The world has lost one of the greatest figures of the 20th century in the passing of Nelson Mandela, iconic revolutionary who ended apartheid in South Africa. Africa’s last great statesman, Mandela presided over a largely peaceful political transition and stepped aside after only one term in power. He was the first black President of South Africa and under his aegis, the country dismantled the institutional legacy of apartheid and racism. He remained the country’s moral compass in the silence of his twilight in much the same way he served as the liberation movement’s rallying cry through 27 years of incarceration. He appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that might have fallen short of conclusively addressing apartheid-era atrocities but saved the nation from a descent into bloodshed. The former President is being mourned across the nation. His loss is most acutely felt at the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC), the party he joined in 1943 and subsequently led to electoral victory in 1994. In a manner reminiscent of the Indian National Congress (INC) in post-Independence India, the ANC has long used Mandela’s name and liberation credentials to cement its position as the natural party of government. The prolonged and often acrimonious squabbling between the government, his heirs and sections of the party about his hospitalisation, burial site and memorial foundation underscored his continued importance to the ANC’s project of political hegemony long after his retirement.
Mandela’s death comes at the time when the ANC is preparing for an election that may see its share of the vote fall below 60 per cent, illustrating creeping voter discontent. Moving forward, the ANC’s greatest challenge is likely to be the “born frees”, a generation of South Africans born after the collapse of the hated colonial regime, who are less susceptible to the party’s emotive message of liberation. For these young citizens, the most poignant reminder of oppression is the one that Mr. Mandela did not address — land, natural resources and the ownership of Africa’s richest economy. Rather than democratising the economy, Mr. Mandela’s successors have used so-called black empowerment programmes to enrich a tiny elite, creating space for a mass politics as espoused by Julius Malema, a firebrand former ANC Youth League leader who has launched his own political front, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Mr. Malema is himself facing charges of corruption, suggesting the EFF may not be the ANC’s most potent foe. Statesmen are forged and ultimately limited by the circumstances of their struggles. By leading his country out of the horrors of racial segregation, Mr. Mandela has won his place in history. His successors must now seek their own.