Michael Whisson: Imprisoned by the party, his carers and protocol: so what does he think about the state of his nation?

What Mandela really thinks in his latter days, only history may relate. He remains disciplined

Wednesday 10 February 2010 01:00

Images from the years between Mandela's release from jail and the end of his presidency flash through the mind. Walking out of jail hand-in-hand with Winnie; greeting the masses in Cape Town; departing from his text to give a rousing endorsement to all who shared his vision of a new South Africa, united, reconciled, progressive and egalitarian; the smile; the shuffle. Years on Robben Island had mellowed but not embittered our icon of liberation, our symbol of national unity.

What he really thinks in his latter days, imprisoned by the party, his care-givers and protocol in the comfort of a luxurious home, feted by political and moral leaders across the world, only history may relate, for he remains a "disciplined member of the African National Congress", bound to say nothing in public which might undermine the party's authority. Those who guard his person, his name, his reputation are ever mindful of the value and fragility of the national treasure, to say nothing of the material worth of his endorsements.

But what has he seen in his sunset years? The constitution, for which he and FW de Klerk were largely credited, has survived, at least on paper and in the charters of the institutions charged to uphold it. The ANC – with its alliance partners, the Congress of Trade Unions and the Communist Party – has control over most of the levers of power, although it still casts covetous eyes on the judiciary and private business.

"Black Economic Empowerment" has changed a few struggle veterans into party-supporting oligarchs, albeit largely on borrowed money to acquire shares which have ceased their upward spiral. "Transformation" of the public services, the judiciary, higher education, the parastatals – often via "cadre deployment" of loyal party supporters – has shifted the nation inexorably towards a politically and economically corrupt crony state.

Despite the construction of millions of cottages for the poor, and the extension of the welfare system such that 13 million beneficiaries are supported by five million taxpayers, South Africa has become one of the most inequitable countries in the world, if judged by the Gini co-efficient. Brisk economic growth during the decade prior to the world recession has failed to yield the "Better Life for All" promised at election times.

Violent crime, which knows no social or ethnic boundaries, has made the builders of steel picket fences and the proprietors of security companies rich. The public health system, understaffed and underfunded, serves substantially to train people who will seek greener pastures abroad, while HIV/Aids and TB obliterate those without the physical and moral resources to combat them. Global warming, with its forerunner, drought, haunts the future.

One of the economic beneficiaries of the successful liberation struggle famously proclaimed: "We did not join the struggle to remain poor" – and so prospered mightily from his business directorships, and from the state contracts he was able to steer into his companies. The Minister's Handbook indicates the very high level of expenditure ministers are permitted, like £100,000 motor cars. The "Blue Label Boys" include many politicians and emerging businessmen who seek to impress their companions, as they add cream soda to their premium tots.

Mandela himself has not indulged in such gross exhibitionism, leading, as far as is known, a simple life, with cheerfully informal clothing in the style he has made his own, and a plain diet.

Deprived of the company of children for the 27 years he spent in jail, Mandela has turned much of his energies towards the welfare of children, both by exercising his formidable fundraising name and by spending as much time as possible with them – in public and in private. Thus he is able to continue to work for the betterment of the country he served so long in confinement, engage in activities which he clearly enjoys and for which he obviously has an aptitude, and not compromise his commitment to the party in any way.

It was widely believed that Mandela hoped to be succeeded as President by Cyril Ramaphosa, the former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and key ANC negotiator in the meetings which led to the peaceful elections of 1994. Alas, Ramaphosa belonged to a minority ethnic group and had been neither in exile nor on Robben Island.

Thabo Mbeki – who had pursued his education in Europe and his political career within the ANC in exile, son of a struggle veteran who had been with Mandela on Robben Island, and member of the large isiXhosa-speaking community – was chosen by the party. Mandela did not openly demur.

"Cadre deployment" notwithstanding, Mbeki pursued a neo-liberal growth policy, catching the wind of the global boom which supported the resource-rich South African economy – making the rich and highly skilled richer and opting for welfare rather than disciplined education and training for the unemployed and unemployable masses, an approach for which Zuma is reaping the whirlwind.

The political bloodletting which followed the demise of Mbeki and many of his supporters at the ANC Congress in Polokwane in 2007, when Jacob Zuma triumphed with his affable populism, leading to the first substantial breakaway from the party, was a denial of Mandela's own inclusive, tolerant philosophy.

Able to plead age and frailty, and loyalty to the party above all else, Mandela has kept his counsel and played no more than a symbolic supportive role in the subsequent national elections of 2009.

The hopes and dreams of all those who formed the great queues, snaking up the hills and down the lanes on election day 1994 – including the dreams of Mandela himself – have faded in the glare of international economic realities and the susceptibility of those who have the opportunity to enrich themselves, by whatever means, to do so, careless of the needs of the hungry masses.

"Patriotism," said the formidable Dr Samuel Johnson, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Unflinching loyalty, be it to state, party or club, might well fall under the same judgement. History may reveal that the selfless hero who led his people to victory in the liberation struggle; whose magnanimity towards his defeated persecutors was the basis for a peaceful political transformation; whose personal warmth disarmed his critics; failed his country in that he was unable, or unwilling, to use his gifts to rein in his party comrades when they betrayed the revolution that he inspired and led.

The writer is emeritus professor of anthropology at Rhodes University and a municipal and district councillor

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