The Nelson Mandela story is one of triumph in the face of bitter division. Crikey’s writer-at-large remembers the turbulent politics of South Africa before Mandela rose above it.
Some time ago, The Guardian changed a question in its standard celebrity-interview Q&A column from “which world figure do you most admire?” to “apart from Nelson Mandela, which world figure …”. By the 2000s, it had become all but impossible not to pay obeisance to “Mandiba”, the Zulu nominative being a little too cosily adopted around the world. How could it be otherwise?
Having survived the years of encroaching Afrikaner domination in pre-WWII South Africa, the 1948 imposition of apartheid proper, the cat-and-mouse politics of the ’50s, the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the African National Congress, and imprisonment for 27 years, from 1964 until the ’90s, Mandela emerged into the era of the apartheid endgame with an almost superhuman discipline as regards the work he had to do and the bitterness and anger he must have had to dispel in dealing with the last white government of South Africa.
History has recorded the winding up of apartheid as some double-act between Mandela and FW de Klerk, the latter portrayed as some sort of jovial moderate, even though he had been a professional politician through apartheid and was a member of the National Party’s inner Broederbond group, dedicated to preserving Afrikaner power. In reality, the Afrikaners had to be pushed kicking and screaming to negotiate an end to apartheid.
They only did so after the Berlin Wall fell, and the USSR dissolved, and the West no longer felt it essential to use apartheid as a buffer against the South African Communist Party. The ANC had never made much secret of its alliance with the SACP, but the alliance had only come about because the ANC had been forced into illegality. Like much of the Cold War, people were punished for turning to the only movement that would defend their basic humanity, the Communists.
In the West, a widespread social movement forced reluctant governments to impose sanctions. On the border, the Cuban brigades kept up a decades-long war that drained South Africa’s resources. Mining companies, out of nothing more than self-interest, forced the Botha government to begin back-channel negotiations with the ANC.
But it was the rolling uprisings in the South African townships from the ’80s onwards, the school strikes and demonstrations in the face of appalling lethal violence, that put the real and unstoppable pressure on apartheid. Demonstrations and strikes coming from the grassroots, organised by the ANC but also by groups to the Left of them, pushing the ANC to act more forthrightly than it was, at that stage, inclined to pursue.
Though it looks, in retrospect, as if it could have gone no other way, that takes no account of the genuinely paranoid and neurotic nature of the apartheid ideology — the poisonous fruit of Dutch neo-Calvinism, and its obsession with ideas of “purity”, still popping up in places like Andrew Bolt’s blog, and his vile colonial inspection of skin colour.
Apartheid South Africa was not merely a violent state, it was, for a time, a nuclear state, and its concentration of black people was partly in service to a “final solution” should there be a full uprising — tactical nuclear strikes against bantustans and townships in a last-ditch defence against embattled whiteness.
Retrospectively, Mandela’s authority has been attributed to his overwhelming urge to reconciliation and unity in the wake of his 1990 release. But that is only half the story. His authority sprang from his commitment to armed struggle in the wake of the ANC’s banning in 1960. He, Oliver Tambo and others, had already taken control of the ANC from a more conciliatory old guard.
Now they created “Spear of the Nation” with the SA Communist Party, a guerrilla army every bit as ruthless as any put together by Guevara or others. It was an urban guerrilla outfit, rather than a terrorist one — targeting industrial and military targets, rather than random civilian targets.
Mandela and the other ANC prisoners could have got early release had they publicly renounced violence; their terms extended to decades because they would not, and could not. The rolling guerrilla campaign was essential to weakening the regime’s morale and interrupt daily life. It was this campaign that the Western Right wanted Mandela to renounce, and who labelled him a “terrorist” — both Thatcher and John Howard used the term — when he wouldn’t.
“Though his life may now be obscured by a legend of consensus he remains a revolutionary …”
Apartheid had a lot of friends on the Australian Right, much of it centred in the anti-communist movement, an outfit which had always had some difficulty in recognising the full humanity of non-white people. One particular redoubt was the Packer media — apartheid South Africa’s greatest Australian defender was Packer family retainer and clown prince David McNicoll.
He and others elevated to equal status a Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a compliant buffoon who had accepted the apartheid government’s creation of Bantustan, pseudo-independent states to which blacks were constrained, and in which compliant rulers could wield local power. Buthelezi was primped and pumped there and here, as some sort of “answer” to the alleged tsunami of violence that any adjustment to apartheid was liable to unleash. Since apartheid was the violence, this argument was always a crock; and when Buthelezei ran in the 1994 elections, he disappeared from history.
Historians will have to argue out the degree to which Mandela was prime mover or figurehead in the process of knitting together a consensus in the year or so following his release, and the movement towards a new multiracial republic. The official story, currently rolling across all media everywhere as I write, is that Mandela took the uniquely judicious path, and that those to the Left and Right of him were either too hot-headed or too conservative.
That’s certainly a point of view, as they say, especially when you compare it Zimbabwe to the north, the fiefdom of the creepily ageless man that Mandela would wryly refer to as “Comrade Bob”. But it’s a measure of Mandela’s residual stalwartness that he would not throw over Robert Mugabe in the face of a white farmer-funded “Democratic” opposition, nor renounce Fidel Castro or Muammar Gaddafi, who had provided men, arms and money in the struggle. When white pro-war liberals fished out Jose Ramos Horta and others to endorse the Iraq War, they conveniently ignored the vociferous opposition to it that came from those — Mandela and Xanana Gusmao — who had actually suffered the torture of tyrants.
Yet there will always be the question as to whether, in his determination that the fight to end apartheid not flow over into an uncontrollable process, Mandela and the ANC leadership put a halt to any struggle to address racialised economic inequality — most particularly through land redistribution — that might have broken down some of the entrenched economic power.
The ANC’s agreement with the SACP had always been that post-apartheid South Africa would be a socialist society. By 1994, that commitment was something of a dead letter and even the SACP was pushing for a mixed economy. But how to tackle the fact that economic power was entrenched with a white elite? The ANC came up with an answer: create a black elite, i.e. the ANC, transferring from politics to business.
The result of this — after a few years of investment, in which some decent social investment, particularly in housing, got done — was a neoliberal squeeze, in which the country offered itself up as a laboratory for marketisation. Trevor Manuel, the architect of the moves, argued that there was no choice. Desperately unfair as it was, he said, the new republic was bearing the costs of apartheid, the debts it had run up to defend itself in its final years. Austerity was essential, to stave off collapse.
Whether that was an early example of the shock doctrine, or an invidious choice in a neoliberal world, is another question for the specialists. The South African economy unquestionably survived the 2008 crisis better than it otherwise would, but it has paid a high price as political solidarity has yielded to a corrupted and cynical elite, with the inevitable result being an event like the killing of 44 miners and activists during the Marikana miners’ strike in 2012.
Now that the man, the era in a man, is gone, we will be able to start to see him more clearly. But whatever flaws and faults will be found, he stands as reproof to despair, and against a lack of faith in what can be done when you stand with the people. We see it mirrored in the impossibly squalid Timor-Leste/Woodside/Downer/ASIS revelations, the power of our state used to bully and cheat a place we have already betrayed once.
When you ask who you stand with, Mandela and a man like him, Gusmao, and all who walked with them, or with Thatcher, Howard and that dim meat-puppet Alexander Downer, the answer is obvious. Joe Slovo, the SACP/ANC leader, said it best when asked if the price of the struggle — exile, wife and friends murdered by security services — had been worth it. “But who would be them? Who would be cut off from the people? What sort of life is that?”
What indeed? Pity the land that needs heroes, but at this point I suspect we would welcome as one, less Downer and more Mandela. Though his life may now be obscured by a legend of consensus he remains a revolutionary, and his death reminds us of the shallow, envious and corrupted nature of the politics of the Right.