The Meaning of Mandela for African and Global Development

Nelson Mandela recently passed away. He was an inspirational figure for people around the world because of his selfless commitment to human dignity, juridical equality and reconciliation. Many tributes have been paid to him for these reasons upon his passing. As he noted however in his book “Long Walk to Freedom”, political equality merely provided the ability to be free, rather than freedom from poverty and want, which are also important to any substantive concept of freedom. In this short blog I want to reflect briefly on what the legacy of Mandela will be for development.

There are a number of countries in Africa, which have experienced relative political stability or the absence of internecine conflict. These include Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana and Senegal. Each of these countries had iconic political leaders who played important roles in creating national identities. Nelson Mandela served this function in South Africa. National unity is important to the project of development or improving living standards for the majority of the population. However an important question is whether it is harnessed to enable people to work together to achieve common goals, or whether it can serve to cover up or displace deep-seated inequalities, which may hamper the achievement of more inclusive societies.

Moletsi Mbeki has spoken about how Mandela served his function of achieving a transition from white domination in South Africa, however the next task of building an inclusive society in that country is still under construction. South Africa still has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world, even if social transfers have made a dent in this recently. A recommitment to this struggle and particularly to the common good, over individual gain is needed. This is a matter of ethics and also economic model. What would an ethical economic model look like? Mandela’s legacy suggests it should be one which serves the common good, whilst also being rooted in actually existing realities, even as it seeks to reshape them.

Mandela’s legacy is deeply intertwined with South Africa’s social formation. A country that is multi-racial, but deeply divided and unequal. It is seemingly powerful as a member of the BRICS grouping, but its economy is only one sixteenth the size of China’s so how much “hard power” it can exercise is debateable beyond its immediate region in Southern Africa. However, the country has taken a leading role in attempting to reshape global trade and investment regimes to be more favourable towards countries of the Global South, along with others such as Brazil. This has yielded some results, but the pace of change is slow.

Is one of Mandela’s legacies that change needs to be negotiated and that through this we can reconceptualise what our interests are? If we redefine our interests away from narrow selfish ones towards a broader conception of human flourishing what avenues and opportunities does that open up? Often Africa is spoken of as a space of negative example – the dangers of political corruption or conflict for example. However, adversity is also a source of innovation and enlightenment. This is perhaps one of Mandela’s legacies for African and global development.

Authored by Pádraig Carmody, Associate Professor, TCD Geography

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