Property Of The Ages? President Obama borrowed Abraham Lincoln's famous epitaph to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela. But was Prisoner 46664's ultimate contribution to the fate of Black South Africa entirely benign? Who benefited the most from the bargain he struck with South Africa's last White President, F.W. de Klerk? Will the Ages judge Mandela as kindly as they received Lincoln?
AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN breathed his last in a fetid boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre, his friend, the Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, declared: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
President Barack Obama borrowed Stanton’s magnificent epitaph to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela – the man who, throughout Obama’s political career, had served as the living exemplar of political heroism.
The American President is merely the mightiest of world leaders to pay tribute to this remarkable man. The fortitude he demonstrated through 27 long years of imprisonment, and the readiness with which he forgave his former enemies, greatly eased South Africa’s transition from racial oppression to multi-racial democracy, and made Nelson Mandela a statesman for all seasons.
But how will the ages, to which President Obama has now dispatched him, judge Nelson Mandela?
The Apartheid-era judges who sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment on that tiny speck of offshore rock called Robben Island knew what they were doing. Martyrs are politically useful only to their own side, but an imprisoned leader may one day be of service to both. This is especially true when, as the duration of his captivity lengthens, that leader’s reputation, unblemished by the inevitable compromises and crimes of politics and war, is permitted to grow to almost mythic proportions.
Hundreds of anti-Apartheid fighters (most infamously Steve Biko) were murdered in police custody. Why Nelson Mandela did not share their fate is one of those important political questions that contemporaries consistently deemed it better not to ask.
But we may be sure that, alone in his cell on Robben Island, Prisoner 46664 asked himself: “Why am I still alive? Why haven’t they killed me? What role do the Whites expect me to play in South Africa’s future?”
The answer, of course, and if you’ll pardon the rather cruel pun, is that Nelson Mandela was the Apartheid regime’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card. If repression failed; if the opportunity to preserve the property of White South Africans – even at the expense of surrendering their political dominance – presented itself; then Prisoner 46664, beloved by his people, the world’s most celebrated political prisoner, would be there to avert the fire and the blood that a Just Providence held in store for the architects and beneficiaries of the hated Apartheid system.
But Mandela was not White South Africa’s only saviour.
In the early 1980s the prospect of a Soviet-backed African National Congress replicating the triumphant national liberation struggles of Angola, Mozambique and Namibia seemed entirely plausible. With a continent-wide front of socialist enemies to the north and their backs to the sea, White South Africa’s future looked bleak.
By the end of the 1980s, however, Soviet power was collapsing. In 1991, its European empire gone, and its world-wide network of national liberation regimes scrabbling for more reliable sponsors, the Soviet Union, itself, simply blipped-off History’s screen. And with it went any chance of securing Black majority-rule in South Africa by outside force. Democracy would arrive there in one of only two possible ways: either blood-soaked and fatally compromised by a racial holocaust of historic proportions; or peacefully, via the ballot-box.
The White leaders of South Africa, understandably, opted for the latter. In February 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last White President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, authorised the release of Prisoner 46664. Nelson Mandela got out of jail.
But he was not free. Like Abraham Lincoln, to whom he is so often compared, Mandela found himself caught up in political and economic currents beyond his control and in whose grip he struggled to keep the frail craft of South Africa’s hopes afloat. If he was not to bequeath his people an economy stripped of all essential expertise, materiel and capital, then the socialist elements of the ANC programme would have to be abandoned.
It was no accident that Mandela’s new offices were located in Shell House. Without the endorsement of transnational capital, South African democracy would be a poor and ragged thing. But Mandela’s parallel guarantee to protect the farms and businesses of the hated Afrikaners also meant that the poor and the ragged of South Africa would remain black.
Will the Ages welcome Nelson Mandela with the same solemnity that they received Abraham Lincoln? Surely the avoidance of a racial bloodbath and the likely fracturing of South Africa along tribal lines – not to mention the introduction of a working multiracial democracy – is a legacy worthy of posterity’s approbation? It has certainly merited the applause of the Present Day.
And yet, in the story of Nelson Mandela there remains a nagging sense of saintliness too readily and too easily bestowed. Great victories are not won except at great price. Abraham Lincoln paid for his at Ford’s Theatre. Nelson Mandela died in his bed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 December 2013.
Now, this is the post I've been waiting for.
Like you, Chris, and many others, I marched against the Springbok Tour in 81. But I've got to say I'm thoroughly sick to the eyeballs of all the twee hagiography, the saccharine sentimentality, the mawkish romantisisation, and the blatant myth-making that's gone on in the wake of Mandela's death.
Russell Brown's Hard News tribute, for instance, is looking more and more like a New Age Flower-power love-fest, even to the extent that dear old Matthew Hooten (with his suggestion that Reagan and Thatcher were also great freedom-fighters) is being embraced in the most lovey-dovey (thanks for sharing, you're beautiful, man) way possible. No one's used the word "cherish" yet, but I fear it won't be far off.
There's something thoroughly dishonest and, above all, self-indulgent underlying all of this.
I've been waiting for something a little more incisive, hard-headed, something that questions Mandela's acceptance of the neo-liberal consensus and his failure to transform the lives of so many Black South Africans. And something that asks why so many other SA anti-apartheid leaders and activists have been ignored in favour of one thoroughly mythologised man.
For a brief rundown of Nelson Mandela's pro-capitalist and -neoliberal credentials, see here:
Markus, do you really think that Mandela, or anyone for that matter, could have just flicked the switch and magically changed the political and social situation in South Africa?
Mandela was just a step in what is the 'long walk' to freedom and justice for all in South Africa.
So what if he is 'mythologised' people need hope to go on, that alone is worth the indulgence.
While I would agree, Kat, that political myths are very important to preserving public faith in any given system of government, those who proclaim progressive values have a special responsibility to avoid using myths to obscure their own and their leaders' failings.
If the Left's political utterances and policies are not founded in truth, then it risks falling victim to the same sort of lies and illusions that have disfigured the Right.
The ANC had the great misfortune to come to office at virtually the height of neo liberalism. The corporate world did indeed provide the final push the SACP and PAC and ANC and tribal fighters could not.
But lets not get too down on the South African people for this, a sizable amount of whom now reside on Auckland’s North Shore–Minto was not wrong on the white flight scenario. In our own country too many by far drank deeply from the Freidmanite tankard for too long.
Mandela’s main legacy for the ages must be symbolism. He had to be freed, it was the tagline we clung to throughout the nasty winter of ’81, then not even believing he ever would be freed alive. The people eventually have to make their own destiny not great leaders. Nelson who I met in 1995 was too gracious by far imo. And the Freedom Charter we should do well to remember was a Nationalist document not a socialist one.
Yes the Public Address luvvies and others are making a feast of all this but we are captives of our times to some extent.
I've been hearing quite a bit in the last few days on the lines of "Why didn't Mandela lead a socialist revolution in South Africa?" So far no-one has looked at the country next door. Black South Africans are badly off, but they are not as badly off as Zimbabweans.
At no point in his long career did Mandela ever pay less than a whopping great price for the fame and respect he garnered.
That was true of him as a poor man's lawyer in Soweto; as the rising hope of the ANC in its battles against the pass laws; as the "Black Pimpernel" on the run from Verwoerd and Vorster's thugs; as a the "world's most famous political prisoner" and even, after his release, during the years that he helped guide his country away from the impending bloodbath.
Nor, personally, am I sure that , faced with a choice between a bullet in the chest at Ford's Theater and breaking rocks for several years on Robben Island, I would necessarily choose the latter.
Not that either Mandela or Lincoln were saints. No-one ever is. A man of huge talents, courage and integrity, Mandela also had his full measure of flaws, of which he often seemed to be painfully aware.
And, as with most of us, some of his faults were the other side of the coin to his virtues. He was, for example, profoundly loyal to his old comrades and their families, thus helping cement-in the crony culture that is now the ANC's bane.
I also think that Mandela made some crucial strategic mistakes during the course of his career. For example, the recourse to "Armed Struggle" in the early 1960s may well have been morally justifiable (as an Anti-Apartheid badge-wielding schoolboy, I certainly thought so, at the time). But, in practice, it proved a fizzer and virtually wiped the ANC out as a serious player for the next two decades.
When Soweto erupted in the mid 1970s, leadership passed inevitably to the Black Consciousness movement, which shared neither the ANC's formal commitment to multi-racialism nor its rhetorical leftism.
I would, however, agree with Markus that there’s something profoundly distasteful about the gush of saccharine guff with which Mandela's death has been greeted.
Even so, I recall Oscar Wilde's adage that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice plays to virtue. Moreover, Mandela had worse things happen to him than being lauded in death by the likes of David Cameron.
Finally, I'm not entirely certain I agree with you that Mandela avoided the death penalty because he'd been earmarked by the white establishment for a leading role in "Plan B".
I actually don't think that, back in the 60s, Afrikanerdom was capable of conceiving of any alternative to Apartheid, other than the Armageddon that haunted its reveries.
So what other reason could there be for Mandela's survival?
In the early 1970s, I had the privilege of meeting Albie Sachs, who was then in exile in the UK. I recall him saying (my words not his) that, although Apartheid South Africa was a brutally misgoverned country, it had a facade of pluralism at the top and that the judiciary had a reasonably good record of maintaining its independence.
That's why, incidentally, the South African government used to prefer short-circuiting the courts through extra-judicial bannings or under-cover thuggery of the sort that cost Steve Biko his life.
So my guess is that Mandela's survival was the product of South Africa's residual institutional pluralism.
As a result, he was still around, with his mana intact,in the late 1980s, when a younger, more sophisticated, generation of Afrikaner politicians, no longer assured of US support, went looking for someone to help steer the now inevitable transition.
Has everyone who publishes forgotten Mandalas links to terrorism?
Nelson Mandela was prepared to die for his beliefs. That was public knowledge. His reputation will not be sullied just because he died in his bed.
For every minute he was alive, he gave the world hope.
He was my hero.
The unprincipled piece of shit John Key who can't remember whose side he was on in 1981 has no right to even be at his funeral.
He's not worthy of representing this country at such an auspicious gathering.
I hope he doesn't come back...
Ah, the famous Mandela's links to terrorism gambit. Perhaps you would like to tell us, given that he was faced with an undemocratic and in fact profoundly anti democratic government in South Africa at the time, who he should have had links with? Both the United States and Britain, and for that matter all the other western democracies were quite happy to support this government. So tell us, what should he have done? Usually loud silence is the reply to that question :-).
@ Glen Webster; One man's 'Terrorist' is another man's 'Freedom Fighter'. The French Resistance during WW II were "terrorists" to the Nazis.
Cuba and Palestine are different issues with a similar theme. Oppressed people who want to enjoy freedom. Arafat was the architect of the Berlin Olympics attack and Castro let a revolt against Batista's vicious regime.
Sth Africa is on a long walk but hopefully will find itself in the future. Mandela was everything that Mugabe is not. The latter turned the food basket into a basket case!
I'll say this for JK. He's so absurdly inadequate at rising rhetorically to the occasion that he ends up sounding less nauseatingly saccharine than the other trans-global platitude peddlers.
Besides, if he got lost in the veldt somewhere, he might scare the wildlife and we might end up with Crusher or Joyce as prime minister for the next year.
So be careful what you wish for.
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