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Is there life for South African democracy after Mandela?

Making history: Mandela addressing the United Nations in 1990, shortly after being released from prison. UN Photo/P Sudhakaran

As the figurehead of South Africa’s struggle for freedom, Nelson Mandela inspired generations of political activists around the world. He is, quite possibly, the most revered politician in world history.

Mandela’s death at the age of 95 will provoke unprecedented emotional outpourings: newspaper columns will swell with obituaries, politicians will line up to praise this iconic figure, and his passing will be mourned by people from all corners of the globe.

The loss of this struggle hero will, of course, be felt most acutely in South Africa itself. His death will prompt a period of introspection among South Africans as they ponder what the future holds for the country.

This would be a timely debate as inequality, poverty, corruption, crime and xenophobia continue to blight South Africa’s “miracle” transition to democratic rule.

However, rather than fomenting a debate about the substance of Mandela’s political legacies and the many challenges before the country, there is a strong danger that the next South African election in 2014 will instead revolve around which party can claim ownership of the Mandela image.

The scramble for struggle credentials

April 27 is Freedom Day in South Africa; a public holiday commemorating the date in 1994 when the first elections were held. In 2013, the day was marked by a public row which started when the Democratic Alliance (DA) - the leading opposition party - used a picture of Nelson Mandela alongside Helen Suzman in one of its political pamphlets.

Suzman had been a fierce critic of the apartheid regime for decades as an active politician in the Progressive Federal Party, one of several parties that would later merge to form what is now called the DA. The message of the pamphlet – part of the “Know Your DA” campaign – read: “We played our part in opposing apartheid”.

Controversy: the DA was criticised for using an image of Mandela with Helen Suzman

The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s hegemonic ruling party, responded quickly to what it perceived to be the DA’s attempt to represent itself as a party with legitimate struggle credentials and what it also saw to be the DA’s abuse of Mandela’s image. The ANC released a poster filled with images of its struggle icons with the simple heading: “So many of our own, no need to borrow”.

The “Know Your DA” campaign reflected the desire of the DA to break down what it sees as the ANC’s attempts to marginalise it as a party of apartheid. The ANC’s combative response reflects its own desire to reaffirm its identity as the figurehead of the anti-apartheid struggle and its unrivalled legitimacy as the leader of an ongoing “National Democratic Revolution”.

Playing the Madiba card

The ANC has played upon the memories of its struggle icons during election campaigns and the faces of its fallen heroes have regularly adorned the election ephemera of the ANC. The party understands that the identities associated with apartheid-era repression, and the struggle against it, continue to have a strong influence on voting behaviour.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the ANC has been keen to use Mandela, its most iconic leader, as part of its election campaigns.

Mandela’s appearance at a 2009 election rally in Soweto was critical for the ANC. Firstly, it suggested Mandela’s endorsement of the leadership of Jacob Zuma, lending the beleaguered ANC president considerable moral authority during a campaign in which attacks on Zuma’s personal integrity formed the centrepiece of opposition campaigns.

Legitimacy: Mandela with ANC leader Jacob Zuma in 2009.

Secondly, Mandela’s brief appearance presented a picture of unity within the party at a time of unprecedented infighting, which had culminated in the formation of a breakaway party – the Congress of the People – by senior ANC figures disillusioned with Zuma’s leadership.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucial, the image of Mandela on stage alongside the ANC leadership suggested continuity with the past; that this was still the party of struggle, sacrifice and selflessness, not a party that had lost its moral compass.

During the 2009 campaign ANC canvassers donned T-shirts imploring voters to “Do it for Chris Hani: vote ANC”. The extent to which similar appeals are made in Mandela’s name will tell us a great deal about the confidence of the party going into the 2014 vote.

Emotive appeals placing its past heroes at the centre of the campaign would suggest the party believes its greatest draw resides in the memories of its former glories, rather than its track record in government or its vision for the future. A lot can be read into which ANC face (Zuma or Mandela) features most prominently on the party’s campaign ephemera.

Such a strategy could temporarily stem the gradual decline in support the ANC has experienced across the country (except KwaZulu Natal) in recent elections. However, imploring voters to look backwards, at the party’s history, rather than forwards to the future, is a risky strategy: it could suggest the party has lost direction. Worse still, a “do it for Madiba” campaign could smack of desperation, if overdone.

The furore over the “know Your DA” campaign offers us a glimpse into what the 2014 campaign might hold in store: the ANC will not be the only party seeking to make political capital our of Mandela’s memory. There have already been clear messages from the DA’s leadership positioning themselves as the party best positioned to “build Madiba’s vision”.

The DA will no doubt renew its deeply personalised campaigns against Jacob Zuma by claiming that the ANC has lost its moral compass under the current leadership; juxtaposing Zuma’s credentials with those of the saintly Mandela. The message will be simple: the ANC is no longer the party of the Mandelas, the Tambos, the Sisulus. Like the ANC, the DA would do well to urge caution among its supporters in this regard, however: such a strategy could be seen as tasteless and opportunistic.

Cherishing or betraying Mandela’s legacy?

While its liberation heritage is undoubtedly a trump card that the ANC can play, attempts to reaffirm its support with references to its past will increasingly ring hollow if the party subsequently fails to tangibly improve the lives of the liberated population as a party of government.

The ANC’s best hope at regenerating its support in the longer term rests in its capacity to reinforce its identity as the torchbearer of Mandela’s legacy by tackling the core issues confronting ordinary South Africans and not allowing itself to be presented as a party of self-preservation, cronyism and corruption that has lost its way.

The DA’s vitriolic campaign to “Stop Zuma” at the last election may have won it a small amount of ground at the polls and it could easily be revived once more in this new political context. Such a resort to personality politics would, however, highlight the failure of the DA to offer a compelling programmatic alternative for South Africa.

If the DA wishes to broaden its appeal to black voters (which it has erstwhile struggled to do), it needs to offer a clearer indication of what it is for and what it will do, rather than persistently highlighting the individual it is against.

The 2014 election will almost certainly be marked by the main parties squabbling over who has the right to claim to be the true guardians of Mandela’s legacy. Such an argument may well serve to distract them from addressing the more pressing challenges confronting South Africa, reducing the democratic contest to an unsavoury and unproductive battle over image and personalities.

This was not the democracy that South Africa’s struggle heroes fought for: Madiba’s memory deserves better.

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