Photograph by Ben Curtis, AP

Read Caption

A well-wisher writes a message on a poster of Nelson Mandela on which he and others have written their messages of condolence and support outside his old house in the Soweto section of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photograph by Ben Curtis, AP

Opinion: South Africa Has Failed to Live Up to Nelson Mandela's Legacy

Freedom untended is always at risk of slipping away.

Tributes to Nelson Mandela on his passing are saying that "the world has lost a great man." And in this age of mediocrity, Mandela appears to have taken the patent with him. Mandela's death is a reminder of how, after 300 years of conquest and bullying, South Africa was given the rainbow and the pot of gold. But after Mandela left office in 1999, the gold was pillaged and the rainbow sold.

Part of me wonders if the dementia of Mandela's final years wasn't grief at watching the nation he loved and the family he adored become venal, corrupt, and shallow. As dementia took hold and, with it, restrictions on who could visit him, his family cashed in with clothing lines, a wine label, art, and a reality television show.

Crowds swelled at the house he donated to the people of Soweto, but which his second wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela turned into a profitable private museum. Today, his beloved South Africa is a nation of shopping centers and searingly violent crime: a rape every 26 seconds, an average of 49 murders a day, the last two police commissioners jailed for racketeering.

The gap between rich and poor is worse than during apartheid. Education standards have collapsed.

During 27 years in jail, Mandela's life was predictable; the only ripples were those he chose to make—for example, his approaches to the apartheid government to discuss a peaceful resolution to decades of legally entrenched racism and minority rule.

Once outside prison, he confessed on more than one occasion that he missed the peace of prison, where he had time to think through things carefully. He treasured the times he went to game lodges, where he would shed city clothes for his comfortable old prison clothes and spend time in reflection.

While fighting apartheid there was always hope, always dreams of a noble new future waiting to be born, but democracy brought a litany of disappointment.

Freedom Squandered

For the new elite that was created, and the old that remained, freedom was not about social justice—Mandela's dream and that of his fellow prisoners—it was about large homes, big cars, designer clothes, and often the exploitation of those who worked for them.

Mandela's grandson Zondwa, for example, faced criminal charges with President Jacob Zuma's nephew Khulubuse Zuma after numerous scandals around their ownership of the Aurora gold mine, including not paying the 530 mineworkers for a year. The workers, most of them migrants from neighboring countries, were often forced at gunpoint to mine gold, and some were shot dead; all relied on food from churches to survive.

In 2005, and again in 2010, Mandela, in the presence of his lawyers, told his eldest daughters Makaziwe and Zenani to refrain from interfering in his financial affairs.

But as he lay gravely ill in May 2013, his daughters brought legal action to try and oust the directors of his financial trusts, including two of his oldest friends and his personal lawyer. This after trustees declined their requests for more than the substantial amounts they already were receiving.

And so Mandela found that while prison shielded him from certain pains, and robbed him of the warmth of a loving family, democracy and new wealth brought greed and disharmony. He thought often of a book he read shortly before his release and recommended to others—Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly.

"Folly is a child of power … Power corrupts [and] the power to command frequently causes failure to think," Tuchman wrote. "A duty is to keep well-informed … and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness."

Disappointing Successors

Mandela succeeded, but his successors failed to keep the hard-won gains of democracy. Mandela disliked his successor, Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist who refused to distribute life-extending drugs in the nation with the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. Because of that, according to a Harvard University estimate, some 365,000 people died needlessly, including Mandela's son, Makgatho. The death gave Mandela a new reason for activism with his beloved friend, former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

He hoped that South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma, a man who had received only four years of schooling before he was sent as a political prisoner to Robben Island, would have the common touch that Mbeki lacked. But Zuma, the ANC's former head of intelligence, does little to reduce poverty and is remarkably wealthy for someone on a politician's salary.

Go Well, Mandiba

South Africans will mourn loudly. Yet they did not love Mandela enough to honor his legacy: social justice, careful listening, the integrity to risk popularity, and the humility to apologize when wrong.

We'll mourn his warmth. We'll weep when we replay videos of the only politician in the world who would dance, anywhere, for no reason other than joy in life and liberty.

Mandela set us free, but we forgot that with freedom comes responsibility. June 26 was the 59th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, the document underpinning the liberation struggle. "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white..." the charter begins. It ends by saying: "These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, until we have won our liberty."

Perhaps Mandela spoke to us even as he left: Nations belong to all who live in them; divisions are man-created and always disruptive; and liberty requires peaceful warriors for democracy, because freedom untended is always at risk of slipping away.

Hamba Kahle Madiba. Qhawe la ma Qhawe! (Go well, Madiba, hero among heroes!)

Editor's note: Charlene Smith is an authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela and writer of Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life. A South African-born political journalist, she now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.