Nelson Mandela, a towering figure of the 20th century and president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, died today at 95.

Imprisoned from 1964 to 1990, Mandela came to symbolize the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice among his countrymen and around the world. South Africa’s triumph over apartheid, its peaceful transition to democracy in 1994, and the growing pains the nation has felt in the years since are all part of the onetime revolutionary’s narrative.

South Africa experts Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, both professors of African and African American studies and of anthropology at Harvard, were in Cape Town leading a Harvard Summer School program in June, when Mandela fell ill. The Gazette spoke to them about Mandela’s legacy, the modern South Africa he helped create, and the future of the nation where they both grew up.

GAZETTE: Between the ending of apartheid, truth and reconciliation, and the establishment of democracy, is it possible to talk about any one thing as his greatest legacy?

JOHN COMAROFF: Clearly when he was head of the ANC [African National Congress] Youth League in the ’50s, and later when he graduated to the senior echelons of the movement, he was one of its great thinkers and leaders. He played a key role in the writing of the Freedom Charter and in the deliberations around the question of the armed struggle; his incarceration, and of course his famous speech from the dock at his trial, were both inspirational and substantive in giving direction to the anti-apartheid struggle. It was he, for example, who, against the rather different position of the black power movement, argued most forcefully [in favor of] a … post-racial South Africa, a unified nation founded on the sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the party.

In that sense, he was a profoundly liberal thinker, in spite of the efforts of the Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher regimes to construe him as a raving communist. He was never that at all, he was always a very considered — if anything, a Christian — democrat.

JEAN COMAROFF: In the rainbow nation, the emphasis was less on racial and ethnic differences than on their synergy, their unity. That’s why I think South Africa captured the imagination of the world to the degree that it did. In the late 20th century, after the end of the Cold War, when identity and difference were beginning to pull nation-states apart, he stood for inclusion and equality.

JOHN COMAROFF: He also stood for party discipline, for example, and against violent revenge. The armed struggle always had to be a very highly disciplined exercise.

There were people constantly calling for … retribution of one form or another against whites; he constantly said that we, the ANC, cannot fall into the ways of our oppressors. As a lawyer, he and Oliver Tambo, also a lawyer, pushed the ANC toward a liberal, legalist view of what the successor state should be.

JEAN COMAROFF: And that contrasts sharply with the way that the country has gone in the recent past. There is a stronger emphasis now on ethnic identity and populism, on difference. Thus, for example, [South African President] Jacob Zuma defended himself in his rape trial a few years back by claiming that he had acted according to the received, particular cultural practices of Zulu sexuality and masculinity.

Mandela, by contrast, held to high humanistic values and was very much the personal embodiment of them: note the way he carried himself (he was a boxer in his youth); note also his insistence on both mental and physical discipline when he was incarcerated on Robben Island; note the personal good will he enjoyed with his prison warder, whom he subsequently invited to his presidential inauguration. When, after 1994, he made peace with the Afrikaner leadership, he went personally to their families, to greet their wives and the children. He was the complete inverse of the rabble-rousing, culture-invoking populist.

JOHN COMAROFF: In fact, his anti-populism ran deep. He was not afraid to take stands that were extremely unpopular. When he encouraged the rugby World Cup of 1996, the story of “Invictus,” he took huge criticism from within the black population.

But he really did believe that is what the ANC stood for: If it became just another race-hating organization, it would fall into barbarism.

JEAN COMAROFF: We must point out that that there is a very different atmosphere now. There is an upsurge of assertions of difference and racial recrimination, in contrast with Mandela’s position, his very Christian sense that “[if you] turn the other cheek, you shame your enemy by your own dignity.”

JOHN COMAROFF: That didn’t stop him from supporting the armed struggle, though, once he felt that there was no other alternative in the face of state violence. He didn’t simply turn the other cheek with no sense that there [are limits] to doing so.

GAZETTE: How is South African society different now from the early 1990s at the end of apartheid?

JEAN COMAROFF: The gap between wealth and poverty is still largely etched in racial terms and has grown in the past two decades. But South Africa is not unique in that way. What has happened is that South Africa has become more like the rest of the world in that there is greater inequality than there was before.

There is a growing black middle class, and a new upper-middle class. And there is a strong sense that those who have been empowered, those who have been given the levers of both political and cultural capital, are people of color.

But there is also much more of a sense of the impossibility of the rainbow nation. The very idea is something that people would scoff at now, I think. It is a charming idyll, whose time has gone by. The realpolitik of difference, of struggling for equality in terms of the rights of one group against another, has come to take precedence.

JOHN COMAROFF: One thing that is often underestimated, especially by white South Africans and critics of the ANC, is that an enormous amount has been achieved in the last 20 years.

There is a tendency to trash the ANC and to accuse it of rampant corruption, which has a real measure of truth to it. Still, while it is hard to measure its incidence in South Africa against that of the United States or Germany or Russia, recall that the European Commission had to resign some years ago under the pressure of corruption charges. Germany and Russia have both had massive problems in this respect. In South Africa, at least the problem is talked about all the time, not least within the ANC. It is not hidden quite so effectively as it is in Europe or America.

At the same time, the government has built literally millions of houses. The judiciary that was exclusively white two decades ago is now majority black. A police force that had to be remade out of a deeply dominated population is now largely black. South Africa has achieved all this and more. Universities now have [a] majority of students of color and the country is producing extraordinary talent: its music scene, its theater scene, its movie industry, and much besides. The country is unrecognizable from the late apartheid days.

It’s not unlike in the U.S., in the Obama moment, when there was an enormous sense of possibility, a sense that the horrendous things of the recent past could be put behind us, that we really could have a democratic nation — only to run up against corporate interference in politics, against the seizure of our democracy by interests that are not those of the sovereign people. Many of these things that we have seen in the United States have been going on here as well. As a result, we have a national consumer-oriented society in which there is very little idealism anymore. What “the people,” or most people, want is wealth.

At the same time, there continues to be a residue of citizens still committed to nation-building. We just interviewed a group of candidates for Harvard fellowships and were very struck by their sheer quality, by their orientation toward the public good, by their commitment to really trying to make a better world. They seem alienated from the political process, but nonetheless are very public-spirited.

JEAN COMAROFF: Like in the U.S., there is a general sense here, particularly among the young, educated black population, that politics is a dirty word. It is about corruption, self-interest, and so on. That population is distanced from the ANC. The ANC seems to be a party that now is about to become a black nationalist enclave, trying to take hold of the economy in ways that are not fully legitimate.

At the same time, many educated young people are very vocal in expressing a principled kind of objection. They are struggling for a civil society. There is a sense among them that their generation is now waiting for another point of political possibility, all the more so since the ANC has moved a long way from what Mandela stood for. It is not that [these young people] have gone back to Mandela. But there’s a sense that the party has lost its way. It’s become a political machine, one that has divided the country.

GAZETTE: What are biggest challenges for South Africa going forward?

JEAN COMAROFF: The official statement is that there is a 25 percent unemployment rate, [but] this is unevenly distributed according to race, generation, and geography. There are communities in this country, rural communities, where the figure is well above 50 percent; this is also the population with highest rate of HIV/AIDS, a population that has to deal as well with problems of civil chaos and crime.

So there is an obsession with trying to get the government to make more jobs.

Of course, the problems of poverty, crime, and insecurity go together and there is a great tendency in South Africa to see these things as connected — maybe too much so. They are connected, but they are also a part of a longer legacy of apartheid, under which the law was disrespected because it was illegitimate. It was racist law.

There was also an expectation that these things, especially poverty, would come to an end with the transformation. But, while the political and constitutional transformation is palpable, the economic transformation has not been. That disappointment has alienated many people from government. It has not delivered for them and therefore it is illegitimate — which, by this reasoning, makes crime and petty corruption acceptable.

JOHN COMAROFF: These things manifest themselves in lots of ways. There is deep concern currently that the things that Mandela stood for might not survive the current administration. The freedom of the press is one of them. This government has tried to pass a very restrictive press security law. But … civil society [has protested loudly] and the ANC has had to rewrite it.

The independence of the judiciary is another one. South Africa has had a proudly free judiciary for the longest time. But there is a tendency, here as elsewhere, for the ruling party to try to stack it with its own people. There is a lot of investment in civil society right now in sustaining a free judiciary.

Education is a third issue. We have a dismal education system at present. Its failures are not caused purely by the absence of money. The state actually puts in proportionately more into schools than do many global southern nation-states that have much more successful education systems.

This, in part, is the legacy of apartheid, under which schools were sites of struggle against the regime. They were war zones and have remained extremely violent. But it is also in part due to something Jean has said. If there is massive unemployment, kids see little point in going to school; they simply do not think that they are going to get anything out of it. They find it much more immediately rational to take to the streets, either as petty criminals or informal entrepreneurs. To them, a living seems much more important than a matriculation certificate.

Also, the teachers are grotesquely underpaid.

JEAN COMAROFF: The notion that a society can be reborn, whole-cloth, with institutions that function, and with efficient bureaucrats and policymakers, is quite unrealistic given that Africans were kept out of education and participation in government for the entire history of this country prior to 1994.

So, yes, there is corruption in government, but there is also rampant inefficiency and inexperience. Yet the country is remarkable in how it deals with redistribution in the face of unemployment. An impressive system of social, unemployment, disability, and child-care grants exists. The government transfers out tremendous sums of money. But, given the enormity of need, it still is only a drop in the ocean. The same is true of housing a population that is massively unhoused. Many South Africans live in slums, slums that are often in the hands of organized crime. The contrast between these slums and the new islands of prosperity is very, very stark.

GAZETTE: How are you personally feeling about Mandela?

JOHN COMAROFF: It’s obviously extremely sad. He was a genuine hero who, during the bad old days, stood, inspirationally, for the ethical core of the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle; indeed, for the best face of a political age that we’ve seen disappear across the world.

His death does not just mark the demise of the ANC as a revolutionary movement with admirable values and ends. It also marks the end of an epoch in world history in which it was possible still to hope realistically for democracies that were truly participatory, for politics that were not alienating, politics that pursued the idea of a common weal. Even if it wasn’t always achieved, it was an aspirational ideal to which we could all commit.

His passing presents a challenge: a challenge to think about how to construct a meaningful, unalienated, democratic politics that still makes sense against the power of the new global economy, a politics that might yield an effective response to problems of inequality, of joblessness, and of racism; in short, to precisely the evils against which Mandela stood so firmly.

JEAN COMAROFF: Mandela would want to see these principles carried forward. That is, after all, what the ANC has always been about: You just don’t accept the world as it is. It can be changed and we should all participate in the process of changing it.

JOHN COMAROFF: South Africa remains a challenge to the world. Here was a state that became democratic against all odds — against the will of the Reagan administration, against the efforts of the Thatcher administration, against the power of global capital — and gave us all a sense that democracy was still possible, that liberal society was still achievable, that one could still achieve a good society.

South Africa has been caught up in a mortal struggle to do that. It’s that striving that makes it a vibrant democracy. South Africa still has a commitment to that, even though the ANC sometimes tries to manipulate it to its own ends. It still has people invested in a better future. One can only hope that the Mandela inspiration will get them there, however long it takes.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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