Mandela's passing leaves unfinished business
The death of Nelson Mandela marks the closure of an era of independence struggles in Africa which ended colonial rule and brought political freedom. But despite Mandela’s heroic and self-sacrificing struggle, his vision of a just and equal society eludes the vast majority.
The African National Congress which Mandela came to lead was formed in 1912 in response to the South African Land Act (rubber-stamped by the British) which banned black people from buying or renting land in 93% of the country. By the 1940s, the ANC was deeply under the influence of the South African Communist Party (SACP).
The malign influence of Stalinism had already taken its toll on the party. The SACP, which did not believe in the armed struggle, proposed a cautious, non-revolutionary two-stage approach to the South Africa situation. First, it was necessary to achieve a Western-style democracy. Only then could you reform the state and make progress towards socialist ownership and so on. In other words, stage two was postponed to the indefinite future.
In 1961 the country’s Afrikaans whites outvoted the English-speaking whites in a referendum to leave the British Commonwealth and establish the Republic of South Africa. The new republic's government pushed ahead with the formation of the racist apartheid state, which deprived the black majority of all human, political and economic rights. A mass strike called by the ANC was met with brute force.
As Nelson Mandela said in his famous speech from the dock at the Rivonia freedom trial in 1964: "What were we, the leaders of our people, to do? Were we to give in to the show of force and the implied threat against future action, or were we to fight it out and, if so, how?"
It was at this point the ANC reluctantly agreed to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, an armed struggle organisation designed to bring young people already planning insurrection under its control.
Mandela quoted the Umkhonto we Sizwe manifesto:
The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.
Mandela and seven other leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe were sentenced to life imprisonment. His amazing courage and resilience inspired the heroic resistance of two generations of black South Africans.
This, combined with sanctions and a growing economic crisis, forced the white government led by F. W. de Clerk to release Mandela and concede black people the right to vote. As a result, on a momentous day in 1994 Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.
However, the new constitution may have dismantled apartheid laws but it left the South African state itself – its army, police force and bureaucracy, its education institutions and most crucially its forms of ownership of land and natural resources – largely untouched.
Mandela's ANC successors have co-opted themselves into this state, and trampled his vision of a just South Africa into the dust. Its lowest point so far came in August 2012 when they sent armed police in to repress striking miners. They opened fire and 34 workers at the Marikana platinum mine were massacred, mostly shot in the back.
Black people remain largely landless and many are homeless in their own country. Gold and other minerals remain in the hands of the global corporations and the majority of black people have no say whatsoever. The ANC elite has grabbed hold of political power, and the ruling group’s main role is to maintain the status quo and enrich themselves. As we say goodbye to an amazing leader in the shape of Mandela, these are facts that can't be ignored.
Throughout his life Mandela was committed to peace, and today it is hard to stomach the hypocrisy of Obama and Cameron praising him for this quality whilst they themselves are the worst kind of warmongers engaged in drone wars and reckless armed interventions. And with their anti-terror laws, torture, imprisonment without trial and mass surveillance of their own populations, the US and UK secret services put apartheid's notorious BOSS in the shade.
Africa is facing a new kind of recolonisation, with global agri-business seizing billions of acres of land, and the corporations totally in control of mineral wealth, aided by corrupt and complaisant governments. Half mast flags, statues and public displays of mourning are of no use to Mandela's people. Revitalising and finding new approaches to achieving his vision of an equal society would be his best memorial, and the only one worth having.
6 December 2013