“Ah, Peter, return of the prodigal son!” Nelson Mandela beamed, welcoming me to his Johannesburg home in February 2000.
Although on an official government visit, I was, in a sense, also being welcomed to my “home” — to South Africa, the panoramic, sunshine country of my childhood, as the first ever British minister for Africa to be born on that continent.
“I wanted to welcome my friend, Peter Hain,” he told the waiting media, generous to a fault. “He was a noted supporter of our freedom struggle, and we thank him for that. Except for the anti-apartheid movement, I might not be standing here, a free man today, and our people would not be free.”
It was a proud moment for me, standing alongside the global giant who inspired such universal affection and admiration.
He had been imprisoned on Robben Island under the old apartheid regime when, as a teenager in England, I was first denounced in South Africa as “public enemy number one” — and by some in Britain as “Hain the Pain”.
My crime was leading successful campaigns from 1969 to disrupt and stop all-white South African sports tours.
Ten years earlier, with Mandela still in prison, I remained banned from entering South Africa — a legacy of my campaigning, the roots of which lay in my South African-born parents’ brave anti-apartheid work when I was a boy.
They had both been jailed, banned and forced into exile in Britain, after my dad, an architect, was blocked from earning a living by the whites-only government.
At Cape Town docks, we were carefully watched by the Special Branch to ensure my parents complied strictly with the terms of their permission to leave by going straight on to the ship.
Then we steamed out into the heaving Cape rollers, and I could see Robben Island, grim behind the cold spray, and tried to picture Nelson Mandela and his comrades incarcerated in isolation.
We were leaving behind a South Africa in which the powers of darkness were very much in the ascendant.
The principal liberation movement, Mandela’s African National Congress, had long been outlawed and was in disarray; its leaders were in jail; its military wing, Umkhonto, seemingly crushed. Other resistance groups had similarly been banned or paralysed.
The hideous, evil system of apartheid, which stripped everyone who wasn’t white of every right, every last sense of dignity, seemed omnipotent.
Yet, in his tiny, bleak, cold cell, Mandela never lost hope, his inner steel a shield of fortitude against even the most anguished emotions, when he learnt of first his mother’s, then his son’s deaths, unable to attend their funerals. Or that his wife Winnie was beaten, banished and jailed, imagining their baby girls growing up, never to see them until they were almost adults.
Instead, he pondered the way forward, reaching out to his oppressors, becoming fluent in Afrikaans, and reading the history and culture of the Afrikaner people, noting a siege mentality born out of victimisation by British colonial rulers. The first concentration camps, after all, were not Nazi, but British: of Afrikaner women and children who died like flies in the Boer wars.
When the apartheid rulers finally reached out to him in prison — to save them, as much as to end conflict — he was ready. By then, the late Eighties, the economy was tottering, and the business community wanted an end to sanctions, strikes and social unrest. The country stared into an abyss of economic chaos and civil war.
Mandela became the midwife to a transition from evil to hope, from racist state to rainbow democracy. Nobody else could have healed such a bitterly divided nation.
His role was also to make the transition from the old to the new South Africa. His presidency was the honeymoon, and he was more the father of the new nation than executive president.
After Mandela’s five-year term, his successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, grappled with the horrendous legacy of apartheid: mass unemployment and poverty, millions in shanty shacks, millions without running water or electricity, a growing population, swelled by immigrants from Mali, creating a seemingly insatiable demand for basic services.
Above all, millions without skills — the result of a policy to not educate the black servant class.
Mbeki was eventually run out of office prematurely by his own party, partly for his dictatorial style and partly because of his denial of a link between HIV and Aids, which generated a health crisis and a tidal wave of criticism, including from Mandela. Zuma, meanwhile, has allowed corruption to flourish on a scale that, if it is not gripped, poses a huge and cancerous threat.
Yet all three ANC presidents have achieved a great deal. Since 1994, when Mandela was elected, income per capita in real terms has risen by almost a third. There have been four million new jobs, despite the recent global financial crisis which hit economic activity. South Africa’s financial sector is better regulated, and avoided the global banking collapse.
Universities have enrolled an extra 400,000 — mostly black —students, almost a doubling of the pre-1994 number. Poverty has declined, and living standards have increased. With active programmes to tackle the HIV and TB epidemics, life expectancy has started to improve.
Earlier this year, JP Landman, the trend analyst, predicted economic growth averaging 3 per cent over the next few years, and population growth of about 1 per cent, with more wealth, releasing resources for distribution and development, and potentially adding three million new jobs over the next 10 years.
“It is not enough to crack unemployment,” he said, “but enough to advance modernity, broaden the tax base and enhance growth.”
Colin Coleman, a former ANC activist and now managing director of Goldman Sachs International, has just produced a comprehensive report, saying that many of South Africa’s fundamentals are still strong.
It has a wealthy economy, with a transparent, well regulated legal and financial structure, accounting for a fifth of total GDP for Africa, with a population of 50 million in a continent of 1 billion.
Now a member of the emerging Brics nations, alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China, South Africa is ideally placed to be the gateway for African economic growth.
Carefully thought-out ANC pro-poor economic policies, with a lot of money spent on development plans, should make a difference, but there is a chronic lack of government capacity and delivery, further hindered by political and administrative corruption.
The economy delivers for just nine per cent of the population. A new social contract is needed, where privilege and reward are renegotiated in favour of a more equal dispensation. Otherwise, its ANC rulers face a revolution of rising expectations and frustration.
Nevertheless, it has much going for it. There is a solid framework of business culture, telecommunications and infrastructure — the best in Africa.
South Africa was 14th in the 2012 World Investment Report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, ahead of highly developed old European powers, such as Spain and Italy.
It has the potential to become a focus for international investors wanting to raise capital for African investments, and for Johannesburg to become a deal-closing centre for African investments.
South Africa even has a low debt-to-GDP ratio: easily under 40 per cent, which is encouraging news for investors in the light of the World Bank’s recommendation of a maximum debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 per cent.
However, for Nelson Mandela’s disciples now ruling the country, the killing of black mineworkers at Marikana last year by South Africa’s now predominantly black police force was seismic.
The miracle of the Rainbow Nation and the joyous, bubbling 2010 football World Cup seemed to be obliterated by the conflagration around Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine, where 34 people were killed by the police, who opened fire on the striking workers.
It invited immediate comparisons with massacres by the apartheid regime, including the death of 69 innocent people at Sharpeville in 1960.
It may even have been worse, with evidence at the public inquiry pointing to a pre-planned, military-like crackdown, with machine guns.
The ugly clash had deeper roots, in an explosive resentment at the chasm between expectations and delivery.
For the past few years, two million people annually have taken to the streets to protest about their predicament. Unemployment among black youth remains shockingly high, as much as 65 per cent.
As in most other countries, the gap between rich and poor has widened, with a new black middle class, including ANC politicians and ANC-linked trade-union leaders, enjoying enrichment. Allegations of corruption in all levels of government are widespread, also breeding bitterness.
No country spends as much of its GDP on education as South Africa does, and the ANC has doubled school attendance since the apartheid days. Yet out of 137 countries in the 2011 Global Competitiveness Index, South Africa ranked 130th for the quality of its overall education.
Ronnie Kasrils, former ANC underground intelligence chief and a minister under Mandela and Mbeki, believes Marikana is just the tip of an iceberg — an emblem of what ANC critics such as Julius Malema say is a cosy deal with white-run business.
Malema, a populist pro-Mugabe opportunist expelled by the ANC, visited Marikana to exploit the tensions and was greeted ecstatically by a large crowd. He demanded nationalisation of mining and virulently denounced the ANC leadership for betraying its people.
Now Malema is “commander-in-chief” of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new party that could take up to 10 per cent of the vote at next year’s election.
But simply co-opting a black elite into the same unequal, white-controlled economy is not sustainable.
However, there is considerable comfort in the constitution. There is a — mostly — independent judiciary.
Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance controls the Western Cape and is confident of further advances. Most important is that there is a strong and vocal civil society, very willing to challenge the ruling party.
The vigorously independent press — exemplified by the Mail & Guardian and City Press under Ferial Haffajee — has been a thorn in Zuma’s side, exposing, for example, a lavish £20 million state subsidy for his private palace in KwaZulu-Natal. Perhaps this is why the government has imposed controversial restrictions on press freedom.
Mandela gave the ANC a moral compass, which many of its members still believe in. His shoes were too big for anyone to fill. Yet he set standards of integrity, principles and values of social justice, liberty and democracy, which provide a benchmark against which the country will rightly be judged.
In this era of “After Mandela”, there lies a potentially bright future for South Africa, one that is dependent upon the kind of leadership the country still searches for.
There will be no more “Mandela magic”. But this beautiful country, wonderful to visit, utterly transformed from its old evil past, can still be an inspiration.