FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Other Mandela

by BINOY KAMPMARK

The cloyingly sweet tributes to the late Nelson Mandela do as much to undermine the man’s legacy as they do to distort the record as to how various statesmen and their regimes responded to him when he was a full fledged activist. Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when Mandela was persona non grata to a set of regimes, regarded as a disposable nuisance at best, a dangerous terrorist at worse.

The disbelief would be understandable given the groupie congratulatory phase the late figure has been subjected to. British Prime Minister David Cameron would claim that, “A great light has gone out in the world.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of how, “Mandela was a stranger to hate. He rejected recrimination in favour of reconciliation and knew the future demands we move beyond the past.” National Security adviser Susan Rice spoke of how, “Even as we mourn, we remember how privileged the world was to witness the transformation he wrought by changing minds and hearts.”

Painfully sweet tributes such as Nelson Mandela: the fight for Freedom were aired on networks, scrubbed of history and filled with floss. Little wonder then, that some Twitter twits genuinely believed that Morgan Freeman, rather than Nelson Mandela, had died.

But there were a few cracks in the mirror of perfection developing as flowery tributes filled the halls of remembrance. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to lower the flag to half-mast in commemoration of the man’s passing. A few historical explanations behind that symbolism are worth recounting.

In October 1990, the Australian Returned Serviceman League’s Bruce Ruxton would chastise Melbourne City Council for granting Mandela the freedom of the city. Mandela belonged to a terrorist organisation that, in Ruxton’s view, “paled” before the Irish Republican Army and Palestine Liberation Organisation. Showing his sense of perspective, Ruxton claimed that he spoke for “80 out of every 100 Australians who wanted to trade and play sport with South Africa” (Canberra Times, Oct 23, 1990). Mandela should best stay away from Australia and remain in South Africa attempting to stop the spate of killings affecting the country. “It’s about time that somebody said something abrasive about Mr. Mandela. He is not a hero, he is the leader of one of the worst terrorist groups.”

Ruxton’s views shed a historical light that has rapidly dimmed even as Mandela was being sanctified. In 1975, the future Australian Prime Minister John Howard, then an opposition backbencher, would rise in parliament to express his indignation that, “as a keen follower of cricket all my life”, he wished to “express his great disappointment” at the cancellation of the impending cricket tour. Apartheid would not be defeated by “hermitically sealing off South Africa”. In April 1986, as opposition leader, Howard would reiterate the policy of the coalition on trade sanctions against South Africa: “We remain of the view it is a short-sighted, negative policy.”

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had to eat her words after a period of condemning Mandela as a terrorist, and the ANC as a terrorist organisation. In July 1990, she would tell her fans in South Africa to put their trust in Mandela, implying that some terrorism did have its benefits. “I think it is absolutely vital, because he is a reasonable person and can see the force of argument.” Thatcher had made it clear she was no fan of anti-apartheid trade sanctions, or the ANC, during her time in office.

It would take Thatcher’s acolyte, the current British Prime Minister David Cameron, to claim that Thatcher was wrong to have been sceptical of Mandela. Yet Cameron was happy to travel to apartheid South Africa in its last days. As anti-apartheid activist and former Cabinet Minister Peter Hain reminds us, “just on the eve of the apartheid downfall [1989], when negotiations were taking place about a transfer of power, here he was being wined and dined on a sanctions-busting visit.” The Tories of Cameron’s vintage used to boast “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges, much of this described by James Hanning in Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative Party (2009).

The greatest hypocrisy of all should be reserved for the United States, whose government supported the apartheid regime in the hope that it would defeat communist movements in Africa. Washington and Pretoria backed the brutal insurgency of Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). It took failures in Mozambique and Angola to drive Pretoria’s white regime to the brink, a corner where transition would have to be considered.

Robert Parry, a veteran student of the Reagan period, even goes so far as to suggest being told that Mandela’s arrest in 1962 may have been prompted by a CIA officer’s tipoff, though agreement within the organisation about its role remains unclear (Consortium News, Dec 6). Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in The American Prospect (Dec 19, 2001), would find among the columns of Commentary, National Review and The Wall Street Journal a line sympathetic with the white government in Pretoria and suspicious of black militancy. Such commentary came in three stages: perceived black inferiority in the 1960s, the problematic necessity of apartheid in the 1970s, and the dangers of communism in the 1980s.

While U.S. President Ronald Reagan expressed dislike for apartheid, he disliked the ANC even more. On July 22, 1986, he vetoed a bill that would have imposed economic sanctions on Pretoria. He reserved his harshest criticism for those “Soviet-armed guerrillas of the African National Congress” accusing it of having “embarked on new acts of terrorism within South Africa.” Instead, Reagan urged further involvement with the apartheid regime, seeing the “Western business community as agents of change and progress and growth.” Congress was not of the same view, and enacted the sanctions bill by 78-21.

George Orwell warns against the embrace of any cult of saints. To be a saint, you probably had to have been a rather serious sinner. Revolutionary figures, as Mandela was, embraced their share of diplomatic means and revolutionary violence. He was a serious combatant to the White regime of South Africa. Its officials knew that. Many outside South Africa knew that, and anti-communist regimes were particularly troubled.

The fable makers prefer another Mandela, the historical figure one extracts from books as a precedent; the convenient prop for any historical cause one is defending; a gentle, smiling creature who found peaceful solutions, wished no harm and inflicted none. It is that Mandela that will prove to be the least attractive of all, the revolutionary deprived of his revolutionary dress.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
April 29-31, 2016
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail