Charlotte Harman is an associate editor with the JSDLP. She is in her first year at the McGill Faculty of Law, and holds a BA (Hons) from Queen’s University, where she majored in Global Development Studies and minored in Drama and Theatre.
On Thursday, December 5, 2013, South Africa’s legendary figurehead Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. World-renowned for his lifelong commitment to peace, equality, and justice, Mandela’s legacy is heralded across the globe. Best known for having carried the African National Congress (“ANC”) to its revolutionary victory over the apartheid government in the 1994 election as South Africa’s first black president, he was also a dedicated legal academic and one of the most committed defenders of the global fight against HIV/AIDS. He spent his later years promoting human rights and democracy through the Nelson Mandela foundation. The flurry of media coverage following his death showed the many titles conferred on him, from “Madiba,” the nickname given out of respect for his Xhosa tribe, to both the “greatest son” and father (“Tata”) of the nation.
Beyond his role as a political revolutionary, Mandela made countless contributions to the transformation of law and policy in South Africa. He studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he began his involvement in the racial equality movement, forging cooperative relationships between black and white resistance groups and leading demonstrations. Mandela joined the ANC in 1944, initiating his involvement in politics shortly before the dawn of the apartheid regime and the election of the minority Afrikaner-dominated National Party. Along with fellow-ANC member Oliver Tambo, Mandela opened South Africa’s first black law firm in 1952, offering pro bono and low-cost legal counsel to individuals struggling against apartheid legislation. He was a frontrunner in the ANC’s 1952 Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, promoting equality before the law and in society through the Freedom Charter, a manifesto that today remains a proclamation of the goals of the ANC. During his presidency, he was deeply devoted to the democratic process, emphasizing the maintenance of an independent judiciary and launching anti-corruption units in several government sectors.
Though Mandela’s death concluded a long life and a slow degradation in health, it was nonetheless a great loss to his country. A vast range of speculations about the future of South Africa has erupted in the wake of his passing, which comes during the tide of an upcoming election and a restless social and political climate. The 2014 election will mark twenty years since Mandela’s great victory as the front man of the ANC. Sadly, those years since Mandela passed on leadership to his successor, Thabo Mbeki, have shown a slow departure from the incredible changes Mandela’s term brought to the nation.
The present socio-economic conditions of the State are dire. Conditions of abject poverty and class stagnation extend nation-wide, with access to basic services frustrated by inconsequential growth. HIV rates remain among the highest in the world, and the epidemic of sexual violence continues to devastate. Not surprisingly, the ANC has faced mounting public disillusionment with their strategy, and this coupled with a birth of corruption and elitism that has fundamentally shaken the party’s legitimacy.
Nevertheless, the ANC remains in power, and to many, appears discouragingly unshakeable. According to a preliminary survey, almost one in four South Africans does not plan to vote in the coming election, the majority professing that that “nothing will change.” Indeed, the ANC maintains a cohort blinded by loyalty carried from the foregone liberation era. Posters of Mandela’s familiar smile now inundate the townships of Cape Town, promising “a better life for all.” Opposition to the party’s two-decade rule is now shrouded in race politics that prevent voters from backing other contenders. The Democratic Alliance struggles to shed its image as a party of mainly white middle-class interests, and the Economic Freedom Fighters, lead by Julius Malema (known for his expulsion from the ANC and promotion of hate speech) continue to prey on animosities between races and classes to gain popularity. Still, the strength of free speech institutions and the enduring voice of resistance suggest the democratic climate is more stable and alive in South Africa than it is often given credit for.
Mandela’s death serves as a reminder of many things: of the brutal struggle against the apartheid regime, the glorious day of its abolishment, the hope and spirit of a nation born anew, and of the timeless words and optimism of one of the greatest leaders of our time. It is also a reminder of the failure of the ANC to carry the gauntlet of freedom and democratic change onwards into the modern post-apartheid state. For South Africa, political freedom has not translated to economic freedom, nor has it fostered a nation grounded in equality, social justice, and peace. Nonetheless, Mandela’s death might be the unifying force this country needs to spark a new movement towards this dream. In his own words, “we must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”