A makeshift tribute from wellwishers outside Nelson Mandela's home in Johannesburg
A makeshift tribute from wellwishers outside Nelson Mandela's home in Johannesburg (Reuters)

The news that Nelson Mandela is back in hospital being treated for recurrent pneumonia has generated the usual flurry of anxious headlines not just in the South African media but around the world.

But it has likewise reawakened undercurrents of fear among some that the 94-year-old's eventual death could result in the country being ripped apart, despite the fact that the former president has been more of a national figurehead than an active political player for at least a decade.

Madiba, to call him by the Xhosa clan name by which he is widely and affectionately referred to over here, retired in 1999 after just one term in office as the country's first black leader following the dismantling of the apartheid regime. He continued to play an influential public role for a good five years or so more.

But this anxiety that South Africa could tear itself to bits once he's gone is based on the belief that Mandela, with his promises of creating a "Rainbow Nation" in which there would be room enough for people of all races to flourish, is still very much the glue holding a disparate and often fractious country together - and one in which the wounds of the past, on all sides, still appear raw at times.

If he were no longer there to bind South Africa's often mutually fearful and distrustful communities together, what is there to prevent a splintering along tribal lines as well as the wholesale, and possibly violent, expulsion of white populations a la Zimbabwe - even if they have nowhere else to go?

While President Jacob Zuma may have toned down his anti-colonial rhetoric over recent years, underlying fears for the future are at times tangible, particularly among the Afrikaner community, which often appears to feel itself both under threat and under siege at many levels.

But while the majority of black and coloured communities appear to almost deify Madiba as a hero and national liberator, calling him "grandfather" and describing him as the "Father of the Nation", the same isn't necessarily true of all white South Africans.

Accelerating existing trends

Although it very much appears to depend on what side of the political fence you sit on and certainly isn't something that people would be willing to proclaim in public without risking vilification and possible violence, I have heard Mandela described more than once as a "terrorist" with a largely forgotten violent past.

It's the same old, irreconcilable freedom fighter vs terrorism argument, of course, to which there are no straightforward answers, although history, as they say, inevitably belongs to the victors.

Not everyone is so downbeat. As Mark Rosenberg, a senior analyst with political risk research and consulting firm Eurasia Group's sub-Saharan Africa practice, states in his blog, Mandela's demise "will likely have little effect beyond accelerating somewhat the social and political trends already at play".

"The political dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) will continue to unravel and South Africa will continue its rocky but ultimately stable transition to post-revolutionary politics," he says.

Rosenberg's argument is that Mandela's death will hurt the ruling party more than any other group because it will end up "further decoupling the ANC from the liberation struggle and shining a spotlight on unmet economic promises and worsening corruption in the party".

This situation will result in increasing numbers of people taking things into their own hands rather than choosing to work under the auspices of the ANC or ANC-linked Confederation of South African Trade Unions and is likely, somewhat worryingly for many of us, to lead to greater numbers of violent strikes and "service delivery protests" over the next few years.

Indeed, Rosenberg believes that the biggest threat to South Africa's stability into the long-term is not so much the death of Mandela himself as the potential fracturing of the ANC along provincial and ethnic lines as well as the adoption of an increasingly populist stance to try to boost a declining share of the national vote.

Potential for instability

Nonetheless, he is confident that the country's social and economic institutions are strong enough to block any potentially radical shifts in policy and to "facilitate reforms in the face of sustained market pressure that will accompany the economy's slow leak under the ANC".

Because as ever with geopolitics, economics - or the number of rand in people's pockets - always has a key role to play.

As a result and based on my own experience, I would tend to agree with a second blogger, Thesmith, when he says: "Capitalism is more important to many people in South Africa [than politics] these days, more so than the ideas of freedom long since gained. Transition from apartheid is moving further into the past as the younger generation feel less affinity with the movement of their parents."

Moreover, as the emerging black middle class in South Africa continues to grow, societal divides are gradually starting to become based less on race and more on personal wealth. As one TV commentator put it recently, you're not more likely to be robbed just because you're one colour or another, but because of where you live and what you've got.

But with unemployment at more than 25% across the country as a whole and as much as 50% in many of the townships, the potential for social instability is an ever-present reality.

Zuma himself pointed out in his state of the nation address this February that GDP needs to grow at a rate of 5% each year in order to create the 11 million jobs required by 2030 to effectively cut unemployment and poverty. Instead the economy grew at more like 2.5% this year, down from 3.1% the previous year.

Thesmith concludes: "Unless the social and employment problems can be addressed, a task easier said than done, South Africa's security situation and economic maelstrom will remain intensely volatile. There certainly is potential for instability after his death, but it probably won't be because Mandela died." Couldn't have put it better myself.

Cath Everett is a journalist who recently moved to South Africa. She writes a weekly blog for IBTimes UK, My South African Adventure

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