Mandela and the African Liberation Struggle


On Thursday December 5, 2013 the people of South Africa lost one of the foremost freedom fighters and revolutionary who made his mark on humans everywhere. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in South Africa in 1918 and matured as Africans in South Africa rose to the challenges posed by the most brutal social and economic system of that moment, the system called apartheid.  Mandela has now joined the ancestors and he has left his mark beside those great humans (such as Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Umm Kulthum, Che Guevara and Rosa Luxemburg) whose greatness emerged from the movements that created them. The forms of struggle that emerged from South Africa inspired the refinement of the philosophy of Ubuntu. This is a philosophy that says one’s humanity is being enriched by another’s and that as humans we are linked to a wider universe and spiritual world. Mandela had said clearly of Ubuntu, “The spirit of Ubuntu – that profound Africa sense that we are human beings only through the humanity of other human beings – is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.”

The philosophy of Ubuntu challenged the ideals of individualism, greed, unhealthy competition, obscene self-enrichment and those destructive forms of human association that have brought the planet to the brink of extinction. When the movement elevated Nelson Mandela to the position as President of a politically free South Africa in 1994, after 27 years of incarceration, the political leadership of South Africa sought to give practical meaning to the philosophy of Ubuntu by establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In all parts of the world, the international media remember Mandela and his contributions to peace and reconciliation but the same corporate media seeks to confuse the youth by marketing  Mandela as an unusual individual who performed the ‘miracle’ of ending apartheid. In the process of the wall to wall media coverage of the celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, it is important that the voice of Africa is clear on the meaning of Mandela. Mandela was against racism and the dehumanizing social system that created hierarchies.

As peace activists it is vital that we remember Mandela as a defender of peace and social justice and the fact that he was an extraordinary human being. What is important to remember is a product of a social movement; the extraordinary circumstances of the oppression of apartheid created this Mandela. Mandela joined a social movement, the anti-apartheid movement and for a moment in history, he became the symbol of the struggle against war and apartheid. His freedom came from the sacrifices of millions, especially the youth of Soweto and the workers from the Mass Democratic Movement who laid down a marker for the new tactics of revolution. While he was the President of South Africa, Mandela worked for peace in Burundi and Central Africa and worked hard to end the western manipulation of who can be branded as a terrorist.

Those who branded Mandela as a terrorist are seeking to program the minds of the youth to see Mandela as some sort of visionary leader “dropped from heaven” without links to real struggles for peace. Mandela was very clear that his life was linked to the collective struggles of humans everywhere, and when he was released in February 1990 he said, “Amandla, Amandla … I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.”

This media coverage of Nelson Mandela challenges contemporary freedom fighters to contemplate new tactics, new tools of struggles and new networks for peace in order to complete the tasks of ending global apartheid. The African National Congress in government had been trapped by its inheritance of the social capital of the apartheid state. New forms of organization and new ideas will be needed as humans gird themselves to fight against the nefarious forms of racism, exclusion and oppression that have been refined by global capital as unbridled capitalism seeks to turn our youths into mindless consumers. It is up to the youth to gird themselves for the new phase of internationalism and peace activism so that we can create the conditions for the inspiration presented by the life of Nelson Mandela to be grasped in all corners of the globe. Mandela lived a full life and we want to add to the tributes as we celebrate his life of struggle.

The society that created Nelson Mandela

As soon as it became clear that the most obscene forms of white supremacy could not survive after the massive resistance of peoples in all parts of the globe, international news programmers began to present Nelson Mandela who, as a visionary leader, single handedly ended apartheid. Books, films, documentaries, blogs and other mainstream media seek to present the changes in South Africa without reference to the reality that Nelson Mandela always represented a liberation movement. Inevitably, as the movement mobilized around the release of Nelson Mandela when he had been incarcerated for 27 years, Mandela became a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle. As the struggle matured in the final phase after his release from jail on February 11, 1990 the myth making was developed as part of an election campaign. It is this mythmaking that ensured the positive and the negative in the representation of Nelson Mandela to a generation that was not yet born when the liberation struggles were at the peak.

When Mandela was born in the village of Qunu, in the province that was called Cape Province, the Union of South Africa had been formed eight years earlier. The Union government had celebrated the crushing of the Bambata rebellions and in the face of the failure of open military rebellions by regional military forces, the African National Congress had been formed in 1912. Mandela grew up in South Africa in the turbulent period of the 1930’s capitalist depression. It was in the midst of this depression when the capitalists of South Africa refined the repression of black mine workers and inculcated in white workers the idea that they (whites) were not workers but from a superior race. With the villages of South Africa and the wider region of Southern Africa providing cheap labour for the mines, mining capital reaped super profits at a moment when the instability in the international monetary system required a steady supply of gold from South Africa.

The royal families of the pre –Union society could not escape the effects of the deformities of segregation and dehumanization. Missionaries were deployed to teach sons of chiefs and it was from one of the missionaries that Mandela received the name Nelson because the missionaries had difficulties saying Rolihlahla. After this missionary education Mandela was sent to Fort Hare University and it was in this University where the other famous anti-apartheid and anti-colonial stalwarts were groomed. Z. K. Matthews, Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, Joshua Nkomo, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Desmond Tutu and Robert Mugabe were some of the notable students in the forties at this University. As an activist he was expelled from Fort Hare and he went on to study Law at the University of Witwatersrand.

Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942 and in 1944, along with Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, and Oliver Tambo, they formed the Youth wing of the ANC. This youth wing joined the hundreds of anti-colonial movements all over the world and when the repressive legal structures of apartheid were formalised to support the social divisions, the peoples responded with a Freedom Charter. The Sharpeville massacres of March 21, 1960 foreclosed all possibilities of a peaceful non –violent opposition to apartheid and in 1962 Mandela was dispatched to the independent states of Africa to gain support for the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK, translated as “Spear of the Nation). Mandela was one of the co-founders of MK and he received training in many African countries before he returned to South Africa. Mandela participated in the debates about unity and struggle that were at that time raging in the Pan African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA).

Self Organization of the Youth of Soweto

South West Johannesburg (Soweto) was one of those dormitory towns that were a reservoir of cheap labour for the rich and middle class whites in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Mandela was arrested in 1962 for planning “sabotage” of the government and was branded a terrorist by the South African state.  The US military and intelligence agencies worked hand in glove with the apartheid military to crush opposition from the African majority.  From 1973 the workers of Durban had given notice that there would be new organizational forms to oppose apartheid and the youth of Soweto followed with the massive uprisings of 1976. These rebellions are central to the kind of politics that developed in the period when Mandela was incarcerated after the Rivonia trials in 1964.

The sacrifices of the youth and their determination had created new alliances and these alliances matured in the Mass Democratic Movement and the United Democratic Front (UDF). While Nelson Mandela as a lawyer had been groomed to focus on the legal questions of the apartheid laws, the social questions of health, education, housing, police brutality placed the fight against apartheid on a new terrain as the ANC worked to remain alive in the heat of the conservative push of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  The formation of the UDF had provided for an alternative source of political power at the grassroots and strengthened the capacity of the resistance to transform their conception of the long term struggles to create an alternative to the social system.

Forward planers for the investors in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange were sufficiently alarmed when the rebellions of the youth rendered South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable. After the killing of Steve Biko, the planners sought out the brightest from among these rebellious youth to send them to be trained as future leaders in North American and European Universities. Those educated in the schools of the West became the experts after return to South Africa to be at the forefront of the negotiations for the form of society to be built after apartheid. Free Mandela Committees were an integral of the global antiapartheid struggles. In response to these local, regional and international alliances to end apartheid the South African Defence forces (SADF) spread death and destruction in the townships and across the region of Southern Africa. The terrorism of apartheid along with the killing of more than 2 million in the neighboring states did not break the will of the people. If anything, international solidarity intensified with the support of the Cubans assisting the Angolans to fight the apartheid army at Cuito Cuanavale.

The importance of Cuito Cuanavale

One of the many tasks of western propaganda organs has been to downplay the sacrifices of the peoples of the region of Southern Africa for the independence of Namibia 1990, the release of Nelson Mandela, and the negotiations to end apartheid. The epic battles at Cuito Cuanavale between October 1987 and June 1988 changed the history of Africa. The SADF had invaded Angola with the plan to impose Jonas Savimbi in Luanda and to defeat the freedom fighters from Namibia of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). The apartheid army became bogged down at the crossroads of two rivers in Southern Angola. In order to intimidate the peoples of Africa the SADF had manufactured tactical nuclear weapons with the assistance of the Israeli state. When the South African army became bogged down the President of South Africa, P.W.Botha flew to the frontlines of the battles in Angola to broker a debate between the generals on whether South Africa should deploy and use its nuclear capabilities.

The international isolation of the white racist regime meant that there was no sympathy for this option, even from the conservative Reagan Administration. The racist army had to fight against a confident Angolan military with Cuban reinforcements. After nine months fighting the SADF was roundly defeated with the remnants of the SADF retreating on foot to Northern Namibia. In order to rescue the SADF so that the military would not be routed as the French army was routed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in stepped the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker to broker the decent withdrawal of the SADF from Namibia.  This battle was episodic and Fidel Castro rightly asserted that the History of Africa will be written as that of before Cuito Cuanavale and after Cuito Cuanavale.

Nelson Mandela and the South African struggles after Cuito Cuanavale

Nelson Mandela’s walk of Freedom out of incarceration in 1990 had represented a major step in the peoples of the world   for a new system after apartheid. However, those who owned the banks, the mines, the insurance companies and the land were planning for a post-apartheid society where the capital remained in the hands of the white minority along with new black allies. International capital had grasped the full implications of black partners in societies such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cameroons, Algeria and Nigeria. Hence even while the negotiations were on going for the New Society in The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA,) the more far sighted elements such as the Oppenheimer family of Anglo-American Corporation worked to support those within the movement that believed that the end of Apartheid was for the development of a class of black entrepreneurs under Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). The nature of the inequalities in South Africa today demonstrates the success of the plan to create black allies. Cyril Ramaphosa is the poster child of a militant trade union leader of the anti-apartheid era who became a mining magnate after apartheid, exploiting the very workers he had vowed to defend.  The image of Cyril Ramaphosa who had escorted Nelson Mandela out of Prison in 1990 operating and multibillionaires was one sign of the class formation in South Africa.  In 2012, the political leaders of the ANC oversaw a government that shot 34 Marikana workers who were striking for better conditions at the Platinum Mines in South Africa. It was a proper clarification of the politics of transformation when Ramaphosa, a multibillionaire, emerged as the spokesperson for the owners of the Platinum Mines in rejecting the demands of the workers for better working conditions and better wages. The ANC and its tripartite alliance of the Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) had fashioned a theoretical basis for the enrichment of a few by arguing that before South Africa could enter the phase of transformation beyond capitalism there had to be the development of the productive forces. Nelson Mandela was caught in 1994 in the midst of the alliance and within five years sought to extricate himself by stepping down as President of South Africa in 1999 after one term.

Ubuntu in practice, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

One of the sterling contributions of the South African struggle was to be able to clarify the differences between restorative justice and retributive justice, based on Ubuntu. In fact, Mandela not only embraced Ubuntu, under his political leadership, there was an attempt to bring the ideas of Ubuntu from its philosophical level to the level of practical politics in ways that helped avert bloodbath to form a better society, however imperfect. And this was in part done through the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the three years after the release of Mandela, the international media was predicting a bloodbath in South Africa if Blacks were to emerge victorious from the first democratic elections in 1994. Those with strategic control over the means of violence sought to make this bloodbath a reality right up to the moment when Mandela was inaugurated in May 1994 as the first Black President of a Democratic South Africa. One year after Mandela became President, the Parliament of South Africa established the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995. This became the legal framework for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Mandela threw his international weight behind the process of Reconciliation. While the TRC was holding sessions under the Chairperson Desmond Tutu, Mandela made a number of public gestures to demonstrate the fact that he supported full reconciliation between the oppressed blacks and the oppressors. Of the two most public of these gestures were the visit to have tea with Mrs Betsie Verwoerd at Oriana in 1995 and donning the jersey of the segregated South African rugby team in the World Cup in South Africa.

Mrs Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of the most brutal apartheid structures had retreated to the town of Orania in the Cape seeking to establish an all-white town because the whites could not live under a black political leadership. The extreme Afrikaners around Mrs Verwoerd had chosen the small community to set up a laager and the whites in the town did not want any black around, not even black servants. These whites did not recognize Mandela as the legitimate President of a Free South Africa. Mandela took the bold step of travelling to this all white town of Orania to demonstrate to Mrs Verwoerd that the new South Africa was based on forgiveness and willingness to share, core principles of Ubuntu. This gesture was relayed all over the world by the local and international media as Mandela sat down to have tea with the people who were responsible for arresting and incarcerating him. Two months earlier Mandela had orchestrated another public act by going to the Rugby World Cup Match and putting on the jersey of the South African team. Sporting activities had been one of the strongest bases for segregation in the society and in all areas of sporting activity Mandela inspired South Africa to rise above the structural violence that had become part and parcel of South Africa.

At the legal level, South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, and it draws on Ubuntu to enshrine equal constitutional rights for all – black, white, colored, women, youths, elderly people and same-gender-loving persons.

This effort at Reconciliation at the legal level and at the public level went side by side as the TRC started hearings in Cape Town in 1996. The mandate of the commission had been to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as reparation and rehabilitation. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

A new politics was being developed in the context of seeking restorative justice beyond the Nuremberg Model of winners’ court. The Healing power of the process was manifest in the rituals that emanated from victims and oppressors, creating a space that could be the basis of holding the society together. This ritual of the TRC with the spiritual underpinnings of forgiveness and healing was a powerful antidote to the three hundred years of white racist oppression. Malidoma Some had written a book on the Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community.  It was in the TRC where one saw some of the ideas being worked out. During the Hearings of the TRC there were public hearings as the narratives of perpetrators and victims moved in  a constant motion across time (from present to past and present to future) and space (spiritual, social, physical, emotional) in a movement that may be called recursive.

Here was a profound moment in the history of South Africa as the African people offered a crucible for healing the society. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu will go down in history as individuals who opened up the possibilities for another form of society. This healing process offered by the TRC, despite its imperfections, placed Ubuntu on the philosophical map breaking the ideation baggage of individualism, greed, competition and revenge.

If the Black people and the oppressed majority were willing to turn a corner, international capital was not. Plans for the Reconstruction and transformation of South Africa were shelved in the face of the timidity of the political leadership in calling for the cancellation of the apartheid incurred debt. The repercussions of managing the neo-liberal programe of international capital cut off the top leadership of the ANC from the rank and file. Questions of the social reconstruction after apartheid had to be shelved until new emancipatory formations arise in South Africa. International capita took the lessons of South Africa to heart and sought to promote a neo-liberal agenda where a small minority collaborated with international capital in the new template for the exploitation of the majority. This form of class rule came to be understood as the globalization of apartheid without its racial baggage.

Mandela and Ubuntu overseas

Mandela was opposed to the Western designation of states as sponsoring terrorism and openly supported Fidel Castro of Cuba, Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) the Saharwi Arab Democratic Republic and the political leadership in Libya. As one who had been placed on the US list of international terrorist, Mandela in 1992 had made a clear statement about the standoff between Libya and the West over the downing of the 1998 Pan American Airways flight 103. This plane had exploded over Lockerbie Scotland and the West accused two Libyans of planting the bomb. This is despite the fact that at the precise moment of the bomb, western media had blamed Iran for planting the bomb.

In 1998 Mandela travelled to Libya three times within one week to mediate between the British government and the Libyan authorities. After travelling back and forth between the western leaders and Muammar Gaddafi the head of the Libyan state, Mandela struck a deal where Gaddafi handed over the two suspects in return for the lifting of international sanctions against Libya. Gaddafi accepted the offer of Nelson Mandela and offered to pay US $2.7 billion , approximately $10 million for each of the victim’s families. Gaddafi went further to open up his economy to western oil companies and in 2004 dumped his plans for the acquisition of Chemical and Biological weapons. Despite this opening and the intense investments of the West, International capital was not satisfied and in 2011 orchestrated the invasion, bombing and destruction of Libya under the banner of Responsibility to Protect. Gaddafi was executed and humiliated as the West sought to roll back all ideas of African Unification and Liberation.

Mandela as a Peace maker

After Nelson Mandela was rid of the responsibility of managing the structures of the apartheid economy, he became even more outspoken against inequalities. He was assertive on the question of the need for health for all and the provision of retroviral medicine for those affected by HIV AIDS even while other leaders of the ANC were equivocal over the response of the government of South Africa to this pandemic. Outside of South Africa Mandela shamed the leaders of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) who had stood by while the fastest genocide unfolded in Rwanda in 1994. After the passing of Julius Nyerere in 1999, Nelson Mandela engaged the peace process in Burundi and threw his considerable international stature behind a tough process of negotiations to end the decades of warfare in Burundi.

Mandela was opposed to the deployment of US military personnel in Africa and he spoke out firmly against the Africa Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), the forerunner to the current Africa Command. When George W. Bush started his buildup for the war against the peoples of Iraq Mandela offered himself up as a peace maker to be a human shield against US bombs. In an interview with Newsweek Magazine in 2002 prior to the invasion, Mandela called the USA a threat to the peace of the world.

“If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace. Because what [America] is saying is that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries. That is the message they are sending to the world. That must be condemned in the strongest terms.” As a peace activist, Mandela took issues personal with George Bush over the decision to invade Iraq. Addressing the International Women’s Forum in Johannesburg in 2003, a visibly furious Mandela stated unequivocally: “What I am condemning is that one power, with a president [George Bush] who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust. … If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.”

The legacies of Nelson Mandela

The differing legacies of the political leadership of Nelson Mandela were on full display at the massive memorial event held in Soweto on December 10, 2013. There the mass of people expressed themselves in the admiration and warmth of Nelson Mandela and at the same time expressing their opposition to the corruption of the top leadership of the ANC. The people booed the current leader of the ANC,  Jacob Zuma, every time his face appeared on the giant TV screens in the stadium. Mandela had always remarked that he was a disciplined member of the ANC and his membership of the organization pointed to the differences between the promises of the anti-apartheid struggles and the realities of the enrichment of a new class of African exploiters. It was appropriate that this celebration of the life of Mandela marked a new stage for the corrupt leadership of the ANC.

In the period of the anti-apartheid struggles, funeral ceremonies were occasions for mass mobilization and education The entire proceedings played out before over 90 heads of states and governments reflected the new relationship between the ANC and the mass of the poor.  Despite the fact that this occasion represented a huge logistical challenge, one could negatively compare the planning of the leadership on this occasion with the World Cup in 2010. Hence, for one of the most important public events in the history of South Arica, for most of the time the stadium was half empty.  The ANC did not provide transportation to the stadium as promised. The poor travelled from near and far by train only to find that there were no buses to take them up to the stadium. Even those who braved the downpour  of rain to  make it to the stadium was not allowed to celebrate the way South Africans are used to celebrate at such events. Instead they were expected to sit and listen like little children. At such events people would sing and dance. In fact, before each speaker someone would raise a song and people would follow and sing until the speaker was ready to speak. Even Zuma would start a song and dance before he spoke.  Jacob Zuma, the leadership and Cyril Ramaphosa wanted the people to forget the kind of mass mobilization that was engineered to end apartheid. They are afraid that this mass mobilization will sweep the billionaires from power.

The political leadership of Nelson Mandela in the anti-apartheid struggle had both focused attention on him as an individual and released the energies of various groups whose task was to clarify the details of the real meaning of transformation beyond apartheid.  In this and in many other ways, Nelson Mandela symbolized the dialectic of resistance and transformation. His own life has mirrored the way in which a social movement shaped individuals. Hence, the youth who are hearing the tributes to Mandela are faced with the contradiction between focusing on great leaders and the kind of media coverage that is geared towards the depoliticizaion of the youth.  Richard Falk summed up very lucidly the place of Mandela for humans everywhere when he wrote,

“It was above all Mandela’s spiritual presence that created such a strong impression of moral radiance on the part of all of us fortunate enough to be in the room. I was reinforced in my guiding belief that political greatness presupposes a spiritual orientation toward the meaning of life, not necessarily expressed by way of a formal religious commitment, but always implies living with an unconditional dedication to values and faith that transcend the practical, the immediate, and the material.”

In his earthly life, Mandela could not escape this tension between the spiritual and the material.  The spiritual energies of the peoples had been unleashed to fashion a non-racial democracy. Liberal conception of democracy could not understand this attempt to transcend the ideas of the Western Enlightenment, which itself built on human hierarchies that carved a supreme space for the enlightened white man. Nelson Mandela had been reared in these ideas at Fort Hare and as a lawyer but the struggles elevated him to be special human beings among revolutionaries. The world salutes Nelson Mandela and we join with those who are sending tributes to his family.

We will also add that the people should not mourn but organize for the next round of struggle.

Horace G. Campbell, a veteran Pan Africanist is a Visiting Professor in the School of International Relations, Tsinghua University, Beijing.  He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013. 




Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science, Syracuse University. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013.  Notes.