Mandela’s presidency – how good was it?

Nelson Mandela consolidated the democracy by setting important precedents in acknowledging the constitutional limitations on his executive power. His good-tempered acceptance of Constitutional Court judgements that ruled against the government was particularly important in this respect. In 1998, his willingness to endorse the TRC’s findings despite their angry repudiation by Thabo Mbeki, then his deputy, was another major instance of his ability on occasion to distance himself from the more partisan perspectives of some of his comrades.

His famous gestures of reconciliation and empathy with white South Africans fostered among white South Africans broad acceptance of the new government’s moral authority. His role in shifting ANC policy perspectives in the direction of a pro-market policy – in particular in weakening the ANC’s commitment to public ownership – undoubtedly helped to reassure white South Africans and foreign business. In choosing to serve only one term and presiding over an orderly succession procedure within the ANC he certainly strengthened ANC commitment to constitutional procedures. 

He suggested that ‘human rights should be the core of international relations’. His attempt to mobilise African and Commonwealth statesmanship to boycott the Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria was one of the most obvious expressions of this predisposition. But he also defended repressive administrations that had aided the ANC, thus subverting his human rights-based foreign policy.

What were the main failures of his presidency? While Mandela deferred to liberal constitutional proprieties, he is also partly responsible for the survival within the ANC of the strong authoritarian predispositions it brought back to South Africa from exile. Between 1990 and 1994 Mandela attempted to restrict internal electoral procedures within the organisation. Mbeki’s ascendancy as deputy president under Mandela was not the outcome of any election, but of secret deals between ANC leaders.

The more authoritarian dimension of Mandela’s personality was also often evident in his attacks on independent journalists and other critics, especially if they were black. His treatment of his coalition partners revealed his dislike of liberal parliamentary opposition. F.W. de Klerk was marginalised in the Government of National Unity from its inception, partly a consequence of Mandela’s personal hostility to the former president. Mandela may have helped to foster the venality that has become so conspicuous in South African public life. He included in his administration individuals with an established record of venality – notably his former wife Winnie, as well as Stella Sigcau.

Mandela himself has been retrospectively critical of his government’s slowness in responding to the HIV-Aids crisis. In the outcry over inappropriate spending following Sarafina, an expensive musical promoting HIV-Aids education, Mandela vigorously defended Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma. Aside from the Sarafina debacle, the ‘Virodene scandal’ when the minister decided to promote the use of an industrial solvent as an HIV-Aids cure, raised serious concerns about the quality of leadership within the Department of Health. To be fair, though, since his retirement Mandela has become an important ally of HIV-Aids activism, willing in 2001 to confront the ANC’s leadership over its reluctance to support the full-scale prescription of anti-retroviral medication. 

Will these flaws in Mandela’s leadership completely overshadow his achievements? The long-term answer to this question depends upon what happens. If South African politicians continue to adhere to the political rules they adopted in the mid-1990s, then Mandela will be honoured for his role in creating a successful democracy. If that democracy becomes a lost cause, historians will emphasise his record’s shortcomings. Thebalance of evidence still favours the first scenario but both corruption and a possible unruly succession contest within the ANC increase the risks of the second option becoming a reality.

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