When Nelson Mandela first came out of jail he talked of the need for massive nationalisation and forcible wealth re-distribution. When president, having learnt a thing or two about what had been going on in Africa, he began to preach another message. He saw that most of Black Africa had adapted “African socialism”. This, together with dictatorships and maladministration, had led to decades of rising poverty. Even in Tanzania, where the benign leadership of the sage-like, incorruptible Julius Nyerere gave the country a spirited sense of emancipation, the economy eventually lost momentum as Nyerere pushed socialist shibboleths.

When Mandela became president he took over a country that had been battered by sanctions. The rate of economic growth for years under White rule had been mediocre and inflation was a high 14 per cent a year, the budget deficit was eight per cent and interest rates were 16 per cent businesses could not afford to borrow.

Quite quickly he and his economic advisors got the economy going. Inflation fell to five per cent over the next decade. The deficit fell to 1.5 per cent and interest rates dropped to under nine per cent. Foreign investment rushed in.

Under apartheid exports had been a very modest 10 per cent of total output. They are now up to 25 per cent. The economy has doubled in size since the onset of Black rule, growing at an average of 3.2 per cent a year compared with 1.6 per cent a year in the last 18 years of White government.

Thanks to the pace of economic growth tax revenues have doubled and the Mandela government knew where to spend it. The government went into high gear to bring electricity, drinking water, sewerage, primary schools and health clinics to much of the massive shantytown population. The proportion of Africans living on the UN minimum income of $2 a day fell from 12 to 5 per cent.

But there were a number of important things that Mandela and his successors have failed to make much progress on. A majority of workers in jobs have seen their incomes and spending power rise but workers in the most menial and unskilled jobs have done badly. High youth unemployment is the most worrying failure.

A country that long has had one of the world’s worst distributions of equality has seen no improvement. Indeed, some economists say it has worsened. A Black elite has been created, partly because of Mandela’s policy of “Black empowerment”, when the White business sector was pressured to give a few thousand Blacks a cut of its pie, putting them on the board of companies and giving them shares at knock-down prices. Besides that, many Blacks, pulling at their own bootstraps, have heaved themselves into a comfortable middle-class life, joining the Whites in their posh, well-protected suburbs and driving the same luxury cars.

The South African economy is work in progress. It is not doing as well as other African countries, like Tanzania. It has been hit by troubles in the mining industry — declining metals’ prices and severe labour unrest. Today the political leadership is not good. Nevertheless, compared with the pre-Mandela days, an enormous amount of progress has been made. That is a part of his extraordinary legacy.

n    Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs analyst

    Courtesy Khaleej Times