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.



  • a south african

    Mandela’s vision still stands as the only one to work towards and his achievements in creating momentum towards it’s realisation remarkable. The problems that have come to light since were inevitable given the social make-up of the country and the effects of apartheid’s social engineering. The challenges facing South Africa’s current leaders are enormous, but have nothing to do with Mandelas beautiful vision – it stands. We have worked through so much already, but there is a long road ahead. I think you may have to spend a little more than six months here to even start being able to comment on the complexities involved.

  • The Blackman

    My first question is what was the alternative to the frame work President Mandela so delicately negotiated.

    I point my finger for our current crises squarely at those that for what ever reason (be it naive optimism right through the spectrum to calculated spin to maintain power) mismanaged expectations.

    A remedy in short order was impossible, and to say otherwise was and is a lie, on top of this while apartheid was a monstrous policy, it was not a policy that on it’s own created the economic demographics we found in 1994, the reasons behind this are multiple and often to do with the capital-ed and skilled immigration that was attracted rather than what was manufactured under apartheid.

    ( Has no-one wondered why despite apartheid there is a very large “poor” white community and this is largely made up of the original whites, “the Afrikaners” many poorly skilled and un-educated and naturally un-capitaled they too shared the “natural’ classist disadvantage despite their white skin).

    South Africa is not the only country to have struggled under oppression or had a history of colonial conquest, much of Africa and the East has had similar histories, and those of pre-industrialized Europe also carry much of the same economic demographics.

    The fact is the landless and or rural poor (peasants and serfs for want of a better term) the world over, all woke up to the same situation to a large degree. That Apartheid entrenched this and widened these natural gaps is beyond dispute, but it was not the sole reason, but the lie we have been fed is that it is.

    Now if we accept this lie as the sole reason then it is natural that when measures are put in place to reverse / correct it that the problem would be solved.

    But that was not the truth, the capital-ed minority and those given special status (Asians) often relied not just on their “preferential” status but on their skill , on their capital and on their work ethic and often blood, sweat and toil.

    For us to correct our past we need to recognize that we all have to fight for it , work for it and have understanding and respect for each other and all our hopes dreams.

    There is no easy fix, but we need to understand we need to deploy TEAM SOUTH AFRICA, not part of it, if we are going to fix it!

    We need to correct that past but we forget much of that happens in a natural fashion, those that benefited, created wealth, this wealth is now taxed and that tax is being allocated in increasing measures to programs to bring up previously disadvantaged South Africans.

    Massive amounts of taxes, rates and levies are now spent , not where they were created, not on those that created it, not even on crucial infrastructure required to maintain the model.

    Much is being spent to improve the lives of millions of South Africans marginalized by Apartheid and RIGHTLY SO! ( Although the right balance has yet to be found)

    But in the absence of creating not just improvement in living standards but also capacity, belief in themselves, in creating skills, in creating a spirit of entrepreneurship then that money is bringing only temporary relief and offers no sustainable improvement to the lives of the very people that it was first intended for.

    Yes the sense of entitlement is the main issue here.

    Why we have further been disappointed is we all agree that the infrastructure that we had in 1994 and which for the most part was only enjoyed by the minority was something that we aspired to extend to all,

    So we needed to create more, not redistribute what was largely not redistributable,

    So to do this we needed to grow and expand the engine that had created this, and what did we do ? almost the opposite.

    We did not harnessed the skills and experience we had in this once powerhouse, we have squandered a national asset, no matter that it was gained under a system abhorrent to us ,should we have cut of our nose to spite our face ?

    The exodus of skilled and capital-ed South Africans has put a hand break on our Rainbow nation, together with the mismanagement and corruption we have wasted a golden opportunity to start to correct our history in the best and fastest way possible.

    Just imagine we had achieved Chinese growth, 10% a year, what would that mean in wealth creation, in jobs, in tax recovery and our ever growing budget which when used correctly would just snowball and snowball by now the real freedom the economic freedom would be more that just a dream it would be a reality for many many South Africans and it would be an inspiration to those still on the journey to achieving it.

    What role models have we created, tenderpreneurs, fat-cat civil “servants” where are the real role models ?

    Inequality is not a bad thing, when bridging it is a possibility to each and everyone, when it works as something to aspire to, something to emulate and to provide motivation for.

    But when you are told daily you were robbed , it is not your fault and you see the only way out is “collusion” with the powers that BEE then what hope is there?

    and yes then Inequality breeds frustration, resentment, envy and hate!

    All South Africans want the same thing, and we all need to work towards that goal! Not necessary arm in arm, hand in hand, but in respect and consideration for each other,

    Not a society where we work against one another, but one with the realization that my neighbor’s success brings me one step closer to my success,

    HIS success grows OUR economy, grows the amount of cash in the economy which allows new opportunities, new products, new concepts, new businesses, new jobs and then more taxes for the treasury and so more opportunity for good for our country!

    If we want a country to be admired we need to build it on the principles that such a society dictates to be admired,

    that is Respect, Merit, Excellence, Capacity and Efficiency.

    The Rainbow Nation has to be EARNED, it is not GIVEN!