After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa

  • Douglas Foster
  • Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton
  • 598 pp.

Drawing on years of first-hand observation and reporting, the author examines South Africa’s uneven path toward dignity and justice.

Reviewed by Mindy C. Reiser

Whither South Africa? For decades, South Africa has been a focus of international attention. Its struggle for dignity and justice deeply touched millions of people around the world, some of whom regularly demonstrated in front of South African embassies, initiated and supported divestment campaigns by universities and faith-based organizations, and led boycotts of South African products and sports teams. With the election of Nelson Mandela as president, the country became a favored location for international meetings and conferences — a concrete manifestation of support for the new regime and a desire to directly experience this watershed transformation in the country’s life. But what has been the real nature of South Africa’s change? What, indeed, has been transformed, and for whom?

In After Mandela, the author Douglas Foster —  a journalist, the former editor of Mother Jones and now an associate professor in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University —  set out to understand what South Africa has become since the end of Nelson Mandela’s five-year presidential term in June 1999.

In this ambitious work, he looks at the multiple currents at play as South Africa has moved beyond the early post-apartheid days under Mandela’s presidency through the administrations of   several succeeding presidents: Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008); the 7½-month interim stint of Kgalema Motlanthe following the resignation of Mbeke; and now the rule of Jacob Zuma, in office since May 2009. Foster draws on his own experiences living in South Africa in the past eight years for short and longer-term visits, entailing many group discussions with students and other young people across the country; numerous interviews with prominent figures from politics, the media, and business; and work with students from Medill’s Journalism Residency Program in South Africa.

Foster focuses particularly on the life trajectories of a number of young people whom he has followed over varying periods of time. They represent a broad swath of society, from a daughter of President Zuma to a son of Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape Province and leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance; from an HIV-positive young woman from an informal settlement to a student from South Africa’s poorest province aspiring to become a doctor; from an entrepreneurial grandson of Nelson Mandela to a young homeless man whose ties to violent crime increasingly deepen.

Foster interweaves the stories of these young people with descriptions of developments occurring in the larger South African context. Along the way, he shares his own reactions to the worlds opening before him and autobiographical asides. He gained extensive access to Jacob Zuma and chronicles the current president’s contest with Thabo Mbeke, for whom he served as deputy both in the African National Congress (ANC), the century-old organization that was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, and in the presidency of the Republic of South Africa.

Unfortunately, Foster was unable to acquire similarly broad access to Mbeke, who was challenged and defeated by Zuma for the ANC presidency and pressured by the ANC to resign his position as South African president eight months short of the end of his second term. Although the author interviewed aides to Mbeke, the book has a noticeable gap in the absence of the rich personal perspective on South African developments that far-reaching discussions with the important national figure himself would have provided.

In marked contrast to that deficit, Foster’s series of interviews with Zuma and members of his family, conducted over a three-year period, provide a highly candid and revealing picture of this proud Zulu man. Foster was able to unearth little-known details of Zuma’s life, from his days as a boy herding cattle and goats in the mountains near his village to his later work leading intelligence for ANC’s military wing during the anti-apartheid struggle, and his imprisonment. Foster’s observations about Zuma and his deep ties to Nkandla, his village birthplace, his embrace of his Zulu heritage (in contrast, Mandela and Mbeki are Xhosa), and his amiable “man of the grassroots” persona go far in explaining the devoted following for Zuma, who was accused of rape and acquitted, and against whom charges of racketeering and corruption were ultimately dropped.

Through Foster’s sustained engagement with South Africa’s emerging generation we come to discern the different voices and life paths available to young people from South Africa’s multiple worlds. Many of these post-apartheid young men and women know the struggles of the past only dimly; their ties to the ANC may be weak, and some even oppose the organization’s direction and focus.

After Mandela shows the co-existence of two very distinct South Africas: the cosmopolitan, globalizing world inhabited by the country’s rainbow elite who reside in its largest cities, and the other world still governed by tradition, where polygamy continues, patriarchy wields power and improvements in health, education and new economic opportunities are slow in coming. The divide between these worlds is large. A strength of Foster’s narrative is in showing the difficulties that young South Africans encounter in traversing and negotiating between these worlds.

In his panoramic lens, Foster captures the thoughts of young people in Johannesburg and Cape Town from privileged backgrounds who, having attended fine secondary schools and elite universities, choose — despite high levels of violent crime — to remain in the country and pursue careers in fields such as international business. He then shifts his focus to young people raised often by single parents in settlements with poor schools, inferior housing and inadequate infrastructure; those for whom fewer doors are open and job competition is intense in a country whose youth unemployment level is among the highest in the world.

In a country with significant income inequality, corruption in public and private life is an ongoing problem, posing a challenge to those seeking careers whether in public service or the for-profit sector. Foster documents how prevailing circumstances, limited access to needed resources and unrealistic expectations have led to a withering of the hopes and dreams of a segment of South Africa’s young people. And yet, optimism is far from gone. Many of those Foster encounters also speak of a future they see as open to their shaping; of pride in a nation peacefully overcoming extreme racial discrimination; of moments in which a “Rainbow Nation” truly emerges.

A weakness of After Mandela is that Foster does not follow all his key informants to the same degree; it would have been illuminating to know more about the ethnic identification and viewpoints of his diverse respondents, whether from Indian, Afrikaner, Sotho, Ndebele or other backgrounds. Given his extensive interviewing and amount of time in the country, it is curious that Foster does not include exchanges with such astute observers of the South African scene over several decades as Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning author and anti-apartheid activist; André Brink, an acclaimed writer of Afrikaner heritage; and Eli Gandhi, a former South African member of Parliament and the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi.

In sum, however, the many voices we do hear and the tales they tell of building a life in post-apartheid South Africa unveil a rich human mosaic and provide the reader with considerable insight into the significant issues facing South Africa in its post-Mandela years. In addressing the huge national need for new housing, electricity, good roads and fine schools, along with the decline of economic growth, high poverty levels, violent crime and growing worker unrest, South Africa confronts a monumental task at all levels of government. Who are the emergent leaders to address these questions over the next decades and what governmental legacies will they build upon? Douglas Foster has tried hard to shed light on these critical concerns and to a large degree, he has.

Mindy C. Reiser, Ph.D., is a sociologist and writer who has conducted research and training in South Africa and works with nongovernmental organizations contributing to the country’s multifaceted development.

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