The death of Nelson Mandela is being mourned across the world, and for good reason. As the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, he served as a symbol of national reconciliation and as a defender of South Africa’s new and fragile liberal constitution. It is also true, however, that the movement he led, the African National Congress, has not lived up to lofty expectations, and that at least some of the responsibility lies with the great man himself.
Before we turn to what has gone wrong with post-apartheid South Africa, it is worth briefly rehearsing what has gone right, thanks in no small part to Mandela. During the apartheid era, South Africa’s Afrikaner-dominated ruling National Party warned that majority rule would bring violent reprisals against the country’s white minority, a Marxist revolution that would mean the end of private property, and an alliance with the Soviet bloc that would threaten the free world. None of that ultimately came to pass, for a variety of reasons. As the Soviet threat receded, and as anti-apartheid activists pressured governments in the U.S. and Western Europe to isolate the South African government, elements within the governing National Party sensed that the days of minority rule were numbered, and that some accommodation with the ANC was the only way to prevent a bloody denouement. And Mandela, to his great credit, proved a willing partner. Having established his moral authority within the liberation movement as a champion of armed insurrection against the apartheid government, he committed himself to a path of non-violence. One shudders to think of what might have happened had Mandela chosen differently. Mandela’s fateful decision to work with his former enemies paved the way for the ANC’s extraordinary political success.
Since 1994, when South Africa held its first authentically democratic and multiracial national elections, the ANC has won every national election by substantial margins, and there is good reason to believe that it will win the election that will be held next spring. Yet after almost two decades of ANC rule, the country suffers from shockingly high levels of poverty, unemployment, and violent crime. Hundreds of thousands of educated South Africans — white, black, and Asian — have emigrated in search of opportunity in Britain, Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere. Many middle-income countries that were in the same economic ballpark as South Africa in 1994 in terms of GDP per capita — like Poland, Malaysia, Chile, Mauritius, and neighboring Botswana — have raced ahead in the years since. When we compare South Africa to China or South Korea, the contrast is more dismal still.
One of the key reasons for South Africa’s weak performance is that while high-growth countries saw large numbers of workers shift from low-productivity sectors, like subsistence farming, into high-productivity sectors like export-oriented manufacturing, South Africa’s high-productivity sectors have seen little growth. There are many theories as to why this has been the case. Some will attribute this to the rigidity of South Africa’s formal labor market while others will attribute it to a failure on the part of South Africa’s government to pursue a more ambitious industrial policy. Regardless of the answer, what is striking is that despite South Africa’s economic woes, the same political party keeps winning election after election.
Over the five years Mandela served as president, he ceded most of his day-to-day executive authority to Thabo Mbeki, a polarizing figure notorious for his elitism and authoritarianism. Though Mbeki succeeded Mandela as leader of the ANC only in 1997, and as president in 1999, he was the true architect of the new South African state. By choosing Mbeki as his heir apparent, Mandela all but guaranteed that though South Africa had the formal trappings of a modern multiparty democracy, the ANC itself would remain a rigid Leninist organization, which would reflect the flaws and the pathologies of its leaders.