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Mandela’s Contested Legacy

Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit)Mike Phipps collates some of the less mainstream assessments of the leader of South Africa’s liberation struggle.

Just as when Nelson Mandela walked free from jail nearly twenty years ago, or when he was elected President of South Africa in that country’s first ever free elections, now too in his passing, the world is witnessing some astonishing rewrites of history. As large chunks of the global imperialist establishment queue up to offer glowing tributes, one wonders why the apartheid regime lasted so long if its most famous opponent truly had all these influential friends.

This is a theme Chris McGreal picked up in The Observer. In an article entitled ‘Mandela: never forget how the free world’s leaders learned to change their tune’, he writes: ‘

Listening to the leaders of the free world compete to extol South Africa’s first democratically elected president, there is a striking absence of acknowledgement not only of how little their countries did to get him out of prison but how much they supported the regime that kept him locked up for 27 years. No mention from David Cameron of Margaret Thatcher’s vigorous opposition to sanctions against the white regime and her deriding of Mandela’s supporters as “living in cloud cuckoo land” for believing he might one day lead South Africa. No acknowledgement from Barack Obama of Ronald Reagan’s trumpeting of the Afrikaner-led government as a beacon of democracy in Africa while he consigned Mandela and the African National Congress to the terrorism list.

Still, Cameron and Obama may have failed to acknowledge past transgressions, but they weren’t responsible for them. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, issued a statement extolling Mandela’s sacrifices for freedom, apparently hoping that no one would remember that, as defence minister in the 1970s, Peres signed secret military pacts with Pretoria that, among other things, helped developed weapons used against black Africans…

But perhaps the most shameless piece of historical revisionism of recent days came from Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. He greeted news of Mandela’s death by proclaiming him “a freedom fighter who disavowed violence“. That was a pointed jab at the Palestinians. It’s also untrue. Mandela was instrumental in founding the ANC’s armed wing and stood by the right to violent resistance until apartheid was buried. It may not have been a very effective armed campaign, and it did not resort to the indiscriminate killing of civilians by suicide bomb, but Mandela never disavowed violence in the struggle against a violent system.’

Blogger Phil Burton-Cartledge comments: ‘

One aspect that will be glossed over is Mandela’s period as an underground revolutionary just prior to his capture and celebrated, if that’s the right word, imprisonment. It was Mandela who convinced the ANC leadership to wage armed guerrilla struggle. It was Mandela who worked closely with South African communists and co-founded the paramilitary ‘Spear of the Nation’ (MK) organisation. It was Mandela who sourced weaponry for MK, and led bombing campaigns – albeit with the express intention of minimising civilian casualties. And once at Robben Island, Mandela became the head of a cadre school for ANC and SACP revolutionaries, not many of whom passed on to legalistic, non-violent political action.

And yes, this revolutionary activity was entirely justified. At that particular time, in that particular place, when change couldn’t be carried by peaceful social movements and the ballot box there was nothing else left. Politics will always find a way. As such, the ANC’s resistance to the apartheid regime is a chapter of history written in the anguish of the tortured and the blood of the fallen. But it was this intense struggle that kept Mandela as its figurehead, and his own incarceration inspiration as its example.’

Writing for Al Jazeera, Simon Hooper develops the point about Mandela’’s radicalism: ‘

Nelson Mandela will be celebrated primarily for the dignity with which he emerged onto the world stage after decades in prison and for the forgiveness that he displayed toward his former enemies in forging a democratic, multiracial South Africa from the poisoned legacy of apartheid…

Yet Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at 95, was also a more radical and politically complex figure than has been commonly acknowledged by his admirers in the West…

Stephen Ellis, a professor of African history at Free University and the African Studies Center in the Netherlands, believes that many people with only a vague awareness of Mandela’s struggle against apartheid are simply not aware of his youthful radicalism and commitment to violent means…

It was the Cuban revolution that held the highest place in his affections, a bond made stronger by his enduring friendship with Castro. On a visit to the Caribbean island in 1991, Mandela paid tribute to Che Guevara, calling his revolutionary exploits “too powerful for any prison censors to hide from us. The life of Che is an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom.”…

In a speech after his release, Mandela reiterated the African National Congress’ commitment to the nationalization of banks, mines and industries at a time when free market economics was sweeping all before it.

It was greeted with total horror, because nobody, even on the left, by 1990 was advocating state ownership of industry. That was all associated with a brand of socialism that had failed,” said Ellis…

As a consequence, Ellis said, the ANC leadership steered Mandela away from government and party affairs even when he was the South African president…

But even after leaving office in 1999, Mandela remained fiercely outspoken in condemning what he saw as flagrant Western imperialism…

He urged U.S. citizens to take to the streets in protest at moves to attack Iraq, accusing President George W. Bush of wanting to “plunge the world into a holocaust.

World leaders hoping their tributes will allow some of the great man’s glory to reflect on them would prefer to forget this. In ‘Six things Nelson Mandela believed that most people won’’t talk about’, Aviva Shen and Judd Legum provide a list:

  1. ‘Mandela blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism.
  2. Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right.”
  3. Mandela criticized the “War on Terror” and the labeling of individuals as terrorists without due process.
  4. Mandela called out racism in America.
  5. Mandela embraced some of America’s biggest political enemies.
  6. Mandela was a die-hard supporter of labor unions.’

Away from the public gaze, however, the memories of western governments were long indeed. The US officially considered Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’ until as late as 2008, NBC recently reported. 

While it i’s understandable that much has been written about Nelson Mandela’s personal qualities, any assessment must also consider his political achievement in office and an appraisal of the kind of South Africa he bequeathed to his successors. In a Reuters piece entitled ‘Mandela’s legacy: peace, but poverty for many blacks’, Ed Cropley writes ‘

Despite more than 10 years of affirmative action to redress the balance under the banner of “black economic empowerment”, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies and whites still control huge swathes of the economy…

(…) On average, a white household earns six times more than a black one, and nearly one in three blacks is unemployed, compared with one in 20 whites.’

Economist Michael Roberts in his blog goes further, arguing that the transition to black majority rule helped save South African capitalism: ‘

South Africa’’s capitalist economy was on its knees. That was not just because of boycotting, but because the productivity of the black labour in the mines and factories had dropped away. The quality of investment in industry and availability of investment from abroad had fallen sharply. This was expressed in the profitability of capital reaching a post-war low in the global recession of the early 1980s.

(…) South Africa under Mandela and later Thabo Mbeki has seen some improvement in the truly awful living situation of the black majority, in sanitation, housing, electricity, education, health etc, ending the cruel and arbitrary control of movement and the inequality of the apartheid regime. But South Africa has the highest inequality of incomes and wealth in the world still and inequality has never been higher as black capitalists have joined the white ones in the economy.’

Such considerations no doubt lay behind Slavoj Žižek’s Guardian piece:

If Nelson Mandela really had won, he wouldn’t be seen as a universal hero’, which ends, ‘If we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to.’

Perhaps the most detailed analysis of Mandela’’s government is that of Patrick Bond, an academic who worked on the Reconstruction and Development Programme for the first post apartheid government. Writing in ‘The Mandela Years in Power’ in Counterpunch, he observes: ‘

Nelson Mandela’s South Africa fit a pattern: a series of formerly anti-authoritarian critics of old dictatorships – whether from rightwing or left-wing backgrounds – who transformed into 1980s-90s neoliberal rulers: Alfonsin (Argentina), Aquino (Philippines), Arafat (Palestine), Aristide (Haiti), Bhutto (Pakistan), Chiluba (Zambia), Dae Jung (South Korea), Havel (Czech Republic), Mandela (South Africa), Manley (Jamaica), Megawati (Indonesia), Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Museveni (Uganda), Nujoma (Namibia), Obasanjo (Nigeria), Ortega (Nicaragua), Perez (Venezuela), Rawlings (Ghana), Walesa (Poland) and Yeltsin (Russia). The self-imposition of economic and development policies – typically at the behest of financial markets and the Washington/Geneva multilateral institutions – required an extraordinary insulation from genuine national determinations: in short, an “elite transition.”

This policy insulation from mass opinion could only be achieved through the leadership of Mandela. It was justified by invoking the mantra of “international competitiveness”, and it initially peaked with Mandela’s 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy. Obeisance to multinational corporations helped shape the terrain on the platinum belt that inexorably generated the Marikana Massacre in 2012, for example.’

He goes on: ‘

There had been only two basic paths that the ANC could have followed. One was to mobilize the people and all their enthusiasm, energy, and hard work, use a larger share of the economic surplus (through state-directed investments and higher taxes), and stop the flow of capital abroad, including the repayment of illegitimate apartheid-era debt. The other, which was ultimately the one chosen, was to trudge down the neoliberal capitalist path, with merely a small reform here or there to permit superficial claims to the sustaining of a “National Democratic Revolution.”’

He concludes, as should we: ‘

No one said it better than Mandela himself, when in January 1990 he wrote to the Mass Democratic Movement: “The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable. Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.”

Getting to that place is harder, given the legacy of the 1990s. Ironically, though, to transcend the society he has left us, the memory of Nelson Mandela will inspire many.’

 Picture credit: South Africa The Good News from Flikr


  1. Robert says:

    Sadly over the years as Mandela has gotten old I’m sure he was disappointed to see the bribery and the poor blacks who lives have not improved that much while the white enjoy a very nice life.

    Sadly the country now is known for it fraud and poor quality leadership.

    But as the leader said we are on the first rung, yea and the rest are not even near the ladder.

  2. swatantra says:

    They had the best teachers in the World, the British, lessons on taking power, and retaining power.

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