Turning Mandela


“Chaps, we have to choose,” said Nelson Mandela, returning home after a few days with the world’s movers and shakers at the 1992 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.”

Catering to accumulated private wealth and their mythic “free market” may have helped Mandela consolidate a more peaceful transition to South Africa’s justly praised multi-racial democracy. But did he have to pay such a high price? This is the existential question coming from no less a figure than the white revolutionary Ronnie Kasrils, a top leader of both the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party.

As Kasrils and others make clear, Mandela’s turnabout shattered the ANC’s long-standing commitment to a radical redistribution of wealth, and failed miserably as an economic strategy, leaving South Africa with the world’s widest gap between rich and poor.

Relying on untrustworthy capitalists rather than on “the revolutionary masses” left other scars as well. “Corruption has taken root as the greedy and ambitious fight like dogs over a bone,” he writes. And a thuggish government now rules, one willing to kill some 34 striking mineworkers and wound 78 others at the Marikana platinum mine on August 16, 2012. As part of their role in the new global economy, the South African police had actually planned in advance to use force to defend the private enterprise of the London-based Lonmin, formerly a division of the infamous London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company, or Lonrho.

Such are the fruits of Mandela’s “pact with the devil,” for which Kasrils blames himself, Mandela, and other top leaders. I don’t know if the old Communist still believes that a top-down Soviet-style economic system would have worked any better or could have worked at all. But Mandela also turned his back on alternatives less in the footseps of Karl Marx or Joseph Stalin and more in the ways of John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Stiglitz. So even as we celebrate Mandela’s enormous contribution to destroying racial apartheid, we need to join Kasrils in asking some questions of universal importance:

  • How could Mandela and the ANC have used the movement’s revolutionary momentum to carry out a limited, well-justified, and politically potent nationalization of key industries?
  • How could they have tailored a mixed economic system to South African conditions?
  • What would they have had to do to delink and safeguard South Africa from the American-dominated global economy, with its insistence on privatization and an over-enlarged financial sector?
  • What would have happened had they stuck with plans to provide water, electricity, decent housing, and other public services to all?
  • Why in detail did they agree to repay the apartheid government’s $25 billion debt?
  • Why did they fail to make decision-making more democratic and negotiations less secret?
  • And why did they not do more to preserve the government’s legal authority to pursue serious land reform and other needed measures?

No one has all the answers. But one can find useful clues in the wonderfully readable “Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC,” by William Gumede, a third generation anti-apartheid activist and award-winning journalist. “I happened to be in South Africa when Gumede’s book came out, and watched as it inspired apoplectic fits of rage (and clandestine delight) at the highest reaches of the ANC,” writes the outspoken Naomi Klein, whose “Shock Doctrine” tells the story from a different perspective. “This is a definitive account of how one of the greatest liberation struggles of our time failed millions of people in whose name it fought.”

Where Klein sees Mandela’s turnabout as part of her theory of “disaster capitalism,” Gumede focuses on the role of Mandela’s deputy and successor Thabo Mbeki. Both approaches soften the spotlight on Mandela, but each has its place in a comprehensive history that still needs to be written. Gumede also has the advantage of being available free online.

Gumede recounts how the “revolutionary masses” became increasingly militant in the 1980s with the formation of Mass Democratic Movement, United Democratic Front (UDF), and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), all of whom saw themselves as subordinate to the ANC in exile while generally encouraging democratic debate and dissent even in the heartland of apartheid. The international movement to apply sanctions also gained enormous strength, proving – in Gumede’s judgment – “even more effective than the solidarity movements during the Spanish Civil War.”

In response, the white government declared successive states of emergency, detaining as many as 300,000 people, many of whom it tortured, killed, and disappeared. Officials banned the UDF and its affiliates, restricted political activity by COSATU, and ramped up repression with death squads, vigilante groups, and warlords from Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party. The South African Defense Forces (SADF) also went to war in support of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola. But in the climactic battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban forces beat “the White Giants” of apartheid, which led to independence for Namibia. With white Rhodesia already independent, the increasingly demoralized Afrikaners could see their doom coming.

All this greatly inspired the revolutionary movement within South Africa, while bringing white South Africa to the edge of economic ruin. As early as 1985, the finance minister announced that the government could no longer repay its foreign debts, and – in Gumede’s words – “cracks began to appear in the alliance between business and the government over the economic cost of maintaining apartheid.” Many of the country’s economic leaders “began to call for talks between the government and credible black leaders.” This led intelligence chief Niel Barnard to meet Mandela on Robben Island in May 1988, followed by Prime Minister P.W. Botha in July 1989.

More telling, the business leaders themselves reached out to the ANC, looking to lure it away from its earlier commitments and into Big Money’s global fold. Leading the way was the Anglo-American Corporation, which in 1985 made overtures to exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo at his office in Lusaka, Zambia. Sir Harry Oppenheimer, the former chairman of Anglo-American and De Beers Consolidated Mines, followed this up by secretly hosting regular meetings of top South African, British, and U.S. moguls with ANC economists who had Mandela’s ear.

“South African business leaders joined the stampede to woo Mandela and other ANC leaders;” writes Gumede. “Anglo American’s Harry Oppenheimer was eager to entertain Mandela at his private estate, Brenthurst, while Anglovaal’s Clive Menell hosted Mandela’s first Christmas as a free man at his mansion, Glendirk, tucked away at the foot of Cape Town’s Table Mountain.”

Gumede keeps account. When Mandela separated from his wife Winnie, the insurance tycoon Douw Stein hosted him at his palatial Johannesburg estate, from which Mandela launched his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” The resort and casino king Sol Kerzner partially financed the honeymoon of Mandela’s younger daughter, Zinzi. And Heinz and the chairman of South Africa’s Independent Newspapers hosted Mandela in the Bahamas for Christmas 1993.”

According to Gumede, other ANC leaders including the legendary Walter Sisulu cautioned Mandela about the growing perception that big business was hijacking the ANC’s economic policy. But like the British-educated Mbeki, Mandela had come to believe firmly that he had to win the confidence of Western capitalists and do nothing to rock their boat. He tried, succeeded, and ultimately failed to provide for the majority of his people. Let that be a warning to us all.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, “Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold.”

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