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The Dark Spot of Nelson Mandela's Legacy

Is he responsible for South Africa's leadership crisis?

AFP/Getty Images

The morning after Nelson Mandela died I spent a couple of hours standing along a police line dividing his Johannesburg house from the public mourning that had formed outside. Ordinary people and reporters pressed up against the line, gawking at the family and luminaries coming and going from the house.

The tone of the chatter on the line was surprisingly dark and derisive, given it was less than 24 hours after we learned the beloved hero had died. The black reporter standing to my left identified a clutch of men in ink-dark silk suits as Johannesburg city councilors, adding dourly, “You can tell because of the way they carry themselves, like they’re so much more important than everyone else.” On my right, two students discussed whether a tall man wearing a sharp blazer covered in what looked like military medals was Zondwa Mandela, Nelson’s grandson. “He’s the guy from Aurora,” one said with contempt, referring to a mining investment scandal for which Zondwa was later prosecuted for fraud.

Further down the line, a tall white woman tried to push through the tape. A policeman intercepted her, saying Mandla Mandela, another grandson, had specifically asked him to keep the public away from the door. “Maybe he’s doing something wrong,” the policeman said, permitting himself a wink and a slip of a sarcastic smile. 

It is remarkable that a servant of the state was driven to joke that Mandela’s own grandson might be doing something shady in the vestibule of his home the morning after his death. The scene illuminated an essential truth of post-apartheid South Africa: People are deeply, deeply disillusioned with the leaders who’ve followed Mandela, both official African National Congress politicians and emotional leaders like Mandela’s offspring. Mandela’s relatives seem to have bucked his example entirely; some have banked millions in mining, an industry against which the apartheid-era ANC railed against as the heart of South Africa’s satanic injustice, while others have cashed in with a reality TV show. The allegations against the politicians in actual office are more troubling. The country’s second democratically-elected president, Thabo Mbeki, was bitterly criticized for denying South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. Mbeki’s successor, President Jacob Zuma, was prosecuted for both rape and racketeering; he was acquitted of the former, and the latter charges were dropped on technicalities, but recently a huge scandal around taxpayer-funded upgrades to his massive home dominated the papers until Mandela’s—for Zuma, very propitiously timed—death. Daily, the whole black political class is accused in the media of corruption in the awarding of government contracts and greed in treating itself to swanky vacations and flashy vehicles. “They were heroes,” one of the students standing beside me on the police line mused grimly, “but then they started buying cars.” As they buy cars, economic growth has slowed, basic education has fallen into disrepair, and inequality has deepened. This fall, The Economist concluded in a cover package pessimistically titled “Cry, the Beloved Country” that South Africa “is on the slide both economically and politically” and that the ANC’s “incompetence and outright corruption are the main causes.”

Over the weekend New York Times published a story on the South African disgust with Mandela’s family, but other than that I’ve hardly read anything that even grazes this disconcerting topic. And I haven’t heard anybody asking the deepest questions of all: To what extent is Mandela responsible for the political shambles that followed his presidency? Great leadership involves building a political culture that mirrors your virtues. Can a leader truly be considered great if those who come right on his heels are terrible?

In a small way, I think South Africans’ vocal dissatisfaction with Mandela’s successors actually reflects well on him. It struck me, as I stood on the police line, that there are few African countries in which reporters, students, and police officers could remark so candidly on their leaders within their earshot. In Angola, a law allows for the detention of people who “insult” the president. In Zimbabwe, those who criticize President Robert Mugabe risk physical attack by thugs. When I did some reporting in the Republic of the Congo, people I spoke to in taxi cabs and hotel bars refused even to mention the names of powerful, fearing these environs were bugged.

Paradoxically, though the rest of the world reveres Mandela as a god, in South Africa one of his greatest legacies was creating a political culture in which the “Great Man” is not revered. Many times, Mandela reminded the country he was one man in a collective that fought for black liberation and self-deprecatingly catalogued his little personal flaws. "I wanted to be like an ordinary human being with virtues and vices,” he once confided to his friend Ahmed Kathrada. This in sharp contrast to other liberators nearby who established explicit personality cults—think Mobutu Sese Seko, whose self-given praise name translated to “the all-powerful warrior who sweeps from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.”  The high-spirited glee with which the South African press now lays bare the foibles of other South African politicians takes something from Mandela’s own example.

But why do the other South African politicians have all those flaws in the first place? Siphoning off public funds and abusing power to procure sex—the woman who accused Zuma of rape was a young family friend who admired him like a father; Zuma offered as proof that their sex was consensual the fact that she accepted money from him to take a cab home afterwards—go way beyond a taste for gaudy shirts, the kind of endearing little deficiency Mandela would ascribe to himself. Many claim the titanic example of goodness Mandela set crippled other politicians’ self-esteem and made them pursue other, less savory political pathways rather than try to fill his enormous shoes. Mbeki himself groused about the suffocating influence of what he called the “one good native” syndrome: The world’s belief that Africa had managed to mint just one great black leader, Mandela, and everybody else was bound to disappoint. In this interpretation, Mandela’s moral beauty triggered something like the backlash the awareness of his physical ugliness triggers in Shakespeare’s tyrant Richard III: “Since I cannot prove a lover / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain.”

But I think this lets Mandela off too easily. The simpler, less ornately psychological explanation is that Mandela didn’t do enough to actively establish a culture of honesty, selflessness, and good conduct in the government he founded. In fact, the example Mandela set as president may not have been as perfect as we like to think. His 600-page authorized biography devotes a mere 25 pages to “Governing” after his inauguration, reflecting how little we know or care about his work as president. What is revealed within those 25 pages, however, can be troubling. The biographer, a renowned and sympathetic journalist named Anthony Sampson, recounts the difficulty Mandela had recognizing or intervening when the behavior of his friends in the ANC went off the rails. Mandela, Sampson writes, failed to stop the new Parliament’s move to award itself big salary hikes and then vigorously defended an ANC leader named Allan Boesak who was accused of embezzlement, even directing his Minister of Justice to make a speech supporting Boesak. (Boesak was soon convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.) When Archbishop Desmond Tutu snapped at the new government’s behavior, quipping that it “stopped the gravy train long enough to get on it,” Mandela snapped back, warning Tutu that he ought to have made the criticism in private.

It’s eerie to read this passage, because it’s exactly the kind of behavior for which critics excoriate the contemporary South African government: refusing to tackle corruption and attacking party members who criticize others in public as disloyal. Maybe there is something of Mandela in this current crop of leaders.

The element of Mandela’s presidential leadership people always focus on is the element dramatized in the movie Invictus: His efforts to reach out to whites and promote racial reconciliation. This reconciliation was by no means certain. Tutu himself gratefully acknowledged that without Madiba “the whole country would have gone up in flames,” and in a tearful tribute the day after Mandela’s death pronounced him “virtually flawless,” declaring his unfortunate loyalty to corrupt political colleagues to be his only minor imperfection.

But we may underestimate how consequential an imperfection it was. Since Mandela manifested it, it has ballooned to become a tumor on the political culture that has nearly swallowed his party. We dangerously (and patronizingly) misunderstand the source of the problem if we attribute it only to a childish backlash against Mandela’s greatness rather than something that started with him, as well. “Since Mr. Mandela retired in 1999,the country has been woefully led,” the Economist concluded, buying wholesale into the “one good native” theory. What would happen if we acknowledged some of the woeful leadership began under Mandela?

Eve Fairbanks is a writer living in South Africa.