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Richard Davis: Mandela's greatest achievement may be yet to come

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 11 2013 8:46 a.m. MST

The example of Nelson Mandela may well help transform the poorest and most politically unstable continent in the world.

Schalk van Zuydam, Associated Press

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South Africans and many others from around the world remembered Nelson Mandela at a memorial service in Johannesburg yesterday. Many are contemplating what he accomplished during his lifetime – a successful battle against apartheid, the courage to negotiate with South African white leaders to achieve a peaceful transfer of power, and the ability to integrate white and black South Africans.

But they may not know what else Mandela did. He increased educational opportunities for millions of children, expanded health care to the poor, reduced the national budget deficit, and spurred electrification of most South African homes. Mandela also started a long period of economic growth in South Africa by inviting successful businessmen to run government agencies and then luring foreign investors to South Africa. That growth, although not dramatic by comparison with China, nevertheless was significant in helping South Africa out of its world pariah status and recover from the economic sanctions imposed by the world on South Africa’s apartheid government.

Despite Mandela’s efforts, millions of black South Africans still live in abject poverty. Black households make one-sixth the income of white households. Unemployment is still at 25 percent. And the crime rate has steadily risen.

Nevertheless, South Africa is a better society than it was 20 years ago, thanks to Nelson Mandela. It is easy to forget the strong potential for a national civil war that dominated South Africa during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mandela helped avoid the bloodshed that seemed imminent at that time.

And, South Africa may have become a model for other African nations. Indeed, a new optimism is emerging in Africa – one that may be at least partly attributable to Mandela’s example as a world leader and icon. A recent global survey by the Pew Research Center found that Africans were more optimistic about their national economies than were Europeans. Eighty-three percent of Europeans rated their country’s economy as in bad shape. By contrast, 59 percent of Africans felt that way.

Not only are Africans and Asians more optimistic about the present, but they also see a brighter future than do Europeans. Sixty-five percent of Europeans felt their children will be worse off than they were. However, 50 percent of Africans believed their children would be better off.

Not only does Mandela represent a new economic future, but also a new political one. He set the example of an African leader who should not crave power. Unlike so many other African leaders, Mandela was elected through free and fair elections. He governed with the consent of the people rather than through terror. When his five-year term ended in 1999, Mandela stepped down, despite the fact he likely would have been re-elected as many times as he wished.

Mandela’s example may have been an impetus to other African nations. Although some dictators like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe still rule, there are many bright spots of democratic transition now on the African continent. The Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Ghana, and Guinea are African nations that have held generally free and fair elections in recent years and begun the path to democracy and away from authoritariaism.

The example of Nelson Mandela may well help transform the poorest and most politically unstable continent in the world. Many Africans think that may happen. That could be Nelson Mandela’s greatest achievement.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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