Today marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Rivonia trial, and the sentencing of Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment on charges of sabotage, and acting to ‘further the aims of communism’.
It goes without saying that the regime Mandela opposed was profoundly undemocratic. The apartheid regime systematically excluded 85% of the population from political power.
What makes Mandela such an icon is that he was utterly devoted to democracy in the truest sense. The liberation of black South Africans could have led Mandela down a different path. We need only look at the liberation struggle in the similar apartheid regime of Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) to see how things might have developed.
Yet Mandela’s vision for South Africa was always based on the most inclusive, democratic instincts. At the Rivonia trial he chose not to give testimony, but instead to read a pre-prepared statement from the bench. His iconic speech ended with these words:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
There are many problems in modern day South Africa. Critics of Mandela’s electorally dominant ANC would suggest that many did not share his values. There are huge problems with corruption, massive social and economic inequalities and one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
Yet South Africa is now one of Africa’s most democratic states. It sits at 31 in The Economist’s Democracy Index, above countries such as Italy, Greece, Estonia, Israel, Jamaica and Poland. In Africa, only Botswana and Cape Verde sit above it.
Mandela bequeathed to South Africa a vigorously written constitution, with strong protections for minorities. It has an unusually independent judiciary. And South Africa is the only African country with same-sex marriage over the objections of numerous politicians due to action by the Supreme Court. Whatever one thinks of equal marriage, this demonstrates the immutability of Supreme Court decisions.
South Africa also has one of the most proportional electoral systems in the world. The ANC has won more than 62% of the vote in all five of the elections since all races were able to vote in 1994. Rightly, it dominates, but imagine how much stronger the ANC would be in a First Past the Post system. It would control almost every seat in South Africa, with only the White areas in the Western Cape, and perhaps Gauteng, able to return non-ANC MPs.
Instead, after its latest election, 89 MPs represent the Democratic Alliance, predominantly the party of Coloured and White voters. The Inkatha Freedom Party, the traditional representative of Zulus, still maintains ten seats, while its splinter, the National Freedom Party, has not damaged the collective Zulu nationalist vote, holding six seats (the IFP won 18 seats in 2009). Prior to 2014 there was an MP for the small Indian community (2.7% of the population) from the Minority Front party.
Proportional representation has also allowed for divisions within the black community without fear. This year saw 6% of the vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party formed around the former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema, which acts as a voice of disenchanted black male youths. Black South Africans need not fear that ‘splitting the black vote’ could result in them losing power.
At the local level, a diverse set of actors holds power. In the non-black dominated province of the Western Cape the Democratic Alliance rules, whereas in the Zulu-dominated province of Kwazulu-Natal the IFP previously governed. In so many other African countries the idea of other parties running different levels of government would be impossible.
In the days after Mandela’s death last year a friend and I walked up to the South African embassy in London to watch and take part in the commemorations. We then walked to the statue of Mandela on Parliament Square. Among the crowd singing liberation songs next to the piles of flowers, cards and messages stood two girls in their early 20s. One black, the other white, they were wrapped in the South African flag, singing the liberation songs harder than anybody.
In a sense, here was the country, the democracy, which Mandela sought to build. Broad, inclusive and equal. A country where all South Africans could be proud and equal. Democracy, true democracy, wasn’t just a symptom of that desire – it was a requirement. Mandela was a true democrat, who understood that equality, inclusiveness and freedom could not exist without the bedrock of democracy.