Mandela: Creation of a cult
The ruling class is honouring a man who helped make South Africa safe for capitalist exploitation, writes Peter Manson
How should communists react to the almost universal adulation throughout the bourgeois media for Nelson Mandela, whose death, aged 95, was announced on December 5? After all, even the hard Conservative right is joining in. The day following his death, The Daily Telegraph’s front cover carried a full-page portrait of the former liberation leader; its inside headlines called him “a beacon of freedom around the world”, a “hero of our time” (quoting David Cameron) and referred to his “long walk to freedom”.1
The paper stated that he and US president Barack Obama are “linked in history as the first black leaders of nations with histories scarred by racism”. This comment, by the way, not to mention the reverence shown for this black icon, ought to cause those sections of the left which still believe that the bourgeoisie as a whole is incontrovertibly racist to think again about the dominant ideology.
I am quoting the Telegraph only because it is amongst the most rightwing of mainstream newspapers, but, needless to say, similar headlines featured throughout the rest of the press - not only in Britain, but in just about every country around the world. Yet as late as 1987, when Margaret Thatcher said that the African National Congress headed by Mandela was a “typical terrorist organisation”, the comment was not regarded as particularly outrageous at the time. Then the Telegraph agreed with her - and might even have gone along with her laughable assessment: “Anyone who thinks [the ANC] is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud cuckoo land”. In those days, belligerent Young Conservatives were wearing T-shirts and badges demanding “Hang Nelson Mandela”.
Thatcher was not the only one to regard apartheid South Africa as a “bulwark against communism”. In fact the Morning Star is correct to say that the apartheid regime characterised the struggle against it as “an expression of the global conflict between capitalism and socialism”.2 That was the dominant view of imperialism too - it was well into the 70s when that began to change and not until the 80s, when the campaign to “Free Nelson Mandela” really took off, that even the mainstream right began to view him in a rather different light.
So what was the truth? Was the ANC a component of the struggle for socialism and was Mandela on the side of the oppressed in the fight against capitalism? According to Charlie Kimber of the Socialist Workers Party, “Mandela was never a socialist”.3 It depends what you mean by ‘socialist’, of course, but comrade Kimber says no more on the matter in his online article, failing even to mention Mandela’s membership of the South African Communist Party.
Perhaps his article was completed before the publication of the SACP’s own statement, which declared: “At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our party’s central committee … After his release from prison in 1990, comrade Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days” (December 6).4
In this way, the SACP finally confirms what had been one of the world’s worst kept secrets. But the party does not tell us when he had joined or when he finally left. Why the reticence? The Morning Star editorial quoted above states that the previous denial was connected to the regime’s claim that the anti-apartheid struggle was “an expression of the global conflict between capitalism and socialism”. In other words, the desire to deny the class nature of that conflict and portray it as one simply for ‘democracy’, not working class power, “partly explains Mandela’s denial of his Communist Party membership”.
Now that the SACP has begun to come clean, however, why not tell us the whole story? The consensus seems to be that Mandela joined the party some time in the 50s - it is generally agreed that a decade earlier he was among those opposing Communist Party participation in the ANC - in fact he is said to have voted for the expulsion of communists on one occasion.
But by the 50s “he was a fire-breathing revolutionary who would quote Marx and Lenin at the drop of a hat”, according to Zakes Mda, the South African novelist, poet and playwright - although Mda adds that “he was also a Xhosa traditionalist with aristocratic tendencies”.5 It was no doubt his SACP membership that helped ensure that Mandela became the first commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing - the truth is that the SACP was the best organised and in fact the dominant force within the ANC, including on its leadership.
Some say that it was in 1962, just before his arrest for inciting strikes and leaving the country without a passport, that he was instructed by the central committee to deny his membership. This was a year before the Rivonia trial, when Mandela was among those accused of sabotage and preparing for revolution, charges that saw him jailed for life in 1964. Nevertheless his speech from the dock at his 1962 trial appeared to link the primitive communism of pre-colonial African tribes with his vision of the future. He described the tribal democracy in the form of a council, “variously called imbizo, or pitso, or kgotla, which governs the affairs of the tribe”. According to Mandela:
The council was so completely democratic that all members of the tribe could participate in its deliberations … It was so weighty and influential a body that no step of any importance could ever be taken by the tribe without reference to it …. In such a society are contained the seeds of revolutionary democracy, in which none will be held in slavery or servitude, and in which poverty, want and insecurity shall be no more.
Mandela concluded by saying it is this vision which “even today inspires me and my colleagues in our political struggle”.
In an article entitled ‘Freedom in our lifetime’ published in the ANC’s Liberation newspaper in June 1956, Mandela was given the task of explaining the aims of the ANC’s programme, the Freedom Charter, which had been adopted a year earlier. It is impossible to draw any other conclusion from this other than that he was writing as an ‘official communist’:
Whilst the charter proclaims democratic changes of a far-reaching nature, it is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state, but a programme for the unification of various classes and groupings amongst the people on a democratic basis.
Under socialism the workers hold state power. They and the peasants own the means of production, land, the factories and the mills. All production is for use and not for profit. The charter does not contemplate such profound economic and political changes. Its declaration, ‘The people shall govern!’ visualises the transfer of power not to any single social class, but to all the people of the country, be they workers, peasants, professional men or petty bourgeoisie.6
In other words, he was describing what the SACP came to dub as the “national democratic revolution” (NDR). But how to reconcile that with the charter’s demands for common ownership? Mandela continued:
It is true that, in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land, the charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realisation of the charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country turned over to the people.
The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous, non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of the country the non- European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own in their own name and right mills and factories, and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before. To destroy these monopolies means the termination of the exploitation of vast sections of the populace by mining kings and land barons and there will be a general rise in living standards of the people.
It is precisely because the charter offers immense opportunities for an overall movement in the material conditions of all classes and groups that it attracts such wide support.
All this is written in precisely the style of the SACP - and ‘official communists’ the world over, certainly in the 50s. Using ‘Marxist’ jargon, the text paints a picture of a fairer, more democratic capitalism, to be achieved through what in Britain was known as a “broad democratic alliance”.
Today the SACP continues to justify the NDR in these terms: it is, after all, the “most direct route to socialism”, as the party never tires of declaring - even though after almost 20 years of implementation there has been no advance in terms of working class power or even living standards: the bourgeoisie is today more secure than it was under the last years of apartheid.
So how come the former oppressors “retained their privileged economic position”, as the Star editorial quoted above puts it? The answer it comes up with is that “Such a compromise was to a large extent forced on Mandela and the ANC by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies, depriving a newly liberated state intent on radical change of its natural support base.”
This is highly questionable, to put it mildly. The USSR never regarded South Africa as part of its ‘sphere of influence’, so it is highly unlikely that its “support” would have somehow aided redistribution in that country. In any case, as we can see from what Mandela wrote in 1956, neither the ANC nor the SACP was for the abolition of the capitalists’ “privileged economic position”. They were for the creation of “a prosperous, non- European bourgeois class”.
According to John Haylett’s obituary in the same edition of the Star, the “compromise” that was “forced” on Mandela was one that saw him undertake exactly the opposite economic policy to the one laid down in the Freedom Charter. Comrade Haylett writes: “… following discussions with Chinese and Vietnamese representatives at the 1992 World Economic Forum in Geneva, he opposed calls for public ownership of foreign transnationals, backing privatisation of state assets.”
Obviously the Chinese and Vietnamese were no substitutes for the good old USSR. But comrade Haylett does not dwell on this U-turn - in fact apart from this one sentence the article invites us to conclude that things are going pretty much to plan, thanks to the route plotted by Nelson Mandela - although Haylett does imply that Madiba ought not to be criticised too harshly, as “Mandela’s term as president was largely spent on diplomatic duties” rather than the determination and implementation of policy.
Ironically, comrade Haylett began his article by urging readers to reject the “one-sided picture”, whereby no political commentator will “speak ill” of “everyone’s grandfather, a loveable old man with a twinkle in his eye and a kind word for everyone”. A pity he did not heed his own advice.
The reality is that Mandela and the ANC had already accepted, back in the 1980s, that they would have to comply with the conditions laid down by the International Monetary Fund to ensure that the new, post-apartheid, capitalist South Africa would be accepted into the ‘international community’ - it had all been agreed between the USA and - yes - the USSR.
Of course, the ANC could hardly ditch the entire socioeconomic section of the Freedom Charter immediately after it was elected into government in 1994. Its ‘reconstruction and development programme’ (RDP) contained elements of the charter, and a state-driven house-building and public works programme was indeed introduced. But within two years the RDP had been replaced by the equally progressive-sounding, but totally Thatcherite ‘growth, employment and redistribution’ programme (Gear), introduced in 1996.
Perhaps surprisingly, approximately 50% of fixed capital assets had been in state hands in apartheid South Africa, so there was plenty to sell off. Water, telecommunications, transport, broadcasting and leisure, plus a range of manufacturing that had been partly state-owned - all were transferred into private hands. Of course, the word ‘privatisation’ was not used - what was going on was “restructuring” in the interest of efficiency and popular need. What is more, privatisation was an important component of the policy known as “black economic empowerment” (BEE) - a whole army of black capitalists was created through selling off such assets at bargain-basement prices, and in a way that left the ANC open to charges of blatant corruption. Recently an attempt has been made to deflect criticism that BEE was just a means of enriching a tiny minority by prefacing the name of the policy with “broad-based”. So now we have BBBEE.
Under this policy the large, privately owned companies that were supposed to have been targeted under the charter agreed to undergo a ‘makeover’ and cut their links with the former Afrikaner establishment. Now many of their top managers and spokespersons are black.
What of the masses? Well, yes, hundreds of thousands of tiny, square-box homes have been built, but millions still live in shacks. Yes, there has been widespread electrification, and running water has been brought to most ‘informal settlements’, as the sprawling shack towns are known, but water and electricity prices are beyond the reach of many - an estimated two million people are unable to pay. There are also new “user fees” for schools, healthcare and so on.
While some workers are better off, for many there has been no real improvement. And it goes without saying that those with any kind of job are considered lucky - unemployment stands at a massive 24.7%, according to the latest official figures (but at least the figure has now fallen below 25%). Those fortunate enough to have pensions have seen their value decrease in real terms, while for millions there are no state benefits whatsoever.
Recently the private firms charged with extracting payments for services such as water and electricity supply have stepped up their use of coercive measures. Thousands have been disconnected and properties repossessed at gunpoint. People in the Khayelitsha township near Cape Town - 400,000 of them living either in RDP homes or shacks - have recently seen a campaign to collect unpaid bills for basic amenities: there are stories of families having their water disconnected for having run up debts as low as 200 rand (£12).
Over recent months the South African media has been full of reports of ruthless squabbling between members of the Mandela family. There is much to gain from exploiting the new Nelson Mandela cult. For example, his grandson, Mandla, aware that Madiba had stipulated in his will that he be buried alongside his children, had ordered the exhumation of three of those children, who had predeceased their father. Mandla had the bodies reburied near his own home, where there just happens to be a new tourist complex.
And, of course, Mandela was not exactly poor. He owned lavish homes in Johannesburg and Qunu, and his trust fund is said to be worth an estimated 175 million rand (£10 million). But, as his grandson is demonstrating, the biggest fight is over the cash that his name could pull in over the coming period. But Mandla Mandela did not get it all his own way: after a court battle the three bodies were returned to their graves on their father’s property.
All this is recounted by socialist journalist Terry Bell on his blog, in a piece published the day before the announcement of Mandela’s death and entitled ‘Mandela: already dead - or slowly dying?’ In this comrade Bell reminds us of the recurring stories of the icon being in a “permanent vegetative state”, and kept alive only thanks to a life support machine.7
Mandela’s condition had been constantly described as “critical, but stable”, with only slight variations in the phrasing, in official bulletins and announcements since June, when he was taken into hospital. There have been no new photographs of him since that time, not even when he was discharged in order to receive care at home.
This whole sordid affair says a lot about the elevation to sainthood of Nelson Mandela. Which brings me back to the question with which I started: How should communists react to the almost universal adulation? Personally, my own reaction to the blanket coverage of his death, the various memorial services, tributes and all the rest has been different from when other establishment icons have departed. Like most readers of this paper, I am sure, when Margaret Thatcher or the queen mother died, for instance, I rapidly switched TV channels, turned off the sound or walked out of the room in irritated contempt.
But the coverage of Mandela aroused a different emotion: it was often that of pure anger. Despite all I have written above, yes, it was true that he “fought for liberation”, as we are constantly informed. Yes, he endured 27 years of hard labour and deprivation on Robben Island, before finally being released in February 1990, never doubting that his side was destined for victory. Yes, he was a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle. My anger results from his incorporation by the ruling class. Now he is their hero, with reminders of his ‘official communist’ past buried away in the small print.
My anger is also directed towards the so-called ‘communists’ of the SACP, with its seven government ministers, who bear a large part of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. It is the SACP, with its talk of the “national democratic revolution” and the eventual victory of socialism, which has ensured that militant protests and acts of rebellion against the ANC exploiters and oppressors have been desperate, fleeting and largely ineffective.
Unsurprisingly, the December 10 memorial service in Johannesburg saw a substantial section of the crowd showing their vocal displeasure against the ANC government and president Jacob Zuma in particular. That is a reflection of the recent more concerted opposition, including strike waves, the desertion of pro-ANC trade unions and mass fury at obscenities such as last year’s Marikana massacre.
But the SACP reacted as you might expect. First off the mark was the Western Cape region, which condemned “the booing of the state president during the most august occasion in the calendar of our history, a send-off in celebrating the life of the most disciplined and tolerant leader of our time”. This booing was described as “thuggery and a well coordinated attack by some handful traitors” (sic), which at the same time was “organised by those who never accepted the democratic process … in advancing our national democratic revolution”. The booing was “an act of hooliganism” led by Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or - take your pick - a previous breakaway from the ANC, the now virtually defunct Congress of the People.
Within hours, however, party headquarters put out a slightly more measured condemnation. Yes, the booing was “well-premeditated and orchestrated”. However, “It is clear to us that some of those causing the disruption came from within the ranks of our own movement. Their behaviour was not only disgusting, but it was treacherous, counterrevolutionary and an insult to the dignity, sacrifices and the memory of comrade Nelson Mandela.”
This is a significant admission. It is not just the likes of the EFF who want to see the back of Zuma, but sections of “our movement” - in particular members and some leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), who want to see the ANC adopt pro-worker policies. The federation is, of course, part of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu tripartite alliance, but Cosatu unions have been hit by defections, as workers disgusted by the attacks on them have either joined one of the recent breakaways or dropped out of union membership altogether.
It is clear that South African workers are increasingly disenchanted with the ANC and are beginning to search for the politics of class liberation ... something that neither Nelson Mandela nor the misleaders of the SACP would countenance.
1. The Daily Telegraph December 6.
2. Morning Star December 7-8.
3. http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/37027/ Nelson+Mandela+1918-2013.
5. www.nytimes.com/2013/12/06/opinion/the-contradictions-of-mandela.html?hp&rref=opinion&_ r=0.
6. The ANC has republished this piece on its website: www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=2603.