Mandela's footprint and the great sell-out myth

Nelson Mandela 'The Black Pimpernel' circa 1960's Photo: Sowetan/Avusa Media Ltd/Gallo Images via Getty Images

The other night I attended an event organised by the Nelson Mandela Foundation that was part of their efforts to commemorate the second anniversary of his passing. Taking place at the Market Theatre on 5 December, this production interpreted Mandela’s legacy via revealing quotations – both personal and political - from his letters to family members and friends, and performed through dance, song and with quotations from his actual letters.

This year, in contrast to the national – indeed, international – lamentations that took place 2013 when he passed away, 2015’s events seem to have been significantly more subdued and low key. Perhaps this is because so many other things have happened since that singular moment in history, two years ago, and our awareness of subsequent global events have simply been too much with us. But now there is another factor at play. In recent months, there has been a growing rumble from those who charge Mandela masterminded the selling out of the country’s black population in a settlement that became the nation’s current non-racial political order. The most aggressive version of this charge has come from the mouth of one Julius Malema, chief commissar of the Economic Freedom Fighters, especially in his recent speaking tour in the United Kingdom. But this narrative has increasingly become part of a larger rhetorical thread among many other younger South Africans as well.

Their argument goes something along the following lines: When Mandela was a fiery young ANC leader; he favoured a revolutionary overthrow of the apartheid system and the economic universe that supported it. But, once he had entered prison, the fight was gradually drained from him. In his final years of incarceration – especially as he gained favoured treatment by his jailors with a private villa, family visits and increasing creature comforts – he was softened up for his participation in the final efforts to end the old regime. Then, upon his release, so this argument goes, he was quickly embraced and seduced by captains of industry, finance and, crucially, international capital. Thereupon, he was effectively sweet-talked and blandished with affection - or simply conned - into sharply forgoing any push for a fundamental reformation of the South African political economy - and all this was with an eye to preserving the prevailing economic order for the benefit of the white minority. The net result was the hollow shell of a settlement that simply replaced white racist politicians with a select few new black ones. And, crucially, it allowed white South Africans to demonstrate their fealty to the new order simply by embracing Mandela’s memory and image, absolving them of any guilt or responsibility for the resulting economic disorder.

Of course, such a view could seem to be the logical outgrowth from two decades of a still-deferred payout on the promises made at the end of apartheid – or earlier in the Congress of Democrats’ Freedom Charter, dating back to 1955. Thus was white privilege secured - and the big houses, the pools, the nannies, the gardeners and their masters’ stock dividends thus were all made safe in perpetuity. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

For many younger people, this increasing anger about this supposed Mandela legacy comes as they contemplate their apparently declining economic fortunes, their struggles to breach the barriers so as to enter into the secure middle class, let alone the upper reaches of prosperity, and as the costs of obtaining a university degree (for those who can even gain admission) continue to spiral out of reach. Others, of course, see in their harsh personal circumstances the concrete realities of South Africa’s deplorable standing in terms of the quality of its public education, its public health services, and – most pivotally – in the country’s gross inequality as represented by an intolerably high Gini coefficient.

Some of this, of course, is the natural impatience of youth for change, for progress, and for success. But, more importantly, it seems to flow from a failure to teach young people about what actually happened in the early 1990s - as a new nation struggled to be born from out of the ashes of an older one. Instead, too many seemed to have absorbed the romantic, but less than accurate notion that the struggle against apartheid was largely won by street protests throughout South Africa’s townships; by the ANC’s military wing, MK, and similar groups against the South African army; by the actions of protesters around the world, and from the pressure of international trade and cultural sanctions. The crucial impact of the failure of foreign banks to roll over South Africa’s international loans in the wake of the “Rubicon” speech is almost always overlooked.

Of course all of these actions conspired to sap apartheid South Africa’s power, leaching away strength, day by day, from the old regime. But the unbanning of the ANC and other groups, along with the release of Nelson Mandela and the others from their respective incarcerations, was, in reality, a recognition that a deadly, draining stalemate that was slowly destroying the nation’s economy had been reached – but, crucially, it was not a victory by any means.

In fact, even earlier than many in the liberation movements (or their supporting groups around the world), Nelson Mandela had recognised that the day would come, sooner or later, when the old regime would need to take the difficult steps to come forward to negotiate about the country’s future. Crucially, his realised his movement must be poised to grasp that moment successfully, as soon as it came along. As a result, the Codesa negotiations, and the negotiations afterwards, were just that. They were negotiations, rather than a moment to receive the surrender of the government. There would be no victory parade, no show trials, no captors in chains, and no executions of the former oppressors.

And in a negotiation, some things go on the table for discussion rather than simply demands. Mandela rightly recognised that the primary responsibility was to gain the political upper hand. Yes, some things were non-negotiable such a universal franchise and a centrally unified state. And these were achieved, despite strident opposition that came from many whites (and, it should not be forgotten, from representatives of the so-called homeland governments as well).

It is clearly true Mandela and his team did not negotiate for some kind of an entirely new economic dispensation, nor did they push very hard for those familiar clauses from the Freedom Charter that called for the nationalisation of banks and basic industry. But it is also just as clear that Mandela and his party were receiving a perspective-shattering, quick, in-depth education into some harsh international economic realities, the moment they undertook all those international victory laps. They began hearing from business leaders everywhere about the liquidity of capital and the possibilities of lightning-fast movements of that same capital moving out of a problematic nation, the moment international investors and all those fund managers saw economic instability on the up-tick. They also learned the jarring observation that the potential for all that presumed wealth in the ground was insufficient to come even close to the glaring economic needs of a bruised nation. Nevertheless, no one should underestimate the efforts by the current government to reach for some of those promises, such as the mass housing efforts of the past twenty years.
Married together with these understandings was the harsh, sudden realisation that the national government’s resources cupboard was virtually bare from years of ever higher spending on internal security operations, along with interest on the national debt. With this, a growing caution began to creep, then to hurtle in on the consciousness of the leadership-in-waiting, increasingly limiting their hoped-for universal freedom of action in their brave new world. Similarly, it became increasingly apparent that South Africa’s natural wealth was simply insufficient to address all the demands for that new beginning, even if it was managed carefully, and even if the nation’s economic growth was nourished effectively.

But there are yet two other aspects that have received relatively little attention in these new, contemporary charges that Mandela “sold out” his revolution. The first of these was the realisation that the old verities of enduring financial, military and moral support for the liberation movements had evaporated with the demise of the Soviet empire in the USSR and in Eastern Europe. The wide-ranging freedom of movement in terms of public statements and manifestos had now, seemingly overnight, become much more sharply circumscribed than had been the case in days gone by.

Moreover, as Mandela’s party edged ever closer to actual control of government, they could observe the kind of dreadful civil war taking place in the various fragments of the former Yugoslavia. This was a place, after all, where people ostensibly were all part of one nation. They effectively spoke the same language, and while they looked alike and whose differences were largely in their religions, alphabets and historical traditions, they were engaged in savage fighting right in the heart of Europe. Such fighting, visible on South African television news broadcasts nightly, might well have given pause to many in government as well as in the government in waiting. If it could happen in Europe, it clearly was not out of the realm of possibility for something similar to happen in South Africa as well.

And, of course, there was already a low-level civil war in the Natal Midlands – as well as parts of many black urban townships. From the perspective of 2015, it is just too easy to forget just how the old regime’s still-formidable army and the police could have been pushed into open rebellion against putative outcomes - and just how terrible the results would have been for millions in the wake of such fighting. The adage attributed variously to Nikita Khrushchev as well as more ancient generals, the one in which the living in a vanquished land would come to envy the dead, surely should come to mind. And more contemporaneously, the dystopian forebodings of a trio of important South African novels, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, Karel Schoeman’s Na die Geliefde Land (Promised Land) and JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, could just as easily have been read as the raw material for news reporting, rather than just some grim literary predictions by the literary world.

To this writer at least, it seems Mandela’s genius was always to accept that a negotiated settlement surely meant that the national healing could only begin via a fundamental change, but, crucially, with agreement over that change throughout the national political landscape. Only after that happened, could compelling economic realignments take root and flourish.

In this sense, then, is it fair to lay the blame on a man who last held political office over a decade and a half ago, for the failures of his successors to nurture growing national consensus over how the majority would be brought effectively into the nation’s economy? Should Mandela be blamed for the great feeding frenzy at the trough engendered by a new nomenklatura together with the new politically connected? Should he take the rap for the failure of the business community and government to come together to commit to national growth strategies that would incorporate a growing number of people into the country’s economy, or for the failure of the government to establish a high quality educational sector that effectively trains the next generation to take up its hoped for opportunities?

Rather, than castigating Nelson Mandela for not bringing forth the jubilee, shouldn’t the brunt of blame be placed before those who have come along after that patient, principled negotiator who had insisted upon – and achieved - a fundamental political revolution for the nation? Back in 1787, one of America’s founding fathers, an elderly Ben Franklin had been asked by some of his younger co-authors of the country’s new constitution, what, exactly, they had created by their labours. Franklin’s response was that they had given birth to a republic, but only if they could keep it. That warning might also seem to apply, now, to this nation as well.

- The Daily Maverick.

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