Nelson Mandela achieved a distinction — not entirely undeserved — little short of sainthood during his 95 years on this earth. Freed from almost three decades in prison unblemished by a hunger for revenge, he negotiated the bloodless winding up of South Africa’s apartheid regime and, as the country’s first black president, formed a multiracial cabinet to oversee the changes necessary to bring peace and social justice.
As the leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the post from which he stepped down 20 years ago this week, he was a modest, honest man uninterested in the trappings and symbols of power and possessed by a remarkable spirit of generosity. He set an outstanding example not only for his successors in his own country but also for post-independence parties throughout Africa.
Many of the ANC members who met on Saturday to choose a new leader will look with dismay at those who followed Mandela, and at their party’s steadily declining popularity. Thabo Mbeki was a racist who believed — or said he believed — that Aids was part of an imperialist campaign to destroy South Africa. The long rule of the retiring leader, Jacob Zuma, has been characterized by corruption, incompetence and factionalism. His only ambition has been to hang on to power and the treasure he has pocketed while presiding over an economy crippled by rising unemployment, poverty and tax evasion. He has written the text book on how to turn a state into private fiefdom in which the bar is now so low that — according to recent allegations — officials stole more than €18m intended for memorial events after Mandela’s death in 2013.
The latest contest for the ANC leadership has offered little if any hope of change. One of the two frontrunners, Cyril Ramaphosa (currently deputy president and a rand billionaire) has promised an anti-corruption drive if he wins, but such pledges are hardly novel in South Africa, and he has been at the heart of the party’s administration throughout the post-apartheid years. He might or might not be the committed socialist he claims to be, but he is undoubtedly a committed property owner: he has 31. His main opponent — one of President Zuma’s former wives — has been accused of organising a votes-for-cash campaign. Perhaps Mandela was a role model simply too noble for more ordinary mortals?