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Madiba’s death cuts final link to South Africa’s idealistic past

Ironically for a country where whites are traditionally accused of harbouring nostalgia, it is ANC officials and election candidates who now seem to spend more time invoking the glorious past.

‘Just wait. After Mandela goes, you whites are really going to be in trouble.’ That was the threat one white South African employee told a journalist he had received from a black colleague. The anecdote embodies the apprehension felt by many whites at the prospect of life after Mandela. Except the story is from 1995, just a year after he came to power. Ironically, today it is the ruling ANC government that has the most to fear in the wake of Mandela’s departure.

“South African Whites Fear Armageddon”, “White fright paralyses Johannesburg”: such were the headlines that dominated the eve of the 1994 elections that brought majority rule. White anxiety has long been a defining narrative in post-apartheid South Africa. But it did not take long for whites to embrace Mandela, and when he announced his retirement from politics in 1998, there was renewed fear that he had been the only person who stood between the rich white minority and millions of poor, angry blacks seeking revenge for apartheid.

Two decades and two presidents on, however, whites have discovered such fears to be unjustified.

Far from being evicted from their homes and subjected to “reverse apartheid”, they remain South Africa’s wealthiest citizens. They continue to live, albeit behind ever-growing private security measures, in their palatial old houses and employ scores of black servants often clad in old-fashioned maid outfits. According to the 2012 census, black annual household earnings stood at one-sixth those of whites.

In many ways, white South Africans have become untethered from the fate of the nation as a whole. Edged out of the civil service and large state corporations as a result of the government’s affirmative action policy known as Black Economic Empowerment, but armed with decades worth of connections and family capital, whites have gone on to start their own businesses.

As a result, most are not dependent on the state. They don’t need welfare, they don’t use the government hospitals, and they don’t even need the police: private security companies have become a multibillion dollar industry.

So long as the government remains committed to the preservation of basic property rights and a market economy, white south Africans’ prosperity will remain assured, no matter what happens to the country at large. They hadn’t needed Mandela for a while.

But the ANC did. Beset by political infighting and accusations of growing authoritarianism, Mandela’s former political party has used every opportunity to market itself as the heir to his legacy. The last few years have seen the largest number of strikes and demonstrations for several decades as millions regularly protest about the government’s inability to provide basic jobs and services. Up to 70 per cent of all South Africans under 35 are out of work. According to research by the South African Institute of Race Relations, this year the number of people with jobs has been overtaken by those receiving social welfare grants.

Ironically for a country where whites are traditionally accused of harbouring nostalgia, it is ANC officials and election candidates who now seem to spend more time invoking the glorious past – singing struggle songs, giving raised fist salutes, and invoking Mandela – than describing policies for the future.

The squabbles over Mandela’s legacy became so extreme earlier this year that President Zuma was criticised for taking part in an exploitative photo-op next to the ailing Mandela. The ANC also attacked the opposition white-led DA party for using Mandela’s face on an election poster.

The government’s desperation stems from the awareness that Mandela represented its last links to the progressive, honest, inclusive and idealistic spirit that he embodied.

Over the last two decades, the ruling party has shed most of the key tenets that once drove its anti-apartheid struggle: a commitment to equality, progressive values and non-racialism. Invoking Mandela’s image today is designed to keep a restless population at bay.

But it may no longer be enough.

“I’m not going to vote for the ANC”, a Durban university student told me recently. “They are so corrupt. Maybe I could vote for them if the president of the ANC was Nelson Mandela. He worked hard for South Africa. But Nelson Mandela is gone.”

Vadim Nikitin is a freelance journalist. He blogs at foreignpolicy blogs.com

Updated: December 6, 2013 04:00 AM

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