Nelson Mandela: The Best Anti-Guff Tributes
WHEN Nelson Mandela died, the tribute industry went into overdrive. Words were said. Acres of newsprint filled. Hours of television focused on one man. He is praised rightly for his strength of character in facing down a brutal, humiliating and dehumanising system underpinned by the fraud of white supremacy. And then John Simpson, the BBC reporter, said that Mandela’s death at 95 left him feeling orphaned. The white BBC man was orphaned by the death of the 95-year-old black South African? They had shared blood, as father to son?
We looked around. Was anyone else rolling their eyes? Yes.
Many of the official tributes to Nelson Mandela, such as the one from David Cameron, have emphasised his ability to forgive, and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him extraordinary. But the reason his capacity for forgiveness towards the rulers of apartheid mattered, was that he’d organised opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it. If he hadn’t, if his notable side was forgiveness, he would simply have been a kindly chap who’d passed away with no one outside his family taking much notice.
Few people now defend apartheid, but someone must have liked it at the time or it wouldn’t have been such a nuisance to destroy. Margaret Thatcher, idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervour that actually made her look drunk, that she’d rejected sanctions against the regime, as the ANC was a “typical terrorist organisation.” Many sportsmen and musicians broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Dennis Thatcher who said “we play our rugby where we like”. There were the ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts…
…the real reason he was remarkable is that he took on its wealth and weaponry and brutality, its distinguished friends and its air of impregnable authority, he became the figure of a global movement and he beat it…
During the campaign against apartheid Nelson Mandela was a distant figure, locked away but a name on mugs, posters and student union halls, barely more real than Batman. But the De Klerks and Bothas were alarmingly real, an air of menace in their presence, like the bouncer that orders around the other bouncers.
Now the hazy figure is revered above all, and the defenders of apartheid have to scramble in his shadow for a space to declare that really they admired him, and the people they helped to torture.
The precise nature of his legacy will be debated for centuries. His capacity for forgiveness was impressive, and perhaps it isn’t surprising if that’s emphasised by some paying tribute, rather than his role in overturning inequality, as they’re now arranging inequality of their own.
Look; I’m sorry Nelson Mandela is dead. It happens quite often to people in their 90s who have been very ill, even famous people, but I’m sure that doesn’t lessen the sadness for many of us. I never met the man but, on balance, I came to the conclusion that he was a force for good rather than ill. I think I came to that rather banal and broad brush conclusion twenty years ago, or maybe fifteen. So, I’m sorry he’s dead, I wish it were otherwise.
But for Christ’s sake BBC, give it a bloody break for five minutes, will you? It’s as if the poor bugger now has to bear your entire self-flagellating white post-colonial bien pensant guilt; look! Famous nice black man dies! Let’s re-run the entire history of South Africa. That’s better than watching the country we’re in being flattened by a storm.
Mandela eventually trained as a lawyer and became a representative of a small emerging educated black middle class in the 1940s… By 1944, Mandela and some of the ‘Young Lions’ – the name given to the increasingly frustrated younger black middle-class professionals joining the ANC – established the Congress Youth League, which would eventually radicalise the ANC and set it upon a course of mass defiance before it was banned after Sharpeville. That the league had fewer than 200 founding members exposed the lack of social power this small group had in South Africa at the time.
Yet while Mandela and the new frustrated black professionals were seen as radical in contrast with the older ANC guard, the writings of Mandela in this period, indeed much of his defence during the numerous trials he was subjected to before being imprisoned for life, reveal just how pro-capitalist and conservative his politics really were.
During the Rivonia Trial, for example, Mandela went to great lengths to explain that the Freedom Charter, the most important political document adopted by the ANC, was ‘by no means a blueprint for a socialist state’. Its call for redistribution, not nationalisation, of land was justified on the basis of accepting the need for ‘an economy based on private enterprise’. For Mandela, ‘the realisation of the Freedom Charter would open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class’. This vision, he explained, actually corresponded with ‘the old policy of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party which, for many years, had as part of its programme the nationalisation of the gold mines which, at that time, were controlled by foreign capital’.
To make things even clearer, Mandela stated that ‘the ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society’. Mandela was even prepared to countenance some form of qualified franchise rather than black majority rule, as a means of placating white concerns about the ANC’s political aspirations at the time.
As an insignificant social force, removed from the black working classes and poor, Mandela and the ANC stood little chance of generating any meaningful political pressure that might affect change… This is why they turned to the South African Communist Party.
The SACP was able to give the ANC the radical credentials it needed in order to mobilise the black masses. Caught between its own insignificance as a social force and the uncompromising Apartheid regime, the ANC felt it had no choice but to embrace Stalinism. This quite opportunistic linking-up of two divergent forces would have immense and disastrous consequences for the black masses. Tethered to a movement that appeared to be radical and represent their interests, little did they understand that the ANC’s programme was never about overthrowing capitalism but rather was a pragmatic campaign to try to bring the regime ‘to its senses’ and negotiate a reform of Apartheid.
It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the final discrediting of ‘African socialism’, that the political climate in South Africa radically altered. Now, in a post-Soviet world, with socialist movements in disarray, the Apartheid regime could contemplate bringing the ANC into government, where its pro-market roots could be teased away from its pragmatic embrace of state socialism. In short, the ANC used the SACP in order to connect with the black masses and give its moderate demands a cover of urgency and radicalism; but once invited into the corridors of power, the ANC could jettison these connections and return to its openly pro-market, narrowly reformist roots. It was a betrayal of the aspirations of the majority of black South Africans.
Desmond Tutu, his friend and fellow Nobel Peace laureate, was one of the first to question the world’s sanctification of “Madiba” – his clan name, and how he liked to be known. Archbishop Tutu appreciated long before it became a commonplace that the cult of Mandela risked blinding people to the colossal problems facing South Africa. “He is only one pebble on the beach, one of thousands,” he said halfway through Mandela’s term in office. “Not an insignificant pebble, I’ll grant you that, but a pebble all the same.”
The “Arch” was right. The otherworldly image of Mandela may have been what the world wanted to believe but, great humanitarian and moral authority as he was, he was foremost a brilliant politician. Reconciliation was not a spontaneous miracle, as some imagined, emanating from the magnificence of his soul. Rather, the seduction of the Afrikaners was plotted in his cell as a way to win power. He pondered many times that his long imprisonment gave him the time to reflect on how he should lead. It was there that he urged fellow prisoners to learn Afrikaans, on the theory you could better defeat your enemy if you spoke their language.
“I knew that people expected me to harbour anger towards whites,” Mandela later wrote when recalling the morning after his release. “But I had none. In prison my anger towards whites decreased but my hatred for the system grew.”
The mainstream story of Mandela that has been foisted on us by Washington downwards over the past week is built on a fallacy: that Mandela liberated South Africa; that he was, in the words of one observer, ‘the man who brought down Apartheid’; that he was a Jesus-like figure whose ‘colossal moral strength’ transformed South Africa from a racist hellhole into a new nation with ‘majority black rule’. By this religious-style reading, Mandela, simply by conjuring up his inner moral resources, remade an entire nation and boosted the fortunes of its sad, benighted inhabitants.
This is almost the precise opposite of the truth. The supposedly pitiful black masses of South Africa weren’t liberated by a godly Mandela; they liberated themselves, very often through being either implicitly or explicitly defiant of Mandela and his moderate ANC. And they made Mandela, not the other way around; fundamentally, they freed him. The sanctification of Mandela as bringer down of Apartheid gives South Africa’s black masses at best a bit part in this great historical episode, when in truth they, not Mandela, were the lead actors, the history shapers, the authors of the end of Apartheid…
Under pressure from both rioting black youth and striking black workers, in the 1970s and early 1980s the Apartheid regime started to transform itself. It introduced the era of ‘Reform Apartheid’. Most of the petty Apartheid rules in everyday life, pertaining to black-and-white separation in movie theatres, restaurants and so on, were phased out. More black students were allowed into white universities, so that by the early 1980s between 20 and 30 per cent of students at Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town were black, Indian or Coloured (people of African tribal origin who also had European ancestry)…
The next major reform, instituted in 1983 / 1984, would be the one that would seal Apartheid’s fate, through inviting the fury of radical black students, workers and ordinary township dwellers. In 1984, the Apartheid regime introduced a new parliament – the power-sharing Tricameral Parliament, which allowed certain minorities to vote in a new system which would have white representatives, Indian representatives and Coloured representatives. Blacks, however, were excluded. In solidarity with blacks, Indians and Coloureds largely boycotted the elections to their parts of the newly racialised parliament: only 18 per cent of Coloureds and 12 per cent of Indians voted. The right wing of the Apartheid-overseeing National Party, outraged at this dilution of white rule, split away from the party, seriously undermining the white regime. But it was the response of blacks, emboldened by their gains of the 1970s yet still finding themselves excluded from political power, which would topple Apartheid as we knew it…
When he was elected president in 1994, Mandela made clear what his role in the new South Africa would be – enemy of resistance. In a speech at the opening of parliament, he gave a warning to those blacks who expected radical changes to their living conditions. ‘The government has extremely limited resources’, he said. ‘The government literally does not have the money to meet the demands that are being advanced.’ He said ‘mass action’ to demand such resources would not be tolerated. ‘Mass action of any kind will not create resources that the government does not have’, he said, warning the poor and angry not to ‘introduce anarchy into our society’. In short: no more revolting, no more demands, no more fight.