Nelson Mandela’s goodness harmed his leadership

December 6, 2013.

Nelson Mandela speaks to reporters, including Jonathan Manthorpe (top), in the garden of his old house in Soweto two days after his release from Victor Verster prison on Feb. 11, 1990.

Nelson Mandela was too good for his or South Africa’s own good.

Those qualities of tolerance, forgiveness, respect for the others’ views, and uncritical loyalty to friends, comrades and family that made him one of the most saintly public figures of the last century, also framed his less than stellar performance as a government leader.

Mandela has bequeathed an almost unique culture of reconciliation that diverted South Africa from the real prospect in the early and mid-1990s of a blood bath either between whites and blacks, or between rival black ethnic groups or both.

But his humanitarian qualities also caused him to fail to exert the kind of leadership and sense of purpose in government to address the myriad of social problems borne of apartheid and that still, 20 years later, blight the lives of the vast majority of South Africa’s 52 million people.

Unemployment remains at nearly 36 per cent, and is particularly virulent among young South Africans in their late teens and early 20s.

Meanwhile, some blacks, usually well connected to Mandela’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), have taken advantage of “black empowerment” policies to become vastly rich.

The disparity between rich and poor in South Africa is as bad as ever it was during apartheid. Only the skin colour of the very rich has changed.

Despite some serious efforts, the chronic shortage of minimally acceptable housing with water, sewage and electricity remains a national outrage.

Latest figures show only 35 per cent of black children complete high school education, while 76 per cent of whites and 62 per cent of ethnic Indians and Asians do.

The state struggles to provide a public health care system, which is less than adequate for most black South Africans. The wealthy enjoy a first-rate private system. Life expectancy in South Africa is 55 years.

It can be argued that it is unfair to lay responsibility for these failures at Mandela’s door because he only served one five-year term as President from 1994 to 1999 and then handed over to the depressingly ill-equipped and uninspired Thabo Mbeki.

However, that succession is an example of Mandela’s unwillingness to try to guide or influence the often excruciatingly exhaustive and exhausting democracy within the ANC.

This consensus democracy demanded that after Mandela, from the “internal” ANC that languished either in prison or on the streets during apartheid, the leadership go next to an “external” from the party’s members who escaped to neighbouring countries like Zambia and Angola.

A far better candidate to succeed Mandela was Cyril Ramaphosa, the head of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), who unlike Mbeki understood the social and political problems on the ground.

But Ramaphosa was cursed by being an “internal” at the wrong time, though he has now again worked his way up the ANC hierarchy and is now deputy president of the ANC, and could be poised to take the leadership in national elections next year.

Mandela’s sense of loyalty to those who had supported him and the ANC during apartheid raised eyebrows after his release from prison on February 11, 1990. Even though it was undoubtedly pressure from western countries, especially the United States, and Commonwealth countries with Canada in the lead, that finally convinced the regime of the last white President, F.W. de Klerk, to abandon minority rule, Mandela’s first overseas pilgrimages were to the dictators who had supported the armed struggle.

Fidel Castro in Cuba and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya received Mandela’s thanks well before other leaders who played a real role in the ending of apartheid.

But perhaps Mandela’s most painful expression of loyalty was toward his then wife, Winnie Mandela. For several years he refused to accept advice that she was a seriously flawed character.

It was not until I, as Africa correspondent for Southam News, and colleague John Battersby, then of the Christian Science Monitor, produced eyewitness accounts that she not only ordered the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, but then also arranged the murder of Dr. Abu Baker Asvat, who was called to treat the dying boy, that Mandela finally separated from her.

Mandela’s death will undoubtedly foster a period of unity within the ANC. But it is now a deeply fissured party sustained largely by its hold on power.

That is unlikely to be enough, however, to heal the gaping voids between the increasingly corrupt and wealthy leadership, and the grass roots of the party speaking for ordinary South Africans who have yet to see the benefits of Mandela’s revolution.

Such disappointment is easily mobilised, of course. South Africa has already seen the young firebrand Julius Malema, himself hardly clean of corruption, marshaling discontent into a movement against the ANC leadership and the remaining control of business, industry and agriculture by whites.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013