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Razer’s class warfare: Nelson Mandela and giving violence a chance

Let’s stop banging on about forgiveness and peace. Nelson Mandela was locked up for being a terrorist — and sometimes armed rebellion is the only way to bring about change.

When I was a kid in Canberra, protest was my after-school activity. My revolutionary dance-card was pretty full, so it’s difficult to recall if Solidarity with the Sacked happened every other Tuesday at the Griffin Centre or if that was the designated time and place for Women’s Collective Action for Women. My memory is unclear. What is easy to remember, though, is Thursday afternoon. For two years, that was my slot for picket duty at the South African High Commission.

South African Embassy

Back then, Nelson Mandela’s was one of many names I learned from the union-led picket; he was one of many unambiguously known as terrorists to our government. Mandela was one of a noble army of necessarily violent revolutionaries. There are so many names of soldiers I have long since forgotten.

Mandela, I suspect, had their names etched with prison ink into his memory over the 27 years he spent incarcerated for — let’s be clear about this — brutal terrorist acts of a class that often made the IRA look like Jamie Oliver’s campaign for school lunch.

Or a bit like me crying freedom at the vans that delivered to the big, white, impenitently colonial building on State Circle. Save for yelling at the bread truck (I mixed it up with a variety of slogans including “Victory to the PAC”, “Victory to the ANC” and “Baby-killing baker!”), these Thursday afternoons were peaceful.

They were peaceful because they could be. I was not shackled. I would not live a life without suffrage. I was not consigned to the margins of an economy and driven underground to mine and die for the wealth of a nation driven by a system all reasonable people now agree made no moral sense at all. No. I was a well-fed white girl living in a decent part of a decent nation whose fight against apartheid most usually involved talking to the AFP officer or one of the blokes from the Trades and Labour Council about Marx. Ergo, I was pretty peaceful.

Peace is a privilege of well-to-do nations who make sure to fight their wars abroad. Violence is business as usual in much of the world. Violence in the social body of South Africa was multisystem: it inhered in the state, the economy and the culture. As much as we who have never known violence of this scale and temperature would like to think a chorus of Don’t Stop Believing will stop a boot in the face, it doesn’t. All it gets you is a broken nose and an aversion to Journey.

But this, of course, is What Makes Mandela So Very Special. His Capacity for Peace and Forgiveness.

These past days, forgiveness has become the central fetish item for those eager to ride the Madiba hearse to climax. And that is every neoliberal in the world. Breathy talk of “the wholesome power of forgiveness” came from Ban Ki-moon, and then Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek hired the worst writer in the world (you keep using that word “unarguably”, but it does not mean what you think it means) to tell us that apartheid was ended by Mandela not with violence but with peaceful compassion.


I may be very good at yelling at bread delivery trucks, but I’m not so strong on history. However, even I recall that the end of apartheid was bloody. I also remember that the presidential Mandela bought a shit-load of weapons in a US$4.8 billion shopping excursion known in press as the South African Arms Deal.

This is not to impugn Mandela, unquestionably a courageous military leader, a learned socialist and a preternaturally gifted diplomat. It is, however, to ask Julia Baird:

Julia Baird tweet

… and Karen Middleton:

Karen Middleton

… and Donald Trump (who presumably doesn’t need to see Mandela’s death certificate):

Donald Trump

… to desist in tweeting until they can stop banging on about forgiveness. Or, at least, if they can, along with most neoliberal pundits, stop turning Mandela into a Deepak-like sage who changed history through individual gentleness and yoga techniques.

That we should, as Annabel Crabb has unambiguously done, decry the “violence done” by Mandela’s ANC is peculiar. It’s a bit like saying that Churchill was a great guy save for the fact that he led us into war with Germany. We don’t need to redeem Churchill for doing that which was moral and necessary, so apologies for Mandela’s role in armed struggle might cease about now. Before you embarrass yourselves with more references to light, love and compassion.

In the 1950s, the infant ANC tried non-violent struggle and found it achieved, if we don’t count broken bones, two-fifths of nothing. Armed, they fought a regime so systemically violent, racist and unprincipled that no one is going to get upset if I call them Greedy Fat Nazis with Added Caffeine.

The Left’s hope for significant change through peace is a hot liberal fantasy masterfully retold by Barack Obama to a panting West. While the United States President spoke beautifully about the “oneness of humanity” and other stuff that sounds good but means nothing, he achieved three things — and none of these really have to do with commemorating Mandela.

The first is to muffle the sound of US military drones while praising “non-violence” as “the only solution”. The second is to appease his large Hope, Change, Awareness Ribbon fanbase. The third is to rebuild that endangered creature so central to the survival of liberal democracy, the “individual”.

A great man. An individual who defeated the odds. The power of one. Are we commemorating a great man instrumental in toppling an egregious system or writing an airport novel up in here? Ask The New York Times, which says one man was the nation’s moral centre. Ask Crabb, the ALP, the Coalition or just about anyone holding forth on Mandela, and they will give you the opposite of what I learned in my afternoons of tepid protest.

Mandela eschewed the cult of one. And that doesn’t make him humble; it makes him someone who has read lots of books.

Sure. He was a Great Man. But the Great Man theory of change is bollocks. Many comrades gave their lives to seek freedom not only from a state but also from a labour market that punished them. But I can’t remember the names.

So today I will remember those who have given their lives in violence because they had no choice. I will try to remember the names that I learned in State Circle, and I will remember the Mandela who had not yet had his Oprah makeover.

And I will make-believe that Oprah, dressed as Winnie Mandela, stood in the middle of FNB stadium screaming “YOU’RE ALL GETTING ARMS! YOU GET A GUN AND YOU GET A GUN AND YOU GET A GUN” 30 years ago while I was practising my polite radicalism and screaming at bread trucks.

  • 1
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I do remember hearing that Nelson Mandela was, at least initially, not eligible for the Noble Peace Prize because of his use of violence early on.

    And I’ve heard that until as recently as 2008 he was only allowed in the USA with special permission of the Secretary of State because he was still listed as a terrorist.

    Having said that, I remember just how excited my South African friends where when he was released. Times had changed by then.

  • 2
    Jan Forrester
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Lest we forget the remarkable role W de Klerk played in ending (rather than dismantling) apartheid, how he had a secret meeting with Mandela (still in jail) to commence discussions, how he surprised the world, South Africans, his own backbenchers and other political parties by turning his back on apartheid, unconditionally unbanned the ANC and started the ball rolling - a ball Mandela picked up and ran with. It would not have been smooth without Mandela. W de Klerk’s Damascene moment. Here it is here:

  • 3
    Malcolm Harrison
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I completely share Helen’s deep frustration, and am reminded of Patrick White’s ‘Voss’, where in the opening pages White writes of society’s (pollies in particular) tendency to steal the achievements of the dead by building memorials to them, especially those whom they did not even like or approve of. Helen’s picture of a world at war with itself while mouthing platitudes about peace and forgiveness is a theme that First Dog might well explore.

  • 4
    Helen Razer
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    You had me at “Voss”. :-)

  • 5
    David Eldridge
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Well put Helen. Don’t underestimate the power of protest though. From anti- Springbok to anti- Vietnam to anti- nuke, direct action was, and should continue to be, effective. At times. Being from ACT then also, I remember those pickets too. What about when Kerry B ran in the front doors and they wouldn’t let her out again? And bear in mind Canberra was one of Mandela’s first ports of call after his liberation. He appreciated those seemingly tepid efforts.

  • 6
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Mandela was lucky to live long enough to forgive - how many people would have liked to have seen him dead, for what he was doing, rocking the establishment?

    How many of those that would gladly have seen his demise, and campaigned on his “terrorism” for their own electoral dividend, are lying back, basking in his achievements?

  • 7
    Draco Houston
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Jan, we must also never forget that the long violent struggle to end apartheid got the ball rolling in the first place. de Klerk picked it up. It was a ball that Mandela got rolling and refused to stop it through his nearly 3 decades in prison. It was the threat of complete system collapse that got the government to play along.

  • 8
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Jeez, when the crowd runs one way it sure is tempting to run the other way, particularly when Donald Trump is one of the crowd. However, sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason.
    Violence was perpetrated by those on both sides. If it hadn’t been, forgiveness wouldn’t have been required and certainly wouldn’t have been as remarkable.
    I too am well-fed, and a white boy in a rich country. What do I know? But I reckon if somebody had been imprisoning, shooting at and bashing my family and people for generations, it would take a bit to shake their hand and say “let’s build a country together”. It is remarkable, even if dimwits like Donald Trump think so too.

  • 9
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    The Free Dictionary-
    Unarguable: Not open to argument or further discussion: the plain, unarguable facts.

    On behalf of the Federal Opposition, we pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, unarguably one of the greatest global figures of our time.

    Tanya 1: Helen 0

  • 10
    Chip Henriss
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Great perspective amongst all the hype. I lived in South Africa as a white exchange student in 1983-84. I returned an apologist for apartheid. I am also married to a white South African. The thing I feel that is missed is that the system had to be dismantled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There just could be no more excuse. It took me a few years to fully understand how horrible the system was. Why? Because it was really just a hyper reflection of our own system which is based on exploitation of one kind or another. Why just ask Indigenous Australians living under the intervention, right now! Today! Yes their are token Aboriginal people wheeled out to say it’s good but hey the South African Army had black soldiers and black police during Apartheid. The truth is that the ANC compromised away any chance for real change in exchange for allowing rich whites to continue their ownership of the country in exchange for jobs and positions of authority for ANC party members and the well connected. As usual the real losers were the poor of all races. Mandela was an amazing and forgiving man but you really hit the nail on the head with your comment re: “liberal democracy, the “individual” and all that blah blah blah we get here in the west. Anyway, after tomorrow I’m going to enjoy my weekend. Fought for by many people in solidarity.

  • 11
    Barry Levy
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink


    Your column is ‘all over the shop’ and shows not only a lack of research (laziness?) but badly reflects it.

    Just to take one point, before you contribute to even more mythology about Mandela and the ANC, you say, speaking of the terrorism of the ANC that it was…

    …brutal terrorist acts of a class that often made the IRA look like Jamie Oliver’s campaign for school lunch.’

    You see, this is where you are wrong. Very wrong. If you had done any homework at all, you would have learnt that, bar a handful of errors, the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was the most disciplined guerrilla movement of its time, and possibly of the last century.

    In fact, the IRA’s unthinking, often cruel and brutal acts of violence on civilians, made Umkhonto’s guerrilla warfare look like ‘a Jamie Oliver’s campaign for school lunch’. And certainly makes today’s Mid Eastern movements look positively blood-fueled and gross.

    You see, it is easy with wit and flare such as yours to write these columns, but if you do no homework at all (such as you have done), you get it wrong all over the place, contribute to the general mythology, and hurt people who fought for years in one of the most disciplined movements to bring down apartheid. The disciplined way they fought is also a part of Mandela’s fantastic legacy.

    I recommend strongly that, in the future, you start researching your facts before you swing out and write such whimsical and off-the-cuff columns.

  • 12
    Steven Cutts
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Apartheid?…when did it end?

    There might be a few more Xhosa, Tswanas, Vendi, Zulu and even Hottentots people driving Mercedes Benz motor cars these days but further down the food-chain not much has changed.

    I know this because I have seen it.

  • 13
    Ian Brown
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s a bit like saying that Churchill was a great guy save for the fact that he led us into war with Germany.” Que?

    Unfortunately, yet more nonsense from the writer - on a par with ‘…brutal terrorist acts of a class that often made the IRA look like Jamie Oliver’s campaign for school lunch.’ as already commented upon above by Barry Levy. I support his recommendation: Do the research BEFORE you write.

  • 14
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m all in favour of no BS realism but, apart from criticisms that you exaggerate the violence of the ANC (which may or may not be right depending I daresay which decades one is talking about, and not counting a whole lot of necklacings as down to the ANC) BUT, it would really be nice if one or two per cent of journalists were seriously and consistently numerate in their approach to great questions. How can anyone ignore the reality that demography is the biggest factor by far if one wants to explain the big events of the last 200 years. When an advanced rich country like Germany was still expanding its population at a rate which allowed them to replace all the WW1 losses in just two years of natural increase (and make sure they had a big army for WW2) of course the oldfashioned Nazis thought that only lebensraum would suffice. At the same time Russian population was increasing by 2 million a year in 1914 (while the French had been slowing population growth for a century, almost unique in the world). We behave as if we are quite oblivious to the huge damage to the world our great grandchildren might enjoy that is certain to flow from African population growth rates (and let’s not start on the more complicated case of India or the worrying Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries). The Afrikaners were not oblivious to the problems inherent in having a pre-modern population within your borders who are multiplying at several times the rate your people do - thanks in good part to the modern medicine introduced by the the white population, albeit not generously provided by white taxpayers. What would you have done if you had been in government? (I know what I would have done. I would have used every possible contact to arrange a cosy berth as immigrant in Australia, Canada or the US. Or perhaps I would have asked the Israelis about handling that kind of little numbers problem….).

  • 15
    Matt Steadman
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    I think this is an interesting and contextually important counterpoint. And I don’t agree with Barry Levy; I rather enjoy Helen’s whimsy, in this and other columns.

    But I 100% agree with Adrian. Mandela’s forgiveness was his most defining and unique characteristic.

  • 16
    David Coles
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Agreed Matt Steadman, and it is the forgiveness and his capacity to stop the violence, after having lived and fought through a violent period, that is being lauded now. Mandela wasn’t Gandhi.

  • 17
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Churchill was also a pretty compromised character when you dig down, vis a vis the ‘Anglo-Iranian Oil Co’ aka BP and chasing after oil from 1913, strong believer in colonialism and British exceptionalism, etc

  • 18
    arnold ziffel
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Mandela wasn’t Gandhi.’
    So much the better.
    While Barry is right about the successes of Umkhonto we Sizwe I think the Viet Cong were fairly impressive too.

  • 19
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    FINALLY. The revisionism was driving me insane and idjits basking in the halo effect, it’s like watching the masses trying to out sentiment each other. Also tried having a couple of points printed in Fairfax - and it was all about ‘respect’, which really isn’t the only point when people get all protective about one-dimensional oversimplification. Humans are more than characters in a (fictional) narrative I would have thought.
    Not that my approval matters, but well-written and so hugely appreciated.

  • 20
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    over the 27 years he spent incarcerated for — let’s be clear about this — brutal terrorist acts of a class that often made the IRA look like Jamie Oliver’s campaign for school lunch”

    Either you know nothing about the IRA or you know nothing about Mandela. I understand he was imprisoned for sabotage and conspiracy. The ANC as a whole may have been violent, before or after this imprisonment, but he wasn’t convicted of it and I don’t think he ever admitted it either.

    Unfortunately when you get your facts or opinions as wrong as this, it undermines the rest of your position, however much it may be valid.


  • 21
    Rod Marr
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink


    Churchill was an Illuminati puppet..and to some degree, so was…… …….

  • 22
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    So no one gets hyperbole anymore?

  • 23
    Anne Neville
    Posted Sunday, 15 December 2013 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of facts, the ones already pointed out aren’t the only incorrect ones. Can’t have been union-organised pickets you attended Helen. The parts of the Australian union movement who supported the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s and earlier universally supported the leadership of the ANC, NEVER the PAC. And were the Australian Marxists you picketed with pro-SPA or CPA? Or is your memory hazy on those details too?

  • 24
    Helen Razer
    Posted Sunday, 15 December 2013 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    You caught me out being a fifth columnist, Anne

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