Happy Birthday, Nelson!

Having just returned from South Africa, I can’t let the weekend past without writing a post for Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday and briefly commenting on the survival of his legacy in the country.

Across the nation yesterday, South Africans performed service work.  This included President Jacob Zuma and the opposition leader and head of the Western Cape province, Helen Zille.   So let’s take a moment to honor Mandela’s memory and get past the collective “awww” that the media hoped to evoke yesterday with its use of the day as a heartwarming TL007642back-page story.

 Today, South Africa is in a lot of trouble.  Unemployment is spiraling up just as the economy enters its first post-apartheid recession.  The African National Congress, whose colors brightly decorated Mandela’s birthday cake yesterday, has faded as a moral beacon for the world’s oppressed.   The World Cup is approaching, but massive strikes and general corruption threaten to disrupt or degrade the unprecedented event.

Nelson Mandela did an extraordinary thing for his country.  He took it from the brink of civil war and established a foundation for democracy.  Outsiders, myself included, forget how truly close the country came to civil war.   Mandela applied his political genius to reach out to the country’s white ruling class and unite a black population with diverse and often conflictual backgrounds. 

What Mandela left up to future generations, though, was establishing a competitive democracy.  This may have been too much to ask, but the hard truth remains: the only way for a democracy to be successful is for it to be competitive.  There must be a real chance that another party can pose an electoral threat to the ANC’s leadership.  Otherwise, there is no incentive for merit-based appointments, education and health reform, or anti-corruption campaigns. 

Some point to the Western Cape as a sign of progress.  It is true– the Democratic Alliance (DA) first took Cape Town and this year, took over the whole province from the ANC’s hands.  But Helen Zille is not– I’m sorry to say– the astute genius some have hoped for.  And the socioeconomic makeup of the Western Cape does not mirror the rest of the country.  A more likely take is that the DA merely organized itself well enough to get the votes it should have been garnering for years.

And I won’t hold back on Jacob Zuma.  The man is rapist and extremely corrupt.  Being an optimist once in a while, I get the feeling that Zuma has been changed by elevation to the highest office.  He wants to be a statesman.  Of course, I could be wrong, and even if I’m not, Zuma is not the man that will fix South Africa.

Mandela suffered unimaginable pain for decades of imprisonment.  He finally rose to power and accomplished an extraordinary feat.  However, he did little to transform the liberation mentality of the ANC, nor did he tell his country what it needed to hear, that is, you no longer owe the ANC.  Vote to better your lives looking forward, not backward.

So on the occasion of a great man’s birthday, let’s not simply write feelgood stories.  Let’s talk honestly about Mandela’s legacy, and whether it can survive.

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