Their Mandela and ours

Nelson Mandela  1918-2013

Nelson Mandela

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.

Mandela and Sisulu in Robben Island prison

Mandela and Sisulu in Robben Island prison

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 demonstrates support of Springboks, long considered a 'bastion of apartheid sport'. Struggle would be fought along different lines in future.

Mandela demonstrates support of Springboks, long considered a bastion of apartheid sport. Struggle would be fought along different lines in future.

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.

13 responses to “Their Mandela and ours

  1. Pingback: The future of South Africa « The Daily Blog·

  2. You write: “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.”

    And therein is part of the problem. The old enemies, the white capitalist class, became the new friends. The old allies, the working class, became the new enemies.

    It seems odd that you rightly identify the bourgeoisification of the PLO but are defending Mandela’s pre-eminent role in the bourgeoisification of the ANC. You can’t have it both ways.


  3. There were two separate processes, overlapping in time. The first was the necessary process of realignment that took place as apartheid was dismantled. This included winning over sections of the white population who had been falsely led to fear majority rule (the new friends), and the inevitable differentiation within the anti-apartheid forces, as some sought to integrate themselves into the new multi-racial capitalist class (the new enemies).
    The second process was the crisis of perspective within the ANC itself, and its rapid evolution into a bourgeois party. The overthrow of apartheid took place in a world no one had envisaged. The working class worldwide was in retreat. The Nicaraguan revolution had just been defeated. The Soviet Union had imploded, taking with it the hopes of the weighty Stalinist element within the ANC for aid. The ANC leadership felt constrained to accept the IMF’s terms for development loans. (ANC leader Ronnie Kasrils has written a very interesting article on this ‘Faustian moment’ in the Guardian June 24, 2014).
    The fact that the ANC evolved into a bourgeois party running a capitalist government so quickly, and with so little dissent, having carried out so little of the social aspects of the Freedom Charter, certainly surprised me. However, I think it is overstating the case to say that Mandela had a pre-eminent role in that. The most you can say is that, while still in a position of influence, he failed to prevent it. But by that time, the historic political task that Mandela had set himself was completed, and a new stage of struggle, requiring new leaders, was begun.

  4. James, “The fact that the ANC evolved into a bourgeois party running a capitalist government so quickly, and with so little dissent, having carried out so little of the social aspects of the Freedom Charter, certainly surprised me” may have been because you weren’t watching closely enough and you were part of a political movement that, essentially, had a two-stage view of the South African revolution.
    I was part of a national liberation movement, in Ireland, from 1986-1994 and I followed events in South Africa closely. I read the ANC’s journal as well as the SACP’s theoretical magazine and also the SACP’s bulletin Umsebenzi. I did so because I was supportive of both and the SACP, relating to the massive organisation and increase in consciousness of the black working class, seemed to be moving away from the two-stage theory. But by the early 1990s, it was certainly clear that both the ANC and SACP had been converted to a pretty ruthless set of capitalist economics.
    Indeed, in 1999 myself and another comrade wrote a paper on what was happening, five years on from the first democratic election. See:
    I used to run into your comrades from time to time, and they were all still ardently defending the ANC. In fact, the ANC-SACP regime had been attacking the working class for years before you folks wised up. Why was that?
    You’re also wrong about it being a world “No-one had envisaged”. Your political current at the time was declaiming how the working class wasn’t being defeated and forced back, and nor could it be. I drew the conclusion that your current was really quite bonkers in about 1985 when the British ones declared the miners had won the miners’ strike – a massive defeat, in reality.
    Those of us who thought critically for ourselves and tried to apply the tools of Marxism to material reality saw very clearly that the working class was being driven back.
    Mandela had a pre-eminent role in this because he was the one with the mana and was made leader of the ANC and thus first president. It all took place on his watch. And, of course, he ended up a multi-millionaire himself. (When the divorce with Winnie was in court, his assets were valued in the millions of dollars.)
    Moreover, ruling classes who can no longer rule in the old way are usually adept at picking out who they can do business with. In Ireland in 1921, the British knew they could do business with Michael Collins, regardless of his reputation as a ‘military hard man’. In the 1980s, the Brits came to the realisation that Adams and McGuinness were folks they could do business with; it took a long time, but Adams and McGuinness eventually delivered what decades of British repression couldn’t: the destruction of the IRA.
    Indeed, it was clear to me by about 1992 that the leaders of the movement I was part of in Ireland was following the ANC in selling out. Moreover, when the Republican Movement signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, leaders of the ANC toured around the various areas in Ireland backing up Gerry Adams’ attempts to get comrades (in both military and political wings of the Movement, ie IRA/Sinn Fein) to embrace the Good Friday Agreement. In the case of the Irish struggle, as in South Africa, your political current continued to support the leaderships long, long after it was clear to many of us that the struggle had been brought to a halt and a politically reformed version of the same economic system had become the goal, with massive inequality to continue in existence.
    In South Africa the ‘smart money’ knew that apartheid was unsustainable (due to the opposition to it) and also that it was increasingly being rendered obsolete (it belonged to an era of capital accumulation that was now in the past). So they assiduously set about exploring how they could do business with the ANC. This was *before* the collapse of the Soviet bloc, before the disintegration of the FSLN government in Nicaragua etc etc. The ANC, and Mandela, were up for a deal all along.
    I admire Mandela for his staunchness in prison – but, ultimately, he was crucial in delivering up the black masses to *intensified* economic exploitation. There is a direct line from the deal done in the early 1990s to the Marikana massacre last year. Once that deal was done, the ANC/SACP was bound to do whatever was necessary, including massacring workers, in order to ensure stable conditions for capital accumulation.

    • I’m afraid your comments bring to mind nothing so much as the explaining that was demanded of me in 1989, following the defeat of the revolution in Nicaragua to which I had devoted ten years of effort to support. I recall that as soon as the end of the workers and farmers government in Nicaragua became clear, I found myself surrounded by gleeful sectarian opponents of that revolution, who demanded that I admit my errors. You see, they, in their infinite wisdom, had seen right from the start that the Sandinista leadership was not up to the task, and that nothing could be expected from this revolution. That was why they had stood back from solidarising with it, and instead occupied themselves with ‘penetrating criticisms’ of the Sandinistas’ shortcomings. And now events had proven them correct!
      Well, no. What events had proved was that there are no guarantees of victory in revolutionary politics – and, once again, that the sectarians were incapable of recognising a real living revolution when it hit them in the face.
      Now of course, South Africa is not Nicaragua. However, I sense in your comments the same pride that you were the first to detect the rightward evolution of the ANC, while ‘my comrades’ were defending it. Good on you! For my part, I am not in any hurry to proclaim the end of a revolution, or of a revolutionary leadership. I followed the evolution of the Sandinista Front much more closely than I did the ANC, and I can tell you that I was aware of the rightward trajectory of its leaders for years before the final collapse. When I visited the country as part of a coffee-picking brigade in 1987, it was clear that the revolution had seriously rotted away, perhaps terminally. Yet I still supported the revolution and its leadership right to the end. Why? Because revolutions are extremely complex processes, unexpected political interventions by the masses can change the course of a leading organisation, even a seriously degenerated one, and because of that, it’s not over until it’s over.
      On the “world no one had envisaged” – this was a little unclear in my comments above. What I meant principally was that the ANC’s (and even more so, the South African Communist Party’s) expectations of the conditions under which they would come to power included the continued existence of the Soviet Union, as both a source of political support and of development aid. That was an illusion too, of course, albeit a widely shared one.

      • Since I was a supporter of the Nicaraguan, Irish and South African revolutions to the very end, and I was very *actively involved* in one of them for an important chunk of my life, your comments about gleeful sectarians are rather misplaced.

        But the tools of Marxism should allow those in possession of such tools to see the rot and draw political conclusions *in a timely manner*. Not years after the selling out has already been done. I’m not pretending to be the first person to spot the rot in South Africa; but, thankfully, I certainly wasn’t the last either.

        After all, it’s a pretty poor Marxism that puts the ‘Marxists’ in the rearguard all the time!

        In the case of Ireland, proclaiming that Sinn Fein was “leading the national liberation struggle” *for years* after they had ignominiously brought it to a halt and then, suddenly, years later and out of the blue, declaring their leadership has become ‘bourgeoisified’ is not serious politics. Similarly, in South Africa it was clear by the time the ANC became the government what their economic course was. Proclaiming for years afterwards that they were still leading a revolution simply indicates the people doing the proclaiming have no experience of revolutionary processes and also are not able to use the tools of Marxism to work out what is going on.

        Moreover, the inability to recognise what was happening in South Africa, which was dictated in no small part by the requirements of capital accumulation, was matched by an inability to understand what the function of a Labour government would be if it were to be elected here in 1984. Again, trying to play catch-up, instead of using the tools of Marxism to understand what capital requires at given points in time, is utterly useless to the working class. Fore-warned is fore-armed. Waking up after it’s all over is just not serious revolutionary politics.

        James, when I knew you in the old SAL days, you were a critical thinker. What on earth happened to you?


  5. Thank you very much for your post and answers James Robb! Much appreciated. Communist greetings from Sweden!

      • Reading your post made me remember a bit about that particular feeling of confidence in the capacities of the exploited and oppressed I experienced while reading “Their Trotsky and Ours” by Jack Barnes for the first time in a working-class suburb of Havana. I was 15 years old and had recently met the Communist league in Sweden. Thanks again and keep up the good work.

  6. James, having spent (and enjoyed) some time today reading a handful of posts on your blog You have encouraged me that perhaps I can do some of the writing that’s been on my mind in a way that might be useful.
    But may I also note one other reaction? Perhaps I have only inadvertently chosen to read a few posts on topics Phil feels especially strongly about. Maybe he doesn’t challenge everything you write (or everything you write of a political nature). Or perhaps you are old friends and enjoy the debate (in which case I apologize for sticking my nose where it may not belong). But after reading Phil’s attacks on your views in post after post I find myself wondering, “Why doesn’t Phil start his own blog?”
    Not that we don’t all welcome the free exchange of ideas. But perhaps at a certain point one should also seek to find one’s own audience. Just a thought.

    • Phil and I are indeed old acquaintances. This is the first discussion we have had since we parted company politically nearly 30 years ago, so I guess there was a certain amount of catching up to do. Whether the discussion continues remains to be seen. Phil writes for the online newspaper Red Line, which he linked to in some of his comments.

  7. Apologies for not trusting my first instinct and keeping these particular thoughts to myself. I was trying to be humorous…in part.

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