05 May, 2014

What Nelson Mandela's Memorial Service Tells Us About South Africa

by Leon Hartwell

Former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s Johannesburg memorial in December 2013 was in many ways a microcosm of South Africa’s political and economic situation. The events that played out in and around the memorial represented South Africa’s best virtues while flagging a number of challenges that have to be dealt with. Some of these issues will be reflected in upcoming election manifestos as they are seen as imminent. Others might only be confined to footnotes, but they will be equally important for the long-term prosperity of South Africa’s economic and political environment.

The memorial day was characterised by a lot of rain. In many African countries, rain is considered to be a blessing; it symbolises new life and growth. This is very much representative of South Africa, a young democracy with a developing economy. South Africa has lots of prospects, especially given that there is still plenty of scope for the country to grow. Since 1994, the year of the first democratic elections in South Africa, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased by 33%. The end of Apartheid opened up new economic opportunities for local and international businesses and South Africa became more integrated into the world economy.

Rain at the memorial service (photo: GovernmentZA)

Conversely, the expression “a rainy day” also has certain negative connotations to it, as rain could ruin a special day. It reminds us that although there are prospects for hope in South Africa, there will be many spoilers along the way. Even though the overall memorial went rather well, there were several issues that reflected some of concerns that personify the young nation.

Let’s start with the fact that the event was held at the FNB Stadium. It is where Madiba gave his first speech in Johannesburg after he was released from prison in 1990. It has since been upgraded for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, thereby becoming the largest stadium in Africa, attesting to the country’s great achievements in the post-Apartheid era.

Beyond the symbols of greatness, we have to keep in mind that the memorial began one hour late. In economic terms, time costs money and South Africa will have to step it up in order to compete at an international level. Government and businesses will have to become much better with planning and organising their activities. As argued earlier, economically speaking South Africa is moving in the right direction, but it is not happening fast enough. Jac Laubscher recently noted that countries like Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey grew by 114% on average since 1994 (compared to South Africa’s 44% growth over that same period).

There is also a real risk that South Africa’s debt overhang is increasing rapidly and that a serious economic crisis might be looming in South Africa. According to Forbes, the country’s debt has been increasingly rapidly since 2008 and external debt currently stands at $136.6 billion, or 38.2 percent of the GDP and “the highest level since the mid-1980s.” It means that there will have to be major budget cuts in the near future, which will also impact on education, health and the general well-being of the nation, especially the youth.

In this context, it was interesting to note that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was cheered at Madiba’s funeral. Mugabe, who has been responsible for massacring between 10-20,000 Ndebele, the torture of hundreds of people, and the plundering of a once prosperous economy; was warmly welcomed at a memorial service in honour of Madiba, a man who ardently stood for democracy, human rights and peace. Nonetheless, it is quite possible, that Mugabe was cheered by a group of people who were perhaps disillusioned about the lack of economic opportunities in South Africa and who think that Mugabe’s “land-reform programme” was executed in the name of the poor. South Africa’s unemployment rate is 40% and inequality is extremely high (with a Gini coefficient of 0,6 to 0,7). Inequality is arguably one of South Africa’s most dangerous systemic issues that has to be confronted. If the matter is left in the hands of populists (like the Economic Freedom Fighters), the results could be disastrous, as was the case in Zimbabwe.

Related to the above issue, it is not only about what was present at the memorial that is important, but also what was missing. After the memorial, one reporter rightfully noted, “Where were the children? Mandela loved children …But young South Africans did not feature on the programme.” Almost half of the electorate is under 40 years of age while close to 2 million are ‘born frees'. Yet, to be part of the country’s youth is not always easy. South Africa has high levels of youth unemployment, estimated to be 50% and the 3rd highest in the world according to the World Economic Forum. Tough times might be ahead for the economy and this group risk being even further isolated and marginalised. Again, radical political parties could be attractive to this group, given that the youth have ‘nothing to lose’.

Furthermore, while Mugabe was applauded at Madiba’s memorial, President Jacob Zuma was booed when he entered the FNB stadium, whenever his name was mentioned, as well as when he gave his speech. The booing was not an “embarrassment”, as some commentators remarked. Rather, it was a clear expression of the will of the people, something that Madiba (and once also Zuma himself) fought hard for. The booing was a reflection of discontent towards South Africa’s top leader. This is not the same as saying that the African National Congress (ANC) was rejected in total. Other members of the ANC, including former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, were loudly cheered by the same crowd. Even former South African President F.W. de Klerk and US President Barack Obama were cheered. The fact is, many people are fed up with Zuma, and the ANC will lose a lot of votes during the upcoming elections because of him.

The contrasts between Madiba and Zuma are rather remarkable. Madiba publicly regretted not doing enough to tackle HIV/AIDS under his watch, a period marked by a multitude of competing issues all demanding immediate attention. In 2005, Zuma admitted to having unprotected sex with the daughter of a struggle comrade whom he knew was HIV positive and then taking a shower to “cut the risk of contracting HIV.”

Mandela' body lying in state (Photo: GovernmentZA)

Shortly after Madiba became President, he cut his salary by 20%. Furthermore, he donated one-third of his annual salary of ZAR 150,000 to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. Last year it was reported that Zuma’s annual salary is ZAR 2,622,561, more than 17 times that of Madiba. Recently, the Public Protector raised serious concerns regarding the enormous costs at the expense of South African taxpayers. Total expenditure for “security” upgrades at Zuma’s private residence has been “conservatively estimated at ZAR 246 million”. Security upgrades at Madiba’s private house has been estimated at ZAR 35 million (compared to ZAR 12 million for Mbeki, and ZAR 236,000 for de Klerk).

During Madiba’s memorial, South Africa’s state media, the SABC, was allegedly ordered not to report the crowd’s booing of Zuma. The great irony is that a free media is something that Madiba cherished deeply. He understood and preached widely about the importance of a free media that is able to keep government on its toes. Censorship of SABC on the day of the memorial is a warning that should a questionable person like Zuma continue to lead the country, there will be more and more political interference in the judiciary, state institutions, media and even the arts. Zuma seems to treat the state coffers as his personal bank account, and gradually South Africa is turning into a Mobutu-like “kleptocratic state”, as was recently argued by Barney Pityana. The fact is that the more elites have to hide, the more they will silence those that are outspoken about it, particularly also institutions that were created to make sure that those in power will not abuse it. Thus, it was not surprising that there was a delay due to political interference (cloaked in a security excuse) of the Public Protector’s report on Zuma’s “opulence”.

As said by Funeka Gingcara-Sithole, an ordinary attendee, "Mandela had a vision, Mandela lived that vision. But what Zuma speaks, he doesn't live …He should do the honourable thing and resign." If Zuma does not resign, he will lead the ANC to a win in the forthcoming election, but it is unlikely that he will complete his second-term in office. In the past, the ANC has demonstrated that it is not scared to get rid of their leaders.

Moreover, it was rather appropriate that Thamsanqa Jantjie, a man with an alleged criminal record and apparently no sign language qualification whatsoever, was the official translator for Madiba’s memorial. The mistranslation of Madiba’s memorial is perhaps emblematic of how some political leaders misunderstand the true values that Madiba himself stood for. Mandela wanted a liberal democratic government to serve the people and to focus on the future, he did not want to be voted into office based on past glories nor to become president to serve himself and his family.

Moreover, the fact that Jantjie was officially accredited for the memorial is symbolic of a mixture of incompetence, patronage, nepotism, and corruption that South Africans often experience. No one has been willing to take full responsibility for hiring this ‘interpreter’ and there are many question marks as to why this person was there in the first place. Shortly after the incident, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu stated, “the ANC reiterates that the organisation did not take part in the government process to procure the service provider for the memorial service.”

Mtembu’s above statement clearly implies that the state was in charge of the memorial. However, what surfaced over the coming days seemed to have blurred the line between the state and the ruling party. A few weeks after Mthembu’s statement, his personal assistant Cikizwa Xozwa and her husband Reverand Bantubahle Xozwa “resigned” from the ANC after it was allegedly by the media that they were owners of the company that employed Jantjie. More often than not, in countries where the ruling party in effect becomes the state (look at our neighbours in Zimbabwe), it is people who suffer. South Africa has to work towards creating stronger institutions - especially the media, public protector, and the judiciary - that are answerable to the people and not the interests of a specific party.

The fact that there was a burglary at retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house while he was attending Madiba’s memorial was another symbol illustrative of one of the top issues that South Africans rich and poor experience. Compared to other countries, South Africa has a very high rate of murders, assaults, rape and other crimes. If crime affects the Arch, one of South Africa’s greatest icons and most respected individuals, it could happen to anyone. The high levels of crime have to be seriously tackled at it negatively affects victims, it contributes to emigration of some of South Africa’s most talented, it taints the country’s image as a viable tourist destination, and it forces South African businesses to focus more on physical security rather than on other creative ways of making their businesses more sustainable. More importantly, crime leads people to build massive walls and iron gates between one another, and impedes the building of a society. In a word, crime makes South Africans isolated and miserable.

Beyond the domestic symbols that were scattered throughout Madiba’s memorial, there were also signs that were reminiscent of South Africa’s foreign policy. There were close to a hundred heads of state and government at the event from all corners of the globe. It not only symbolised Madiba’s popularity, but it also attested to South Africa’s success to move from being a global pariah to an international player. Madiba and Mbeki were particularly good at resituating the country as a developing nation often punching above its weight. Pretoria is said to have the second largest number of foreign missions in the world. South Africa is also no longer at war with its neighbours and the economy and her businesses are continental (and sometimes global) leaders.

Aside from the fact that South Africa’s wealth is tied to that of the world, the country’s transition is a model that could be emulated elsewhere. South Africa has participated in a number of peace keeping and peace building efforts on the continent. It was thus rather fitting that even in death Madiba could get US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to shake hands. Yet, the handshake also mirrored a wrongful assumption: getting players to shake hands is enough to change the game. Truth be told, peacebuilding requires time and commitment. Sometimes South Africa’s peacebuilding efforts have lacked follow up.

In the end, Madiba’s memorial was to celebrate the life of a legend, which is why the crowd continued to be cheerful throughout the rain. But when the event was over, it reminded us that South Africa no longer has a moral compass with the same stature as Madiba to lead the country into a new critical phase in the country’s history. Madiba was successful because he challenged the injustices of the day, which is what made him transformational. He was also adamant that South Africa’s leaders should look to the future rather than ride the wave of past glories. In 1994, he warned ANC leaders who wanted to have a “liberation election” campaign that “we should forget the past and concentrate on building a better future for all.” As South Africans honour Madiba’s legacy and celebrate 20 years of democracy, we also need to take a hard long look at present issues that threaten the stability of the country. A constitutional democracy cannot thrive in these conditions.

*Leon Hartwell is an independent political analyst

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