Mandela's birthday: The tumult of South African democracy

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A group of schoolchildren participate in a symbolic handover on July 17, 2011 at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg to set the tone the day before Mandela's 93rd birthday.
Stephane de Sakutin

As South Africa's first post-apartheid president turns 93 on Monday, the country can't help but miss the days when Nelson Mandela held the highest office in the land.

The young democracy is still overwhelmingly led by the party of Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC), but times have changed since "Madiba" left the presidency in 1999. Today a societal crisis simmers along stubborn economic and racial lines, revealing a country that has yet to attain many of democracy's promises. Meanwhile, ANC leadership has shown little ability to overcome apartheid-era inequalities as some of its leaders stoke the fires of racial prejudice.

73 percent of South Africans under age 35 are unemployed, the vast majority of them non-white. Whites and Indians reap most of the economic spoils while millions of black and mixed-race South Africans live in poverty in the country's townships. Race remains a dividing force in the "rainbow nation" as the economy stalls and Mandela's vision of "non-racial" social harmony is less evident in reality. And critics from various segments of society say the ANC has created a new class of "empowered blacks" who are enriching themselves at the expense of the country.

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F.W. de Klerk, the country's last apartheid president and an architect of the democratization of South Africa, told a professional women's group in Cape Town earlier this month, "We must not allow ourselves to be lulled into a situation where we no longer respond to situations that are constitutionally, morally and politically unacceptable … It is unacceptable for Julius Malema to call whites criminals, and to add that they should be treated as criminals and that their land should be seized without compensation. It is even more unacceptable for President Zuma to sit on the same platform, smiling, while Malema, as a key office bearer in the ANC, makes such racist comments."

Malema, president of the ANC's Youth League, has built a reputation for inflammatory statements, many of them race-related. Several times he has led crowds in singing the revolutionary anthem "Kill the Boer," referring to the country's early white Afrikaner settlers, changing the words to "Kiss the Boer" but stirring up emotional fury nonetheless.

De Klerk continued that the ANC's National Democratic Revolution, a socialistic program aimed at nationalizing the country's industry and empowering its workers is "the main force seeking to disturb the constitutional balance" set forth in 1994.

Indeed, the country's largest union (Cosatu) has joined Malema in calling for the nationalization of South Africa's mines, which Communist Party head Blade Nzimande said "is to save the black economic empowerment elements in crisis, and not to address the interests of the workers and the poor."

In other words, Nzimande claims, the ANC's calls for change are more about protecting those connected to the party and less about ideology. This lines up with the common charge that Malema's wild and divisive statements are designed to distract the South African public from the abysmal state of the economy.

Mandela has stepped out of the public eye in recent years and of course, will not live forever. His successors have been unable to wear his impossibly large shoes. And yet, democracy in South Africa lives.

Last month the ANC began backing down on a proposed bill that would have placed harsh mandatory sentences on journalists who possess or publish "state secrets" after a coordinated effort between activists, media organizations, advocacy groups and South Africa's only major opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA).

Helen Zille, the head of the DA, honored Mandela's birthday this way:

"The most significant honor we can pay this great man on his birthday is to work towards his vision of a better life for all South Africans, to build on his dream, and to vigilantly and consistently protect the Constitution which he called a 'sacred covenant.'" 

Kevin Grant reported from Cape Town in June and July 2010 as South Africa hosted the continent's first FIFA World Cup.