Envisioning a South Africa without Mandela

December 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JOHN LARSON: Now that Nelson Mandela has been buried, we thought we’d spend some time looking to the future of South Africa. For more on that we’re joined by Marcus Mabry, Editor at Large for the New York Times. Marcus Mabry returned to South Africa and reported from there this summer. 

We heard President Zuma say just recently that he thought South Africa would continue to rise. I guess the big question is will it?

MARCUS MABRY: You’re right, John, and that’s the hardest question to answer as well. Mandela has left an undeniable legacy of reconciliation and even progress but the country has massive challenges especially when it comes to the inequalities in educational and economic opportunities between the Black masses and a white minority and a Black middle class that has exploded and didn’t exist when I was originally in South Africa. At the same time, this country has challenges that very few countries an overcome. The fact that it has come this far is already a miracle. I think when South Africans talk about Mandela, you hear it in their voice — a wonderment and unity — we can’t know what his absence will do to that country. We can’t know, for instance, to the Black majority, if there will be the patience, which has been pretty enduring so far.

JOHN LARSON: I was truck by a number of things in your reporting– one is the detailing of the accomplishments an challenges. The discrepancies between White and Black South Africans is growing each month. 

MARCUS MABRY: If any one group has benefited from it as far as a racial group,  you’d say White South Africans. They’re actually better off right now than at the end of Apartheid. And that’s because democracy and free enterprise for those with some means — an opportunity already. Whereas for the Black masses, those opportunities have not really come. For a small percentage of Black elite, the opportunities have been extraordinary — they are now rich and their children speak with an accent that no Black person had when I was based in South Africa, because it’s an accent of the educated. But for the Black masses that just hasn’t happened. 

JOHN LARSON: Even in the reporting, we’re starting to focus on the divisiveness of South African culture, of course the exact opposite of Mandela’s legacy. In local politics they are starting to talk about this. How do you think this will play out — in national or local elections? Or do you think it will be an unscripted event.

MARCUS MABRY: I think national and local elections. I think not in the next round, but in the round after that — when Mandela’s memory is fading more and the idea of reconciliation and patience is fading. I think at that point you will see the Black middle class, which was already starting to look at alternatives to the ANC, more willing to break with the ANC. While you’ll see the Black masses probably less patient, and saying the ANC should have more radical policies indented to change their life. And that’s when I think you’ll see the ANC change and the Black middle classes move away from the ANC — and the Black working class demand greater change from the ANC.

JOHN LARSON: Of all the experience you’ve had there, which is extensive, that you were legitimately moved when you went back to the extent that Mandela’s message of reconciliation, stability had permeated the country that you knew so well?

MARCUS MABRY:  There’s no question about it. When I left South Africa back in 1999 when I was Newsweek’s bureau chief there versus this time when I went back this year – a 14-year difference, the country had radically changed. This black middle class I talked about didn’t exist. These young black kids who could be African-American kids from the best private schools from this country – this species of South African didn’t exist when I left. These changes, even some changes like that they have a high speed train now that goes from Johannesburg up to Pretoria; we don’t have a high speed train in America that goes anywhere.

These changes and the depth of emotion that South Africans of all colors conveyed to me when I talked about the prospect of Mandela’s dying . It didn’t matter where you came from, what your race was, what your politics were – they were all visibly emotionally moved. That’s a unity that was unimaginable when I left there 14 years ago. I don’t know how long its going to endure now that Mandela is gone and as the memory of Mandela fades – but to me it was unimaginable that you would have this kind of unity, depth of feeling in all present in all the South Africans who are so different and who had very different interests from each other 14 years ago.

JOHN LARSON: It’s one thing for a political leader to rise to power – to be elected — to transform government. This happens on many different stages. But this message of healing and reconciliation was truly Mandela’s totally unique, powerful legacy. And you’ve met him. You’ve spoken with him – this man was also a brilliant politician. This was not a person who just waltzed into good graces.

MARCUS MABRY:  Machiavellian may seem like a too strong a term to use. But Rick Stengel who was his biographer, in Long Walk to Freedom, talks about how Mandela is not a man without anger or pain or bitterness or edge, and if you were in his government you knew that. But the public image we have of him is almost like a saint-like, right -this guy who has forgiven everything. But he was no Gandhi, in fact  but from a Machiavellian point of view – from a realpolitik point of view  he realized what South Africa needed to peacefully move from where it was to where it needed to be. He had to be this saintly kind of image. He couldn’t share his bitterness. He had to be better than he really was. The image had to be better, less human, than he really was himself. And he pulled that off. 

JOHN LARSON:  I was struck by your recent reporting from South Africa about how the older black South Africans are almost angry at the younger black South Africans because they don’t have the anger; they don’t have the bitterness. And essentially from your writing, the younger black South Africans are saying “exactly,” and that’s Mandela’s legacy. ‘We now have to build something new.’

MARCUS MABRY:  That’s right, they say that they can’t construct the new South Africa if they hold on to the old grudges. The older South Africans say that was just 14 years ago – or 20 years ago for the end of apartheid, what are you talking about? And the younger South Africans say ‘well, 20 years ago was a long time.’ It’s amazing that they can forget so quickly. That too, seems very American – the ahistoricism. At the same time it is the hope of South Africa.  You must put all that behind you if you plan to construct this kind of new country that allows for the kind of problems they face today to not erupt in the future.  So those kids may have something on the older ones. But it’s hard to imagine that anyone could turn away so quickly from all that bitterness and say ‘oh but that was the past – I’m not worried about all that stuff, I’m worried about the future.’

JOHN LARSON: And you warned about how quickly it could come back if things took a turn for the worse.

MARCUS MABRY:  I think the middle class perspective versus the black masses, who still remain the majority of  the country and still remain poor, and shut out from opportunity. I think their fate and their lack of opportunity will turn out to be what determines the future of  South Africa.

JOHN LARSON: Marcus Mabry, thanks so much.