The Con: What the American Press Got Wrong About Nelson Mandela: The Icon, the Sellout and the Triumph of Liberal Democracy

by Kerry Chance, The Con

There are many Nelson Mandelas: the communist, the chiefly authority and the constitutionalist, to name only a few. What has come into stark relief since his passing on December 5 is the unresolvable plurality that characterises Mandela’s life and legacy. In the American press, however, this plurality has been muted by two dominant figures: Mandela as icon and Mandela as sellout. As icon, Mandela is cast as a liberal saint, a heroic bearer of peace, forgiveness and the ballot box. So pervasive, this figure already has come under scrutiny, even by President Barack Obama, who received his most vocal cheers at Mandela’s funeral with a call to resist “such a lifeless portrait”. The second – at times a well-intentioned provocation to the first – posits Mandela as a liberal traitor, a compromised bearer of global capitalism, broken promises and continued de facto inequality. It is taken as critical realpolitik to mythic eulogising. Both, unfortunately, tend to tell a totalising, singular and unified biographical story to reflect a unified story of South Africa as a nation. Both, therefore, evacuate complex histories that inform the present. In this article, I propose a few of the ways the icon / sellout paradigms might be broken down.

Historical and political plurality

Seemingly opposed, the ‘icon’ and the ‘sellout’ in the American press have in common an emphasis upon Mandela’s role in formal politics, as a statesman in the negotiated transition or as president after apartheid. Weight given to his imprisonment is refracted through this role, whether as a stoic martyr or cloistered elder out of touch with the streets. His role in informal politics is too often whitewashed, particularly details of his early life, as a revolutionary who – from the Defiance Campaign to Umkhonto we Sizwe – helped forge new forms of popular black politics during the liberation struggle. Deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian Rapule Tabane writes: “The fact that he was the first man to carry that gun for us will stay with me forever.”From nonviolent noncompliance to guerilla warfare, why are we not “engaging the thing that made Mandela famous in the first place: his politics”, asks Zachary Levenson on the blog Africa is a Country. Iterations of these politics, rather than being wholly destroyed by the ushering in of liberal reforms, are still being taken up today in South Africa and elsewhere.

The icon / sellout paradigms, therefore, polarise Mandela, either looking towards the past or looking towards the future. That is not to valorise or romanticise militant histories or popular politics, or to use them to similarly blunt plurality, but simply to suggest that when we speak of Mandela, or the nation he came to represent, both are alive with contradictions, as the best of recent commentary has emphasised. Circumventing the icon and the sellout, novelist Zakes Mda, in a moving piece for The New York Times, suggests through personal reflections that this plurality was built into the man himself: “While he was a fire-breathing revolutionary who would quote Marx and Lenin at the drop of a hat, he was also a Xhosa traditionalist with aristocratic tendencies.” In his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela intimates that the tensions within his political thought arose, in part, from the fact that liberation movements drew from the, often incommensurate, projects of socialism, African nationalism and liberal democracy.

Beyond these personal accounts, plurality is expressed in the ways that Mandela’s image multiplies and circulates beyond him: on T-shirts, monuments and memorials, in tweets, YouTube videos and Hollywood films. To be sure, some are grotesque commodities, but some also reveal humor, insight and creativity. It is captured, for instance, by a young man in Soweto selling Mandela T-shirts who says to the news cameras, “Mandela was our liberator and also sold us out.” As politics scholar Sean Jacobs suggests, this plurality has a long media history: Drum, an apartheid-era black lifestyle magazine, cultivated Mandela’s image as the “Black Pimpernel”. Much as with Facebook profile updates, often the image of Mandela chosen tells us as much about its users as the man himself. It likewise tells us something about how those users are taking up Mandela to speak to the present. On social media, some mourners posted his Rivonia Trial speech and earliest television interview, others showed him draped in traditional finery and donning an HIV-Positive T-shirt, and others showed a young man boxing alongside a smiling grandfather dancing on election day. They criticised, poked fun or celebrated the current order. A cacophonous riot of images was the result.

Only now beginning to emerge in the American press is a reaction against depluralising icon / sellout paradigms, interestingly and in no small part spurred on by Obama and Raul Castro’s much-remarked handshake at Mandela’s funeral. As Guardian columnist Seumas Milne notes, the fear and loathing to talk about Mandela’s early life draws attention to the lingering residue of Cold War politics in global affairs. The US, historically, took communism and African nationalism as a unified threat. During the Cold War, the apartheid regime frequently used ‘red threat’ (rooi gevaar in Afrikaans) and ‘black threat’ (swart gevaar) interchangeably. In the American press, Mandela’s intimate connections to Cuba or championing of guerilla tactics might have been largely left to the dustbin of history, aside for flickers of McCarthyesque scaremongering on such outlets as Fox News. Also untold would be how deeply invested were Cold War power players in upholding apartheid. That Mandela was released from the US terrorist watch-list only in 2008 reminds us that Cold War logic persists under the guise of the War on Terror, which recasts old categories for a new age. The Democratic Left Front, a South African civil society organisation, notes in a press release that out of the ashes of “the Cold War world remaking itself” rose figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Some fragments of Marxism and African nationalism

The icon / sellout paradigms do not hold up very well against Mandela’s eclectic intellectual history. At Harvard, where I teach, a colleague from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clapperton Mavhunga, and I organised a conversation on anti-colonial movements in Africa and a broadly defined ‘global South’. Unexpectedly, the conversation took place the morning after news of Mandela’s death. About 45 faculty and graduate students packed into a small classroom on a rainy Cambridge morning. Notably, our colleagues represented research and perspectives from across ‘the South’ from South Asia to Latin America and the Middle East. We began and ended the conversation by reading from some of Mandela’s texts and speeches.

I will not attempt to recapture the conversation, or my colleagues’ many insights, but it centered on an aligning of the stars between struggles for independence and the spread of writings by the German philosopher Karl Marx. Our purpose was not to think about how Marx influenced liberation activists like Mandela. Rather, it was to discuss how activists, including Mandela, took up Marxian writings at particular moments in time towards the making of their own intellectual and political projects. Marx, along with Lenin and Mao Zedong, then, might be seen as ‘technologies’ much like the AK-47 or the box of matches. With a great deal of multiplicity, Marxian writings became ‘technologies’ of self-determination by colonised peoples in all five (sub)continents.

Such writings – whether produced by Marx or Mandela – might be seen not as an abstract set of ideas, or the musty tomes of a previous generation, but as a living, breathing ‘technology’ constituted by its users. In Mandela’s case, Marx’s texts were one tool among many at a time when the boundaries between epistemology and existence blurred into political action. During that period, the apartheid regime considered Marxian writings a banned and dangerous weapon, whose very possession could land you in prison. The uses of Marx as a ‘technology,’ recalling the long shadow cast by the Cold War, moreover, shaped knowledge about ‘the South’ in its own era and those that followed.

In our conversation at Harvard, we read specifically from Mandela’s Rivonia Trial speech, where he stood charged with, among other things, acting in ways to further the objectives of violent revolution and communism. As Ronnie Kasrils recently suggested, Mandela, initially, distanced himself from Marxism, as it seemed a theory from outside of Africa, one with which African nationalism was too often conflated. However, Mandela argued that there “was more to unite them than to divide them”, not least over principles of economic redistribution. In A Long Walk to Freedom, he further elucidates this ambivalent relationship:

“I had little knowledge of Marxism, and in political discussions with my communist friends I found myself handicapped by my ignorance of their philosophy. I decided to remedy this. I acquired the complete works of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and others, and probed the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism. I had little time to study these works properly. While I was stimulated by the Communist Manifesto, I was exhausted by Das Kapital. But I found myself strongly drawn to the idea of a classless society, which, to my mind, was similar to traditional African culture where life was shared and communal…

Dialectical materialism seemed to offer both a searchlight illuminating the dark night of racial oppression and a tool that could be used to end it. It helped me to see the situation other than through the prism of black and white relations, for if our struggle was to succeed, we had to transcend black and white. I was attracted to the scientific underpinnings of dialectical materialism, for I am always inclined to trust what I can verify. Its materialistic analysis of economics rang true to me. The idea that the value of goods was based on the amount of labour that went into them seemed particularly appropriate for South Africa. The ruling class paid African labour a subsistence wage and then added value to the cost of the goods, which they retained for themselves.

Marxism’s call to revolutionary action was music to the ears of a freedom fighter. The idea that history progresses through struggle and that change occurs in revolutionary jumps was similarly appealing. In my reading of Marxist works, I found a great deal of information that bore on the types of problems that face a practical politician. Marxists gave serious attention to national liberation movements, and the Soviet Union in particular supported the national struggles of many colonial peoples. This was another reason why I amended my view of communists and accepted the ANC position of welcoming Marxists into its ranks.

A friend once asked me how I could reconcile my creed of African nationalism with a belief in dialectical materialism. For me, there was no contradiction. I was first and foremost an African nationalist fighting for our emancipation from minority rule and the right to control our own destiny. But, at the same time, South Africa and the African continent were part of the larger world. Our problems, while distinctive and special, were not unique, and a philosophy that placed those problems in an international and historical context of the greater world and the course of history was valuable. I was prepared to use whatever means necessary to speed up the erasure of human prejudice and the end of chauvinistic and violent nationalism. I did not need to become a communist in order to work with them. I found that African nationalists and African communists generally had far more to unite them than to divide them.”

Whatever might be made of Mandela’s engagement with Marxism – and particularly whether its categories aptly fit with current conditions – is up for debate. But this passage from A Long Walk to Freedom, again, suggests how Mandela took up Marxian theory as a ‘technology’ towards the production of something new. The obscuring of Mandela’s engagement with Marxism in the American press is revealing precisely for the mirror it casts upon a similar obscuring of calls for economic redistribution, which can be heard today from Soweto to the South Side of Chicago. At a time of financial crisis and uprising in many parts of the globe, economic inequalities are at the core of hot button public debates in both the US and South Africa, raising urgent questions about inclusion and exclusion in liberal democracies today.

Some fragments of Mandelaism

If the icon / sellout paradigms do not hold up well to Mandela’s own complex intellectual history; neither does it square with how activists then and now variously have claimed this history as their own. Exemplifying how Mandela has been taken up as a ‘technology’ in contemporary South Africa is a recent march in the shack settlement of Cato Crest under the banner: “In the honour of the father of the nation, uTata uNelson Mandela.” The Cato Crest settlement is located about 10km from downtown Durban in the hidden quarters of the city’s leafy middle-class suburbs. On September 30 2013, Nqobile Nzuza, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, was killed during a street protest over housing evictions in the area. She was shot twice in the back with live ammunition. Witnesses say Cato Manor police fired the shots. Nzuza was a member of a leading poor people’s movement in South Africa called Abahlali baseMjondolo (an isiZulu phrase meaning “residents of the shacks”).

Since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, the ruling ANC has endeavoured to demobilise the popular street politics that characterised the late liberation struggle by cultivating participation in formal democratic institutions, such as voting, joining local ward committees or community policing forums. Yet, street protests in poor communities like Cato Crest have been ongoing nationwide since the late 1990s. They have focused on the means of reproducing a viable and secure urban life after apartheid – and, in particular, on housing, work, education and basic services. These protests frequently have been condemned by officials, and met with routine violence by police and private security forces. I have tracked these everyday interactions between residents and state agents since Abahlali grew out of mass protests in 2005. Now a national movement, Abahlali approximates its supporters at 25 000 in 64 settlements. Its members operate within a transnational network of lawyers and landless affiliates.

By word of mouth, WhatsApp and Facebook within this context, Abahlali called a mass meeting to discuss “our own” interpretation of what the passing of Mandela meant to the country and to its members in townships and shack settlements. Their answer was a street-based mobilisation. On December 9, just four days after Mandela’s death, Abahlali held a march not far from Nzuza’s family home in the “Marikana” section of Cato Crest. Residents named it “Marikana” after the massacre of 34 people at the British-owned Lonmin mine in Rustenburg in 2012. It is part of Cato Manor, a community with an iconic history of struggles against forced removals under apartheid. In a press release, Abahlali invoked Mandela’s legal defense of Sofasonke (meaning “we die together”), a shack-dwellers’ movement in Johannesburg whose heyday was during World War II, which “helped to radicalise … the struggle against evictions” in Cato Manor. It noted the arrest of one of its leaders, Bandile Mdalose, and one of its affiliate lawyers, Nomzamo Zokdo from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute. Zokdo was arrested the night Mandela died. The press release began with a quotation from Mandela’s Cosatu Conference speech in 1994. Through a symbolic transmutation of past and present, the movement proposes it is living Mandela’s call to return to the streets:

The struggle we are facing today, we were facing it even when Mandela was still alive. The evictions, beatings, arrests, torture, assassinations, corruption and violation of our rights were taking place when Mandela was still alive …

Nelson Mandela fought for justice, democracy and freedom for all. He did not say that the poor were excluded … We will continue to take Mandela’s struggle forward … The ruling party is fighting for membership and the sustainability of the party rather than addressing the people’s concerns and challenges. Today people do not volunteer for the party because they want to join the struggle for justice, equality and democracy. Today people join the party to invest in the party so that tomorrow it will be their turn to eat our future…

Today, as Mandela has passed on, the ANC is an organisation that has harmed us and that will continue to harm us. But Mandela lived for us and not for the ANC. He clearly said that if the ANC does to us what the apartheid government did to us then we must not fear to do the ANC what we did to the apartheid government. Nobody can deny that in Cato Crest the ANC is doing to us what the apartheid government did to us.

Madiba always made it clear that there is still a long walk to freedom … It is the responsibility of our generation to continue this journey … This is how we will show our respect for Mandela’s struggle … This new phase of the struggle is just beginning.

Whatever is made of Abahlali’s engagements with Mandela, again, is up for debate, within the movement and outside of it. But what the press release suggests is how Mandela might be taken up as a ‘technology’ by ordinary citizens towards new intellectual and political projects. As Abahlali’s statement hints, Mandela as a ‘technology’ – like Marx – does not hold only liberatory possibilities. To the contrary, American politicians on both sides of the aisle have already taken up Mandela in the name of repealing universal healthcare and cutting benefits to the poorest. But the point is that these texts, as ‘technologies’ of governance or political mobilisation, are not an either/or proposition. Ultimately, what the icon / sellout paradigms have in common is a triumphalist story about liberal democracy, told as frequently by its champions as by its detractors.

Many liberal reforms, such as the corporatisation and outsourcing of state functions to a globalised private sector, undoubtedly have been destructive. But others, such as protections of free speech and freedom of movement, are important to sustain. In either case, these reforms should not be presumed to have triumphed, to have been evenly distributed, to have never been resisted or refashioned, or to be completely or forever more sutured to institutions or enmeshed in everyday life. As much more flexible forms of capitalism emerge from China and other economies of ‘the South’, and as activists from across the ‘global South’ continue to protest against growing economic inequalities, it becomes clear that this triumphalist story does not fit with existing liberal democracy. Mandela’s complex and contradictory political thought may still contribute to something entirely new.