Crime, power cuts, poverty: 30 years on, the townships question Nelson Mandela’s legacy

As South Africa marks 30 years since the anti-apartheid leader’s release from prison, some people on the streets where he once lived now see him as a sellout’ rather than a hero

A Friday morning in Soweto. Summer rains have washed the streets clean. The tourists cycle down Vilakazi Street, past new restaurants and street stalls selling handicrafts. In a souvenir shop window, a cleaner dusts a statue of Soweto’s most famous one-time resident: Nelson Mandela.

The tourists entertain no doubts about Mandela’s grandeur and goodness, his status as fighter in the struggle against the brutal and racist apartheid regime that kept the inhabitants of Soweto and tens of millions of others in poverty and squalor, and the Nobel prize winner’s record as the first leader of a free South Africa.

“Mandela has always been a hero to me, and I have tried to teach my children about him. He shows us what a single person can do to change the world,” said Marie Loyet, from Orléans, France, as she browsed T-shirts displaying some of the great man’s best-known quotes.

But in his homeland, Mandela, who died in 2013, is a more controversial figure, with increasingly divergent views of both his life and his legacy reflecting deep divisions and disappointments almost exactly 30 years since the day when he walked free after 27 years in prison.

This week there will be commemorative ceremonies to mark a moment that inspired jubilation in Mandela’s troubled country and a wave of hope that the dark days of the 1980s in Africa – dominated by the conflicts of the cold war – might be over.

Nelson Mandela is accompanied by his then wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison near Paarl, South Africa on 11 February, 1990.
Nelson Mandela is accompanied by his then wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison near Paarl, South Africa on 11 February, 1990. Photograph: Ulli Michel/Reuters

Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected president in 2018, will fly to Cape Town to re-enact the moment when Mandela spoke to a huge crowd from a city hall balcony hours after his release. On that day – 11 February 1990 – Ramaphosa, who was seen as Mandela’s protege, held his speech for him. But otherwise the anniversary will pass largely unnoticed.

“Efforts are being made to remind us. It doesn’t come naturally. We are moving on, perhaps too fast,” said Ralph Mathekga, an author and analyst who remembers hearing Mandela’s first speech as a free man on a radio in a small village. “I was a child but I knew something important was happening,” he said.

“It was like a miracle. It touched everybody. Everyone was so happy. Now the cynicism is very high. We even want to revise history.”

Soweto was once a dismal township where nearby Johannesburg’s apartheid authorities dumped non-white communities. The house on the corner of Vilakazi Street where Mandela lived for more than a decade before being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 is a museum, an obligatory stop for both cycling tourists and school trips in what is now a bustling city with more than a million inhabitants. But many Sowetans are deeply critical of their most famous former resident.

“He was a sellout,” said Senhle Nkosi, a 25-year-old graphic designer. “He just did a deal to get out of prison. He was just a front for the white people who needed peace with the black people. They had the black guy in front with the whites behind.”

Brigitte Sarole, 39, disagreed. “I know him as a good guy. Without him we wouldn’t have freedom. He is a hero to me. He made a difference,” said Sarole, who is unemployed.

But her friend, 31-year-old Maria Chapesele, was uncompromising. The seamstress remembered being chosen to meet Mandela when he visited Soweto when president. The admiration she felt then has turned bitter. “I was in primary [school] and we were lighting candles for him. Now I feel betrayed. So many things have gone wrong. I have three children, and I don’t want them to grow up here in South Africa,” Chapesele said.

Tourists browse the exhibits inside Mandela’s former home in Soweto, which is now a museum.
Tourists browse the exhibits inside Mandela’s former home in Soweto, which is now a museum. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Former comrades from the days of the anti-apartheid struggle said Mandela had always been a more controversial figure in South Africa than overseas. Mac Maharaj, 84, was a close associate in the increasingly radical anti-apartheid struggle of the 1950s and early 1960s and joined Mandela in the armed wing of the African National Congress. Both were sent to Robben Island prison, where Maharaj secretly helped Mandela compile his bestselling autobiography.

From the start, Mandela’s noble origins as the son of a chief, relative pragmatism and commitment to constitutional democracy caused friction, Maharaj said. “Mandela was saying that South Africa belongs to all, and that even in the [armed wing] we wanted to avoid bloodshed if we could. In prison, Mandela kept saying we have to put pressure on the government to talk, and people got very angry with him and accused him of selling out. They said he wasn’t a scientific socialist but a conservative aristocrat.”

Anthony Butler, professor of politics at the University of Cape Town, said much of the acrimony was rooted in an ideological split within the ANC, between Mandela’s supporters and others more deeply committed to revolutionary Marxist-Leninist principles. “The conflict was very deep, very intense and had all sorts of repercussions. Mandela was not a commanding figure in prison and not prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. So when the ANC leadership-in-exile decided to make him an icon, it was far from universally popular,” he said.

Criticism mounted as a negotiated peaceful transition appeared to take shape. “A lot of people in the movement saw the talks as a trap, to disarm the revolutionary movement. They accused Mandela of being a traitor. The ANC was involved in an enormous struggle itself,” said Maharaj.

The euphoria of freedom in 1994, and polls that brought the ANC to power, pushed such sentiments to the margins. “Instantly, he was the saviour. He did make mistakes but he was shrewd, understood what the country needed and how to deliver it. He could bring people with him. For white South Africans there was nothing inevitable at that time about South Africa becoming a democracy,” said Judith February, a political analyst. “The myth remained alive through his presidency but after he left office [in 1999] we began to see cracks emerging.”

An owner of a convenience store, or ‘spaza shop’, picks an item for a customer as he holds a candle after a power cut in Soweto, South Africa.
An owner of a convenience store, or ‘spaza shop’, picks an item for a customer as he holds a candle after a power cut in Soweto, South Africa. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Since then, the cracks have indeed been exposed, and the ANC has struggled to match expectations. Under the nine-year rule of Jacob Zuma, who was forced to step down amid allegations of systematic corruption and incompetence in 2018, the stature of Mandela suffered further. “Zuma paid lip-service to Mandela … but we started hearing that it was allowed to question [his achievements] in a very negative way,” February said.

One theme that grew in strength was that Mandela had allowed South Africa’s minority white population to keep much of the wealth and economic control accumulated over previous decades. With unemployment soaring, rising levels of violent crime, a faltering economy and deep resentment, this charge resonated – and it does so today more than ever before.

On the streets of Soweto last week, anger at the ANC government was palpable. “We can’t walk our streets at night. Crime is too bad now. People are being killed,” said Chapesele. “What do the politicians do? Nothing.”

Other complaints include rolling power cuts that cripple small businesses and cause traffic chaos, an alleged influx of immigrants from other African nations, the lack of investment from overseas, and the country’s poor education system. The memory of iconic figures like Mandela suffers as a consequence.

“The new generation takes its disillusionment with the ANC and packages it with Mandela … In this country we don’t do memory well. Our history isn’t well known, or well taught in our schools. Education has been the biggest single failure,” said February.

In what was once rolling farmland but is now a wealthy suburb in north Johannesburg, the Liliesleaf Trust is trying to remedy this. The charitable organisation has restored the house where the ANC leaders were arrested in 1963. The raid led directly to Mandela’s imprisonment.


The Liliesleaf museum now houses archives and displays which attract thousands every year, including hundreds of schoolchildren, though it still struggles financially. The small room where Mandela once hid is a shrine, filled with drawings and simple expressions of appreciation and hope.

“When we started the idea our aim was simply to bring Liliesleaf back to life … but it became clear we were battling something far more dangerous,” said Nic Wolpe, chief executive of the trust and the son of one of the men detained in the raid.

“In South Africa we don’t treat history with the importance and reverence it deserves. We have reduced Mandela to a mythological persona, and lost sight of what he and the struggle stands for: the undying message about the goodness of humanity.”


Jason Burke

The GuardianTramp

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