From the Archive | South Africa after Mandela

The battle over the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who was born 103 years ago this month, still rages. It is time to look beyond his sainthood and soberly assess his presidency.

This lightly edited article was first published by Roar Magazine in December 2013. 

Just days after his passing, a fierce battle is already raging over Nelson Mandela’s legacy. On the one hand, smug liberals who have never dared to raise a finger to injustice in their own countries, and insincere conservatives who are doing everything possible to undermine human rights in their capacity as world leaders, are all over the good old man, praising him for his immense moral fortitude. Apart from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who, in an attempt to whitewash Mandela’s support for the Palestinian cause by praising him as “a fighter for freedom who rejected violence,” and whose heavily armed soldiers then proceeded to violently crack down on peaceful Palestinian gatherings in Mandela’s honour – it is hard to imagine a more hypocritical statement than the thoroughly Orwellian New York Times headline praising the founder of the ANC’s armed wing as an icon of “peaceful resistance”.

On the other hand, a small army of self-professed socialists is fighting a rearguard battle against the “sanitisation” of Mandela’s revolutionary past. My news feed is on fire with leftist friends bringing up endless quotes to affirm Mandela’s undying essence as a radical and to defend his legacy from cooptation by the liberal mainstream. Of course, they have a point. Surely his close ties with the Communist Party, his friendship with Cuba and the Castros, and his fondness of dialectical materialism speak to a much more subversive side of the man that is often ignored by his liberal worshippers. But it is not enough to bemoan the hypocrisy of the establishment. It also bears emphasising that Mandela’s radical vision of a post-racial and socially just South Africa has never been realised – and that his own embrace of neoliberal economic policies and his friendly relations with the global business elite are largely to blame for this fact.

The award-winning documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist John Pilger has a disenchanting but convincing alternative take on Mandela’s legacy. In an essay for The New Statesman last July, Pilger argued that the “prime movers” behind the fall of apartheid were not the heroic freedom fighters of the ANC but the powerful white businessmen who were feeling the brunt of international divestment policies against the apartheid regime. Pilger notes that, two years prior to Mandela’s release, secret negotiations were already taking place between the ANC leadership-in-exile and leading Afrikaner businessmen who were aiming for South Africa’s integration into the world market, which in turn required an end to divestment, which in turn required an end to apartheid, and which in turn required a peaceful transition under the aegis of a racially inclusive government. For this, they needed moderate and reliable allies in the ANC leadership.

26 September 2020: Residents walk past a mural of Nelson Mandela during a Heritage bicycle ride from Vilakazi Street in Soweto, Johannesburg. (Photograph by Dino Lloyd/ Gallo Images via Getty Images)

It was the combined pressure of an uprising in the townships, continued divestment by the international community, and the push towards liberalisation by the white business elite that forced the racist government into concessions. Mandela was deliberately moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive visitors and act as a preferred negotiator on behalf of the ANC. As Pilger notes, “The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the resistance between the ‘moderates’ that it could ‘do business with’ (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Oliver Tambo) and those in the frontline townships who were leading the United Democratic Front.” Moreover, the regime needed to ensure that any revolutionary remnants within the liberation movement would be ruthlessly stamped out. In 1993, Chris Hani, head of the Communist Party of South Africa and the second most popular Black leader after Nelson Mandela, was brutally murdered by a racist white hit man – with the proven complicity of a nationalist MP of the Conservative Party who lent him the gun.

Hani’s murder, and Mandela’s statesman-like speech in response to it, in which the ANC leader and presidential hopeful called for national unity and a rejection of racial violence, firmly established Mandela as the singular figurehead of the emerging postapartheid order. By this point, however, Mandela had been thoroughly coopted by his one-time captors. Upon his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected Black president, the ANC government disavowed virtually all the more “radical” elements of the Freedom Charter, in which it had pledged to take over the largely state-owned apartheid economy and use its control over the “commanding heights” to redistribute land and wealth. As Pilger puts it, “With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid ended and economic apartheid had a new face.” (For more on this subject, check out this short article and this extensive essay.)

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Among ordinary South Africans, the survival of economic apartheid and pervasive political corruption have given rise to widespread disillusionment with the ANC and the “democratic” political system more generally – a fact that was powerfully underlined by the extensive booing of President Jacob Zuma at today’s commemoration service in Soweto. Notably, new forms of grassroots struggle are already emerging in a popular quest to reappropriate the ANC’s broken promises by empowering impoverished South Africans to take matters into their own hands. Yesterday we published an article by the South African shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has vowed to honour Mandela’s legacy by intensifying their struggle against the new oppressors in the ANC.

Writing for The Guardian last month, S’bu Zikode  – who is Abahlali’s founder and who has been referred to by Raj Patel as “the next Mandela”, even though Zikode himself insists that the next Mandela will be the faceless multitude of impoverished South Africans – captured this sensation in hard-hitting words: “[W]e cannot wait in the mud, shit and fire of shack life forever. Voting did not work for us. The political parties did not work for us. Civil society did not work for us. No political party, civil society organisation or trade union is inviting us into the cities or into what remains of democracy in South Africa. We have no choice but to take our own place in the cities and in the political life of the country.”

For anyone who still has any doubts about Mandela’s legacy, or anyone who simply wants to learn more about the tragic process through which the continent’s oldest liberation movement came to reproduce the oppressive system of its past oppressors in a slightly more racially inclusive form, John Pilger’s excellent 1998 documentary – Apartheid Did Not Dieis an absolute must-see. In this film, Pilger critically assesses Mandela’s pursuit of truth and reconciliation, his track record in the fight against poverty and the actions of the ANC as weighed against the movement’s stated intentions in the Freedom Charter. Do not watch this movie if you do not wish your myths to be shattered. The struggle continues.

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