How Mandela’s worshippers are rewriting history

They’ve airbrushed out the true destroyers of Apartheid: the black masses.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

In the seven days since the death of Nelson Mandela, many a Western right-winger has found himself accused of rewriting history. For politicians like David Cameron of Britain’s Conservative Party to gush and blub over Mandela is outrageous, critics claim, considering his party was hardly a friend to the cause of anti-Apartheid in the 1970s and 80s. All this ‘right-wing fawning’ for Madiba – as every white liberal in Christendom has rather embarrassingly taken to calling Mandela – is nauseating, we’re told, given it is coming from some of the same organisations and people who either backed or were ambivalent about Apartheid just 30 years ago. These people are trying to ‘rewrite’ the past, says South Africa-born Labour MP Peter Hain. It’s like Pontius Pilate paying tribute to Jesus Christ, says one melodramatic observer.

It is true that the history of South Africa is being rewritten in the wake of Mandela’s death. But it isn’t being rewritten by right-wing opportunists scrambling for a feel of Mandela’s holy hem. Rather, it’s the mainstream canonisation of Mandela, indulged by everyone from Barack Obama to the NGO industry to the entire sphere of liberal commentary and campaigning, which is warping the truth about what happened in South Africa.

It is the secular beatification of Mandela, the increasingly unhinged cult of global mourning for this ‘great liberator’, the transformation of Mandela into a Christ-like ‘saviour’ of black South Africans from the horrors and deprivations of Apartheid, which is doing far graver harm to historical truth than someone like Cameron could ever achieve. For it is airbrushing from history the true destroyer of Apartheid, which was not Mandela, or even his African National Congress, far less those white folk with consciences who refused to buy certain oranges at the Hampstead branch of Waitrose in the 1980s, but rather South Africa’s teeming, convulsing black masses.

The mainstream story of Mandela that has been foisted on us by Washington downwards over the past week is built on a fallacy: that Mandela liberated South Africa; that he was, in the words of one observer, ‘the man who brought down Apartheid’; that he was a Jesus-like figure whose ‘colossal moral strength’ transformed South Africa from a racist hellhole into a new nation with ‘majority black rule’. By this religious-style reading, Mandela, simply by conjuring up his inner moral resources, remade an entire nation and boosted the fortunes of its sad, benighted inhabitants.

This is almost the precise opposite of the truth. The supposedly pitiful black masses of South Africa weren’t liberated by a godly Mandela; they liberated themselves, very often through being either implicitly or explicitly defiant of Mandela and his moderate ANC. And they made Mandela, not the other way around; fundamentally, they freed him. The sanctification of Mandela as bringer down of Apartheid gives South Africa’s black masses at best a bit part in this great historical episode, when in truth they, not Mandela, were the lead actors, the history shapers, the authors of the end of Apartheid.

Reading the tear-drenched coverage of Mandela’s life and legacy, one could be forgiven for thinking that South Africa was an Apartheid state until 1990, when Mandela was released from his 27 years of incarceration, whereupon he bravely set about dismantling Apartheid, giving rise to South Africa’s first equal and democratic elections in 1994. The End. What this fact-lite, infantile fairytale overlooks is the dramatic reforms, even dismantling of aspects of Apartheid in the 1970s and 80s, which were won by vast numbers of black workers, students and township dwellers taking to the streets and consciously deciding to make their racist nation ‘ungovernable’, where the state would be faced with a very clear choice: change or die.

Following the decimation of the ANC’s leadership in the Rivonia arrests and trials of 1963 and 1964 – named after the Rivonia district of Johannesburg where the ill-organised ANC elite was arrested and discovered with plans for the creation of an armed wing – South Africa entered into an era of uneasy peace. With the ANC in disarray, open, upfront challenges to the Apartheid regime dissipated; South Africa’s white rulers even started to feel quite comfortable during the mid- to late 1960s.

This changed radically in the early 1970s, with the arrival on to the political scene of two constituencies in particular: radicalised black students influenced by Black Power movements in the US, and the newly confident massed ranks of black workers willing to strike illegally for their right to be called employees and to earn higher, even equal pay. It was these two groups – which were sometimes viewed with horror by the far more moderate Mandela, then incarcerated – that would change South Africa utterly.

The militant Seventies

The youthful Black Consciousness movement, as it called itself, was centred around university campuses and was also influential among black schoolchildren and teenagers. Its spokespeople were individuals like Stephen Biko, a radical student union and community activist whose contempt for white liberals who pitied oppressed blacks immediately set him apart from the ANC old guard. (Biko would be murdered by Apartheid prison guards in 1977.) As Alistair Kee argues in his essay, ‘Redemption of the Poor: South Africa’, these radical black students of the early 1970s launched a critique not only of ‘liberal white analysis’, but also of ‘the analysis of the ANC’ (1). They were anti-reform, anti-assimilation and impatient. Mandela’s shock at the radicalism of this new cohort of agitated black youth was summed up by his response to the ‘insolence’ their leaders displayed when they were sent to Robben Island in the 1970s: ‘These fellows refused to conform to even basic prison regulations’, he wrote. Asked to remove his cap in the presence of a prison officer, one Black Consciousness leader respond: ‘What for?’ Mandela was shocked: ‘I could hardly believe what I had just heard. It was a revolutionary question: “What for?”’ (2)

It wasn’t only in prison that the new black radicals were rattling the old ANC guard – on the streets, too, the behaviour of these militant youth shocked the ANC elite. In 1976, infused with new ideas about Black Consciousness, students and young people in Soweto launched one of the biggest uprisings of South Africa’s modern history: the Soweto Uprising. Their target was ostensibly the new system of ‘50/50’ education, introduced in 1974, which dictated that half of young blacks’ education should be in English and half should be in Afrikaans. These youth had no desire to learn or speak Afrikaans and so on 16 June 1976, 20,000 of them marched in protest, in actions which ‘took both the Apartheid government and the ANC by surprise’ (3).

The Soweto Uprising rocked the Apartheid regime like nothing else. South Africa’s rulers responded with extreme force, using automatic rifles and stun guns to attack the protesting students. At least 176 were killed, thousands were injured. From exile, the ANC tried to claim responsibility for the uprising that it was actually startled by, inviting a severe reprimand from radical student leaders in Soweto: ‘The [African] National Congress should stop misguiding the world, telling the world that all achievements done by black people in South Africa are performed through their influences – this is not correct’, they wrote (4). The radicalisers of Soweto ‘bristled at suggestions that the ANC had been involved’ (5). Indeed, the ANC’s alienation from, and aloofness to, the Soweto Uprising was summed up in the fact that it took a full four years for Mandela’s statement on the uprising to be published – partly because of the difficulty of smuggling it out of jail, and partly because this uprising had ‘taken the ANC by surprise’ as much as it had the white authorities (6). The ANC’s further out-of-touchness was revealed in the fact that where newly conscious black radicals emphasised ‘the self-reliance of black South Africans’ (7), Mandela’s 1980 statement about the 1976 uprising emphasised the importance of external actors, saying ‘the world is on our side’ and ‘the revulsion of the world is growing’ and singling out the United Nations for praise after it condemned the Soweto massacres.

The truth is that the ANC was, in the words of one historian, ‘extremely hostile to the black consciousness movement’. Indeed, in 1978, Mandela wrote an essay titled ‘Whither black consciousness?’, which criticised the new black radicals for being ‘dogmatic’ and ‘clannish’. Their insistence on the self-reliance of black communities ignored the fact that the ANC’s campaign was backed by ‘progressive whites… liberals, missionaries, professionals and businessmen’, said Mandela. Between his continual talking-up of the anger of the ‘outside world’ and the contributions to the ANC’s mission by ‘professionals and businessmen’, Mandela was ultimately taking aim at the new radicals’ conviction that black communities themselves, including the poorest, were capable of realising their liberation and the destruction of Apartheid.

The ANC’s instinct was always to try to rein in the fury of the new militants of the 1970s, particularly after the Soweto Uprising. As Mac Maharaj and Ahmad Kathrada reveal in their influential tome, Mandela: The Authorized Portrait (foreword by Bill Clinton), Mandela saw it as his role to tame the new radicals who arrived at Robben Island in the wake of the uprising. These new prisoners were ‘aggressive’, said Mandela, both in their prison behaviour and in their political outlook, and he soon realised that it ‘would not be an easy task to convert them to a more pragmatic position given their impatience with the Apartheid regime’ (8). Here, we can see, in microcosm, one of the key roles the ANC played in the 1970s: as at best an observer of huge black upheavals, and at worst the self-elected tamer of black militancy. A similar role was played by the ANC military training camps in Angola and Mozambique during this period: after the Soweto Uprising, thousands of radicalised youth went to these ill-organised camps, to be trained for a guerrilla invasion of South Africa which of course never came; the camps were effectively holding pens of militancy, keeping away from Soweto and other parts of South Africa the very youths who had so shaken the Apartheid regime (9).

Workers’ risings

Alongside Black Power-influenced youth, there was another radical strain in 1970s South Africa which brought about dramatic reforms to Apartheid: the black workers’ movement. Black workers had virtually no rights. They were not even referred to as ‘employees’, a term that only whites were permitted to use. The much despised Clause 77 – of the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1956 – allowed firms to reserve skilled jobs for whites, on the basis that such work should not be done by ‘the lower standards… of any other race’. It was in the sphere of work that most blacks most acutely experienced their dehumanisation at the hands of the Apartheid regime. It is not surprising that when black workers did begin to rise up, they did so under the desperate yet hopeful slogan, ‘The man is dead, but his spirit lives on’.

And how they rose up. Despite the fact that it was illegal for blacks to be unionised or to strike, from the early 1970s onwards hundreds of thousands of black workers started to withdraw from work because ‘they were no longer prepared to accept their secondary status in industry’ (10). It started fairly slowly: in 1972, 9,000 black workers engaged in strike actions. In 1973, 61,000 black workers in the region of Natal alone went on strike for short bursts of time. By the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands of black workers were walking out and in the process bringing large parts of South African industry, which was so reliant on the super-exploitation of blacks, to its knees. By 1979, there were 101 strikes involving black workers, rising exponentially to 1,148 strikes in 1987 (11). Throughout the 1970s, strike action ‘reawakened black worker consciousness’, as one historian puts it, nurturing a new generation of workers who were strident and unapologetic. Their impact is reflected in the fact that between 1970 and 1978, white workers’ wages increased by 79 per cent while black workers’ pay rose by 390 per cent (which of course also speaks volumes about the far lower base that black workers started from) (12).

The new generation of militant black workers massively dented the Apartheid regime. They won some stunning victories which called into question the entire racial basis of Apartheid. By the early 1980s, the following reforms had been made by the regime: the word ‘employee’ was redefined to include all persons, regardless of race, working for an employer; the hated Clause 77 of ‘white reservation of jobs’ was repealed; a definition of ‘unfair labour practice’ was applied to black workers, providing them with greater employment rights (13). These hard-won – often violently won – changes did not only improve the conditions of black workers; they also picked apart the assumed superiority of the white race, the conceit upon which modern South Africa had been built. Now referred to as employees, similar to whites, a massive swathe of black society had moved closer towards being treated as properly human.

Under pressure from both rioting black youth and striking black workers, in the 1970s and early 1980s the Apartheid regime started to transform itself. It introduced the era of ‘Reform Apartheid’. Most of the petty apartheid rules in everyday life, pertaining to black-and-white separation in movie theatres, restaurants and so on, were phased out. More black students were allowed into white universities, so that by the early 1980s between 20 and 30 per cent of students at Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town were black, Indian or Coloured (people of African tribal origin who also had European ancestry) (14). African workers were given long-term work contracts rather than being treated as casual labour. Many were also allowed to bring their families with them to the camps they stayed in while working. These may seem like basic civilised steps, and the vast majority of blacks still lived in awful conditions, but the impact of the reforms was nonetheless enormous: the racial foundations of South Africa were collapsing under the weight of black workers’ and students’ refusal to live as modern-day slaves and the regime’s corresponding extremely reluctant move towards reform.

The next major reform, instituted in 1983 / 1984, would be the one that would seal Apartheid’s fate, through inviting the fury of radical black students, workers and ordinary township dwellers. In 1984, the Apartheid regime introduced a new parliament – the power-sharing Tricameral Parliament, which allowed certain minorities to vote in a new system which would have white representatives, Indian representatives and Coloured representatives. Blacks, however, were excluded. In solidarity with blacks, Indians and Coloureds largely boycotted the elections to their parts of the newly racialised parliament: only 18 per cent of Coloureds and 12 per cent of Indians voted. The right wing of the Apartheid-overseeing National Party, outraged at this dilution of white rule, split away from the party, seriously undermining the white regime. But it was the response of blacks, emboldened by their gains of the 1970s yet still finding themselves excluded from political power, which would topple Apartheid as we knew it. The new parliamentary system was effectively an admission by the Apartheid regime that white rule was no longer tenable, which acted as an unwitting invitation to the black masses to push the regime over the edge. It was an invitation that they accepted.

Township revolt

In the summer of 1984, black townships erupted. The rebellion was widespread and furious. The aim was to expel state forces from black areas and to make South Africa in general ungovernable. In the words of Michael MacDonald, in his book Why Race Matters in South Africa, the township revolters ‘attacked all the visible signs and symbols of the state’, making it clear that they intended to ‘sweep the state, its agents and its clients from townships’ (15).

Black communities took control of their townships. In MacDonald’s words, while clashes with the police and soldiers were ferocious and frequent, these self-liberated townships nonetheless had an ‘active and robust civil society’. Indeed, the expulsion of state agents from the townships ‘cleared the room for the spontaneous expression of the society that Apartheid had disorganised systematically’. Schooling continued, services were provided by the community itself, and the townships were self-policed. There were ‘revolutionary justice’ committees, which enforced boycotts against goods and services provided by the most pro-Apartheid firms and companies. Their punishments of those who broke the boycotts – which included forcing boycott breakers to eat the things they had disobediently bought, like soap or detergent, for example – made the headlines and caused a stir (16). But these were new communities under constant siege by vast numbers of racist police and soldiers – life was hardly going to be a picnic.

And the ANC’s role in this massive township rebellion and attempted expulsion of the forces of Apartheid from black people’s daily lives? Again, just as it did after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the ANC tried to claim responsibility for the new ‘ungovernability’ of South Africa. Yet as MacDonald writes: ‘The ANC often is pictured as orchestrating the movement against Apartheid in the 1980s… But this version of events, while serving the purposes of the Apartheid state in the 1980s and the ANC since then, is misleading.’ He points out that ‘the ANC called for ungovernability in April 1985; the township rebellion broke out in August 1984’. In the words of one observer of the township rebellion, the black resistance ‘emanated from below, as communities responded to their abysmal urban living conditions’; the revolt ‘swelled up in African townships, swept through schools, and drew in the emerging independent labour movement’ and once again took the cut-off, largely exiled ANC ‘by surprise’ (17).

If the ANC played any role in relation to the township rebellion of the mid-1980s, it was similar to that played by Mandela in relation to radical black prisoners in the 1970s and by the ANC military camps in foreign countries in the post-1976 period – that is, its instinct was to tame the rebellion, to rein it in, in the name of pursuing a more pragmatic approach to reforming South Africa. Indeed, it is after the uprisings of the mid-1980s that we can see the true historical role played by Mandela in South Africa – not liberator or saviour of black people, but restrainer of black fury.

Following the political quakes brought about by black students and workers in the 1970s, and then especially in the early to mid-1980s, the Apartheid regime knew it could not survive. And so towards the end of the 1980s, serious moves were made to release Mandela from prison, to decriminalise the ANC, and to institute a peaceful, pragmatic reform that might quash the black rebellions and allow the white beneficiaries of the system of Apartheid to retain some of their privileges in a new system.

In his 1989 book, South Africa: No Turning Back, Shaun Johnson describes how it was the rebellions of 1984 that led white officials and capitalists to approach the ANC: ‘Twelve months after the onset of the 1984 revolt, some of South Africa’s leading white businessmen and newspaper editors, followed by [political] leaders, travelled to meet the ANC External Mission.’ (18) They had two thoughts on their mind, says Johnson: ‘First, how could the violence be stopped. Second, how could the way be opened to negotiations for a “reformist” solution capable of safeguarding [their] interests.’ From 1985 onwards, the ANC leadership, without the knowledge of the vast majority of their grassroots supporters, had ‘meetings with white business, political, religious and other leaders’ to discuss a peaceful ‘transfer of power’ (19).

It is also at this time, post-1984, that world leaders start putting pressure on the Apartheid regime to release Mandela. It was in 1984 that Margaret Thatcher wrote to then South African president PW Botha telling him she was ‘sad to see the violence’ in his country and that ‘the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake’. Also in 1985, the then president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, made it explicit why world leaders were calling for Mandela’s release: ‘It’s the surest way of buying a little time… You’ve got to have a beginning to stem this black anger in the African masses.’

That is, Mandela was being approached by white capitalists, politicians and global leaders not in order to lead the black masses or bring about the fall of Apartheid, but for the very opposite reasons – to quell the black masses and help bring about the reform of Apartheid in such a way that major white interests would be ‘safeguarded’.

This raises the question of why, if the ANC provoked hostility among some black consciousness leaders in the 1970s and was continually pressing for pragmatism even as the black population was rising up in fury in the 1980s, it came to win the often effusive backing of the majority of blacks. Even during the 1984 township revolts, which ‘emanated from below’ and were not the work of the always cautious ANC, protesters waved ANC flags and chanted Mandela’s name. This is because, tragically, there was no other coherent movement into which the masses’ desire to demolish Apartheid and create a new era could be invested. By default, the ANC existed at least as the presumed embodiment of the black masses’ economic and political aspirations, even as it sought to tame and, later, squash those aspirations.

Mandela’s real legacy

That is the role that Mandela played, when he was released in 1990: he set about adding a semi-radical gloss to Apartheid’s own need to reform itself in response to two decades of black resistance. He was encouraged to ditch the ANC’s longstanding link-up with the South African Communist Party, which had anyway largely been an opportunistic relationship through which the ANC had hoped through the 1960s and 70s to make some connection with ordinary black workers and radicals (20). Capitalists feted Mandela. In his biography of Thabo Mbeki, the heir to Mandela, William Mervin Gumede described how in the early 1990s ‘South African business leaders joined the stampede to woo Mandela and other ANC leaders’. The honeymoon of Mandela’s daughter was funded by casino king Sol Kerzner, while Mandela himself spent Christmas of 1993 in the Bahamas at the expense of Anthony O’Reilly, chairman of Heinz and Independent Newspapers (21). Mandela was being rewarded by various people for his role in ‘stemming black anger’ and maintaining the fundamental economic structures of modern South Africa even as its last political expressions were being dismantled.

When he was elected president in 1994, Mandela made clear what his role in the new South Africa would be – enemy of resistance. In a speech at the opening of parliament, he gave a warning to those blacks who expected radical changes to their living conditions. ‘The government has extremely limited resources’, he said. ‘The government literally does not have the money to meet the demands that are being advanced.’ He said ‘mass action’ to demand such resources would not be tolerated. ‘Mass action of any kind will not create resources that the government does not have’, he said, warning the poor and angry not to ‘introduce anarchy into our society’. In short: no more revolting, no more demands, no more fight.

In keeping with the true historic role they played – namely, the decommissioning of black anger and the partial, narrowly political reform of Apartheid – Mandela and other ANC leaders have overseen the creation of a new South Africa in which the black masses’ lot has actually worsened. The Economist describes today’s South Africa as ‘one of the least equal [societies] in the world’. It points out that, as a result of ‘low-quality education, skills shortages and massive unemployment levels of around 40 per cent’, the black population is ‘more disadvantaged today than when Nelson Mandela was still behind bars’. A recent extensive Yale study of living conditions in South Africa concluded that ‘income inequality had probably grown, and life expectancy has declined’.

This is a direct product of the work of Mandela and subsequent leaders of the ANC. Whether they were seeking mainly legal remedies to Apartheid in the 1960s, or trying to convert black militants to ‘a more pragmatic position’ in the 1970s, or watching with trepidation the township revolts of the 1980s, or discussing with white capitalists and politicians how to reform Apartheid in such a way that their interests would be ‘safeguarded’ in the early 1990s, Mandela and the ANC’s role was merely to make South Africa amenable to a new class of black professionals, politicians and capitalists alongside the white ones – that is, themselves and their networks. They did not liberate South Africa. They did not bring down Apartheid. That exhausting groundwork of challenging the racial underpinnings of South Africa was done by the black masses, whose sacrifices were later exploited by an ANC leadership hungry for power, influence and privilege.

Not surprisingly, as a result of the horrendous inequalities and living conditions still experienced by many black South Africans, militant activity is now on the rise. There have been record levels of strike days in South Africa over the past five years, with more than 30million working days lost to strikes in 2011. New, upstart black unions have emerged, making demands for higher pay and fairer working conditions. The ANC authorities’ response has been severe repression, even violence. On 16 August 2012, 34 striking miners were killed by the South African Police at the Marikana mine, some shot in the back as they fled, others killed hundreds of metres from where the actual protesting over pay took place. This was not an aberration but rather the logical conclusion to the ANC’s adoption of power over a society in which blacks remain extremely poor and exploited and where, in Mandela’s own words, ‘mass action’ will not be tolerated. Mandela the symbol of resistance is still held in high regard by the black masses. But the murders at Marikana are really as much a part of his legacy as the long walk to freedom.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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