The discourse of potential instability in a South Africa without Mandela is not unique to white people.
Mbali Ntuli, a young black politician, said: “Mandela is always going to be symbolically powerful because of how he heralded our transition to democracy.”
“It’s powerful because we always feel that we could revert to chaos. His legacy still acts as a curb on young people today, who might otherwise turn to violent means,” Ntuli said.
That the Nobel Peace laureate’s death will trigger carnage is a “simplistic view,” said Ntuli, 25, “but I think there’s some truth in it and the youth in his party seem to believe this could happen. I don’t think it will be blacks turning on whites. The ‘night of the long knives’ would be the have-nots turning on the haves in a class war, but I’m an optimist and I like to believe that we’re not so basic as to have a person die and suddenly erupt into civil war.”
Even Ntuli’s willingness to discuss the death of the father of the nation — “a taboo subject among many older, traditional South Africans, some of whom insist on almost North Korean-style secrecy and idolatry” — is indicative of a changing of the guard.
Indeed, she embodies a challenge to the ANC, the party to which Mandela devoted his life and unswerving loyalty.
Ntuli chairs the youth wing of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. When South Africa goes to the polls next year, she will be courting nearly 2 million people born after apartheid ended in 1994 and able to vote for the first time. Unlike their elders, this “born-free” generation is reaching the voting age of 18 with no party allegiances.
The ANC’s ability to trade on past glories is fading amid frustrations over unemployment and inequality.
“Nelson Mandela is the last real symbol of the era of struggle, heroes who had real credibility,” Ntuli said. “Others had credibility, but it is now shot because of their various loyalties. You now see a lot of interrogation of politics among young people — there’s very little nostalgia left. Young people think about why they vote, whereas before they wanted to vote for a certain party because of its legacy.”
Her own story is a wake-up call to the ANC. The daughter of a taxi driver and teacher, Ntuli grew up in both the townships and suburbs of KwaZulu-Natal Province, but her middle-class accent led to her being branded a “coconut” (white on the inside).
“When I entered politics, I was quite interested in the ANC, but found the way I speak and the friends I have made me feel an outsider there,” she said.
The Democratic Alliance was quick to send goodwill wishes to Mandela last week and has never been shy of quoting him, while arguing that the ANC is losing sight of his original vision.
Allister Sparks, a veteran journalist, likens him to Abraham Lincoln — “a Republican, who now transcends party lines and is revered by Republicans and Democrats alike.”
Mandela is long retired from politics, but the ANC brought him out on stage during its final pre-election rally in 2009, a coup de theatre that elicited cheers and struggle-era songs from a packed stadium in Johannesburg.
“They exploited him a bit, which I thought was disgraceful,” Sparks said.
By next year’s election he will be so frail that the governing party will be unable to play its trump card on what will be the 20th anniversary of his election as president.