We wouldn’t worry so much about Nelson Mandela’s health if we realised that he didn’t single-handedly save the country, nor does he single-handedly keep it together now. We, the people, are the true saviours of South Africa.
On the night of 29 January, some South Africans lit candles and held a vigil. The ceremony was not in remembrance of a religious icon long past, or some such observance. “Get well soon” was the refrain. The man for whom the candles had been lit was in his home in Houghton. Against his own wishes, in an effort to preserve his legacy and myth, South Africa is turning Nelson Mandela into a saint.
As was pointed out by Branko Brkic, this desperate plea for Mandela not to die is driven by fear more than anything else. The fears for South Africa’s future are not completely unfounded, but the solutions which will ensure that the country matures into a stable and functioning democracy are already here – the struggle against apartheid and the struggle today to preserve democracy in the face of an increasingly autocratic ruling party.
Speaking of his role in the struggle against apartheid, Mandela said, “I must not be isolated from the collective who are responsible for the success.” The people who today fear what the country will turn into once Madiba is gone have forgotten those words. They are uneducated about how exactly the struggle against apartheid (from the perspective of the oppressed) happened, and falsely believe that Mandela alone liberated the disenfranchised in South Africa. They foolishly believe that the ANC is respectfully waiting for Mandela to die before becoming completely autocratic and unleashing a sort of revenge war against the beneficiaries of apartheid.
The bitter and unspoken truth is that Mandela has been politically irrelevant for more than 10 years now. As far as politics is concerned, he could just as well have died the moment the party elected Thabo Mbeki as president. For the majority of people the country has slowly become better despite the glitches. The Night of the Long Knives has not happened. If there ever was a sign that South Africa doesn’t need Mandela to keep it together and function, it’s the last 10 years.
That is not to say that Mandela is not an admirable man. His personal sacrifice was immense and leadership during apartheid and afterwards was exemplary. He is undoubtedly the best post-apartheid president South Africa has had from a moral and ethical point of view. But far greater than Madiba is the struggle of the “collective”: the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, the Pan African Congress, the trade unions, the United Democratic Front, the civil society organisations and every person who ever defied apartheid. The spirit of these people that sought after true democracy is woven into the Constitution and will continue to guide South Africa long after Madiba has passed on.
I have abundant faith in South Africa. My fears for the future are tempered by ordinary South Africans who rise up each day against a ruling party that has lost its moral compass and often veers dangerously towards despotism. South Africa’s political system is designed to be a balance of powers and, as it is with all young democracies, the balance is still oscillating. In 2010, the ANC made a gigantic effort to swing the balance of power towards the legislative arm of government (in this country, that ultimately means towards the executive) by proposing a statutory media appeals tribunal, an unconscionable breach of democratic principles. South Africans rose up and sent a clear message to the ANC that to do such a thing would be to raise the ire of the people and the talk of a media appeals tribunal is now no more.
The ANC also introduced a draconian Protection of Information Bill, giving the government the right to protect almost any piece of information in its possession, robbing society of the greatest tool of oversight that it has: Transparency. Organisations like the Right 2 Know campaign, Cosatu and others are currently fighting against this effort by the ruling party to swing the balance of power towards the executive arm of government.
The people took to the streets in the last two years, and vented their anger at government’s lethargy and unwillingness to deliver services to communities at an expected standard. That anger can quickly translate to lost votes for the ANC, as the Western Cape demonstrated. The Democratic Alliance’s slow march once it became a party of governance is also evidence of the people’s desire for democracy (Africans will not continue to blindly vote for the ANC based on gratitude or allegiance to Nelson Mandela). The ruling party will have to walk a narrow and righteous path in the future if it hopes to keep power.
We should look to the people to rescue South Africa from personality politics and the foibles of the ANC, not Nelson Mandela. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, what more do we want from him?
Lead SA and the other candle lighters would do well to remember Mandela’s words even as they attempt to turn him into a demi-god: “No single individual can assume the role of hero or messiah”. We will be fine even when he’s gone because he was not our Messiah. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí