JOHANNESBURG — When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he brought a vision of forgiveness and reconciliation to rebuild a nation marred by the legacy of white rule. The South Africa he leaves behind remains a work in progress, far from living up to the promises ushered in by his freedom and the ideals of justice and equality he espoused.
South Africa has made tremendous strides since the end of apartheid, the brutal system of white rule that gripped the country for decades. Under apartheid, blacks and other nonwhites were racially separated in every manner possible: education, hospitals, public transport, beaches. They were forcibly removed from homes, denied citizenship or a vote; any dissent was violently suppressed. Today, all South Africans are considered equal under the Constitution.
The nation, thanks in large part to Mandela, is no longer an international pariah but participates freely in the global economy, sports and other arenas. South African companies have expanded across sub-Saharan Africa and are a vital economic engine for the continent.
South Africa, diplomatically and militarily, is playing a leading role in efforts to defuse crises in Congo, the Central African Republic and other trouble spots on the continent.
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But at home, the record remains mixed, a place where Mandela’s hopes and dreams remain largely unfulfilled. South Africa is a black-majority nation where racial and economic inequalities persist.
While some progress has been made, most blacks live in poverty, and many lack basic necessities such as electricity, proper housing and clean water. Education and health care for impoverished blacks remain poor. It is a nation where the economy is largely controlled by whites and a relatively small group of black elites.
It is also a nation where there’s gradual but growing disillusionment with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party that Mandela helped create and nurture into the revolutionary force that dismantled apartheid. Today, the party and its leadership face accusations of corruption and of ignoring the needs of poor blacks, the constituency that Mandela fought so long and hard to emancipate and empower.
“We have pockets of individuals, institutions and groups who are pushing Mandela’s ideals,” said William Gumede, a political analyst. “But there has also been backsliding among the ANC leaders in espousing Mandela’s hopes and dreams. His death has left a real gap, and the current leadership is not up to filling this gap.”
When he became South Africa’s first black president after winning the nation’s first multiracial elections in 1994, Mandela actively wooed foreign investors. Instead of nationalizing companies, he persuaded the ANC to move away from its socialist ethos and embrace a free and open economy, a move that fueled South Africa’s economic growth for years.
Today, however, that legacy is under fire. Unemployment remains at nearly 25 percent; white people on average earn six times more than their black counterparts.
The ANC youth’s wing has lobbied hard for the nationalization of banks and mines; according to the Municipal IQ, a Johannesburg-based research group, last year there were a record 173 protests, many of them violent, over a lack of housing, jobs and basic services. According to World Bank statistics, South Africa remains one of the world’s most economically unequal societies.
The most violent upheaval came in August 2012, when police killed 34 mine workers waging a strike at a platinum mine in the town of Marikana. It was the deadliest action by police in post-apartheid South Africa. The ANC responded by charging the striking miners with the murders of their co-workers, triggering popular anger at the storied party.
Politically, accusations of corruption have touched the highest levels of office, something that would have been unthinkable under Mandela’s single term.
President Jacob Zuma is facing a government probe for allegedly spending about $20 million of state funds to renovate his luxurious private residence in KwaZulu Natal province. In 2006, he was acquitted of rape charges. In 2009, charges that he allegedly took bribes from arms dealers were dropped, paving the way for his presidency.
Mandela remained a powerful symbol in the hopeful, uncharted period after apartheid, even when he left the presidency, retired from public life and shuttled in and out of hospitals as a protracted illness eroded his once-robust frame. He became a moral anchor, so entwined with the national identity that some jittery South Africans wondered whether the country would slide into chaos after his death.
“Does it spell doomsday and disaster for us?” retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu asked rhetorically Friday before declaring that no, the country will not disintegrate.
“The sun will rise tomorrow and the next day and the next,” said Tutu, who like Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting apartheid and promoting reconciliation. “It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on.”
In the famed township of Soweto, on Vilakazi Street where Mandela once lived, young people protested and fought the apartheid regime in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Today, many young people express concern about their future in a post-Mandela South Africa.
“Madiba wanted us to have peace and no racism,” said Thandeke Belle, 14, a middle-school student, using Mandela’s clan name, as many people in South Africa do. “I still feel there is racism, although it was not as much as apartheid. The whites are still at the top, and we blacks are stuck down at the middle.”
Papallo Chapedi, 15, said his mother had been waiting more than 10 years for government-subsidized housing, while some of his friends’ relatives were able to get housing due to their ties to the ANC. He criticized Zuma’s leadership, saying he “does not even come close to Mandela” in terms of what he has provided to South Africans.
Patrick Hanratty, 64, had brought some Italian tourists to look at where Mandela had lived. For the white tour operator, Mandela’s vision for South Africa had been partially realized.
“There have been successes and there have been failures,” Hanratty said. “We are living in a society that has a measure of justice, whereas before we were living in a very unjust society. The feeling of guilt is still there of having benefited from the misfortune of our black brothers, but it is less than it used to be.”
He added that whites like him “still live in a very privileged position,” but he said this was also partly because the government was being careful not to alienate whites.
“You can’t dismantle an economy and make everybody equal,” he said. “To do that would endanger the development of the country. The government is following a pragmatic approach. They don’t want white flight. They want to keep as many skills and as much capital in the country” as possible.
Perhaps the biggest impact that Mandela’s vision has had on whites, said Hanratty, is that they are no longer ostracized by the world, particularly in Africa.
“You can be a white South African and can go all the way to Cairo without being considered a pariah,” Hanratty said. “You can show your passport with pride. South Africans can play sport anywhere in the world.”
Despite the challenges South Africa faces upon Mandela’s death, many South Africans expressed gratitude that they were led by a man who by example showed how leaders should govern, imbued with the principles of democracy, justice and equality.
“He was our [George] Washington,” said Gumede, the political analyst. “In his personal and public life, he created a gold standard and way of governing that showed us how our leaders should govern … We know what is possible. Not many leaders in Africa can set that kind of example.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.