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A new South Africa must believe in itself as Mandela did

Former presidents Thabo Mbeki, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Photo: Reuters

So dominant a figure was Nelson Mandela in the modern history of South Africa that no-one here knew with certainty how this country would react to his passing.

Even though he has not played an active role in public life for many years he remained a somehow reassuring presence ...a still living embodiment of all the values he urged South Africans to strive for.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela made a surprise appearance, with the help of ANC President Jacob Zuma. Credit: Erik Forster/ABACA USA/Empics Entertainment

He was all about reconciliation, forgiveness, tolerance and hard work so it was almost as if, while he was alive, no-one wanted to let him down. But would his death release all the pent up tensions in a society which, almost two decades after the first truly democratic elections here, remains riven with huge problems of inequality, poverty, unemployment and corruption?

Nelson Mandela with F.W. De Klerk. Credit: Reuters

It is, of course, too early to tell, but, if the last few days are anything to go by, there are grounds for optimism. In death Mandela has proved a great unifier. People here have come together in grief and mourning. But also in celebration of the great man's life.

Many have prayed for Mandela. Credit: Reuters

One of Mandela's shrewdest decisions was to hand over power in 1999 after just one term in office. He was getting old, tired and was not in the greatest health. He knew he had played his part and it was time for others to take over.

But if he can be criticised for anything, it is, perhaps, his failure to ensure a succession that he himself favoured. It is often said his choice was the charismatic for former union boss, Cyril Ramaphosa. In the event he went on to become a millionaire businessman and the country was lead by Thabo Mbeki.

Nelson Mandela was a consummate diplomat. Credit: Johnny Green/PA Wire/Press Association Images

His HIV Aids denial was a disaster for the new South Africa but that was only part of the problem. Corruption has become rife within the upper echelons of the African National Congress (ANC) and the serious economic problems that are the legacy of apartheid remain acute. So the big question is this.

As the "new South Africa" becomes the "post-Mandela South Africa" how will it cope?

My hunch is that this is a fractious, fragile but also fast maturing democracy. It is quite possible that the ANC will be held responsible for their deficiencies. But with elections as soon as next year, it will quite likely be at the ballot box rather than on the streets.

Other black parties are entering the political fray here and it is no longer effectively a one party state.

Mandela was the consummate democrat.

"It is in your hands," he told the people of this great country on Mandela Day in 2008. And so it is. It is now up to South Africans to effect the change they want to see.

As one South African newspaper put it: "All we need to do is to believe in ourselves as much as Mandela did".

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