August Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 13 years ago

In February 1990, an Afrikaner teenager was in the swimming pool when her father emerged from the family home to deliver ill tidings. “Now we are in trouble,” he announced. “The terrorist is being freed.” “Who is this?” the girl wanted to know. “Nelson Mandela,” she was informed. “You didn’t need ask any more questions,” Zelda la Grange, now 37, recalled a couple of months ago in an interview with Britain’s The Observer. “You just knew it was a person who represented fear, who drove fear, who was a threat of some sort.”

That was the general view of Mandela among the beneficiaries of the apartheid. And it wasn’t restricted to South Africa. Margaret Thatcher openly referred to him as a terrorist in the mid-1980s, after he had served about 20 years in prison, and when it was already becoming fashionable among a section of British youth to compose songs demanding his release. Ronald Reagan felt much the same way. Not surprisingly, the two of them were resistant to the idea of sanctions against Pretoria, even though the rest of the world — barring a few dishonourable exceptions such as Israel and Pinochet’s Chile — strongly felt otherwise.

A great deal has changed since then. Zelda la Grange, who has worked as Mandela’s personal assistant since he was president and now also doubles as a confidante, describes herself as his honorary granddaughter. Many of the Afrikaners who once wished him dead now sing hosannas to his greatness. Hardly anyone anywhere in the world would even think of labelling him a terrorist. But there are always exceptions.

It was less than three weeks before Mandela’s 90th birthday last month that US president George W. Bush added his squiggle to a bill that finally removes Mandela and other South African leaders from the country’s terror watch list. Under the legislation, any member of the African National Congress (ANC) intending to visit any place in the US other than the United Nations headquarters in New York, required a waiver from the secretary of state — a situation that Condoleezza Rice found “rather embarrassing.” What is hard to understand is why the US had to wait 14 years after the ANC became South Africa’s ruling party in order to rescind a misguided rule that clearly represented a goodwill gesture towards the apartheid.

And the American attitude is all the more intriguing in view of the ANC’s capitulation to the demands of western capital as a condition for one man, one vote — the “historic compromise” negotiated by Thabo Mbeki, whereby it was agreed that while democracy would be instituted, the existing economic structure would more or less remain intact. This was clearly incompatible with the Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC in 1955, which declared:

“The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people. The mineral wealth below the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people… Restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land redivided amongst those who work it to banish famine and land hunger… All people shall have the right to live where they choose, [and] be decently housed… Rent and prices shall be lowered, food plentiful and no one shall go hungry.”

Less than 10 years later, in his statement at the Rivonia trial in 1964, Mandela accurately pointed out that the Freedom Charter was “by no means a blueprint for a socialist state.” He went on to say: “The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.”

He defended the ANC’s close cooperation with the South African Communist Party by saying: “Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades, communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us, and work with us.” He admitted his attraction to the idea of a classless society sprang partly from Marxist reading. Citing Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah and Nasser, he said: “We all accept the need for some form of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of this world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty. But this does not mean we are Marxists.”

The negotiations with the Afrikaner elite (which had finally been persuaded by its friends in Washington and London that apartheid was bad for business) conducted by Mbeki in the period 1987-90 were not initially common knowledge within the ANC, because it was quite obvious that the more militant sections of the ideologically amorphous organisation would be less than thrilled by its commitment to neoliberalism. There is no way, however, that Mandela, who himself was taking part in negotiations during the last phase of his imprisonment, could have been in the dark about these developments. Why did he acquiesce in this arrangement?

Was it because his views had been modified and further moderated during nearly three decades of incarceration? Or was it because he was willing to sacrifice some of his ideals for what he perceived at the time as a more vital achievement, namely the transcending of political apartheid through peaceful means?

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Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Photograph: AFP

There is more to be said for the latter explanation. It is no coincidence that Mandela used his 90th birthday celebrations last month as a platform for pleas against poverty. In his speech at a celebratory feast in his home village, he said: “There are many people in South Africa who are rich and who can share those riches with those not so fortunate, who have not been able to conquer poverty.”

There is a weak echo in that statement of his relatively youthful enthusiasm for a classless society. There is also a degree of what comes across as naiveté, although it might actually be indicative of despair. There are exceptions, but the rich generally do not share their wealth with the poor voluntarily. Nor do the riches of the elite trickle down of their own accord to needier sections of society: surplus wealth is much likelier to be devoted to conspicuous consumption or put to other unproductive uses. That is precisely why unadulterated capitalism is not universally adored by those who suffer the consequences of its inequities.

And there are plenty of those in South Africa. What’s particularly alarming is that in some respects their condition has actually deteriorated in the past 14 years: they were, in other words, better off under apartheid. That’s not so much an indictment of Mandela or even of Mbeki as it is of the system they agreed not to change.

The result is a modified form of economic apartheid: the Afrikaner elite has made room at the top for a black middle class, some of whose members have become very rich very quickly. The circumstances of those who subsisted in the townships have not appreciably changed. Most agricultural land remains firmly in white hands. Unofficially, the level of employment is said to be in the vicinity of 40%. Is it any surprise, then, that petty crime is rampant and that immigrants and refugees from neighbouring countries attract a degree of resentment that breeds shocking forms of violence?

In his book, Freedom Next Time, John Pilger cites a remarkably prescient quote from Black Consciousness leader Steven Biko, who was murdered in prison by the apartheid regime’s police in 1977. The previous year, in an interview with Donald Woods, he said: “For the white man, [one man,one vote] would be the greatest solution. It would encourage competition among blacks, you see, and it would eliminate the most important ground for critique from abroad of the present regime. But it would not change the position of economic oppression of blacks. That would remain the same.”

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Nelson Mandela and George W. Bush. Photograph: AFP

Fourteen years is not a very long time in the history of a nation, and it could be argued that South Africa will need much longer to transform itself into a country that could serve as a model for a troubled continent. The obvious counter-argument is that it is not, in most senses, headed in the right direction. As things stand, there cannot possibly be a rainbow nation at the end of the road. Racism is still rife, even among those whites who hail Mandela as a living saint. They can’t get over the fact that he emerged unembittered from 27 years of imprisonment, sought no revenge or even legal action against the perpetrators of apartheid, and, what’s more, didn’t even try to strip them of most of their privileges.

In large part, his actions were predicated on the fact that he is an extraordinarily decent human being. That alone made him a rarity among world leaders. And by serving no more than a single term as president, he set an invaluable precedent for Africa in particular, where heads of state are usually hard to dislodge without a coup or a revolution. Perhaps the starkest contrast is with Robert Mugabe, which makes it all the more ironic that fears about South Africa going down the Zimbabwean road a few years hence are not exactly uncommon.

The lionisation of Mandela by all manner of folk in most parts of the world — from politicians to sportspeople and pop stars — can often be cloying, particularly when it comes from people who know little about his past and never supported the struggle he spearheaded, but who nonetheless hope a bit of his moral superiority will rub off on them.

Mandela cannot entirely evade responsibility for the state of South Africa, even though his shortcomings lay not so much in his designs as in what he resigned himself to. But so vast is the store of goodwill he has accumulated that a bit of depletion barely diminishes his stature. Saint Nelson, however, is not my favourite incarnation of Mandela. I prefer the cantankerous old man who occasionally surfaces when the saint in him has had quite enough. This tendency was demonstrated a few years ago in the context of the war against Iraq, when Mandela complained that George W. Bush was “introducing chaos into international affairs.” Dismissing Tony Blair as “Bush’s foreign minister,” he said of the US leader: “What I am condemning is a president who has no foresight, who is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.”

If only he had allowed this uncompromisingly principled side of him to surface more frequently in the run-up to the rebirth of South Africa, it might today have been a more uplifting country.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.