The death of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95 deprives the world of perhaps the most iconic political figure of the last half century. This two-part assessment seeks to assess Mandela's political record both on the domestic stage and in the global arena. This first article considers Mandela's domestic record in two distinct areas: as African National Congress (ANC) leader during the turbulent post-1990 transition from apartheid to democracy, and his period as president from 1994 to 1999. 

When Nelson Mandela emerged from Victor Verster prison near Paarl on Sunday, 11 February 1990 after over a quarter of a century of confinement, expectations of his leadership could scarcely have been higher, given the mystique he had acquired during his incarceration.

In fact, one of the principal reasons President FW de Klerk decided upon his unconditional release was not only Mandela's iron will in refusing to accept anything less, but also his calculation that a freed Mandela might prove fallible. The hope was that the daily political grind — with Mandela unable to deliver the transformation expected by his huge support base — would steadily demythologise him and render him just another mundane politician. Thus throughout the transition de Klerk adopted an almost schizophrenic approach to Mandela and the ANC.

On one hand they were considered indispensable for political stability. Mandela and the ANC had the authority and credibility to bring the black majority into a constitutional settlement, and while negotiating with the ANC had its unpalatable aspects, it was unavoidable. On the other hand, the government simultaneously sought to weaken the ANC and to diminish its standing with both negotiations and a future election in mind.

There proved to be an inherent — and ultimately unsustainable — tension between those two positions, and much of the turbulence and fractiousness of the post-1990 transition can be traced to that two-track strategy.

Overall, Mandela negotiated the choppy waters of the transition with considerable finesse by adopting a judicious blend of militancy and pragmatism, and he emerged from it with his standing enhanced and his heroic aura actually strengthened. Indeed, Mandela had signaled his pragmatism during the 'discussions' (negotiations is too strong a description) he had been having with the government since 1985 and so brilliantly covered in Allister Sparks' seminal 1995 book, Tomorrow Is Another Country.

Moreover, it was Mandela's 1989 memorandum from prison, in which he provided a magisterial overview of South Africa's grim stalemate, which made clear that a durable constitutional settlement had to be anchored in the white minority's acceptance of the principle of majority rule. This  was considered non-negotiable, but tempered by the majority's acceptance that the principle could be applied flexibly in practice.

Although inevitably this proposal had to be fleshed out at a later stage it was this ground-breaking overture from prison which mapped out the broad contours of what would become the historic compromise of 1993 in which the ANC accepted a gradual phasing in of majority rule and embraced 'sunset clauses' as a government of national unity was established for a five-year period to build minority confidence.

So Mandela was a pivotal figure in moving the country forward whilst still a political prisoner, an almost unprecedented achievement.

The transition itself threw up myriad challenges: welding the disparate elements of the ANC (exiles and internal activists) into one coherent organisation; developing policy for government; and fashioning an approach to negotiations which knew when to deploy the ANC's massive popular support and when to accept compromise.

Mandela did not always judge this correctly — the correct blend of popular pressure and negotiations was a vexed issue within the ANC — but broadly speaking he successfully navigated a path between the two and rejected the ultra-militancy which would have risked pushing the country over the edge. South Africa can consider itself fortunate indeed that, at such a critical juncture in its history, power and responsibility fell upon the shoulders of a man who rejected the path of racial rabble-rousing and communalism in favour of much loftier goals.

After winning a decisive victory in the historic 1994 election, Mandela became president on a wave of local and international goodwill.

He pledged to pursue two core objectives which would become the defining features of his one-term presidency, although over time a tension emerged between the two which he perhaps failed to fully appreciate.

The first was his noble attempt to promote national reconciliation, racial inclusiveness and a healing of the wounds of apartheid. Building a broad sense of South African-ness against a backdrop of four decades of apartheid and three centuries of racial division was a formidable challenge.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Reconciliation would become the leitmotif of Mandela's presidency. He personified it, as the natural extension of his commitment to the principle of a non-racial society which he famously outlined at his trial in 1964.

The second objective was to achieve economic and social justice for South Africa's dispossessed black majority and to begin the herculean challenge of addressing the acute socio-economic legacies of apartheid.

In the first area Mandela proved to be a consummate head of state and, in his refusal to be consumed by bitterness and rancour over his own life experience, he provided an inspiration to the country as a whole. Mandela's genius lay in his ability to transcend his personal history and to extend his hand to communities previously considered deeply antagonistic. This was most memorably captured when he donned the Springbok jersey — viewed as a despised symbol of Afrikaner hegemony —  at the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup final, a symbolic gesture of nation building and inclusiveness worth more than a thousand speeches. The message was clear: we are all South Africans and the team now plays on behalf of all of us, not a section of the populace. It was a stirring image giving real substance to the 'rainbow nation' ideal. It was also one of the reasons why Mandela was so universally popular in minority communities, much more so than the party he led.

Inevitably that conciliatory racial atmosphere came under more serious pressure in time, particularly under his successor, Thabo Mbeki. South Africa's second black president consistently highlighted the glaring racial disparities still disfiguring the country. That said, while his successors may have shifted emphasis somewhat, they still work within a framework created by Mandela, are committed to a non-racial society, and there is a remarkable absence of the Zimbabwe-style racial sabre rattling one might have anticipated after the traumas of apartheid.

That is Mandela's achievement and it is arguably his greatest.

As a head of government the Mandela record was much more uneven and over time it became apparent that he was much more suited to the role of national unifier than to the daily management of government.

This role increasingly fell to Mbeki, who functioned as a de facto prime minister. Still, Mandela presided over the birth of a new constitution celebrated internationally for enshrining rights, oversaw the creation of a new democratic infrastructure and delivered a range of socio-economic improvements in housing, health care and the provision of electricity and water.

Tackling the backlogs bequeathed by apartheid was a task for generations, however, and inevitably the government failed in a number of areas: unemployment, inequality, education and the emerging AIDS pandemic. It was only as an ex-president that Mandela campaigned with great diligence on the last issue, something he freely conceded.

Mandela also had a rather imperious, top down style which alienated sections of a very eclectic movement. This was most apparent when the controversial Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic policy was introduced in 1996 and was described by Mandela as 'non-negotiable.' This was an affront to many in a movement who considered everything negotiable. Mandela's clumsy handling of GEAR sowed the seeds of two disputes which continue to plague the movement. First, the left objected to the policy's ideological content as a neo-liberal betrayal. Second, the left was unhappy at being marginalised from the decision-making process itself, another issue which festers on.

Overall, however, Mandela could scarcely be considered a serious autocrat. His democratic credentials and lack of interest in power for power's sake prevented him from mimicking the 'big men' and 'presidents for life' who have caused such destruction in post-independence Africa. Confirmation of that came with his blunt refusal to countenance more than one term in office despite the widespread concern in the country which found expression in the WHAM question: what happens after Mandela?

Of course, however great a South African figure he was, Mandela ultimately transcended that country's politics to become a global icon, and it is to his role in global politics to which the discussion will turn in part 2. 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.