Mandela Between Fact and Fiction

There are many ways in which the capitalist rulers of the world manage to contain the empowering hope borne by revolutionary leaders: slander, silence, and in some cases outright embezzlement. The latter is the case today with Nelson Mandela.

Here is—among many other samples of the same sort—an excerpt from a BBC News report about Barack Obama’s latest African tour: “In Pretoria, Mr. Obama said Mr. Mandela’s example of ‘the power of principle, of people standing up for what’s right continues to shine as a beacon. The outpouring of love that we’ve seen in recent days [Mandela being critically ill] shows that the triumph of Nelson  Mandela and his nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit; the yearning for justice and dignity that transcends boundaries of race and class and faith and country,’ he added. ‘He urged them to take inspiration from Mr Mandela, who persevered through a long prison sentence. Think about 27 years in prison,’ he said. ‘Think about hardships and the struggles and being away from family and friends. There were dark moments that tested his faith in humanity, but he refused to give up. In your lives there will be times to test your faith’.”

No doubt, this is true, per se, but in a U.S. president’s mouth, it is reeking falsehood. And yet, something seems to be missing in this portrait: the militant ethos, the fighter’s instinct, the uncompro-mising revolutionary spirit of the man. A kind of silence that reduces Mandela to the 1993 Nobel prize figure, first democratically-elected president of post-apartheid South Africa, and partisan of tolerance and national reconciliation. Thomas Friedman best exemplifies this liberal misinterpretation of Mandela’s life and work with his conclusive remarks when he considered the Arab revolutions in November 2011 in the New York Times: “We know, though, that there will be no impartial outside midwife to guide the transitions in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Can they each make it without one? Only if they develop their own Nelson Mandela—unique civic leaders or coalitions who can honor the past and contain its volcanic urges, but not let it bury the future.”

In short, this is a Mandela narrative matching the liberal-democratic ideology of the late 20th century’s “end of history.” Hence the question: who is the true Mandela? There is, indeed, a radical difference between the man endorsed by politically-correct liberal opinion, the statesman hailed by national liberation movements and leaders, and, at last, the fighter praised by revolutionary-minded youth and militants worldwide. These contrasting, although often intertwined, interpretations of the same man represent the inner contradictions of Mandela’s lifetime: the 26-year-old Mandela taking part in the launching of the ANC Youth League in 1944 is not really the same as the organizer of the “Spear of the Nation” (or MK—Umkhonto we Sizwe) sabotage group in Rivonia in 1960-61, without mentioning the famous 27-year-long political prisoner of Robben Island and the 1994 president.

Mandela’s admittance in the West’s holy circle of venerable 20th century giants has not only erased his subversive aspects—it has taken a lot of time. As late as 1987, at a Commonwealth conference in Vancouver, Margaret Thatcher dismissed the ANC as “a typical terrorist organization,” expressing a common view among British Conservatives. Writing in 1996, the Independent journalists Anthony Bevins and Michael Streeter underlined that a survey of the Commons record shows that Nelson Mandela’s name had not been uttered in the House until 1983—20 years following the opening of the historic Rivonia trial in which Mandela and his comrades were charged under the “Suppression of Communism Act.” Mandela simply did not exist in British mainstream politics up to the 1980s.

The Friedman-type interpretation is proven anachronistic when we compare it to what Mandela embodied at the Rivonia trial in 1963. Facing the death penalty, Mandela entered the court on October 9, 1963, wearing prison clothes of khaki shorts and flimsy sandals. Together with his comrades in arms, he made a clenched fist ANC salute. His four-hour speech was essentially a statement of his politics. Here is his self-description: “I have denied that I am a Communist…. I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot. I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs partly from Marxist reading and partly from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation. Yes, I have been influenced by Marxist thought, but so have other leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser.”

Mandela, therefore, appears as a fighter against apartheid rule who admittedly shares the same perspective as the anti-imperialist national liberation movements of his time. His nationalism comes from below—from the people—it stems from colonial oppression, orients towards emancipation and remains profoundly universal and internationalist in spirit.

Another forgotten aspect of the liberal Mandela narrative, is his uncompromising commitment to shake off the shackles of apartheid: “by any means necessary,” as would have claimed Malcolm X.

Obama stressed Mandela’s “faith in humanity” and also the “power of principle.” Yet, the principles mentioned above were intimately linked with his methods of struggle and a strategy to achieve them. His “faith in humanity” had nothing to do with a contemplative attitude towards injustice and oppression. In fact, Mandela, as much as the rest of the ANC militants, had, in the mid-1950s, adopted the perspective of achieving the “Freedom Charter” in their lifetime. This perspective, put in the context of South Africa in the 1950s, meant nothing less than a revolution. This is clearly confirmed by Mandela. He writes about the Freedom Charter in 1956: “It is a revolutionary document precisely because the changes it envisages cannot be won without breaking up the economic and political set-up of present South Africa. To win the demands calls for the organization, launching, and development of mass struggles on the widest scale. They will be won and consolidated only as a result of a nation-wide campaign of agitation; through stubborn and determined mass struggles to defeat the economic and political policies of the Nationalist [pro-apartheid National Party] government; by repulsing onslaughts on the living standards and liberties of the people.”

The 1952 “Defiance Campaign” against apartheid laws; the 50,000 ANC volunteer-led popular consultation to write the Freedom Charter in 1955; the adoption of it on June 26 in Kliptown by 3,000 delegates, broken up by police on the second day; the mass movement to “defend our leaders” prosecuted in the “treason trials” up to 1961 for their participation in the Freedom Charter process; the Sharpeville repression of a Pan-Africanist Congress-organized demonstration, leading to 69 deaths and the outlawing of the ANC and the PAC. When this deepening dynamic of mass struggle against apartheid rule was met with repression, Mandela and his comrades decided to “answer violence with violence.” According to Denis Goldberg, one of the other accused alongside Mandela in the Rivonia trial, the decision to resort to armed struggle made its way gradually while the repeated repression of these mass movements against the apartheid regime demonstrated practically “that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy.” In an almost automatic manner, in a fashion typical of long-matured decisions, MK was founded in 1961 by underground militants, after the ANC had been banned the previous year.

Its goal was to carry out “attacks on the economic lifelines of the country,” as to scare off foreign investment and trade and “sabotage on government buildings and other symbols of apartheid.” The use of armed struggle was moreover part of what seems to be a broader revolutionary strategy. Man- dela explains this in his Rivonia defense speech: “Four forms of violence were considered—sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before making any other decision.… The fight which held out prospects best for us and the least risk of life to both sides was guerrilla warfare. We decided therefore, in our preparations for the future, to make provision for the possibility of guerrilla warfare.… It was in our view essential to build up a nucleus of trained men who would be able to provide the leadership which would be required if guerrilla warfare started.”

When one tries to imagine the debate on strategy among the ANC leaders in the crucial period of 1953-61, the echoes of national liberation coming from Dien Bien Phu (Indochina), Algeria, and the Sierra Maestra (Cuba) come to mind as parts of the framework in which this orientation towards guerrilla warfare was chosen. Bearing these facts in mind, we can easily understand Thatcher’s reluctance—and more broadly the established powers—to recognize Mandela as a legitimate political leader: Mandela was a revolutionary, sharing no relation whatsoever with career-minded, respectful, and responsible, “bourgeois” politicians.

Behind bars, Mandela gradually became—between 1964 and 1990—a worldwide emblem of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Up to 1994, this would be Mandela’s prevailing meaning, embodying the principles stated in the Rivonia trial. Among his followers in the South African population during that period, one can notice, around Mandela, the rebirth of a messianic myth: the comeback of the “hidden chief” will be the sign for ultimate liberation for all the oppressed. As for Mandela, it is worthy of notice that he refused in 1985 to disavow “violence” in exchange for South Africa’s President Pieter W. Botha’s offer to set him free, a sure sign that the man remained faithful to the 1953-61 mass struggle politics. For that matter, this fits with the catalyzing effect exerted by Mandela-the-symbol on the struggles of the 1970s, such as the Soweto uprising in June 1976.

What about Mandela from his release up to now? This period seems to find a deeper echo in Friedman’s liberal portrait of the man as a sound nation-builder. Yet, closer attention to the key aspects of Mandela’s political achievements as the first elected president in transitional and post-apartheid South Africa would, without a doubt, show that the opinion-makers of today are again only showing what fits them of the man. Moreover, the 1990s have been quite disappointing for the mass of the South African people. Even though apartheid has been definitely abolished, the Freedom Charter remains to this day more a revolutionary promise to be fulfilled—less and less related to the politics of the ruling ANC leaders than an accomplished agenda. The reasons for such a disillusionment far exceed the limits of the question dealt with here. But it is, nonetheless, useful for our understanding to underline that Mandela’s work while in power partly contradicts his work as a revolutionary, in the same manner as most 20th century revolutionaries when they take power clashes with their preceding “heroic” period of struggle and persecution.

Anyone trying to reduce this historical figure to some unique essence, be it tolerance, nation-building, or violence, is closer to mythology than historical truth. Quite natural, however, is the need to sum up the life and work of such a “great man.” Mandela-the- fighter overwhelms by his weight and scope in world history Mandela-the-statesman of the late 1990s. What would be the life and fate of the militant ANC clandestine leader of 1961 today? He would, without a doubt, go unnoticed by U.S. presidents and ideologists, in the same way as thousands of rank-and-file militants of social justice and freedom face a deafening silence from mainstream media and politics. Moreover, a man whose commitment to freedom is as radical and uncompromising in face of oppression and injustice would be at odds with the world surrounding him. The representatives of the established order would sing the same cynical song that his dreams do not stand any chance to be fulfilled and so on, just as their peers did in Mandela’s “heroic” years. This is why the story of Nelson Mandela—the true one—is, more than ever, needed. After all, there are a multitude of Nelson Mandelas in the world rising out of each wave of mass struggle stemming from below and trying to shake off domination. As for their fate, it is decided in struggle with the odds usually against them.


Dimitris Fasfalis currently lives in Paris and has written for a number of left publications, including Socialist Voice, Presse-toi à gauche, and Europe solidaire sans frontiers.