect, the constitution aims to create a culture of civic entitlement. Unlike the do-it-yourself “American Dream,” South Africa’s entitlement ideology makes inequality less palatable and expectations of government greater. A clear example is the service protests, which often damage roads and schools to demand government action.

While South Africa’s constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world, it did not emerge organically from the beliefs of most South Africans. The constitution is based on Western legal notions of individual rights and clashes with indigenous African cultures, which espouse an underlying collectivist ethos. This conflict is especially evident in rural areas, where millions of South Africans live under customary law. Zuma’s controversial endorsement of the Traditional Courts Bill, which would give chiefs unprecedented power to determine customary law while removing the rights of rural residents to appeal to state courts or consult lawyers, is partly an attempt to resolve the tension between legal cultures.

Media coverage of the recent surge in strikes and violent protests carries an estranged tone: “Where is the Rainbow Nation that we know and love? What happened to the South Africa that triumphed over apartheid, embraced human rights, and reconciled its differences?” It never existed. As the ANC prepares for its leadership conference this December, we should focus less on lamenting the inferiority of its current leadership compared to Mandela, and more on unpacking his complicated legacy.


Elizabeth Stratton has spent the past six months in South Africa on a Students for Development internship funded by CIDA.  She interned for the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation and is currently conducting research for her undergraduate thesis.

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