Reality is catching up with South Africa
18 Sep 2023|

Time can be cruel. Infatuations and honeymoons must reach their end. Emotions subside, our better selves fall, exhausted, by the wayside, and deeper character traits will out.

A truly democratic South Africa, a ‘rainbow nation’, was always an illusion, a phantasm that could never be sustained. But it is still painful to see the myth peeled away, the layers of which are deeper, wider and more numerous than many believed.

An understanding of how the legend was formed can helps us to see how far the process of exfoliation might go and what the substrate might look like. In the 1950s and ’60s, with the rise of nationalism in the developing world and the modern human rights movement in the West, the clumsy, heavy-handed crudity of post-war apartheid proffered beguiling material for the creation of a fairytale.

Tellingly, the man who became the face of the struggle, Nelson Mandela, was one who believed, from the outset, that ‘appearances constitute reality’. It is extraordinary how consciously Mandela and his second wife, Winnie, cultivated and nurtured their image from the 1950s, well before their fame, as documented in a recent joint biography by scholar Jonny Steinberg. It’s also notable how quickly their contemporaries in the African National Congress recognised their photogenic, propagandistic potential and thrust Mandela into a junior leadership role.

He was arrested in 1962 after a period on the run, during which he had donned a Che Guevara–style beard and was dubbed ‘the Black Pimpernel’ by the journalists whom he had carefully chosen to broadcast his escapades. His flamboyant and ineffective disguises were more suited to the movie set than the world of the underground operative, and had much to do with why he was caught.

Ironically, Mandela’s imprisonment and the banning of his visage in South Africa’s media fuelled his myth rather than extinguishing it. Steinberg observes that Mandela became an iconic brand in the 1980s, a new era in which commercialism intersected with political causes and fashion and style became emblematic of political attachment. His was a brand promoted by people who had never met him, and by his friend, Oliver Tambo, now the exiled head of the ANC, who hadn’t seen him for 20 years and didn’t consult party colleagues before choosing to do so.

The finest hour for South Africa and Mandela came in the mid-1990s during the transition and its early aftermath. Steinberg argues that he sought to head off a white counter-revolution and black ‘majoritarian excess’ by reverting to what he did best—displays of spectacle and theatre. It spoke of ‘great discipline and vocational pride’, because the actor suppressed an angry and resentful inner man.

But there were glimpses of that man and of practices better known to South Africa’s north: Mandela remonstrated bitterly during his acceptance speech for a Nobel Peace Prize; he subverted party processes to get Winnie elected to office, on one occasion using thugs to intimidate delegates; he cajoled longstanding international supporters to suspend funding rules when Winnie was charged with kidnapping and assault; and he spirited witnesses out of the country when she was taken to trial.

In the main, though, it was Mandela’s discipline and the conjurer’s magic that won out—and that have come to be despised by many South Africans. For them, his darker side is more attractive, because they have gravitated towards those who display the untamed animosity and whiff of criminality that hovers around his wife’s memory. A revisionist narrative that presents him as a ‘sell-out’ has gained currency, particularly among the young, though it stands alongside his ongoing representation as a saint.

Today’s South Africa leaves a lingering sense that most of the lauded artefacts of the transition were faux, not real. They continue to be lionised by those who don’t live by them, and they are scorned by those who see no need for the pretence.

Among the first category, Mandela’s contemporaries have led the way. They will be remembered less for their struggle credentials than their hypocrisy. They have relentlessly white-anted South Africa’s nominal ideals, and have at times commanded frontal assaults.

The most extolled and most important of those paradigms is the country’s constitution. It is frequently said to be the ‘best in the world’, yet many of those who negotiated it have shown by their actions that it was not theirs; it was the quixotic vision of liberals who secured considerable but temporary influence during apartheid’s demise. That was another of the transition’s sleights of hand. The focus of world acclaim, many in the ANC were carried away by the mood and chose to play a part they didn’t ultimately believe in.

The terminally optimistic would regard that as too harsh an assessment. They point to the instances when the powerful have had to comply with the rule of law (well, at least in the immediate aftermath). But it is not the high-profile ‘test cases’ that should be underlined, selective though such an exercise would need to be. It is the fraying at the edges. ANC governments have been defying court orders for years on matters in which the targets are powerless or the risk of political blowback is considered minimal.

Neither is there a sense that the masses hold the law and the liberal tenets of the constitution with great affection. Aside from the fact that South Africa’s crime and corruption metrics place it among the most lawless countries on earth, the notion that all citizens share equal rights is loosely held. The suspension or removal of such rights for those considered foreign or privileged, where that would benefit the ‘greater good’, is a conception widely held. It’s difficult to see how that, along with the elite’s disdain of the weak, will lead to anything but the law of the jungle should it persist. In such a scenario, the few who win, win big, and the rest lose everything.

The next 18 months bear watching. The economy and the ANC’s popularity are in steep decline, and elections are due next year. The formation of unstable, shambolic coalitions is a distinct possibility, in which case another of South Africa’s ersatz phenomena—the acquisitive, pseudo-socialist Economic Freedom Fighters party—may procure significant leverage. Should that occur, it will remove further layers of the thinning foundation and bring South Africa face to face, sooner, with grimmer realities.