I’ve just been asked this:

Steve – I’m curious as to your thoughts on Nelson Mandela, a modern-day Lincoln, who freed a lot more folks without a full blown war. Like Lincoln, flawed, but as Lincoln promised before his assassination, no hatred and no recriminations for losing 27 years in a prison on a bogus charge.

My answer is: kind of mixed. I mean, personally, one can’t help but admire him: he was determined, courageous, and fundamentally principled even where those principles (in my opinion, of course) were misguided. The comparison to Lincoln, however, is misplaced: Lincoln’s task was the destruction of an entire ruling class; Mandela deliberately chose not to destroy the ruling class, but rather to replace elements of it while keeping it in power. It would have been a good analogy to Lincoln if Lincoln had seen his task as making sure there were plenty of black slave owners, instead of (after 1862 at any rate) the ending of the slave holding system. (For the record, the comparison isn’t fair to either of them; they were working under such drastically different conditions that no comparison can reasonably apply.)

Mandela was a profoundly contradictory individual: on the one hand, deeply committed to equality and willing to risk his life for it; on the other, a loyal servant of the system that prevents equality. It’s easy to say, “Oh, yeah, well, so he wasn’t radical enough for you, he was still a great man and helped move things forward.” To which I reply, yes, he was a great man; but if you look at what can only be called the revolutionary situation at the point the ANC came to power–a situation he worked very hard to limit and to direct into channels safe for capitalism–it’s hard to simply say he “moved things forward.”

The outpouring of praise from world leaders is not, I think, just a matter of jumping on the bandwagon because someone popular has died; I think they also recognize that Mendela played a huge role in preserving capitalism in South Africa. You see his handiwork both in the improved conditions of many South Africans, and in the mass murder of striking platinum miners a couple of years ago.

ETA: The World Socialist Web Site has a strong article on Mandela here.

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26 thoughts on “Mandela”

  1. A very well thought out response. Part of the reason Mandela let himself be co-oped by the ruling class and kept South Africa safe for capitalism, I think, is that he feared for the inevitable bloodshed and backlash that would have followed the fall of the apartheid regime.

    In this, he undoubtedly overestimated the men who followed him–the ANC isn’t an abomination on the order of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, but it’s littered with the kind of corruption endemic to capitalism, which contributes to situations like the murder of the platinum miners (and indeed the murders during the apartheid regime).

  2. It’s no judgment to say the Mandela was a member of the aspiring African bourgeoisie and acted thusly. Along with his presidency, he brought in members of that same class, corrupt and grasping politicians and labor bureaucrats like Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. All of this would not have been possible without the collaboration of the Stalinist South African Communist Party. Together with the ANC leaders, they pushed back against any socialist-minded factions and programs, opting instead for post-apartheid South Africa to be built on a capitalist foundation. Mandela and his allies didn’t fear the “inevitable bloodshed and backlash” as much as they feared the upsurge of the South African masses.

  3. It should come as no surprise that the son of a Chieftan of a colonized people saw ending the colonialism, and not the dismantling of class-based society, as his goal.

  4. In discussing the Paris Commune skzb wrote:

    What is more significant is that each position, each dispute, each element in the complex and contradictory process that was the developing leadership of the Commune, was a reflection, not of the ego of the individual (which provided the expression but not the substance), but rather of genuine social forces.

    Obviously the same can be said for the struggle against colonialism in Africa.

    Many of these forces were discussed in Mandela’s opening statement from his 1964 trial for sabotage, high treason and conspiracy to overthrow the government..

    He explains how and why he chose to deviate from the ANC’s path of non-violence.
    He explains why anti-colonial movements viewed communists as allies.
    He explains why the ANC was not a communist organization.

    Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.”

    I view Mandela as a true revolutionary.

  5. I always kinda saw Mandela as a guy who thought that he could pull in a little from column A and a little from column B, but it didn’t work out the way he hoped it would.

    I’ve never done a serious study of him, and I’m wrong about mostly everything this week (just this week?), but that is the sense that I had of him.

  6. Maybe societies develop giant impersonal forces that make things happen. Sometimes continents move slowly, sometimes with little breaks and tremors, sometimes in giant earthquakes. Sometimes inpredictable individuals get to influence the forces a bit, like we’re the chaos part of some sort of chaos theory.

    Because he was in the wrong place in the wrong time, Mandela spent 20+ years in prison. No hot tubs, no beautiful women, no cross-country joyrides, he ate what he was offered. Then he got a chance to make some sort of change.

    To the extent he got to choose, he chose to make the changes that reduced the pressure rather than cause a big cataclysm. Instead of getting a whole lot of people killed including some of the bad guys, he arranged enough compromise that the bad guys didn’t fight hard to stop him. Was he wrong? I don’t know. Would it have been so bad to kill a few million people to create a better world?

    But then, I don’t know what would have happened, really. Maybe if he’d stood firm for justice the whole world would have backed him. The bad guys might have given up, realized they had no support or refuge anywhere, and passively waited for execution. Maybe he could have created a world of peace and prosperity for all good people with no cost at all.

    We have to go by our best judgement, but we don’t know the results of our actions. To the extent that we have an effect we really are agents of chaos.

  7. Don’t really disagree, SKZB, with what you say abut Mandela, but I think I’d say pretty similar things about Lincoln. Because of what happened at Ford’s Theater we will not know what might have happened post-war had he been President.

    The Emancipation Proclamation, as we know, declared “free” the slaves in the states under rebellion, not those in Maryland an Delaware. The war certainly helped the nascent industrialists in the North not just in manufacture orders but in destroying the political power of those opposed to the kind of tariffs that helped sustain the infant U.S. manufacturing interests.

    From a mechanistic Marxian view the necessity of the creation of a massively capable industrial base creates the type of proletariat that can become a revolutionary class, aiding in the ultimate destruction of “the idiocy of rural life” was a good thing. Thus, the difference between Mandela and Lincoln is more where they fall on the spectrum of capitalist development rather than heir attitudes for it.

    At worst, Mandela — as principled and steadfast in the face of tremendous obstacles as he was — serves as an example of how identity politics can sidetrack otherwise potentially revolutionary forces.

  8. People around here throw the term identity politics around too lightly. He was never a Marxist. (He jointed the SA communist party at one point, but that was a matter of mutual interest not ideology.) Mandela was a principled nationalist who wanted to serve the interests of his entire nation regardless of race, regardless of class. Ignoring class is a deeply flawed position,, and nationalism, even broad nationism is deeply deforming because it obliterates important distinctions for the sake of an imaginary commonality. As a principled nationalist he supported national rights not only for his own nation but for people in many other countries including Palestine. So it really was a broad principle with him. But it did lead to ignoring class, and in practice supporting the capitalist class against other classes. And in the end weakened even SA national aspirations as SA was left at the mercy of global finance.

  9. “And in the end weakened even SA national aspirations as SA was left at the mercy of global finance.”

    How do you avoid the mercy of global finance without becoming Albania or North Korea?

  10. I’ll repeat the quote from his 1964 trial.

    Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.

    These are not some offhand recorded idle thoughts, but what he believed might well be his last political statement.

  11. Oh, well, if you want to quote from his 1964 trial, here is another one:

    “The realisation of the Freedom Charter would open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.”

  12. Surely SA has been at the mercy of global finance since the formation of de Beers?

    But yes, so far as I know (not very deep knowledge, I must admit) the same mining corporations as ever are running the show. It’s one thing to break up the big land holdings in the former colonies to give some land over to homesteaders, but you’d think the mines would be nationalized too, at the very least. In SA de Beers has transferred a 26% ownership stake to a group of black investors*, but otherwise it seems like it’s business as usual for de Beers and now for the Petra corporation as well there. In Botswana at least there is a government stake in the mining operation along with de Beers, but apparently not in SA.

    *I can’t find any readily available information about who actually controls Ponahalo Investments, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some kind of covert investment vehicle for the criminal elite, not some kind of charity or socialization mechanism.

  13. skzb at 6:10 pm

    I’m not sure your point. One quote speaks to his personal belief and the other speaks to the goals of the ANC. Mandela does not equal ANC and vice versa. There is no contradiction. The ANC also believed in non-violence. Mandela deviated from the ANC philosophy there as well.

    In the 1964 trial Mandela sets out to explain the reasons for his own actions AND to show how many of the charges against the ANC are false. He admits his own actions and absolves the ANC.

  14. To separate Mandela’s principles from the ANC program, when he was their leading spokesman, theoretician, figurehead, and practical head, is a little disingenuous; it is clear that his primary difference with the ANC was over the question of violence, which is a tactical question.

    But never mind; we can instead then look at his own, personal program as well. He never set out to destroy capitalism. And he could have made an important contribution to doing so. He made other choices. Here, if you will is another quote, this time to his biographer, Anthony Sampson . In speaking of meeting with Trotskyist Isaac Tabata, of the South African section of the International Committee of the Fourth International, he said, “It was difficult for me to cope with his arguments. I didn’t want to continue arguing with the fellow because he was demolishing me just like that.” (And, in passing, this is another thing I respect about Mandela: an admission like that, from a brilliant and powerful person, indicates a level of intellectual honesty that is truly admirable.)

    Mandela chose alliance with the Stalinist Communist Party, to preserve capitalism in exchange for limited improvements in conditions for black South Africans, and promotion of a tiny section to positions of wealth and power. See Miramon’s comments above.

    The original question regarded my assessment of Mandela in comparison to Lincoln, and here is the nub of it: Was Mandela, personally, a courageous, principled, and dedicated man? I’d have to say yes. Did he rise to the tasks of his moment of history? In my opinion, he did not.

    I do not doubt your admiration for Mr. Mandela, and I share it. But I am of the opinion that today’s historical mission is the destruction of capitalism, and I am also of the opinion that Mandela could have played a vital role in that and chose not to. You are, of course, welcome to disagree with either or both of these opinions.

  15. It’d be kinder to say Mandela was not driven by historical events to become the necessary actor. Lincoln was. Look at how very cautiously Lincoln moved on slavery. I don’t know much about Mandela’s time in office. Did he have a moment where he could’ve struck at capitalism in clear defense of his nation?

  16. I dunno. Should Lincoln have freed the slaves in the South when Sumter was attacked? Or sooner? I wish Mandela had been able to act like Chavez or Lula when he was elected, but I don’t have the impression he was in a position to do so.

    Though It may just be that I have a soft spot for well-meaning, ineffectual people, which includes politicians who’re in over their heads.

  17. I wish I knew. It seems like Lincoln was right–if he’d freed the slaves before it was proven a military necessity (especially to the rank-and-file soldier), he may well have lost Kentucky, and certainly would have created massive discontent in the army. How much? And would foreign support have made enough difference to make up for it? I don’t know.

  18. “To separate Mandela’s principles from the ANC program, when he was their leading spokesman, theoretician, figurehead, and practical head, is a little disingenuous; ”

    I think we’re talking at cross purposes – in 1964 Mandela was none of these.

  19. Um. He co-founded the AMC Youth League, and was a member of the National Executive Committee from 1950 on. I would argue that he was a leading figure, and for most purposes THE leading figure of the AMC in 1964.

  20. skzb – now you’re being disingenuous. *_A_* leading figure, yes. But that isn’t what you said in post at 10 December 2013 at 10:09 pm.

    Lutuli, as President of the ANC, was their leading figure, spokesman, and practical head. He accepted the the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961. I’ve never seen anyone claim Mandela was the ANC’s leading theoretician – though I have seen that written of Lembede, Joe Slovo, Peter Mda and Duma Nokwa.

    BTW – Anton Lembede is often cited as the founder of the ANCYL – though I think it correct to say Mandela was one of the founders.

    The ANC at no time reflected the sole personal views of any one man, and certainly not Mandela. It was always an umbrella organisation that held many different factions within it. As such, almost every stance the ANC took was a political decision reached by the normal arts of politics.

  21. Oet me just add a comment about Lincoln. There was no constitutional basis for freeing the slaves before the war. Once the war started he could consider them “war materiel” and did. That was the basis of one commander refusing to return fugitive slaves in contravention of an act of Congress. They still weren’t fully human; they were more like guns and ammo.

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