Their Mandela was a saintly figure, whom they first recognised in the early 1990s. His chief characteristic was the ability to forgive unspeakable crimes – their crimes. He was prepared to accept with good grace the peace prizes, honorary degrees and all the other absurdities they heaped upon him, laughing them off in such a way that they hardly noticed the joke; he posed with them in photographs so that they could feel a little of the glow of his sainthood shining on themselves.
Our Mandela is not a saint but a man – the finest kind of man, a fighter – who in his youth rejected the life of relative privilege open to him, in order to devote his life to the struggle for freedom. Our Mandela exploited all possible legal channels for advancing this struggle, yet did not flinch at pursuing illegal methods, including armed struggle, when that proved necessary.
Our Mandela pursued the struggle without letup in the face of colossal persecutions, vile slanders, and cruel isolation. He demonstrated not just in words but in deeds that he was prepared to sacrifice his own life in the struggle for freedom. He declared that South Africa belongs to all who live there, and acted on that declaration, resisting all the countervailing pressures, even a split in the movement.
The question is, did our Mandela become theirs? To read the obituaries, one would think so. Some have called out the hypocrisy of those who slandered Mandela when he was in jail and honour him now. But many also cautiously express disappointment.
Gary Younge write in the Guardian, “He not only had a symbolic status but was the embodiment of huge, pent-up expectations – so once released, he could only disappoint. For some on the left he was insufficiently strident. He sold arms to Indonesia, proceeded too softly with many dictators and left too many of apartheid’s economic inequalities intact.”
Mandela should not be handed over to them so lightly. Generosity of spirit was a part of Mandela’s nature, as was a willingness to see the best in every human being, even his jailers. But his stance on reconciliation was not fundamentally about ‘forgiveness’. Rather, it was a recognition that in the post-apartheid South Africa the struggle had to be fought along different lines, and the enemies of an earlier time would not necessarily still be enemies, nor the old allies still friends.
The overthrow of apartheid paved the way for the unfettered development of modern classes in a way that was not possible under the apartheid system. This was a real achievement, even though it is an ugly process in many ways. The gross corruption and self-enrichment of individuals who were once freedom fighters is a part of this process. The fact that the overthrow of apartheid occurred just as the working class worldwide entered the longest retreat in its history made the process more protracted and uglier.
The new stage of the struggle demands a new class consciousness and a new working class leadership. Such a leadership will be built as the struggle unfolds in the new conditions of post-apartheid South Africa. That was never going to be Mandela’s responsibility. We should honour our Mandela, his example and his achievements, then move on to our tasks.