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Will Mandela's legacy be an ANC election boon?

Verashni Pillay

Nelson Mandela died on a day when SA politics was in its usual ugly, fractured state. Will Madiba's memory help or harm the ANC, asks Verashni Pillay.

As we celebrate Nelson Mandela and what he stood for, we have to ask what he would think of the current leadership, writes Verashni Pillay. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The day South Africa's favourite leader Nelson Mandela died, it was a busy one for local journalists. 

Before the news broke close to midnight – instantly changing the national mood and priority – reporters were rushed off their feet in an attempt to get to every briefing in town. 

The year was winding to a close, but the news was in full swing, thanks in part to certain political manoeuvres ahead of the 2014 general elections.

At the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, built on the remains of the Old Fort prison where Mandela and others were once held, an urgent – and successful – application was heard to allow evicted informal traders to resume trading, in an ongoing saga that has seen street traders evicted from Johannesburg's streets with little foresight or planning. 

Around the corner at Cosatu House, the South African Communist Party, one of three members of the ruling alliance with the ANC, continued a largely pointless and tired mud-slinging match with its alliance partner's biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. Journalists sat in a hot and airless room as six pages of allegations were read out along with torturous wrangling over who was the bigger working-class hero of the two organisations. 

Outside the Gauteng provincial legislature, the Democratic Alliance (DA) continued an increasingly hopeless protest against the controversial e-tolls, which like the street trader issue was forced through with poor planning and consultation. 

And the rest of the Johannesburg-based reporters braved said e-tolls to head to Pretoria to hear public protector Thuli Madonsela find Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat- Pettersson guilty of maladministration, improper and unethical conduct in the irregular awarding of an R800-million tender to the Sekunjalo Consortium to manage the state's fishery vessels.

Later Sekunjalo head Iqbal Surve, who happens to have control of the country's largest newspaper group, was to fire the editor of one of his titles that ran full coverage of the report. He insists the two incidents are not related

This is the backdrop against which we finally lost the best leader the country has ever had by a mile. 

In the aftermath, the more cynical among us mused that this was great timing for the ruling ANC. 

It effectively buried the persistent uncomfortable coverage around current ANC president Jacob Zuma's alleged misspending of over R200-million of public money on upgrading his private home in Nkandla, and other negative coverage.

The avalanche of tributes and coverage around Mandela's life and legacy helped us relive the ANC's glory days as the country's national elections loom around the corner. 

It is a neat coincidence: as an example of how well this works for the ANC, the party in the contested Tlokwe municipality will hold a Mandela memorial on Tuesday, just two days before crucial by-elections. The ANC will probably wrench back control from the opposition DA after the latter's surprise takeover after the ANC's own councillors turned on their allegedly corrupt mayor. 

Will Mandela's death continue to be a boon for the ANC in its current form? 

I'm not so sure. 

On Sunday, former president and Mandela's successor Thabo Mbeki, who was ousted by the current leadership, gave the most honest Mandela tribute yet

Speaking at the Oxford Synagogue in Killarney, Johannesburg, Mbeki broke with the tradition up till that point of simply recalling Mandela's great work. "I don't think we should end there, we must also ask ourselves a question: what about the future?"

Mbeki asked the difficult questions most ANC leaders had been avoiding up till then: how did our current leadership compare with Mandela's legacy? The answer was obvious: not very well. 

Mbeki had his failings as a leader, but he provided strong policy direction and political leadership that is sorely missing under Zuma, and he avoided the embarrassing personal scandals that have plagued our current president. 

Under Zuma's presidency, the country has plunged into a period of uncertainty and scandal after scandal, where too much of government focus seems to be centred on protecting their compromised leader

As we celebrate Mandela and what he stood for, we have to ask what he would think of today's current leadership and the messy governance they are responsible for: from the eviction of street traders to e-tolls and corrupt tenders like the one at the fisheries department. 

And more than what he would think of them, we must ask as voters if we are close to the ideals and goals that Mandela and others like him enshrined in our Constitution.

The glut of coverage about what the ANC once stood for and fought for may serve to remind voters of the pale shadow that remains. 

The party's leaders flocked to celebrated places of worship such as Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto on Sunday for the national day of prayer. But in other corners on that day, questions were being asked. At the Central Methodist Church in the centre of Johannesburg, which serves as a sometimes controversial haven to the poor, dispossessed and victims of xenophobia, I listened to the congregant's open mic session about what Mandela meant to them. 

One woman described what she would say to Mandela when she met him in heaven one day. She ended with one question: "What has happened to the ANC?" 


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