by Andy Warren and Philip Ferguson
Nothing against the man, and RIP etc, but it’s basically good that he is no longer lingering. From his imprisonment for starting an armed movement to fight apartheid – and the denunciations of the man as a ‘terrorist’ by the leaders of capitalism all over the world – Mandela sadly became a re-packaged sanitised “statesman”, indeed “elder statesman”. The way he became venerated by celebrities and bourgeois politicians across the globe, you could be forgiven for thinking he’d been imprisoned for 27 years for sitting down in the street singing “Kumbaya”, in between rounds of petitioning for an end to apartheid. In fact, when he was a prisoner, Amnesty International wouldn’t campaign for his release, even in the 1980s, as he became a cause celebre. Amnesty’s reason being that he wasn’t a prisoner of conscience; he was a self-admitted leader of an armed group working on blowing up stuff.
Mandela was a personally very courageous fighter against the rigid system of discrimination made necessary by the specific conditions of capital accumulation in South Africa. But it was the very repressiveness of the system that drove him and his fellow ANC comrades to arms, rather than radical politics. The kind of resistance tactics forced on Mandela and the ANC made them look politically more radical than they actually were. For instance, when the apartheid regime massacred at least 69 peaceful protesters, and wounded many more, at Sharpeville in March 1960, it was clearly no longer possible to maintain a movement based on peaceful civil disobedience. You’d just get shot off the street.
So the ANC established Umkonto we-Sizwe (MK, Spear of the Nation) as its armed wing and Mandela as its chief-of-staff. Mandela and other early leaders were captured by the South African apartheid authorities and given extremely punitive prison sentences to be served on Robben Island. MK continued, however, and began a campaign of economic sabotage and other small-scale guerrilla activities. Nevertheless it wasn’t really until 1976 that the struggle against apartheid resumed on a significant scale within South Africa. The struggle by school students in Soweto, the sprawling impoverished black townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg, although subjected to heavy repression, marked the beginning of the end of the system of racialised segregation which South African capital had found essential to get off the ground.
The Soweto struggle also led to an intensification of global solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa. In New Zealand, for instance, Soweto marked the point at which the anti-apartheid movement here began to become a mass movement. By 1981 it could mobilise many tens of thousands of people on the streets against the 1981 Springbok tour and begin to challenge the authority of the state itself.
The Soweto struggle was followed by a big expansion of the black labour movement in South Africa, with new, militant unions organising hundreds of thousands of black workers in the mines, car plants and other key industries. Moreover, after Soweto, the apartheid state, no doubt much to its surprise, found that repression didn’t work any more. Instead of beating people off the streets, the repression simply pissed people off even more. The state lost the initiative. Instead of the anti-apartheid movement having to continually respond to the repressive and anti-democratic initiatives of the state, the state had to respond to the liberatory initiatives of the rapidly spreading domestic opposition to its policies, and the growing global support for the ANC.
The apartheid regime also found itself in a military quagmire when it invaded newly-independent Angola in the mid-1970s. The radical nationalist regime there asked for Cuban assistance to fight the South Africans and the Cubans and Angolans began to push the SADF (South African Defence Forces) out of the country. The SADF were defeated by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale, a defeat which marked one of the turning points in the struggle against apartheid. Instead of having a friendly Portuguese military dictatorship exercising power over both Angola and Mozambique, the apartheid regime became more isolated in the region and the success of the anti-colonial movements in those countries increased the confidence and determination of the ;liberation movement within South Africa itself. (This para has been added to the original article, after we were reminded about it by a reader: see comments section.)
By the 1980s the momentum in South Africa was unstoppable and the question for the ‘smart money’ in the country, and among global investors, was how to disentangle the political system of apartheid from the economic system of capitalism. It was here that Mandela played an ignominious role, as did the wider ANC leadership, a substantial section of which belonged to the pro-Moscow South African Communist Party. The collapse of the Soviet bloc made things easier for the apartheid rulers. The SACP, their ‘socialist’ model collapsed and discredited, swung over to an essentially pro-capitalist position. Indeed, within a few years, they were leading ideologues, within the ANC government, for neo-liberal economic policies.
In any case, as noted above, the repressive nature of apartheid meant that the ANC tended to look more radical than it was. In the 1960s, for instance, Mandela clearly stated that his model was the British Westminster model of a capitalist democracy and that if he had’ve lived in Britain he would quite possibly have been a supporter of the Liberal Party! It wasn’t a big leap for the ANC to shift back politically to that position in the late 1980s and the early 1990s as the possibility of political reforms to remove formal apartheid was put to them by sections of the South African ruling class.
Moreover, the needs of South African capital in 1990 were different in important ways from its needs in its early stages of accumulation in the late 1800s. The political system, based around legal, rigid, racialised oppression, no longer fitted the needs of the economy. And the kind of economic restructuring that was needed required a different political system. In fact, there was a two-way process going on. The liberation movement was pushing the doors of apartheid open from the outside, while the needs of South African capital were inching the doors open from the inside.
Mandela, as the most famous uncorrupted long-time political prisoner, enjoying immense prestige among the black population, became the necessary transitional figure and was prepared to play that role. Anyone who has the sting taken out of them by a brutal regime like apartheid, and is then trundled out as a respectable statesman, has clearly lost all threat to the status quo and ruling class but can still be seen by the masses as the personification of the struggle and of their own desires for economic as well as political liberation. (Although many people probably still think he served out his entire stretch on Robben Island, he was actually moved in 1982 to Pollsmoor, “where he could receive and entertain people”, as John Pilger reports.)
Moreover, Pilger’s report on an interview with Mandela during his presidency is very revealing. Pilger recalls, “I had asked him why the pledges he and the ANC had given on his release from prison in 1990 had not been kept. The liberation government, Mandela had promised, would take over the apartheid economy, including the banks – and ‘a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable’. Once in power, the party’s official policy to end the impoverishment of most South Africans, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was abandoned, with one of his ministers boasting that the ANC’s politics were Thatcherite.”
“You can put any label on it if you like,” he replied. “but, for this country, privatisation is the fundamental policy.”
“That’s the opposite of what you said in 1994, Pilger responded.”
“You have to appreciate that every process incorporates a change,” Mandela told him. In this case the change was fundamental. Instead of being overthrown, capitalism was to be protected. Black miners would now have the satisfaction of being shot in the back and killed by black police of the ‘new free South Africa’ and the black masses still condemned to poverty can dwell in the satisfaction that some of the most luxurious mansions in the country are owned by blacks. It’s Animal Farm in real life.
Mandela actually became quite quickly part of the club that manages exploitation across the world. As blogger Steve Cowan notes, US president George Bush (the smart father, not the dumb son) “phoned him immediately after he was released from prison . Bush told him he had been put on his short list of world leaders whom he ‘briefed’ on important issues. Mandela was invited into ‘the club’ and his attacks on western imperialism became a thing of the past. He became the ‘best friend’ of conservatives and liberals alike.”
In fact, Mandela’s shine began to wear off quite quickly for many black South Africans. In the 1994 elections, 86% of the voting-age population voted and the ANC won over 12.2 million votes. After five years of the Mandela presidency, the ANC vote dropped to 10.6 million and just over 71% of the voting-age population turned out to vote. Moreover, the figures don’t reveal the full trend of what happened to the black working class vote. In 1999, the ANC picked up a chunk of the old Nationalist Party vote, so its black working class vote fell by rather more than 1.6 million.
It should also be noted that the structures of the South African state apparatus remained in place. The old state apparatus was not burst asunder; it wasn’t dislodged; it wasn’t even reformed much. Instead, black faces simply filled the parliament and some of the positions with the overall existing state apparatus.
Of course, what Mandela might have achieved had he not been in prison we’ll never know, just like we won’t know what Steve Biko might have achieved had he not been murdered. But there have been plenty who stayed in active political circulation, who probably achieved much much more for South African black liberation than Mandela, and will never get the same recognition because they remained politically unpleasant for those determined to maintain their power at the cost of massive brutal repression of the black population. At the end of the day, it was the anonymous black masses, not Mandela, who made apartheid South Africa ungovernable in the old way.
What Mandela became a symbol of actually had very little to do with him. Yes, he struggled bravely and philosophically through a long and nasty prison sentence, and his image is claimed by many to have been pivotal in the end of apartheid. But the apartheid regime did what it did largely on its own time, having sensed that it could no longer continue as it had.
South African capitalism is today basically alive and well – regardless of whether or not apartheid ended. In fact, that was the goal. Once apartheid was seen as no longer essential, or no longer a vehicle, for South African capitalism, it could be dispensed with – to great accolades and trumpeting, with prisoners released and the first democratic election held. The potential for social revolution, ever-present because of the way in which apartheid and capitalism operated as siamese twins for the best part of a century, was taken away by the deals Mandela and his co-leaders carried out with the leaders of South African capitalism. In fact, Mandela and the ANC became so respectable that the architects, and sole governing party, of the apartheid era – the Nationalist Party – actually ended up dissolving into the ANC!
Moreover, just as the struggles in Mozambique and Angola had had a positive effect on the liberation struggle in South Africa the ANC leadership’s decision to cut short the struggle for national liberation at the political point, and thus take over managing a thoroughly unjust system, had a demoralising effect on other liberation struggles. The ANC agreeing to administer South African capitalism, even though it meant abandoning the promises of the Freedom Charter, impacted powerfully on the leadership of the PLO in the Middle East and the Republican Movement in Ireland. The leadership of the Provisionals, for instance, were drawn increasingly to the right and accommodation with British imperialism as a result of the impact of the ANC’s settlement with the South African ruling class and abandonment of long-held goals. Not only that, but leading members of the ANC went to Ireland and travelled around local branches of the Provisionals to help the IRA/Sinn Fein leadership sell to its membership a deal which left the British as masters of the six north-east counties of Ireland (“Northern Ireland”) and made the Provos part of British imperialism’s managerial staff in the six-county statelet, at the expense of the most oppressed sections of that region.
So, don’t be sucked in to all the Mandela-loving. No doubt a great man in terms of his talents and his courage and endurance as a political prisoner. And sadly, what he might have done in terms of political struggle had he not been captured in the early 1960s, we’ll never know.
But has South Africa improved for millions of blacks? Well, in purely democratic political terms – the right to vote, and so on – Yes. But in economic terms, the majority of blacks are probably worse off now than under apartheid. Moreover, what does it mean to have the right to live wherever you want to, when your income is so small and precarious that you can’t live where you want to anyway? Meanwhile, the ANC presides over massive levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, while helping create a new black elite of multi-millionaires while gunning down protesting trade unionists with a fervour which would warm the hearts of any unreconstructed supporters of apartheid.
So, then, what was Mandela about? A poster boy?
“Mandilla? Yes, a nice blick, but he’s OUR blick, we made him”. No?
Further reading: South Africa, apartheid, capitalism:
Further reading: New Zealand solidarity: