Twenty years ago today Nelson Mandela walked free from a South African jail. He had served a 27 year long prison sentence at the head of a mass movement opposed to Apartheid I still remember that day like it was yesterday. I was watching it with my family. The long wait, the useless commentary of the government TV reporter and then the announcement “… And there is Nelson Mandela.” The heady, exciting days that followed and which culminating in the ANC’s decisive win in 1994.
The challenges Mandela inherited were immense: a sluggish economy, a social system geared to serving a small racial minority and one of the most unequal countries in the world. His legacy inside South Africa is mixed: reconciliation and prosperity for whites as well as a small minority of blacks (“black economic empowerment”), side by side with persistent grinding poverty and inequality for the majority of blacks. Mandela also paid scant attention to the growing AIDS pandemic, though he later made up for it in retirement. His loyalty to the ANC as an organization meant he took too long to speak up about the political excesses of his successor Thabo Mbeki, and he was too quick to embrace Jacob Zuma. Though the mainstream is steadily reducing his legacy to something meaningless (think “Invictus“), for me at least Mandela remains one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century.
But today is a day to celebrate.