Mandela's Dilemmas Are Ours, But He Leaves His Example
Some years ago, at the heart of a South African region once aptly nicknamed the “generator of the revolution,” tourism boosters proposed the erection of a giant, Statue of Liberty-scale Mandela figure triumphantly looking out onto Nelson Mandela Bay and the Indian Ocean beyond it. The statue was to have replaced a hazardous manganese-ore shipping terminal. Mined in the ecologically fragile Northern Cape, the ore is railed South to Port Elizabeth where it is stored for exportation. How fitting it must have appeared then that Nelson Mandela’s statue should supplant the ore dump - a toxic node in a global economy where health and environment are incidental to returns on investment. But that was not to be; the statue remains an artist’s sketch and metropole-bound freighters continue to dock. The next super-sized city project to engage the future Nelson Mandela City’s imagination is a white elephant, a giant soccer stadium built for the World Cup. But the story captures South Africa’s and the world’s difficulty in handling the contradictory Mandela legacy: genuine hope powered by struggle, shameful compromise camouflaged by revolutionary imagery.
The mainstream narrative of Nelson Mandela is a fairly straightforward story of an indomitable character challenging and eventually overcoming life’s challenges. “There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” And so Bill Clinton can write, that Mandela is “a rare human being who, in freeing himself of his demons, also became free to give his extraordinary leadership to his country and the world.” So Mandela, in the mainstream narrative, can rightly be portrayed as a revolutionary individual eclipsing all others much like the anticipated statue.
But this is not the whole story.
Mandela became a great man because he contributed to an epic, ongoing historical struggle that promised not merely reconciliation between black and white, but also economic justice and the overcoming of the material inequities of his nation. The visionary Freedom Charter that animated the revolutionary movement inspired by Mandela promised to open of “the doors of learning and culture,” to transfer mines, banks and monopolies to “ownership of the people as a whole,” to share the land “among those who work it,” and to settle “international disputes by negotiation.”
However, Mandela leaves us as his country’s Revolutionary Alliance sunders itself, as transnational capital rules the mines, as schools are segregated by wealth, as Chinese capital finances new coal-burning plants, and South African troops intervene in disputes far North of the country’s borders. And where the Charter promised “Houses, Security and Comfort,” there are evictions, rolling black outs and dry outs.
Lest this ugly picture sullies our memory of a noble Mandela, we must recognize that South Africa is now an ordinarycountry as another recently departed South African giant, Neville Alexander, observed. It is an ordinary capitalist country where one’s life chances are defined by social class and democracy is compromised by private wealth. To be sure other vagaries of state power, place, gender, disability, language, and status remain – as they do elsewhere. The remaining racial inequalities will not be abolished by either eliminating racist legislation or instituting new race-aware policies but rather by changing the economic system. It is South Africa’s and Mandela’s achievement that the country is now primarily defined by class and less so by race. And because South Africa could make that transition, it may pioneer the next one.
And Mandela’s own conflicted thinking about capitalism may help us “break on through to the other side.”
Though a son of relative privilege amongst the oppressed, Mandela shared the fate of his people, connected as he was by both skin color and choice to the oppressed majority. Though he lived to the fine age of 95, in a country where the average life expectancy is 55, Mandela’s health itself was prescribed by challenges he shared with his countrymen and his last years dictated by his tuberculosis-scarred lungs’ susceptibility to opportunistic infection.
Transcending the conditions of life that crafted people as black and white, Mandela tapped into the national and global currents of the 1950s and early 60s. In those currents, he discovered a burgeoning trade union movement, women-led community and national struggles and deep interest in life beyond not only racism but also capitalism.
As one turns the pages of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, one uncovers an incomplete, contradictory and even fissile engagement with the ideas of anticapitalism: “I found myself strongly drawn to the idea of a classless society, which, to my mind, was similar to traditional African culture where life was shared and communal. I subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.”
He goes onto recognize that, “The idea that the value of goods was based on the amount of labor that went into them seemed particularly appropriate for South Africa. The ruling class paid African labor a subsistence wage and then added value to the cost of the goods, which they retained for themselves.” (Of course, Marxists will quibble with this rendition of the Labor Theory of Value, insert smiley face here). Describing his teaching of other prisoners on Robben Island, he writes, “My approach was not ideological, but it was biased in favor of socialism, which I saw as the most advanced stage of economic life then evolved...”
But Mandela also got push back and was forced to ponder the questions further; responding to the “To each according to his needs” quote his students asked, “Yes, but what does that mean in practice? If I have land and no money, and my friend has money but no land, which of us has a greater need?” Mandela recalls, “Such questions were immensely valuable and forced one to think hard about one’s views.” Unfortunately, Mandela did not share the answers that resulted from being forced “to think hard.”
Late in his narrative—recounting the 1980s negotiations about negotiations—Mandela seems to pull a u-turn citing a 1950s article in which he advertises that the vision of the Freedom Charter, with its calls for nationalization and redistribution, is that of an “African-style capitalism.” Anyone who has chatted with an ANC negotiator of the times will recognize this extreme pliability in the formulation of principles. In retrospect, we must admit that this was theoretical inadequacy masquerading as tactical flexibility.
Whatever his deficits in Political Economy, Mandela certainly compensated with his decisive political will that sometimes placed him to the left of the Communist Party. Urging revolutionary action in the 1960s, he complained that the Party insisted “that the appropriate conditions had not yet arrived, and… they were simply following the textbook definitions… [But] If you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur.” And so he demanded and took decisive action, launching an armed struggle that failed in the short term but succeeded over time as grassroots movements took up his example albeit through a diversity of strategies.
On a radically more complex and larger scale, opinion polling suggests that the global community finds itself in roughly the same place as Mandela did when he became the Mandela we celebrate: uncertain about the economic theory, distrustful of capitalism, welcoming of socialist values, but above all else, desperately wanting decisive action.
South African Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of Massachusetts Global Action and encuentro5. Back in July, Suren celebrated Mandela's birthday with "Their Mandela & Ours." He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.