It was a day that set in motion events that would change the lives of millions of South Africans. It symbolized the turning of the tide in a country riddled by laws and policies that separated its people by color and threatened to plunge the state into anarchy. The Black-majority population was increasingly flexing its muscle in protests over its marginalization by a minority white government.
Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years of incarceration was the spark that took South Africa from the brink of disaster to a new era of democracy, freedom and oneness.
That day — Feb. 11, 1990 — captured the imagination of both South Africa and the world, with overflowing optimism and goodwill regarding what many viewed as the dismantling of an unjust and unequal society. And yet, 33 years later, the party that Mandela once led, the African National Congress (ANC), has failed to carry on his legacy of “a better life for all” by transforming the lives of the country’s Black majority. Instead, the ANC has been marred by corruption scandals and its failure to dismantle apartheid’s grip on the economy.
The occasion of Mandela’s release in 1990, though expected, had come with only 24 hours’ notice, which even Mandela thought was too abrupt. It left both his family and his party, the ANC, little time to prepare for his sudden discharge from confinement and thrust him into the spotlight worldwide. His day began with a drive through streets filled with thousands of enthusiastic, cheering supporters, who briefly forced his vehicle to divert its route as they mobbed it, even climbing onto the hood in unbridled celebration.
In his first public speech at the Grand Parade Grounds outside City Hall in Cape Town, he spoke about unifying the country and the need for all people to be equal. It was Mandela’s first public engagement since his incarceration in 1964, after his sentencing on charges of committing sabotage. After such a long period out of the public eye, not much was known about what he would bring to the table as South Africa sought to end its pariah status and reintegrate with the rest of the world.
Mandela’s journey into politics began in 1944, when he joined the ANC. Initially, he was the leader of the Johannesburg youth wing of the party. Eight years later, he rose to the rank of deputy national president and was a staunch advocate of a nonviolent resistance to apartheid. That stance abruptly changed in 1960, when the police fired directly into a large crowd of peaceful protesters, killing 69 in the township of Sharpeville. Many were shot in the back as they fled.
This incident ushered in the birth of the paramilitary branch of the ANC, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) — the “Spear of the Nation” — which carried out acts of sabotage against the apartheid regime. The MK went on to wage a violent but limited revolutionary struggle against the government for nearly three decades.
In 1961, Mandela was arrested for treason but acquitted. A year later, he was arrested again for illegally leaving the country. Sentenced to five years at the notorious Robben Island prison, he was put on trial in 1964. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela would spend the next 18 years in jail at the inhumane and brutal Robben Island prison. In 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison. Six years later, he was relocated again to a cottage, where he lived under house arrest until his release in 1990.
“It was electrifying and a highly emotionally charged Sunday afternoon,” recalls 54-year-old welder Kagiso Bhuyeni, speaking to New Lines. “We didn’t really know if he was truly being set free because, back in the day, the whites spread so many rumors and this one seemed unreal. Never did I think Mandela would be set free in my lifetime.” At the time, Bhuyeni was 21 years old.
A gifted orator, Mandela used the platform of his release to set the tone for a new era in which South Africans would work as one for a common objective: national unity. He was speaking to a weary and downtrodden sector of society; marginalized Blacks who were anxious for new hope and for their aspirations to be achieved. He began by bellowing out the popular freedom slogan:
“Amandla! Amandla! iAfrika! Mayibuye!” (Power! Power! Africa is ours!)
“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands,” Mandela told the nearly 50,000-strong crowd that had gathered outside the Cape Town hall.
Four years after his release, Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president, though he only ruled for one term. His deputy, Thabo Mbeki, then took over and ruled for nine years until he was sidelined following factional differences. Mbeki was asked to step down by the ANC, a move that paved the way for his rival and successor, Jacob Zuma, to become the country’s fourth Black president. (Kgalema Motlanthe had served as interim president for a year between Mbeki and Zuma’s presidencies.)
As fate would have it, in his second term of office (he served from 2009 to 2017), Zuma was recalled by the ANC. The party had been trying for weeks to get him to resign due to continual allegations of corruption. (Zuma is currently being tried on charges related to a 1990 arms deal.)
The billionaire businessman and politician Cyril Ramaphosa was then elected, unopposed, as president, a position he still holds. Once in office, Ramaphosa spoke of “new hope in the ANC,” but very few if any significant changes have been enacted during his tenure.
Hope in Ramaphosa is fading following a revelation by the former spy chief, Arthur Fraser, who walked into the Rosebank Police Station in Johannesburg in 2022 and filed a complaint against the president for money laundering, for defeating the causes of justice and for kidnapping. These allegations were made in connection with the theft of over $4 million (almost 73 million rand) hidden in a sofa at Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala farm in Limpopo. Ramaphosa is accused of not informing the authorities of the theft but, instead, using his personal security detail to trace and interrogate the suspects.
Now into his second term, Ramaphosa oversees a country still mired in deep corruption at local government levels, a hemorrhage that he has largely failed to stanch and that has cost the country billions of dollars. The decaying electrical grid has all but collapsed, with almost daily power cuts that have decimated South African industry and inconvenienced the general population since 2007.
South Africa’s unemployment rate is sky-high — 32.9% at the end of 2002 — and has stubbornly persisted at levels that have caused the large population of expectant young Black people to despair about ever getting a job.
The waning enthusiasm following the election of Ramaphosa has left South Africans pensive about the country’s future. This is a far cry from the optimism that gripped South Africa when Mandela was released. The initial stellar management achieved during Mandela’s term in office gave the country an early feeling of hope for the future.
The ANC that was led by Mandela and that successfully dismantled apartheid has now degenerated into a shady ruling party, gorged on corruption. Some of Mandela’s heirs have benefited by siphoning off billions of dollars through government contracts, as revealed by the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into allegations of corruption and fraud in the public sector.
The commission’s report reveals forensic details about state plunder under Zuma, providing evidence that some ANC leaders participated in looting at a huge cost to the country. This systematic corruption has been dubbed “state capture” by South Africans. Following the commission’s revelations, some South Africans feel that the country has lost its way and is mired in the quicksand of failure. They consider it to be quickly deteriorating to a point of no return, mirroring the fate of many other African countries.
Thabiso Mohale, for example, who was a young teenager in 1990, recalls the day of Mandela’s release as both exhilarating and emotional but also filled with great expectations for an equal and just society. “The corruption we saw under Zuma was on a grand scale. That was state-of-the-art corruption,” Mohale, a retired teacher from Soweto, told New Lines. “That’s not to say there wasn’t corruption during apartheid, but we expected better from our Black leaders, who promised us a better life.”
It was not only the Black population who witnessed and pondered Mandela’s release. “I was on the Grand Parade in Cape Town waiting for Mr. Mandela to address the crowd from the balcony of City Hall. We had a front row position and waited for about five hours for him to emerge on the balcony. I had a strong sense that I was in the front row of history in the making,” commented Helen Zille, former leader of the Democratic Alliance, which is South Africa’s second-largest political party and is perceived as a white people’s party.
Zille told New Lines that the ANC’s incompetence and endemic corruption led to the crisis of a failing state. “Cadre deployment, the policy of parachuting ANC loyalists with top connections into every key position and institution, has destroyed the professional civil service,” she said. Zille maintains that, since Mandela was the ANC leader before he became president, he was responsible for launching cadre deployment as a formal government policy.
Kumi Naidoo, who at the time of Mandela’s release was in exile studying at Oxford University in the U.K., recalled how he and fellow South African students contemplated what that day meant and whether Black majority rule would get the transformation and transition right. “It was scary to realize that we are going to have to take responsibility for the nation going forward. Fast forward to today, and there is an arrogance of the leadership and an absence of humanity. We can’t even call this corruption; it’s industrial-scale looting,” he told New Lines.
“I don’t remember any [other] anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison where the levels of anxiety about the future of our country [were] so high. The social and economic decay is toxic and our people are in extreme pain,” Naidoo continued.
To address issues of inequality, the ANC-led government introduced the policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which was designed to redress racial imbalance in the country’s economy. Its intention was to enhance the participation of Blacks in the economy by providing employment equity, skills development and preferential procurement. Twenty-eight years later, some South Africans argue that BEE is an irrelevant policy because it only serves the interests of politically connected individuals.
“The ANC failed to transform our economy so that everyone can benefit. The generation after Mandela are narrow-minded and only focus on their own political faction, own color and ethnic group interests. BEE only serves a certain section of the chosen few,” laments the South African economist and political scientist, William Gumede. Gumede told New Lines that the ANC was not ready to govern after the fall of apartheid because it was only experienced in opposing its oppressors and not in governing a complex country.
“Blacks were not part of the economy during apartheid, so they did not have the skill set. The ANC kicked out almost all the whites with the skills from government positions. They then appointed their loyalists, who did not have a clue,” Gumede concludes.
The leader of the United Democratic Movement, Bantu Holomisa, who headed the Republic of Transkei from 1987 to 1994 (an enclave created by the apartheid government for Blacks), told New Lines that South Africa prospered during the first 10 years after abolishing apartheid because Mandela accommodated all interest groups, as he was interested in unity. “When he left, there were already signs that the comrades didn’t want to make use of other people they didn’t know, no matter how experienced they were,” said Holomisa. “The ANC wanted to use this transformation as a license to loot and they have looted on a massive scale, and they appointed their inner circle who are now their gatekeepers.”
One of the leaders in the sprawling township of Orange Farm, however, feels that Mandela and the ANC failed Black people at the onset of negotiations with the apartheid government. “They made a lot of compromises and didn’t consult the grassroots. They rushed to discuss democracy and reconciliation before justice and restitution,” Richard Makolo told New Lines. “Now most Blacks are poor and have nothing to show for their freedom.”
A damning recent report by the World Bank, released in 2022, reveals that inherited circumstances, such as location, gender, age and parental background, explain some of the inequality in South Africa. Ten percent of the population owns more than 80% of the wealth. Introducing race into the analysis further exacerbates the inequities.
“South Africa, the largest country in the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), is the most unequal country in the world, ranking first among 164 countries,” the report said. The World Bank’s stunning conclusion is a far cry from Mandela’s aspirations when he walked out of Victor Verster Prison and spoke of ending inequality.
“There must be an end to white monopoly on political power, and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed and our society thoroughly democratized,” Mandela asserted.
Four years after Mandela’s release, the ANC won a landslide victory and emerged as the most successful political party in the 1994 elections. South Africans believed the ANC would deliver on its promises of a “better life for all.” The party went on to win five successive general elections. Now, three decades later, the ANC’s popularity is waning due to the broader crisis of governance.
In the 2022 local government elections, the ANC won fewer than 50% of their races for the first time since democratic rule began. This disillusionment of its supporters continues to grow as local municipal governance deteriorates. Service-delivery protests are common around the country because the government fails to distribute resources such as water, sanitation, infrastructure, housing and land.
“We’ve got a party that is losing support and I don’t think they will get 50% of the vote in the 2024 national election. I seriously see a coalition government in the offing,” Steve Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, predicted in an interview with New Lines.
While the ANC is still the largest party in South Africa, its hegemony has most likely ended. “Never again shall we put all our eggs in one basket. Away with one-party dominance. It has shown that it breeds corruption,” said Holomisa.
As the ANC — which has for so long been viewed as the party of Mandela and Black freedom — continues to be plagued by corruption and incompetence, some South Africans grieve that the same party that delivered the country’s liberation is now threatening it.
“The current elite in South Africa have violated Mandela’s memory. This ANC cannot make any claim to being the ANC that hundreds of thousands like myself gave their lives to. There is no recognition between the culture and practice of this ANC and the one that led the liberation,” Naidoo laments.
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