Frail and elderly, anti-apartheid hero provides a moral voice in a nation betrayed by corruption.
As published by South China Morning Post: 13/12/13
“Born Free” South Africans have joined the groundswell of concern about Nelson Mandela’s hospitalisation, moulding the icon’s legacy to their life two decades after white rule.
After three days of silence on the illness of the national icon, President Jacob Zuma’s office issued a three-line statement on Tuesday announcing that the anti-apartheid hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner was suffering from a lung infection.
Mandela’s hospitalisation on Saturday for medical tests caused national alarm.
But the universal affection for Mandela belies the fact that at least one in three South Africans never lived under apartheid and many more, like 21-year-old student Mahlako Mahlangu, have little recollection of it. But for the generation of South Africans born in the 1990s Mandela is still an icon. His achievements mean a life without passbooks and racial persecution.
“I think Mandela did make a difference, even though there are some problems here and there, but there’s a huge, huge difference because of him,” she said.
But as the struggle against apartheid becomes ever more of an abstraction for those who never lived through it, Mandela has taken up a new mantle.
According to political commentator and columnist Ralph Mathekga, Mandela – known affectionately as Madiba – has become more than an anti-apartheid activist, or the country’s first black president. He has become a moral voice in a nation still finding its feet, an example of what political leaders can be. “It looks like there is a deficit when it comes to the supply of heroes and Madiba has been conveniently looked upon as someone who could fill that gap, and that is why we have made him into a saint, while he’s still here with us,” Mathekga said.
The Mandela mythology shines all the brighter as his country’s challenges deepen.
Eighteen years into democracy one in four of the rainbow nation’s 52 million people don’t have a job, and around 16,000 get murdered a year.
“There’s still places that don’t have water to this day, can you believe it? And that’s just sad,” added 24-year-old Monica Selolo.
Meanwhile, Mandela’s ruling liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), has been tainted with corruption and allegations of mismanagement.
President Zuma – who also spent 10 years incarcerated on Robben Island during apartheid – sparked a scandal over a US$28 million state-funded upgrade to his private house.
“All they want to do is build a better living for themselves first before serving the country,” said Fortunate Baloi, an 18-year-old youth in Alexandra township who will finish school next year. In contrast, when asked about Mandela, Baloi says simply: “Eish! I love that man!” Mandela’s name has stayed well out of the mud.
According to Johannesburg University politics professor Adam Habib, Mandela has “become delinked from the ANC […] He has developed a kind of saint-like capacity that transcends the nation and transcends the party.”
Many of the seeds for the current government’s policy failures were sown during Mandela’s term, yet that doesn’t matter to the youth today, Habib adds. “For them Mandela is a mythical figure. He is the founder of democracy. He is not the manager of the administration.”