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’.

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