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Madiba’s life and legacy: a revolutionary no matter the interpretation

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.

  • 1
    Mark Gibson
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Guy for reminding us of the contradictions and complexity of Mandela. A very welcome antidote to the simple beatification that we are seeing more generally. The man is no less admirable for the fact that he was of a messy real world in which the way of the saints is never clear. The lesson for those who want to claim him entirely for moderation and reconciliation is well taken. I wonder whether you would agree, though, that there is also a lesson for the Left – that the path of reconciliation, even with the likes of de Klerk, is sometimes the right one? Yes, we might imagine how a harder line might have bequeathed a fairer and more equal South Africa. But who is to say that it might not have ended up playing out a great deal worse?

  • 2
    Peter Evans
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Released in 1990 Guy. First election 1994.

  • 3
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this Guy.
    Along with David Beresford’s obit in The Guardian, this is the best piece I’ve read today.

  • 4
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    After all he’d been through, done and achieved, the look of despair in his eyes as Zuma used him for a photo shoot (like some trophy?) when his health took it’s last turn for the worst, a couple of months ago, said it all for me.
    He was handing over his legacy to this sort?

  • 5
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    fantastic article guy, BRAVO

  • 6
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    More than anything, one thing I learned through Mandela was to be distrustful of our governments and media. I grew up with Mandela still in prison. When I was a kid, the first time I even heard of him was thanks to the Special AKA’s song “Free Nelson Mandela”. I quickly found out much more about him and about the horrible injustice of his imprisonment. But every time the likes of Thatcher or the tabloids called him a terrorist, as much as I despised Thatcher, I still kept thinking that there must be something to it. While he was in prison, Mandela was essentially a ghost. No pictures of him were released, no statements, interviews, anything, ever got to the western world. His image was stuck in time and it was practically impossible to get a picture of the man, so slurs like terrorist stuck.
    When he got released, suddenly the ghost came back to life and what emerged was an entirely different man than I’d been led to believe. Generous, smart, magnanimous, charming and most surprising he seemed to hold little malice towards his captors. It quickly became clear that, as little regard as I have for the tabloids or Thatcher, I’d still been misled because back then I just couldn’t believe that people in their position would so blatantly lie. I am wiser now.

  • 7
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s good to be reminded of the history, thanks Guy. Although it’s a pity Lord Downer’s name appeared on the same page.

    Alas, the world has one less statesman. I fear the species is endangered.

  • 8
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    It was the British here who wrote the apartheid laws, we still have them here for aborigines.

  • 9
    Valerie Pitty
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Guy Rundle,for this superb comment on the place of Nelson Mandela and the ANC in South African politics. Most enlightening, and the parallel you drew with current politics re East Timor is accurate. I never realized that the policy of crowding Africans into the “homelands” under apartheid may have been designed for their possible annihilation if revolution was deemed imminent. Your explanation of the present corruption in South African governance is convincing, as is your analysis of Andrew Bolt’s current obsession with colour. A splendid article.

  • 10
    David Coady
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Guy. This makes a change from the sanitized depoliticized version of his life I’ve been hearing all day. I fear his radical legacy is being distorted in the same way Martin Luther King’s was.

  • 11
    Jeana Vithoulkas
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Spectacular piece Guy. Indeed it is a good question: who do you want to walk with? If only this mattered to more people.

  • 12
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Good piece Guy, and extra points for the nice dig at the execrable Downer.

  • 13
    Bo Gainsbourg
    Posted Friday, 6 December 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Among the best piece of writing on Crikey for some time. Watch now as right wingers who did all they could to stand in his way try to claim they admire his legacy. Gerry Adams once said words to the effect that if your country is invaded, some will collaborate, many will keep their head down, but some will resist and fight. Mandela, to his great credit, resisted and fought, all the way to a spectacular victory.

  • 14
    Posted Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    I like that he grew veggies in a prison. There is life in gardening.

  • 15
    Posted Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    The more things change ….. Abbott’s been defending Rajapaksa’s human rights record?

  • 16
    Posted Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff Guy, although the epithet “Mariba” is Xhosa and the distinction’s not immaterial. Helen Suzman has a terrific piece on her site “The truth about Xhosa Nostra” - check it out.

  • 17
    Posted Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    That’s the Helen Suzman foundation site at hsf.org.za

  • 18
    Posted Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Come on Johnny H - where are the weasel words now ? Eternal shame for all those who demanded that the world be denied this man for 27 ( TWENTY SEVEN ) years ! His story is epic , even biblical. And to the ‘law enforcers’ who kicked my arse @ 1970’s Springbok demos .. love and happiness.

  • 19
    Peter Burges
    Posted Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Great article Guy! Thanks.

    I saw the BBC coverage yesterday. There’s something really awful about how anchors (men and women) present news about death, and it came across in spades on the BBC yesterday. Somehow their efforts at sombreness are reduced to a horrifying ridiculousness. Perhaps it’s because they are not able to escape the glibness that seems to mark their presentation of all kinds of news?

    But, at least, I got to see Desmond Tutu sharing his thoughts about Mandela. He clearly loved the man, but also had no illusions about his saintliness. And I agree, too, that Mandela was a revolutionary. He couldn’t have been otherwise and achieved what he and the ANC achieved. We don’t need saints, just a few people who are truly human, capable, as Mandela clearly was, of treasuring others’ individuality and life. And I can’t help wondering … well, ok, fantasising … what Australia might be like with a revolutionary or two of Mandela’s kind among our politicians.

  • 20
    Posted Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    What would happen to him these days - labelled a “terrorist” by the West?

  • 21
    Posted Sunday, 8 December 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Now party animal Abbott, protégé of Howard/Thatcher, defender of Rajapaksa’s human rights record, is going to South Africa to have his photo taken?

  • 22
    Isabel Della
    Posted Sunday, 8 December 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Marilyn Shepherd,
    The earliest version of Apartheid-type laws, I’m aware of, dates back to 1366. The Statutes of Kilkenny laid down rules to control all interactions between the Anglo Norman landed elite and the Celtic Irish. Ireland was divided into 2 areas - The Pale on the Eastern seaboard centred on Dublin, and every where else, hense the expression - beyond the pale. Within The Pale it was forbidden that the English intermarry with the Irish, speak Gaellic or in any other way “go native”. The statutes were aimed at making the Irish subservient in their own land, while preserving the privileged position of the elite and maintaining the power and contol of the English crown. By the time the Australian colonies herded Aboriginal people onto reservations for “protection” the English had a very long and rich tradition of Imperialism and no end of techniques at their disposal to enforce their power and control.

  • 23
    Posted Monday, 9 December 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    We need a new Mandela to speak for asylum seekers.

  • 24
    Niall Clugston
    Posted Monday, 9 December 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    An insightful article that gets Mandela’s name and date of his release wrong??? And any nuclear bomb dropped on Soweto would destroy Johannesburg too.

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