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In South Africa, the consequences of Mandela's death

With the death of Mr Mandela, South Africa will have to contend with the death also, of an era he so magically encapsulates.

Nathan Smith
Sat, 07 Dec 2013

Despite speculation earlier this year to the contrary, South Africa will probably not fall apart now that Nelson Mandela is dead.

He was no longer the hugely influencial political figure of past, where he led the country out of Apartheid. And his party, the African National Congress, has been in control since 1994 largely without him at the helm.

Mr Mandela was only a single-term president in South Africa but a significant touchstone figure for the country. It is insulting to suggest his lifetime’s work will unravel at the end of his life.

Mr Mandela's final public appearance was back in 2010. The African National Congress (ANC) is working fine without his leadership and has for a number of years.

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, has leanted heavily on Mr Mandela’s strong legacy to bolster his own credibility.

The real fear is that politics will become more raw and ruthless.

“The rot has been evident for some time, spreading ever deeper into the very soul of the organisation,” says veteran liberal journalist, and ANC sympathiser, Allister Sparks.

“We have become a corrupt country. The whole body politic is riddled with it. We have reached a kind of corruption gridlock.

“When so many people in high places have the dirt on each other, no one dares blow a whistle. When the President of the country has managed to get off the hook on a major corruption case [charges relating to bribes associated with the country’s multi-billion dollar arms deal with Britain and other European Union countries], how can he crack down on corruption anywhere else in his administration?

“We have gone backward on the two core principles that carried the ANC through all the long years of its liberation struggle, through the tough constitutional negotiating process and into the dawn of the new South Africa – the principle of non-racialism and the principle of clean, honest government that would deliver a better life for all.”

The opposition party is not much better. The firebrand ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s rants have poisoned the national atmosphere to a degree not seen since Apartheid days.

End of an era
For a long time, there has been an echo of liberation pulling the country’s politics along. With the death of Mr Mandela, South Africa will also have to contend with the death of an era that he encapsulated.

Capitalism is more important to the people of South Africa these days, more so than the ideas of freedom long since gained.

Transition from Apartheid is moving further into the past as the younger generation feel less affinity with the movement of their parents and are happy to live the lives of an advancing economy.

South Africa is a radically diverse and complicated country. Its people are generally friendly and hopeful. It's inventive, a bit wild west and a land of opportunity.

There are so many factors at stake that the chance of any negative polarisation leading toward a Zimbabwe-style outcome is low. Business has carried on through the transition, with all the trappings of wealth that result.

This has led to a new black middle class, none of whom are keen on anything radical bucking the system and changing their lifestyles for the worse.

Wealth is now the overriding divide in South Africa, not race. If there is going to be any unease after Mr Mandela’s death, it will be from groups looking to gain more political power.

An advancing economy
A good example of this is the striking miners last year. As the mining industry demands fewer unskilled workers to operate their mines, the job market tends to contract and stresses the labour force.

The gap between the skilled workers operate the highly-advanced coal-to-liquid and gas-to-liquid technologies, plus the gold, platinum and diamond mines, and the unskilled diggers or truck drivers is expanding.

High unemployment is a recipe for social instability. And South Africa is struggling to supply jobs to its population.

Ironically, because Mr Zuma’s opponents can leverage the unemployment problem to, there is no incentive to create jobs for the unemployed. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.

At the moment there simply isn’t the potential for the majority of South Africans to climb the socio-economic ladder as there aren’t enough labour-intensive jobs for them to fill. Tertiary education figures as percentage of population in South Africa are 15.2%.

To put that in perspective, New Zealand's figures are 69.2%. Skilled labour in South Africa generally comes from highly-educated immigrants who follow their national industries to South Africa.

South Africa holds together not because of Mr Mandela but because of what he did and what he set up. The country is in relatively good shape, considering the trouble it has experienced over past century.

There is a strong media industry, elections are more or less fair, and the judiciary is competent and relatively free.

Mr Zuma made it back into power last year and this, more than anything, will increase the tension. It is possible to think of South Africa as already living in a post-Mandela era.

Unless the social and employment problems can be addressed, a task easier said than done, South Africa’s security situation and economic maelstrom will remain intensely volatile.

Everyone dies, and Mr Mandela is mortal just like the rest of us. The underlying politics of South Africa are in a different place today and are bigger than one man.

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

Nathan Smith
Sat, 07 Dec 2013
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In South Africa, the consequences of Mandela's death