Opinion, By Butler Zvikomborero Kapumha-Harare
South Africa’s fight against the systematic racism of the apartheid regime is often and alas, reduced to one man- Nelson Mandela. He gets all the credit, the glory and attention. Or maybe he does deserve? He is widely portrayed as a saint, icon and hero of mankind. It hasn’t been much of a debatable story. Not for me, because I never trust people who fight the war of the poor and oppressed and turn out to be heroes of the rich and oppressors.
I find the history accounts of South Africa, as presented in modern history texts, very amusing- They are stagnant for the 27 years Mandela was in prison, as if nothing happened, and as if the people were waiting for him to be released. And the struggle continued just as he was released. This has been significant in presenting the picture that Mandela single-handedly won the fight against apartheid. The Mandela story is well choreographed in the press for public consumption and any opposition to the official story is intolerable. It is taboo to discuss such a topic, so I will give my humble critique of his ‘heroism’. And with this article I risk a lot. I risk my sanity. I risk being called names. And for that reason, facts, only, will be my defence.
The purpose of this article is to dispel ‘controlled’ illusions of a one man show-that is often portrayed, and challenge the dominant version of the construct of the story of South Africa’s independence struggle. The author does not dispute that Mandela is a hero but concurs with Adam Roberts1 as he carefully put it “Mandela is a hero, not a saint as mostly portrayed”. And it is the proposition of the writer that the story of the fight against apartheid is way bigger than Nelson Mandela, and should be packaged as such without the obsequious and disproportional praise of one person, because it is misleading and mischievous. Many people lost their lives, families, and most productive times of their lives, in sacrifice to the struggle, along with Nelson Mandela, and often their effort and contributions go without credit and in some cases omitted.
But the first question to this whole subject is-What did Nelson Mandela do to become such a hero? What did he do, extra-ordinarily that makes him adored with such veneration across all people of different religions, races and political persuasions? And I often ask this question to people I meet. I get the same answer constructed in the same paraphrase and vocabulary.
The next question is how significant was his individual contribution to the struggle for independence, especially during the 27 years he was absent from the ‘battlefield’ whilst guys like Oliver Tambo led the African National Congress (ANC)?
Another question is why did Nelson Mandela, a terrorist to the Apartheid regime sympathizers, both in South Africa and in other countries like USA under Ronald Reagan, UK under Margaret Thatcher, and another apartheid regime of Israel, and then quickly turn into their hero. I mean it might have been easier for Mandela to forgive them, given his ‘good heart’, but for the racists and white supremacists to say Mandela is a ‘terrorist-turned-hero’ is just not convincing at surface level.
And another question, did he have plans to redress the dire poverty and economic disparity in South Africa? Or his plans only included having an end to apartheid in a political sense only?
Why is he still silent, today, on those issues, like poverty, inequality, racism, and land disparity, still a dominant predicament in South Africa’s majority population? Has he left it for other leaders? Or those are not his concerns? Or he is not ‘stupid’ enough to destroy his international brand and heroism like what Robert Mugabe did?
The fuss over Nelson Mandela is completely astounding. It bridges between a cult and the nearest thing to a religion. He has a province, a city, hundreds of roads, town squares, schools, hospitals, bridges, gardens, currency notes, Universities, Airdromes, malls, Institutions, all named after him. He has statures everywhere including the United Kingdom Parliament. All this is in recognition to his fight against apartheid and his belief of a non-racial society. When the United Nations declared his birthday the Nelson Mandela day, they said of him being, “a living embodiment of the highest values of the United Nations”. Every serious leader in the world, or Hollywood celebrity or person of influence anywhere is recommended to have a portrait with Nelson Mandela, seemingly. It’s good for business and personal image.
Controversial self proclaimed 'Prophets',and 'businesspersons'- Emmanuel' Makandiwa and Eubert Mudzanire pictured with Nelson Mandela in South Africa
But the above paragraph would at surface level make me a ‘hater’, right? But I think the proportion of “the emotional apotheosis of Mandelatry”, as one blogger2 puts it would, to any rationalist, pose the question-What did he do to be venerated as such? I posed this question in one of the previous paragraphs.
Who is Nelson Mandela and what did he do?
Nelson Mandela, born Rolihlahla Mandela, was a lawyer in a racist country, where being African was a crime itself. Being black meant unequal treatment and opportunities compared to persons of different races- be it European, Asian or mixed. Africans were second class citizens in their native country, being denied even of the most basic tenants of human rights. And Mandela was a boxer, please note. Together with Oliver Tambo, Congress Mbata, Walter Sisulu and others, Mandela helped form the ANC Youth league within the liberation movement ANC that had been formed in 1912. He was the Secretary General of the Youth League in 1947, then President in 1951.But he only became President of the ANC Party in 1991-1997. Together, with other comrades like Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, and Steve Biko of Black Consciousness Movement they organized resistance and civil disobedience to fight against the system, until the ANC sought an armed resistance, justifiably so. He married three times to Evelyn Mase, Winnie Madikizela and most recently Graca Machel. After the Sharpsville Massacre of 1960, Albert Luthuli ordered the formation of the Umkhonto we Sizwe-ANC’s military wing, with Nelson Mandela as its commander. Mandela received guerrilla military training in Algeria in 1962. He was later arrested in 1963 for alleged “terrorism” and more specifically, “for targeting public infrastructure like buildings and pylons in the military activities of the Umkhonto we Sizwe”. He was first sentenced to death, but, later spent the next 27 years at a prison, 18 of them at Robben Islands. He came out, after mounting pressure to the apartheid regime from everyone, everywhere except for a few like fellow-apartheid Israel, and then struck a deal with then President Frederik De Klerk, and he became the president of a ‘democratic’ South Africa. After independence, his vision of a non-racial nation continued in what is termed a “Rainbow Nation”. He adopted liberal to neoliberal economic policies and continued in the economic guidelines of the previously apartheid South Africa. No attempts at redressing the economic disparity were made, and the poor remained poor if not poorer. The rich went richer, mostly on the same exploitative model of pre-independent South Africa. The preferential access to ownership of land, businesses and other opportunities to white people is still a sad feature in South Africa’s society. And Nelson Mandela resigned from ANC leadership in 1997 and from the Presidency in 1999.
So let’s dispel some minor common lies.
(i) Mandela was never the ‘leader’ of the ANC when it fought apartheid; he only became so after the end of apartheid, because its leader Oliver Tambo had died of stroke just after the end of apartheid. That was in 1991.
(ii) Mandela never negotiated the constitution of South Africa. Hundreds of lawyers and academics led by Cyril Ramaphosa (now ANC Deputy President) and Roef Meyer (a former intelligence chief) did. Both Mandela and De Klerk kept their distance.
(iii) It is not Mandela who started ‘talks’ with the National Party. Oliver Tambo had extensive talks with De Klerk’s predecessor, PW Botha in the 1980s.
(iv) Mandela was never a pacifist. He was a guerrilla war leader trained in Algeria and Ethiopia. He was commander of the military wing of the ANC.
So the construct of Mandela’s heroism goes: “Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years… That’s an awful lot of time. He then forgave his perpetrators and today South Africa is a non-racial exemplary African rich country. He was President for only 5 years. Look at Zimbabwe, man. Mandela is a hero man.” Some just take the media type of portrayal, which says, “Madiba is the best thing to happen to Africa. He brought an end to apartheid and brought independence to Africa. He is the greatest African and the most important human of our time.” And the argument is essentially substantiated by “27 years in prison” and “forgiveness”.
Different classes of people view Nelson Mandela as their hero. The extremely rich who feel Mandela never posed a threat to their capitalist and exploitative adventures, Mandela is also a hero. Those whose fathers and grandfathers grabbed diamond fields; gold claims and vast farmlands are still in charge thanks to the heroism of Nelson Mandela.
The extremely poor think Nelson Mandela is their hero because of the euphoria that gripped them since his release from prison. It hasn’t translated to better opportunities, and they are still living a shack without jobs or comparable livelihood as of the previously preferential race in apartheid era. But still Mandela is their hero. He ‘won’ them freedom, so they say.
Walter Sisulu also spent almost 26 years at Robben Islands just like Nelson Mandela. He was Secretary General of the ANC when Mandela was a Secretary General of the ANC Youth league. He then became ANC deputy President when Mandela became President from 1991-1994. So in terms of contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle, whatever Mandela did, Sisulu did too. But no one cares about Sisulu. Only Mandela! The disproportionate veneration of these people, who had equal and similar contribution towards the same cause, is in my view appalling and raises a lot of questions. If we praise Mandela for spending 27 years in prison and coming out with a reconciliatory message, why don’t we praise Walter Sisulu for achieving the same feat? It’s like Walter Sisulu is totally ignored when comparing to the deification of the person of Mandela and his supposed feat.
Then Oliver Tambo, whom, whilst Mandela was in prison, was the President of ANC, between 1967 and 1991 after succeeding Albert Luthuli. He organized international solidarity and called for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign that pressurized the apartheid regime into giving in. He never gave up in the most difficult of times when ANC was banned under the suppression of Communism Act. He continued anti-apartheid activities at a new headquarters in Zambia, in exile. If I were to credit one person for the end of apartheid, it will be him. The external pressure mobilized by Tambo proved to be the defining factor leading to the release of the many ANC cadres at Robben Islands, which Mandela was one of. But this part of history has been wiped out carefully to pave way for the glory of Mandela. A ‘Jack Bauer’ type of story on Mandela today has made him a big idol and a man who single-handedly fought apartheid, whereas the people who actually did are side-lined in the official story.
As a matter of record, the struggle did continue during Mandela’s absence. It’s unfortunate that we have forgotten the names of those who did. The Soweto uprisings. The sanctions by the United Nations. The support of the Frontline States especially Zambia. The Oliver Tambos. They are left out the picture for technical reasons- probably they don’t just fit in.
It is without doubt that the media type of marketing of an international Mandela brand, has led to this hagiography that deify Nelson Mandela in the media. He is a good man, but hysterically over-rated. His achievements have been achieved by other people who do not get equivalent attention and glory. Mandela’s choreographed media picture is a celebration of the capitalist minority who control and manufacture public consent through the media. Dominic Mhiripiri4 says, “The continual sycophantic veneration of such people serves to place a gap between what the ordinary man and woman can achieve, and what the great figures of history were able to do”. He also, like I do propose that the “deity of Mandela is merely a construct of the media”.
As long as the fraudulently obtained farm land, mining claims and other capitalist adventures were intact, it was perfectly going to work for the white minority. And Enrick Patrick3 says that “the end of apartheid in South Africa is a scam”. Objectively, it is a fairly uncontroversial statement. Comparing the demands of the African people enshrined in the Freedom Charter of 1955, chief being the declaration “The people shall share in the country’s wealth” and the “the people shall govern”, a reference to the vast mineral wealth beneath its soils and farmland, it is clear that the totality in the end of colonialism and apartheid is a farce in South Africa.
The anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle was to fight the systematic injustice that denied opportunities for Africans to basic and fundamental human rights and more importantly to redress the racial disparity in the ownership of the means of production, primarily the land stolen from the Natives before and after the National Party (architects of institutionalized apartheid) came into power in the late 1940s. Besides redistribution of the ownership to means of production being a key feature of equality and equity, it means reducing the poverty characteristic of the black majority of South Africans. The Freedom Charter was forsaken by Nelson Mandela in his Presidency- a total betrayal to the Africans who fought to end unjust domination and oppression. And this is what Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has been saying, much to her persecution. She said Nelson Mandela has become a “corporate foundation”, adding that “Mandela let us down”.
Today, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. It has the biggest gap between the rich and the poor. 50% of its population, largely Africans lives under the poverty datum line. The World Bank report in 2012 that focused on the equality of opportunities said South Africa is characterised by “economic exclusion, perpetuating inequality making it highly unequal”. Oxfam’s similar report estimated that the top 100 richest people gained 60%, whilst the greater bottom slipped further into poverty. 16 million of its population depends on social grants from the government and other non-governmental actors. The mineral resources of South Africa are the privilege of a few elite. The vast farmlands are owned by a few farmers with no merit save that they are white. 60-70% of commercial farmland is owned by less than 10’000 white farmers and the demands for a just, equitable land redistribution exercise are constantly blocked by the ruling elite. When Nelson Mandela assumed presidency, he denied calls to nationalise key strategic industries especially the South African Reserve Bank. The bank owned by a few shareholders who now dictate the monetary policy of South Africa. He continued the neo liberal policies of the National Party and was only the figurehead of a black man in office. The bourgeoisies retained economic power, which is all that matters. And today the apartheid model that makes the few ruling elite extremely powerful-politically and economically at the expense of the person in the street is an undeniable inconvenient truth.
Mandela is complicit in retaining unjust economic power of a few bourgeoisies at the expense of the black majority. The mineral wealth should have been shared. The land should be redistributed. These dreams and hopes fade by the day for the 16 million waiting for government grants and assistance every day.
The story hasn’t changed for the person living in a shack outside Cape Town. But we know the story of the Oppenheimer family, the Rupert family, the Ackerman family, Christo Wiese, Laurie Dippenaar, Stephen Saad and a few who continue to get rich in South Africa’s conducive environment. South Africa’s growth is meaningless unless it is shared.
The failure to redress economic inequalities between races is simply indefensible. There are no excuses.
I would have wanted to compare the policies of Nelson Mandela with those of Thomas Sankara, Hugo Chavez and other persons whose heroism is a product of their successful fight against the most pressing human problems like poverty, exploitation, economic oppression and racism head-on through efficacious land reforms, education, and health reforms. But I will not.
I would also have wanted to compare Nelson Mandela to Mahatma Ghandi, Noam Chomsky, Martin L. King (Jnr.) and other people who I believe are moral authorities and portrayed a consistent and coherent link between their actions and their speech. Most of them did not tire in fight for particular moral causes through peaceful means. But I will not, also.
But I think it is suffice to say, for all his achievements and struggles, Nelson Mandela is not my hero.
1. Adam Roberts, Mandela is a hero not a saint, Comment is free, The Guardian UK
2. Heresy Corner. www.heresycorner.blogspot.com
3. Enrick Patrick, Nelson Mandela: the betrayal of a hero. http://resistenzaeliberta.wordpress.com/
4. Dominic Mhiripiri, Student at Brown University, USA. “The most over-rated man in the world”. Article appeared in the Brown Daily Herald
5. Nathan Geffen, Nelson Mandela is not South Africa, The Guardian UK