In defence of Nelson Mandela’s radicalism

United Auto Workers poster welcoming Nelson Mandela to Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, plant in 1990. (Courtesy: Digital Innovation South Africa.)

Since Nelson Mandela’s passing two days ago, the front pages of newspapers around the world have acclaimed Mandela as a human rights giant, a saint, and even as a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. That being said, very few of the international mainstream media outlets have done Mandela’s radical politics justice.

What I am interested in shedding light on, that has been underrepresented in mainstream media, is the extent to which Mandela sought to fight discrimination. Beyond race discrimination, Mandela strived to eliminate class.

The radicalism of Mandela can be shown through his usage of a diversity of tactics – training for young militants, violent actions and sabotage when needed, but also the organization of peaceful protests, strikes and boycotts. Due to the wide range of tactics Mandela employed, it is difficult to place him on the political spectrum.

Mandela gave a statement in his own defense at the trial of Pretoria on April 20, 1964, in which he said, “I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot. Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure of early African societies. The land belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.” Ultimately, on June 11 of that year, he was found guilty of four charges of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

mandela communist flag

Mandela saw the struggle for the liberation of his people as a class struggle. In these few upcoming weeks, politicians and writers around the world will be framing his struggle in a different light, in a way that will attempt to omit the essential fight that Mandela fought that is class warfare.

In many ways Mandela differed from the linear dogma that was the Marxist approach. Mandela didn’t believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat but that armed revolution was unfortunately, considering the circumstances of the time, the only option.

After the Sharpeville massacre, Mandela understood that peaceful resistance in the South African context would set precedence for immobility. He went on to co-found Umkhonto we Sizwe  (Spear of the Nation), which was the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) until 1990.

Armed revolution was a recurrent tactic used by national liberation movements throughout Africa since the end of World War Two, particularly in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, but also in Algeria, where Mandela was first trained in the art of armed revolution by members of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN).

Where Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) did differ was in his belief that violent revolution would not emancipate the majority of black South Africans but rather enact another form of oppression onto them. Unlike the Communist Party of South Africa, Mandela believed in actively participating in class struggle, with the mission to harmonize class distinctions.

This is a primordial point in understanding the national liberation theory that was the backbone of the ANC’s struggle and also in better understanding the current political climate of South Africa. Yet, in the past three days, mainstream media has made no mention of one of the defining traits of the South African Miracle – that black majority of South Africans did not seek a form of revenge from the white population after the end of apartheid – and why the so-called miracle has turned into a nightmare for many South Africans today.

There is a right-wing sanitizing effort that is trying to rewrite history and construct Mandela’s legacy to conform to a neoliberal agenda that many multinationals and the current South African Zuma administration ascribe to. On the other hand, many left-wing commentators and political pundits have noxiously repudiated Mandela’s legacy altogether.

The emphasis on Mandela’s non-violent actions while omitting his struggle to bring about substantial economical and social change in South Africa panders into the neoliberal belief that civil liberties can be upheld while economic and social rights are denied. Madiba knew this to be false.

Even though apartheid was technically vanquished in South Africa, in part because of the relentless efforts of Nelson Mandela, social and economical apartheid continues to impede the birth of the “rainbow nation” – a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that tries to capture the racial, tribal, and linguistic diversity of South Africa.

Many left-wing media sources have published articles that point to the ANC’s implementation of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) directives and the World Bank guidelines in the early 1990s, which made sure to prevent an equal redistribution of wealth throughout South African society. These sources imply that Madiba’s decision not to pursue armed revolution, and his total faith in a democracy that could change, demonstrate that he was not radical enough for real social change in South Africa. It should be noted that social change has never been brought over night.

In light of the 2012 South African Marikana massacre, a wildcat strike that lasted a month and a half and cost the lives of 38 striking miners because of the intervention of security forces, Madiba’s radical legacy is more important than ever. We can look to his radical past and learn from how he used a diversity of tactics for the struggles of today. Madiba inspired the world to act and inform themselves on issues of class and race, but that struggle is far from over.

 

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