Ever since the death of Nelson Mandela on the 6th of December, the most flowery tributes have been showered on him by a wide spectrum of the ruling classes all over the world. While the face of US imperialism Barak Obama “led the world” in paying tribute to “his personal hero”, the speeches his lieutenants in Britian, much of Europe, and across the world reverberated the same. The mass murderer president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakshe who oversaw the genocide of the people of Tamil Ealam also had tears to shed for Mandela. The Indian state also gargled the same and declared a four day long state mourning. The same waves also reached our campus. From ABVP to the parliamentary pseudo-left AISA or SFI and their likes, several organizations vied with each other in presenting their laurels to their “hero”. This spectrum is certainly striking, and may even confuse a few as to the real “legacy” of Mandela. However in reality, it is precisely this unanimity of imperialists and their agents that is most revealing. Mandela’s so called legacy is built upon on an illusion, the seeds of which were laid by Mandela himself. It is extremely important that we break this collective iconization and the illusion of Mandela’s legacy.
What exactly is Mandela’s legacy? The checkered political career of young Mandela began with a revolutionary vision to fight injustice and exploitation by white racial tyranny that was weighing heavily upon the black majority of South Africa. It is with this purpose that he joined the African National Congress in 1942 and founded the radical Youth League to wrest economic and political power from the oppressive apartheid regime that racially segregated the people of colour (black, coloured & Indian) from the white ruling minority. This was a regime that came with the mission to fight the "Swart Gevaar" (the "black peril") and the program of "Die Kaffer op sy plek" ("The negro in his place"). In the face of increasing fascist repression, massacres (of the likes of the Sharpeville massacre, 1960) and the banning of several organizations to crush this black assertion, Mandela shunned the path of passive resistance. In 1961 he launched an armed struggle under the military organization Umkhonto we Sizwe (the spear of the nation) to overthrow the white regime. He was arrested soon after in 1963 at the age of 42 and sentenced to life in prison where he would remain for the next 28 years. The armed resistance with its revolutionary agenda however galloped through the 1970s & 80s thereby swelling the ranks of Umkhonto we Sizwe. This was despite the brutal massacres like the infamous Soweto massacre (which was the epicenter of the struggle) where close to 600 blacks were butchered by the racist regime. But alongside, this was also the time when the agenda of the black militants proved too radical for most of the exiled ANC moderates who not only were prepared for a negotiated “peace” but were also instrumental in sabotaging the struggle. During the 1980s, the apartheid regime offered generous loans to a handful of black businessmen leading to the rise of a new black bourgeoisie that was essentially comprador. ANC chieftains quickly moved into mansions in "golf and country estates" and were eager for “peace”. All this while, the brutal apartheid regime enjoyed the support of the west (particularly US & Israel). By this time, the imperialist forces very well realized that with the rising groundswell amongst the black masses, the choice was between revolution or “reconciliation. In other words, a complete economic transformation OR a “peaceful transition” that would leave the white property-owning minority and Western corporate’s interests intact albeit with cosmetic changes. Through the long clandestine negotiations that finally led to his release, Mandela (and the moderate ANC) chose the latter. It is this betrayal of the cause for which thousands of people across Africa gave their lives which made Mandela into an “icon” that he is for the oppressors now.
“From revolutionary to economic manager: Mandela’s lesson in change”. Ironically, this is not the opinion of a trenchant critic of Mandela. Rather, this is the title of an article written in praise by a corporate media-giant. It succinctly captures the historic compromise of Mandela and ANC in the service of global capital. As early as 1985, years before the world would behold his release, this compromise was being scripted when a group of South African industrialists led by Gavin Reilly, chairman of the Anglo-American mining company, met prominent ANC officials in Zambia. Both sides agreed upon a "transition" from apartheid to a “black-governed liberal democracy” with the requisite "order" & "stability". In other words, justice was sacrificed at the altar of "free market". Leading figures in the ANC, such as Cyril Ramaphosa, head of the National Union of Mineworkers (now a corporate giant), was already negotiating a power-sharing "deal" with the apartheid regime. Secret meetings also took place in England, at which a future president of “liberated” South Africa, Tabo Mbeki, brokered “peace” with the heads of corporations that formed the bulwark of years of racial apartheid. Mandela meanwhile had secret negotiations with the authorities from the Pollsmoor Prison. To facilitate these negotiations, Mandela was shifted from Robben Island Prison (where he was not allowed visitors) prison and these negotiations culminated in his final release in 1990. Soon after that in 1993, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his own jailer, the last president of the racist apartheid regime de Klerk “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime”.
This “peace” of course came with a grave price. Till very late Mandela pledged to take over or nationalize the mines and other monopoly industries. This was based upon the ideals of the Freedom Charter adopted by him in 1955 that stated that "The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil; the banks and monopoly industries shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industries and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people”. He also boasted that "a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable". But, soon after his release, on his first visit to US, he reassured the imperialist west that "The ANC will reintroduce the market to South Africa". When criticized of emulating the ruthless Thatcherite model of neo-liberalism that further impoverished the black majority, his reply was: "You can put any label on it if you like, but, for this country, privatization is the fundamental policy.” Lauded as the most “reliable steward of sub-Sahara Africa’s largest economy, embracing orthodox fiscal and monetary policies” by the Financial Times, Mandela, made sure that the flow of profits from South African mines and agriculture into the coffers of foreign investors and the white business elite was never interrupted.
Mandela facilitated the process of maintaining racial hegemony over resources. While the mandate from the people as enshrined in the Freedom Charter was nationalisation of the country’s assets and the mines, Mandela went into several deals with the white big business to leave their share in the pie intact. He held regular meetings with the likes of Harry Oppenheimer, former chairman of the mining giants Anglo-American and De Beers, the economic symbols of apartheid rule. Shortly after the 1994 election, Mandela, the newly elected black president, even submitted the ANC’s economic program to Oppenheimer for “his approval” and made several key revisions to address “his concerns”, as well as those of other top industrialists. The outcomes of those meetings were that there could be an illusion of “political power” for the oppressed black masses, but the gold and diamonds were to be retained in the hands of the same few who controlled it before. Another shameful instance of the betrayal was the negotiations held around the ownership of the Reserve Bank of South Africa, the most powerful institution in the country. While the people’s mandate as per the Freedom Charter was to nationalise it and bring it under the elected government, Mandela was instrumental in betraying this demand and maintaining it till date as a privately owned bank with 650 (predominantly white) shareholders. Not only was its “autonomy” (i.e., private ownership) safeguarded by the new constitution, but it was headed by the same man who ran it under apartheid. Several such apartheid era figures in key positions, like finance minister Derek Keyes, retained their positions in the new administration under Mandela. Another fundamental pledge of the Freedom Charter that demanded the complete redistribution of land was set aside, replaced with a new clause in the constitution which “protected all private property”. The transfer of ownership of resources and land that forms the real basis for any genuine transformation was deliberately obfuscated by creating the façade of “Truth & Reconciliation” and “rainbow-nation”.
All that Mandela’s “Reconciliation” and embracing of the “free market” entailed was the further pauperization of South Africa’s black majority. He only bolstered racial apartheid by encouraging economic apartheid. While the disparities between the whites and a handful of beneficiary black elites narrowed, they widened between the latter and the teeming black majority. The vast majority of the blacks remain in same conditions, if not worse, than under apartheid. The adoption of privatization as the “fundamental policy” by Mandela right after coming to power spelt the betrayal of all the promises. The blacks who constitute 80% of the population today control only 5% of wealth. Only a tiny fraction (3%) of land owned by whites (87%) were transferred to blacks since 1994. So, while 60% of the blacks remain landless, almost all agricultural land is owned by 60,000 whites. Post-apartheid, the income of 40% of the poorest black families has further shrunk by about 20%. 2 million of them have been evicted from their homes. The privatization of the basic services has deprived millions from water and electricity. The unemployment crisis is also defined along racial lines wherein by 2010, 30% of blacks were officially unemployed as compared to only 5% of whites. In terms of racial distribution of per capita income, black income levels in 2008 was still only 13% of white per capita income, compared to 10.9% in 1993. Behind the charade of “free & fair” environment in Mandela’s South Africa, the blacks were far from being free, and very little was fair. The massacre of 34 protesting miners (mostly shot on their backs by the state police) in the British-owned platinum mine at Marikana last year only serve to testify the ruthlessness of the post-apartheid regime built by Mandela. Liberation was betrayed for ‘Liberalization’.
Mandela through his historic betrayal, sold out the enormous revolutionary potential of the anti-racist struggle that raged through entire Africa against years of brutal racist oppression and exploitation. It is this betrayal that makes Mandela the favoured “saint” of the oppressors - from Obama to the Indian state and their pseudo-left stooges in campus. They draw inspiration from his “legacy” not only for his compromises, but also for his ability to use his prestige & charisma to persuade his own followers - the oppressed - to “reconcile” or sacrifice their own interest for the “greater good” of the oppressive ruling classes. And to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, this precisely has been the “historic mission” of all subservient ruling classes across the world. After all, same was the role of the likes of Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian National Congress in brokering the transfer of power in 1947 from their masters that at the same time safeguarded the oppressive feudal-imperialist nexus. But for the ongoing heroic struggles of the people there can be no “reconciliation” with feudalism, with fascism or with imperialism. The only way forward towards liberation is the completely overthrow of the present unjust order through revolutionary social transformation