The legacy of Nelson Mandela


 On Dec. 10, dignitaries from around the world made a pilgrimage to Johannesburg to pay respects to Nelson Mandela, who died five days earlier at the age of 95.

U.S. President Obama was one of the visiting heads of state who took full advantage of the photo opportunity that the occasion afforded. At a time when the imperialist nations are engaged in a headlong competition to further humble and exploit the African continent, Obama saw fit to hail Mandela as a “liberator” and advised the young people of Africa to “make his life’s work your own.”

Obama chose to neglect the fact that for years the government that he represents in Washington had collaborated with South Africa’s apartheid regime in acts of repression against Mandela, his African National Congress (ANC), and other Black liberation organizations. The CIA gave information to South African authorities in 1962 that helped them to capture Mandela and send him to prison for over 27 years. And Mandela remained on the U.S. “terrorist” watch list until 2008.

People around the world revere Nelson Mandela for his courage and quiet wisdom. And they revere him, as they do Martin Luther King, for his dream of “a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” But the element of Mandela’s character that Obama and other imperialist leaders—and the compliant big-business media—have chosen to highlight is his so-called ability to forgive the oppressors of South Africa’s Black population. That quality is the one that they call on the youth of Africa to emulate.

Unfortunately, history shows that Mandela and the ANC went beyond mere moral “forgiveness” toward the oppressors, and instead fell into the trap of offering them deep political and social concessions—an escalating process that ultimately betrayed apartheid’s victims. The shell of apartheid was dismantled, but the core of the exploitive social system was allowed to remain.

South Africa today displays one of the steepest divisions between wealth and poverty in the world. Since the ANC first formed the government, almost 20 years ago, the number of people living in poverty has risen. While the number of millionaires in the country has doubled in that period, so has the number of people earning less than a dollar a day. The average white family earns six times what Black families earn.

Joblessness has also risen. According to Goldman Sachs, as many as 35 percent are unemployed, when people who have given up looking for work are factored in. This rises to 70 percent among Black youth. Millions live in shacks—often without electricity, sanitation, or water—and generally in segregated townships in which Black people continue to be further subdivided by apartheid-era racial categories (African, coloured, Indian). And at the same time, even some shack cities have been wantonly demolished by ANC governmental authorities, leaving the inhabitants homeless. This has spurred a new movement of people protesting in the streets with banners that cry, “Give us back our land!” as in the days of apartheid.

Meanwhile, a layer of billionaire capitalists, residing in suburban mansions behind locked gates, scoop up the lion’s share of the country’s mining and industrial wealth in private profits. Most of these super-rich, as during apartheid, are white—with a handful of Black capitalists newly added to their number.

Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president, had the authority and prestige to mobilize the country in a true emergency campaign to eliminate poverty. This could have been accomplished by carrying out revolutionary measures aimed at completely transforming the capitalist social system, and remaking it in the interests of working people and the poor. Instead, he and his comrades in the African National Congress settled for accommodations with big capital, in vain hopes that the proceeds of capitalist growth would trickle down to the masses.

As University of Capetown Professor Robert Schrire put it (as cited in Bloomberg Businessweek): Nelson Mandela “recognized that for the poor to prosper, the rich had to feel they had a future in this country.” And true to design, the rich were greatly mollified, as giant multinational corporations swept into the country—often to gobble up weaker South African enterprises. But the poor benefited only minimally, and the unemployment checks that many workers received from the state hardly made up for the jobs they had lost.

Mandela played the central role in formulating the initial agreements between the liberation movement and the apartheid regime. At first, talks were carried out in secret—even when Mandela was still in prison. Later, the process was formalized in the CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) conferences of 1991-92. Joe Slovo of the South African Communist Party is credited at CODESA with offering the key compromise of a “sunset clause,” which guaranteed that a white-Black coalition capitalist government would remain in power for at least five years.

In the midst of these negotiations, in June 1992, I visited South Africa as a reporter for Socialist Action newspaper. The ANC had been legalized two years earlier, and its national offices now filled the skyscraper office building in Johannesburg that had once served the Shell Oil corporation. It appeared evident to me that the leaders of the ANC whom I met, and their legions of clerks and secretaries, no longer saw themselves as part of a popular liberation movement but instead had their eyes on portfolios in the upcoming coalition government.

I wrote at the time: “With the establishment of a transitional government, the [F.W.] de Klerk regime expects to give up very little in return for what it will gain. South Africa’s rulers hope to take their place once again as full members of the capitalist ‘family of nations,’ with full international trading rights. They also hope for a relatively placid domestic situation, with non-political American-style trade unions and a toothless opposition willing to participate in a parliamentary debating society.

“From the government’s point of view, a major—if not the major—purpose of the negotiations process is to co-opt a segment of the Black leadership, to pull them into compliance with the dictates of the ruling circles, and thus to demobilize the mass movement and trade unions.”

Negotiations, regulatory commissions, and even a share of governmental power were the “carrot” that the apartheid regime offered the ANC and its allies in that period. The “stick” was a wave of vigilante massacres carried out mainly by the breakaway Inkatha Freedom Party, but supported behind the scenes by government security forces. In response to the violence and to perceived inaction by government negotiators, the ANC and major trade unions seemingly made a shift toward militancy by undertaking what they termed the Mass Action campaign. A general strike was called to address the continuing epidemic of job lay-offs and the need for a “living wage.”

Nelson Mandela expressed the major intent of the Mass Action campaign from the point of view of the ANC leadership. It was being organized primarily, he said, as a source of pressure “to break the deadlock” in CODESA negotiations. But Newsweek described the purpose even more bluntly in its July 27, 1992, issue: “In an effort to catch up with rising militancy in the ranks, [the ANC’s] leaders have escalated their rhetoric—while at the same time sending the government conciliatory messages.”

In any case, the Mass Action campaign did not last long; soon ANC and union leaders sought to cool things down by offering even more concessions. A year later, when former ANC guerrilla leader and current head of the Communist Party Chris Hani was murdered, Nelson Mandela intervened to stem angry protests; in his address to the nation on the issue, he said that the current crisis demanded that national elections not be put off any further.

In 1994, the African National Congress received a majority vote in the new National Assembly. Nelson Mandela formed a “national unity government,” giving former apartheid head of state de Klerk the post of second deputy vice president. From that time, a series of neoliberal reform programs ensued that bowed deeper and deeper to the demands of big corporate interests. In a guarantee to the international banks, for example, Mandela and his government agreed to continue paying the “apartheid debt,” which was owed for items that included military supplies and prisons that the previous white government had used to repress the Black masses.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, business columnist for The New York Times, provided details (Dec. 9, 2013) of how Mandela was persuaded to forsake the vague calls of the ANC’s founding document, the Freedom Charter, to nationalize the mines, banks, and monopoly industries—and to instead choose the path of unfettered capitalism. “The story of Mr. Mandela’s evolving economic view is eye-opening: It happened in January 1992 during a trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Mr. Mandela was persuaded to support an economic framework for South Africa based on capitalism and globalization after a series of conversations with other world leaders.

“‘They changed my views altogether,’ Mr. Mandela told Anthony Sampson, his friend and the author of Mandela: The Authorized Biography. ‘I came home to say: “Chaps, we have to choose. We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.’” …

“[A]s the five-day conference of high-level speed-dating wore on, Mr. Mandela soon decided he needed to reconsider his long-held views: ‘Madiba then had some very interesting meetings with the leaders of the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam,’ Mr. [Tito] Mboweni wrote, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. ‘They told him frankly as follows: “We are currently striving to privatize state enterprises and invite private enterprise into our economies. We are Communist Party governments, and you are a leader of a national liberation movement. Why are you talking about nationalization?”’”

Ronnie Kasrils, former intelligence minister in the ANC government and a long-time member of the Communist Party, told “Democracy Now!” that once Mandela had made up his mind on the rapprochement with big business, he remained firm with it, and was instrumental in convincing the “left wing” of the ANC—which Kasrils identified with the Communist Party—to go along.

“There was no real debate or argument about this,” said Kasrils. But that should be no surprise. The South African Communist Party, trained by the representatives of Joseph Stalin, had long been urging the liberation movement to restrain its activity and limit its demands, under the misapprehension that working-class rule and socialism would not be “on the table” for many decades.

Kasrils justified Mandela’s pro-capitalist policies to Democracy Now! listeners by expressing the view that he had no other alternative under the extreme conditions of the day, with attacks from what was called the “third force” (undercover police, Afrikaner white nationalists, Inkatha, etc.): “We could have had a civil war at the time. There could have been enormous bloodshed!” Kasrils, like Mandela and the ANC, had no confidence that mass mobilizations could effectively counter the “third force” death squads. But lasting success in such a campaign would have required leadership and a program that could rally the oppressed masses in an unstoppable movement for social liberation and working-class political power.

Nevertheless, Kasrils conceded, “This is where I say our Faustian pact or bargain stems from. … we push the economic issues onto that back burner, and they successively become distant, so that nationalization, command of the hearts of the economy, this becomes a no-no. And once that sets in, and you get the gates open for a nouveau comprador bourgeoisie to come to the fore, junior partners of big capital and the corporates and the international connections, then we embrace the neoliberal economy of the world today, with all its corruption, with its cronyism, as its patronage.”

Today, the ANC reeks with cronyism and corruption. The selfish mentality of many in the organization’s top leadership is symbolized by Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the ANC and former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, who has become a multi-billionaire capitalist, with investments in platinum mining. To their shame, Ramaphosa and the current ANC leadership abetted and then tried to cover up the horrible police massacre of protesting platinum miners at Marikana in 2012.

At the Dec. 10 memorial rally for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, the crowd booed each time that the image of South African President Jacob Zuma appeared on the big screen. It was left to his deputy, billionaire Ramaphosa, to attempt to hush them, exclaiming, “We should show the same level of discipline as Madiba [Mandela] exuded!” It is an ugly  fact, however, that part of Mandela’s legacy is Zuma, Ramaphosa, and their like—former radical activists who have now grown fat and cynical.

As struggles for jobs, living wages, and land continue to unfold in South Africa—struggles of the Black masses against their capitalist oppressors—the ANC and the government it leads will be forced again and again to take sides. If it continues to sabotage the liberation movement and to line up with its enemies, we can expect that the masses will elect to follow one road that Nelson Mandela laid out for them long ago, in one of his true statements of political wisdom. In his speech to the COSATU national trade-union conference of 1993, Mandela told the assembly, “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”

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