I recently had a conversation/argument with someone who, I am only just discovering, shares the belief with many South Africans that now that Nelson Mandela has died the future of the country is in jeopardy. They believe that the metaphorical “night of the long knives” will come to pass, that the spirit of reconciliation will somehow vanish into thin air and that black South African’s will suddenly make violent amends for the sins of apartheid. This has thus far been prevented by the sheer power of Mandela’s political will, and that now that he has died so too have the magical barriers that have held back the tide of all-out racial warfare.

This view, and others like it, smack of a deep-seated racial prejudice that not only assumes a fundamental ontological divide between races, but that racial retribution will always haunt South Africa. It assumes, in short, that the present government is incapable of governance and is actively bent on seeking revenge for apartheid. Generally quoting problems such as “potholes” and “the state of the rand” comparisons with Zimbabwe are in no short supply. To compare the two is fallacious in the least; it is an inference that is almost impossible to make. It is, in other words, a laager mentality that should have died with apartheid but continues to persist.

Unfortunately, it is a view that is equally often peddled by the international media. Just a few hours after Mandela’s death a number of international broadcasters were already questioning South Africa’s future. Lining up political analysts and by interviewing people “on the ground” the international media constructed a specific albeit biased view of both the country and the continent. The view, in short, feeds into the “dark continent” discourse, a discourse which dictates that Africans are incapable of governing themselves, that we are somehow always on the brink of war, and that every African government is doomed to self-destruct. Once again, these views are only made meaningful by relying on implicit racial assumptions. They are all the more surreptitious because they are so well-hidden, masked by allusions to care, grief, and shock. Of course, this is not to say that there are many instances of bad governance on the continent. It is once more fallacious however to make the inference that because there are a few bad seeds the whole bowl of fruit is rotten. Europe too, for instance, has had its fair share of dictators and despots but I am sure that when Queen Elizabeth passes the future of Britain will not be in doubt.

How does one then reply to this doubt, this understanding that no matter what has been achieved we will always revert to our “true” natures? Even by taking the most hard-nosed realist stance I can think of, this doubt remains unfounded. The mythology of reconciliation, a mythology intricately interlinked with Mandela’s legacy, has far too much political capital and potency to be ignored by the present government. Considering too that next year is voting year, it would be political suicide to do anything but invoke Mandela’s legacy as a means of engaging with the public, and ultimately, in winning votes. I am not a realist though, and however useful such a response could be, it does a disservice to the very real spirit of what it means to be a South African. I cannot help but think that people that implicitly and uncritically question the future of South Africa have failed to look beyond the laager’s wagon wheels. There are good people doing miraculous and selfless things every day, even in the face of adversity. This is not to put one’s head in the sand though. We have many, many problems — education, freedom of speech and violent crime perhaps being the most pressing. Yet in comparison to where we have come from, I think we have travelled a long road with success.

Perhaps, however, there is no reply to those that doubt South Africa’s future. If people choose to alienate themselves from the country in which they were born, then so be it. Ironically enough it is precisely because of the new Constitution that they can make that choice. Criticism has its place in this country, something that the government is only just beginning to come to terms with. But outright pessimism and a refusal to engage with the building of this country for fear of some archaic notion of racial violence is not. We have a future because we are building one. Mandela taught us not only how to live with each other, but how to live with ourselves. Because of this we have hope, the most surefooted foundation upon which to build a future.


  • Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.


Simon Howell

Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD...

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