So he’s gone. I learnt the news from an Arabic station on my crackly transistor radio in a cheap hotel bedroom in Tangier on Friday morning. I don’t speak Arabic, but hearing his name repeated so many times, I put two and two together, and realized that the President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, had finally popped his clogs at the age of 94.
I didn’t feel much in the way of sadness. As far as I can see Mandela sold out to the white capitalists and simply continued where the apartheid government left off, increasing the poverty and oppression of the majority of black people, who, now free only to vote and not carry ID cards, remain landless, underfed, houseless and under- employed, with an abysmal state of healthcare and education. What happened to that promise to his ANC supporters, enshrined in The Freedom Charter that:
“The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil; the banks and monopoly industries shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industries and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people”?
Well, it’s too late for Mandela to apologize now, and I suppose we can use him as a good example of the proverb: “All Power Corrupts”, but there was a time when I was a great fan back in the early eighties when he was still in prison, and I raised my voice with those demanding his release and for the overthrow of the obscene apartheid regime in South Africa.
I was working as a cleaner, squatting in Brixton in South London at the time, an area with a large black population. In my early thirties, only recently politically awake as an Anarchist, I joined protests, rallies, and demonstrations for causes which I believed in. One was the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s highly-visible picket outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square on Friday evenings, where picketers carrying placards and banners leafleted and petitioned passers-by, made impromptu speeches on a megaphone or sang South African freedom songs. I used to cycle into town, have a can of beer in Trafalgar Square (alcohol was forbidden on the picket line) and then go and join the group of about 50 or so people behind the police cordon in front of the embassy for a couple of hours, learning and joining in the chants at the top of my voice:
“ISOLATE APARTHEID! SANCTIONS NOW!”
“FREE NELSON MANDELA!”
“AMANDLA! NGAWETHU!” (“POWER TO THE PEOPLE!”)
There was a great sense of togetherness and hope amongst the protestors, even though the idea of the release of Mandela and the end of apartheid seemed like an impossible dream at the time. Police would allow protestors to come forward to put flowers in the iron grating on the embassy doors at the end of the picket. One evening I brought a single sunflower from my garden and added it to the other tributary blossoms, but as I sank another beer in the square after the picketers had dispersed, I watched the duty officers laughingly collect the flowers in bouquets and drive off with them in their van, probably to decorate their police station! I vowed next time to bring nettles not flowers.
Sometimes protestors would be arrested for obstruction and arrested. Other picketers would learn the address of the police station to which the arrestee was taken and march off in a group to picket outside until his/her release. One evening when this happened I decided to go on a graffiti crawl instead of joining the others. I went around nearby Leicester Square with a felt-tip pen scrawling “Abolish Apartheid!” on posters and walls, and ended up in front of Saint Martin’s in the Field, the church next to the South African Embassy, where a notice advertising times of services, with a lot of extra white space caught my eye. I climbed up on the railing and wrote “THIS CHURCH SAYS NO TO APARTHEID!” When I stepped down I found myself between two policemen who asked on what grounds I had written the message.
“The vicar said I could,” I lied. The officers escorted me to the nearby vicarage, where, through verbal communication on the door tannoy, they ascertained that the vicar had certainly NOT given me permission to write on the church notice. I was taken to a local police station and held for a couple of hours in a cell before being released following the vicar’s decision not to press vandalism charges. I went to visit the vicar the next day and was allowed into his office when I explained who I was. He was annoyed at what I had done, he said, no matter how well-intentioned. I told him that he should write the message himself if he was a true devotee of Christ, and all so-called Christians should speak out against the apartheid system. I was shown out.
One day I decided to bomb South Africa House. After chaining my bike in a safe place I approached Trafalgar Square with a pounding heart. Luckily at that moment there were no police in front of the embassy. I reached into my bag and took out my missiles. They were in an egg box. In fact they were eggs. I had emptied the shells of their original content in my kitchen sink at home and filled them with red paint, taping the holes on the top. I took them out one by one, all six, and flung them with all my might at the high white walls of the building, watching them smash and the scarlet trickle down like blood, before scarpering off pretty sharpish.
“Talk about being caught red-handed!” I chuckled to myself as I wiped off the paint from my palms with spirit cleaner, very glad that I hadn’t.
Talking of palms, and the case of pressing them, in April 1986 the anti-apartheid picket outside South Africa House became a Non-Stop one, so there always protestors there. I attended whenever I could. One sunny afternoon a black limousine drove up and stopped at the curbside. Out stepped Senator Reverend Jesse Jackson and a troop of his cohorts with handshakes and congratulations for all the astonished picketers before stepping back into the car and rolling off in the traffic!
I did some research into British companies with shares in South Africa (a lot) and made a big sandwich board advertising the names, which I wore at the picket and outside supermarkets, urging people to boycott the products.
One evening while on the way with a fellow squatter to a meeting at Brixton Town Hall we passed a large street poster advertising tea. Recognizing the company as a heavy investor in South Africa I paused to scrawl “THIS COMPANY SUPPORTS APARTHEID” in big letters. No sooner had I finished than a police car pulled up to the curb and arrested me and my friend Richard. We were driven to the local cop shop and held for several hours in separate cells before being released and ordered to appear in court the next morning. Ironically, the meeting we had been going to attend at the Town Hall was about over-heavy police presence in Brixton.
On trial before a trio of magistrates, the case was quickly dropped after my outraged response to the ludicrous claim by the arresting officer that I had written “SUPPORT APARTHEID” on the poster. I left the courtroom with my fist raised and a defiant “FREE NELSON MANDELA!” to the disgruntled justices.
I left the country soon after that to live and work in Istanbul. Twenty seven years have passed since then, and yet during that time the impossible dream came true. Not only was Nelson Mandela freed from prison, but he went on to become the President of the country. How wow is that?
And yet, as we watch the elite of the political world arrive to pay homage to the man at his funeral, as well as recognizing his importance as a symbol of resistance during his long imprisonment we should also question his legacy as post-apartheid South Africa’s first President. Mandela’s and the ANC’s sworn promise to the “poorest of the poor” to eradicate poverty is far from fulfilled. Nationalization of the mines and heights of the economy as envisaged by the Freedom charter was abandoned. A wealth tax on the super-rich to fund developmental projects was set aside, and domestic and international corporations, enriched by apartheid, were excused from any financial reparations. Full equality – social and economic – does not exist, and control of the country’s wealth remains in the hands of a few.
In the words of Patrick C., one of the non-stop picketers of South Africa House from the late eighties:
“I already had my doubts about Mandela, sadly confirmed when he became President in 1994 and helped to turn South Africa into one of the most ideologically neoliberal countries in the world, so impoverishing and dispossessing the South African working class even more than under apartheid. … He was a political prisoner on Robben Island for over 25 years, surviving concentration camp-like conditions, he was a great symbolic, charismatic leader of a dispossessed people. All this only makes the ANC’s betrayal after 1994 and Mandela’s turning a blind eye even more shameful.”
Rest in Peace, Nelson Mandela, but let us not over-rate and over praise him as though he were some sort of Messiah. It wasn’t he who abolished apartheid. The system was overthrown by its rulers because it was no longer sustainable to run it. Instead of brainwashing children to focus on hero figures let them be taught to be independent and critical thinkers, and to learn that it never wise to put individuals in positions of supreme power. That way corruption lies.
Let the words of the ANC chant not be an unfulfilled dream.
“POWER TO THE PEOPLE!”
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website: http://yabanji.tripod.com/