Mandela: Death of a Politician

Stephen W. Smith

In the early 1990s, after more than four decades of stringent enforcement, South Africa ceased to be a country where races were segregated by law. Yet no one in a position of power was called to account for the relegation of millions of South Africans to derelict Bantustans, the forcible removal of hundreds of thousands of non-white urban dwellers to shanty towns and rural areas, the coercive discrimination in every aspect of public and private life, the systematic abuse by the police and the military, the countless assassinations by hit squads, the disappearances and arbitrary detentions, the manipulation of a ‘third force’ to exacerbate so-called black-on-black violence, the cross-border raids into neighbouring countries, the destabilisation of Southern Africa, and the ‘bush wars’ in Angola and Mozambique.

As we have been told time and again since he died on 5 December, Nelson Mandela was instrumental to the political bargain that proposed forgiveness in the hope of a better future. Whatever we think of South Africa now, we still contemplate with horror the abyss into which it was widely expected to plunge twenty years ago. How far have things really moved on? Will the historic compromise hold or has the country been raised up for a moment only to descend with an agonising jolt, like the victims of strappado, once a common practice in its torture chambers, where prisoners whose hands were pinioned behind their back were dropped at the end of a rope tied to their wrists? And what of the moral high ground on which Mandela and his vision of reconciliation are now enshrined? It’s right – and proper – to regard him as the paragon of human integrity, a rare figure in history, but he was more than everybody’s friend on Facebook: he was a politician, and that’s the way he has to be appraised.

Public opinion, which has now canonised Mandela, would be outraged were a ‘warlord’ such as Charles Taylor not brought to justice, though Taylor gave up power in 2003 when he left Monrovia for exile in Nigeria. In 2006, when the former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano negotiated with Joseph Kony for his peaceful surrender, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) rejected the deal because it would have granted the commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army impunity. Kony is still at large and many civilians have continued to suffer from LRA exactions. It is highly unlikely that Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the ICC as ‘an indirect co-perpetrator’ of war crimes and genocide in Darfur, will benefit from a deferral of the charges brought against him and, having been part of the problem in Khartoum, become part of a solution, as the International Crisis Group recently suggested. All this is to say that Mandela’s passing confirms the fragility of his depoliticised approach. What is eulogised as a saintly generosity that allowed institutionalised discrimination to be ended in South Africa is regarded with suspicion in other places where there are, or were, no Mandelas. But national reconciliation is not a mystical absolution so much as a political strategy. How far has it worked in South Africa? This question goes to the heart of Mandela’s legacy and what we make of it.

For three reasons, Mandela’s death at 95 ought to be welcomed. First, the grand old man of the ANC had been much diminished for many years. He announced his withdrawal from public life in 2004 (‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you’), but made a final, crucial intervention in 2009, when he endorsed Jacob Zuma’s bid for the presidency; in retrospect this was not a sign of good judgment. His family, who continued to see him regularly, lamented his loss of short-term memory, and his intermittent mental confusion. ‘He is no longer a full person,’ the South African cartoonist Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – remarked in 2008, after a private interview with Mandela. He was later given flak for showing Mandela in his sickbed with the country by his side anxiously holding his hand. Mandela’s speech bubble read: ‘I know it’s hard, but we have to start letting go …’ The cartoon was published in April when the old man was hospitalised for the third time in twelve months. A fourth stay in intensive care stretched through the summer. Zapiro was right.

Second, we now have a chance to rediscover ‘the man behind the legend’ and, in particular, the young revolutionary eclipsed by the elder statesman. We can see, for instance, that he was not just a young Turk, the co-founder, in 1944, of the ANC’s Youth League, but the driving force behind the movement’s armed struggle, which included acts of terrorism. As early as 1953 he saw that there would be ‘no easy walk to freedom’ – the title of his programmatic speech – and promoted the ‘M-Plan’ (M for Mandela), urging the ANC to form clandestine cells capable of organising armed resistance. Nowadays, with the mawkish patina of hindsight, the title of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is widely misunderstood as a Kumbaya invitation to join hands for a moral-historical promenade. In reality, as Stephen Ellis was able to show in 2011, Mandela joined the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party in 1960 to help impose the SACP’s strategic choice of armed struggle on a reluctant ANC leadership. Mandela was the first leader of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’), and held that position when – on 16 December 1961 – 57 bomb blasts ripped through the country: for some this was the opening salvo of a ‘terror campaign’; for others it announced the advent of ‘emancipatory violence’.

Does it matter that Mandela was a communist who believed in the liberating virtue of firearms and explosives? It matters that he became a communist in 1960, in the aftermath of Sharpeville, where 69 protesters were shot dead by the South African police. It also matters that the SACP was still in 1960 the organisational and political spine of the ANC, which was founded in 1912 as a party of notables rather than a fighting force. Finally, it matters that Mandela saw the use of or abstention from armed insurrection as, in his own words, ‘not a moral principle but a strategy, as there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon’. But did he approve of the killing of ‘soft targets’ – bystanders – as carried out by the ANC at the height of the township violence in the mid-1980s? Mandela’s character, and his judgments, changed while he was in prison. He once confided to Bill Clinton that he had been an ‘angry man’ during the first 11 years on Robben Island. That would have been until 1975, the year his family – Winnie and their two daughters – were for the first time allowed to visit him. Only then did Mandela come to see that hatred and enmity were mimetic, a trap laid by the ‘evil’ other: fall into it and you and your adversary become hard to tell apart.

It took long and solitary years of confinement for Mandela to come to see the other – even a racist other – as himself in different circumstances, and to fight these –circumstances rather than the people whose attitudes they had determined. Perhaps this is what was later referred to as ‘the Madiba magic’. In any event, there was plenty of opportunity for reflection in that small, dank prison cell, whose only window remained walled up for 16 years. A maximum security prisoner almost totally deprived of agency, Mandela never gave up the idea that he had sovereignty over his life, and the will to make it exceptional. Thanks to Clint Eastwood’s film starring Morgan Freeman, we all know the ending of Mandela’s favourite poem, Henley’s ‘Invictus’:

It matters not how strait the gate,
   How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
   I am the captain of my soul.

But we tend to ignore the earlier lines:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
   Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
   Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

Not much is known about the early years of prisoner 466/64. In 1978, Christo Brand, an 18-year-old from a rural Afrikaner family, became Mandela’s guard on Robben Island, ten kilometres off Cape Town. Brand still works as a tourist guide in the penitentiary, which is now a museum. When I spoke to him last summer, he said that at first he had been deeply mistrustful of the ‘terrorist’ he kept under lock and key. Older colleagues had warned him about Mandela’s fits of anger, especially the ‘terrible tantrum’ he had thrown in 1969 when his eldest son died in a car accident and he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. Yet little by little Brand and the sexagenarian Mandela began to understand each other. Mandela studied Afrikaans, the language of his jailers and the idiom of oppression which the youth of Soweto had just violently rejected. Brand helped him practise. ‘What dreams do you hold for your life?’, he kept asking his young guard. ‘Mandela never discussed politics as such. He was always personal,’ Brand recalled. But Mandela also used Afrikaans to express his defiance. Every day, when he and the other political prisoners broke rocks in the quarry, he would challenge a brutish guard in one of the watchtowers. ‘Remember,’ he would hiss from below, ‘there is someone higher up than you.’

On 9 March 1980, when the Johannesburg Sunday Post appeared with the headline ‘Free Mandela!’, and called on its readers to sign a petition, the struggle acquired an iconic figurehead and a new momentum. Fewer than 15,000 South Africans had dared to sign by the end of that month, but a spell was broken. After 16 years of enforced obscurity during which his name could not be cited, after the Soweto uprising of 1976, the Black Consciousness Movement and Steve Biko’s martyrdom, Mandela was once again in the public eye. ‘Between the ANC and oblivion stood the lone and battered figure of Winnie Mandela,’ Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob wrote in Winnie Mandela: A Life (2004). The pathos of individual heroism became a defining feature of Winnie Mandela’s life, but the same was true of the ANC, a moribund organisation until the freedom fighters of the Soweto generation rejuvenated its ranks. An upbeat rallying cry replaced the leaden ‘Down with apartheid!’ The South African cause finally had a name under which to travel the world. In 1988 the Wembley concert organised for Mandela’s 70th birthday took up the refrain: ‘Free Nelson Mandela!’

The third and strongest reason to feel relieved at Mandela’s death is that it marks the demise of the South African exceptionalism he had come to embody. ‘One man, one vote’ somehow turned into ‘one man, one country’ in the eyes of many. ‘Mandela was extricated from the masses,’ Winnie said when I met her in June. ‘He was made an idol, almost Jesus Christ! This is nonsense, a lot of nonsense. The freedom of this country was attained by the masses of this country. It was attained by the children who gave their lives in 1976, who faced machine guns with stones and dustbin lids. It was attained by women who were left to fend for their families. They fought the enemy! We are the ones who fought the enemy physically, who went out to face their bullets. The leaders were cushioned behind bars. They don’t know. They never engaged the enemy on the battlefield.’ There is a degree of bad faith in her argument but also a lot of truth. Nelson was clearly extraordinary, but South Africa should not have been mistaken for ‘Mandelaland’. If any one person can stand in for the country, it’s surely Winnie, half ‘mother of the nation’ and half township gangsta, deeply ambiguous, scarred and disfigured by the struggle.

The Rainbow Nation should go to the grave. Not just because the dream has clouded reality, but because South Africa has been held to standards of racial harmony that cannot be met – or not for the moment. There is no consensus about what will happen now: at one extreme, the believers in ‘Mandelaland’ (chiefly outside the country); at the other, the dour prophets of ‘the next Zimbabwe’. The doomsayers rarely point to the fact that more than 80 per cent of privately owned land in South Africa is still in white hands, not much down from 87 per cent twenty years ago, at the end of apartheid. South Africa’s agriculture, among the least subsidised in the world, is productive and profitable for about 50,000 almost exclusively white commercial farmers; the black rural population is worse off than it was. One day it will find a voice, but the fact that the ruling ANC has never unequivocally disavowed Robert Mugabe’s ‘fast-track land reform’, a land grab in all but name, isn’t reassuring.

South Africa – more populous, urbanised and industrialised, among many other differences – is certainly not Zimbabwe, but Zimbabwe was the South Africa of the 1980s, promising racial reconciliation and postcolonial success. After ‘liberation’, Mugabe was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize and a young reporter, Andrew Meldrum, chose to live in a place ‘Where We Have Hope’, the title he gave his 2006 memoir, written after Mugabe had thrown him out of the country. There are good enough reasons to ask whether South Africa has now embarked on the familiar postcolonial trajectory – a question considered sacrilegious thirty years ago in Zimbabwe. The ‘transformation’ of post-apartheid South Africa as promised by the ANC is not underway. Institutional capacity is dwindling and corruption endemic; the comrades in power are also comrades in business; ‘the role of the opposition is much more difficult than in the past,’ Helen Suzman wrote in 2007; the new school system is worse than Bantu education under apartheid in the eyes of Mamphela Ramphele, Steve Biko’s former companion, who intends to challenge the ANC in next spring’s elections; social inequality is as jarring as it was before 1994; only the happy few at the top enjoy a properly multiracial environment, while, according to a 2010 Afrobarometer survey, the vast majority of those at the bottom harbour xenophobic feelings; unemployment oscillates around 25 per cent, and soars above 40 per cent for South Africans under thirty, of whom two thirds have never had a salaried job. How long will it be before people dream of liberation from the liberation of the Rainbow Nation?

The ‘miracle’ in the 1990s was real. The settlers were not forced into a mass exodus as they were in Algeria in 1962 at the end of a vicious civil war, or ‘thrown into the sea’ as they’d anticipated. Mandela, the ex-detainee, did much as president to release the land of apartheid from its racial imprisonment. He also set his country on a different path from the standard postcolonial cursus in Africa by stepping down in 1999, at the end of a single term. Leadership within the ANC has remained collective. No ‘big man’ has been able to cow South Africans into fear and silence. During the exuberant memorial service for Mandela in Soweto’s soccer stadium, the current president, Jacob Zuma, was booed so volubly by the crowd that his image was taken off the giant monitors and replaced by a photograph of Mandela – quite a symbol! Zuma, at best referred to as ‘a man of the people’ (Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial curse), was rejected by the people, who felt their true leader was Mandela.

In the real South Africa – neither Mandelaland nor the next Zimbabwe – Zuma got his just desserts, hustled offstage because people are tired of all the graft and extravagance. The president, his four official wives, numerous mistresses and 21 recognised children cost the state more than US$150 million a year. This comes in addition to the $27 million for ‘security upgrades’ in Zuma’s country residence which, according to a preliminary investigation, have much more to do with frivolous luxury at the expense of the taxpayer. Yet it would be wrong to believe that governance in South Africa degenerated only after Mandela’s presidency. His successors can’t withstand comparison with Madiba – that’s a big part of their problem. However, Mandela the politician cannot be entirely exonerated for their failure.

When he finished his term in office, the rate of HIV among pregnant women in South Africa already stood at 22.4 per cent in the absence of any measures by his government to stem the Aids epidemic. Mandela’s immediate successor, Thabo Mbeki, a champion of the ‘African renaissance’, denied on ideological grounds that the disease was transmitted virally: his beliefs cost the lives of more than 300,000 South Africans, whom he deprived of access to anti-retroviral drugs. Then there was the Strategic Defence Procurement Package, a weapons acquisition programme worth $4.8 billion with enormous kickbacks for the ruling party. The deal was finalised in 1998-99, on Mandela’s watch. Madiba was not only blind to the greed around him, he set a bad example for those who, unlike him, had their fingers in the till. Mandela could ‘touch’ South African businessmen for the home he wanted to build in Qunu, the village he grew up in and where he is now buried; or he could ask Gaddafi to support the ANC at the next election. Since those days, such ways of raising money have become routine, but those who ask do not have Madiba’s moral authority.

Siki Mgabadeli was only 12 when Mandela walked out of prison and 16 when he was elected president. Today she is one of the best known faces of the new South Africa, the leading financial journalist on national TV and host of several FM radio talkshows. ‘In 1994, we were marketed as the “Rainbow Nation” like a fancy commodity in an ad,’ she told me. ‘But, in truth, Mandela was too preoccupied with white fears and not enough with black grievances and expectations of a better life. I know it isn’t easy to right the wrongs of three centuries of colonialism in 19 years, but from the onset Mandela was too timorous.’ After 27 years in detention, he was also desperate for advice in a volatile post-Cold War world. A friend of Mandela and the managing director of a billion-dollar family business, Bertram Lubner, now in his eighties, told me that in 1992 he ‘took’ Mandela to the World Economic Forum in Davos. On the plane, he read over the speech Mandela was to deliver, changing the ‘nationalisation of key sectors of the South African economy’ to ‘there will be a public sector perhaps no different from such countries as Germany, France and Italy … in which the state plays an important role in such areas as education, health and welfare.’ In subsequent meetings with Mandela at Davos, the Indian prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and the Chinese vice-president, Wang Zhen, rammed the point home. ‘You’d better take the time to grow familiar with capitalism,’ Wang Zhen concluded.

While Mandela was a crucial catalyst, it took more than his leadership to bring about the transition from apartheid. International sanctions played a significant role in the weakening of the old regime, and so did armed resistance, but the prerequisite was the end of the Cold War. Only when the geopolitics of Southern Africa had been disentangled, when 50,000 Cuban soldiers had left Angola in exchange for Namibia’s independence, and Pretoria had given up its ‘forward defence’ (the destabilisation of the neighbouring ‘frontline states’), could an internal solution be reached. In December 1988 the Tripartite Accord between Cuba, Angola and South Africa, negotiated by Ronald Reagan’s point man for Africa, Chester Crocker, drew the Cold War to an end in Southern Africa, well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fourteen months after the agreement, Mandela was released. It is remarkable, but seldom acknowledged, that the superpowers walked away from apartheid, leaving South Africans to find their own solution.

The apartheid regime gave up, but it was not a case of unconditional surrender. Since the mid-1980s Pretoria had been busy negotiating, first secretly and then in broad daylight, what in the language of 18th-century siege warfare was called a ‘belle capitulation’. The fortress with its precious storerooms would be handed over intact to the assailants and, in return, the lives of the besieged would be spared. In South Africa, it took four momentous years to negotiate the details of the surrender instrument, the so-called ‘sunset clause’ – a government of national unity for the five years following democratic elections – proposed in 1992 by the SACP leader, Joe Slovo. In this regard, the outrageous decision by the jury in Oslo to award the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 jointly to Mandela and de Klerk, the forgiving victim and the penitent perpetrator, made perfect political sense. The apartheid regime was cornered, but then it had been for quite some time. Pretoria clung onto agency in much the same way as Mandela had in the darkest hours in his prison cell. The former detainee never forgot his hard-won lesson. In fits and starts, reflecting its internal contradictions, the apartheid regime made peace first with its Marxist neighbours and then with the ANC, Mandela’s party, to which Marxist doctrine was central, at the very moment communism became a spent force.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, entrusted by Mandela to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another South African giant, was a cathartic exercise bogged down in a politics it couldn’t escape. Just how much truth was revealed when a figure such as P.W. Botha could simply refuse to appear at the sessions and get away with it? It’s a credit to Winnie Mandela that she consented to testify, though she fought over every word of testimony with Tutu and, in the end, didn’t come clean. There was no need: she had already been granted impunity by the outgoing regime as part of the grand bargain. As several protagonists of the apartheid system have since confirmed, she was spared by ‘the enemy’ – two words she still utters with deeper conviction than anyone else in South Africa – so that her former husband, the indispensable partner in peace, would remain untarnished. Winnie has always stated her hostility to ‘reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness’. When I spoke to her in the summer, she said something so eminently quotable that I wondered how many people have heard it before: ‘The reason we hate each other the way we do is because we know each other, we engaged the enemy physically, we shot at each other.’ I don’t know how many of the South Africans who lived through apartheid, roughly two thirds of the current population, feel the same way. Strangely, the ‘born frees’ don’t seem to care about the past.

In the end, a crime against humanity, condemned as such by the United Nations, has remained unpunished. The question is not whether this decision was good or bad. It was a political wager with an uncertain outcome. Why did Mandela take the risk? Because he foresaw the chance of national reconciliation, of an incremental coming-together or, at least, peaceful coexistence: if the circumstances could only be changed then people would change, even the most diehard racist or the most vengeful victim. But, as Mandela explained in his first speech as a free man, on 11 February 1990, from a balcony in Cape Town, he was not standing before his audience ‘as a prophet’. The outcome at that point remained unclear. In particular, he didn’t know then that, at his death, circumstances in South Africa would not have really changed for the better: this is his defeat and, above all, the defeat of the ANC. Will the people persist with reconciliation and redeem their leader? I don’t think so, but I was proved wrong in the 1990s, when Mandela permitted the triumph of hope against all expectation by giving everybody a second chance, even his jailers.