Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mandela: Of liberation & betrayal

Aijaz Ahmad
January 10, 2014.

Zuwarah, Libya, October 29, 1997: With Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. 
(Photo:Enric Marti/AP)
"It is difficult to say why he (Mandela) knowingly settled for a neoliberal dispensation in the course of reaching a settlement for the dismantling of the political and legal structures of the apartheid regime. Five different hypotheses have been offered to explain this. One, that as a descendent of a traditional royal family and then a member of the black professional middle class, Mandela was surely opposed to white racial privilege but did not have any serious anti-capitalist commitments. Second, that he wanted to secure total victory on issues of racial equality and democratic rights of majority rule while postponing other battles to another, later historical phase. Third, that the general collapse of the socialist bloc, Third World anti-imperialist nationalism, the myriad “African socialisms” and so on, had left him so unhinged, so bereft of alternatives, so acutely aware of an unfavourable balance of power on the international scale that he felt compelled to settle for much less than he desired. Fourth, that he, with all his moral grandeur, was surrounded by men—his own comrades of a lifetime, men like Mbeki and Zuma and countless others—who had been so corrupted in the process that he simply did not command the supra-human resources that would make it possible for him to concentrate on completing the arduous process of deracialisation and also, somehow, stem the rot in other spheres. Fifth, that the issue of Mandela’s personal role is quite secondary to the fact that what happened in South Africa after the advent of black rule was structurally very similar to what has happened in a host of Asian and African countries after decolonisation: the rise of the national bourgeoisie as a class rapacious in its exploitations and oppressions at home but dependent and comprador in its relations with global capitalism. As Frantz Fanon memorably said: the historical phase of the national bourgeoisie is a useless phase.Class apartheid

There is probably some truth to each of these propositions. The tragedy of it all is that it was during the presidency of one of the most inspiring figures of our time that racial apartheid in South Africa was replaced by a class apartheid so severe that perhaps a majority of the blacks are now worse off today than ever before, relative not only to the white property-owners but even the privileged black ones as well. It all became very much worse under Mbeki and Zuma but the foundations were laid earlier, in the process of the negotiations and then in those early years of the democratic republic when Mandela was at the helm of affairs.

It is just as well that Mandela had the grace to not want a second term for his presidency. He preferred to recover his independence of spirit and his stature as a moral voice without the trappings of office. As President, he could never have described Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, as “Bush’s foreign minister”. Nor could he, in that capacity, have so off-handedly said: “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.” He was one of those human beings who only get diminished by the holding of office, especially as others close to him have already been diminished by ambition and corruption. Freed from ceremonies of state, Mandela recovered in roughly the last decade of his life that moral grandeur which had been his throughout his life until he started accommodating his oppressors.

The stirring farewell the people of South Africa gave him was on the whole well deserved, and a more sober assessment of his life, his great achievements and his equally grave shortcomings can now begin. There are in any case ample resources in his legacy for a new generation to invoke his name yet again as they set out to fight for a better South Africa."
Read the rest here.
Comment: Professor Aijaz Ahmad has written a long-winded but important essay that raises important questions about the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Some readers will remember that Ahmad is perhaps best known outside of India for his compelling argument against the Orientalism thesis forwarded by Edward Said and other Postcolonial and Poststructuralism scholars.

See his book "In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures" 1992 (Verso).

As an avowed Marxist, Ahmad's essay on Mandela's relationship with the SACP is perhaps somewhat overly weighted.  The question about Mandela's belonging to the SACP has been settled as indicated by research done by Professor Stephen Ellis and others.

See Ellis' article entitled "ANC suppresses real history to boost its claim to legitimacy" Mail & Guardian, January 3, 2014.  (Update, Mail & Guardian January 17: See Hugh Macmillan's "Was Madiba co-opted into communism?")

What we know now is that Mandela was a member of the SACP and its central committee.  The question of whether such membership was merely a matter of aligning interests as opposed to fostering a class based revolution will remain a heated debate for years to come.

As you most likely know Mandela after his release from prison - in keeping with his testimony in the Rivonia Treason Trial - denied that he was a member of the SACP or a communist in ideological thinking.

It is also important to note that a major reason why so called Africanists under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe broke away from the ANC in 1954 was because of the criticism that Mandela and other leaders had been co-opted by the SACP.  The usual reading of this breakaway, however, favors the argument that the Africanists walked away from the Charterists (advocates of the Freedom Charter) because they were too closely aligned with liberals who were white and Indian.

The question then is how much influence did the SACP and Marxist doctrine have on Mandela and the ANC as a liberation movement and beyond.

If we are to judge the trajectory of the ANC from the time of the move toward negotiations then the answer is very clear.  The ANC has embraced neo-liberalism in keeping with the dictates of the Washington Consensus.

The influence of the SACP on the ANC in this trajectory is at best marginal.

In the next few months the ANC will move the ruling alliance to accept the National Development Plan (NDP) which in essence is a neo-liberal blueprint.  COSATU has already indicated discomfort with the NDP but whether this will stall its adoption as government policy is unlikely.

Professor Ahmad is not to be faulted for wondering why Mandela embraced neo-liberalism with such vigor but his argument is somewhat weakened by assuming that Mandela was not a primary advocate of this movement.

In other words, I am somewhat puzzled as to why he gives Mandela the benefit of the doubt as if to say he could not have endorsed this move and remained loyal to a history of struggle where leaders like Fidel Castro and Gaddafi were close to him.

This weakness allows too much doubt benefit where it is not due.  The truth of the matter is that Mandela endorsed the march toward neo-liberalism and the fallout is the creation of an elite ruling bourgeoisie more focused on narrow nationalism than a peoples revolution.

Race and racism has not disappeared from this equation but South Africa today is more unequal than before largely because the move to embrace neo-liberalism has created severe class differentiations.

Inside of this class differentiation it is hardly difficult to see that poor black people are structurally disadvantaged by an elite class of rulers and business interests be they white or black.

In these terms, the betrayal is a stark one and Mandela's directive influence cannot simply be uncoupled.


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