By Chris Bishop

Thirty years after Nelson Mandela was released on a balmy autumn afternoon near Cape Town the question in many minds is what would he have made of the political and economic reality he dreamed of on that day? It is a question ever more pertinent with every anniversary.   

Millions of people around the world remember where they were on February 11 1990 – the day Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prison, hand-in-hand with Winnie, waving to the crowds through a golden air of hope. I am one of them; on that fateful day I covered the celebrations in London’s Trafalgar Square. Shaven-headed, khaki-clad soldiers stood stiff as ramrods outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square in stark contrast to the dreadlocked, dancing crowd on the other side of the road singing: “Free Nelson Mandela!” It was somewhere between a celebration and a joyful two-fingered salute.

It was a sight for sore eyes. I never thought Mandela would be released in his lifetime, nor mine. I never dreamed that I would spend many happy hours in his company as a journalist on the road in Africa in the days when he called my name.

Mandela ushered in expansive days of hope in South Africa; he ditched nationalisation and foreign investors queued up to put their money into his rainbow nation. Mandela’s administration also made rapid economic reforms – like the abandoning of the financial rand – to help business grow and cement the Johannesburg Stock Exchange as the trading capital of Africa. Just over ten years after Mandela took the reins the economy was growing at a robust 5% a year.

“Money won’t buy people freedom, the freedom to make it will,” the man himself once said.

Yet the dream gave way to reality. The near-empty coffers that the Mandela administration inherited made it difficult to make a dent in his election promises: Schools; homes; water and electricity for all. The idealists in the cabinet tried their hardest, but sometimes it is not enough.

So, what would Mandela think of the country he helped build 30 years on from regaining his freedom? I spent a lot of time with him on the road, even longer with those who fought with him, in writing a score of films and stories on the man. I can only lend an educated guess.

I think Mandela would have been disappointed, to say the least, at the current state of the economy with its crumbling infrastructure, slow transformation and power cuts, even though the roots of the blackouts lie in underinvestment in Eskom under his watch.

There is no doubt Mandela would have wept at the xenophobia, desperation and nihilism that have crept into his democratic South Africa. If he were alive today he would have taken to the streets to pour oil on troubled waters.

I am also sure Mandela would have been angry to high heaven at the avaricious and short-sighted looting that went on for years in the worst days of the South African economy. The man himself lived simply in office, with minimal security, and eschewed the trappings of power. He would have been livid that the lives of already poor people were beggared by those corrupt officials paid to help them.

People who spent weekends with the great man used to tell me a Sunday morning ritual was reading the papers, commenting on the latest corruption scandal, before exclaiming:  “I warned them, I told them not to do this!”

Yet Mandela would have been heartened by the appointment of an erudite young South African by the name of Wamkele Mene as the new Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area – a trading bloc that will change the face of continental trade. He also would have smiled on a bright young woman, Portia Derby, taking the reins of the massive transport umbrella Transnet.   

“It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another,” said the wise old man. He could see the future on a foggy day.