Nelson Mandela is dead, and the media pullulates with blazing adulation. Much of it is justified: we must, after all, extol Madiba’s courageous opposition to a barbarous system, and to the barbarous philosophy that maintained it in existence. He fought discrimination of the basest kind, and for that we must admire him. Moreover, in enduring nearly three decades of wrongful imprisonment, Mandela displayed reserves of strength and humility that few of us could ever hope to match.
But there is something amiss in the coverage of his death, in the fact that encomiums flow from men who have not a speck of his revolutionary virtue. Such men belong to Establishments that, only a few years before his release, viewed Mandela as just another black terrorist. Such Establishments refused to condemn apartheid South Africa, and even remained friendly with it: the United States had barely dismantled its own system of apartness, while Israel continues to oppress another indigenous people in a similar fashion. Why have these Establishments appeared to change their tune?
One glance at Mandela’s presidency yields the answer. Just before he emerged from prison, Mandela averred that the African National Congress — of which he was a part — had an unshakeable commitment to nationalising a whole slew of industries. In 1996, as president, he bluntly reversed that averment: ‘Privatisation is the fundamental policy of the ANC’. Indeed, Mandela set in motion a program of mass privatisation that, to this day, rolls on.
‘Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage,’ Mandela had said in 1990. Such empowerment arrived for a small and corrupt bourgeoisie, but the majority of black South Africans continued to languish in ever-deepening poverty. Millions continued to be ravaged by AIDS and preventable disease and malnutrition. Meanwhile, whites, with whom most wealth remained, saw their average household income sharply rise.
Furthermore, under Mandela, various industries were deregulated, corporation tax was reduced and unemployment climbed. Most of this economic putrefaction is traceable to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR), which was devised by white financial elites, and which, despite its name, elicited no growth.
It quickly becomes apparent that Mandela, during his presidency, was little more than a neoliberal patsy, willingly pinioned by western and World Bank tentacles. ‘Just call me a Thatcherite,’ his vice-president and successor Mbeki had said, as if to confirm the point. Of course, the seeds of all this were sown well before Mandela took office, as John Pilger and others have established. The ANC met secretly with the apartheid regime, which, finding itself in a spot of bother, essentially co-opted black leaders. Mandela was the most prominent. Thus when racial apartheid officially fell, South Africa was able to assume a veneer of democracy. But of course, wealth and power had not changed hands at all. The so-called Rainbow Nation remains one of the most unequal societies on Earth.
If Mandela had really pursued economic fairness, he would not be venerated. Such a pursuit would, after all, have necessitated at least a partial repudiation of rampant corporate capitalism. In fact, Mandela embraced the principles of neoliberalism and thereby betrayed most black South Africans. And so we can say with confidence that he is venerated by the prevailing order precisely because he did not, in the end, dare to threaten it. Those that do — from Chávez to Chomsky to Snowden to Castro — are looked upon by the Establishment with rather less religious ecstasy.
We must remember, though, that once upon a time, Mandela would indisputably have belonged to their number. For very many years, he and others battled bravely against the brutal subjugation of black South Africa. For years, they fruitlessly traversed every diplomatic road in search of peace and justice. Their reasonable demands are contained in the ANC’s Freedom Charter for all to see. But pamphlets and peaceful demonstrations yielded nothing. Strikes and civil disobedience altered nothing. Such forms of protest were regularly met with violence — with state terrorism. And so, in the heat of horrors like Sharpeville, Mandela and others were forced to forge the Spear of the Nation: Umkhonto we Sizwe. The military wing of the ANC embarked on a righteous campaign of sabotage, and Mandela was one of its architects. What else could they do? ‘The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices — submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa.’ So declared Umkhonto’s manifesto in 1961. It went on: ‘We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.’ All of a sudden, black South Africans were galvanised; hope had come again.
It is this Mandela who threatened to topple the status quo, and unsurprisingly, it is this Mandela who was branded a terrorist. But it is also this Mandela whose actions and whose character are now receiving universal obeisance. This is pernicious because it ignores and implicitly legitimates what Pilger rightly called his tarnished legacy. Furthermore, it allows our leaders to create the illusion that they endorse or possess some of the young Mandela’s moral and revolutionary ardour. How maddening it was, for instance, to see Obama lament Mandela’s wrongful imprisonment, when Obama himself presides over Guantánamo, and a thoroughly broken and racist penal system!
We may end with something of an analogy. Imagine, if you will, a leopard. This leopard was once strong and impressive, but also endangered, for rapacious poachers were in the business of despoiling his environment. Eventually, in righteous anger, the leopard bit one of his despoilers. Rather than kill him, the poachers caged him. Later, they defanged and domesticated him, and claimed his continued existence as evidence of their humanity. All the while, they never desisted from destroying his home and its residents. Now that the leopard is dead, the poachers brush away their tears, and make a kaross of his skin, and take turns to wear it. In doing so, they hope to convince the world that they, qua poachers, have the leopard’s original, virtuous qualities. But many refuse to be fooled by such an absurdly silly display, and many have had it reaffirmed to them that a leopard can indeed change its spots.
Analogies have their limits, of course, but the point still stands. Nelson Mandela is simply a symbol. He has been stripped of his sword and sanitised. Like innumerable others, he has been completely absorbed by the enormous swelling pustule of global corporate capitalism, with the aim of feigning democratic credentials that in fact barely exist.