By JT White
Red Monthly | December 2013
There are vital lessons to be learned from the accomplishments and failings of Nelson Mandela. Yet the mainstream media prefer to portray this great man as a kindly and benign old codger who won his battle for freedom. The assumptions behind this can be easily detected and should be excavated with a critical eye. The emphasis is always on the efforts towards reconciliation between the ‘races’ and not looking for ‘revenge’ against his former oppressors. The presupposition of biological distinctions between Africans remains intact while Mandela is to be applauded for being a ‘restraint’ on the barbarous hordes. Behind this lies the white racial consciousness, e.g. ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We should resist this troubling banalisation of such an important figure. What is most admirable about Mandela is not the compromises his side made once in negotiations to dismantle the Apartheid regime.
The much lauded multiracial democracy of South Africa is actually a balancing arrangement between a state monopolised by the black vote and economic power resting in largely white hands. The mines remain privately owned and the largely black workforce is still being squeezed dry. In some ways the South African class system is now even worse than it was under Apartheid, the aspects of racial oppression which were inherent to that system remain in place in economic form. Except now the black people to rise to the business class have a vested interest in maintaining the continued subjugation of the toiling masses (most of whom are not white). The Marikana massacre in September 2012 demonstrated the disgraceful extent to which the ANC has become embroiled in the exploitation and oppression of the working-classes. The sight of white and black cops shooting the miners should be taken as the metaphor for the New South Africa.
I wrote ‘What It Means to Fight Oppression’ in defence of the commitment Mandela made to violent resistance in 1961. I think we need to combat the banalisation of Mandela into a benign old man who won his fight, while we should recognise what was truly great about him – his refusal to surrender. – JT White
To find the true heroism of Nelson Mandela we must examine the reasons for hysterical right-wing accusations of ‘terrorism’ against him. The African National Congress was dedicated to non-violent resistance for decades by this point and had exhausted every alternative to violent direct action. This was the background to the important moment when Nelson Mandela and his compatriots decided to found the Spear of the Nation and initiate the armed struggle. The targets were to be primarily governmental and symbolical, other targets included industrial and agricultural sabotage. Mandela was always eager to prevent the campaign from getting out of hand. He consistently opposed attacks on civilians and car-bombing in particular for it would degrade the movement and its cause. But he recognised that the situation in South Africa demanded more than pacifism.
In the Rivonia trial Nelson Mandela gave a virtuous defence of the cause “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” It was these words which were the reason Mandela was sent to prison for 27 years. It was these words which were the reason the US Congress refused to remove Nelson Mandela from their terrorist list until 2008. And it is precisely for these words which we should admire him in his indomitable resistance to tyranny. To call this ‘terrorism’ is to hold secret sympathy with the same kind of people we defeated in 1945.
If you want to know what the ANC were fighting against for decades you ought to examine the barbarism in which the Apartheid regime was by its nature embroiled. South Africa was a counter-revolutionary force in the face of national liberation movements in its neighbouring countries. In its occupation of Namibia and invasions of Angola and Mozambique, South Africa became the belligerent in a conflict which left more than 1.5 million dead. This was at the same time that the white supremacist state was carrying out assassinations, coups and atrocities which spanned the whole of Africa and beyond. The ultra-violence of the regime was completely supported by the American and British governments of the day, as well as most other European countries and Israel. The major ally of the ANC in its solidarity with the African rebels was the Castro regime of Cuba – who sent thousands of health workers, arms and troops to assist the Africans in their fight with the old colonial powers, as well as forces from South Africa and the CIA.
The reason why the mainstream media would prefer not to delve into the details of the struggle against Apartheid is that it leads to embarrassing questions about the Cold War. We might be tempted to ask why Western governments were so vehemently on the side of Afrikaner minority rule. We might also want to know why is it the Communists were intervening on the side of freedom and not the West. When it comes down to it we would have to examine the history of South Africa and ask some pointed questions. This is precisely what the compromises of the 1990s blacked out from the public discourse. In a way this isn’t surprising. Common to all beginnings the traumas of the past are always to be suppressed to prevent troubling questions of the new order from being raised. If the Apartheid system was a means of managing the class antagonism built into any capitalist society (which was the case) then we should want to know if this multiracial democracy is really much different.
The reason why the mainstream media would prefer not to delve into the details of the struggle against Apartheid is that it leads to embarrassing questions about the Cold War. We might be tempted to ask why Western governments were so vehemently on the side of Afrikaner minority rule. We might also want to know why is it the Communists were intervening on the side of freedom and not the West.
Through divide and conquer the Afrikaner minority could maintain its hold on wealth procured through the exploitation of South Africa’s copious resources as well as its working-classes. In the end it was the international campaigns to boycott and impose sanctions against the South African economy which crippled the system of divide and conquer. The ANC fought alongside the MPLA, SWAPO and Cuban troops against the counter-revolutionary forces at Cuito Cuanavale in what Nelson Mandela called “a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people.” These events combined with the sight of burning townships from Table Top Mountain was no doubt enough to convince many it was over. In the late 80s the Afrikaner business class then began to meet secretly with Oliver Tambo and others in places like Zambia to establish ties and negotiate. It took the party-state a bit longer. In a couple of years Nelson Mandela would be brought to meet with FW de Klerk in the first steps to his release and the official negotiations.
JT White is a radical progressive, a student of philosophy and an aspiring nuisance for the powerful.