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Africa closes the page

With Nelson Mandela’s departure, South Africa and the whole continent has lost a key figure

South Africans have had some time to get used to the idea that they would have to say their last farewells to Nelson Mandela after seeing in his repeated visits to hospital the absolute fragility and withdrawnness of a man who built a nation out of the ashes of apartheid. With Madiba at the age of 95 years now resting in final peace, South Africa faces a critical hour in which to learn to live without its father figure, without the guiding light he represented despite the fact that he had lived out of the public light for almost a decade at his modest home in Johannesburg's Soweto.

You do not change the fate of a country and decisively influence the perception a whole continent has of itself without being made of something special. The most significant aspects of the former guerrilla, who became South Africa's first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years in jail, were his magnanimity and his patient willingness to compromise; both decisive qualities in avoiding the bloodbath that everyone predicted and instead making his country a beacon of light for the rest of black Africa — a country where, under his leadership, the majority of people knew how to wait patiently for the moment to assume their rightful place in history.

However, the South Africa that says its goodbyes to Mandela has dangerously distanced itself from its founding example. His political heirs have lost the splendor and moral superiority that accompanied the years in which Mandela, as president of all South Africans, dedicated himself to reconcile without resentment a nation radically divided between whites and blacks. In his place, successive presidents, leaders of the same African National Congress (ANC) party that started as a legendary liberation movement, are on the road to converting the Republic of South Africa into a powder keg of uncertainty. We have the tragic ignorance of Thabo Mbeki, who allowed millions of people to die because he believed AIDS to be the work of white colonial intervention; and of the proven corruption and authoritarianism of the current head of state, Jacob Zuma, whose mandate will presumably be renewed in elections due next year.

The ANC, the absolutely dominant party since the first multi-racial elections were held in 1994, and which the majority of people still see as the party of Mandela and freedom, has become a conglomeration of interests and ideologies of the new rich, black nationalists, populists, liberals and labor unions. With its infighting and its corruption it is not much different from the dialectic of armed struggle that held sway in Africa in the transition to more or less, but generally less, democratic governments.

Almost 20 years after the end of apartheid there is in South Africa for the first time a black middle class, even a privileged one in the most developed economy on the continent. But the educational system is in ruins, the gap between those who have and those who don't is one of the biggest in the world, while unemployment and violence grow in this country of 53 million people where the crucial mining industry has been rocked by strikes and clashes. The serious social and economic problems facing South Africa require a less crudely ideological focus than that of the ANC.

Nelson Mandela, whose place in history is beyond all doubt, has departed this life as quietly as he lived it after restoring dignity to South Africa. It is up to his fellow countrymen, not only his ideological heirs, to maintain the giant legacy he has left and to prevent the dream that he pursued from being hijacked.

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