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Nothing groundbreaking in Mandela debate by Steven Friedman, 09 December 2015

SOUTH Africa’s mainstream does not debate ideas — it debates people. Which is why the argument about the Mandela legacy is really about where the country is now, from whence it has come, and what our past teaches about the present.

The second anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing has coincided with a heated debate on whether he saved or sold out the country. His critics are fond of saying they are breaking new ground by insisting that he is open to criticism. But there is nothing ground-breaking about saying that a politician is open to criticism: that this is considered daring is a sign of how enslaved the mainstream is to the idea that the country’s progress depends on whether the "good guys" defeat the "bad guys". What really would be new is to stop reducing our problems to personalities and to look at the underlying issues.

The issue in this case is whether the deal which the country’s elites made two decades ago defrauded the majority. The reason it is being raised now is a growing concern among black thinkers that many of apartheid’s ills are still with us.

It is true that the racial attitudes that underpinned apartheid didn’t disappear in 1994 — they mutated: it became impolite for some to say that they believe whites are better than blacks, so they found indirect ways of saying it. More importantly, since many who believe this still hold power in the economy and society, they found new ways of imposing their prejudices. The current spate of articles by members of the group who dominate complaining that people are still mentioning race is a symptom of the problem they claim does not exist. If they had the faintest idea of what black people experience, they would not try to wish this away.

Nor was the political compromise of 1994 underpinned by an economic equivalent. The key economic question then was how to address poverty and inequality without damaging the economy. It still is, because the holders of public and private power found it convenient to duck the issue, and so the country continues to miss economic opportunities. Those who see concern at inequality as more a problem than inequality itself are the economic equivalent of the race denialists — symptoms of the problem, not a solution to it.

All this shows that 1994 left much unfinished, which must be tackled now. What it does not show is that the political settlement caused the problem. Those who denounce the compromise have yet to explain what alternatives were available for the majority’s political leadership. The apartheid government’s military could have held out for decades: the choices were a compromise, or continued war and pain without any assurance of the system’s defeat. Anyone who believes the latter would have been better has no idea what most South Africans had to endure before 1994: however many mistakes have been made since our first democratic election, we are all — including those who live in poverty — better off now.

Another myth is the claim that the Constitution negotiated in the mid-1990s got the powerful off the hook and sold the majority short. Only its property clause could be labelled a compromise with minority power, and it can be overridden if a government can convince the courts that its actions are consistent with the Constitution’s values. Those who complain about the Constitution are yet to say which of its clauses have prevented the government from changing anything that needed changing.

The problem is not the compromise of 1994 but what has been left undone. The politicians who have governed since have let down the majority — and the country — but not because they recognised reality at the bargaining table. Their fault was that they ignored it after then, failing to realise that the political bargain was the beginning, not the end, of the changes that were needed. They never developed a strategy for change and have often seemed more willing to fit into the arrangements they inherited in 1994 than to change them.

But a realistic strategy would need to continue the realism of the constitutional bargain — its realisation that the majority and minority are doomed to live in the same country. The minority no longer controls the army and police. But it has still has resources that are essential if the economy is to grow so that it can meet the needs of all. It could not be wished away then, nor can it now. Just as bargaining and compromise were needed then, so they are needed now.

White supremacy was not defeated in 1994. The biggest obstacle to economic growth remains the inequality and poverty created by the past. The country didn’t achieve an historic compromise then. Its political elites agreed on what they could agree on and delayed indefinitely the real task — tackling race and inequality. The country needs a new bargain that addresses what was then ignored. But now, as then, change that addresses the problem will not be imposed; it will emerge from difficult compromises bargained over the next few years.

  • Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy