The hijacking of Mandela's legacy
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and TomDispatch, and a frequent contributor to websites and radio shows ranging from the US to East Asia. Born in Brazil, he's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of 'Globalistan' (Nimble Books, 2007), 'Red Zone Blues' (Nimble Books, 2007), 'Obama does Globalistan' (Nimble Books, 2009) and a contributing editor for a number of other books, including the upcoming 'Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and the New American Century in the Obama Presidency' (Routledge). When not on the road, he alternates between Sao Paulo, New York, London, Bangkok and Hong Kong.
It’s a Tower of Babel of tributes piled up in layer upon layer of hypocrisy – from the US to Israel and from France to Britain.
What must absolutely be buried under the tower is that the apartheid regime in South Africa was sponsored and avidly defended by the West until, literally, it was about to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. The only thing that had really mattered was South Africa’s capitalist economy and immense resources, and the role of Pretoria in fighting “communism.” Apartheid was, at best, a nuisance.
Mandela is being allowed sainthood by the 0.0001% because he extended a hand to the white oppressor who kept him in jail for 27 years. And because he accepted – in the name of “national reconciliation” – that no apartheid killers would be tried, unlike the Nazis.
Among the cataracts of emotional tributes and the crass marketization of the icon, there’s barely a peep in Western corporate media about Mandela’s firm refusal to ditch armed struggle against apartheid (if he had done so, he would not have been jailed for 27 years); his gratitude towards Fidel Castro’s Cuba – which always supported the people of Angola, Namibia and South Africa fighting apartheid; and his perennial support for the liberation struggle in Palestine.
Young generations, especially, must be made aware that during the Cold War, any organization fighting for the freedom of the oppressed in the developing world was dubbed “terrorist”; that was the Cold War version of the “war on terror”. Only at the end of the 20th century was the fight against apartheid accepted as a supreme moral cause; and Mandela, of course, rightfully became the universal face of the cause.
It’s easy to forget that conservative messiah Ronald Reagan – who enthusiastically hailed the precursors of al-Qaeda as “freedom fighters” – fiercely opposed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act because, what else, the African National Congress (ANC) was considered a “terrorist organization” (on top of Washington branding the ANC as “communists”).
The same applied to a then-Republican Congressman from Wyoming who later would turn into a Darth Vader replicant, Dick Cheney. As for Israel, it even offered one of its nuclear weapons to the Afrikaners in Pretoria – presumably to wipe assorted African commies off the map.
In his notorious 1990 visit to the US, now as a free man, Mandela duly praised Fidel, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Col. Gaddafi as his “comrades in arms”: “There is no reason whatsoever why we should have any hesitation about hailing their commitment to human rights.” Washington/Wall Street was livid.
And this was Mandela’s take, in early 2003, on the by then inevitable invasion of Iraq and the wider war on terror; “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.” No wonder he was kept on the US government terrorist list until as late as 2008.
From terrorism to sainthood
In the early 1960s – when, by the way, the US itself was practicing apartheid in the South - it would be hard to predict to what extent “Madiba” (his clan name), the dandy lawyer and lover of boxing with an authoritarian character streak, would adopt Gandhi’s non-violence strategy to end up forging an exceptional destiny graphically embodying the political will to transform society. Yet the seeds of “Invictus” were already there.
The fascinating complexity of Mandela is that he was essentially a democratic socialist. Certainly not a capitalist. And not a pacifist either; on the contrary, he would accept violence as a means to an end. In his books and countless speeches, he always admitted his flaws. His soul must be smirking now at all the adulation.
Arguably, without Mandela, Barack Obama would never have reached the White House; he admitted on the record that his first political act was at an anti-apartheid demonstration. But let’s make it clear: Mr. Obama, you’re no Nelson Mandela.
To summarize an extremely complex process, in the “death throes” of apartheid, the regime was mired in massive corruption, hardcore military spending and with the townships about to explode. Mix Fidel’s Cuban fighters kicking the butt of South Africans (supported by the US) in Angola and Namibia with the inability to even repay Western loans, and you have a recipe for bankruptcy.
The best and the brightest in the revolutionary struggle – like Mandela – were either in jail, in exile, assassinated (like Steve Biko) or “disappeared”, Latin American death squad-style. The actual freedom struggle was mostly outside South Africa – in Angola, Namibia and the newly liberated Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Once again, make no mistake; without Cuba – as Mandela amply stressed writing from jail in March 1988 – there would be “no liberation of our continent, and my people, from the scourge of apartheid”. Now get one of those 0.0001% to admit it.
In spite of the debacle the regime – supported by the West – sensed an opening. Why not negotiate with a man who had been isolated from the outside world since 1962? No more waves and waves of Third World liberation struggles; Africa was now mired in war, and all sorts of socialist revolutions had been smashed, from Che Guevara killed in Bolivia in 1967 to Allende killed in the 1973 coup in Chile.
Mandela had to catch up with all this and also come to grips with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of what European intellectuals called “real socialism.” And then he would need to try to prevent a civil war and the total economic collapse of South Africa.
The apartheid regime was wily enough to secure control of the Central Bank – with crucial IMF help – and South Africa’s trade policy. Mandela secured only a (very significant) political victory. The ANC only found out it had been conned when it took power. Forget about its socialist idea of nationalizing the mining and banking industries – owned by Western capital, and distribute the benefits to the indigenous population. The West would never allow it. And to make matters worse, the ANC was literally hijacked by a sorry, greedy bunch.
Follow the roadmap
John Pilger is spot on pointing to economic apartheid in South Africa now with a new face.
Patrick Bond has written arguably the best expose anywhere of the Mandela years – and their legacy.
And Ronnie Kasrils does a courageous mea culpa dissecting how Mandela and the ANC accepted a devil’s pact with the usual suspects.
The bottom line: Mandela defeated apartheid but was defeated by neoliberalism. And that’s the dirty secret of him being allowed sainthood.
Now for the future. Cameroonian Achille Mbembe, historian and political science professor, is one of Africa’s foremost intellectuals. In his book Critique of Black Reason, recently published in France (not yet in English), Mbembe praises Mandela and stresses that Africans must imperatively invent new forms of leadership, the essential precondition to lift themselves in the world. All-too-human “Madiba” has provided the roadmap. May Africa unleash one, two, a thousand Mandelas.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.