December 12, 2013

By Thandisizwe Chimurenga

LAWT Contributing Writer


This week began a 10-day period of national mourning and celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela throughout South Africa.  The 95-year old statesman passed away Dec. 5, 2013 after a prolonged respiratory illness and a lifetime of struggle to free the country from violent white minority rule that officially lasted from 1948 until 1994.

Based on observations of social and traditional media, it appears that both within South Africa and worldwide, Mandela is being hailed by two different groups of people: those who remember him as an impassioned yet calm and rational thinker who felt the use of arms was absolutely necessary to end the brutal rule of apartheid – “separateness” –  in his homeland of South Africa; and those who say he forgave his enemies and became a pacifist – a believer in the power and use of non-violence – after he had been imprisoned for 27 years.

Additionally it appears that, also based on observation, key pieces of Mandela's legacy are being overlooked: the economic status of the country nearly 20 years after Mandela became president, and the role of his former wife, Winnie Mandela, in both his life and the political struggle in South Africa.

After graduating from the University of Fort Hare in 1943, Mandela began the study of law and became a founder in 1944 of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), the oldest organization in South Africa dedicated to fighting for the rights of Blacks.  Mandela, along with Youth League co-founders Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo (who was also his partner in a law firm), would eventually rise to leadership positions in the ANC. Throughout the 1950s the ANC engaged in different acts of protest against the white minority government and the various laws designed to keep Blacks in their place.  After a series of direct action campaigns against the South African government were met with the full power of the police and the army resulting in scores of deaths in the late 1950s – early 1960s, Mandela led the founding of the armed wing of the ANC called Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Nation – in 1961 and became its chairman.

The purpose of Umkhonto was to engage in acts of sabotage directed at South Africa's military and its infrastructure.  Since Mandela was “banned” due to his political activities – he was not supposed to leave his home – he traveled secretly throughout not just South Africa but across the continent of Africa from 1961 through 1962 raising money to fund the organization and then, in August he was arrested.  Rumors have swirled for years that the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a role in his arrest but nothing has been substantiated, and Mandela said in his autobiography “Long Walk To Freedom” that his arrest was due to his own carelessness.

Once arrested, Mandela went on trial for leaving the country without permission and encouraging workers’ strikes.  He would be found guilty and sentenced to prison but while this was happening, evidence linking him to Umkhonto we Sizwe was found by the police.  He would then be tried for acts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government.  Found guilty in 1963, Mandela would be sentenced to life in prison where he would remain for the next 27 years.

During that 27-year imprisonment Mandela never wavered in his support for the use of arms to bring about the downfall of apartheid.  Amnesty International, the London-based organization which calls on governments worldwide to release what it calls “prisoners of conscience,” sympathized with Mandela’s plight in the early years of his imprisonment but they could not name him as one of their prisoners of conscience, notes Terry Coonan, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University, because Mandela was committed to that principle of using arms to bring about political change.

Mandela “went into prison anti white, anti Afrikaner” said Coonan (Afrikaner is the name the white minority in South Afrika called themselves).  “He came out pacifist, very strongly.”

Coonan argues that this is part of the great legacy that Mandela leaves behind.  “His thinking had readily changed on violence. [Mandela was] a person who could get mortal enemies to sit down at a table; that is one of his greatest legacies.

Also part of Mandela's legacy, according to Coonan, is how Mandela led South Africa in the adopting of international law standards.  “South Africa went from being an outlier in the international community, and within four or five years … embraced international law.  South Africa has ratified far more international laws than the U.S. has.  The Rome Protocol of the International Criminal Court, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the role that international law plays” are key parts of Mandela's legacy that stand today, Coonan says.  “The way he also took on complex issues like poverty, AIDS and crime …  he didn't operate at 30,000 feet [above the people], he was a man of the people and so he had an understanding of those issues from that place, and that had an effect on people in Africa and beyond.

Bill Fletcher disagrees with some of us Coonan's analysis.  A labor and social justice activist for over 30 years, Fletcher is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, which exists to positively influence U.S. policy toward Africa.

“Mandela was no pacifist when he came out of prison. He was a very realistic liberation fighter, and what he concluded was that neither the ANC or the South African government could win militarily. Neither side could win militarily, and as a result he concluded, as did the ANC, that they needed to engage in negotiation.  He understood the need to compromise because neither side can take the other. That's very different from being pacifist,” said Fletcher.

Fletcher went on to extoll what he considered to be some of the other parts of Mandela's legacy:  “His courage in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles; a long-term perspective that he understood, as did the other leaders, that the struggle against apartheid is going to take a long time and you will need patience as well as passion and energy, and that you should not expect some sort of silver bullet; and that Mandela himself recognized that he was one person among a litany of great leaders in South Africa – there is a tendency to forget that; a tendency to place on Mandela sole responsibility for the movement, not recognizing that there were countless other leaders … and that there were other organizations of significance in the struggle – Mandela never forgot that, and he talked about the necessity of organization and the need to be accountable to an organization,” Fletcher said.

Activists around the world and within the U.S. who followed South Africa's struggle say that the contributions of Winnie Mandela should not be separated from Nelson Mandela's legacy.  Throughout their 27-year imprisonment, Winnie Mandela was an active participant in the South Africa freedom struggle and at one point during Nelson's 27-year imprisonment, Winnie endured 18 months in solitary confinement. 

“[Winnie Mandela's] picture helped [Nelson] remain strong and steadfast throughout those years of imprisonment,” state Emira Woods, the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, which is housed at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

“[Winnie] herself is a freedom fighter,” said Woods.  “[Nelson] was married before, then, essentially met Winnie in the struggle; they were both active.”

Many observers and supporters of South Africa's liberation struggle credited Winnie with keeping Nelson's name front and center during his imprisonment.  They looked on with a degree of dismay and sadness when, after walking out of prison hand in hand with Winnie in 1990, the couple would divorce in 1995, one year after Nelson became the first Black/African president of South Africa in the country's first democratic, multi-racial elections.  The Mandelas’ divorce had a mixture of the personal (charges of infidelity) as well as the political (differences in ideology) which, more than likely, should have been expected in such a high-profile marriage that was rooted in such an intense national liberation struggle. According to Woods, “Winnie wanted to pursue more militant strategies.  [Nelson] was trying to avert a blood bath, make sure [the country] did not descend into civil war.  That's a clear sort of difference in strategies.  Winnie was also looking at full emancipation, which means economic emancipation, which means the lives of the people in the street are bettered.”

Fletcher elaborated on the aspect of economic liberation that many say Nelson Mandela “left out” of his presidency, and now also comprises part of his legacy.

“The ANC made a campaign promise of redevelopment; if they won there would be wealth redistribution and a strengthening of the welfare state.  One year later, they made a fateful decision to scrap the redevelopment program and instead implement a program that was consistent with the “Washington Consensus,” neoliberalism.  In addition to instituting privatization [of key government sectors], the government – with the ANC in power and Mandela as president – made the decision to pay back the debt the previous [white minority] government “ had accumulated, fighting Black folks, borrowing all kinds of resources to fight the front line states and strengthen the apparatus of the apartheid regime.” 

In a Dec. 8, 2013 article on the website Global Research, Dr. James Winter, a professor of Communi­cation, Media & Film at the University of Windsor in Ontario Canada writes, “With its wrists handcuffed, Mandela's ANC opted for neo-liberal shock therapy of more privatization, cutbacks to government spending, looser controls on money flows, fewer labour laws, and selling off state-owned firms to service a horrendous debt owed to the oppressors” Winter quotes Naomi Klein, the author of Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism as saying that Mandela told the members of the ANC “that the globalization of capital 'makes it impossible for countries to decide national economic policy'..." in 1997, three years into his presidency.

Additionally, Fletcher states, the removal of trade barriers – the boycotting and divesting directed toward South Africa that had gone on for years – ironically created the loss of thousands of jobs in South Africa.  Since South Africa was a pariah among the world's nations, they had to rely on themselves in practically every industry; once apartheid ended and the trade barriers lifted, companies that had been forced to stay in South Africa left to other countries in Africa to get a cheaper workforce.

“So in 2013, the scorecard is very mixed,” said Fletcher.  “The apartheid state has been eliminated; great advancements have been made in electricity, sewage, water, housing, but it hasn't gone far enough.  Economic polarization is great; land has not been redistributed on any great scale.”

“Nelson led a movement for political emancipation, and the bigger struggle for economic justice is still going on, and Winnie played a role in reminding not only Nelson but the world that that struggle is not complete, not over …,” said Woods.

As the celebrations and accolades continue to roll in for Nelson Mandela, Fletcher says a note would be wise, especially for those of us within the United States.  “Could [Nelson] have done more? Probably.  Would he have liked the ANC to have done more?  Sure.  Given who he was at that point [in his life], he made certain decisions that needed to be respected … We can disagree. But did we spend decades in Robben Island Prison? There's room for humility when reflecting on the life and legacy of Mandela.  Doesn't mean we hold back on our criticism; it just means there is no need to be self-righteous with our criticisms.”

Category: News