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 First, Joe 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 Apartheid—published this year by Monthly Review Press.
[This piece originally appeared in Monthly Review's webzine. Read it here.]