It would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t know that Nelson Mandela died at the beginning of December, particularly with the timely (or not?) release of the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Most people are probably also sick of hearing about it – or at least the sycophantic brand of news the established media has been pushing. Although he was of course an admirable figurehead, their doe-eyed representation of Madiba merely serves to reinforce the status quo of capitalist monopoly in South Africa, and across the world. It is apparent even in the way politicians clamoured to praise Mandela and his work, despite in some cases having previously opposed him, in some cases vehemently. David Cameron, who was quick to jump on the ‘we-heart-Mandela’ bandwagon, was in his student days part of a Conservative organisation that campaigned to have Mandela hanged.
Of course Nelson Mandela was a great man – an icon of freedom and justice in an unjust system. Mandela achieved a great many things, bringing issues of state oppression to the fore and contributing significantly to the fall of Apartheid; a horrific, immoral and corrupt system of segregation. He led the movement that facilitated vast improvements for many black South Africans, and greatly changed conditions in the country. However, he stirred controversy in his later years, and many people felt his years in prison left him disconnected from the struggle. More important, though, is the dismissal of the reasons Mandela began to condone violent tactics. The rose-tinted portrayal of Madiba as a “pacifist” is akin to the South African (and other) government’s labelling of him as a “terrorist” in the 1970s and 1980s. Both strategies seek to de-radicalise and neutralise his political acts, and to strip them of their political worth. For the same reasons, no-one outside of the political left ever mentions his socialism – despite the obvious effect his political ideology had on him. By omitting this key fact, and by discrediting Mandela by linguistically taking the teeth out of his activism, the true reasons why he and the ANC were forced to use violent means are masked.
Mandela was famously “not a violent man”, but condoned acts of violence against property in protest against the structural violence (institutionalised oppression and suppression, subjugation and dismissal of citizens by the state, which keeps people in poverty) committed against poor, black South Africans, which amounted to outright class warfare. The state was responsible for acts of physical violence against opposition activists, and against ordinary people who were often unarmed, such as in Sharpville in 1960. Years of imperialism had left a rich, white elite who feared losing their privileged lifestyles, and therefore sought to reinforce the status quo with disgusting, discriminatory and repressive policies.
Apartheid was not just about race; it was about class too. Poor black people in places like Soweto wanted their fair share of the country’s burgeoning wealth. They were angry and the ANC gave them a voice. State oppression, and both physical and structural violence escalated as the elites grew more and more afraid, and the ANC recognised that fear. Violence became the way people expressed their rage at decades and centuries of subjugation.
The ANC’s Freedom Charter, which advocated “national liberation of the largest and most oppressed group — the African people”, was declared an illegal Communist document in the 1950s, and the organisation was forced underground in 1961. Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was formed when the ANC was banned, promising to “hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom”. Differently to the state, MK activists never killed civilians, targeting instead key government buildings in acts of sabotage, whilst also engaging in acts of peaceful civil disobedience. Although the ANC began as a revolutionary organisation, with democratic power it has become less radical and more pro-Capitalist, so much so that current President Jacob Zuma was booed at Mandela’s memorial service.
It has been frequently said that the ANC did not address key problems; nationalist rhetoric changed things superficially, uniting people around a flag while failing to tackle some of the root causes of inequality. The ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ (BEE) program reinforced capitalistic inequity by putting a few black figureheads, like millionaire Kenny Kunene, in charge of private companies, while allowing the majority of poor South Africans to remain in poverty. It is apparent that vast inequality and class warfare still exists today: in the privatisation of key resources like water and the country’s substantial mineral wealth; high poverty and unemployment rates; one of the world’s highest incidences of rape and low female literacy rates; and events like the Marikana massacre that happened just six months ago. Miners striking in Marikana were engaging in peaceful means of resistance against low wages and poor conditions, but were met with the worst violence since Sharpville: many workers were shot in the back, 44 people were killed, and many more were injured.
It is clear that the revolution is far from complete. Mandela, along with a great number of other activists, may have contributed to the downfall of Apartheid, but the rise of the ANC in government has not created real change for poor people. What Madiba achieved was incredible, but we cannot forget how much there is left to change; across the world as well as in South Africa. We should not be fooled by the media and politicians telling us that the fight is over, because that is what they want you to believe – it is not. La Lucha Sigue.