Mandela as mirror

Mandela and fellow Rivonia trial defendants
Source: ANC Archives
Since the death of Nelson Mandela, I have been increasingly fascinated with the way that, in both new social media and conventional mainstream media, eulogies to the great man always tell us more about those eulogising than about Mandela himself. In fact, it now seems to me, Mandela serves as a mirror, in whichever whatever we want to see is reflected back to us.

TNC emailed me – under the subject heading “not The Onion” – a superb tweet from a showbiz hack: “R.I.P. Nelson Mandela, subject of Weinstein Co’s Idris Elba-starrer 'Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom' which opened Nov 29 and has awards buzz.” But the comments of supposedly serious politicians and pundits have not been less absurd than that tweet.

Glenn Greenwald tweeted “Nelson Mandela: a noble reminder that those declared "criminals" by an unjust society are often the most just.” Apart from it doesn’t really make sense, most people read this as an attempt to glorify GG's own criminal behaviour.

But similarly, liberal and conservative mainstream politicians – “the official voices of commemoration” as Chris Bertram calls them – have seen Mandela as a saintly exemplification of their own mainstream apple pie values: peace, dialogue, reconciliation, the power of hope, overcoming adversity, being nice to each other.

Anti-Zionists have used Mandela’s death to milk their own obsession with “apartheid Israel” – despite Mandela’s real views on Zionism not really fitting the anti-Zionist mold. For example, UK commentator Mo Ansar greeted Madiba’s death with a slew of anti-Israel tweets, which actually had little to do with Mandela’s actual legacy but rather used the latter's glamour to promote his own preferred cause. (Specifically, Ansar tweeted a fake quote of Mandela’s about Israel, and a bizarre map which is supposed to make some obscure point about Israeli “apartheid”, and a fake photo of IDF soldiers being evil. He deleted the first on realising his mistake.)

Black nationalists have celebrated Mandela the black nationalist – “the Malcolm X in him”, as one particularly foolish commentary put it. Pacifists see his as an icon of peace. Even the tyrant Assad got in on the act, and claimed that Mandela holds out a lesson to tyrants everywhere, whatever that means. 

And leftists have celebrated Mandela the socialist. They have derided conservative politicians for hypocrisy in now sanctifying a man conservatives used to call a terrorist. And the leftists are not wrong on this (Mandela was a socialist of sorts, in fact more or less a Stalinist who believed in armed struggle), but they use Mandela’s death not to celebrate him as much as to berate the right. In fact, for some “progressives” the most salient things about Mandela seem to be that he was against “the war on terror” and allegedly hated Bush; for these people, the fact that Mandela refused to condemn dictators such as Gaddafi and Castro is a point in his favour not a reason to qualify the sanctification.

A second wave of commentary has sensibly argued that “we are witnessing the invention of a sanitized version of the man”. Some of the myth-busting is useful and important, yet generally the desire to reclaim ownership of an authentic Madiba is motivated by the same imperative that makes a Bullingdon Tory want to claim his mantle: the imperative to show that our side is the right side.

There was something about Mandela – his charisma, but also his slipperiness – that makes him so effective as a mirror to reflect our own values. As Elleke Boehmer eloquently writes:
Mandela, both his fans and detractors acknowledge, was a leader who could be all things to all people: an African nationalist when among African nationalists, a socialist in his relations with his South African Communist Party colleagues, even a South African patriot when in dialogue with patriotic Afrikaners. A consummate performer, he was always an extremely able manipulator of his own image, yet this malleability could send out mixed messages.  He spoke the language of democracy, but was often authoritarian in his manner.  He signed up to the 1956 ANC Freedom Charter with its commitment to nationalization, but on assuming power he made serious and, some critics might say, fatal deals with free-market capitalism in order to secure South Africa’s post-apartheid economic future.

It is hard to deny the significance – and the greatness – of Mandela’s achievement. Overcoming apartheid is one of the most important historic achievements of any struggle in my lifetime, and Mandela’s role in that was central. His post-racial vision and his struggle, as he put it, for “a revolutionary democracy in which none will be held in slavery or servitude, and in which poverty, want and insecurity shall be no more”, these should inspire us to demand better of the world in which we live.

But in rushing to see our own values affirmed by Madiba’s auratic glow, we cannot forget the many things that tarnish his achievement.

As Robert Fine’s excellent piece* notes, Mandela’s movement, the Communist-dominated ANC, frequently put Moscow’s geopolitical priorities ahead of achieving justice in South Africa. (Fine argues that Mandela’s advocacy of the turn to armed struggle, the official line from Moscow, was disastrous for the movement, setting back its cause by some years.)

In opposition, the ANC suppressed dissent, often violently, even murderously. (See my previous post on this, which linked to material on the ANC’s secret prisons.) In power, it has presided over one of the most unequal and brutal societies in the world. As James Bloodworth has written, “Despite winning all four elections since 1994, in recent years the ANC has become little more than a vehicle for the personal enrichment of a small clique of politicians. In the process the party has become increasingly detached from the travails of the black working class.”

A few black people have found a place at the trough in post-racial South Africa; some black politicians and businessmen (the two categories blur) have become fabulously wealthy. But (just as there were always dirt poor white people under apartheid) the great mass of black South Africans remain impoverished and exploited despite the end of apartheid; the coming of racial justice has not brought the coming of social and economic justice.

In fact, the ANC’s embrace of neo-liberal economic policies (Mandela in 1994: “Privatization is the fundamental policy of our government. Call me a Thatcherite, if you will.”) has probably helped deepen inequality and poverty, although there have been a few winners.

Corruption has multiplied.  Xenophobic pogroms have been orchestrated against black African migrant workers. Social movementsthe independent miners’ unions, the shackdwellers in the townships – have been as violently suppressed under post-racial democracy as they were in the apartheid police state, but now black men as well as white men beat and shoot them. This is the South Africa made by the saintly Madiba.


Update: A fuller version of Robert Fine's critical obituary, very highly recommended, is here.
Previously: On Stalinism and dissent within the movement against apartheid; Mbeki and Mugabe; Marikana and the frontline of the class struggle; Indestructible beats


Unknown said…
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Roland Dodds said…
The best eulogy came from Rick Santorum who compared the fight against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) to Mandela's fight against Apartheid. Only in America!
SnoopyTheGoon said…
Now I am forever confined to the hell of wondering what Richard A. said.

bob said…
Forever confined. Yes. Tragic.
Unknown said…
Why am I being singled out for boycott when there are far worst regimes in the world than me ?
Waterloo Sunset said…
Libcom have an extensive list of sources on Mandela and the ANC up-

Nothing new though. The ultraleft & anarchists are the only political tradition left that doesn't subscribe to lesser evilism.

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