In the course of his lifetime, Nelson Mandela saw his elevation in the West from terrorist to secular sainthood. The world’s media continues churning out headline after headline on his life and legacy, remembering him as one of the exemplary moral figures of the 20th century alongside the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Mandela is lauded as a hero by everyone from Lindsey Lohan to ex-apartheid apologists like British Prime Minister David Cameron. Yet he wasn’t a pacifist, a tame advocate of nonviolence, an non-ideological figure of singular moral righteousness. He was an exemplary revolutionary, fueled by political commitment.
Yet while Mandela was certainly a “great historical figure,” too many of the obituaries and tributes published so far have been unable to move beyond hagiography or platitude. Far too little critical reflection on his actual political legacy or analysis of the nature and dangers of the Mandela mythologies has been written so far. The image of a progressive “rainbow nation” generally on the right track invoked in many of these pieces bares little relation to the actual social realities of post-apartheid South Africa.
The truth is that in South Africa much of what constituted apartheid still exists, enforced no longer through the laws, decrees and brute force of the state, but by new forms which reproduce themselves through the market. It from this basis that an honest assessment of Mandela’s legacy must begin. But in order to do this, one needs to separate Mandela the myth from the actual Mandela.
There were really two Mandelas. The first is that of the revolutionary, the lawyer, the politician, flaws and all. The second is a sanitized myth: the father of the nation, the global icon beloved by everyone from the purveyors of global humanitarian platitudes to even the erstwhile enemies of the African National Congress. This Mandela is removed of his humanity and touted as an abstract signifier of moral righteousness.
The first Mandela was willing, along with tens of thousands of others, to lay down his life in the struggle against a racist system. He was a lifelong anti-imperialist who never hesitated to stand up to the US on matters of foreign policy, and never ceased in his solidarity with the Palestinian struggle or with countries like Cuba who stood as allies in the struggle against apartheid.
This Mandela was a brilliant strategist. He was able (alongside others, like Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Anton Lembede) to transform the ANC into a mass political organization through the African National Congress Youth League in the 1940s and 1950s and the defiance campaigns of the 1950s. After his release from prison, he was able to again pivot the ANC from a liberation movement to a modern political party. Both were remarkable achievements. And, of course, he served as the moral icon of the anti-apartheid movement, a bearer of remarkable symbolic power — power that was later co-opted by the very people and institutions he fought against.
Mandela is often invoked in the international discourse of rights and leadership as a wholesome leader. His actual political history, which ranges from his early anti-communist black nationalism to his later embrace of non-racialism and more radical vision of nationalism, as well as his stint in the South African Communist Party (SACP), goes unremarked. This includes his early political views on the necessity of nationalization (something he only dropped in the early 1990s), his harsh critique of racial injustice during apartheid, and his essentially revolutionary politics.
Take this expression of his politics from around 1960:
I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.
Or this denunciation of nonviolence, made in the context of the adoption of the armed struggle by the ANC in 1961:
There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile to continue talking about peace and non-violence against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people.
Mandela was never the benevolent grandfather presented in his post-apartheid representations. But the Mandela most know is the second Mandela, the Mandela of reconciliation, the man who pulled South Africa from the brink of civil war and entered into a compromise with the Nationalist Party that resulted in the National Unity government after the ANC’s victory in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. It is the Mandela represented in post-apartheid sentimentality in films like Invictus, clad in the South African rugby team captain’s jersey at the Rugby World Cup Final, proclaiming that whites have a place in the new South Africa. (In the more recent Long Walk to Freedom, he is portrayed as saving South Africa from the radicalism of his comrades.)
He is seen as a rare example of “good leadership” in Africa because he voluntarily stepped down from power, leading to the construction of a foolish binary between the South African path of democracy and economic stability (Mandela) and the Zimbabwean path of radical policies and authoritarianism (Mugabe) mentioned in many remembrances in recent days.
In South Africa today, Mandela’s legacy is characterized by one central contradiction. The country is a pluralistic liberal democratic state in which the black majority enjoys full citizenship — a state in which a constitution enshrines both human and socioeconomic rights. Yet South Africa is one of the most starkly unequal societies in the world, with an unemployment rate near 40 percent and an economic system which still traps the majority of black South Africans in poverty or unskilled low wage work.
The formal laws, decrees and regulations which formed apartheid may have been removed, but the free market is almost as effective a mechanism for ensuring that the geography and economic structure of apartheid persists. The structure of the bantustans remains intact in large swathes of the country. These parts of the country remain undeveloped “labor reserves” in which millions of South Africans live under the tyranny of patriarchal customary law enforced by “traditional leaders,” mostly invented by white apartheid authorities as “black tradition.”
Too often, Mandela’s own tenure as president is glossed over as some sort of miracle period in which he was able to unite black and white; his own political successes and failures in his one and only term go unexamined.
Many of these failures can be traced to the neoliberal economic trajectory of the country initiated by the National Party in the 1980s and deepened and entrenched through the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy package introduced in 1996, pushed by the IMF and World Bank. GEAR saw the introduction of a self-imposed austerity regime justified as necessary in order to pay back debt accumulated by the apartheid state. GEAR was pushed by Western powers, international financial institutions, technocrats within government (many inherited from the previous regime), and a powerful faction of the ANC headed by ex-president Thabo Mbeki and ex-finance minister Trevor Manuel.
It saw the mass privatizations of state-owned companies, the commercialization of the delivery of basic services. In a more general sense, it saw the emergent language of universal citizenship produced by the liberation struggle replaced by a conception of citizenship as tied to one’s own participation in the formal economy. The citizen has been replaced by the “stakeholder.”
The ANC adopted GEAR partially because it was under pressure from international powers and capital and was threatened with exclusion from the World Trade Organization if it pushed for a more radical redistributive agenda; but also because the dominant faction of the ANC believed in the ability of the market unleashed from its apartheid shackles to restructure South African society and bring blacks into the formal economy, thus empowering them.
The ANC, to which Mandela committed his life, has descended into a thick morass of social conservatism, neoliberal technocracy, patronage networks, corruption, and increasingly authoritarian politics. The party lacks any sort of unifying narrative or future vision for the country. Its image as a progressive force on behalf of the poor and working class remains purely rhetorical — rhetoric that has grown increasingly hollow in the wake of the 34 murders of striking miners committed by police (acting in tandem with senior figures in the ANC, particularly ANC deputy president and ex-union leader Cyril Ramphosa) at Marikana last year.
The ANC’s continued mass support is mostly linked to its use of the pathos of the liberation struggle (in particular, the figure of Mandela), the political deficiencies of the opposition parties, the dependence on millions of black South Africans on the state for access to the formal economy, and the success of its social grant program, which now reaches over 18 million.
In another narrative, Mandela is identified as the arch-betrayer; the man who sold out black South African’s liberation and the South African path to socialism, who sold out the ideals of the liberation movement to white capitalists and the national party, who saw it more necessary to reconcile and embrace white South Africa rather take on the old elite and their allies.
This narrative is closely tied to the Stalinist influence within the ANC in the form of the concept of the National Democratic Revolution, in which a bourgeois nationalist revolution is seen as the first necessary struggle before the real struggle for socialism can begin. In this narrative, the state is seen as a blunt instrument, socialism can be achieved only if the right people are in charge. But this narrative never engages with both historical lessons of “actually existing socialism” or experiments in “African socialism”; it never deals with the fundamental contradiction between nationalism and socialism.
But both of these narratives fall into the category of analyzing Mandela not as the person he was, but through the lens of the mythology surrounding him — operating in the symbolic rather than historical realm.
The compromise with the National Party and white capitalists was always the strategy of the ANC. At no point during the armed struggle did the organization consider the overthrow of the apartheid state’s military a real possibility. The betrayal narrative spun by much of the Left, operating both from within the congress and without, is too conspiratorial, and reinforces the grand historical agency assigned to Mandela.
Although certainly Mandela’s late night hotel room conversations with South African capitalists like ex-Anglo-American CEO Harry Oppenheimer and trips to Davos had a large role in influencing his gradual embrace of the market, the likes of ex-president Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s finance minister at the time and architect of GEAR, played a far greater role in the neoliberal trajectory of South Africa than Mandela. It is a mistake to lay the blame completely at Mandela’s feet rather than at the ANC’s inability to politically maneuver during the period of post-apartheid economic negotiations.
As another great South African revolutionary and fellow Robben Island prisoner Neville Alexander, who passed way last year, pointed out back in 1999 in an interview with PBS:
[The ANC doesn't] believe … that we can overthrow the apartheid state. They believe that we’ve got to compel the apartheid ideologues and strategists to come to the negotiation table.” … He recalled the fact that [Ben Bella], the Algerian leader at the time, had told him when he had been in Algeria, that they should not try to overthrow the apartheid state, because they would not be able to do so. That it would be strategically wasteful of lives, time, [and] energy.
The pernicious image of Mandela as the savior who descended from Robben Island to liberate South Africa in 1990 persists. It is central to the sentimentality surrounding the ANC — and is key to their hegemony. It is also central to capital’s post-apartheid mythology of South Africa as a post-racial society in which moral worth and social position is no longer measured by race, but by market value or productivity. Mandela had redeemed the nation of all of its past sins, and 1994 signified a total break with the past.
The beatification of the leaders of a liberation struggle to “founding father” status sometimes only becomes apparent with time. It progresses beyond mere distortions of the past to the promotion of a history in which those who took up struggle are robbed both of their actual role and their collective agency. It was the black trade union movement, the hundreds of thousands mobilized through the United Democratic Front and its affiliates, and the civic movements who took to the streets, occupied mine shafts and fought the police, who freed Mandela.
This big man history of liberation is closely tied to the ANC and Mandela, demobilizing a highly politicized society and bring the mass movements of the 1980s under the direct control of the ANC leadership. This process was the transformation of the ANC from a liberation movement into a political part in the early 1990s. Part of the reason for this was to prevent mass opposition to the economic compromises that the leadership would make with capital and the Nationalist Party. In particular the ANC needed to be able to prevent mass opposition to the economic path they followed in the trade union movement. The result in Franz Fanon’s words was that “the people are expelled from history … and sent back to their caves.” Or more specifically the idea that people should wait passively for the ANC to deliver, once freedom had been attained.
Any transformative left project in South Africa located outside of the ANC needs to be able to tap back into the consciousness and legacy of the mass movements of the 1970s and 80s and be able to challenge the narrative of messianic liberation tied up to the Mandela mythology.
Respect, mourn, and take inspiration from Mandela. But don’t succumb to the mythology surrounding his legacy. It is too susceptible to becoming impervious of criticism. To allow Mandela the myth to remain intact is to allow for the dynastic and religious forms of nationalism, like the one surrounding Gandhi and Nehru in India.
It’s a tale that provides cover for capital and locks the political imagination of South Africa into an understanding of politics in terms of an eternal present, rather than allowing for the urgent duty of reimagining alternatives and engaging once more in the tradition of mass tradition which freed Mandela in the first place. Mandela shows us that individual courage, collective solidarity and revolutionary commitment can bring about change, but at the same time South Africa’s liberation struggle is far from complete.