Monday, June 17, 2013

Nelson Mandela: a flawed hero

Ten years ago this summer I embarked on a road-trip dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

I went to the house in Soweto where he and Winnie lived in the 1950s; the Indian restaurant in Johannesburg where he dined as a young lawyer; the cell where he was incarcerated on Robben Island. When I heard there was a museum dedicated to him in Umtata, I hopped on a bus there, arriving at an empty station in the middle of the night. My travelling companion was a copy of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Over three weeks in South Africa, I encountered great warmth and humour. Staying with a family in a township, I was given a basin of water to wash with each day. "Here is your jacuzzi," the young man who delivered it would announce, chuckling.

I witnessed some efforts being made by the authorities to improve the lot of the poor: by, for example, providing shack-dwellers in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, with proper homes. But I also got depressed when I visited an uncle of mine, who then had an apartment near Durban. His friends and neighbours were exclusively white. One of them was a policeman who told jokes about killing kaffirs, a pejorative term for black people. Another was so ill-informed he didn't know that Rhodesia was now called Zimbabwe (a country right beside South Africa).

It was shocking to see how mentalities forged by racial stratification persisted. No sooner had I entered one particular taxi than the coloured driver exclaimed "This used to be a wonderful country; then the blacks took over". Was this the "rainbow nation" Mandela had celebrated so eloquently?

Deep admiration

I retain a deep admiration for Mandela; anyone who was imprisoned for taking on an odious regime merits respect from people of conscience everywhere. Yet I no longer revere him the way I used to. That is because he abandoned principles that were at the very core of the liberation struggle to which he devoted most of his life.

Mandela took part in the 1955 Congress of the People in Kliptown (part of Soweto). The Freedom Charter agreed at that gathering stated that the banks, minerals and industry of South Africa would be nationalised once apartheid was vanquished.

Both the spirit and the letter of the charter were broken by Mandela following his release. One of his worst U-turns was to embrace the owners of the mines, who had quite literally treated the indigenous population as slaves. In 1994, Mandela went so far as to submit the African National Congress' economic programme to Harry Oppenheimer for his approval. Oppenheimer had been the chairman of De Beers and Anglo-American, two mining firms that had provided crucial economic support for apartheid.

I have no doubt that Mandela was put under enormous pressure by the world's leading politicians and businessmen to behave in the way they wanted. By his own admission, the ripping up of the commitment to nationalise South Africa's mines was the result of his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Almost certainly, South Africa was threatened with losing investors if Mandela went about putting the Freedom Charter into effect.


Representatives of the European Union effectively mugged his people.

As president, Mandela oversaw the conclusion of a "free trade agreement" with the EU. It was grotesquely unjust. South Africa was required to remove taxes levied on 81% of food and other agricultural goods from the Union. As most of these goods benefit from generous subsidies, there was no way that South African farmers could be expected to compete with them.

Of course, Mandela could not be blamed for the endurance of racist attitudes. Nonetheless, he and other senior figures in the ANC helped usher in a slightly modified form of apartheid. The wealthy white were allowed hold on to their cricket clubs and other privileges, provided they allowed a few black entrepreneurs - epitomised by Mandela's one-time confidant Cyril Ramaphosa - to join their ranks. The vast majority of the population was, by contrast, condemned to poverty. Unemployment almost doubled between 1995 and 2000.

Mandela turned his back on other beliefs, too. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in 1992, he argued that "the trade in weapons of death will have to be reduced to an absolute minimum". Two years later he was asked by John Major, then Britain's prime minister, to consider buying a large consignment of weapons from the UK. Tony Blair followed up on his predecessor's overture when he visited South Africa in 1999. The pressure paid off: a multi-billion dollar deal was clinched that year; its chief beneficiaries were the arms firms BAE Systems and Saab.

Rekindle the spirit

I am ashamed of the way journalists have covered Mandela's declining health, affording no privacy to his loved-ones. The focus on Mandela is symptomatic of a more profound problem. He did not topple white rule single-handedly - nor did he ever claim to. Lavishing him with praise carries the risk of ignoring the countless others who have suffered.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Mandela is to rekindle the ideals of the Freedom Charter. Triumphing over inequality requires constant dedication; unforgivably, some of his comrades in the ANC forgot this message as soon as their fortunes grew.

The struggle did not end when Mandela was released from prison. It cannot end with his death. In one form or another, it must continue. And it will.

•First published by New Europe, 16-22 June 2013.

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