In memory of Nelson Mandela, we present the following selections from Dissent essays on South African politics over the last thirty years.
The massive resistance to apartheid in South Africa shows few, if any, signs of abating. From the state of emergency declaration of July 20, 1985 (exempting all security forces from legal responsibility for acts of brutality) until mid-October approximately 250 people were killed, 1,500 injured, and 3,800 arrested (with over 2,000 still in detention). The government has not been able, despite heavy repressive measures, to quell the unrest. There may, perhaps, come a lull, but it will be followed by still larger waves of protest. . . .
Though the South African government prevents us from knowing Nelson Mandela’s current outlook, the politics of his famous treason trial speech of April 20, 1964 can be best described as expressing a non-Marxian, libertarian African socialism. This may sound eclectic, but Mandela makes clear that his political convictions draw on various intellectual and moral traditions. “Some form of socialism must enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of this world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty. But this does not mean we are Marxists.” As a “parliament of all African people” and not a political party, the ANC should be open to all persons, including Communists, who are “united by the common goal of national liberation.” But Mandela makes clear that while the CP’s short-term goals coincide with those of the ANC, the long-term goals are very different. Just as Communists supported liberation movements in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Algeria without those postindependence regimes becoming Communist, says Mandela, the same is likely to happen in South Africa.
If those parts of the African population that were progressively integrated into the capitalist economy had been incorporated into the political community in the ways working classes were elsewhere, a fully national state might have been created in South Africa. They were not. A division of citizenship and sovereignty marked by race and serving to justify coercive labor practices and white supremacist racism was created instead. Yet the dreams of political and social segregationists have always foundered on the rocks of economic integration. The resulting state that has been formed over the last century or so in the south of Africa is part imperial and part national. And the experiences of those subject to its various aspects are fundamentally different. The vast majority of Africans in the region have experienced central state power as an alien imposition. The imperial state has excluded and brutalized its subject African populations, fostering a sense of alienation and a desire to destroy its structures. . . .
Thee contradictions of coercion in a reconstituted South Africa . . . will be twofold. First, creation of an inclusive political community within a unified democratic state will require repression of those who would foster exclusivist nationalisms, but such repression only furthers the cause of nationalism. Second, protection of the fiscal base of the state, the capitalist economy, will require repressing many of the claims of those who are currently excluded from the formal economy. Some ameliorative measures are likely to be put in place, but no large-scale and fundamental redistribution can occur without the agreement of big capital. That is not likely to be forthcoming. But repression of such demands can foster the emergence of destabilizing revolutionary movements.
Some political commentators excoriate the ANC for having sold out on the revolution in South Africa. To me these critics seem to miss the fact that there never was a revolution. There was instead a negotiated settlement, designed in no small part to head off the possibility of revolution. The political pact that led to the transition seems underwritten by an implicit social contract between the new political elite and those with economic power: the still overwhelmingly white landed and business elites. The government avoids putting large scale expropriation or increases in taxation on the table, it does not interfere with the self protection of gated communities, and it largely toes the line so far as neoliberal economic reform is concerned. The quid for the quo is that the economic elites do not defect. Indeed, they may actually be supporting the ANC government more than most people realize. . . .
More apposite than proclamations that the ANC has sold out on the revolution was the prediction of one friend after the 1994 election that now Mandela would find out what it’s like to be a black city mayor in the United States. It is easy to be taken aback by the extent to which this is true. In interviews with several ministers and deputy ministers in May of 1998, I was struck by how much they have embraced the same mantra as New Democrats in the United States and New Labour in Britain. Phrases like “individual responsibility” and “budget constraints” fell effortlessly from their lips as they told of the limits within which they operate, insisted on the importance of reinventing and downsizing government, and of privatizing as much as possible, even public works. . . . If those who benefit from the neoliberal juggernaut can get their way in countries that have had institutionalized social democratic politics for decades, why would they not get it here?
On August 16 of last year, South African police shot dead thirty-four mineworkers at the Lonmin Platinum mine in Marikana. People in South Africa are referring to this as the “Marikana moment,” a turning point where the realities of South African politics are revealed in a violent instant. During the days of apartheid at least three such moments were etched into popular memory. . . .
Marikana is different from these moments because the police firing shots here represented a democratically elected government of the African National Congress. . . .
In the 1980s, apartheid fell largely because the trade union movement and the social movements in working-class communities and rural areas made the apartheid state unmanageable and made the economy unsustainable. These movements also forged a collective vision that another world was possible and put it into practice in the democratic structures of their own organizations. The forces of globalization, which were new and exciting to South African big capital at that moment, helped undermine those organizations, opening the door to compromise and diminishing the possibilities for the future of South Africa.
I had the good fortune of being in the presence of the then-President of the Republic of South Africa for a few minutes one day in July of 2006. It was the week before exams at the University of the Witwatersrand where I was teaching, a cool and crisp highveld winter day. The campus was quiet as students prepared for exams. As I approached the library I noticed a small group of students milling about outside. This group of a dozen or so was more students than I had seen together on campus for a couple of days, so I enquired. One student in the group told me that they were waiting for the President to arrive. Since there had been no announcement of such a visit, I was surprised and decided to wait and see.
After a short while Nelson Mandela, accompanied only by two sunglass-attired body guards, walked up. There were no media to be seen. He briefly exhorted the students to study hard for their exams as the new South Africa was counting on their contribution. At the end we spontaneously formed a line, walked past him, and shook his hand. Within ten minutes it was over. He left as quietly as he arrived.
I was impressed by the complete lack of pretense and the decision not to use the meeting as a publicity event. The only conceivable reason for him to do it was because he judged it important.