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South Africans Lament State of the Nation on Mandela Day

A person looks at a statue of former president Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at a tourist spot named The Long March to Freedom
A person looks at a statue of former president Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at a tourist spot named The Long March to Freedom

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Every year on Nelson Mandela's birthday (July 18), the South African government calls on citizens to honor the global icon’s legacy by doing good deeds. But almost 10 years after the anti-apartheid legend's death, with South Africa suffering record levels of unemployment, widespread blackouts and corruption scandals, many say the current government is itself failing to honor Mandela.

Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison in his fight against racist white minority rule, is a hero to many in South Africa and across the world. After he became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1994 there was a great sense of hope for South Africa under his leadership of the African National Congress party, or ANC.

But his successors — all from the ANC — have had mixed reviews, with one — former President Jacob Zuma — facing trial on multiple counts of corruption.

Many critics say the once-storied liberation party has become bloated, corrupt and inept, though others argue the brutal legacy of the apartheid system has made it hard to turn the country around.

What ordinary South Africans who spoke to VOA on the streets of Johannesburg did agree on this Mandela Day, however, was that the man many refer to as “tata,” or father, is sorely missed.

Isaac Rabotapi, a security guard, remembered the day in 1990 when he was a young child and Mandela was released from prison.

“We were so happy in Soweto… even children, we couldn’t sleep even in that day because we were so happy he was out of jail… We do remember so many things about him. Actually, we miss him,” Rabotapi said.

Rabotapi says the country’s current leaders haven’t lived up to Mandela’s huge legacy.“I’m very disappointed. I think Tata would be very crying to see that South Africa is collapsing; really, it’s collapsing about water, loadshedding, electricity, those stuffs, the shortage of food, you know, so many things. The crime,” Rabotapi said.

Agnes Mashole, who owns a beauty salon, also remembers the celebrations when Mandela and the ANC won the first election after apartheid.

But like Rabotapi, she laments the widespread power failures known here as “loadshedding” — which have badly affected Africa’s most developed economy — and expresses disappointment with the current government.

“They failed, they like really failed. I wish we could just wake up Mandela and fix everything… The economy is going down. This loadshedding, it’s worse,” Mashole said.

Asanda Ngoasheng, an independent political analyst, told VOA South Africa was a complex country because of its history.

“Yes, corruption does leave a stain in the ANC and it is a difficult issue to deal with and it is disappointing for South Africans considering the legacy of Mandela, but there is a lot that the ANC has done for South Africa and continues to do for South Africa, particularly Black South Africans,” Ngoasheng said.

To mark Mandela Day, President Cyril Ramaphosa inaugurated two new statues of the revered statesman, and made a speech about “following in his footsteps.”

However, if the ANC doesn’t fix some of the problems plaguing the country, it may no longer be able to retain power simply by trading on Mandela’s legacy.

South Africa holds elections next year and recent polls show the ANC might lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since coming to power.