Ian Anderson, Fightback (Wellington).
Readers are probably aware that Nelson Mandela died at age 95, on Thursday the 5th of December 2013. His funeral is scheduled for December the 15th. As a leading figure in the African National Congress (ANC) which led the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa, Mandela has inspired many for different reasons.
Mandela was released from prison in 1990; awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993; elected to presidency in 1994. None of these events would be especially notable without the history – Mandela’s decades of imprisonment beforehand, the slogan “Free Mandela” and all it represented – the global and historic struggle against apartheid. Mainstream capitalist coverage papers over the complexities of this history, and its lessons for ongoing and future struggle.
Although this article does not intend to tell this story completely, we must unearth layers deliberately hidden or ignored by the powerful.
Dominant narrative: ‘Truth’ and Reconciliation
Since Mandela’s death, the dominant capitalist narrative has focused on ‘Truth and Reconciliation,’ in the words of the commission set up by Mandela and the ANC in 1995. Reconciliation is particularly celebrated; the peaceful resolution of conflict, the healing of wounds, peace between races. However, as peace is nothing without justice, reconciliation is nothing without truth; this capitalist narrative contains untruths, oversights, untold stories.
Widely circulated images and quotes from Mandela are largely drawn from the 1990s, not the half-century of struggle before that. Out of context, the quotes are inspiring in a vague way. For example, a USA Today piece listing “15 of Nelson Mandela’s best quotes” focused on the positive:
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies” […] “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
Capitalist media now portrays Mandela as a forgiving and peaceful figure. Articles even bear the headline “Nelson Mandela, South African icon of peaceful resistance, dies.” However, the decision by Mandela and the ANC to lay down arms was a tactical decision, in a situation where ending formal apartheid was now a political possibility – due in large part to a mass campaign of strikes and other militant action.
Mandela and the ANC never rejected armed struggle in principle. In fact, Mandela later stated his disagreement with the IRA decommissioning its arms, stating in an interview:
“My position is that you don’t hand over your weapons until you get what you want.”
Online, radicals have responded to dominant depictions of Mandela by circulating his revolutionary statements against capitalism, against US imperialism, and for armed struggle. Lenin’s words from The State and Revolution summarise this response:
“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”
Reclaiming this revolutionary history is necessary, and illuminates the hypocrisy of imperialist leaders who now embrace Mandela. However, Mandela was romanticised before his death, from the 1990s onwards. Both the revolutionary Mandela and the cookie-cutter Mandela are half-truths.
Global struggle: Local impact
By definition, apartheid is divisive. Worldwide, the struggle against apartheid polarised political opinion, asking the old question “whose side are you on?”
Locally, leaders of the MANA movement, including John Minto and Hone Harawira, were active in the campaign of solidarity with South Africa. Famously, the Halt All Racist Tours boycott of the Springbok tour in 1981 (documented in Merata Mita’s film PATU!, available for free at NZ On Screen) sharply polarised public opinion. Tangata whenua in the movement also called attention to the links with colonisation in Aotearoa.
Now in the wake of this struggle, imperialist ruling class hypocrisy is galling. Even Barack Obama, who claims inspiration from Mandela, supports apartheid in Palestine.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who paid tribute to Mandela after his passing, was aligned in the 1980s with the conservatives who circulated “Hang Mandela” posters – although Cameron himself was largely indifferent to politics at this point. Similarly, Aotearoa/NZ prime minister John Key has refused to state a clear position on the boycott campaign. When prompted on his views in a television interview, Key responded:
“Oh, I can’t even remember … 1981, I was 20 … ah … I don’t really know. I didn’t really have a strong feeling on it at the time. Look, it’s such a long time ago.”
Susan Devoy, Race Relations Commissioner in this country, did not support the boycott. In her autobiography, Devoy explains:
“I don’t think boycotting sporting contacts helped the situation over there. If it was going to help, I could have seen the justification in it.”
Recently when Te Papa held an exhibition about the 1981 Springbok tour, 56% of attendants said they thought the tour should have gone ahead. Apartheid, and tactics in opposing it, continue to divide political opinion. However economic, political and cultural boycotts – combined with struggle on the ground in South Africa – helped to isolate the apartheid regime.
John Minto on the Daily Blog reports on how the sporting boycott inspired Mandela and others in South Africa:
“In 1981 Mandela had been imprisoned on Robben Island for 17 years and he said that when the prisoners heard the rugby match between the Springboks and Waikato had been cancelled due to anti-apartheid protestors invading the field he said the prisoners grabbed the bars of their cells doors and rattled them right around the prison – he said it was like the sun came out.”
1955 Freedom Charter: Popular democracy
In the 1950s, the ANC with other groups developed the “Freedom Charter,” stating core principles in the struggle against apartheid. They sent out fifty thousand volunteers to develop ‘freedom demands’ in consultation with the people. The Freedom Charter was adopted by 3000 delegates at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, on 26 June 1955.
The Freedom Charter’s key slogan was “The People Shall Govern,” a far cry both from the capitalist system in South Africa in 1955, and today. Along with full rights for all citizens regardless of race, the charter demanded common ownership of land and industry. The charter also demanded the right to housing, jobs, fully-funded education for children and greater access to higher education.
The ANC was persecuted and driven underground by South Africa’s anti-communist laws. In 1964, speaking to the court before his imprisonment, Mandela explained that while he was not a Capital-C Communist, the cause of ending apartheid and the cause of communism are aligned:
“It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism. They are supported in this belief by a legislature which brands all exponents of democratic government and African freedom as communists and bans many of them (who are not communists) under the Suppression of Communism Act. Although I have never been a member of the Communist Party, I myself have been named under that pernicious Act because of the role I played in the Defiance Campaign. I have also been banned and imprisoned under that Act…
Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.”
The ANC was driven underground. However, when the mass struggle of the 1970s and 1980s revived the challenge against apartheid, the Freedom Charter and the demand to free Nelson Mandela found new global currency.
The Freedom Charter’s popular democracy (in both process and demands) contrasts sharply with capitalist democracy. In particular, the 1994 election which finally brought the ANC to power shows the dictatorship underlying capitalist democracy.
1994 ANC election: Capitalist dictatorship
The ANC’s betrayals of the Freedom Charter, and the majority struggling for justice, make the most sense in a global context.
During the Cold War, while South African apartheid was backed by US imperialism, the ANC was backed by the Soviet Union. The Soviet bloc, however bureaucratic and corrupted, acted as a global rearguard against imperialism.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a global shift towards ‘neoliberalism,’ a new global capitalist regime defined by privatisation, the gutting of the welfare state, attacks on union rights, and flexible organisation of work. This global assault on working class organisation was first trialed in Chile in 1973, before Western governments followed suit. In Aotearoa/NZ it was called Rogernomics, after Roger Douglas of the Fourth Labour government.
Then came the ‘End of History.’ The end of the Cold War, the imposition of neoliberalism in the former Soviet bloc, were seen as a final victory over socialism. For the ANC, this meant the loss of a major ally.
In the 1990s, with mass struggles bringing victory against apartheid into sight, the ANC was internationally isolated. They could choose to go it alone, confronting the South African ruling class while facing international isolation and sanctions, or accept imperialist backing and carry out neoliberal attacks on the working class.
In a 1993 speech to trade unionists, Mandela acknowledged the possibility of this betrayal, and said the workers must be ready to overthrow an ANC government as they had overthrown apartheid:
“How many times has the liberation movement worked together with workers and then at the moment of victory betrayed the workers? There are many examples of that in the world.
“It is only if the workers strengthen their organisation before and after liberation that you can win. If you relax your vigilance you will find that your sacrifices have been in vain.
“You just support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods. If the ANC government does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the apartheid regime.”
The following year, before the 1994 election, the ANC chose to accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF loan carried the condition of adopting neoliberal policies, many against ANC policy. South Africa in the mid-late ‘90s joined the many countries in which the global ruling class took advantage of a crisis to carry out neoliberalism. Despite his words in 1993, Mandela went along with this shift.
In an article printed on the Black Agenda Report, former ANC Cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils described the decision to accept the IMF loan as a “Faustian” pact, the ANC selling its soul:
“What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalizing South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.”
Underneath capitalist democracy lies dictatorship. The ANC carried out an important part of the Freedom Charter in ending formal apartheid, but abandoned its demands for economic justice. In contrast to the Freedom Charter slogan “The People Shall Govern,” South Africa remains governed by a capitalist elite.
For conservative forces, Mandela changed from a “terrorist” to a beacon of hope. Imperialist rulers accepted, even celebrated Mandela not just after the defeat of formal apartheid, but the ANC’s Faustian pact with neoliberal capitalism. For those who care about ending oppression, Mandela is a contradictory symbol, representing both a victory and a loss.
In August 2012, South African security forces massacred striking workers in Marikana. Workers are developing new organisations that can challenge the capitalist state. These new forces will be demonised, attacked and dismissed by the global ruling class, as Mandela was before.
South Africa’s struggle shows again that it’s not enough to struggle locally, only to be isolated when your struggle confronts the state; we need a global movement that can support struggles for justice and self-determination. National liberation struggles remain, including the fight against apartheid in Palestine.
In Aotearoa/NZ, Fightback supports the MANA Movement, whose stated mission is to bring “rangatiratanga to the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed.” In developing new organisations and new global connections, we must keep in mind the intimate connection between indigenous liberation and the fight for an egalitarian society.