Post-Mandela South Africa: Racial tension and violence are likely to return

Tributes to former South African President Nelson Mandela are seen on a banner during a musical concert held in his honour in Lagos, December 18, 2013. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye (NIGERIA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY SOCIETY) (Reuters)

The protracted global gathering earlier this month for South African leader Nelson Mandela, combining official state mourning culminating in (semi) private internment, has ended.

He leaves behind a poignant but fragile legacy with the most relevant question being whether the South Africa that he constructed will long outlast his departure. In short, was he the implicit safety-valve restraint on a society that more resembles a boiling pot with the lid screwed down than a solid democracy?

It is rare that any figure, regardless of international status, prompts such an assembly of world leaders upon death. Coming as it did shortly after the 50th anniversary commemoration of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it sparked some partial parallels, notably the long cortege of leaders and the profound national mourning.

It was shameful that so much media attention focused on the three-person "selfie" featuring Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the illiterate sign-language interpreter and the presidential handshake with Raul Castro.

Such peripheral events detracted from U.S. President Barack Obama’s tribute to Mandela, and his pithy summary that, “It took a man like Mandela to liberate not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well.”

For what Mandela accomplished was historically unique: the peaceful transfer of political authority from a long-dominant, powerful minority to a long-suppressed majority. In contrast, does anyone expect that we will see a comparable power transfer among the “royals” of the Middle East?

Mandela’s recreation of South Africa in his image was all the more striking since he was hardly a democratic moderate in his early politics. Indeed, Mandela started out far to the left, arguably a communist, spouting revolutionary slogans. And his Afrikaner opponents were hardly Boy Scouts in their own attitudes. Apartheid was not Nazi fascism (if it were Mandela would have been executed out of hand), but it clearly was a cult of white supremacy; racism pure and simple.

Given that juxtaposition of conflicting ideologies, the odds appeared high that there would be a bloody insurgency incorporating mutual massacre and, assuming ultimate African victory, massive white flight to places of refuge such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

But South Africa avoided such a fate as the Truth and Reconciliation Committees, a unique innovation subsequently much duplicated, mitigated some of the smoldering outrage. Operating between 1996-98, the committees permitted those that had committed human rights violations to seek amnesty through truth-telling regarding their actions. Ultimately, less than 20 percent of the amnesty requests were granted, but those granted (including one to the Apartheid leader former president F.W. de Klerk) generated as much public anger as sympathetic forgiveness.

And, indeed, whites apparently have voted with their feet. One report suggests 800,000 whites of an approximately five million white population have departed since 1995. Various, perhaps apocryphal (and clearly unverifiable) statistics suggest as many as 70,000 whites have been killed by blacks since 1995 and the number of white farmers has dropped by two-thirds. Vicious accounts of black-on-white murder and rape roil the white community. The best and brightest (African as well as white) are taking their skills and futures elsewhere. Nevertheless, white economic dominance persists, land is predominantly controlled by whites, and South Africa has one of the world’s largest splits between rich and poor.

Politically, South Africa is far from tranquil. Crowds at the Mandela funeral repeatedly booed current president, Jacob Zuma; it is clear he is no Mandela. And outreach to the residual white community is problematic; there were virtually no white faces in the funeral audience, and the Dutch Reformed Afrikaner church leadership was pointedly not invited.

An observer is left with the sense that Mandela’s leadership and ability to forgive (if never forget) 27 years of incarceration was more an intermission between racial tension and hatred than a wipe-the-slate clean fresh start for racial accommodation.