Although he was imprisoned for nearly three decades, including 18 years on desolate Robben Island, it was not retribution and revenge that Nelson Mandela sought when he became president of the newly democratic South Africa in 1994, but reconciliation.
And now, nearly 20 years after the end of a brutal and racist apartheid regime, Mandela’s legacy as an icon of freedom and democracy is being tested, as the leaders and citizens of his native country decide how to carry forward his ideals amid a host of problems.
“Forget about what happened pre-1994, the issue is what happens now,” said Xolani Gwala, a radio host and journalist at the South African Broadcasting Corp., in an interview with ABC News correspondent Rob Nelson in Johannesburg.
“Mandela will remain a towering figure and an amazing influence across South Africa,” said Gwala. “Mandela and others were about reconciliation and nation-building. The legacy is still there, but how do you make sure it continues into the future to maintain that kind of reconciliation and unity in the country?”
Whereas the main objective of the Mandela years was the end of apartheid, the new South Africa must contend with several other pressing issues. Gwala said South Africa is trying to interpret Mandela’s legacy in the face of an unemployment rate nearing 40 percent, poor public education, and high rates of poverty and HIV and AIDS. According to Gwala, the country’s citizens are demanding answers to those problems.
“Twenty years ago you said we’d have houses,” said Gwala. “Twenty years ago you said education would improve. Twenty years ago you said we would have job opportunities. If you have people who are completely poor, if you have people who are desperate, then you’re going to have a high rate of HIV, then you’re going to have crime. It’s a vicious circle.”
Gwala believed that job creation should be the first priority.
“If you can get people working, they can at least fend for themselves,” he said. “If you can get this economy growing and start there, then people will have some hope.”
But it is not only social and economic problems that have South Africans questioning the ruling African National Congress. A video released in late April showed South African President Jacob Zuma and other ANC leaders smiling as they surrounded an ashen-faced Mandela, who is now 94, at his home. South Africans were surprised at how frail Mandela looked and expressed anger over the ANC’s seeming attempts to use him as a political prop.
As the political stagecraft and struggles continue, there are signs of progress.
“It takes other nations more than one generation for people to move from one class to another,” said Gwala. “In a short amount of space, people have moved from poverty to middle-class. This country continues to record miracles. The problem is that the numbers are not good enough.”
Ultimately, it will be Mandela’s legacy of democracy on which the country’s future will depend.
“Putting democracy into action is just as hard as fighting for it,” said Gwala. “Prior to 1994, Mandela spoke about this: ‘Are we ready to govern?’”
Gwala continued: “Are we ready to govern now? I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.”