Monday, 10 February 2014

Mandela, a month later

Now that Nelson Mandela has been properly eulogized and buried, it’s a good moment to reflect on his legacy and consider some puzzling aspects of his life and the conventional wisdom about it.

Along with the nearly constant laurels tossed his way after his emergence from prison and his long retirement, a few commentators have dug past the idolizing a little to suggest importance nuances about what he achieved—and didn’t. That’s fair enough; in fact, it would be unfair to the South Africans still living to forget that what he and the liberation movement fought for is still a long way off, namely a decent life for the vast majority who face an existence as short and difficult as it ever was, with the important exceptions of less overt political repression and less racist violence (though the regular old kind is still rampant).

A recent article in the London Review of Books (one of several thought takes on modern South Africa) notes that President Mandela wasn’t particularly vigilant about the budding corruption in the ANC-led state and that his admirable decision to depart after only one term opened the way for even more egregious raiding of the national treasury by the new elite. It’s great that current president Jacob Zuma was booed so roundly at Mandela’s funeral that he had to quit the stage, but mere protests won’t reduce the vast expenditure ($150 million) the country is forced to pay for Zuma’s entourage of four official wives and 21 recognized children (so far).

But aside from the obstacles Mandela faced and the limitations of his achievements in the new South Africa that he was so instrumental in bringing to life, there is another, stranger aspect to the Mandela story that has very little to do with him or his acts: how and why did a pro-Soviet communist committed to revolutionary violence (today we would call it ‘terrorism’) become the darling of the West?

Mandela’s story should have made him an icon of a small band of dedicated leftwingers who sympathize, or did once, with figures like Castro, Ho Chi Minh, the early Mugabe, Che Guevara, the armed guerrillas who saw the conflict with colonial powers as a struggle against capitalism itself and, one way or another, themselves presented a real threat to it. Few people currently know (or would care much if they did) that Mandela apparently sat on the central committee of the South African Communist Party. While those who prize his heroic leadership, myself included, will say ‘So what?’, it’s not a detail you’d expect the western media and commentariat to pass over unnoticed.

Then there’s the question of the armed struggle. Mandela pushed the ANC leadership to stage attacks on infrastructure and probably persons in the security forces. Even though they were pretty inept at it and got caught, the armed wing of the ANC kept going after Mandela’s imprisonment and had a lot of people shitting bricks over where the country was headed. Beyond the arguments over whether this was a good strategy or not, anyone trying it today would be the object of an Obama drone strike with half the population of the U.S. cheering it wildly. So isn’t it a little odd that Mandela gets a pass on that, too?

It was hard to watch things like Mandela’s fabulous 2008 birthday celebration with Bono and other celebrities praising him to the skies with a straight face. While he deserved every bit of the hero-worship, sober observers could be forgiven a frisson of cynical doubt. If the Cold War had still been on, would the negotiated end to apartheid have been permitted? Would Mandela have ended his long life in the Robbin Island dungeon instead? If he had persisted in the early plans to nationalize state industry, boost wages over the objections of industrialists, push a land reform that might curtail white domination of farming, in short, refused to play by the new rules of global capital, would he be remembered as saintly old Nelson, the grandfather of multiracial, rainbow South Africa?

Or would his experiment have been crushed from the start, the South African economy undermined and squeezed in retaliation, and the old man pilloried as a wild man with a terrible (now well-advertised) commie-terrorist past? It takes nothing away from his achievements to see through the gloss with which his life and his death were lionized through the hypocritical looking glass of our propaganda machinery. He made compromises that no doubt were forced upon him, and as a result, all is forgiven.

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