Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95. He is a unique political figure. He managed to gain the admiration and respect of both right and left wings of political spectrum, both when he rose to power and when he died. This does not happen very often. In the eyes of a large section of the left wing he is regarded as a revolutionary and in the eyes of the right a “respectable” campaigner for democracy. How could that happen? What was Mandela’s magic? Or is there a magic at all?
There is no magic
Mandela was a product of mid-twentieth century political environment from an African country which had a unique situation, that is, it had officially gained independence from the colonial power, but was under the despotic rule of the white minority, whose ancestors came there as settlers in the 17th century. Nationalist anti-colonialist movements of that era, in fact until late 80s, identified themselves with the Soviet Union’s or Maoist versions of Marxism and Communism. In Africa and Asia such movements were flourishing for good part of the 20th century. South Africa, however, was unique, due to its outmoded dehumanised political system, namely apartheid, under which the majority of the population, the blacks were treated as non-citizens, deprived of any rights, similar to slaves. The factor of race and colour overshadowed nationalism, thus the working class, who was predominantly black saw its war with the whites who were at the same time the capitalist class.
In the eyes of the working class the class war with capitalist class was at the same time a racial conflict. struggle against racism and apartheid was intertwined with class war. In South Africa the capitalists were easily distinguishable and recognized by any ordinary member of the working class and the deprived section of the society, they all belonged to a certain race different from the rest of the society. South Africa was also a rather developed capitalist system with abundant wealth. The development of radical working class organisations particularly in the 70s brought the class conflict more openly into this movement and in ANC. Class consciousness became a part of the nationalist movement against the apartheid led by ANC. Thereby ANC carried within it an uneasy co-existence of class conflict. However, influenced by the traditional left belief, “the minor contradiction, i.e. class, had to be subordinated by the major contradiction, i.e. nationalist/racial conflict,” the working class struggle was rallied under the banner of ANC, a predominantly nationalist organisation.
The above socio-political and economic condition gave rise to a kind of political figure Mandela came to be. (This is by no means disregarding his personal characteristics, which played a role in his political stature.) Moreover, by the time apartheid was coming to an end, when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison after 27 long years, he had observed the fate of the nationalist movements in Angola and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where brutal wars were waged against these movements by the West led by the US and also the fate of the revolution in Nicaragua in the other continent.
Legacy of Nelson Mandela
I don’t claim I can read Mandela’s mind, but I believe on his release from prison, or even there, he had reflected on the hard “realities” of the period and neighbouring countries, particularly Angola and Zimbabwe, and had decided to take a different path to avoid what seemed to be an imminent war ending perhaps in a dark scenario. This is how Mandela’s legacy was born. He played a significant role in dismantling apartheid system and putting a peaceful end to a bloody and brutal war of apartheid system against people of South Africa. This was a great moment in the history of mankind, when the majority of the deprived people of a society regained their individual and civil dignity.
Some on the left claim he made compromises. I don’t think he made any real compromises. He had fought and suffered imprisonment to dismantle apartheid system and create a society where all races lived with equal rights. His release from prison was the result of the advancements of the anti-apartheid struggle and the deadlock the apartheid regime was facing. The apartheid regime under the pressure from Western powers and the big companies who had great stake in South Africa came to embrace Nelson Mandela, as a man of reason, who has a vested interest in avoiding war and socio-political chaos, a political leader who promotes racial harmony and not racial hatred.
Mandela VS compromise
Those who accuse him of compromising are under the illusion that Nelson Mandela was fighting for a socialist society free of exploitation and class system. He never expressed his devotion to a marxist cause, never openly expressed his desire to dismantle capitalism and bring about a socialist society. He did talk about freedom, equality and justice repeatedly. However, these concepts as long as not elaborated clearly, are vague and can mean different things to different people, depending on their political and ideological tendencies. His vision of a free, egalitarian and just society was a society where all people enjoy the same legal rights and at best there is a welfare system in place. As far as his main political goal was concerned, he achieved it.
In the final analysis, he made no compromise. He was a leading figure in dismantling apartheid system, giving power to the black majority, diminishing racism and preventing an all out war, without whom, perhaps these, if not impossible, were very difficult to achieve. But he is no working class hero. He never promised to build a society free from classes, exploitation and economic inequality. It was the South African and some international left-communist tendencies who attributed these goals, aspirations and values to him. So, there is no reason, as a communist/Marxist either to be angry with him and accuse him of making compromises, or regard him as a hero. He was a “good man” and helped to bring dignity to the black and coloured citizens of South Africa and thereby, the world.
To end this, I like to conclude with a small piece written in 1994, at the time of South African election, by Mansoor Hekmat, a leading Marxist thinker and Worker-communist leader from Iran.
“The election in South Africa is one of the important events of the contemporary era. Perhaps to some, such evaluation not only seems exaggerated, but also from a communist pen and in a journal which mocks democracy, it seems unexpected. South African election will not materialise the just expectations of the black masses. the class rift will not be reduced. the welfare of the workers and toiling masses not only will not improve, but perhaps, due to the feeling of insecurity by the capitalists and thereby fleeing of capitals, will deteriorate for some time. As far as the working class is concerned, most probably, they will be bombarded by the demand for more sacrifices by “their own” government and the “own” tortured and imprisoned president. The honeymoon of the masses and ANC will not last long. The class struggle and tension, confrontation of different and opposing interests and expectations of “the new South Africa” will lead ANC to a rapid resolution with itself and radical workers organisations. It is clear which section of the society will confront the stick of order and national interest in the New South Africa.
These are all our assumptions. What makes this election valuable it is the fact that individual and civil dignity and respect are restored by the deprived majority of a society. A worker, only as a free human being, a recognised human being, can rise to emancipate the whole society. So long as workers’ basic human identity is legally under question in a system, which is the case in South Africa, Iran under Islamic rule, Saudi Arabia, Israel and all ethnic, racial and religious regimes, the cause of socialism is contingent on restoring legal and civil dignity of human beings. The official end of apartheid and legal racism in South Africa is a beacon of light in today’s reactionary world.”
(Mansoor Hekmat, “On the election in South Africa” originally in International journal 13 April 1994, republished in Collected Works Vol 8, originally in Persian, translated by this writer.)