The Mandela Years in Power

The death of Nelson Mandela, at age 95 on 5 December 2013, brings genuine sadness. As his health deteriorated over the past six months, many asked the more durable question: how did he change South Africa? Given how unsatisfactory life is for so many in society, the follow-up question is, how much room was there for Mandela to maneuver? South Africa now lurches from crisis to crisis, and so many of us are tempted to remember the Mandela years – especially the first democratic government – as fundamentally different from the crony-capitalist, corruption-riddled, brutally-securitised, eco-destructive and anti-egalitarian regime we suffer now. But were the seeds of our present political weeds sown earlier? 

The critical decade was the 1990s, when Mandela was at the height of his power, having been released from jail in February 1990, taken the South African presidency in May 1994 and left office in June 1999. But it was in this period, alleges former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, that “the battle for the soul of the African National Congress was lost to corporate power and influence… We readily accepted that devil’s pact and are damned in the process. It has bequeathed to our country an economy so tied in to the neoliberal global formula and market fundamentalism that there is very little room to alleviate the dire plight of the masses of our people.”

Given much more extreme inequality, much lower life expectancy, much higher unemployment, much worse vulnerability to world economic fluctuations, and much more rapid ecological decay during his presidency, how much can Mandela be blamed? Was he pushed, or did he jump?

South Africa won its democracy in 1994. But regardless of the elimination of formal racism and the constitutional rhetoric of human rights, it has been a “choiceless democracy” in socio-economic policy terms and more broadly a “low-intensity democracy”, to borrow terms coined respectively by Thandika Mkandawire for Africa, and by Barry Gills and Joel Rocamora for many ex-dictatorships. Nelson Mandela’s South Africa fit a pattern: a series of formerly anti-authoritarian critics of old dictatorships – whether from rightwing or left-wing backgrounds – who transformed into 1980s-90s neoliberal rulers: Alfonsin (Argentina), Aquino (Philippines), Arafat (Palestine), Aristide (Haiti), Bhutto (Pakistan), Chiluba (Zambia), Dae Jung (South Korea), Havel (Czech Republic), Mandela (South Africa), Manley (Jamaica), Megawati (Indonesia), Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Museveni (Uganda), Nujoma (Namibia), Obasanjo (Nigeria), Ortega (Nicaragua), Perez (Venezuela), Rawlings (Ghana), Walesa (Poland) and Yeltsin (Russia).The self-imposition of economic and development policies – typically at the behest of financial markets and the Washington/Geneva multilateral institutions – required an extraordinary insulation from genuine national determinations: in short, an “elite transition.”

This policy insulation from mass opinion could only be achieved through the leadership of Mandela. It was justified by invoking the mantra of “international competitiveness”, and it initially peaked with Mandela’s 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy. Obeisance to multinational corporati

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