Imagining South Africa Without Mandela

What will South Africa do without its greatest leader?

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The latest and most serious bout of illness racking Nelson Mandela brings closer and into more open discussion what happens to South Africa after Mandela leaves the scene? Seemingly, the answer would be what happens when any great man passes away. Life will simply go on as it always does. After all, there have been two presidents since Mandela wore the mantel of leadership and the country has been just fine, thank you.  

Yet in South Africa Mandela is not simply another indispensable great man. He is far, far more. He is the embodiment of a great moral force, as much as anyone can possibly be. He has been the glue that held a fractious society together, and he is the god no one wants to offend as long as he is in their presence.   Even though in extremely frail health, he is that important to South Africa.

With his passing there will be the paeans both predictable and totally deserved. He has been one of the three greatest men of the past one hundred years. Indeed, Gandhi, King and Mandela all changed their and our world through the advocacy of higher human dignity and equality. Granted, this planet still has a long way to go to reach the apex of human dignity, but to an extent matched by few in history they succeeded, largely through non-violence, an extraordinary achievement in the most brutal times in human history.

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Moral principles are heavy burdens to carry and even harder to maintain over time. For too many leaders they are inconveniences easy to cast aside in the face of greater riches and power, and often in the face of diplomatic failures. For others moral principles in governance are signs of weakness, not strength. They are words to be used for convenience, to be cast aside when equally convenient.

Mandela's presence has made that far more difficult in South Africa. His shadow over the country has been as beneficial as a tree giving shade on a hot day. People have gathered under that shade and made peace, albeit still an uneasy fragile one, despite the proclamations of a rainbow society.

The passing of Mandela's shade may bring into the open the fractures that are already beginning to show in South Africa. Even though twenty years have passed, the economic power structure is still largely in white hands. This was part of the agreement made that brought on the end of apartheid, but no one really expected it to be maintained for decades. There have been some changes. There are now black billionaires, a sign of progress to some, and there is a growing middle class, always healthy for any country. At the same time, the growing gap between rich and poor is significant in South Africa and must be addressed and resolved.

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Youth unemployment may be as high as fifty percent. The country cannot survive if this level of unemployment is not reduced. Crime, violent and otherwise, remains a major challenge and if youth unemployment and the lack of opportunity is not addressed sufficiently, the situation will likely get worse, not better.

Many of the black townships still lack basic sanitation and health services. These are discontent pockets ripe for violence and filled with growing resentment, for within view of every township are the cities of wealth. From the slums of Johannesburg one can see the towers of affluence in Sandton. In the suburbs the walls of separation have not come down, but have been reinforced with private security guards, higher walls topped with barbed wire, electric fences and broken glass embedded into the tops of the walls.

The presence of Mandela has been an important reason South Africa has remained as together as it has. Certainly there has been some wisdom in those who have followed him, and there has been at least as much demagoguery, and the latter will only grow with the passing of Mandela. The greatest challenge of South Africa may not be the era of apartheid, but what becomes of the country after Mandela.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

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