After the death of Nelson Mandela, Africa tilts towards hope

Day two of the obituaries saw a rebalancing. The full backlash cannot be far behind

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The Nelson Mandela obituaries have passed through their first phase. The early tributes were fittingly respectful. The great man was even compared to Jesus Christ, apparently seriously, by a commentator for The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that has in the past taken a more Pharisaic view of him. Day two saw the start of a tentative rebalancing, with several assessments dwelling on the shortcomings and disappointments of the South Africa that Mandela built. The full backlash cannot be far behind: there are still enough people on the right of politics who cling to their view of him as a terrorist and of apartheid as a reasonable compromise.

We hope our special edition today will contribute to the phase after that: the first draft of history. That means accepting that South Africa still has serious problems 19 years after the end of apartheid, but also recognising that the inequality that persists was a price worth paying for the largely non-violent transition to a democracy.

Historians will no doubt continue to debate the causes of the fall of apartheid, and the partisan British debate about the role of Margaret Thatcher will rumble on, but two things seem clear. One is that this was a case in which economic sanctions worked; the other is that the quality of Mandela's leadership was critical not just in securing equal rights for all South Africans but in ensuring that blacks and whites came together afterwards.

That meant that the South African economy – the largest on the continent - grew steadily until the financial crisis of 2008, and has grown, a bit less steadily, since. This is possibly Mandela's most significant legacy. For all his left-wing rhetoric, he recognised that capitalism is the most important anti-poverty policy.

Global poverty has halved in 20 years and, though most of that reduction has come from China, economic progress has also been made in Africa, with South Africa one of the leading success stories. Indeed, partly because of South Africa, the continent as a whole is in the middle of a historic advance, as economies grow and populations start to stabilise. That is why yesterday's World Trade Organisation agreement was so welcome. Africa is, more than most regions, punished unfairly by tariffs and, limited though this deal is, it is a lot better than no deal at all.

The next questions, naturally, are what kind of growth Africa will enjoy, and how its benefits will be spread. There are hard choices to be made about the ethics and environmental sustainability of international investment in African economies – many of them, to be frank, to be made by Chinese investors. The Independent on Sunday's Christmas appeal focuses on one important aspect of the environmental challenge: preserving the habitat of elephants. Ultimately, as with human poverty, economic growth is the solution. But, just as well designed international aid can help tackle poverty, so can charity help to secure the elephant's future until the countries of Africa are rich enough to do it themselves.

Africa is not a country – we all know that – but many of the countries of Africa share similar challenges and feel some solidarity. Over the past two decades, poverty has fallen and governance improved. There is a long way to go, with all manner of problems, from religious sectarianism to environmental degradation, to be overcome. But it is in no small part thanks to Mandela that the continent is tilted towards hope.

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