Be(tray)ing Mandela: Who Speaks for the Oppressed?
Vineet Thakur

Vineet Thakur, a Ph D candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is a scholar of International politics. In this article, he responds to the critique of Nelson Mandela by DSU, an ultra-left students organization in India. He can be contacted at vineet1232[at]

Saints should always be judged guilty, until they are proved innocent!
                                                                                                    -George Orwell   
I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.
                                                                                                          -Nelson Mandela

Death, in Agatha Christie’s words, creates a prejudice in favour of the deceased. It is worse for those who were revered with a favourable prejudice all throughout their lives. To speak ill of Nelson Mandela – arguably the most loved man on the planet while he was alive – is thus already flirting with danger. DSU’s latest pamphlet on Mandela – scathing as it is – automatically makes itself eligible for the venomous attacks that Mandela fans would spit out on it. My problem with the pamphlet, I must declare right the beginning, is not of why the DSU is criticizing Mandela, but of how it is doing it. I partly agree with some of the criticisms labeled at Mandela – I believe anyone who has read a bit about Mandela would know – but I am not entirely comfortable with a particular slice of history that DSU chooses to pick up from.

The pamphlet raises fundamental issues about the legacy of a man often deemed as a saint. The greatest tribute – even though DSU wouldn’t like this particular phrase – one could give to Mandela is to debate how far he was a sinner who did not try. The “collective iconization” of Mandela, the pamphlet argues, quite rightly so, needs to be challenged. In smashing words, the pamphlet riles against the “unanimity of the imperialists and their agents” and their eulogizing of the man. Yet, what is remarkably astounding is that the DSU directs its critical gaze only the people it thinks matter – the people at the podium, the Obamas and the Rajapakses. Perhaps, it is its own elitism that makes the DSU to glance over the thousands who grieved in the stadiums, the lakhs who thronged to Qunu, the millions who cried in Soweto and Langa, and the billions who felt a loss across the world.

1956_ Nelson Mandela, Retrospective ANC leader-1146548It is one thing to argue that Mandela, with all his frailties, did not try enough and quite another to say he was a ‘betrayer’ of the oppressed. This word, along with ‘imperialist’, has become an enchanting trap in some circles and is often doled out with a disregard, only equaled by the tendency to claim enunciation rights on behalf of the oppressed, whether the latter like it or not. The question is not ‘can the subaltern speak?’, but who gives you the right to speak for the subaltern?

Let us get to the argument first. The story goes – as DSU wants us to know – Mandela began with revolutionary fervor in the 1940s culminating into his forming the umkhonto we sizwe. After he was jailed, ANC’s “armed resistance and its revolutionary agenda galloped the 1970s and 1980s thereby swelling the ranks of umknonto we sizwe”. Just as the revolutionaries were ready to break through the apartheid regime, the moderate faction within the ANC carried out secret negotiations which terminated into a severely compromised liberation in 1994.

Reading this one begins to wonder whether fidelity to historical facts is really something that this pamphlet is deliberately giving a short shrift to. Mandela’s entry into politics was not merely against white domination, as the pamphlet argues, but also against the white nature of the communist party in South Africa. ANC Youth League which Mandela joined along with Oliver Tambo and Watler Sisulu in 1944 was led by a brilliant young man – Anton Lembede. Lembede, while being severely critical of the white government, was equally dismissive of externally imposed communist ideas. He argued that the fundamental character of Bantu society was socialism and hence historical materialism of Marxism cannot be applied to Africa. Marxism to him was an imperialist ideology through which the whites talked down to Africans. One must remember that the Communist Party in South Africa had started with a clarion call for ‘White Workers of the World Unite’ in the early 1920s. And this explains partly why Mandela forever kept distance from the Communists. Stephen Ellis has argued recently that at least once in his career – for a very short time – Mandela was a communist party member. This claim is inconclusive, but even if it is true it is almost certain – even Ellis agrees to it – that it was merely for tactical purposes, just as Mandela’s support to passive resistance in the 1950s was only strategic. Nevertheless, the point is – and the left has used this to claim Mandela as their own and later use it as a stick to beat him with – that Mandela never claimed to be communist. More importantly, he never wholly believed in its ideals, except for a broad acceptance of a socialist paradigm. By this definition even Jawaharlal Nehru – the running dog of imperialists for the DSU and its ilk – would become a communist.

The second point is about umkhnoto we sizwe. While the DSU would want to claim it was umkhonto and its revolutionary fervor that tilted the scales in South Africa, the reality is that umkhonto never really fought inside South Africa. It became only a mercenary force fighting for communist regimes in other countries, some of which were actually suicide missions. This led to a ground swell of frustration within umkhonto soldiers. However, whenever the soldiers complained against it, the Communist Command structures of the umkhonto – led by some very honorable post-apartheid communist heroes – orchestrated internal killings and human rights abuses that perhaps were only surpassed by the apartheid state. The internal movement within South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s was actually sustained by Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness Movement, who, as he made increasingly clear in his testimonies, called for non-violent resistance against the oppressive state.mandela_young

In the 1980s, while the ANC followed the strategy of internal sabotage, the reasons for the ultimate petering out of the apartheid state are far more plural: the rise of the trade union movement within South Africa and its negotiating power, the increasing external pressure from foreign governments and publics, the disenchantment within the Afrikaner population (the end of apartheid one must remember was sealed by an Afrikaner vote that gave De Klerk powers to go ahead with negotiations), and – whether the DSU agrees or not – the flight of the international capital from South Africa, which began to regard the apartheid state as archaic. One could in fact argue that in terms of apartheid state’s domination of South Africa, 1980s was the time when the apartheid state had effectively marginalized the ANC. ANC benefactors – the frontline states – had either been roped in with various accords or bombed out and the ANC was under severe pressure by its benefactors to get into negotiations. While the communists within the ANC like Joe Slove and Chris Hani still believed that armed revolution was the only way through which the apartheid state could be upturned, the reality was that this strategy was increasingly becoming anachronistic. The implosion of the Soviet Union made it worse, so much so that Russia and the East European communist states openly courted the De Klerk government. In fact, when Operation Vula – the effort at armed revolution by the communist factions of the ANC in 1990 – was unearthed, it was only an embarrassment.

Economic policies of new South Africa, DSU pamphlet so rightly points out, did not follow the communist model. To be true, Mandela and the Freedom Charter had never promised so. All they had promised was ‘nationalization of mines and industries’, following which private initiative would be allowed as Mandela often emphasized. But if at all people have to be criticized for doing away with this promise, it is not just Mandela and Oppenheimer but also the former communist partners of the ANC who should take some of the blame. It were actually the Chinese and the Vietnamese who told Mandela in unequivocal terms in a Davos meeting in early 1990s that socialism was dead and private enterprise and investment were necessary. If South Africa did away with it, it might as well go down the same drain that it came from. The government coffers – that DSU makes mention of – that the ANC government received were in fact empty. There was no money to carry out the people oriented schemes that the ANC had promised. No one realized it better than the ideological pivot of the communist ideology in ANC – Joe Slovo. It was Joe Solvo who called for ‘compromise’ with the whites in form of sunset clauses, for the fear that counter revolutionary forces would otherwise scuttle the revolution.

Without situating South Africa’s liberation in its historical circumstances, DSU’s pamphlet makes a caricature of not only Mandela but of South Africa and its liberation struggle. The ‘secret’ negotiations between the ANC and apartheid government were not being undertaken by Cyril Ramaphosa. In fact, Ramaphosa became an ANC member only in late 1980s. While it is interesting that DSU pamphlet does make a mention of Thabo Mbeki and the secret negotiations that he carried out with some apartheid intellectuals, apparently with the explicit consent of PW Botha, it forgets that Mbeki in some ways was the most Marxist of all the intellectuals in the ANC, at par with Joe Slovo and Chris Hani.

The ‘negotiated transition’ that the pamphlet feels was a betrayal needs to be situated in the context of its emergence. The exceptionalism of this transition can only be understood in the context of the extremely explosive situation that was building up in South Africa in the four years of transition. One the one hand, there were neo-Nazi elements amongst the Afrikaner minority like Eugene Terre Blanche and his party AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbewiging) who had left no stone unturned to sabotage the transition. On the other hand, the left wing elements within the ANC (evidently with the approval of Oliver Tambo) had vowed to keep the militant option open (exposed in the Vula Operation) to bring change through armed revolution in South Africa. Moreover, there was a secret Third Force, comprising of individuals and security organizations of the state, which was trying to destabilize the country and prevent a democratic transition. It was allegedly abetted by the De Klerk government. To add to it, the tribal Zulu nationalism of Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) (again helped by the De Klerk government and the third force) had led to violent clashes between the IFP and the ANC members, threatening to turn into a major ethnic conflict. The Boipatong Massacre of 1992 in which IFP members killed ANC workers in a township ship had actually brought South Africa to the brink of disaster. Moreover, the intransigence of homeland leaders like Lucas Mangope to hold on to power in the fictive Bantu republics was another major concern. Mangope had to be thrown out through a civil uprising in Bophutswana. 

Meanwhile, the general black-on-black violence in the townships had made South Africa one of the most dangerous places on earth. Over all, more than 14,000 South Africans were killed in political violence between 1990 and 1994, more than any other time during Apartheid. All of this contributed to an exceptionally violent undercurrent that threatened to rip South Africa apart. Given this scenario, South Africa’s negotiated transition was truly an exceptional process. The four years of negotiations often moved ahead in fits and starts but overall these negotiations were able to achieve a democratic future for South Africa. ‘Peace’ may sound like an abusive term to the writers of the DSU pamphlet – a betrayal in their words – but in April 1994, it meant the difference between life and death. South Africa saw life. Not too far away in the same month, Rwanda experienced cold, brutal death. The intellectual abstractness with which DSU approaches reconciliation – robbed of any appreciation for empathy and human relations – becomes downright dismissive of the closure millions South Africans experienced after the Truth and Reconciliation Process. It is one thing to claim that economic equity must follow political liberation, but quite another to say political liberation is nothing but a betrayal. And to use Fanon to bolster this argument – to use him as a merely class theorist – is akin to the epistemic violence that Sartre committed on Fanon by presenting him as a crude proponent of violence.

Is post-Apartheid South Africa a paradise? No. And the DSU pamphlet, rightly gives us the figures for why it is not. But to call it a betrayal is to go to the other extreme. Liberation is not a moment, it is a process. Mandela only ruled for first five years. In fact, he governed only for the first two after which he delegated most of the responsibilities to Thabo Mbeki. Hence, to make Mandela accountable for 20 years of post-Apartheid South Africa is to stretch the comparison a bit too far. The list of compromises he made were more often than not governed by the conditions on the ground, rather than a cut and dried approach to the issues.

To be true, and one must go with DSU’s criticism here, Mandela was no economic miracle man. He could not even be credited with an excellent record of governance. But to evoke a sense of betrayal against people and worse calling him a ‘hero for the oppressor’ suffers from the same schizophrenic rant that a particular 90 years old gentleman suffers from just across the Limpopo. In some ways, one could only appreciate Mandela’s legacy by looking across to the South African veld into the land of chimuranga. Here, the 33 year rule of one of the most promising leaders of African anti-colonial struggle – Robert Mugabe – is a testimony to what South Africa could have become. Thank Mandela, it is not! Revolution often devours its own children, in Zimbabwe Gukuruhundi is its name!


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