Mandela goes from hero to scapegoat as South Africa struggles
By Lynsey Chutel
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela is everywhere. The country’s currency bears his smiling face, at least 32 streets are named for him and nearly two dozen statues in his image watch over a country in flux.
Every year on July 18, his birthday, South Africans celebrate Mandela Day by volunteering for 67 minutes — painting schools, knitting blankets or cleaning up city parks — in honor of the 67 years that Mandela spent serving the country as an anti-apartheid leader, much of it behind bars.
But 10 years after his death, attitudes have changed. The party Mandela led after his release from prison, the African National Congress, is in serious danger of losing its outright majority for the first time since he became president in 1994 in the first free election after the fall of apartheid. Corruption, ineptitude and elitism have tarnished the ANC.
Mandela’s image — which the ANC has plastered across the country — has for some shifted from that of hero to scapegoat.
While Mandela is lionized around the world, many South Africans, especially young people, believe that he did not do enough to create structural changes that would lift the fortunes of the country’s Black majority. White South Africans still hold a disproportionate share of the nation’s land, and earn 3 1/2 times more than Black people.
To enter the courthouse in Johannesburg where he works, Ofentse Thebe passes a 20-foot sculpture of a young Mandela as a boxer. He said that he deliberately avoids looking at it, for fear of turning into “a walking ball of rage.”
“I’m not the biggest fan of Mandela,” said Thebe, 22. “There’s a lot of things that could have been negotiated for better when it came to providing freedom for all South Africans in ’94.”
One of his main gripes about the economy is the lack of jobs. The unemployment rate is 46% among South Africans ages 15 to 34. Millions more are underemployed, like Thebe. He studied computer science at the university level, never receiving a degree. The best job he said he could find was selling funeral policies to the staff of the court.
The maze of courtrooms, with marbled pillars and fading signs, was closed on a recent day because of a citywide water shortage. Days before, the courthouse was shut because the power was out. Blackouts across the country are routine.
Faith in the future is collapsing. Seventy percent of South Africans said in 2021 that the country is going in the wrong direction, up from 49% in 2010, according to the latest survey published by the country’s Human Sciences Research Council. Only 26% said they trusted the government, a huge decline from 2005, when it was 64%.
In most places, Mandela’s name is associated not with these failures, but with triumph over injustice. There are Mandela statues, streets or squares from Washington to Havana to Beijing to Nanterre, France. This week, the South African government plans to unveil yet another monument, in his ancestral home, Qunu, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.
But when news of the new Mandela monument came across her social media feed, Onesimo Cengimbo, a 22-year-old researcher and aspiring filmmaker, just rolled her eyes.
“Maybe the old people are still buying it, but we’re not,” Cengimbo said. “It’s actually becoming a little bit annoying that when it comes to elections, they’re not really doing anything different, they’re just showing up Mandela’s face again.”
During the tumultuous transition from apartheid, children of color were told by their families that Mandela was just one of the many leaders fighting for their freedom. But after he triumphantly emerged from prison in 1990, toured the world and led the country to democracy, he became a singular hero.
On the playground, children jumped rope and sang, “There’s a man with gray hair from far away, his name is Nelson Mandela.”
For those who got the chance to be in his presence, it left an indelible mark.
In the staff area in the basement of the Sheraton Pretoria Hotel, Selinah Papo scanned a wall of photographs of VIP guests until she found a black-and-white image of Mandela in 2004.
“It was like he was golden,” said Papo, grinning. Nearly 20 years ago, she said, she was among a group of housekeepers who welcomed Mandela with a praise song in the lobby. The memory was still so vivid that she burst into song and did a little two-step dance.
Papo, 45, lived through Mandela’s heyday. She worked her way up in the hospitality industry as international hotel chains returned to South Africa. She studied via correspondence, supported her siblings through school and eventually bought a house in what was once a whites-only suburb.
Today, the strangling cost of living and rolling blackouts have dimmed her optimism about South Africa, but she does not blame her hero.
“Those who came after should have fixed it,” she said.
Even some of the memorials to Mandela have fallen on hard times. A Johannesburg bridge named for him that crosses over dozens of stalled trains on rusting tracks is a hot spot for muggers. A crack has begun to split at the base of the country’s largest monument to Mandela: a 30-foot bronze statue in Pretoria, South Africa’s executive capital.
On a bleak winter morning, Desire Vawda watched a group of South Korean tourists take pictures beside the monument. He said he was killing time after protests over unpaid scholarships and tuition fees shut down his college campus.
Vawda, 17, belongs to a generation that knows Mandela only as a historical figure in textbooks and films.
To him, Mandela’s fight to end apartheid was admirable. But the huge economic gap between Black and white South Africans will be on his mind when he votes for the first time next year, he said.
“He didn’t revolt against white people,” Vawda said. “I would have taken revenge.”
Outside the library of Nelson Mandela University in the coastal city of Gqeberha, Asemahle Gwala said that when he was a student, he spent hours sitting on a bench next to a life-size statue of Mandela. Students would sit in the statue’s lap, or dress up the statue with clothes and lipstick.
Gwala, now 26, said he took it as a reminder that Mandela was human — not the commercial brand he has been turned into.
South Africans, he said, would identify more now with Mandela if they could see him not as a statue and monument but “as a human being that wanted to just change his world.”