Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Every socialist and progressive person will mourn today for the loss of Nelson Mandela.

The struggle he waged was against the greatest inhumanity to afflict the post-war world: the existence of a state where black people were treated as little more than cattle, racially segregated in every aspect of life, confined by pass laws, forcibly removed from traditional homelands, imprisoned, beaten and often killed, denied any democratic voice, banned from protest, forbidden to marry as they chose, under-educated through the ‘Bantu education’ system, subject to discriminatory taxes and denied South African citizenship including the right to a passport.

In 1960 the regime shot down 69 protesters in Sharpville, in 1976 over 170 high school students were killed by the state in Soweto.

Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years by that apartheid state, came to stand both as a symbol of the outrageous injustice of such a system, and for the necessity to take up the struggle against it.

Although Mandela is remembered in tributes today for his role in ensuring a peaceful transition out of apartheid to majority rule, he was no pacifist.

He was imprisoned in 1964 for acts of sabotage against the government carried out by the newly founded armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

At his trial he said: ‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

During his years of imprisonment he defended the ANC and MK in all the forms their struggle took, while the likes of Reagan and Thatcher tried to brand him and the South African anti-Apartheid movement as ‘terrorist’.

Thousands died in South Africa in the struggle against apartheid. And to that can be added the additional thousands killed in the struggle backed by apartheid’s army, the South African Defence Force, in Angola.

The struggle against apartheid was far from ‘peaceful’, as most of the commentators today like to claim for their own propaganda purposes. If a relatively ‘peaceful’ transition took place in the end it was built on the blood and heroic sacrifice of those thousands, who like Mandela, were ‘prepared to die’.

An estimated 7,000 people were killed between 1948 and 1989. Even after the release of Mandela, an estimated 4,000 people were killed and 22,000 injured  in the 4 years to the first democratic elections in 1994.

The South African revolution was never ‘non-violent’, because the liberation struggle faced the constant, ferocious violence of the regime’s supporters, even when it was clear they had lost

The defeat was forced on the white South African regime by the relentless struggle of the ANC, all black South Africans, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the thousands of Cuban volunteers that joined that struggle. The international Anti-Apartheid Movement aided that fight, but it grew in strength in direct proportion to how determinedly the fight was waged within South Africa and its level of sacrifice.

In the end de Klerk had to negotiate and therefore Mandela was freed.

That tremendous struggle had been waged under the banner of ‘majority rule’, and when that was conceded and all South Africans went to the polls together in the first fully democratic elections in 1994 and elected Mandela it marked the end of the struggle against apartheid.

Of course, this step did not mark the end of the struggle for social and economic justice for the oppressed and excluded black majority of South Africa.

Some on the left attack Mandela for this. They argue that the struggle against apartheid could have been transformed into the struggle for socialism if the deal offered by de Klerk had not been accepted. Or if the ANC had explicitly adopted a socialist and anti-racist programme from the beginning of the anti-apartheid fight.

This is to entirely misunderstand the nature of the struggle that took place in South Africa, which Mandela and the leadership of the ANC got right. The huge mobilisations in South Africa, elsewhere in the south of the continent and internationally, were only possible because the movement was united against the iniquity of racial oppression and segregation.

Once the end of the apartheid system was conceded, the struggle in its existing form also came to an end.

It is reasonable to criticise the ANC for some of its subsequent failures and errors in government, but not for accepting a negotiated end to apartheid. If it had refused others further to the right would have accepted and taken the leadership of post-Apartheid South Africa, probably making greater concessions to the old regime in the process.

It is this historic victory in destroying apartheid which gives Mandela his stature in the world and why he is mourned today.

Moreover, at the height of that victory, when he was courted by his erstwhile opponents and detractors world-wide (like Thatcher herself) he never forgot who had been the true friends of the struggle against apartheid. His first official foreign visit was to thank Castro and the Cubans for cracking the SADF at Quito Cuanavale and breaking its resistance at home.

Nor did he forget those that were and are still struggling for human rights and dignity – like the Palestinians or the nationalist community in the North of Ireland.

Mandela’s true legacy is the lesson that a movement built on the broadest unity, fought with the greatest determination, including being prepared to die or spend half a lifetime in prison, can win even against armed monsters like apartheid.

His life and victory is an inspiration to us all to continue the struggle.