Yet local elections this week have shown a shift in South African society and politics, which have been dominated by race since Mandela swept to power in 1994.
The results may even mark the start of a new era, distinct from the ‘post-apartheid’ period that immediately followed the end of white-minority rule, as the ANC wakes up to the changed reality that it can no longer rely on the unquestioning support of poor black voters.
Angry about corruption, unemployment, and shoddy basic services, many ANC supporters have turned to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) — making a switch that was unthinkable only a few years ago when the party was still seen as the political home of wealthy whites.
Voters have also become disillusioned by festering inequality; black people make up 80% of the 54m population yet, two decades after apartheid, most of the economy in terms of ownership of land and companies remains in the hands of white people, who account for about 8% of the population.
DA candidate Trollip, a fluent speaker of the local Xhosa language, is likely to become mayor of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality after his party won 47% of the vote against the ANC’s 41%, down from 52% five years ago.
The DA is now expected to form a coalition with smaller opposition parties to run a region that has been an ANC stronghold for more than two decades.
Besides Mandela, who grew up in the nearby village of Qunu, the Port Elizabeth area was home to anti-apartheid luminaries such as former president Thabo Mbeki and his father Govan, and Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader killed in police custody in 1977.
The ANC has also lost its majorities in Johannesburg and the municipality that is home to the capital Pretoria, in its biggest ever election losses, which have dealt a significant blow to President Jacob Zuma.
ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu said the party was chastened by the results. “We need to have a serious introspection,” he told reporters at the main counting centre in Pretoria.
On the eve of voting, Trollip’s ANC opponent, Danny Jordaan, said the DA strategy of invoking Mandela’s name and ideas during its campaign was akin to nailing Jesus to the cross and the next day claiming you were a Christian.
Some black voters were also told they would be “black Boers” if they chose the DA, a derogatory reference to Afrikaans-speaking white farmers.