Mandela’s great triumph was to secure his nation’s future

What Happens After Mandela? From monied estates with swimming pooled mansions to shebeens in shantytowns without mains water or power, this was question over which many mulled, chewed and fretted.

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When I came to live in South Africa 13 years ago much of the country was obsessed by what was euphemistically known as the “wham” question: What Happens After Mandela?

From monied estates with swimming pooled mansions to shebeens in shantytowns without mains water or power, this was the question over which many mulled, chewed and fretted.

The doomsters, mostly but not exclusively white, wrung their hands, warning the country would go the way of Robert Mugabe’s land-grabbing, law-abusing, majority-exploiting Zimbabwe.

The optimists, mostly but not exclusively black, said the structures Nelson Mandela had put in place when he was president – the new constitution, civil society, an independent judiciary and other checks and balances – were strong enough to allow his beloved African National Congress to grow South Africa’s economy and to put right inequalities born from decades under apartheid.

Back in 2000 the “miracle” of South Africa – the peaceful transition of power from white minority rule to a government elected by all South Africans no matter their race – was not yet regarded as set in stone.

And much still rested on the stooped shoulders of Madiba – the clan name by which Mandela became affectionately known. If Madiba was still around, the consensus agreed, South Africa’s future was safe.

At times it would prove risky to rely so heavily on one symbolic individual, and a frail one at that, with early signs of prostate cancer, clouding on the lungs from a brush with tuberculosis, poor hearing, a replaced knee and other ailments caused in part by the years he spent as the world’s most famous political prisoner.

Figuratively when Madiba caught a mild chill, South Africa went down with a fever. In 2000, news that he had gone to hospital was enough to devalue significantly the country’s currency, the rand.

The first time I met him was after a medical test had identified an abnormally high level of a protein in his blood, indicative of cancer.

A large, set-piece press conference was held to reassure South African voters, the international currency markets and the wider world that doctors had caught it in time.

As ever the old man – he was then 82 years of age – turned on the charm, self-deprecatingly praising his medics as much cleverer than him, modestly saying he was just another pensioner with lots of time on his hands.

This, of course, was nonsense and Madiba knew it as sharply as anyone.

The man who at the climax of the 1995 Rugby World Cup donned the Springboks shirt, an icon associated so closely with the white minority that enforced apartheid, knew all about the power of symbols.

And so that day’s medical scare ended with the markets reassured, the rand strong and the “wham” question deferred.

Aware that he had the power to skew the national debate, Madiba took a clear decision around the time of that press conference to leave the political stage altogether.

He had handed over the presidency in 1999 to his successor Thabo Mbeki and was aware that sniping from the sidelines could only damage the ANC. Ever the loyalist, he felt the party was more important than one individual so he fell politically silent.

He was criticised by some for not acting as other senior anti-apartheid struggle figures have done in holding the ANC to account over recent years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu emerged as the de facto “conscience of the nation”, lambasting the ANC for policies he believed betrayed its ethos: South Africa’s failure to rein in Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Mbeki’s muddle-headed thinking on HIV/Aids, the failure to stop party cadres from lining their pockets through corruption.

For Archbishop Tutu the situation reached crisis point earlier this year when he announced he would not be able to vote for the ANC.

But the wisdom of Madiba’s policy of walking away is that the country is now strong enough for his death to pass without any of the destabilising fallout that used to attach itself to his medical crises.

On the political level South Africa has spent more than a decade “over” Mandela, growing stronger all the time, its elections no longer marred with the violence of the poll of 1994, its economy moving forward steadily.

Of course, there is still much work to be done. Divisions in society remain acute, not so much defined across the black-white fault line, more along the lines of the haves and the have-nots. Schoolchildren in the government sector are badly let down by an ANC government that continues to fail to provide equality of opportunity for learners.

Important though these issues are for South Africa they are not linked to one individual and it is to Mandela’s credit that he managed to extricate himself from politics to such an extent that the passing of this hugely symbolic figure will not knock the country off course.

Good decisions will be taken by the ANC and, no doubt, bad ones too, but the cult of the individual that has cursed so many African nations from Mobutu’s Zaire, to Amin’s Uganda and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe will not be repeated in South Africa.

In January 2013, the central bank in South Africa reissued all the country’s banknotes in honour of the country’s first black leader, his portrait now beaming out warmly from all denominations.

As South Africa grieves for Madiba, his presence on their persons might be a symbolic source of comfort.

Tim Butcher is the author of Blood River and Chasing the Devil. He lives in Cape Town