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The foundations of South Africa are built on Nelson Mandela's memory

Nelson Mandela during the opening of Parliament in 2010. Photo: Reuters

Remember the gloomy predictions of the early 90s? South Africa would disintegrate in flames, ashes and blood, they said. There could, it seemed, be no other outcome to the painful transition that began with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

Violence and hatred would rip apart the infant democracy, we were told. White people would have no future here.

That ‘future’ is now a generation old, and few white people have had to leave their luxurious homes.

The black middle class is growing rapidly, doubling to 4.2 million people in the last decade. Modern South Africa is a peaceful, stable, multi-racial miracle.

Mandela waves to the crowd at Soccer City stadium during the closing ceremony for the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg. Credit: Reuters

The miracle was made by Nelson Mandela more than anyone else. In doing so he not only gave black people dignity and liberty, but re-wrote the rules of leadership.

He challenged the human instincts to seek revenge and self-indulgence. He gave the world a benchmark for selfless leadership that unifies rather than divides.

Imagine Mandela’s rage after 28 years in prison. But though his blood boiled, he left his hatred on Robben Island and sought reconciliation rather than retribution.

“The moment to bridge the chasm that divides us has come,” he proclaimed during his inauguration in 1994.

South Africans were the immediate beneficiaries of his wisdom, but the story of Nelson Mandela provides lessons for all of humanity.

In other African countries I frequently hear people wish aloud for “a Mandela of our own” – shorthand for a president who can prioritise the 'greater good’ over factional interests. Here is a legacy that lies beyond the borders of the Rainbow Nation.

Yet, despite his portrayal as a god-like leader, Mandela taught us that there is nothing wrong with being flawed.

Nelson Mandela during one of his earliest interviews. Credit: PA

He gracefully accepted the faults of his earlier life. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying”, he said. Here was a politician who could admit he had made mistakes.

But to many South Africans, he increasingly seems like a saint as his dream for his country erodes. Today, despite massive change, South Africa remains a work in progress, trying to evolve from the politics of struggle to the politics of freedom.

But many of the poorest South Africans are growing tired of the excuses from today’s leaders.

For too many people, segregation has simply given way to an economic apartheid that falls, largely, along the same racial lines. Money is what now divides the most unequal society in the world.

And corruption in public life – from politicians to police officers - is another common complaint. It is “rife”, according to one government minister.

One thousand police officers have been arrested for alleged offences over the past three years in the province of Gauteng alone.

In many ways, this is not the country that Nelson Mandela outlined and that his people dreamed of. But that is not to say that his ideals are dead, that South African society will collapse after his death.

He has left a nation with stronger foundations than those fears suggest, and a uniformly-accepted vision for this society – for all societies.

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