It's an apt time to think a few thoughts about what Mandela bequeathed his people, for better and for worse.
IN 1994, soon after he was inaugurated as the first president of all South Africans, one of the local newspapers ran an interview with Nelson Mandela under a huge, boldface headline: ''MANDELA: I'M NOT 'MESSIAH'.'' That this would be considered banner news testified to the degree of myth and the unreality of expectations that attended the man.
Mandela is now 94 and recovering from gallstone surgery and a lung infection, the latest echo of the tuberculosis he suffered during his years in the dusty contagion of prison on Robben Island. He may linger in hospital, or he may be discharged to continue his largely oblivious old age at the retirement house he built in his native Transkei. Either way, this is an apt time to think a few thoughts about what Mandela bequeathed his people, for better and for worse.
Mandela's most valuable gift to South Africa was a culture of patient compromise. He did not triumph over apartheid by spending 27 years in prison and then cashing in his moral superiority. He triumphed by spending 27 years in prison and then doing an elaborate deal with the men who put him there - a deal that temporarily protected the jobs, the lands and the industrial wealth of the white minority a deal that made the disenfranchised majority wait patiently for their reparations a deal that minimised the flight of white capital and expertise and averted a prolonged bloodbath.
He was, in short, a politician of a sort that was rare in the African National Congress (ANC) then and is in woefully short supply today: a politician with high purpose, a clear eye on the future, an immense generosity of spirit and deep reserves of discipline and resourcefulness.
His blessed and abused country has fallen short of the promise of Mandela's days. That is not Mandela's fault, but it is part of his legacy. For what he left in his wake was not really a government yet, or even a genuine political party, but a liberation movement, with the mentality, customs and culture of constant struggle.
History tells us that such liberation movements do not so easily make the transition to stable democracies. Think of the shabby heritage of the Castros, the tyranny of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, the long nightmare of the Bolsheviks or Kwame Nkrumah's descent into authoritarian rule in Ghana. Examples abound. Even America's revolution required a civil war to settle things.
Liberation movements are held together and defined by what they are against. The ANC, which is marking its centenary year, was from its early days a conglomeration of interests and ideologies, from rainbow-coalition idealists to black nationalists who chanted for the blood of white farmers, from communists to Westernisers, from guilt-ridden white liberals to power-hungry opportunists. It had exile factions and in-country factions, prison factions and underground factions.
It was inevitable that, once the shared enemy of white oppression was conquered, they would fall to quarrelling over the direction and the spoils. Liberation movements - operating surreptitiously and conspiratorially - thrive on discipline and suspicion, and punish deviation or dissent. The ANC in its exile ran some camps that make the torture scenes in the new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, seem benign.
Mandela, to be sure, sometimes strayed from the collective will to show unusual initiative. Most important, while still in prison he sensed the vulnerability of the white rulers and opened preliminary discussions without consulting his ANC comrades he was sure they would disapprove. But he remained a party man at heart - to such an extent that he let the party elders choose as his first deputy president and successor a man, Thabo Mbeki, whom Mandela did not much like or trust. (A friend who would know tells me that after retiring, Mandela took sensitive conversations outdoors because he believed Mbeki had bugged his home.)
Mbeki was not as awful a president as the retouched history of his time suggests. He expanded a safety net to a lot of desperate people, and contributed to a First World business climate that made outside investors feel welcome.
But ultimately he fell into a kind of paranoid isolation - the most horrifying symptom being his insistence that the rampaging South African AIDS crisis was a white-invented myth. The party stripped him of his office in a grotesque ritual humiliation - the kind of knives-out display that is customary for liberation parties feeling their power. It is still not uncommon to hear ''the opposition'' demonised as if they wanted a return to the cruelty of apartheid.
Liberation movements - prizing ends over means - are not always particular about their friends or scrupulous about their transactions. Mandela left no record of being on the take, but he was always accessible to the businessmen who tithed to the ANC. Under the flag of human rights, his government sold arms to such exemplars of human rights as Rwanda, Indonesia, Algeria and the Republic of Congo - in some cases simply rewarding regimes that had backed the ANC in exile.
''Conflict of interest'' is often treated as a luxury of the elitist press, and it is natural that some of those who paid dues in the struggle feel a bottomless sense of entitlement. The newspaper headlines here in Johannesburg daily scream of scandal, beginning at the very top with President Jacob Zuma, whose singular accomplishment has been to make Mbeki look like a paragon of virtue.
Zuma has diverted many millions of dollars of state money and special-interest largesse to enlarging a lavish homestead in a region, Nkandla, ravaged by poverty and AIDS. One crude measure of South Africa's moral decline is to compare Zuma's fortress - helicopter pad, tennis courts and soccer field, planned underground bunkers - with the retirement refuge Mandela built, its blueprint copied from the warden's cottage at his last prison for the very Mandela-esque reason that the floor plan was familiar.
This week the ANC had a five-day electoral conference to renew the leadership ranks of the ANC, which then becomes the party's election list in 2014. It confirmed that Zuma will remain at the top of the party and the country until 2019. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is gaining adherents but is reckoned to be many years away from being much more than a nuisance at the national level.
In the 18 years since coming to power the ANC government has created a substantial black middle class (more in the public sector than the private) and a smaller, conspicuous cadre of black privilege. But it has not - perhaps could not have - significantly narrowed the gulf between the shack-dwelling underclass and everyone else.
Inequality breeds serious resentment, violent protests over undelivered services, strikes, fatalism. The way old Soviet-era Russians sometimes tell you things were better under Brezhnev, you can even find the blacks who speak of apartheid times with nostalgia.
The urgent question now is whether the movement that is Mandela's bequest to his country can mature into a more credible government before the public runs out of its famous patience and starts looking for a new messiah.
Bill Keller is a columnist and former executive editor at The New York Times.