The Second Death of Nelson Mandela


Nelson Mandela’s death, at the age of 95, comes as a relief. He should have been allowed the dignity of only dying once. In the past two years, in and out of hospital, he seldom recognised his wife Graça Machel, his former wife Winnie, his children or his old comrades from the ANC.

What is more, since the end of his presidency in 1999, the ‘rainbow nation’ had been dying with him. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, a champion of the ‘African Renaissance’, was an ideologue whose beliefs cost the lives of 300,000 HIV-positive South Africans: he denied them access to antiretroviral drugs.

The current head of state, Jacob Zuma, is most flatteringly referred to as ‘a man of the people’ – Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial curse. He presides over a republic of grifters and grafters.

The recently excluded leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, is not even a remote heir to the Mandela legacy, though Mandela was a ‘young Turk’ of the party in his day: Malema is a hard man doubling as an agent provocateur.

Until his 70th birthday in 1988 and the Wembley solidarity concert, which turned the negative ‘Down with apartheid!’ into the positive ‘Free Mandela!’, the man on Robben Island was regarded by Western governments as a terrorist. In detention he was forgotten in the early 1970s and then eclipsed by Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.

He was resurrected as the figurehead of a mass movement, largely thanks to Winnie Mandela’s combativeness, and became the grand old man of the ANC – a role Walter Sisulu or Govan Mbeki could also have played.

In the end, Mandela was and wasn’t the embodiment of the ANC. He led the country in a peaceful post-apartheid settlement – a political miracle – but behind his back and even before he left the presidential office, party stalwarts and the ‘comrades in business’ had begun to exercise their muscle.

Mandela took the hero’s approach to adversity. In 1963, having been held incommunicado for 90 days during which the police had assured them that they would all be hanged, the leadership of the ANC finally met with their lawyers only to be told they should ‘prepare for the worst’.

In his four-hour closing statement at the Rivonia trial, Mandela pleaded guilty in the name of his ideal of ‘a democratic society with equal opportunities for all’. When he sat down again on the bench, he tried to cheer up his co-defendants: ‘I don’t want to die but if this leads to death, the first thing I’ll do on arrival is to join the local branch of the ANC.’

The remark would have been impossible in his last moments, half a century on.

Stephen W. Smith teaches African studies and cultural anthropology at Duke University. He is a former Africa editor of Libération and of Le Monde. He writes regularly  for London Review of Books, where this essay originally appeared.

November 25, 2015
Jeff Taylor
Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism
Dana E. Abizaid
Provoking Russia
Oliver Tickell
Syria’s Cauldron of Fire: a Downed Russian Jet and the Battle of Two Pipelines
Patrick Cockburn
Trigger Happy: Will Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet Backfire on NATO?
Robert Fisk
The Soothsayers of Eternal War
Russell Mokhiber
The Coming Boycott of Nike
Ted Rall
Like Father Like Son: George W. Bush Was Bad, His Father May Have Been Worse
Matt Peppe
Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad
Martha Rosenberg
Pfizer Too Big (and Slippery) to Fail
Yorgos Mitralias
Bernie Sanders, Mr. Voutsis and the Truth Commission on Greek Public Debt
Jorge Vilches
Too Big for Fed: Have Central Banks Lost Control?
Sam Husseini
Why Trump is Wrong About Waterboarding — It’s Probably Not What You Think
Binoy Kampmark
The Perils of Certainty: Obama and the Assad Regime
Roger Annis
State of Emergency in Crimea
Soud Sharabani
ISIS in Lebanon: An Interview with Andre Vltchek
Thomas Knapp
NATO: This Deal is a Turkey
November 24, 2015
Dave Lindorff
An Invisible US Hand Leading to War? Turkey’s Downing of a Russian Jet was an Act of Madness
Mike Whitney
Turkey Downs Russian Fighter to Draw NATO and US Deeper into Syrian Quagmire
Walter Clemens
Who Created This Monster?
Patrick Graham
Bombing ISIS Will Not Work
Lida Maxwell
Who Gets to Demand Safety?
Eric Draitser
Refugees as Weapons in a Propaganda War
David Rosen
Trump’s Enemies List: a Trial Balloon for More Repression?
Chris Gilbert
“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Einstein’s Article
Eric Mann
Playing Politics While the Planet Sizzles
Charles Davis
NSA Spies on Venezuela’s Oil Company
Michael Barker
Democracy vs. Political Policing
Barry Lando
Shocked by Trump? Churchill Wanted to “Collar Them All”
Cal Winslow
When Workers Fight: the National Union of Healthcare Workers Wins Battle with Kaiser
Norman Pollack
Where Does It End?: Left Political Correctness
David Macaray
Companies Continue to Profit by Playing Dumb
Binoy Kampmark
Animals in Conflict: Diesel, Dobrynya and Sentimental Security
Dave Welsh
Defiant Haiti: “We Won’t Let You Steal These Elections!”
November 23, 2015
Vijay Prashad
The Doctrine of 9/11 Anti-Immigration
John Wight
After Paris: Hypocrisy and Mendacity Writ Large
Joseph G. Ramsey
No Excuses, No Exceptions: the Moral Imperative to Offer Refuge
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS Thrives on the Disunity of Its Enemies
Andrew Moss
The Message of Montgomery: 60 Years Later
Jim Green
James Hansen’s Nuclear Fantasies
Robert Koehler
The Absence of History in the Aftermath of Paris
Dave Lindorff
The US Media and Propaganda
Dave Randle
France and Martial Law
Gilbert Mercier
If We Are at War, Let’s Bring Back the Draft!
Alexey Malashenko
Putin’s Syrian Gambit
Binoy Kampmark
Closing the Door: US Politics and the Refugee Debate