That’s what Nelson Mandela began telling startled associates years ago, even seeming cheerful at the prospect. He retired for the first time in 1999, when he stepped down asSouth Africa’s first post-apartheid president. Then, in 2004, he announced that he would “retire from retirement,” his sly way of signaling that this time, he really meant to step away from the outsized role he had played in the country for more than 60 years. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” he said on that occasion.
Mandela has seemed at peace with that decision in the years since, enjoying family at his home in rural Qunu and largely staying out of national politics. As he celebrated his 94th birthday this week, though, many of his countrymen fretted about the prospect of a South Africa without him.
In recent years, reports that Mandela was in poor health, no matter how minor his illness, have sparked public frenzies, including periodic media scrums outside hospitals where he was being treated. Websites operated by right-wing whites have even prematurely announced Mandela’s death online, warning of secret plans for a racial bloodbath. It is a measure of his hold on the imaginations of even the country’s most racist whites that they believe Mandela’s continued existence is somehow crucial to protecting them from annihilation.
For the vast majority of South Africans, mostly black and poor, the reluctance to let go of Madiba (his clan name) or “Tata” (grandfather), as he’s widely known, is understandable. It is a standard trope, after all, to ascribe the supposed “miracle” of the largely peaceful transition in 1994 to the exercise of “Madiba’s magic.”
And beneath the worry and fears about Mandela’s death — on the part of blacks and whites alike — is a disturbing truth: that the promise Mandela made to help found a nonracial, nonsexist, egalitarian society at the southern tip of Africa has foundered in the last decade.
South Africa, for all its progress, remains a quite un-miraculous place. It’s modern cities are bordered by sprawling slums, and the rural areas, where a significant percentage of the population lives, are mired in poverty and often lack the most basic infrastructure. The country endures sky-high unemployment among the young, devastating levels of crime and millions needlessly dead of AIDS.
Some of the problems were almost inevitable, the result of post-apartheid hopes colliding with an economy that had been structured for the benefit of a few at the expense of everyone else. To complicate things further, democratization arrived in the newly liberated nation more or less concurrently with rapid globalization and the AIDS plague.
Coming to power in such turbulent circumstances, Mandela fumbled in several significant respects. He never drew a clear enough line between party prerogatives and the use of state power. He also missed the chance, as president, to launch a much-needed massive public health campaign on HIV.
But if Mandela was less than perfect, the men who followed had far more glaring flaws and little of the first president’s inclination to serve as a national moral conscience. His immediate successor, Thabo Mbeki, made matters far worse on the AIDS front by delaying treatment for rising numbers of HIV-infected South Africans. When action mattered most, he provoked a drawn-out and damaging debate over established medical science by questioning the link between HIV and AIDS. An aggressive campaign to contain the epidemic wasn’t fully launched until he was forced from office in 2008.
Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, came into office in 2009 tainted by a trial on rape charges (he was acquitted, though he admitted to having had sex with his much-younger accuser) and under the cloud of criminal charges for corruption that were dropped on the eve of the election. Given the apparent devolution in leadership — from Mandela to Mbeki to Zuma — it is small wonder that people began to worry about the future.
In fairness to the leaders who succeeded him, the beloved Mandela was among the toughest acts in history to follow. His task had been herculean: bending the course of history to end legalized oppression of the great majority of South Africans and establish a sustainable democracy. But those who followed had an almost impossible task too in trying to bring about true equality and material freedom.
In the midst of so many reverses, it’s worth emphasizing that the new democracy, despite many stresses, has held together. When Mbeki was asked to resign his presidency by leaders of his party in 2008, he did so in a nationally televised address. Similarly, Zuma will either retain his post as leader of his party, the African National Congress, or be ushered from it through an election of party delegates at a national conference in December.
By most measures — with the notable and worrying exception of a recent increase in the number of politically motivated assassinations — there seems to be a deepening commitment to the idea that power changes hands after debate and through votes rather than force. Eighteen years into a new experiment in democracy, there also remains a vibrant civic culture, an independent judiciary and a free, if embattled, media.
This kind of cultural undergirding of freedom and political stability was not preordained in 1994; rather, it was constructed, in significant part by the example of the new country’s founding president. Several years into his term as head of state, Mandela announced that he would step away from power voluntarily after a single term. Perhaps this decision reverberates so powerfully because it is so rare, and not only in Africa. Leaders the world over see themselves as indispensable agents long after what South Africans refer to as their “sell-by date.” In the rarefied world of world leaders, far too many politicians would rather burn the house down than turn over the keys. Perhaps Mandela’s most profound gift was to insist upon his own dispensability.
For this, and so many other things, he will always be cherished.
Douglas Foster, associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University, is the author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa, which will be released in September.