The sun will rise tomorrow

By Marianne Millstein

Much has been said about what will happen to South Africa after Nelson Mandela dies. While all is not well in the Rainbow Nation, there are reasons to counter the portrait of a country on the highway to hell. As I wrote in June, the idea that a South Africa in crisis will erupt and disintegrate is flawed and disrespectful towards Mandela’s legacy as well as ordinary South Africans. We have witnessed South Africans’ own answer to this forecast over the last few days, as they have come together to mourn and celebrate Mandela in the streets and stadiums of the country. Desmond Tutu said it well: “The sun will rise tomorrow. It might not shine as bright it did yesterday, but life will carry on.”

That said, South Africa faces critical times. The ANC government has delivered millions of houses and provided electricity and water on a huge scale. But demand is greater than the government’s capacity to deliver. There is blatant corruption that enriches the elite and hampers delivery. There are deep socioeconomic inequalities within cities and between cities and rural areas. Apartheid’s racial identities and divisions linger in the background. Independent institutions are under pressure. But there are also forces within the ANC “family” and elsewhere in political and civil society that are unapologetically critical of recent developments. Despite state violence at Marikana and the seemingly more common use of repressive tactics against social movements and protests, there is still public and political space to express concerns and criticism, to mobilise and organise.

South Africans are defiant and vocal, which is also a legacy of the mass campaigns and mobilisation during the apartheid era. While booing the president at a memorial service for the nation’s greatest son is perhaps not what we’d like to see, I can’t help thinking that the fact that thousands of citizens (whether they are associated with the ongoing internal ANC dynamics or not) are confident enough to do so, says something about this spirit of defiance and refusal to tolerate politicians who enrich themselves by using public resources. This defiance also links with shifting political dynamics within and beyond the ANC. And while organised civil society may not be as strong as it was during, and shortly after, the anti-apartheid struggle, things are shifting on the ground.

One of these shifts is the wave of local (and sometimes violent) protest in South African cities and towns. These protests seem to be different from previous waves of sociopolitical mobilisation. I think it is too simple to describe them as merely unruly expressions of frustration and anger over failing service delivery. They are often embedded in the larger politics of civil and political society. Actions that appear disorganised and ad hoc sometimes erupt after years of efforts to engage with local government to improve services. Sometimes, the mobilisation and protests become highly politicised, serving an individual politician’s interests against local and regional rivals. To really unpack South Africa’s political crisis and future development, we should pay more attention to these local processes and their intimate relationship with what goes on at city, provincial and national levels.

South African politics are complex and are, without downplaying Nelson Mandela’s immense importance, defined by more than his life and passing. This does not mean that Madiba and his legacy will cease to inform South African society. Elections are due next year, and South Africa will celebrate 20 years as a democratic nation. There have been intriguing shifts in South African politics over the past year, and the ANC’s dominance is no longer as apparent. There is little doubt the ANC will win a majority. The interesting thing will be to see how well the opposition can do. Can old and new political parties dig into some of ANCs support base, or will they rather compete among themselves for support within the same voting segments? It will also be interesting to see to what extent political parties will try to draw on some version of the Madiba magic. Mandela’s life and achievements are intrinsically linked to the ANC. But attempts to capitalise on his iconic status in the elections can be a double-edged sword as people also question the road the ANC has taken. This is also a point that opposition parties will use for all it is worth. The discussion about how Mandela’s legacy can be carried forward, and by who, will continue to resonate in South Africa’s politics.

More about Marianne Millstein and her research.

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