‘We never called for revolutionary change’

Mandela said that. It's time we discussed his privilege-preserving legacy.

Moses Dube

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Many uncomfortable things came to light during the Mandela memorial service last week. One of them, which has hardly been commented on, was the startling fact that the stadium was half empty. With the kind of build-up we had seen in the world’s media, one would have expected to see swarms of people trying to get in. Where were the people?

Another striking thing was the fake signer, Thamsanqa Jantjie, who apparently suffered a schizophrenic episode on stage and claimed he saw ‘angels’ descending into the stadium. It was notable that no one took responsibility for this farcical lapse in organisation. No one in the government, the ANC or anywhere in South Africa seems to know who this guy really is, where he came from, who employed him, or what he was signing. One can only wonder if the same attention to detail is being paid to South Africa’s declining economy.

And a third, this time much commented-on uncomfortable thing, and perhaps the most interesting political event at the memorial, was the booing that greeted President Jacob Zuma. This outburst of hostility lifted the lid on some truths about post-Apartheid South Africa. It showed that to the extent that ‘the people’ did attend this ceremony, they did so as much to express their anger with the current leaders as to mourn Mandela.

The problem of the black masses

The canonisation of Mandela over the past two weeks has wiped from history the critical role the black masses played in bringing about the end of Apartheid. As Brendan O’Neill argued in his essay on spiked last week, the ‘true destroyers of Apartheid have been airbrushed from the story’. The booing of Zuma demonstrated, however, that the black masses still exist in South Africa. And they have recognised the massive gap that exists between the rhetoric and reality of post-Apartheid, ANC-led South Africa.

The stark reality in post-Apartheid South Africa is that inequality and poverty have increased for the majority of blacks. The World Bank’s recent report, South Africa Economic Update: Inequality of Opportunity, contained some shocking facts about the growth in inequality. The most well-off 10 per cent of South Africa’s population account for 58 per cent of South Africa’s income, while the bottom 10 per cent account for just 0.5 per cent of it, and the bottom 50 per cent account for less than eight per cent. The rich have gotten richer, and the poor poorer, while the ANC has been in power. Unemployment is officially at 25 per cent but is probably much higher. The number of social-welfare recipients has grown from 2.4million in 1996 to 15.3million in 2011 – an increase of 538 per cent. This is after almost 17 years of ANC-led government.

President Zuma has not done himself any favours by diverting millions of rands into his Nkandla residence. Such excessive and blatant personal enrichment by Zuma and other ANC leaders has got the population talking – and angry. It is therefore not surprising that the Mandela memorial gave us a glimpse, not into the much-discussed ‘Rainbow Nation’, but into a new ‘Rainboo Nation’ where the masses are keen to make their anger with their leaders known.

And yet, the ANC was both shocked and angered by the unruly outburst from its constituents. Ominously, and in typically Stalinist fashion, both it and the South African Communist Party (SACP) put out statements condemning the booers and promising to investigate their behaviour. A booer war, if you like. Fundamentally, this reveals how out of touch the ANC has become from its own supporters, taking them for granted and holding them in contempt when they don’t do as they are told.

There was actually one problem with the booing – not the fact that it occurred, but the fact that the booers only targeted Zuma. No one else in the ANC leadership received a hostile welcome. Cyril Ramaphosa, one-time leader of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers and a key negotiator with Mandela during the negotiations to end Apartheid, and now the ANC’s deputy president and likely successor to Zuma, was cheered during the ceremony. In drawing a distinction between Mandela and Ramaphosa (good) and Zuma (bad), the black masses have revealed that they cannot yet distinguish between the form and content of the ANC’s politics. Yes, Zuma’s excesses have been crass and he deserves every bit of opprobrium he gets. But to counterpose Zuma to Mandela or Ramaphosa misses the critical point that they are forged from the same political mould.

The Zuma-only booing demonstrates that, sadly, South Africa’s black masses do not yet grasp the fact that the continuation of poverty, inequality and attacks on their civil liberties in post-Apartheid South Africa are not a result of any abrogation of the ANC’s political programme or a break with Mandela’s legacy; rather, they are the logical outcome of the ANC’s political programme. Until this fact is understood, there is no chance of an alternative political movement emerging in South Africa that might be capable of ushering in a genuinely free and more equal post-Apartheid era.

Mandela the moderate

The fundamental point to grasp about Mandela is that he never believed in the violent overthrow of the Apartheid state. From the 1950s onwards, he continually sought a negotiated settlement with the white supremacist regime, as he explained in his 1985 letter from prison to then president PW Botha:

‘I am not a violent man. My colleagues and I wrote in 1952 to [prime minister] Malan asking for a roundtable conference to find a solution to the problems of our country, but that was ignored. When Strijdom was in power, we made the same offer. Again, it was ignored. When Verwoed was in power, we asked for a national convention for all the people of South Africa to decide on the future. This, too, was in vain. It was only when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us that we turned to armed struggle.’

In founding an armed wing to the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’), in 1961, Mandela and his colleagues were not, as historians now claim, launching any kind of armed struggle; they were simply pursuing their negotiations strategy through new means. They made it clear that Umkhonto would use the least violent forms of armed struggle available: sabotage, with no threat to life. Even when the Apartheid regime gunned down 69 defenceless black protesters in Sharpeville in 1960, the ANC’s response was to blow up some electricity pylons and buildings.

At his trial in 1964, Mandela explicitly said that this sabotage campaign was really intended to head off demands from the black masses for more forceful action against Apartheid. Umkhonto’s tokenistic gestures were a means of placating ANC supporters who were ‘developing disturbing ideas of terrorism’, said Mandela. Umkhonto’s actions were not about overthrowing Apartheid; rather, Mandela hoped that they would scare the Apartheid regime into negotiations through suggesting that worse violence would follow if white leaders did not make concessions to reasonable black leaders like him.

‘We were aware that the effects of the pressure were not so strong as to get a regime like [South Africa’s] to change’, said Mandela ally Walter Sisulu. ‘But at least it was going to educate white people that danger was coming’, he continued. ‘This is what we wanted to highlight: that danger is coming, and unless something is done, an ultimate conflict – actually a shooting war – will take place.’ In short, the sabotage campaign which led to the imprisonment of Mandela, Sisulu and others was conceived of as an educational initiative for whites, a tokenistic act of war designed to force negotiations and strengthen the hand of the middle-class moderates leading the ANC.

But the Apartheid regime could not accommodate these demands – as Charles Longford explained in his spiked essay, ‘The reluctant revolutionary’ – and the ANC was crushed and its leaders incarcerated. Many interpret this crushing as a sign that the ANC was radical, when in truth its demands were extremely moderate. The ANC’s Freedom Charter, which called for the nationalisation of the mines, banks and ‘other monopoly industries’, was more rhetorical than real. Forced to try to attract a mass following, the aloof black middle-class leaders of the ANC entered into an alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and adopted some of its language, including about nationalisation of industries. But what is forgotten today is how quick Mandela was to placate critics of the Freedom Charter when it was published in 1955. When some accused him of advocating revolutionary socialism, Mandela replied: ‘[The Freedom Charter is] by no means a blueprint for a socialist state, but a programme for the unification of various classes.’

Later, he went even further than that, assuring his critics that the anti-monopoly policies in the Freedom Charter were really intended as a boost for excluded black entrepreneurs: ‘The break-up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous, non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country, the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills, factories, and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.’

A few years later, in his speech from the dock during his 1964 trial (yes, the same speech that everyone from Barack Obama to David Cameron has been quoting from), Mandela provided further reassurances that while nationalisation would dispossess some individual white mineowners, it was not intended to threaten the capitalist economy. Just as the ruling Afrikaner National Party had supported nationalisation as a redistribution measure back when British capitalists owned all the mines, so the ANC supported it as a way of breaking the racial monopoly on the ownership of capital.

‘Under the Freedom Charter, nationalisation would take place in an economy based on private enterprise’, said Mandela. ‘The realisation of the Freedom Charter would open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated [a] revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.’

Mandela remained moderate throughout the turbulence of his life. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he held on to his belief that Apartheid could be negotiated out of existence. What some see as his ‘radicalism’ – for example, his and the ANC’s linking-up with the SACP and their promotion of seemingly socialistic policies – was really an attempt to make a connection with the black masses, whom Mandela and his fellow ANC leaders believed could be used as a battering ram towards the negotiation table and talks for a new form of black-friendly capitalism in South Africa. In the 1960s and 70s, the black masses, facing the totalitarian nightmare of Apartheid, were increasingly open to the idea of taking more radical action against the regime. Their anger could not be easily reconciled with the moderate, pro-capitalist politics of the ANC. And so, forced to rely upon these masses as the only means through which they might get to participate in and make an impression on the political process in South Africa, the ANC had little alternative but to try to sound radical. Yet while its radical posturing might have cemented its hold over the liberation struggle in South Africa, it alienated the ANC from the very state it wished to reform rather than overthrow; it made ANC leaders’ much longed-for negotiation with the white supremacists less likely.

Apartheid learns from British imperialism

Where history had conspired against Mandela’s moderate politics in the Fifties and Sixties, by the end of the Eighties it would conspire to bring his moderate style into the mainstream. For the first time in his life, Mandela was the right man in the right place. His role in the ending of Apartheid as it once existed needs to be understood as the inevitable outcome of his moderate politics. Far from being the agent of the changes South Africa underwent in this dramatic period, Mandela was the unwitting tool of history, an actor whose lines, postures and actions were written by others.

The remarkable thing about recent South African history is how misunderstood it is. When President FW De Klerk released Mandela in 1990, everyone thought this was a decisive break with the past. In truth, it was a continuation of the Apartheid government’s strategy at the time, but in different circumstances.

The release of Mandela was driven by the same overarching aim governing all of the Apartheid regime’s actions in that period: the overwhelming need to contain the black masses. The strategy adopted by De Klerk and his Western backers was aimed at neutralising the liberation movement by drawing the leadership – or at least sections of it – into a protracted process of negotiations designed to transform the ANC into a junior partner of government. Its aim was to moderate the leadership of the black majority and introduce political changes that would protect the status quo rather than disrupt it.

To this end, the regime was prepared to make concessions to cooperative African nationalist leaders. De Klerk expected to draw a section of the African leadership into a relationship with the state, while isolating those who refused to compromise. A carrot would be used to reward the moderates, while a stick would be used to repress and isolate the militants.

The negotiations of the late 1980s and early 1990s were a classic, premeditated decolonisation strategy. From almost day one, the process followed an inexorable logic. In July 1990, the Apartheid police made allegations that the SACP was plotting an insurrection if the negotiations faltered. When De Klerk demanded that Mandela drop Joe Slovo (leader of the SACP) from the ANC’s negotiating team, everyone anticipated either the end of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP or the collapse of the negotiations. In the event, Slovo produced his passport showing he was in Zambia at the time the alleged plot was being hatched, and, exonerated, he remained in the negotiating team.

The police were ridiculed, referred to as ‘Keystone Cops II’ by the SA paper Business Day. De Klerk’s government was accused of making a blunder of epic proportions. The liberal opposition Democratic Party asked if the red plot allegations were really a result of ineptitude or rather were an insidious attempt by the security establishment to derail the negotiations process. Everyone missed the real significance of the ‘red plot’, which is that this manufactured plot was an intrinsic element of the negotiation process. It was the first step in opening up a rift within the liberation movement, between the moderates with whom the state could do business and the militants who were to be treated as pariahs.

Such intrigue, such fact-lite talk of ‘plots’, had been a central component of imperialist strategy in Africa for decades. The British imperial authorities frequently used the communist-plot ruse during their decolonisation strategy in Africa. Every time, the aim was to foment divisions in the liberation movement and groom a moderate nationalist leadership. Examples abound. In Malaya, the British authorities declared a state of emergency in June 1948 in response to an alleged Moscow- or Beijing-inspired plot to seize power. In Kenya in October 1952, Britain justified imposing a state of emergency on the grounds that a centrally organised movement of tribal subversives had organised a violent conspiracy. Whitehall claimed that the suspension of the constitution in British Guiana in October 1953 was essential to prevent a communist overthrow of the state. Again in Kenya in 1962, the British fantasised about something called the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and claimed to have evidence that this army was plotting the start of a civil war as soon as Kenya won independence.

No serious evidence was ever produced to support these lurid claims. However, documentary evidence does exist to prove that the British colonial office deliberately manufactured these scare stories in order to justify military clampdowns on nationalist forces fighting for independence. Each discovery of an insurrectionary plot was followed by mass arrests and detentions.

The ‘red plot’ story in South Africa, which came very early in the negotiations, followed the exact same path. Immediately after the security police went public with their allegations, they arrested 150 ANC cadres, including senior executive member ‘Mac’ Maharaj. The aim of the red plot scare was both to enforce military repression against militants, further isolating them from the moderates, and also to allow the old rulers of South Africa to maintain political control.

British imperialism’s management of nationalist protest in the colonies provides crucial insights into the thinking behind the Apartheid regime’s negotiations strategy in the Nineties. In the postwar period, Britain realised that in order to protect its interests in its colonies, it had to change how it did things there. It evolved a strategy of co-opting popular nationalist leaders to help manage the process of decolonisation in a way that would be beneficial to Britain. Splitting the liberation movement and promoting moderate nationalism became the favoured approach of the colonial authorities.

Thus the successive states of emergency declared by Britain in its colonies were not merely military operations; they were primarily driven by the political objective of splitting the nationalist movement. In Kenya, for example, the declaration of a state of emergency was simply the first step in the construction of a system of political institutions that would guarantee the retention of the market after decolonisation. After crushing the radical forces of the Mau Mau, the British set about grooming a new black political elite in Kenya that would serve the interests of imperialism rather than the interests of the mass movement against imperialism. And so it was in South Africa in the 1990s, between the Apartheid regime and the now-groomed, in-favour, moderate wing of the black political leaders.

Handpicked black moderates

The Apartheid regime actually had a track record of trying to cultivate a moderate black leadership with which it might do business. So alongside its violent suppression of mass struggles and its banning of the ANC in the 1950s and 60s, it also tried to foster ‘homeland leaders’ – moderate blacks who would assist in the administration of black parts of South Africa. It went further in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the setting up of a tricameral parliamentary system through which certain minorities might be represented. However, the explosion of unrest in the mid-1980s brought home to the regime the fact that these moderate black leaders would never be able to sell a reformed version of Apartheid to the black masses. Most of the masses regarded these cultivated leaders as stooges.

For two decades prior to the early 1990s, the Apartheid regime had sought to contain the revolt of the black masses through a combination of reform and repression. However, until the 1990s, the authorities lacked a credible and moderate black leadership through which to reorganise the system of economic domination. The release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC were the first steps on the road to constructing just such a black nationalist leadership.

There were two reasons why the Apartheid regime felt confident enough to release and cultivate Mandela in 1990. First, the mass black movement for change had started to go into decline, certainly in comparison with its mid-1980s fury. So while mass resistance unquestionably pushed the Apartheid regime to reform, putting it under extreme pressure in the 1970s and 80s, by the time of 1990, as this resistance started to ebb, Pretoria was confident that it could negotiate from a position of strength with the moderate representatives of the black majority.

And second, the collapse of Stalinism in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and the corresponding retreat of the Soviet Union from the Third World, gave Western powers – many of them allies of the Apartheid regime – considerably more room for manoeuvre in Africa and elsewhere. Although the Soviet Union had never played a progressive role in world affairs, its very existence as an alternative ally for national liberation movements had served as an obstacle to the West having a free hand in the Third World. The impact of the disintegration of Stalinism on Third World liberation struggles was forcefully demonstrated in Namibia, where the West was able to impose a neo-colonial solution with relative ease. In South Africa, Stalinism’s moral collapse had a moderating impact on the SACP and the ANC and lent their two-stage theory of revolution, where the struggle for democracy was to be separated from the struggle for social and economic transformation, some political credibility. Not surprisingly, De Klerk and his Western backers concluded that they now had little to fear from radical anti-capitalist forces in the mass movement and could afford to be more relaxed about negotiating with them.

This is the context within which the Apartheid regime set about neutralising the liberation movement, through drawing Mandela and others into a protracted process of negotiations. And at every stage, like the plot of a B-movie, Apartheid’s rulers tightened the screws on the black leaders, in order to divide the movement, further moderate the leadership, and draw it into a process that would make it more dependent upon the Apartheid state than on its own mass base.

The moderation process was swift. So very early in the negotiations, the ANC’s representatives agreed to suspend their armed struggle without wringing an equivalent concession from De Klerk. This was significant not because the ANC’s armed struggle amounted to very much (it hadn’t posed any real threat for years), but rather because it lent credence to the state’s criminalisation policy by putting on record the idea that militant struggle against Apartheid was wrong, illegitimate, something that had to be called off. The ceasefire concession also handed the Apartheid state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. While the ANC surrendered the right to engage in armed struggle, the government refused to repeal security legislation, under which black activists could be detained indefinitely, or to lift the state of emergency in Natal, where state violence was being carried out on a massive scale.

There are many more examples of how successful De Klerk was in executing his strategy of separating out a moderate black leadership from potential radicals or old-style militants. For example, there was the fomenting of ‘black on black’ and ethnic violence in Natal and the townships in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was later revealed to have been orchestrated and funded by the Apartheid state. It transformed the conflict between the Apartheid state and the black masses into civil strife within the black community. Again following the example of British imperialism, De Klerk transformed the black liberation struggle into a black civil war, which was used to force even more concessions from the ANC. The most dramatic concession was the ANC’s acceptance of a constitution that entrenched minority rights and denied what the ANC had always stood for: simple black majority rule.

The ANC: the new rich elite

By the time the ANC held its first legal conference in the early 1990s, its fate had been sealed by historical forces and political action beyond its control, and by its own longstanding moderate politics. The ANC had been transformed from a liberation movement with close links to the black masses into a moderate political organisation which now relied more upon its relationship with the state machinery than on its ties to its supporters. The conference was a showpiece of the ANC’s new moderated outlook. Gone was the old talk of nationalisation, replaced by the new slogan ‘Forward to a democratic mixed economy’. Despite the rising death toll of its supporters in the government-sponsored civil war, nobody at the conference suggested the ANC should take up arms again. While the world’s media congratulated Mandela and praised the ANC’s new realism, De Klerk, and no doubt his Western advisers, were likely raising a toast to probably the most ruthlessly executed decolonisation strategy in history.

By the time of the first democratic elections, in 1994, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The ANC’s landslide victory was celebrated everywhere. But the story of how the ANC got to that position – through being co-opted into a process in which any hint of radicalism was extinguished, whether under political pressure or by military force – was forgotten. The post-1994 tragedy was that the euphoria of the black majority at the ANC’s victory soon came up against the harsh realities of South African capitalism, a system facing an economic crisis under which austerity and repression would become rife. South Africa is now described by The Economist as ‘one of the least equal societies in the world’.

This should not be surprising. The whole object of De Klerk’s strategy was to contain the black masses while stabilising South African capitalism. What they achieved in the early 1990s was not freedom and equality but rather that the rule of the rich would no longer be maintained simply by a minority white racist regime; rather, it would now be protected by a ‘government of national unity’ led by Madiba. While the lot of the black masses has remained dire, for the ANC elite, who always had ambitions to join South Africa’s rich elites, their moment had finally come.

Consider Cyril Ramaphosa. Having lost out to Thabo Mbeki as the successor president to Mandela, Ramaphosa resigned his political posts and went into business. With his formidable connections and negotiating skills he was one of the first to benefit from the ANC government’s black economic empowerment (BEE) policies, building an empire in mining, energy, property, banking, insurance and telecoms. His BEE outfit, Shanduka Group, has secured him the McDonald’s SA deal and a 70 per cent stake in the South African Coca-Cola bottling outfit. With investments said to be worth 1.55 billion rand ($224million), Ramaphosa has now joined the 31-strong club of rand billionaires. He is South Africa’s nineteenth richest man. Maybe soon he will break into the top 15; currently, only two of the 15 richest people in South Africa are black – the rest are white, their fortunes rooted in the Apartheid era.

After making his fortune, Ramaphosa is now back as the ANC’s deputy president and is feted as the successor to Zuma. His elevation is intended to reassure business, international investors and the middle classes that the ANC has, in its top leadership, at least one leader who understands a modern economy, so there will definitely be no more talk of nationalisation or the expropriation of businesses. Nobody booed Rampaphosa during the Madiba canonisation – despite the fact that it is now clear that he was the man who put pressure on the police and mine management to take a tough line on the striking Marikana miners, which resulted in the ruthless massacre of 34 miners by the police in 2012. It transpires that Ramaphosa, through his Shanduka entity, also invested more than a billion rand to take control and management of the Limpopo division of the platinum mining group Lonmin, which owns and runs the Marikana mine. Little did we know that when Mandela’s Freedom Charter promised that ‘the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole’, what they meant is that they would be returned to a few of the people.

Having always demanded their right to enrich themselves and participate as equals in South Africa’s capitalist economy, the ANC has come to play the role De Klerk envisaged for it. It is not only Zuma and his rather incompetent aggrandisement strategy that black South Africans should be booing, but also the ruthless, debonair Ramaphosa, who in so many ways, and to a far greater extent than Zuma, really represents the true class and political interests Nelson Mandela has always stood for. When the boos ring out against Ramaphosa, maybe even against Mandela, then we will know that a new struggle is beginning in South Africa.

Moses Dube is a writer from South Africa.

Picture by: ULF BERGLUND / TT/TT News Agency/Press Association Images

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