This will be my last post on South Africa, I promise. But one can’t assess the legacy of Mandela without looking at the struggles the nation has gone through since the end of Apartheid and the end of his presidency.
Broadly speaking, the place is a mess.
Mandela’s greatest success was the negotiation of the end of Apartheid and the peaceful transfer of power after his presidency. Though the white establishment does deserve some credit for this too (a whites-only referendum in 1992 came down overwhelmingly in favor of ending apartheid) the period between Mandela’s release and the elections in 1994 was extremely violent, characterized by bloody clashes between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (probably stoked by the Apartheid security services), the negotiations being crashed by crazed Afrikaner faux-Nazis, and the assassination of popular leader Chris Hani. Without such a skilled, credible and widely respected leader as Mandela, a bloody civil war is very easy to imagine.
His presidency, considered in context, was a success. He focused trying to work through the bitter legacy of Apartheid through reconciliation rather than punishment, which was probably the only possible way to do it. His peaceful handoff of power set an important precedent that has served the nation well. His greatest failure, not grappling with the HIV epidemic head-on, he tried to remedy for the rest of his life.
But the Apartheid regime handed Mandela some near-intractable problems. Income inequality is among the highest in the world, and has only grown since 1994. Unemployment has consistently been about 25% or greater since then as well. Crime is apocalyptically bad, though it has been consistently trending down.
Worse is what happened to the ANC. In the words of historian Martin Merideth, “Within a few brief years of the advent of democracy, the ANC so beloved by Mandela was shown to have become just another grubby political party on the make.” Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki, though he presided over decent growth, was largely awful otherwise. He flirted with AIDS denialism, and kept on an alcoholic AIDS denier as health minister, and under his rule the ANC succumbed to galloping corruption and cronyism.
The current president, Jacob Zuma, has been a marked improvement, but the structural problems continue to fester.
I believe the single greatest problem facing South Africa at this point is a lack of political competition. The ANC has won every single election since 1994 with over 60 percent of the vote. Without a serious opposition party, they have not had the discipline of potentially losing the next election to keep their hands clean, and the country has suffered for it. (The lesson of continuing Republican collapse here ought to be obvious.)
Fortunately, recent polls have suggested that the ANC may not break 60 percent, while the largest opposition could increase its vote share from 17 to 27 percent. With Mandela gone, the ANC might get one last sympathy landslide, but the new generation doesn’t even remember Apartheid. Without their beloved figurehead, the ANC would be forced to clean house, and that would be best for everyone.