Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Mandela And His Legacy

NB: The videos embedded in this blogpost may not play on mobile devices.

The death of Nelson Mandela prompted an outpouring of tributes from around the world, and raised some interesting questions about his legacy and those of the conservative governments of the 1980s.  It has been been particularly interesting for me to observe the US media struggling with how to deal with Mandela's life history and worldview, and ultimately choosing to portray him as a Gandhi-like figure, for whom peaceful change was the goal, which is to completely misinterpret Mandela and his Long Walk to Freedom.  (As a side-note, Henry Kissinger once opined in conversations with the Chinese in 1971/2 that Gandhi's non-violence was a tactical not a philosophical decision, based on the nature of his opponent: the British).  Mandela's genius was to be able to react and change tactics as the circumstances allowed and dictated.

Mandela initially supported the ANC's policy of non-violence, along with his friend and law partner Oliver Tambo.  But as the 1950s wore on and support for the National Party government's apartheid policies saw its support surge from election to election (the NP 'won' the 1948 general election despite getting 11% less of the popular vote than the United Party - a cautionary tale against First Past The Post if ever there was one), Mandela and Tambo saw that non-violence was ineffective and indeed counter-productive.  These two men were instrumental in the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing, and in pushing the ANC towards support for an armed struggle against the government.  

Attorneys-at-law, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.
Photo courtesy of the Peto Collection, Univ. Dundee.

For this, Mandela would serve 27 years in prison and Tambo would spend a lifetime in exile; but it was only after almost three decades of violent struggle, sanctions, boycotts and the international isolation of the South African government that Mandela felt in a position to offer an open hand to the Afrikaner. Mandela's embrace of peace was from the position of a man who knew he had been victorious in war.  I don't know if he had ever read the writings of Mao Zedong, but Mandela clearly believed in the truth of Mao's famous adage that "You will not win at the negotiating table what you have not won on the battlefield."  As late as 1999, when pressed by the editor of the Belfast Telegraph on his opinion as to whether the IRA should decommission its weapons, Mandela replied that "my position is that you don't hand over your weapons until you get what you want."  That gets to the heart of the real Nelson Mandela: a man for whom justice, equality and peace were the goals, but who never confused ends with means.

At Oliver Tambo's funeral in 1993, Mandela made a full-throated defence of the correctness of his and Tambo's past, in a sort of a warning to those who might view his embrace of peaceful change as a repudiation of their past (the whole speech is worth reading, but here is an excerpt):

All humanity knows what you had to do to create the conditions for all of us to reach this glorious end.
The are many who did not understand that to heal we had to lance the boil.
There are many who still do not understand that the obedient silence of the enslaved is not the reward of Peace which is our due.
There are some who cannot comprehend that the right to rebellion against tyranny is the very guarantee of the permanence of freedom.
We demand answers from all those who have set themselves up as your critics, but still dare to call themselves democrats.
We want to know - if life itself was threatened, as apartheid threatened the very existence of those who are black, was it not imperative that everything be done to end apartheid~ and if necessary by force of arms!
We want to know - if a crime against humanity was being perpetrated, as did the apartheid system, was it not necessary to ensure that the criminals were isolated and quarantined, and if necessary by the imposition of sanctions!
We want to know - if a social system was established whose central pillars were racial oppression and exploitation, such as the apartheid system was, would it not be correct that such a system be rendered unworkable and such a society ungovernable!
We want to know - when powerful, arrogant and brutal men deliberately close their ears to reason, and reply to the petitions of the dispossessed with the thunder of the guns, the crack of the whip and the rattle of the jail keys, is it not right to bring down the walls of Jericho!

By airbrushing out this aspect of Nelson Mandela, the US media avoids having to ask itself, and have its readers and viewers ask themselves, other than in 1776, where exactly is the line between terrorism and freedom fighting?  Was the US and St. Ronnie Reagan wrong to oppose the ANC and brand Mandela and Tambo 'terrorists'?  It's a point that at least Al Sharpton has tried to address on Meet The Press last Sunday.

Similarly, in Britain, Mrs. Thatcher's opposition to sanctions against South Africa has been put under the spotlight, with predictable results.  Those on the right have been claiming that "She did more to promote peaceful change in southern Africa than all her predecessors combined", while the alternative position is examined in an interesting blog post by Gary Gibbons of Channel 4, who noted that Mandela felt betrayed by Thatcher's stance and was contemptuous of her as a result.

Part of the reasoning behind Thatcher's opposition to sanctions on South Africa was that they do not work and end up hurting those they are meant to be helping.  On this she may have had a point, though it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that this was a useful justification for avoiding putting the squeeze on what she considered to be an invaluable Cold War ally.  As she noted in a letter to South African President P.W. Botha, she opposed sanctions on South Africa because she believed "they are wrong and because it is in Britain's interests to do so."

Thatcher's supporters also draw attention to her private urging of the release of Mandela from prison as evidence that she was, after all, on the right side of history.  The problem with this argument is that Thatcher did not believe that releasing Mandela from prison was the right thing to do, she wanted him released so that she and Botha could show the world that change was possible in the absence of international pressure on the South African government, and that South Africa should be rewarded for its recent constitutional changes in introducing a tri-cameral parliament (with separate chambers for white, coloureds and Asians), and Botha's plans for "developing a political role for black people".  These were the sort of crumbs from the master's table that Thatcher felt were enough to justify the ANC laying down their arms, and which of course were unacceptable to Mandela, unless they were a starting point in negotiations to a transition to democracy.

It is, however, much more difficult to rationalise the British Conservative government's lukewarm attitude to sporting sanctions against South Africa (in contrast to Jim Callaghan's Gleneagles Agreement of Commonwealth countries), either in terms of harming black South Africans or harming British national interests, and one has to suspect that this sprang from a latent sympathy for Pretoria in Downing Street, something confirmed by Thatcher's Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in Gary Gibbon's blog post above.  And a little understood irony is that sporting sanctions, in particular in rugby, probably did more to bring home to white and especially Afrikaner South Africans their isolation in the world.  I watched Cry Freedom again last night, and as usual the scene of Steve Biko's funeral and the singing of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika brought a tear to my eye.  (Though for the first time the irony of a film lionising the white newspaper editor to convey the story of the black consciousness movement became apparent to me).

I was struck, however, by the fact that in the opening scene, the second news item on the radio, after covering the destruction of the township by the police, was about the Springboks.  In particular, despite what was agreed at Gleneagles, the Springboks tour of New Zealand in 1981, which sent that country almost into a state of civil crisis, brought home to white South Africans the extent of their international isolation.  In many ways, had the tour not happened as a prelude to the next decade of total isolation, the impact of the total boycott would probably not have been so severe.  And while it would be foolish to attribute the collapse of apartheid to sport in general or rugby in particular, there is a body of evidence that says it was actually more effective in shifting minds and policies in South Africa than were economic sanctions.  (For example a general election was partly precipitated in South Africa in 1970 over whether allowing the Kiwis to field a 'coloured' (Maori) player and bring Maori supporters was a price worth paying for having the match go ahead.  The Maori players were granted the dubious honour of being designated "honorary whites" for the purposes of the tour.)

(I highly recommend watching the documentary below on that fateful Springbok tour of New Zealand, the first international rugby tour to be televised in South Africa (which didn't have television until 1976) and its impact on South Africa and the world.)

Which in some ways brings us back to Nelson Mandela.  Mandela was only too acutely aware of the place of the Sprinboks in the hearts of Afrikaners, and also of Afrikaner awareness of rugby's place as the sport of the oppressor in the minds of many black South Africans.  It is for that reason that Mandela's carefully choreographed embrace of Francois Pienaar following the 'Boks' rugby World Cup victory was the moment for many South Africans that Mandela lived up to his promise to govern for a non-racial 'rainbow nation'.

But never forget, Mandela presented the Webb Ellis trophy as the victor, and not just in rugby terms.

"Habits die hard and they leave their unmistakable marks, the invisible scars that are engraved in our bones and that flow in our blood, that do havoc to the principal actors beyond repair.... Such scars portray people as they are and bring out into the full glare of public scrutiny the embarrassing contradictions in which individuals live out their lives. 
We are told that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying to be clean. One may be a villain for three-quarters of his life and be canonized because he lived a holy life for the remaining quarter of that life. 
In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides."


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