By Mike Andrew
Nelson Mandela was “the last great liberator of the Twentieth Century,” Pres. Obama said at his memorial service.
Looking back at his life, it’s easy to be taken in by what Cornel West called the “Santa Claus-ification” of Nelson Mandela – depicting him as a kindly old man bringing racial harmony in the sack slung over his shoulder.
But let’s be clear what Mandela was about. In a famous speech at his trial for sabotage, he said:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He was, first of all, a man determined to liberate his country by any means necessary. His unique contribution to the struggle was to recognize that sometimes non-violent means might be as necessary as violent ones.
Mandela harbored no illusions about the kind of system he was up against. He knew that on its side, the apartheid regime was willing to use any means necessary to enforce white rule on the African majority.
In South Africa, less than 20% of the population was white, but 80% of the land and almost all the mineral wealth of the country was in their hands. Real power rested with an even smaller white minority called “Afrikaners” – descendents of Seventeenth Century Dutch settlers.
The African majority was strictly segregated into so-called tribal “homelands” or squalid townships on the outskirts of South Africa’s cities. Africans who got out of line were regularly imprisoned, tortured, or killed by South African police or Afrikaner vigilantes.
After South African police massacred 69 peaceful African demonstrators at Sharpeville, Mandela helped to found the armed guerilla group Umkhonto we Siswe (“The Spear of the Nation”), known as MK in South Africa.
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight,” Mandela wrote at the time. “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 defense of our people, our future, and our freedom.”
Mandela and the ANC (African National Congress, South Africa’s leading liberation organization) also had to take on the apartheid system’s foreign backers, notably Britain and the United States.
The South African Communist Party (SACP) was an ally of the ANC, and in the context of the cold war, successive US administrations were determined to stand by the apartheid regime.
In fact, when Mandela was arrested in 1962, it was the CIA that tipped South African authorities to his whereabouts. He spent the next 27 years in prison – more than one-quarter of his very long life.
Throughout his prison term, Mandela never wavered in his commitment to use all available means to bring about democracy. When the government offered him freedom on the condition that he renounce armed struggle, he turned them down flat.
It is a tribute to Mandela’s leadership and the discipline of the ANC that, looking back, the eventual triumph of South African democracy seems inevitable.
In 1990, when he was released from prison, it seemed anything but.
Although the Afrikaner leaders saw that they could no longer govern in the same old way, they still tried to stall transition to a democratic political order. Armed gangs of ultra-right wing Afrikaners carried out terrorist strikes, assassinating ANC leaders. Among the victims was SACP General Secretary Chris Hani.
Had MK retaliated against Afrikaners, had ANC led African farmers to seize land, had they occupied white-owned mines and factories – any one of these actions might have touched off a racial civil war and possible foreign intervention to “restore order.”
Mandela realized that the ANC first of all had to consolidate the transition to majority rule, even if it meant deferring the transition to socialism promised in the ANC program. If they failed to win the political transition to majority rule, the economic transition to socialism would never be on the table.
Mandela knew he had to convince the majority of South African whites that an African-led government was not a threat to them. Even so, he didn’t sit down and sing Kumbayah with the Afrikaners. Far from it.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up when he became President was designed to destroy the political basis for apartheid by documenting in agonizing detail how brutal and ugly the old system had been, and what horrific crimes were committed to sustain it. After the commission issued its findings, no one could look back on apartheid as “the good old days.”
In the 20 years since Mandela became president of South Africa, many whites have left the country. But they did not rebel against majority rule and they did not invite foreign intervention.
Mandela succeeded in securing political democracy. Now his successors must tackle the problem of economic democracy.