Mandela will rightly be remembered as a paragon of reconciliation, a man who, as former U.S. President Bill Clinton put it in 2012, “was willing to share the future even with the people who imprisoned him.” He was the president who accepted his former adversary, apartheid’s last president, F.W. de Klerk, as his deputy; the democratic socialist who refused calls to nationalize industries and sought to lure foreign investment; the former black prisoner who, as De Klerk said, “won the hearts of millions of white rugby fans” by famously celebrating the 1995 triumph of the Springboks, South Africa’s once-boycotted rugby team.
Always his goal was to unite, not divide. His moral leadership, in turn, made possible South Africa’s rapid transition from a sanctioned pariah to an emerging-market powerhouse.
It takes nothing away from Mandela’s ennobling vision of a nation united by common purpose to say that much remains to be done to make South Africa’s economy more inclusive for its citizens. For South Africa’s leaders, including President Jacob Zuma, the best way to celebrate Mandela’s achievements is to give his cause of equality meaning in economic terms.
Economic inequality is worse than it was at the end of apartheid. So is the rate of unemployment, at 24.7 percent the highest of more than 30 emerging markets. Although South Africa’s black middle class (4.2 million, or about 8 percent of its population) is double what it was in 2004, a fifth of the country’s people don’t have proper housing.
South Africa’s black citizens still earn on average a sixth of what whites do. Efforts to redistribute equity ownership have mostly created a handful of very rich black South Africans. To truly “deracialize the exercise of economic power,” as Mandela put it in 1990, will require a greater focus on workers and wages, and less emphasis on share deals and board slots.
Mandela’s death seals the end of an era when forging a new nation through unity and reconciliation came before efficient and accountable government, or an inclusive and thriving economy. With South Africa’s great promise not yet fulfilled, his successors must rise to the challenge of honoring his legacy.
Mandela guided his people out of a wilderness of hatred and injustice. Next year’s general election would be an appropriate occasion to revive his inaugural plea: that “there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”
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