Mandela and Socialism

by Matthijs Krul on December 9, 2013

The passing of Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly one of the greatest national liberation figures of the 20th century and one of the world’s great inspirations in the struggle against white supremacy and other forms of oppression, has naturally led to an outpouring of commentary and analysis. It is hardly necessary to add to this yet another overview of his life and accomplishments: his forging of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP – of which he was a Central Committee member when he was imprisoned for treason – is well known, as are his roles in the founding of the militant anti-apartheid organization Umkhonto we Sizwe and his heroic resistance against all attempts to bribe or suborn him during his long imprisonment. These accomplishments have nothing to do with the image of Mandela as a hero only of pacifism and reconciliation. While Mandela and his comrades rightly did not choose lightly to engage in violence, they did not spurn it when the needs of the day required it either.

That Mandela has undergone a process of modification akin to that long ago achieved with Martin Luther King, that is to make both seem as much more friendly, conciliatory, and moderate than they really were, is precisely a testament to the strength and effect of their actual militant efforts: these have been so powerful that even their very enemies are unable to simply oppose them, but must pretend that their own aims and those of Mandela or King were always reconcilable. As Bob Herbert writes in Jacobin, “the primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.”

But to state this is not yet to properly comprehend the politics of Mandela and the ANC alliance, including the role of the SACP. As Tony Karon explains in his article “Three Myths About Mandela Worth Busting“, the main perceptions of Mandela are either of him as a pacifist and liberal figure, as indeed mainstream politicians with the connivance of the world media have done everything to promote; or alternatively, in some circles, to emphasize Mandela as a figure of black nationalism, a kind of implicit Pan-Africanist or Garveyist figure representing the victory of black South Africans as such. While the latter contains a lot more truth than the former does, given the way the apartheid regime was from the start aimed primarily at the black majority, and over time came to incorporate the Indian and coloured minorities in an all-encompassing way (although these had always been discriminated against as well). Yet this is still off the mark, as Karon points out. In reality, both the ANC in general and the SACP in particular had an active white minority, especially but not exclusively Jewish South Africans, who were militants along with the rest, and Mandela did not reject them out of a putative black nationalism. In fact, the ANC had long struggled, at times quite violently, against the black nationalist current in the South African resistance and the SACP played a major role in this. But even after the fall of apartheid, this position was maintained: “Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995, and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics.”

Of course, having said all that and duly praised Mandela for his eminent role in leading the militant resistance against apartheid, we must also take stock of events in hindsight “with sober senses”. Firstly, we must – as always – guard against any overly hagiographical attitude towards individuals, insofar as leadership is important but only possible given mass militancy and consciousness in the first place. This does not detract one iota from Mandela’s real achievements, not least because those achievements rested for a major part on his awareness of precisely that. But more important is the debate among the left, both inside and outside South Africa, about the legacy of Mandela. One cannot blame Mandela for the actions of his successors, Mbeki and Zuma – especially since he was vocally unhappy about the choice of Mbeki as next ANC leader. But it is clear that in the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, something happened with the abolition of apartheid that was not quite what the left wing of national liberation had imagined. Indeed, South Africa is today still a highly violent and unequal country, with massive slums and a small elite composed of an old white bourgeoisie and new black wealth, and that in turn is one major contributor to the country’s severe HIV/AIDS problem (not helped by Mbeki’s denialism).

That is not to say Mandela should be glibly equated to any run of the mill demagogue who promised the world and then simply sold out to bourgeois pressures. As Margaret Kimberley notes in Black Agenda Report, the analogies with Obama really do not hold up. “The maudlin sentiment was all built on lies. Mandela fought the good fight for many years and is worthy of respect for that reason alone. But his passing should be a moment to reflect on his mistakes and on how they can be avoided by people struggling to break free from injustice. Obama’s career is a story of ambition and high cynicism which met opportunity. There is little to learn from his story except how to spot the next evil doer following in his footsteps.” But one cannot avoid the implications of the post-1994 turn towards neoliberalism, violent strike-breaking, and the cover of ANC ‘unity’ for repressing any degree of independent working class activity. The Marikana massacre, at which striking miners were killed by government police at the behest of the mining company, had strong parallels to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 that served as one of the major catalysts for the anti-apartheid movement. The repression faced by the country’s most significant democratic workers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, at the hands of ANC figures in Durban and nationally, is a sign of the times, as is the easy cooperation with the country’s bastions of apartheid-era wealth and power, such as the largely white mining magnates and large landowners.

That is not to say that within the ‘popular front’ of the ANC, the left wing was not aware of these implications. Ronnie Kasrils, long-standing SACP leader and sometime Minister of Intelligence, wrote an agonizing editorial in The Guardian in the wake of Marikana denouncing the very same “Faustian pact” with capital that his own party and his own alliance had engaged in. He had joined the SACP after Sharpeville, so this is all the more striking. Kasrils’ article is worth reading, not simply as an apologia of an old cadre, but rather because he rightly points out the temporality and diversity of the results in South Africa since Mandela became President. While many have pointed to inequality rising, if anything, since the late apartheid era, it is worth noting that it did so particularly after Mandela left office and Mbeki succeeded him. As Kasrils says: “In South Africa in 2008 the poorest 50% received only 7.8% of total income. While 83% of white South Africans were among the top 20% of income receivers in 2008, only 11% of our black population were. These statistics conceal unmitigated human suffering. Little wonder that the country has seen such an enormous rise in civil protest.”

Moreover, income inequality is an important measure, but not the only one, and especially not for socialists who are interested in a more ‘substantivist’ view of the economy. Services to the black South Africans, while often still poor, are much better than they were in the slums and thuislanden. Water and electricity was provided for the millions who never had it, and education and healthcare given freely. Moreover, whatever the limitations of bourgeois democracy, it is clear that the power of political participation – whether in parliament like the ANC, or against parliament, like Abahlali baseMjondolo – on an equal basis is an enormous blow for freedom, not just for equality, and is thereby something of a prerequisite of any substantive socialism. These are not accomplishments to be sneezed at, especially not given the legacy of the white reactionary argument that blacks could never have majority rule without falling into civil war and chaos.

Yet, as Kasrils also notes, “these gains, however, have been offset by a breakdown in service delivery, resulting in violent protests by poor and marginalised communities; gross inadequacies and inequities in the education and health sectors; a ferocious rise in unemployment; endemic police brutality and torture; unseemly power struggles within the ruling party that have grown far worse since the ousting of Mbeki in 2008; an alarming tendency to secrecy and authoritarianism in government; the meddling with the judiciary; and threats to the media and freedom of expression.” One might say Kasrils himself must have had something of a hand in this matter, but that is not the important thing. What is clear is that it is not adequate to say that Mandela sold out, but rather to say that from 1994 onwards there has been a self-reinforcing trend, regardless of who was in power, within the state apparatus and ruling coalition towards an ever-increasing neoliberal ‘normality’, with its attendant violence, repression, and exploitation. Given Mandela’s involvement in left-nationalist programmes, and the SACP and COSATU playing such a central role, how could this have come about?

For some, this is simply an occasion to denounce ‘popular fronts’ and leave it at that, but this begs the question. Sampie Terreblanche has rightly noted two pivotal moments in the transition that shaped South Africa’s future for the worse, from the point of view of socialism. The first was the decision in 1991 of the extant capitalist class, led by the mining chief Harry Oppenheimer, to abandon the now clearly fruitless resistance to the ANC and instead attempt to co-opt its right wing into a pro-capitalist agenda. The second was the acceptance of an IMF loan as the means to provide the population with the social programmes that had been promised, since part of the reconciliation strategy – aimed at avoiding civil war in an already increasingly fraught situation, especially after the murder of Chris Hani – was that there would be no large-scale expropriations of the old propertied classes. (Indeed, one major distinction in the treatment of Mugabe as bogey-man and Mandela as hero by the world media has rested in Mugabe’s decision to undertake such expropriations and Mandela’s rejection of them.)

What must be added to this are two more exogenous factors. The first is that the South African government even in the apartheid era had already gone massively into debt. In fact, 1980s South Africa saw a more clear turn towards the Washington Consensus than did the early 1990s, not least because of the increasing damage the boycott campaign was doing to the apartheid economy. As Terreblanche points out, “while verkramptes in the civil service, agriculture and labour-intensive businesses opposed reform, from the mid-1960s there was growing cooperation between the emerging Afrikaner corporate sector and the established English business sector under the leadership of the MEC. In the 1980s the white business sector co-opted the National Party in its desperate attempts to solve its accumulation crisis.”

In other words, there was an increasing liberalization of the NP in response to the needs of capital, which came more and more in conflict with the old Afrikaner power base in the land and small production – which ultimately led to the latter splitting off into the Conservative Party. With this came attempts at a negotiated deal with Mandela and the ANC, but also an opening up the world market and the need to ‘normalize’ South Africa on the terms of global capitalism – a decision that therefore presented Mandela with a fait accompli, at least within the terms of the reconciliation framework. As Argentina has shown, one can repudiate debts within a capitalist framework even in the present era of the world market, but only at tremendous cost.

A second exogenous ‘factor’ that must be included, and which Mandela and others have often commented on as a major part of their decision-making, is the decline of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, any left-oriented national liberation struggles could generally (if not universally) depend on Soviet support, often given without any particular strings attached. Moreover, the USSR could operate as a major source of machinery, technology, and as export source, thereby keeping popular front type coalitions of the left afloat. While this created dependencies on the USSR in many cases, as the history of Cuba shows, given the alternatives of dependence on the USSR and dependence on the US-dominated world market, the former would have been preferable. But with the absence of the USSR, and the early 1990s an absolute low point of struggle in the global sphere, there was no real choice to be made there within the confines of reconciliation. Writes Terreblanche: “This was the period of rapidly-declining East Bloc power and Ronald Reagan’s reassertion of Washington’s imperial project, resulting in our ‘lost transformation’. The Americanisation of the SA politico-economic system during the transformation of 1994–96 was based on the wrong ideological premises, on the wrong power structures, and put SA on the wrong development path… integrated into the criminalised global structures.”

Now Terreblanche is essentially a social-democratic critic, but if we take his two exogenous causes, and combine the with the two causes for which the ANC alliance under Mandela was more immediately responsible, it is clear that there were very strong pressures on the latter to move in the direction of a ‘normalized’ neoliberal order, be it one with some social-democratic commitments (insofar not against the interests of South African capital). This makes it a story similar to other such stories of the post-Soviet period, as in Brazil, Argentina, and even China in its own way. Similar to those countries, the task of socialists – as comrade Zikode of Abahlali and others have long since concluded – to rigorously oppose these governments whether or not they present themselves in a developmental garb, since the period of left-developmentalism appears over. If the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance ceded to capital’s interests, did not repudiate the odious debt of apartheid, and murders striking miners, it has lost all raison d’être.

But at the same time, we must not dismiss lightly the real nature and intent of such left-developmental strategies, of which South Africa was a special case. They long dominated the national liberation and anticolonial periods of the 20th century, and have done a tremendous amount for not just the formal liberation of colonized peoples, but also for the consciousness of people of color that they can act by and for themselves. It is too easy to fault ‘popular fronts’ from the start, in the style of old Trotskyist polemics – there was never an alternative. But equally, we must recognize that if the lesson of South Africa shows us something, it is that that period is now past, and therefore new forms of struggle are necessary. That the leading figures of the SACP are recognizing this can only be a good sign.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron Aarons December 11, 2013 at 4:23 am

The ANC and SACP, with their “Freedom Charter”, were committed to the maintenance of South African capitalism, albeit with social-democratic elements, long before they negotiated the deal that made them the front-men and, to an extent, managers of that capitalism. The transition, following Mandela’s release, from formal white rule to Apartheid in Blackface was in the class interests of almost everybody except for the Black working class, whose militancy had been the main destabilizing factor for South African capital, but which couldn’t maintain itself at its earlier intensity in the face of the wholesale desertion of its petty-bourgeois allies, including much of the trade union bureaucracy, to the bourgeoisie.

It seems that the only thing good that can be said about Mandela’s role since the 1980’s is that he wasn’t as bad as the total sellouts who succeeded him.


John Garvey December 12, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Matthijs Krul’s analysis of Nelson Mandela contains important insights but is flawed for at least three reasons.

First, he doesn’t recognize the ways in which the long history of the ANC, before and after the adoption of The Freedom Charter (itself a flawed document), anticipated much of what it did during and after the transition from apartheid. Especially problematic was its attitudes towards the role of elites in the leadership of the struggle and its evasiveness on the matter of non-racialism. For the most part, its
politics in that regard can be better described as multi-racialism.

Second, in his brief mention of Mandela’s willingness to embrace armed struggle, he does not consider the ways in which the ANC’s approach had little to do with equipping militants inside the country with the capacity to engage in such actions and to do so as complements to various mass struggles and had almost everything to do with setting off explosions that would terrify the white folks. As a part of
this last emphasis, it was often enough white members of the ANC or SACP who
carried out the actions because of their greater freedom of movement within the
apartheid reality. Armed struggle was seldom a coherent element of the
popular struggle.

Finally, he completely discounts the importance and possibilities of Black Consciousness-influenced politics and the role of the ANC in doing whatever it could to capture the loyalties of those spurred into action by those politics (especially in Soweto in 1976) for a more conservative political approach. I don’t want to overestimate this potential.

A friend has pointed out that: “While certainly the ANC can be blamed for conservatizing the energy of the Soweto youth, many of whom were of course BC-aligned, BC must share the blame for not having an organizational vehicle capable of absorbing them. Many of those who ended up joining the ANC did so in exile. They went abroad to join a paramilitary group and found the ANC’s MK the only game in town. This was the story for just about all the comrades who went to Swaziland and Zambia. So in short, I’d say it’s easy to attack the ANC for fucking up their politics — I share this assessment — but I’m not sure that BC had a vehicle at the time that provided a viable alternative.”

I would note that the dominance of the ANC was promoted and reinforced by the world-wide anti-apartheid support movement which all but refused to even consider the existence of other forces.

Recently I wrote to another friend in NYC about the naming of a new high school after Mandela: “Perhaps the fundamental hypocrisy is the claim that South Africa has been transformed with the assumption of power by the ANC. When I was in South Africa (in 2007), it was fairly clear that, in many ways, life had gotten more difficult for many of
the black folks–especially in light of the horrifying growth of everyday violence. What had been the center of Johannesburg looked like a bombed out city–with people living in skyscrapers without windows. When we went to Robben Island, our tour guide was a man who had been imprisoned there and returned to become a guide (and live on the island) because there was no work he could find on the mainland. He seldom left the island because he couldn’t afford what was on sale on the mainland—he was a prisoner still.”

It’s not at all surprising that everyone is gushing about Mandela since he pulled the rabbit out of the hat–the preservation of capital as a social relation and the protection of the wealth of the whites–in the face of a remarkable popular revolt–and was such a great illusionist that the whole world was convinced that South Africa was a
miracle. So perhaps what we’re seeing is not hypocrisy–just propaganda.

John Garvey


Aaron Aarons January 8, 2014 at 12:33 am

“I would note that the dominance of the ANC was promoted and reinforced by the world-wide anti-apartheid support movement which all but refused to even consider the existence of other forces.”

Indeed! The militant, direct action group, Campaign Against Apartheid at University of California Berkeley was one of the few significant movement groups that resisted the pressure to recognize the ANC as “the sole legitimate representative of the South African people”. That pressure came not only from the reformist left, naturally including the CPUSA, but also from two nominally revolutionary groups that had come out of Trotskyism, the Socialist Workers Party and Workers World Party! Some of us, in those pre-Internet days, also made and distributed copies of South African publications like Azania Worker and of the Workers’ Charter, the left alternative to the Freedom Charter.

Also, depending on what one means by the expression, “the preservation of capital as a social relation” in the short term may have been inevitable. But what Mandela and the ANC accomplished was the preservation of the political and economic power of the domestic and international capitalist class, in exchange for the incorporation of some Blacks, particularly those with ANC connections, into the lower and, occasionally, middle ranks of that class.


John Garvey January 8, 2014 at 12:58 am

Interestingly enough, I wrote an article on the history of the South African liberation movement that was published in Azania Worker in 1987 that I believe anticipated much that has subsequently occurred. Is there any way that I can link to it as an attachment on The North Star?
John Garvey


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