Mandela was not a Hallmark card

—Alan Wieder

Long-time South African educator and President of the New Unity Movement, R. O. Dudley had a quote that he used when speaking of various iconic South African struggle leaders: He “had arms, not wings.”  It is a phrase that we should remember when speaking of the late Nelson Mandela, but unfortunately, press coverage in the United States as well as throughout the world has turned Madiba into a Hallmark greeting card figure.

And while Mandela’s role as a freedom fighter and the major force for reconciliation in the new democratic South Africa should be honored and celebrated, we must remember that we are talking about a complex revolutionary, and also a complex politician.

Nelson Mandela worked with comrades throughout the struggle and beyond. Internal colonialism, racism, class disparity, and extreme oppression were part of South African history long before the apartheid regime came to power in the late 1940s.  Nelson Mandela collaborated with other activists, black, Indian, coloured, and white, at Wits University in Johannesburg and it was within this grouping, as well as from his fellow African National Congress Youth League leaders, that he came to a belief in nonracialism.  I was asked recently if he was criticized for promoting nonracialism during the struggle and I answered that he actually came late to the party. He clearly stated that it was the struggle commitment of fellow students at Wits—Ruth FirstJoe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Ishmael Meer, Norman Levy, J.N. Singh and others, as well as his close friends, and struggle stalwarts Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo—that changed his view on the struggle. A view that went from African Unity and only fighting racism to a belief that imperialism, class disparity, and racism were all connected.No one argues with Mandela‘s leadership in the African National Congress during the fifties and through the 1964 Rivonia Trial where he and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.  The key word here, though, is comrades, because Nelson Mandela always worked with other people in the struggle, during his time at Robben Island Prison, and of course in both the negotiations with the apartheid regime and the forming of the first South African democratic government in 1994.  President Barack Obama was totally in error when he said that Mandela’s life proved the power of one man with courage and vision could change the world.

Countless are the continuing statements on Nelson Mandela as a man of peace and love and forgiveness—none of them are untrue yet they are clearly only a partial portrait as Nelson Mandela was part of a struggle fighting against what Bishop Desmond Tutu often refers to as a “pigmentocracy.”  And an organized pigmentocracy at that.  Throughout the 1950s beginning with the Defiance Campaign against the magnification of racist legislation, to the Freedom Charter calling for democracy for all South Africans, to the 1956 Treason Trial, the mission of Mandela and his struggle comrades was to change the South African government.  However Gandhian the strategy and tactics of this part of the struggle took, the government oppression became more harsh, more violent, and more oppressive.  Thus, by 1962, for Nelson Mandela, who had gone underground, as well as his comrades, it could not be all peace and love.   Before he was arrested that year Mandela was clandestinely interviewed by British journalist Brian Widlake.

If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics.  In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.

Mandela was actually asking the apartheid regime, once again, to question their own policy of harsh, violent, repression.  And what he was proposing at this point was not actually armed struggle, but rather armed propaganda—attacks on government facilities in an attempt to show, first the people, and then the government, that the apartheid regime was not invulnerable.

At this point, 1962, armed propaganda didn’t do much to reach either goal, and although Mandela, in partnership with Joe Slovo, had written a document for armed struggle, called Operation Mayibuye, and cadres of struggle soldiers were sent out of South Africa for military training, the arrests at Rivonia crippled the struggle for almost a decade.  Yet even at trial Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary—his message certainly wasn’t peace and love.  His now famous speech in the court deserves repeating.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.  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.

Mandela went to Robben Island prison in 1964 and would not see freedom until 1990. In fact, his face was not even seen in a photograph again until 1988—representation of the totality of apartheid.  His interactions in prison, however, were both revolutionary and human, and in spite of the harsh conditions he faced he was involved in political conversations across the boundaries of competing struggle organizations and was very much part of what prisoners referred to as Robben Island: Our University.

Nelson Mandela spent the struggle years in prison and it was comrades like Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Pallo Jordan, Ronnie Kasrils, and younger MK soldiers that continued the struggle-in-exile.  Within South Africa black people on the ground and the in-country exemplification of the ANC, the United Democratic Front, kept the struggle alive.  But by the mid-eighties Nelson Mandela was part of the conversations with the apartheid regime and he was released in 1990.  It must be remembered that South Africa did not have a successful armed revolution, but rather a negotiated settlement.  And this is where Nelson Mandela becomes a politician.

So while I do not begrudge the peace and love eulogies nor question the magnitude of the end of organized and legislative apartheid in South Africa, I again think that it is important to view Madiba with more complexity.  No one will ever claim that the negotiations with the apartheid regime were easy and it is here where Mandela’s mastery as a politician comes front and center.  Yes, it was important that he publicly stood up to De Klerk.  But one has to question whether these clashes didn’t play well for both men within their own constituencies.  We have to also wonder at which point the United States, the United Kingdom, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund entered negotiations about negotiations.  Because the formal negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid regime is where Mandela’s political skill is paramount.  Nelson Mandela basically sidelined (albeit temporarily) Thabo Mbeki and chose three negotiators that represented the far left of the struggle—Cyril Ramaphosa then of the Mineworkers Union and Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj from the South African Communist Party.  Did Madiba know that selling what would surely become a neo-liberal transition to the struggle left was more difficult that negotiating with the enemy?  Did Madiba know that he needed Joe Slovo to proclaim the sunset clauses that would protect the jobs of apartheid regime bureaucrats?  Again a question—but one surely worth asking.

What we do know is that neo-liberalism came with vengeance to South Africa and that the ANC and President Mandela became partners with the West.  But we also know that in the early struggle years Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who believed and fought for a people’s democracy.  So, even if there is much more complexity than the present eulogies exhibit, Madiba is still estimable.  And the hope, at least from my perspective, is that the love of people that these Hallmark eulogies proclaim will lead to 1980s struggle conversations and actions that address the class disparity, lack of services, freedom of press issues, and corruption that exist today in South Africa.

Alan Wieder is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheidpublished this year by Monthly Review Press.

[This piece originally appeared in Monthly Review's webzine. Read it here.]

The barrel of the apartheid gun

—Nadine Gordimer

The nobel laureate on Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, a new biography of South Africa’s revolutionary couple, published by Monthly Review Press.

[Below is an excerpt of the foreword, originally featured in the online literary magazine Guernica.]

Joe Slovo and Ruth First. They met at the University of the Witwatersrand on his return from the South African Army. When exactly their intimate relationship began is an element integral to the totality of their development as answerable to and for the dehumanizing of others. They worked together on two events among many others—squatters’ rights in townships outside Johannesburg and defense of the Basotho Peasants Organization. It was in Basutoland, Joe wrote, that they became lovers.

Taking on the regime of South African apartheid is shown not to be an easy ride on whatever path. Most of Ruth’s time was spent on party politics as a precursor for the battle for freedom. Ruth and Joe, who discussed everyone, everything, reflected on their personal perceptions of Nelson Mandela. We overhear Ruth remembering him as “good-looking, very proud, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant. But of course he was exposed to all the humiliation.” Joe: “A very proud, self-contained black man who was very conscious of his blackness.”

Ruth worked with Meer on a socioeconomic survey of Fordsburg, an impoverished area of central Johannesburg. Very practical, they helped women develop cooperatives, while initiating actions against merchants they believed were “gouging” local residents. [Ismail] Meer was duly arrested and acquitted in court by the defense of Bram Fischer. It is intriguing to see the beginnings of the Afrikaner aristocrat becoming the famous lawyer in the Rivonia Trial of Mandela. In Fordsburg he carried food in his hands to the local people. Freedom fighter himself, close comrade of Ruth and Joe, he was to share with Ruth paying for his political activism with his life, dying in the span of a life sentence, but alive forever in the story of the struggle for freedom.

Back from war, Joe Slovo had joined the Springbok Legion, a non-racial body for South African Army veterans. A predominantly white group (remember, blacks were not given arms!), its manifesto pledged to oppose any entity that sought to undermine democracy and support any individual party or movement working for a society based on the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Ironically again: the appearance of Springbok Legion numbers transferred leadership roles in FOPS from founders like Ruth to men such as Joe. Ruth and Joe were fellow revolutionaries together in the Defiance Campaign of 1952. Their activism becomes breathless, compulsive to follow. Ruth’s gifts as a writer were harnessed to their beliefs as she began work as a journalist at The Guardian in 1946, the year of Joe’s return, and soon she was reporting firsthand on squatter camp conditions in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These as a warning of the violence that was to emerge with even more ferocity when the Nationalist Party won the 1948 elections: the entrenched apartheid regime. The Communist Party dispatched Joe, Ruth, and another comrade in an attempt to convince black township people that their massacre was probable if they followed their plan of resistance against their ghetto existence—a decision for human survival against political action? Police arrived at a township protest and people were beaten. As Joe, Ruth, and Rusty Bernstein were leaving, the police stopped them. Joe: “One asked us what were we doing so late at night in the veld?—Suddenly it seemed to dawn on him… he leered at Ruth… gave Rusty and me a winking look and giggled ‘Jesus, and with those natives too, next time you’s better find a safer spot. Weg is julle!’” (Get out!) The reaction reminds us about the era: “Government employees, police could not believe their eyes, whites in a black township, hardly suspect that these individuals were fighting against oppression of fellow South Africans wretchedly living there.”

The “relationship,” love affair of Joe and Ruth, emerges as their own business. Not a show for public curiosity to relish, or for us in our serious intention to understand them fully as we read. In his quoted autobiography, unfinished by his death, Joe says they started living together in 1949 and eight months later “we took off half-an-hour from our respective offices to get married.” It comes as a commitment met among many others that are shared personal fundament. They are prominent in the Anti-Pass Campaign against the “passbook” every black man had to carry on his person and produce to any policeman anywhere; a white boss/madam could supply a letter of authorization for him to be in the streets after 6:00 p.m.

Was there ever a more thorough, complete control by a self-elected ruling class over a color-designated outcast class?

Read the entire foreword by Nadine Gordimer in Guernica.

One Day in December: Starred review in Library Journal

One Day in December casts a spotlight on the remarkable “missing actor” of the Cuban Revolution, Celia Sánchez. Based on ten years of original research, the biography draws on interviews with Sánchez’s friends, family, and comrades in the rebel army, along with countless letters and documents.

Alice Walker “loved the book;” Sapphire, author of Push, called it “a damn good read;” and most recently, the book has received a much-deserved starred review in Library Journal!

From Library Journal, May 1, 2013

Stout, Nancy. One Day in December: Celia Sanchez and the Cuban Revolution. Monthly Review. 2013. 457p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781583673171. $28.95. BIOG

The Cuban revolution so closely associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara also involved those such as Camilo Cienfuegos, Eloy Menoyo, Frank Pais, and Celia Sanchez, all revolutionary heroes in their own right. Sanchez was Castro’s supporter, confidante, and—depending on the source—his lover. In this impressive biography Stout (reference librarian, Fordham Univ. Libs.; Havana: La Habana) utilizes interviews, Cuban archives (to which she was granted special access by Castro himself), letters, and other documents to provide an accurate portrait of Sanchez, who ran the planning organization of the revolution after the death of Pais in 1957. Slight in stature, Sanchez saw combat and was arguably the most influential among Castro’s cadre of revolutionary leaders. Her role during and after the revolution was remarkable, and Stout’s biography tells her story as well as offering insights into other revolutionaries and their contributions. Sanchez’s death from cancer in 1980 shook Castro and all of Cuba but her legacy remains in buildings and projects that bear her name. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers and scholars of Cuban history. With a foreword by Alice Walker.—Boyd Childress, formerly, Auburn Univ. Libs., AL.

Want more? Read the introduction by Alice Walker or an excerpt from the book—and watch our exclusive interview with author Nancy Stout.

In memoriam: Hugo Chávez

—Michael D. Yates

The death of Hugo Chávez saddens those struggling for a better world. He was a great champion of the impoverished workers and peasants of both Venezuela and the world, and a steadfast and bold critic of the rapacious and murderous imperialism of the United States.

Monthly Review Press is proud of the books we have published on Venezuela, books which describe, analyze, and show solidarity with the Venezuelan road to democratic socialism. A key element in building a revolutionary, new society is to ensure the health of the people. This has been one of Chávez’s singular achievements; millions of poor Venezuelans have received (free) medical care for the first time. In cooperation with Cuba, Venezuela has begun to construct a system of patient-centered, decentralized, and preventive health care, a process examined in Steve Brouwer’s Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba Are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care. Remarkably, peasants and workers are themselves trained to be doctors, in a work and study program pioneered by Cuba.

Under Chávez, Venezuela has striven to secure its political and economic independence from the United States, which has had a sordid history of intervention in the country and in all of Latin America. Not only did he help to engineer a strong economy not dependent on the United States, he never hesitated to challenge with words and deeds its imperialist practices. Given the implacable hostility of the United States to Venezuela, examined with great care by Eva Golinger in Bush versus Chávez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, it is remarkable that Chávez remained in power, winning democratic elections and surviving a Bush-engineered coup. This is a testament to the depth of his revolution and the growing power of Latin American governments to steer a course independent of the United States, a power inspired by Venezuela.

Following the failed coup in April 2002, when massive popular protest propelled him back to the presidency, Chávez sat down with Marta Harnecker and provided insights into his own political trajectory and the nature of what he called “socialism for the twenty-first century.” His words were later published in Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2005).

While Monthly Review Press must sell books to remain in operation, our main purpose has always been to promote radical thought and action in the world. We have published books in which authors have expressed the deepest admiration for Hugo Chávez, but praise for a radical leader is never our goal; it is the empowerment of the masses of workers and peasants we want to help achieve. And yet, it must be said that our love for Chávez has been amply repaid.

In April 2009, at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad, Chávez arose from his seat, walked over to Barack Obama and handed him a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic work of the centuries-long exploitation of Latin America by the great imperialist nations (including, of course, the United States): Open Veins of Latin America. He inscribed the book, “For Obama, with affection.” As word of this spread around the world, the English edition of the book reached #2 on Amazon’s sales charts. This was a great boon to Monthly Review Press and to our distributor, NYU Press. We were inundated with emails and phone calls, and I remember having to quickly re-read the book (which I had used in my classes when I was a teacher), so that I could write and deliver, within one day, a review to an Australian magazine.

Let us hope that as the Venezuelan revolution continues and as the imperial power of the United States someday diminishes in response to popular revolt here, it won’t be necessary for the president of one country to give such a book to the leader of another. Because Hugo Chávez’s dream and that of every revolutionary person will have been realized… That there be no rich and poor, that there be no exploiter and exploited, that there be only one healthy and happy humanity.

Michael D. Yates is a writer, editor, and labor educator. He is Associate Editor of Monthly Review and Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press.

Slideshow: Brooklyn Book Festival 2012

Thanks to everyone who stopped by our booth yesterday at the Brooklyn Book Festival!

We had a blast sharing our excitement for forthcoming fall books and convincing our fans/visitors/friends to get “tatted” up in celebration of our murder-mystery history book, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle (out on Halloween 2012). Check out the slideshow below for pics from the fest, including the freshly-inked!

 

Wisconsin Uprising and an ode to the unions

by Julian Paul Keenan, Director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory and Professor of Psychology, Montclair State University

The labor movement over the past year in Wisconsin has reminded many of us what unions mean to the world. Left unchecked, power always corrupts, and when politicians and corporations join hands, the only defense for the people is the people. NYU Press has a great tradition of publishing books that are progressive and speak for the people. Wisconsin Uprising, published by Monthly Review Press, has just done what was needed, which was publishing a book for the people’s movement. This is what I try to do. As a professor I try to educate my students and force them to use their brains. And in my other life as a musician I try to push myself to be political, progressive, and to make music that inspires.

My band is Let it Slide, New Jersey’s premier progressive hard rock band. In honor of Wisconsin Uprising, here is a free download of “Oh Union,” which is a tribute to our greatest defense against corruption, the Union. Inspired in part by recent events in Wisconsin, the song describes the world without unions. (Note: the speaker at the beginning of the song is Cesar Chavez.)

from the album, One Bad American, released 01 February 2012

lyrics

Continue reading

Hugo Chávez Recommends NYU Press Book to President Obama

This past Saturday, at the Summit of the Americas, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez handed President Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano. The hand-off created an instant literary sensation, from the New York Times to the Huffington Post, jumping with the news of Chávez’s book recommendation. The Associated Press reports:

In front of photographers, Chávez gave Obama a copy of “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” a book by Eduardo Galeano, which chronicles U.S. and European economic and political interference in the region.

When a reporter asked Obama what he thought of the book, the president replied: “I thought it was one of Chávez’ books. I was going to give him one of mine.” White House advisers said they didn’t know if Obama would read it or not.

Open Veins is published by Monthly Review Press, which is distributed by NYU Press.

A link to the book on Amazon.

Here’s the video of the exchange of literary matter between world leaders: