Azania, Mandela, and the non-Hollywood Story

Last week, I posted this status on my facebook wall:

  1. What does Nelson Mandela represent to you?
  2. In a few words, can you summarize Mandela’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and post-apartheid conditions, in Azania* (South Africa)?
  3. What are your sources of information about this story?
    Everyone is invited to provide their answers to the questions above.”

The reason that made me think of asking these questions is the disparity I was seeing, on my facebook live feed, in opinions about the ailing Mandela. The recent developments in his health condition triggered many people to talk about him and what they view of him.**

I heard voices glorifying Mandela severely, sometimes to the ranks of demi-gods, to which others responded by discrediting him to the point of calling him a ‘sell-out’ and ‘collaborator’. The one thing both sides seem to allude to is that the fate of Azania was once at the hands of Mandela, and whichever decisions he ‘made’ during that time, he, and he alone, bears the responsibility for. Furthermore, there was no room for honest mistakes or shared glory – i.e. either Mandela was the untouchable savior or the trickster villain for the masses.

I was also interested in knowing how much do those talking about Mandela and Azania know about the story of Mandela and Azania – i.e. the real, non-Hollywood and Western media story – because Mandela’s global fame is definitely a result of the Western media’s embrace of him as the poster boy of the anti-apartheid struggle, the same media that classified him and the ANC as ‘terrorists’ when that media were friends with the South African apartheid regime. So I asked my facebook circle about their sources of information regarding the Azania/Mandela story.

Why all this talk?

Because, contrary to popular belief around the world, the majority of the people of Azania are still suffering from the apartheid experience, a few decades after its formal political ending. The reason for those conditions can be generally traced back to the deal struck between the African National Congress (ANC, with the leadership of Mandela and other anti-apartheid figures) and the National Party (the party of Apartheid). Within that deal, which was sponsored by a number of powerful global actors, the ANC secured the move towards a nation-wide democratic election that it was confident about winning (and did). However, there were compromises made on the economic side that rendered the effective redistribution of economic wealth in post-apartheid Azania a near-impossible task. The result: those who controlled and milked the economic sphere during apartheid remained in control of that sphere after apartheid.

“In South Africa in 2008 the poorest 50% received only 7.8% of total income. While 83% of white South Africans were among the top 20% of income receivers in 2008, only 11% of our black population were. These statistics conceal unmitigated human suffering. Little wonder that the country has seen such an enormous rise in civil protest.”*** What this economic disparity means is that the majority of Azanians have not yet reaped the fruit of the anti-apartheid struggle; at least not in a measurable way. Economic inequality always affects the social and political spaces.

Ronnie Kasrils, a member of the ANC leadership at that decisive moment in history, wrote a recent article, in the Guardian, about those days. “In the early 1990s, we in the leadership of the ANC made a serious error. Our people still paying the price,” he concludes. “What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalising South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will.Instead, we chickened out. The ANC leadership needed to remain true to its commitment of serving the people. This would have given it the hegemony it required not only over the entrenched capitalist class but over emergent elitists, many of whom would seek wealth through black economic empowerment, corrupt practices and selling political influence.”***

How much of what happened in those historical days is to be blamed on Nelson Mandela? And would that blame reach the point of accusing Mandela of ‘selling out’ the Azanian masses at a critical moment in the struggle? Was it a wise bargain or an honest mistake, or a not-so-honest mistake? That is what the debate surrounding Mandela is about. I think it would do us all good to have an analytical approach to the issue.

Who is a leader?

I think this is an important question. Is the leader someone with super powers and confidence? Is she basically a person who walks her talk and capable of inspiring her people? Or can he be a ‘make-believe’ figure, manufactured by foreign forces?

One thing that should be clear is that a leader of any group of people is chosen by that group of people. Otherwise she or he is not really a leader of that group. There is no philosophy in this – either you are a leader in the eyes of those whom you are leading, or you are simply a fake (no matter how small or big that group which you influence is). In this regard, one can read Mandela’s history: how he lived his life as an Azanian, how he joined the struggle of his people, how he rose up to the challenges of the struggle, steadily gained the skills and approval of his people and comrades to take the lead, put his life on the line for the cause, and endured crucial tests of character and commitment. To that extent, Mandela was undoubtedly a genuine leader of his people; granted that he has never been the ‘only’ leader. There have always been others, before, with, and after Mandela.

Do genuine leaders make mistakes that affect their people negatively?

Quite often! It is part of why standing up for a leading role is a big responsibility. A miscalculation you make may have dire consequences on the people who trust your judgment. Mandela, his comrades, and many other leaders in history faced turning points in the struggles in which they had to choose between accepting compromises or continuing a war with more sure human casualties (physical and psychological) and unsure future victories. Usually, and for any person with a decent sense of humanity, you will have to think more than twice if you are offered a chance that appears to avoid bloodshed for your people. A leader who has no empathy with the pains of her people is not fit to lead.

So, the apartheid regime, along with powerful global actors who wanted a less-embarrassing ending to the apartheid regime, put an offer on the table for the ANC leadership. This offer gave the Azanian people what appears to be the more important of the two elements of power (which are political authority and wealth control). They calculated their situation, having in mind the possible close delivery of a concrete achievement long awaited (i.e. political liberation), saving much more suffering that awaits if they refuse the offer and continue the fight, and adding to that the political pressure game that can be played by making the ANC look like the war-mongers in the eyes of the world for not accepting this ‘peace treaty’. The ANC leadership had little time to make a choice and much at stake; and they chose. They made an honest mistake, with dire consequences.

One thing for sure remains, is that Mandela paid his dues to the struggle, was only human from beginning to end, struggled with his own human weaknesses, and scored some admirable victories on that front. He can be criticized regarding even more mistakes – along with his fellow ANC comrades in post-apartheid Azania. It is naive to glorify Mandela, but equally naive to disrespect his genuine contribution.

*Azania is the native, pre-colonial, name of Southern Africa.
** This article was written while Mandela is alive. This note is only significant because we are all unsure of the ability of his body, bearing the scars of the decades of the struggle, to fight for more days with us on Earth.
*** Ronnie Kasrils, The Guardian, Monday 24 June 2013. “How the ANC’s Faustian pact sold out South Africa’s poorest”.

(published in the Citizen Newspaper, Sudan, June 23, 2013)

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