In November, I paid a visit to the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, where ninety-year-old Madiba— as Mandela is affectionately known in South Africa—was making a rare public appearance. The gathering brought together leading figures from the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa, including the surviving defendants of the 1963–1964 Rivonia treason trial, at which Mandela and seven other ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison. Also attending was George Bizos, the anti-apartheid activist and attorney who defended Mandela in the trial, and Nicky Oppenheimer, son of the late chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation, who had chosen the year of Madiba’s ninetieth birthday to donate to the state the trial documents his father had acquired from the state prosecutor two decades earlier. (The occasion also marked the handover to the foundation of the interview tapes that Mandela had made with Richard Stengel, his ghostwriter on Long Walk to Freedom.)
Mandela himself—frail, mostly deaf, his memory fading—arrived midway through the ceremony. He waved at people in the audience whom he recognized, flashed his radiant smile, made small talk with his old friends on the stage with him, and listened to a tape recording of his eloquent speech of defiance in the dock. As he tottered off after thirty minutes, leaning on the arm of a young assistant, many people in the audience seemed visibly moved.
Mandela’s appearance came at a difficult time in South Africa’s—and the ANC’s—history. The ANC has split into two parties, with one side uniting behind Jacob Zuma, who was chosen to take over the ANC’s leadership at a fractious convention in Polokwane in December 2007 and will almost certainly be South Africa’s next leader. The other side consists mostly of supporters of Thabo Mbeki, who resigned as president of South Africa in September 2008. (Mandela praised Zuma at the time he was selected, saying, “Our experience of Comrade Zuma is of a person and leader who is inclusive in his approach, a unifier and one who values reconciliation and collective leadership.”)
As the ANC’s breakup suggests, the sense of cohesiveness and national purpose that Mandela fostered during his five years in power, between 1994 and 1999, has dissipated; the continent’s richest and most powerful country has begun to run into trouble. Crime is spreading, growth is slowing, and the rand has lost 40 percent of its value against the dollar in recent months. Neighboring Zimbabwe has collapsed; a wave of killings of foreigners, including refugees from Zimbabwe, took place in townships around Johannesburg last spring. There is, I was told, grumbling among the poor that the ANC has failed to deliver on many of its promises.
Earlier that week, I visited my former housekeeper, Zongeswa Bauli, at the Kanana squatter camp near Cape Town Airport, a sea of wooden shacks that straddle a fetid canal. (I lived in Cape Town for two years as …