South Africa


‘The air is different in a free country’ – The power of Mandela’s legacy in today’s democratic SA

‘The air is different in a free country’ – The power of Mandela’s legacy in today’s democratic SA
Richard Stengel, author and former Time magazine editor. (Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images)

While not blind to the flaws of a democratic system, the late Nelson Mandela believed in giving people a voice and trusting them to find solutions. Addressing The Gathering 2022 on Thursday, Richard Stengel – author and former Time magazine editor – spoke of the power of Mandela’s legacy in today’s South Africa.

“This is wrong. I have seen it. What are you going to do about it?”

For Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratic president, the purpose of democratic rule was to uplift all of the country’s citizens. The role of government was to do for people what they could not do for themselves – give them a hand and allow them to live up to their aspirations.

“That’s what always motivated him: giving people a voice, allowing them to choose. He believed in consensus because he believed human beings, in the aggregate, make the best choices.”

These were the words of Richard Stengel – author, former Time magazine editor and former US deputy secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs – during a video address at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering 2022. The event was held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Thursday, 24 November.

Stengel is well known for collaborating with Mandela on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In the more than 60 hours of tapes that went into creating the book, Mandela never took his eye off his “great and abiding goal” – freedom for his people and all South Africans.

“I’ve never known anyone so focused … To him, everything, and I mean everything, was subservient to the freedom struggle,” said Stengel.

Mandela once shared a story of witnessing an assault on Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for 27 years. In response, he confronted the head of the South African prison system, saying, “This is wrong. I have seen it. What are you going to do about it?”

“There aren’t many sentences that crystallised Nelson Mandela better than that,” said Stengel. “That is who he was as leader. He was a pragmatist, yet he was also a moral leader.”

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Democratic struggles

While Mandela believed in South Africa as a democratic country, he knew that democracy did not solve all the world’s problems, according to Stengel. In 1997, Mandela warned of the dangers of majority rule within South Africa. Once established, he said, many people would go into politics for power and self-enrichment. 

“[Mandela] was right. He saw that as a problem. But he also knew that it was a problem only democracy could solve. He trusted the people,” said Stengel.

The ANC has held majority rule in South Africa since the first democratic elections in 1994, when it received 62.9% of votes. However, according to a Daily Maverick report from August 2022, the ANC is collapsing as a majority party and South Africans are despondent, largely due to the accelerating cost of living.

Read more in Daily Maverick:ANC’s collapse as South Africa’s majority party is foretold in new poll

A recent representative poll by Ipsos suggested that if an election were held tomorrow, the ANC would get only 42% of the vote.

South Africa is not alone in struggling with the democratic transition. Indeed, many countries have had difficulties transitioning to democracy over the past 75 years, Stengel said.

The nonprofit organisation Freedom House, which tracks democracy and freedom around the world, found in its Freedom in the World 2022 report that global freedom faces a “dire threat”.

“The present threat to democracy is the product of 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom. A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38% of the global population live in ‘Not Free’ countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20% now live in ‘Free’ countries,” stated the report.

Despite the challenges that modern democracy faces, Stengel maintained that the difference the system has made in South Africa is a radical one. He spoke of his experience of visiting South Africa as a journalist in 1986, when the country was “under one of the most repressive and comprehensive systems of racial suppression” in the world.

“It’s hard to explain how different South Africa feels now. For all the problems in South Africa, and there are many … the air is different in a free country,” he said. 

“There’s still poverty and injustice and corruption, but South Africa is a democratic country where you can determine your own destiny, and deal with your own problems.” DM/MC


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