Witnessing History in South Africa

This Business of Farming

A snapshot of Nelson Mandela's impact and legacy

Published on: December 7, 2013

Farm Futures, with 14 U.S. farmers in tow, came to South Africa six days ago to begin a two-week tour of agriculture tour in this beautiful, rugged country. With the passing of the beloved Nelson Mandela last Thursday evening, our trip somehow morphed into something much larger.

It's not often you find yourself at the crossroads of history.

Having said that, very few of us were thinking about Mandela when we arrived here. When I asked one of the farmers if he had an opinion, he said not really; The goal of this trip was always focused on the country's farming and agriculture.

The flag of South Africa
The flag of South Africa

Yet, no discussion of South Africa would be complete without recognizing the person aptly identified here as "the father of the country."

Since his death announcement we have seen little emotion from the people we've met, other than a very sad song the wait staff sang to us yesterday. I guess that's because our tour has been mostly to rural areas, with visits to grain and cattle farms, a mango farm and big game preserves. We have been isolated in rugged bush country with no newspapers and little internet connection.

The people we've talked to mostly go about their business, until you ask them how they feel.

"I am sad," one of our safari guides told me last night. "Mandela came to our village two years ago. He stayed at my son's school all day."

A quick education
Most of us didn't know much about Mandela or South Africa before we got here, but we are learning fast. Here is a vastly oversimplified recount of history. The cultural and racial conflict here actually began over 300 years ago when the Dutch established a trading center at the southern tip of the continent, later called Cape Town. Dutch settlers, known as Boers (Dutch for farmer), gradually expanded north and east, facing bloody conflicts with African tribes such as Zulu and Xhosa, Mandela's ancestral tribe.

When the European settlers weren't fighting African tribes, they were fighting each other; Boers and other Europeans fought the English over South Africa's gold and diamond deposits in the Anglo-Boer war.

In the early 1900s, laws were put in place to separate whites and blacks – the beginning of 'apartheid.' Apartheid regulated people's movements about the country. In 1948, the white-dominated National Party was elected to power and strengthened further its racial segregation policies begun under Dutch and British colonial rule.

In the '50s Mandela rose to prominence as part of the African National Congress and became a thorn in the side of government leaders. In 1962 he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy. He was set free 27 years later and helped pave the way for Democracy in South Africa. He won the Nobel peace prize in 1993 and was elected the first black president of the nation in 1994, focusing on poverty relief and racial reconciliation.

His rise to power, and more importantly, his positive message of forgiveness, restoration and faith in humanity, likely saved this fractured country from a bloody revolution.

Monumental problems
Despite Mandela's achievement this country, unfortunately, still faces monumental problems, some which will never be solved. Mandela's vision of a racially unified country remains elusive. Of its 52 million citizens 79% are of African heritage; 9% are white (European heritage), 9% are 'colored' (the official South African term for those who are neither black nor white); and 3% are 'other.'  The country has a 40% unemployment rate; only 6 million actually pay taxes. Another 14 million are on welfare. HIV is a scourge on the land.

Politically the African National Congress is still at the helm, but it's not the ANC that Nelson Mandela envisioned 20 years ago, says Manuela Daniel, of Pretoria. "He once said a fish rots from the head down. It's the same in government. 95% of our municipalities are bankrupt. Many people have been put in to positions of leadership simply because of quota systems. The ANC does not know how to create jobs.

"The current government leadership has turned the country into a social welfare state and it's convenient for them, because that is how they get their votes," she adds. "The big man is gone, and there is no one to replace him."

The frustration over government policy often boils over in accusations of racism. People here outwardly use the words, 'us' and 'them' in describing pro-white or pro-black political issues. It's a shame, because it puts walls up that prevent solutions. We're well aware of those walls, even in our own country.

"I could care less if you're black, white or purple, but as soon as someone who is white like me criticizes the government, I'm a racist," says Daniel, who is of Portuguese ancestry.

On the surface, people get along just fine here. They seem happy. On the streets, in the shops, and at every place we've been, color is not an issue. But we've been in high country since Mandela's death, far from cities like Pretoria or Johannesburg. We're headed for Cape Town tomorrow. We'll soon have a much better understanding of how this affects the nation.

For better or worse, the court of public opinion will soon weigh in on Mandela's legacy.

"I'd be very surprised if Mandela's death has any impact on the relationship between whites and blacks in this country," says Daniel.

The world will soon find out.