Farewell Madiba – now what?

Now that the so-called “statesmen” have taken their muck-filled platitudes home, it becomes necessary to rescue Nelson Mandela from the status of secular saint in which they would confine him, a prison more effective, they seem to hope, than the bars of Robben Island.

We need to re-evaluate the politics of Madiba, not only to understand the coming turmoil in South Africa, symbolized by the boos (and shouts of “Mbeki!”) which greeted President Jacob Zuma as he ascended the podium, but also to draw conclusions about how Mandela’s lessons can be learned on a world-wide scale as the economy plunges into crisis.

The big question that has been begged in all the speeches is WHY? Why, after centuries of oppression, did the racist government of F.W. De Clerk agree to free Mandela and set the country on a path of peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy?

Was it because he was a nicer man than his predecessors? Was it because he realized Mandela was a man of peace, despite having founded the African National Congress‘s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, or “Spear of the Nation“) in 1961?

According to Robert Fine at the Workers Liberty website,

“We should acknowledge that the so-called turn to armed struggle was a disaster. The bombing campaigns were ineffective and those involved in them were quickly rounded up. More importantly, the mass democratic campaigns, which rocked the apartheid regime in the latter half of the 1950s, all quickly collapsed as sabotage, secrecy and vanguardism took over. The murder by the police of 69 protesters at Sharpeville – a protest organised by the PAC, a rival organisation to the ANC – was treated by the ANC / SACP leadership as a sign that peaceful protest was no longer possible.

“However, it was also a sign that the mass democratic movement as a whole – which comprised community movements, trade union movements, women’s movements and even tribal peasant movements – was seriously impacting on the apartheid regime.

“After the turn to armed struggle there ensued a decade of state repression and intensified racist legislation, marked by the defeat of popular struggles. I do not think this downturn can be separated from the ill advisedness of the ‘turn’ Mandela helped to implement.”

If MK was such a disaster, why then did the oppressors become willing to talk turkey with the ANC?

Another factor, of course, was the Cuban army’s decisive victory over the hitherto undefeated forces of South Africa in the so-called Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which was actually four different battles between September 9 and October 7, 1987. As Mandela said on his visit to Cuba in 1991:

“I was still in prison when I first heard of the massive help which the Cuban international forces were giving to the people of Angola. The help was of such a scale that it was difficult for us to believe it, when the Angolans were under attack by the combined forces of South Africa, the FALA [Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola] who were financed by the CIA, mercenaries, UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola], and Zaire in 1975.

“In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty. In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours. We also acknowledge that the action was carried out by the masses in Cuba and that those who fought and died in Angola are only a small portion of those who volunteered to go.”

In 1988, South African troops withdrew from Angola, and Cuban forces followed suit. It was at this stage in the struggle against apartheid, that an Algerian pied noir commodities trader, Jean-Yves Ollivier, began a series of secret meetings with all sides in the South African struggle, convincing the apartheid powers that be that they had no hope of victory over a people united in struggle against them.

“Arriving in South Africa,” he said later, “felt like visiting another planet. I wondered how the whites did not realize that, unless they changed and accepted to share the country, they were headed for disaster.”

Much has been made, among activists, of the success of the Anti-Apartheid boycott. I myself tangled with English fascists on the plinth of Trafalgar Square when I was singing in support of the boycott. Of course, such boycotts play an important political role in focusing attention on their object.

The reaction of the Israeli oppressors of the Palestinian people to the boycott of settler-produced dates – exporting them (ironically) to South Africa and then reimporting them to UK and other European countries as South African produce – indicates that they can be effective.

But the effective controllers of the apartheid economy – companies like the huge De Beers mining conglomerate – saw their hegemony likely to vanish if the country descended into civil war. Foreign investors were withdrawing their funds in expectation that Mandela might “do a Castro” and nationalise their assets. At a time when the price of gold had reached unprecedented heights, the South African mining companies were effectively barred from taking advantage of such price rises.

It was at this time that Jean-Yves Ollivier declared: “I shake the hand I cannot sever”. While some in the ANC leadership saw him as a sanctions-buster – which he was – Winnie Mandela and Thabo Mbeki saw where he was coming from, and agreed to meet with the leaders of the apartheid state.

These facts need to be remembered when evaluating what was happening at a time when, effectively Mandela knew nothing of these negotiations. The full story is told in Plot for Peace, Mandy Jacobson’s assiduously-researched documentary.

When I met with Ollivier at the UK premiere of Ms Jacobson’s excellent movie, I asked if, since he had opposed sanctions against South Africa, he opposed sanctions against Israel and if a businessman like him might be able to cut through the logjam of the peace process. “It’s a totally different situation,” he said, and far more difficult for any one man to solve.”

The boos that greeted Jacob Zuma may be the actions of a “thuggish minority”, as maintained by the South African Communist Party, but what needs to be remembered is that the memorial celebration took place in the Mandela heartland, and the local ANC organisation played no part in the event’s organisation.

BBC’s coverage of the celebration managed not to screen the hostile reception received by the ANC president, but they could not conceal the reaction of the crowd to Zuma’s speech. It was a bit like Conan Doyle’s dog that did not bark in the night. In comparison with the cheers and roars of applause interjected in every other speech, he was heard out in absolute silence. It was hardly a charismatic performance, as Zuma read out his text in an unmodulated monotone, which bore comparison with Desmond Tutu’s crowd-pleasing, arm-waving blessing to all four quarters of the stadium.

(The full text of Zuma’s speech can be read HERE.)

So what now, after Madiba?

The murder of 34 miners in Marikana – which some have called the ANC’s equivalent to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which led, ultimately, to the dismantling of the apartheid state – has focused opposition to apartheid round the Economic Freedom Fighters pary set up by Julius Malema, possibly supported by the militant National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), who are meeting right now in Boksburg to consider how it should oppose the ANC’s neo-liberal National Development Plan.

There is also opposition on the right to the current ANC leadership, crystallised around the conservative elements who formed the Congress of the People, opposed to Zuma’s presidency.

No doubt the current ANC leadership hoped that the wave of national mourning for Mandela would help it consolidate its power in the 2014 general election. And in the absence of a unified left opposition they might well be right in that assumption, boos or no boos.

But it remains to be seen if, in the rather optimistic conclusion of Ken Olende in Socialist Worker ( that “Political pundits like to pretend that politics is shaped by what politicians do behind closed doors. The reality is that the shift in South Africa’s politics is down to the return of its working class to the stage of history.”


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