Posted on July 19, 2023

Mandela Goes From Hero to Scapegoat as South Africa Struggles

Lynsey Chutel, New York Times, July 18, 2023

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 A.N.C.

Mr. Mandela’s image — which the A.N.C. has plastered across the country — has for some shifted from that of hero to scapegoat.

While Mr. Mandela is still 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 three and a half times more than Black people.

To enter the courthouse in Johannesburg where he works, Ofentse Thebe passes a 20-foot sculpture of a young Mr. Mandela as a boxer. He said that he deliberately avoids looking at it, for fear of turning into “a walking ball of rage.”


One of his main gripes about the economy is the lack of jobs. The unemployment rate is 46 percent among South Africans aged 15 to 34. Millions more are underemployed, like Mr. Thebe. {snip} The best job he said he could find was selling funeral policies to the staff of the court.


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 percent in 2010, according to the latest survey published by the country’s Human Sciences Research Council. Only 26 percent said they trusted the government, a huge decline from 2005, when it was 64 percent.


Even some of the memorials to Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Vawda, 17, belongs to a generation that knows Mr. Mandela only as a historical figure in textbooks and films.

To him, Mr. 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,” Mr. Vawda said. “I would have taken revenge.”