1 Jul 2013

A 'repellent photo op', a troubled ANC, and Mandela

A baking winter sun beats down on the brown lands around Johannesburg. One of the most industrial and commercial centres south of the equator bustles about its business.

Nelson Mandela’s ailing presence in Pretoria’s heart hospital 35 miles away is somewhere in the background. But it does not eclipse the deepening sense of disillusion with the ruling ANC. Matters came to a nasty head yesterday when Winnie Mandela told my ITV colleague Mark Austin how much she loathed what the ANC and President Zuma had done in staging a “photo op” with Mandela in April.

Madiba barely flickered as Zuma beamed and talked of Mandela being “up and about” at a time when he patently wasn’t.

Last night on Channel 4 News, we interviewed Mandela’s erstwhile cohort, Ronnie Kasrils, who served as a defence minister in Mandela’s government and later as intelligence minister. He told me he “agreed absolutely with Winnie Mandela”. “People were shocked,” he said. “I found it repellent, and wrote that I did.”

But this is the least of it. There is concern that the lack of renewal in the ANC, the corruption, and more, are holding the country back. Some talk to me openly of Mandela’s presence amongst them as protecting the ANC leadership from this growing sense of disillusion. The “photo op” affair – which has taken some time to ferment, caps the sense that the ANC is using Mandela’s closing time amongst them for electoral advantage. I suggested as much to Mr Kasrils: he responded – somewhat sardonically I thought – with, “I would hate to think so.”

Obama: hero and villain

Barack Obama’s long planned official visit here has been intriguing to behold. He has been greeted as both hero and villain. The “son” of Mandela’s overwhelming of racial hatred, Obama is seen as a worthy inheritor of all that has flowed from Mandela’s famous victory.

But Obama’s time in office is also seen as a failure by many critics here. They regret that it has taken him so long to make it to Africa, and South Africa itself, in his presidency. They damn his handling of wars, drones and targeted assassinations.

The authorities here were careful to micro-manage Obama’s time here. He was only seen in intimate handpicked situations. There were no moments when the general public even glimpsed him. The few protests – peaceful indeed – were firmly disposed of with stun grenades.

Altogether a prickly time here – and yet not one devoid of hope. South Africa remains rich in potential. The youth are better educated than ever before. The burgeoning black middle class is sporting its entrepreneurial exuberance. But that eternal yardstick of rich and poor is still an unhappy one. The gulf is as wide as at any time.

Mandela, however, will be remembered, not for his management of the economy, or his handling of the political system, but for the message of forgiveness that excused this country, in the aftermath of apartheid, the horrific bloodshed that in all other circumstances would have seemed unavoidable.

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