And so Nelson Mandela, in a persistent vegetative state for months, is now finally dead, and if there was any consciousness left in his degenerate brain he must surely have been happy to see life ebbing away from his unbearable condition.
And so all the fools and knaves are combining to exploit the situation. Most of the lamentation around Mandela’s death is dishonest rubbish serving to promote the preposterous Mandela cult which has been constructed by white power, and which Zuma, himself a creature of white power, has sought to piggy-back on. The stench of rottenness is nauseating, and entirely familiar, as we stand before Mandela’s hideously ornate gravestone smothered in insincere tribute.
But beside all this, what did Mandela do right, and what did he do wrong? As Thabo Mbeki recently remarked in one of the few sensible responses to the provision of this long, skinny, dark brown corpse, like a photo-negative of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, what can we learn from his life?
The first thing which Mandela did right was to join the ANC at all. It was, of course, a kind of career move; getting into politics was the kind of thing which a young man trying to advance himself did. But then he did another right thing, which was to get together with his friends and form the Youth League in order to dynamise the party and try to transform it into something more than a combination talk-shop and agency for the private advancement of its leadership. Instead, within a few years, Mandela and his friends made the ANC into an organisation genuinely campaigning against white rule — just in time for that white rule to morph into something really nasty and thus make the ANC even more relevant than before.
The next thing which he did right was to stand with the SACP against the PAC. Essentially, this was a battle over control of the ANC, using the tools of narrow African nationalism. As a Xhosa chieftain, Mandela was quite capable of using such tools had he desired and there might have been a place for him within the PAC had he simply wished personal preferment. But he chose not to take that place — perhaps because he knew that the PAC would never lead the way to running the country, and he wanted to have real power rather than the shadow of power granted by the PAC’s fantasising. But also he may well have realised that any real struggle against white power could not succeed on a basis of fantasy and romantic black racism.
But then, of course, Mandela failed dismally in his attempt to run a revolution. His planning and execution of revolutionary action were hopelessly inadequate to the job. He had courage and integrity, but they were not enough to make up for a lack of skill, planning and realistic support bases. The ANC as of 1962 could not possibly have overthrown the white state. But it had to try, and probably it could not have tried more effectively than it did. In failing, Mandela was overwhelmed by the tide of history, and was sent to prison, and for the next ten years it did not matter what he did because he was given no opportunity to sell out — the regime did not want his support even if he had been willing to offer it — and he could have no impact on his organisation at all. What kept the ANC alive was not Mandela but Tambo and Slovo.
Still, by the late 1970s Mandela was a man of political significance again, thanks to the hard work of the ANC in exile in sustaining itself as a force to be taken seriously. By that stage he did not sell out when he might have done so — especially at the time when the apartheid regime still seemed invulnerable and invincible. For that we owe him much — because it is difficult to see how the kind of unifying mythos which the ANC and UDF developed around Mandela could have been developed around less charismatic and publicly known figures like Sisulu or Govan Mbeki.
Then, in the middle to late 1980s, Mandela was again significant for what he did not do. He did not attempt to make any deals all by himself, and he did not fall into any of the traps laid for him by the “negotiators” in prison who were trying to get him to surrender his position. At the time it probably seemed like a minor element of the broad attempt which the apartheid regime was making, with increasing desperation, to get the ANC to split and thus eliminate the only effective unifying force among apartheid’s enemies. Instead of that happening, the apartheid regime itself began to break up in the face of the rocklike solidity of its enemies — and once again Mandela helped in this, because he appeared to the apartheid regime to be a weak spot and instead he proved to be a strong one.
After the unbanning of the ANC and Mandela’s release, his strengths and weaknesses played very important roles in the way that the struggle to finally overthrow the apartheid regime unfolded. He had absolutely no choice but to seize central control of the organisation. The exile movement was in danger of flying apart with the dissipation of its funding sources and the crippling of its leader — with Tambo incapacitated by the stroke which eventually killed him, and Slovo ill with the cancer which eventually killed him, the organisation was riven with potential splits and agents of apartheid striving to shatter it. As for the UDF, it existed only in name, and its leadership was only too often self-seeking, self-serving people who had little or no organisational skill and no ideological commitment. It had to go, and the whole organisation had to be brought under one monolithic entity headed by Mandela.
That also made sense given that the ANC had to transform itself into a mass-based organisation with coherent goals which would amount to something more than simply getting rid of apartheid — given that the visible signs of apartheid were being eradicated as fast as President De Klerk could sign the papers, in a desperate (and ultimately futile — but who could have been sure of that) final attempt to win over a black public in the run-up to elections. Mandela oversaw that transformation, and probably nobody else could have served as a figurehead for it. Also, he had the authority, which again nobody else could have managed, to sign away the armed struggle, a relic of apartheid which had become a dangerous rhetorical pretense in the hands of the noisy fools of the PAC and the Youth League, most of whom had never heard a gunshot except in their own hands during a botched armed robbery.
The danger was that in willingly signing away trivia, Mandela and his cabal, drunk with the authority they had gained over the organisation, might sign away valuable things as well. This was precisely what the PLO was doing in their negotiations with Israel and the United States at the time, and it is likely that Mandela and his team were aware of this. Mandela helped the ANC to keep its attention focussed on the main issue, and the main issue crystallised into the need for elections. This was codified, and Mandela’s team given unshakeable legitimacy, in the 1992 National Conference — which, again, Mandela helped to make possible. Granted there was never any doubt that the Conference would weaken his position, but many leaders would have put Conference off until after the national election, citing the crisis which they faced — the fact that it went ahead under the circumstances showed that the Mandela team had a strong commitment to democracy as well as power.
But at the same time, Mandela was not a superman. He was only too aware that the ANC had to look good in the eyes of the foreign right-wingers and the white reactionary South African businesspeople who would ultimately decide whether or not an election would be held, or whether the apartheid regime, rebranded and purportedly transformed, would be given a new lease of life to cling to white power. As a result, Mandela connived with the construction by the white elite of the myth of the Great Reconciler, of the man who loved everybody equally (and therefore would not help black people merely because they had been ground under white heels for four hundred years).
To Mandela this was probably the Teflon which would keep white criticism off his back and get the liberals off his case, but it was dangerous because it meant incessant schmoozing with the white corporate and propaganda elite. The apartheid regime’s ideological state apparatus was devoted to the task of co-opting the ANC, and now it had access to the whole organisation instead of a few key elements — it could attack the army where it was weak instead of being limited to where it was resolute. The result was that as Mandela’s authority appeared to coalesce, the organisation which he led began to fragment again, to wander off in search of wealth, or to follow dreams invented by white reactionaries such as liberalism and neoliberalism, and because Mandela was the heart of the organisation he was naturally blamed by the left who wanted him weakened so that they could get their hands on the levers.
Then came the final negotiations, interrupted by Hani’s assassination. Mandela handled that situation very well, as he had handled all his public negotiations with the apartheid regime. His position appeared to be quite simple; not to blame the apartheid regime for the murder, but simply to point out that the longer the apartheid regime stalled and delayed, the more things would deteriorate until eventually the negotiations which they were undertaking would become moot and the apartheid regime would have to face a less sympathetic interlocutor whom they would be in no position to obstruct. He was thus brilliantly employing the tropes of the regime — himself as the good old black grand-daddy, black youth as menacing golliwogs with bones through their noses, the inevitable decline of everything — in the service of the people, turning the apartheid regime into its own bogeys.
But in the actual negotiations, Mandela lacked the authority to prevent people like Ramaphosa and Slovo from giving away a great deal — almost certainly too much. The Constitution which came out of the final negotiations, together with the other shabby deals which had been done with the apartheid regime and its allies, was certainly not helpful for the people of South Africa (except for the affluent elite who had drafted it). For this Mandela must be held accountable — and yet he and his supporters could probably have managed nothing better under the circumstances. Similarly, the decision to bring in American advisers to help with the election must have seemed a good one — and yet how far did this open the door to spooks and to the kind of covert collaboration against which the ANC, having no effective spy service of its own, had no defense?
Mandela’s term in government was a long decline away from greatness. Admittedly, there were Augean stables to be cleansed and that was managed; the system put together worked, after a fashion, and the dismantling of apartheid went ahead satisfactorily. But, all in all, what Mandela did was to establish the foundations for the disastrously neoliberal state in which we now live. The new constitution was even more corporate-friendly than the old; the TRC turned out to be a calamitous coverup for the crimes of colonialism and apartheid; the RDP was a disappointment. Nothing really important changed for the majority in Mandela’s five years. Meanwhile, the minority took more power than ever within the ANC, and the progressive rotting away of the ideals of the organisation continued.
Perhaps Mandela was seduced by the myth which had been created around him. There had long been a tendency in him to do whatever white people in power in the West wanted — even though he had possessed the guts to stand up against Western imperialism on occasion (as in Kosovo). Also, he was probably weary of fighting against the right wing of his own party which included so many of his former comrades now turned bitter enemies without ever admitting it. So, after five inglorious years, he bowed out and handed the whole responsibility over to Mbeki, to “prove” to the outside that “African leaders” were not obsessed with power — as if such things could be proven in the face of racism!
This was, arguably, Mandela’s biggest betrayal of us. Had he held on to power he would have been able to help resist the tide of corruption and corporate control of politics. He and Mbeki together for another five years would have been a much stronger combination than Mbeki alone proved to be (for Zuma was never really Mbeki’s ally; he was always on the other side, and Mbeki’s arrogance kept him from acknowledging his weakness). On the other hand, to judge by his subsequent behaviour, Mandela might have become simply a corporate stooge. Who is to say?
All we can say is that Mandela was a great man who did many wise things, but a flawed man who did some unwise things, a man who in the end was not strong enough, morally or physically, to protect his party from the destructive forces which threatened to engulf it. He was not enough to save us. But perhaps if there had been a dozen such people in the ANC (or in any other organisations with similar professed opinions) we might not be in the state we are in today.
Exquisite dead guy
Rotating in his display-case
Exquisite dead guy
(Swear I saw his mouth move)
Exquisite dead guy
Outside my high-rise apartment
Exquisite dead guy
Hanging from a skyhook
How’m I supposed to let you know the way I feel about you?
(They Might Be Giants)