Nelson Mandela dreamt that South Africa would become “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”. And in the hours of shock and loss that followed the announcement of his death, hundreds of mourners, black and white together, gathered outside his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton where he had died surrounded by his family, and created a little microcosm of that nation.
His will be the state funeral of the century, preceded by 10 days of national mourning, but to mark the passing of a statesman abundantly blessed with spontaneity they did not hang their heads and weep but danced as he would have wished, and sang old songs of the anti-apartheid struggle which he had made his own and brought to a peaceful consummation rare in the annals of protest.
Across town in Soweto, outside his other Johannesburg home, now the Nelson Mandela National Museum, dozens more gathered in the street to sing the same songs. Why sing at this sad juncture? “We are celebrating his life and all he did for us,” Terry Mokoena explained. “I am happy he is now at peace. Mandela united us, black, white, coloured and Indian. He taught us togetherness.”
The fact that he was very old, and had been close to death for months, did not lessen the shock of his passing. As the news that Nelson Mandela had died circled the globe, the world struggled to find the words to express the essence of what it meant.
“This is the moment of our deepest sorrow,” President Jacob Zuma told South Africa. “Our nation has lost its greatest son.” Then he put his finger on the paradox of the man that he seemed so similar to the rest of us, yet achieved results that would defeat a superman. “What made Nelson Mandela great,” said Mr Zuma, “was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
President Raul Castro of Cuba spoke of Mandela’s “proven friendship towards our country”, maintained in the teeth of American fury, and he, too, found words that said something about the breadth of Mandela’s appeal. “We will never,” he said, “speak of Mandela in the past tense”.
The former President FW de Klerk, who recently revealed that he and Mandela remained friends despite fierce clashes, said: “He was a great unifier. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy.” And Bill Clinton, the former US President, remembered his dedication. “Abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries,” he said, “was not just a political strategy but a way of life.”
In his own tribute, Jimmy Carter, the former US President, described South Africa on Friday as “one of the world’s leading democracies”, but no one doubts the gravity of the challenges facing the country now its founding father is gone. The dominance of the ANC in election after election has brought with it all the vices of entitlement, with reports of rampant corruption at the highest levels. President Zuma’s own career has been tainted by serious charges of bribery and fraud, while his one-time financial adviser Schabir Shaik is serving a 15-year jail sentence for soliciting bribes over the purchase of a naval frigate and lavish spending on Mr Zuma’s home.
South Africa remains saturated with firearms and with frightening levels of violence. Its endemic inequality has actually worsened in recent years, and it has replaced Brazil as the world’s most unequal nation. Instead of fulfilling Mandela’s dream of equality, the ANC has built itself into a highly privileged elite. The luxurious lifestyle of its senior leaders is reminiscent of that of the white elite during the apartheid years.
In a sense these developments were implicit in the revolution Mandela led, which insisted on reconciliation as a way of leading the nation away from the perils of a catastrophic civil war, which could have resulted in the mass flight of the white elites and their capital, and the collapse of the economy.
Thanks to Mandela, that did not happen. The proportion of black to white South Africans has increased from 5 to 1 to around 8 to 1 since the apartheid years, but fears the emigration of white doctors and other professionals will do dire damage to the nation’s standard of living have yet to be realised. South Africa’s success in persuading most white capital to stay in the country has, however, created problems of its own: its economy remains the largest in Southern Africa, and several neighbours resent what they see as its tendency to bully them. Earlier this year South Africa protested after Zambia’s Deputy President, Guy Scott, said President Zuma was “very much like De Klerk”.
Mr Mandela’s success in forging reconciliation with the white oppressors left South Africa with democratic institutions, including the judiciary, that remain very robust by African standards. What is needed today is a leader willing to take up his mantle, and stop the rot, and finish the job. Is it too much to hope that the vacuum created by his death, and the grief into which South Africa is now plunged, will call forth such a hero?