Friday, October 22, 2010

Twenty Years of Freedom: What We Can Learn from Nelson Mandela

February 11, 2010 marked twenty years since Nelson Mandela walked out of Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa. Mandela was a leader of the African National Congress (ANC), who had been incarcerated for 27 years for opposing the unjust system of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was freed by a social movement; the Mass Democratic Movement of South Africa – comprising of students, workers, religious leaders, grassroots women, community organisers, gay and lesbian activists, and cultural workers. This network of activists bore the brunt of the repression of the illegal regime but their prolonged popular struggles delegitimised the system of apartheid.

Apartheid was a system of oppression based on capitalism, white supremacy, and militarism. In order to stay in power, the apartheid war machine, like an armed locust, destroyed the whole region of southern Africa, with more than two million lives lost and US$80 billion worth of damage. The struggle against the destructive machinery of apartheid consisted of four nodes: 1) The Mass Democratic Movement; 2) The diplomatic and political work of the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other liberation movements; 3) The frontline states of southern Africa led by Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, and Mozambique; and 4) The international campaign of sanctions to isolate South Africa. These four elements of the struggle created an international movement, and were all-important. It must be stated that the stature of Mandela was equal to the sterling work of the people’s movement inside South Africa. The international campaign of sanctions was just as important as the war in Angola, where the Cubans and the Angolans defeated the apartheid war machines at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, leading to the collapse of apartheid. One must also point to the continuous sacrifices of the youth, the generation after Soweto, who never gave up the fight.


It is important here to note that Mandela rejoined the movement that ended apartheid. The ANC and PAC were unbanned and it was during the negotiations for the next four years where the formal structures of apartheid were dismantled. This formal dismantling of the system of oppression was marked by the ascendancy of Nelson Mandela to becoming the first democratically elected president in South Africa. After Nelson Mandela was swept to power in 1994, the Government of National Unity (GNU) was based on a compromise between the old white ruling elite, who needed to open up the country to international investment, and an aspiring layer of black businessmen who hoped to enrich themselves in the process. This compromise was sealed by the elevation of those members of the burgeoning black empowerment forces who accepted the doctrine of neo-liberalism. The international media worked hard to elevate Mandela as a messiah seeking to place him above the grassroots forces who had borne the brunt of the long and painful struggle. This media acclaim was also meant to demobilise and de-politicise the youth. To undermine the importance of the long struggles there were many books that proclaimed that Mandela had performed a ‘miracle’ as if singlehandedly, he ended apartheid.

Mandela offered a new vision of politics and one of his principal contributions was the embrace of reconciliation instead of revenge and to introduce the spirit of ‘ubuntu’ to international politics. The elements of ubuntu include forgiveness, willingness to share, common humanity, and reconciliation. Ubuntu was translated from the philosophical level to practical politics when South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is important to stress these major contributions because Mandela wanted to move past the politics of revenge, stressing restorative justice over retribution. The TRC was imperfect in many ways and this imperfection was nowhere more manifest in the fact that one of the primary architects of biological warfare against blacks is walking free in South Africa today. Project Coast is one chilling reminder of how far the apartheid system would go to save capitalism. However, it is not too late to correct the imperfections and to continue to promote the politics of truth.

Mandela sought to make a break with the recursion of apartheid form of relations among South Africans. He remembered the African traditions of forgiveness as well as Gandhi’s philosophy of peace, which says that an eye for an eye makes everyone blind. We were hoping that the United States would have learned from Mandela, and that its leaders would learn something from ubuntu. This would have prevented the world from embarking on the foolish and destructive ‘war on terror.’ However, for these ideas to take root, the mobilised peoples must again be in motion. The international movement for peace, justice and reparations have a lot to learn from the revolutionary doctrine of ubuntu.


Nelson Mandela made four major contributions to African politics. First, he was against genocide, and shamed the Organization of African Unity (OAU) into repealing its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of African states. He spoke out forcefully against genocide at his first OAU summit in 1994. Second, Mandela demonstrated that no African leader should keep themselves in power beyond their legally established term. Third, he became a staunch supporter of peace and social justice in Africa and in all parts of the world. Mandela was a forceful opponent of the occupation of Iraq and of Palestine. Finally, as earlier stated, he popularised the principle of ubuntu into international politics. Together with Desmond Tutu and the movements for peace in South Africa, Mandela spoke out against the unilateral military actions of the United States. Mandela opposed the idea of a US Africa command.

The leaders of southern African states seem to have forgotten this principle. Today, most liberation leaders of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, and South Africa, have discredited the guiding principles of the liberation that the people fought for. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in South Africa itself, where one leader manipulated and obfuscated the question of the source of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Moreover, the political party of Mandela has degenerated to the point where there is no clear leadership to oppose xenophobia.

Since 2008, we have had repeated incidents of Africans attacking Africans in South Africa. The leadership of South Africa has so soon forgotten how their fellow Africans joined forces to vigorously fight against apartheid. The ANC as a political party is torn between its revolutionary, radical past and the present leadership that concentrates on getting rich. Yet, the people of South Africa continue to organise; the spirit of the Mass Democratic Movement is still there with the people organising against the neoliberal policies of the government. These people are waging a struggle for healthcare, electricity, clean water, decent housing, cleaning of toxic dumps, and better living conditions.


As a leader who was head of a government, Mandela could not escape the degeneration associated with the ANC in power. The embrace of the ideas of privatisation and liberalisation meant that the government supported the classes and social forces that held power under apartheid. More damaging, it was under the Mandela period when the sordid arms deal was negotiated. Billions of dollars were spent on weaponry when there was no conceivable foreign military threat and when the real threat to the consolidation of democracy was the exploitation of the working people. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) carried forth the work of defending the rights of the poor workers and demonstrated against the warped priorities of the ANC. Instead of houses, schools and clinics being built, instead of money to tackle AIDS, South Africa bought submarines. The capitalists moved in South Africa through their nongovernmental organisations and local non-profit allies to demobilise the people. But the struggle has only heightened since Mandela stepped down as president in 1999. If Thabo Mbeki was arrogant and aloof from the suffering of the people of South Africa, the real state of the ANC today is best reflected in the personal and political soap opera of Jacob Zuma.


We honour Nelson Mandela for his contribution to the liberation of Africa. We also want to salute those forces from the grassroots liberation forces who have continued the struggle for social justice and system change. In the midst of a major capitalist depression, when the brunt of this crisis is felt by people of African descent and poor people, it is timely that we remember Nelson Mandela and his contributions to politics through the principle of ubuntu. This question of ubuntu is particularly relevant as we confront the condition of our brothers and sisters in Haiti who have just been faced by an unspeakable tragedy. More than ever, we need the concept of common humanity. We have to organise from every location to change the system that demeans our humanity.