John Minto: A great man but not a great president

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We should celebrate Mandela's struggle against apartheid but not overlook the serious failings of his reign.

For those in poverty in South Africa little has changed since the end of apartheid. Photo / AP
For those in poverty in South Africa little has changed since the end of apartheid. Photo / AP

When an iconic figure dies the accolades come thick and fast from a wide range of people who see the wider goodness in a person beyond any day to day political squabbles.

In the case of Nelson Mandela the accolades are strong for someone seen as a towering figure of the 20th century. United States President Barack Obama for example called him "influential, courageous and profoundly good" and it's easy to make a case to justify each of those adjectives and more.

Mandela was a great man. He was inspirational to South Africa's black majority as they struggled under the racist oppression of apartheid and he was inspirational also to a generation of people outside South Africa fighting to make a better world.

He seemed to embody the best of human qualities after his release from prison in 1990 and as he was elected first President of a post-apartheid South Africa in 1994.

However, while he was the most prominent and successful leader of the anti-apartheid struggle and spent almost three decades in prison as a result, when we look at his legacy as South Africa's post-apartheid leader we must acknowledge serious failings.

The South Africa Mandela has left is one where all people enjoy civil and political rights, vitally important elements for democracy, but without significant economic change which would have made life better for the majority of South Africans.

There are many more black millionaires in South Africa living lives of luxury but the majority remain in the same abject poverty they faced under the old white regime.

Within the senior leadership of the ANC, life has been a dreamlike route from struggle to luxury, from poverty to unimaginable wealth. Heroes of the anti-apartheid era in the 1970s and 80s like Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale have become embedded as a new black elite - as distant and dismissive of the poor as Vorster, Verwoerd or de Klerk. Their reaction to the Marikana mining massacre was not much different to the old white regime's reaction to the Sharpville massacre.

The change in the new ANC leaders was so profound that in the early days of Mandela's presidency Bishop Desmond Tutu wondered aloud if the ANC had stopped the gravy train just long enough to jump on.

In Mandela's new South Africa, oppression based on race morphed into discrimination based on social class and life went on as "normal". Racist apartheid laws such as the Group Areas Act (which dictated where different races were required to live) were abolished but this made little difference for most. It was all very well now being able to legally live in a formerly whites-only neighbourhood but the vast majority couldn't afford to move anyway.

So the colour of the faces at the top changed but in most ways life is as hard for the poor, the majority of whom are black, under the ANC as it was under the old apartheid regime.

Several defences of Mandela's time as President have been put up but none are strong.

We are told he faced the enormous task of healing a deeply divided country after decades of apartheid and his priority was reconciliation rather than redistribution of wealth and opportunity.

The "reconciliation" provided by Mandela was to concede any changes to private property rights or challenge to the corporate elite who continue to run South Africa's economy today as they did for decades before his presidency. This is why so many western leaders such as our own Prime Minister John Key are such enthusiastic admirers of Robben Island's most famous resident. He allowed wealth to continue to move from the poor to the rich.

Another defence is that he was a good man let down by a greedy cabal of ANC leaders around him who had made common cause with the previous white leadership and the old economic order to enrich themselves.

This has more credibility because while Mandela was the towering figurehead in the new South Africa the key leaders behind him such as Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa had already been "turned" from the ANC's ideals as spelt out in the 1956 "Freedom Charter" to the personal opportunities for great wealth and political power in a "free market" economy.

It was also more difficult for Mandela to bring big economic changes because he came to power when the major Western economies, including New Zealand, had been forced into neo-liberal policies where the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and wealthy global elites ran the economic system. If the new South Africa was to survive, Mandela was told, it needed to play the game by the rules of those who ran the global economy.

However, even if one accepts that the ANC needed to make some accommodations to be able to ensure funding for investment, this did not mean their leaders taking advantage of their political power to personally enrich themselves while leaving their people languishing in poverty.

No one expected things to get better overnight. No one expected miracles. But the people of South Africa deserved at least the hope for change.

Mandela did not raise objections to this deeply corrupt ANC leadership. Even after he left the presidency he was happy to be trotted out at election time to encourage support for the ANC and refused to criticise the excesses of his former freedom-fighting friends and colleagues.

The only reporter I saw take him to task over this was renowned Australian journalist John Pilger who questioned Mandela about the growing gap between rich and poor and the failure of the ANC to meet even its own modest goals to improve social and economic conditions for South Africa's black majority.

Mandela quickly became irritated and defensive. It was clear nothing was going to change.

So alongside his great strengths I think Mandela's greatest failing was his loyalty to his former ANC comrades even when the evidence of massive corruption was obvious. Mandela simply wasn't up to the task of dealing with it - even within his own family.

In his latter years Mandela has provided a figleaf of respectability for this corrupt political organisation. Now that figleaf is gone the country will become much more fractious as new struggles for genuine democracy, decent health, good schooling and livable homes gain momentum.

Mandela brought South Africa out of the apartheid era of racial oppression.

We should celebrate the life of this leader of the anti-apartheid struggle but we should never be blinded to his failings. He never claimed to walk on water and no one should pretend he did.

John Minto was a leading anti-apartheid activist and is vice-chair of the Mana Movement.

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- NZ Herald

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