8 Dec 2013

Nelson Mandela as president: a qualified success?

Nelson Mandela presided over the introduction of South Africa’s constitution – the most progressive in the world. But his time as president was not one of unqualified social and economic success.

 Nelson mandela votes for the first time in his life, Ohlange school, Inanada, march 26 1994 (Photo by South Photography/Gallo images/Getty Images)

When Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa with a 62 per cent majority in May 1994, he was already an international symbol with a titanic legacy.

His Presidential inauguration speech had a visionary promise for the nation:

“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.

“We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

But did he deliver on it in his five year spell as President of the nation?

The Rainbow Nation

The 1995 constitution of the republic built a country straight out of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation ideals. It remains the most progressive constitution in the world and went much further than just rolling back the apparatus of apartheid.

The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values:

  1. human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms
  2. non-racialism and non-sexism
  3. supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law
  4. universal adult suffrage, a national common voters’ roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.

It put South Africa far ahead of the rest of the world by recognising racial equality, women’s rights, gay rights and aspiring to food, education and healthcare for all. It states:

“The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

Those principles can be seen in some of the legislation Mandela brought through in his five years of government. His notable and unusual emphasis on sexism resulted in several acts one enshrining a woman’s right to choice over reproduction with the introduction of abortion in South Africa.

And a 1998 act recognising domestic violence as a “serious social evil” with many forms whose victims were among some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Corruption and crime

But other laws passed in Mandela’s spell in government reflect the troubles threatening South Africa – underground economy, corruption and organised crime. And these problems threatened the delivery of the promises in the constitution. A 1996 law attempted to tackle non-payment of tax and underground economies in South Africa.

In 1998, the parliament took on one of the biggest threats facing South Africa with the prevention of organised crime act, one blow in a long, ongoing battle against the crime that still disrupts the country. The introduction to the act gives a sense of the problem’s scale and the task passed on to Mbeki.

“There is a rapid growth of organised crime, money laundering and criminal gang activities nationally and internationally and since organised crime has internationally been identified as an international security threat.

“Organised crime, money laundering and criminal gang activities, both individually and collectively, present a danger to public order and safety and economic stability, and have the potential to inflict social damage.

“The South African common law and statutory law fail to deal effectively with organised crime, money laundering and criminal gang activities, and also fail to keep pace with international measures aimed at dealing effectively with organised crime, money laundering and criminal gang activities.”

Inequality, a tradition of violence and a criminal justice system with a corruption problem fuelled the crime boom according to a 2007 study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Just after Nelson Mandela left office, UN crime statistics marked South Africa as the worst in the world for murder and assault – of the countries where statistics are gathered. 74 gun murders per 100,000 population and a further 51 murders without firearms.

And despite Mandela’s commitment to annihilating sexism, violence against women is a striking aspect of the country’s crime problem.

A 2005 survey dubbed South Africa the “rape capital” of the world, with a rate of 118.3 rapes per 100,000 population.

And despite the constitution’s pledge of access to justice for all, a police force believed to be corrupt and ineffectual has encouraged a boom in private security companies – giving greater security to those who can pay for it.

Mandelanomics: from communist to capitalist

Mandela’s early economic ideas were influenced by socialism in the 1950s. He believed in nationalising South Africa’s mines and its banks.

But when he took over power in 1994, he took a more market-friendly approach, slashing spending and pursuing foreign investors, policies that led to the longest period of growth in the country’s history.

Mandela’s finance minister, Chris Liebenberg, used his first budget to raise taxes, equalise the tax system for all racial groups, and slash the defence budget.

With apartheid down, trust in Mandela was at an international high. Trade sanctions were lifted and investment flooded in. South Africa became the continent’s leading economy.

But the new wealth was shared out unequally, a problem only exacerbated by the 2008 recession.

White South Africans, who account for 8.7 percent of the population of 53 million, on average earn six times more than their black counterparts and still have access to better education, medical care and housing, says this report on a South Africa business paper.

Just 8.3 per cent of blacks over the age of 20 had some post-secondary education in 2011, compared with 37 percent of whites, according to census data.

But one of Mandela’s greatest legacies is to democracy. And given given the precedents in Africa, one of the most striking features of Mandela’s time in power is that five years after winning it, he was also able to peacefully relinquish it, establishing South Africa as one of the world’s great democracies.