Remembering Mandela: Policies and Processes in Creating a Post-apartheid South Africa

Apartheid cannot be looked upon as an event in history, but rather as a system that continues to influence politics and society in South Africa today.

During the course of the struggle against the apartheid system in South Africa, Nelson Mandela transformed his political self. He was first an underground operative protesting against the government, then became the leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, before being imprisoned and finally adopting peace and non-violence in the struggle for equal rights in the country. During the Rivonia Trial, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela famously quoted:

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Apartheid, the legal segregation of minority white community from persons of colour began as early as 1913, with the territorial segregation of farmland—only the white community was allowed to work as sharecroppers, while native Africans were forced to live separately in reserves. In time, more repressive measures were introduced in law: marriage and sexual relations between the white community and persons of colour was outlawed, people of colour had to carry documentation when in public, and separate public facilities were created for the two groups. Moreover, in 1951, the government passed the Separate Representation of Voters Bill, which allowed only the white community to vote and run for government office. Further policy interventions also attempted to separate and divide different African tribes, so that there could be no possibility of African unity. 

Mandela, through his political struggles, became the figurehead in the fight against the apartheid system. This reading list looks at Mandela’s politics during and after the anti-apartheid movement, the sociopolitical realities in South Africa at the time, and the creation of the post-apartheid South Africa. 

1) Critiquing A Legacy of Racism

Premesh Lalu writes that apartheid must be viewed as a system of sustained practices, whose rebalancing continues well into the post-apartheid era. To understand apartheid, one has to first understand the legacy of racism and colonialism, something that Mandela was acutely aware of. Within this framework, Mandela explained how South Africa’s trusteeship programme, which was officially stated to reconcile race relations, intensified black subjectivity in the country.

Mandela’s resourcefulness rested with his political reasoning, historical sense, and astute ability at reading. Taken together, he was capable of picking up a strand of thinking from an earlier generation of nationalist thinkers about the dangers of trusteeship to show how it was at the very heart of the violence of apartheid. Trusteeship was a discourse for interpellating black subjects into the narrative of liberalism and the orders of a segregationist state. Mandela specifically offered a view that showed that apartheid was indeed the logical outcome of the trusteeship that undergirded liberalism’s programme of fostering race relations in the 1930s.

2) Mandela’s Politics of Representation

Michael Neocosmos offers a critique of the hagiographical image of Mandela, arguing that his shift from a guerrilla operative to advocating for peace during his time in prison instead led to fracturing society in a post-apartheid era, rather than unifying the country. 

... soon after his release he went about systematically bypassing popular political traditions, painstakingly built up over many years of struggle, in favour of ethnic politics in Cape Town, undermining popular protest (“this is not how we do things now”), and returning discredited chiefs to positions of power all in the name of avoiding conflict and uniting the nation. Of course as is well known, he opened up to whites and enabled a “truth and reconciliation” process while avoiding major conflict; yet this was done by abandoning popular ideals and dragging the country into the neo-liberal globalised “new world order” in 1996.

Neocosmos contends that the process of adopting neo-liberal policies in post-apartheid South Africa was unilaterally conducted by Mandela, often excluding other important voice in the anti-apartheid struggle. Through this, Mandela also assumed that he spoke for the subaltern class, adopting a “wait and give us a chance to deliver” approach with them.

The authority of someone like Mandela was arguably founded on his undoubted charisma, itself made possible by his principled nationalist politics. Yet such charisma not only made it impossible to contradict him, but it also enabled his ultimate failure in producing reconciliation and nation building. Why? Arguably because his decision to minimise the role of the state and to take the neo-liberal route has meant the inability to unify the nation around a state-led project that development used to be, for example. The absence of a state-led project of nation building has meant not only the failure of reconciliation between the white middle class and the new black petty bourgeoisie, but also and more importantly the exclusion of the vast majority of the poor population (around half the population of the country by all accounts) from access to jobs and resources like housing. 

3) Mandela’s Election Went beyond Simply ‘Being Black’ 

M S Prabhakara, writing shortly after Mandela’s death in 2013, argues that Mandela as an “African nationalist” went beyond being defined by his skin colour as it included all races. Commenting upon his time spent in the country as a correspondent for The Hindu, Prabhakara writes that the effect of apartheid went beyond just separating the South African black community from the white community, but also segregated other Africans and persons of colour. To that effect, Prabhakara criticises calling Mandela the “first black president.”

Mandela’s pigmentation (which, strictly speaking, is not black, just like the pigmentation of his oppressors was not white) is not relevant and is not even useful as a description, except in political terms: that he and others like him were oppressed and denied their very humanity under apartheid. What is relevant is that he was the first democratically elected President of South Africa … Yet another significant feature of these first democratic elections was that the overwhelming majority of ANC members, including the 76-year-old Mandela and some others even older than him, voted for the first time in their lives. Voted for the first time, got elected for the first time, and became president of the country that very first time. Surely, this is a record in the history of democratic elections worth taking note of, rather than the obvious fact that the person in question was black.

4) South Africa after Mandela

In 1996, South Africa under Mandela adopted a market-friendly strategy, rather than focusing on state-led infrastructure development and social spending—two areas in which South Africa lagged in during the apartheid era. Vishnu Padayachee writes that even though this policy orientation invested in areas like schooling, service delivery remains extremely poor in South Africa today, in part due to the fact that intellectual discourse post-1990 was elitist and self-serving, so much so that there are now calls for “socialist solutions” to problems created and worsened by the capitalist class. 

As one looks ahead, it is clear that there is a pressing need for greater policy coherence among these economic departments and a greater focus on a policy framework that unambiguously promotes growth and employment, and reverses the dangerous trend in social and economic inequality. Essential too will be the restoration of a more harmonious labour relations environment, which will have to mean that the mining companies in particular will have to shake off all vestiges of its apartheid era “cheap labour policy” and commit to a living wage and to social and economic investment in the impoverished mining communities upon whose labour it is dependent … rather than jockeying for power and privileges at party political levels. Increased state expenditure on, and enhanced state capacity directed at alleviating poverty and improving service delivery to the poorest should be high priorities of the new government.  

Read More:

  1. Migration to Democratic South Africa | Renu Modi, 2003
  2. Between Truth and Reconciliation | Rustom Bharucha, 2001
  3. Mandela is very much with us! | Premesh Lalu, 2013

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