6 December 2013
Alex Vines

Dr Alex Vines OBE

Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme


State President of South Africa Nelson Mandela smiles on 22 May 1996, Bonn, Germany. Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images.
State President of South Africa Nelson Mandela smiles on 22 May 1996, Bonn, Germany. Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images.


The impact of Nelson Mandela for Africa and the world was dramatic. No other African leader stands so tall, or has been so revered. Look at the special editions of newspapers around the world today − no other African has ever commanded such forward planning. For a short moment, the rest of the world has stopped to reflect this loss for humanity.

On 11 February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison after more than 27 years. He was elected the first black president of the Republic of South Africa in the first open election in the country's history in April 1994 and inaugurated on 10 May.

He was like no other African president I have met. He was approachable, humorous, colour blind and carried a strong sense of purpose and social justice. I remember watching President Mandela as chair at close quarters dressing down the president of Madagascar who was 20 minutes into a long-winded vacuous speech at the Non-Aligned summit in Durban in September 1998. This was to the delight of many of us attending who were nodding off, including his wife Graça Machel, whom I spotted in a break hugging him and congratulating him on his exhaustive chairing duties.

Mandela could do this; his reputation put him above all other African leaders. In a continent where leaders like to remain in office as long as possible, Mandela insisted that he would only serve one five-year term, stepping down in June 1999. In practice while in office, he was more a symbol of reconciliation than an active policy president. Much of the day-to-day running of South Africa was delegated to his deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, who eventually succeeded him.

As president, Nelson Mandela stressed in a Foreign Affairs article that human rights would guide policy and that ‘we must treat the local regional actors with sensitivity and respect’. When Robin Cook as UK foreign secretary in 1997 similarly tried to implement a foreign policy with an ethical dimension under New Labour, these ambitious aspirations got entangled with realpolitik and the constraints of everyday international affairs. Today these efforts seem naive, but they both were serious attempts to find a way to pursue a values-based foreign policy.

Mandela was shocked to find indifference at the Organization of African Unity in November 1995 when he protested against the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in Nigeria. In 1998 a military incursion into Lesotho ended in near disaster, as South Africa found its human rights vision at odds with its neighbours’ preference for domestic jurisdiction.

Solidarity with friends from the anti-apartheid struggle, such as Libya, Cuba and Algeria, overrode any concerns for human rights abuses – illustrated by arms sales, although Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki preferred soft power instruments of mediation, good offices and other forms of conflict resolution to hard power. South Africa’s approach to Zimbabwe continues along this trajectory, where liberation solidarity trumps human rights.

After stepping down as president, Mandela for some years continued to be engaged in foreign policy, particularly the Middle East. Memorably in January 2003 Mandela criticized President George W Bush's stance on Iraq, saying he had no foresight and could not think properly.

There were remarkable successes. Mandela’s leadership helped result in the 1997 Ottawa land-mine treaty as South Africa resisted tremendous pressure from then US President Bill Clinton against the treaty. The renegotiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty also received a major boost by South Africa’s decision to adopt a clear position unlike the ambiguous nuclear posture of its apartheid predecessor.  Apartheid South Africa had possessed a nuclear weapons programme from as early as 1974 until 1990, during which time it constructed six of seven planned nuclear weapons.

Since dismantling its nuclear weapons program, South Africa has become a champion of nuclear non-proliferation efforts. On 11 April 1996, South Africa and 42 other African states signed the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba); this treaty entered into force in June 2009. In June 1996, South Africa was admitted to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and in September South Africa signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Achieving the constitutional settlement of 1994 that finally ended apartheid is Mandela’s single greatest achievement, and one which South Africans still believe can be a model for transitions elsewhere. South Africa today in its foreign policy seeks to be a vanguard for a more equitable global order, a conflict resolver and an emerging power. Today’s contradictions were already visible under Mandela as president: South Africa wanting to be a southern voice, diversifying its economy away from economic dependence on Western states and seeking to search for ‘African solutions to African problems’, while also being a member of the G20 and BRICS.

So where does Nelson Mandela’s death leave South Africa? South Africa’s leaders today lack the moral authority of Mandela; President Jacob Zuma is anxious for re-election for a second term and the economy is underperforming. The heady days of the Mandela 1994−99 era are over, but his legacy remains. South Africa remains a vibrant country of diversity; the African National Congress (ANC) offers the best option for poverty reduction and growth but its leadership has become increasingly distanced from the poor and needy. Opposition parties are growing in strength.

But what Mandela showed is what dynamic leadership of the ANC could achieve. Today’s South African leadership should reflect on this as they mourn Mandela’s passing. If South Africa is to achieve its ambition of being a progressive force for combating global inequality, it will need to do better at home. The honeymoon is long over but there are the achievements of Nelson Mandela – these are truly remarkable and an inspiration.

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