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Mandela's Unfinished Business
The Incomplete Legacy of South Africa's Founding Father
RYAN IRWIN is Assistant Professor of History at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order.See more by this author
Nelson Mandela lived one of the great lives of the twentieth century. He was a political prisoner who became a free man, a freedom fighter who achieved reconciliation, and a president who fought for equality and development. "Mandela showed us that one man's courage can move the world," U.S. President Barack Obama said on his recent trip to South Africa. For many, Mandela’s life is an enduring reminder that hope and activism can change history for the better.
Yet South Africa is hardly an unqualified success story. The unemployment rate hovers just under 30 percent, and nearly a quarter of South Africans live at or near the poverty line. A United Nations report recently revealed that 1.4 million South African children live in homes that rely on dirty streams for drinking water, 1.5 million do not have access to flushing toilets, and 1.7 million live in shacks with neither washing nor cooking facilities. Almost six million South Africans have HIV/AIDS, and the country’s young population is growing rapidly: nearly 40 percent of the population was born after Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.
Outside observers often try to separate Mandela’s past from South Africa’s present. If things have fallen apart, the argument goes, it is only because Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress (ANC), failed to follow him to the promised land. Even in his mid-nineties, Mandela was aloof yet omnipresent: a constant reminder of the nobility of South Africa’s anti-apartheid past and a yardstick that implicitly measured the shortcomings of today’s ANC leaders.
Would another Nelson Mandela cure South Africa of its ills? This question is at the heart of the debate about Mandela’s legacy and South Africa’s future. But it is the wrong question. Although Mandela’s story has had many chroniclers, his grand strategy -- specifically, his role in the international fight to define what South Africa was and what it might become -- has been curiously underappreciated. It raises a fundamental and more important question: What is South Africa? It is impossible to understand South Africa today without appreciating the effects of Mandela’s complex answer.