The summer is nearly over here in Spain and I have spent mine reading about what historians had to say about Nelson Mandela. I don’t really know why. I just did. Maybe recent events in Gaza made me think of the Apartheid regime, or maybe had I not already seen all five seasons of Breaking Bad I never would have read history books on South Africa. I know I can be quite frivolous when I am on vacation, but who isn't?
Many of us seeking social change in one way or another, whether we call it reform, progress or revolution, whether we seek it for ourselves or for our grand children, end up sooner or later finding an interest in Martin L. King, Gandhi, Che Guevara, Rosa Luxembourg, Emma Goldman, or other such iconic figures.
We might have read an article in a magazine, seen a documentary on the BBC or went to see a ‘biopic’ on a Saturday night at our local theaters (usually when there is nothing better to watch) but we rarely actively research on the real lives of these icons. For the most of us, our knowledge on the topic rarely exceeds that which is offered through these media.
Hence, not only has death sealed the iconic status of these historical figures, it now is mainly in the hands of a propaganda machine that ruthlessly castrates the truth. That is how MLK becomes a holiday in the U.S., Gandhi is downgraded to spiritual guide for bank executives who only read some of his quotes and that poor Che a T-Shirt stamp for college students.
Though Nelson Mandela only passed away on December 5th 2013, that is less than a year ago, the propaganda machine has already been working on the Nelson Mandela/Morgan Freeman merger long before his death. Anyone asked today about Mandela would probably give you a picture of a pigeon-feeding grand father dropping moral lessons of forgiveness on his more than 50 million children. All of it partially true, of course propaganda always builds on a few bites of truth.
My description of people’s view might sound as an exaggeration, but my point is made. Perhaps his laudatory -- though factually rich -- New York Times’ obituary would probably work better than any caricature I might draw for you. But enough of that. Let’s look at who the real Nelson Mandela was.
Mandela was not among the poor and the oppressed
That is, of course, relatively speaking. Indeed, Mandela was a Xhosa aristocrat from the Thembu royal lineage and received his education from Anglo-Saxon missionaries. Then Mandela attended the Fort Hare university, a college reserved only for the young black elite and graduated in Witwatersrand, in Transvaal, at the heart of what was then the “Boer Country”. He would then move to Johannesburg to start his own law firm.
Hard to find here the poor boy growing up in a farmer's village like the NYT wants us to think.
Mandela fought with arms more than words
Morgan Freeman seems to be a very sweet man besides a talented actor. Nelson Mandela, however, was a fighter. Mandela was not the peaceful reformist that Western propaganda has us believe. He was, first and foremost, a revolutionary.
In 1961, he co-founded the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed and violent wing of the ANC, leading a sabotage campaign of more than 200 attacks, together with the communist Joe Slovo. In 1962 he would then be arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
A reconciliation according to Washington not Mandela
According to the myth, Mandela presided over the transition from a minority rule Apartheid regime to a multicultural democracy. Mandela is often depicted as the father of the South African national reconciliation. However, the reality differs substantially from this idyllic ready-for-consumption picture of that period.
The truth is that Mandela was brought to power by F. W. de Klerk who was practically receiving orders from Washington (for which he will receive a Nobel Peace Prize, a common treat from the U.S. to its loyal pets).
Indeed, De Klerk disbanded the South African army that the ANC was not able to defeat. De Klerk also denied the realization of a multicultural decentralized State, in other words a Federal alternative to the rather centralized ANC ‘Marxist’ model. Finally, De Klerk sabotaged the secret negotiations between Thabo Mbeki and the South African Army Generals on the recognition by the ANC of a Volkstaat. (see Bernard Lugan: Mandela l’icône et le néant)
A nation under Washington’s rule
The social and economic results after 20 years of post Apartheid democracy are absolutely disastrous. There does not seem to be any discontinuity in its relationship with the IMF and the World Bank (both are the economic arms of the U.S. oligarchy, in case you were born yesterday) and the economic results are indeed worse today than during Apartheid.
South Africa is now in fact now among the 5 lowest ranked economies in Africa, in spite of being an economic giant in the region (but only due to its size and its resources). Official records show that there is a 25.6% rate of unemployment (probably much higher in fact). The poorest 40% are now 50% poorer than during Apartheid, in other words, the poor are getting much poorer. In fact, 17 out of 51 million South Africans are only surviving thanks to a Welfare program called Social Grant. (see B. Lugan)
Murder rates have soared to unprecedented levels and the country is now among the 10 most dangerous places on the planet, with about 31 intentional homicides a day. (source: UNODC). In fact, and though the exact figures might still be the subject of experts debate, it can be said that over 3,000 white farmers have been murdered since the end of Apartheid. We are far from the Rainbow Nation of Nelson Mandela’s speeches…
Mandela failed at building a multicultural society
The famous expression ‘Rainbow Nation’ might have been a beautiful dream, but only those whose who wish to see their dreams become reality would deny the fact that South Africa as a multicultural society has failed.
The reality of South Africa, according to most experts on the subject, is that of an ethnically, racially and regionally divided country. To which we might add a classist society with huge disparities of income between the rich and the poor. The end of Apartheid is only visible in the existence of a new black wealthy class that spends hundreds of SA pounds in fancy restaurants while the majority survives on food stamps.
Elections in fact are probably the most striking example of this lasting division along racial lines. The black mainly vote for the ANC and the white and the ‘coloured’ still vote for the opposition party. Like in many African countries where western representative democracy has been imposed, election results are quite easy to predict.
Lessons for the Left in Western countries
There is a lot more that could have been said about Mandela’s real life and legacy. Indeed in a short essay like this, one can only focus on what has never been developed in the mainstream media, which means here the negative aspects of his legacy.
I could have nuanced this picture by explaining how Mandela never really had the power to influence politics all by himself ever since he became the president in 1994. But that would require a much longer essay.
Mandela was a fascinating man, a revolutionary, a combatant and an extraordinarily brave man, of course. That much can be said.
Also, beyond this, perhaps must we see that figures such as Che Guevara, MLK, Gandhi et al. including Nelson Mandela himself were human beings involved in complex political struggles where victory and defeat are rarely depending on one human being.
History tells us that in political struggle there is ugliness and beauty, war and peace, morality and sins, ends that justify the means and ends that don’t. Certainly, to say all this might sound as a truism, but the difficult part is to accept that a political act can be all those things at the same time.
But what we learn from this is probably that the western left is often unequipped to grasp the complexities of a continent made of artificial countries; countries without nation where ethnic groups were forced by the colonizers to coexist. Not to understand these realities would have us project our democratic ideals of multiculturalism and ethnical mixity, of oversimplifying any society by seeing only a sum of individuals, each with their own human rights.
Perhaps it is time for us to enrich our conceptual toolbox by understanding and accepting other and larger units that make up a society, even at the risk of rending older concepts either obsolete, either secondary.