The Big Debate: Did Madiba’s government fail us?
The answer depends on who you talk to
When Nelson Mandela became the first democratic president of South Africa in 1994, the country breathed a collective sigh of relief.
A time of turmoil, bloodshed and oppression was finally over, finally consigned to the pages of history.
But now, more than 20 years later, his legacy – the long-term effects of the decisions Mandela made during that first administration – is taking centre stage.
Did Mandela’s government fail us? Did it fail to have the foresight to know that the temporary stability bought and paid for in tears and blood would in 2018 be put under scrutiny as, among others, the debate over land expropriation again seeks to divide a country along racial lines?
This was the subject of a debate held at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on Human Rights Day on Wednesday.
“I think the debate of late has been either Mandela totally sold us out, or government totally sold us out or that they were the best thing since sliced bread and that they did nothing wrong,” activist, musician and author Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh told Times Select ahead of the debate.He was scheduled to participate in Wednesday’s panel discussion, alongside political journalist Karima Brown, policy analyst Lebogang Pheko and Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“I think we need to look at the debate in a lot more detail and, in certain areas, Mandela’s government did set us up for failure – and that is difficult for some people to hear,” said Mpofu-Walsh.
“For example, the reconciliation project, I think, failed ... we were too subtle when it came to the questions of redistribution of wealth. I do think that is important.”
He added that, in terms of making a bigger impact, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could have pursued prosecutions of those who committed crimes in support of the apartheid system more vigorously.“I do think that the Mandela government and that era did do very important things. On the question of accountability and the constitutional institutions that have actually weathered the storm in the last decade, I think we must give credit to the Mandela government for taking corruption seriously, for taking accountability seriously and for ensuring that the rule of law would prevent us from the worst excesses of corrupt democratic leaders.”
It would be unfair to blame South Africa’s problems of today on Mandela’s legacy, said Mpofu-Walsh. In fact, it was too often a case of the leaders of the past being blamed for the failures of today.
“I think we generally are facing a problem that so much hope has been invested in the ANC since the Mandela era that people are finding it very difficult to disassociate that hope from reality.“Mandela basically gave the ANC a blank cheque because of the narrative that was built around him and I think we would actually be in a better position if we had viewed the ANC with more scepticism.”
Hatang, of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said it would be an oversimplification to blame Mandela for today’s woes.
“Madiba, being judged the way he is 19 years later, it should be with that lens being worn carefully. In 1994, Madiba took on a country that effectively was in a state of emergency.
“Those are things we need to not forget. Madiba took on a country that was in deep trouble. We can of course be harsh later to say – it’s because we can afford to be harsh – to say in fact we could have had different conversations if we knew what we knew today.”
Hatang argued that Mandela did what he could at the time, especially in relation to the reconciliation project.
“If the TRC had been more harsh back then, would we be in a society that would have any semblance of peace or normality now? That is the question that we fail to answer. If Madiba had applied, more harshness … how much further could you have gone to put a provision in the Constitution, to say that you actually can expropriate land?
“So the subsequent government needed to implement expropriation, and pass legislation to give effect to that clause of the Constitution,” he said.
He wondered why Madiba was “hammered on some of the things he did”, when today South Africans were still implementing policies and projects he started in 1994.
“Do we lack the imagination, or was he simply way ahead of his time? We disavow his legacy whenever it suits us, we disavow the legacy of the collective [of the ANC government] but we then claim the victories as a collective when it suits us.”