Mandela's Dream Deferred?

Why the future of South Africa is more important than ever


| May/June 2002


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By the time he was released from prison in 1990, after 27 years behind bars, Nelson Mandela could no longer cry. During his detention on Robben Island, the notorious penal colony 40 minutes across the water from Capetown, Mandela worked in a limestone quarry. Day after day, he and other political prisoners were forced to hack into a wall of earth with picks and shovels. The sun's glare off the white limestone was blinding, the heat brutal. Many prisoners ended up with permanently impaired vision. Mandela's eyes were rendered incapable of producing tears. Photographers are still forbidden to use a flash to take his picture.

There are guided tours now of Robben Island, and one lesson they impart is that working in the quarry was actually one of the prison's lesser punishments. More humiliating was the guards' game of ordering an inmate buried in the ground up to his neck and leaving him there all day to roast in the sun while guards took turns urinating on him. More gruesome was the practice of hanging a prisoner upside down from a tree and waiting as the hours passed for him to pass out and, in one case, to perish as his body's blood supply gradually accumulated in his brain, starving it of oxygen.

Hearing of such abominations firsthand, and seeing where they took place, makes a visit to Robben Island as unforgettable as a pilgrimage to Dachau or Hiroshima. One departs with a renewed awe for what Mandela and his comrades endured in their struggle against apartheid, and especially for their ability to emerge preaching forgiveness and reconciliation. That awe is balanced by dismay, however, when one returns to the mainland, spends a few weeks traveling in South Africa, and sees what uneven progress has been made in the eight years since Mandela was elected president in April 1994.

To be sure, South Africa's political transformation is nothing less than exhilarating. But social and economic conditions have stagnated, if not deteriorated, since apartheid was overthrown, leaving many South Africans impatient with the African National Congress (ANC) and its leader, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president in 1999. Mandela had pledged upon taking office in 1994 to build a million new houses within five years, fund massive jobs programs, and provide free education for all. But those ambitions were doomed even before the ANC took office, thanks to a little-known agreement between the new government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As Anthony Sampson writes in his authorized biography of Mandela, the pact committed the ANC to reducing the country's deficit, raising interest rates, and privatizing parts of the economy in return for an $850 million IMF loan. In addition, the ANC government would be expected to repay $50 billion in debt left behind by the apartheid regime, an obligation that by itself would consume one-fifth of the incoming government's annual budget, making new social welfare initiatives all but impossible. In the current global political climate, Mandela felt he had no choice but to agree to the deal.

Today, South Africa is ravaged by street crime and homelessness. Some 4.2 million people are living with AIDS, more than in any other nation in the world. Driving these trends is a 30 percent unemployment rate that has been rising since apartheid fell. "I voted for this new government, but I do not like it," says Malcolm Adams, a 32-year-old bus driver who says most men in his Capetown township lack real jobs. "The ANC promised us jobs, but where are they?"

These developments, lamentable in their own right, are all the more disturbing in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Poverty is not the only cause of terrorism, but it does help the recruiting process: A young man with no job, or hope of getting one, is more susceptible to a fanatic's enticements than one who sees a better tomorrow. The CIA recognizes this threat. Last year, it warned in its "Global Trends 2015" report that the growing global gap between rich and poor "will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it," as close to a prediction of the September 11 tragedy as one could ask for.

South Africa is no hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, though its influential Muslim minority did manage to pressure Mandela to moderate his endorsement of the U.S. military attacks in Afghanistan. But the larger point is what South Africa's economic difficulties portend for Africa as a whole, where Islam is growing faster than any other religion. If despite all its advantages--abundant natural resources, a modern industrial infrastructure, a progressive governmenT--South Africa still cannot deliver a better life for its people, is it any wonder that other nations in Africa and throughout the Third World are floundering? Or that more and more of their people are embracing the beguiling certainties of radical Islam?