Nelson Mandela's legacy will be measured in symbolic moments

Massive structural symbolic changes in South African life are Mandela’s legacy, and for too long their importance has faded, but this is a moment to remember the momentous change that opened up the country to a different level of freedom, writes Rachael J

There it was, a Mandela legacy, up front and centre, hitting my eyes, as I squeezed into the back seat of a tiny car with five companions, on a whistle-stop sunset tour of the packed city streets of Durban in 1996. But it was what I didn’t see that was surprising – no sign any more telling my companions that they couldn’t go where I could go.

"That was the beach that we weren’t allowed to be on, there were signs right there that said ‘whites only’," one of the guys told me as we headed away from the huge surf haven of the Kwazulu Natal seafront, where we had all been hanging out watching the surfers climb on top of massive curving waves.

These guys, who were all part of Durban’s Indian community, had just adopted two foreigners, news reporters at a big South African conference attended by people from around the world, and insisted they showed us around their country. We crammed into the car as they argued about where to take us, immensely proud of the bustling seaside city they lived in, proud to show it off its spice markets and its Victorian architecture and its thriving bar scene to the kind of international visitors who for decades had stayed away while the barriers of the apartheid regime split the white and the non-white communities as effectively as the Wall had split Berlin.

It was almost impossible to believe that just months earlier these overflowing streets, packed shoulder to shoulder with people of black, brown and white skins, had been forcibly divided, by rule of law in a state of but limited democracy, into separate and deeply unequal societies.

At first glance, the enormous rolling sandy surf beach could have been on a seafront in Australia or in California, packed as it was with surf dudes, crashing waves, and with a cool café where everyone hung out at the end of the day. But our adoptive guides knew that the monumental physical changes that had happened in their country in the past few years were just one outcome of Nelson Mandela’s fight for their freedom.

What you felt fizzing in the air, in the conversation, and in hearts was the pure joy of that precise historical moment, where suddenly there was opportunity, and the barriers that said “whites only” had been taken away. No longer was public transport separated by colour of your skin; now the national parliament held representatives of all communities, not just one. Nelson Mandela had made these things happen, and that made him something more than just an average politician.

This was only a year or two after the first open election in South Africa, and South Africans felt that they were living through an historic time. And because of that their pride in their country was infinite; everywhere I went, and year after year as I returned later, I would run into someone whose pride in that change overflowed: they always insisted on showing me a landmark of the struggle – a Soweto bar, where the owner wanted to talk about where her clientele came from and who they were, a house, a museum or a beach where one of those physical signs of their second-class status in their own country had been pulled down.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela talks about his personal motivation to become involved with the ANC and the fight to overthrow apartheid. It was fired, he wrote, by the unfairness of the life he and those all around him were forced to live: “I yearned for the basic and honourable freedoms of achieving my potential, of earning my keep, of marrying and having a family –  the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life.” His eventual leadership of the struggle finally resulted in a general election, open to all, in 1994.

The miles-long, winding lines of people queuing for hour upon hour determined to vote in South Africa’s first free election, in 1994, are one of the most iconic and enduring images of the second half of the twentieth century. There were those, old and young, similarly fired by that sense of unfairness, willing to wait days and hours to go to the ballot box.

20 years after his inauguration the words of the first President of a free South Africa still have the power of something magnificent achieved. He describes being saluted by the South African generals and the highest commanders of the police, and being mindful of how a few short years earlier they would have arrested him, as their predecessors had imprisoned him. “The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement,” Mandela said as thousands of television cameras, and through them, hundreds of thousands of eyes, focused on him.

Mandela has ever since been a guiding presence at epic, and emotional moments, in his country’s history.  South Africa’s victory at the Rugby World Cup in 1995 was so much more than a sports team winning a trophy: it came only a year after Mandela’s election, and rugby, more than any other sport, had been a symbol of division, a game for white men only and one in which South Africa had not been allowed to compete in the international arena since the late 1960s because of apartheid. Yet here was a dancing, cheering black president lifting this sporting cup into the hands of the huge, white Francois Pienaar: the sight of the two of them, one so small, one so tall,  swept up in a cloud of sound, symbolised the overwhelming joy of a new nation with a growing belief in itself and its future.

When Mandela handed over political power to others, commentators and the public questioned whether South Africa would change, or if the symbolic power he had instilled would slowly evaporate, the sense of moral good fade into corruption and despair.

Those concerns have again risen viscerally among those who yearn for South Africa to succeed. But, contrary to those who fear that Mandela’s passing may mask a moment when all that Mandela has achieved will start to slide away, Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper, is optimistic. He believes that the severe illness of the ex-president has brought his achievements back to the attention of those in authority. “His legacy has not had the prominence that it ought to have done in public life. It has been too easily dismissed by many South Africans and political leaders. They have spoken of him as too easy on reconciliation or that he got it wrong on economic issues, and they have not put it front and centre in their own decision making.

“But it is being brought back to us in a way that it hasn’t been for a number of years, so there is optimism that we can recall again the value of his approach and contribution in a way that we haven’t always done recently.”

Nor does Dawes feel that this is a moment when the wheels will come off; he is confident that South Africa’s institutions, despite their flaws, are strong enough to help citizens to resist corruption and authoritarianism.

If Mandela’s legacy is summed up by one thing, it will be in symbolic moments, like the times when those “whites only” signs were torn down, no longer shouting that South Africa was a society where only its white people had opportunity, and aspiration, and when a reborn nation began its journey on a previously uncharted road to greater freedom.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of the Index on Censorship magazine

Well-wishers release balloons for Nelson Mandela in June 2013. Photograph: Keystone / Getty Images
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war