Nelson Mandela Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

Monday was 29 years since Nelson Mandela walked free from prison. I watched it on a tiny TV set in a police station in a township. I was scared. I wasn’t the only one.

Nobody knew what would happen next.

The country was a tinderbox.

More people would die between Madiba’s short walk out of Victor Verster to the ballot box four years later than at any time during apartheid. But we would emerge a nation. It would be the miracle of the Rainbow Nation as in the memorable words of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

Today much of that is derided by the Born-Frees, the pre-millennials, wondering where the economic dividends of the great political windfall of 1994 went.

They have a valid point, but as they - and the opportunists who should know far better - ostensibly search for that answer, they look no further than Mandela and his cohort of brave leaders, damning them for treachery, for selling out.

No one asks what happened in the interim. No one asks in particular about the last 10 years, about the kleptocracy that shifted us from being an international beacon of hope to a byword for venality and corruption. It was not Mandela who sold their birth right for a mess of pottage.

One headline in particular this week, “After 25 years of democracy no delivery on promise”, prompts the question, not of what the original expectations were, but what our retrospective expectations are. We apply our current perceptions with not even a superficial attempt to apply any context to it. In 1990, most people hoped for a better life, starting with freedom, decent housing, decent primary health care, education and employment. Most of all, they just hoped for hope.

South Africa has made huge strides, such as turning the corner on the HIV/Aids pandemic and proving the resilience of the very instruments set up in the wake of 1994 to protect us from future tyrants: chief among these the Constitutional Court and the individual courage of civic leaders and ordinary citizens going against the consensus when it mattered most.

We are growing up as a nation and as a society. It’s not pretty, adulthood never is. We have to ask huge questions of ourselves about privilege, about race, about opportunity, about hope against a backdrop of the daily streams of effluvia from the various commissions of inquiry about how others have brazenly robbed us blind.

Then on May 8 we will go to the polls for the sixth time. Each of the preceding elections was free and fair, itself yet another unprecedented achievement, not just in Africa, but in many other places too.

It wasn’t up to Mandela to actually give us that better life, but to set us on the road for our own walk to freedom.

On the 29th anniversary of his own liberation it’s high time we honoured that by looking in the mirror instead of over our shoulder.

Perhaps then we will finally realise the true value of the legacy he bequeathed us.

* Kevin Ritchie is a media consultant. He is a former journalist and newspaper editor.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Saturday Star