Interview with Martin Plaut, author of “The Mandela Legacy”

Martin Plaut, the Africa Editor for the BBC World Service News has published a new book titled “The Mandela Legacy: The State of South Africa, Past, Present & Future”. In this exclusive interview with The AfroNews, he shares his views about the former South African President Nelson Mandela and the current state of South Africa.

Mr. Martin Plaut, Author of “The Mandela Legacy: The State of South Africa, Past, Present & Future”

Why did you decide to write this book at this particular moment?

Mr Mandela is not getting any younger and rumours of his ill-health abound. Of course I am not predicting his demise, but one has to prepare for his death – as one would for any major leader. Like everyone else I have enormous respect and affection for Mr. Mandela. At the same time he would be the first to admit that he was not a saint and made mistakes, but he is still the most important figure to come out of South Africa in the second half of the 20th century.  

The various scandals in South Africa have tarnished the country’s image and led some to ask just what it was that made it so special in the 1990’s. For these reasons it is important to look back and assess the Mandela legacy. The answer I came up with (and everyone will have their own take on the issue) is the South African Constitution, which embeds fundamental freedoms in it. But a Constitution is really only as strong as the society that supports it – as we can see from Africa’s post-colonial situation. This is why I attempted to assess how it has fared since Mr. Mandela left the presidency.

From your experience in South Africa, where would you say the country is heading to?

South Africa is not in a good position at present. Like political parties across the world, the ANC has found political office corrosive. The huge respect it had earned for helping end apartheid is gradually wearing thin. Just like Kanu in Kenya or Unip in Zambia the idea of a ‘national movement’ that represents the whole nation cannot be sustained indefinitely.

There is too much cronyism and corruption in the South African government to sustain it, while in-fighting has left the ANC tired and bereft of new ideas. It needs to lose office so that it can renew itself in opposition – like any other democratic party in the world. Can the main opposition party – the Democratic Alliance sweep it from office? Probably not at the next election, but perhaps at the one after that.

Nelson Mandela may be out of power but his presence is still influencing South Africa’s political decisions. Any idea of what South Africa could have become without Mandela?

I don’t agree that Mr. Mandela still influences South Africa’s political decisions. He has – rightly – asked to leave the political scene to spend time with his family and his grandchildren in particular. As a result he plays no observable role in the decisions the country takes. That does not mean that he does not add legitimacy to the ANC through his presence or that his perceived influence cannot be called on to support particular positions. But his era is over and he has passed the mantle of government on to others.

Mr. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa

What are Mandela’s main leadership qualities which many South African and other African leaders lack?

The most important qualities he has that other African leaders lack are discipline and modesty. Mr. Mandela always said he was a servant of the ANC and would be led by its decisions. And he meant it – even when he did not agree with his party. This embedded him in the movement and he did not attempt to tower over it. As a result there was a healthy relationship between the president and his party, something other African leaders could learn from. But perhaps his greatest present to South Africa was leaving office. In so doing he proved that his country could get on without him and unlike so many other African presidents did not think he was indispensable. After Mandela, which South African president will ever be able to argue that he has to hang on to office election after election, for the good of his country?

Any other comment?

South Africa is remarkably resilient but it is trading on its heritage. The economy is not generating the jobs its people so badly need. Poverty is still endemic and the future is therefore cloudy. There is no consensus on how to bring about reform, even if all sides accept there are failures. Racial identity is still firmly entrenched, even if racism is outlawed. You cannot legislate for people to like each other, or see each other as legitimate citizens with a common destiny. Sometimes – in sport – the country really unites, but there is too little of this in its daily life.

By Stephen Ogongo Ongong’a

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