Mandela: a human face for capitalism

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This article was written several months ago in response to the annointing of Nelson Mandela in the world media earlier this year when his health took a turn for the worse. Now that news of his death has been announced, it seems appropriate once again to counter the suffocating propaganda of the capitalist class.

In the latter part of his life Nelson Mandela was widely considered to be a modern ‘saint’. He appeared to be a model of humility, integrity and honesty, and displaying a remarkable capacity to forgive.

A recent Oxfam report said that South Africa is “the most unequal country on earth and significantly more unequal than at the end of apartheid”. The ANC has presided for nearly twenty years over a society that threatens still further deprivations for the black majority, and yet, despite having been an integral part of the ANC since the 1940s, Mandela was always seen as being somehow different from other leaders, throughout Africa and the rest of the world.

A true Christian?

His 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (LWF) is an invaluable guide to Mandela’s life and views. Even though it is likely to portray its subject in a favourable light, it shows the concerns and priorities of the author.

For example, after 27 years of imprisonment, when Mandela was released in February 1990 he showed no sign of personal vindictiveness towards those who had kept him captive. “In prison, my anger towards whites decreased, but my hatred for the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another” (LWF p680). If this sounds like a Christian saying ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ it’s partly because it is. When two editors from the Washington Times visited him in prison “I told them that I was a Christian and had always been a Christian” (LWF p620).

You can also see how this trait in his personality proved useful to South African capitalism. After Mandela left prison one of the main tasks of the ANC was to reassure potential investors that a future ANC government would not threaten their interests. In ‘Mandela Message to USA Big Business’ (19/6/1990)[1] you can read something he said on a number of occasions “The private sector, both domestic and international, will have a vital contribution to make to the economic and social reconstruction of SA after apartheid… We are sensitive to the fact that as investors in a post-apartheid SA, you will need to be confident about the security of your investments, an adequate and equitable return on your capital and a general capital climate of peace and stability.” Mandela might have spoken as a Christian, but a Christian who understood the needs of business.

Consistent nationalist

Mandela was certainly consistent, able to look at the present in its continuity with the past. When, for example, the ANC sat down for the first official talks with the government in May 1990 Mandela had to give them “a history lesson. I explained to our counterparts that the ANC from its inception in 1912 had always sought negotiations with the government in power” (LWF p693).

Mandela often referred to the ANC’s Freedom Charter adopted in 1955. “In June 1956, in the monthly journal Liberation, I pointed out that the charter endorsed private enterprise and would allow capitalism to flourish among Africans for the first time” (LWF p205). In 1988, when he was in secret negotiations with the government he referred to the same article “in which I said that the Freedom Charter was not a blueprint for socialism but for African-style capitalism. I told them I had not changed my mind since then” (LWF p642).

When Mandela was visited in 1986 by an Eminent Persons Group “I told them I was a South African nationalist, not a communist, that nationalists come in very hue and colour” (LWF p629). This nationalism was unwavering. When the 1994 election was approaching and he met President FW de Klerk in a television debate “I felt I had been too harsh with the man who would be my partner in a government of national unity. In summation, I said, ‘The exchanges between Mr de Klerk and me should not obscure on important fact. I think we are a shining example to the entire world of people drawn from different racial groups who have a common loyalty, a common love, to their common country’” (LWF p740-1).

From the mid 1970s Mandela received visits from the prisons minister. “The government had sent ‘feelers’ to me over the years, beginning with Minister Kruger’s efforts to persuade me to move to the Transkei. These were not efforts to negotiate, but attempts to isolate me from my organisation. On several other occasions, Kruger said to me: ‘Mandela, we can work with you, but not your colleagues’” (LWF p619).

The South African government recognised that there was something in his personality that would ultimately make some sort of negotiations possible. And, in December 1989, when he first met de Klerk he was able to say “Mr de Klerk seemed to represent a true departure from the National Party politicians of the past. Mr de Klerk …was a man we could do business with” (LWF p665).

Ultimately this mutual respect led in 1993 to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded jointly to Mandela and de Klerk, in the words of the citation “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”. This long term goal was not something personal to Mandela but corresponded to the needs of capitalism. After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, “The Johannesburg stock exchange plunged, and capital started to flow out of the country” (LWF p281). The end of apartheid started a period of growth for foreign investment in South Africa. Democracy did not, however, benefit the majority of the population. In the fifties Mandela said that “the covert goal of the government was to create an African middle class to blunt the appeal of the ANC and the liberation struggle” (LWF p223). In practice ‘liberation’ and an ANC government has marginally increased the ranks of an African middle class. It has also meant repression, the remilitarisation of the police, the banning of protests, and attacks on workers, as in, for example, the Marikana miners’ strike in which 44 workers were killed and dozens seriously injured.

Mandela was able to say that “all men, even the most cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing” (LWF p549). What might be true of individuals is not true of capitalism. It has no core of decency and cannot be changed. The faces of the ANC government are different to their white predecessors, but exploitation and repression remain.

Means to an end

The ANC in their ‘liberation’ struggle used both violence and non-violence in its campaigns. When non-violent tactics were proving unsuccessful the ANC created a military wing, in the creation of which Mandela played a central role. “We considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution”. They hoped that sabotage “would bring the government to the bargaining table” but strict instructions were given “that we would countenance no loss of life. But if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism” (LWF p336).

So, on 16 December 1961, when “homemade bombs were exploded at electric power stations and government offices in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban” (LWF p338) it did not mean that the goals of the ANC had changed – democracy was still the aim. And after May 1983, when the ANC staged its first car bomb attack, in which nineteen people were killed and more than two hundred injured, Mandela said “The killing of civilians was a tragic accident, and I felt a profound horror at the death toll. But disturbed as I was by these casualties, I knew that such accidents were the inevitable consequences of the decision to embark on a military struggle” (LWR p618). These days such ‘accidents’ are often referred to by the more modern euphemism of ‘collateral damage’.

Man and myth

In the 1950s Mandela’s first wife became a Jehovah’s Witness. Although he “found some aspects of the Watch Tower’s system to be interesting and worthwhile, I could not and did not share her devotion. There was an obsessional element to it that put me off” (LWF p239). In the arguments they had “I patiently explained to her that politics was not a distraction but my lifework, that it was an essential and fundamental part of my being” (LWF p240).

These differences led to “a battle for the minds and hearts of the children. She wanted them to be religious, and I thought they should be political” (ibid). And what politics were they exposed to?

“Hanging on the walls of the house I had pictures of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Gandhi and the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1917. I explained to the boys who each of the men was, and what he stood for. They knew that the white leaders of South Africa stood for something very different” (ibid).

There is an interesting contrast here. On one hand, there are four leading members of the ruling capitalist class (and not so different from the South African bourgeoisie) and, on the other, one of the most important moments in the history of the working class.

Mandela said he had little time to study Marx, Engels or Lenin, but he “subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’” (LWF p137). He might have ‘subscribed to the dictum’, but the history of the ANC has shown it for a century in the service of South African capitalism. Whether in protests or guerrilla struggle, the goals were nationalist, or just for people to let off steam, because “people must have an outlet for their anger and frustration” (LWF p725). In government, the faces changed from Mandela to Mbeki to Motlanthe and now Zuma, but there were no changes in the lives of the majority. The only difference in the Presidents was that Mandela had the best image.

Mandela was very aware of the myth of Mandela. He made a point of saying that he was not a ‘saint’ nor a “prophet”, nor a “messiah” (LWF p676), in a world where most politicians seem to be devoted to self-promotion and enrichment. This modesty was one of the appealing characteristics of Mandela. It could be explained by his Wesleyan background. In his 27 years in captivity he only once missed a Sunday service, “Though I am a Methodist, I would attend each different religious service” (LWF p536).

Whatever the origins of Mandela’s modesty and seeming decency, he is clearly going to be the face of the ANC’s 2014 election campaign. And, beyond South Africa, the Mandela myth will continue to be one of the pillars of modern democratic ideology.

In his career as a lawyer Mandela “went from having an idealistic view of the law as a sword of justice to a perception of the law as a tool used by the ruling class to shape society in a way favourable to itself” (LWF p309). He did not make a similar critique of democracy. In his 1964 court statement he expressed himself as an “admirer” of democracy.  “I have great respect for British political institutions, and for the country’s system of justice. I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world, and the independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration. The American Congress, the country’s doctrine of the separation of powers, as well as the independence of its judiciary, arouse in me similar sentiments.” (LWF p436) Whatever the character of the man, his life’s work was in the service of capitalist democracy. For its part, capital will certainly continue to make use of his better qualities for the worst possible end: the preservation of its decaying social order.  

Car 13/7/13





Nelson Mandela