New York, New York: A South African media outlet, no doubt eager to be first, aired a TV obituary of Nelson Mandela. It was very positive and respectful, except for the fact he hadn’t died.
The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
When someone turns 94, medical risks are hardly an exaggeration, and its good to know that Mandela has just been released from hospital again. I was told that he told family members he intends to live to l00.
The sad truth is that there are some in South Africa who are distressed that his health seems to be the only news from South Africa that routinely attracts world attention and social concern. Perhaps that’s because so many other stories have been grim—often about corruption of public officials or the case of the famous disabled runner who allegedly murdered his girlfriend.
Some are even itching for the Mandela era to fade into history.
First of all, there is envy: he commands an adoration and loyalty from tens of millions that no other leader has been able to attract.
Second, when people think of him, they think of all the post-apartheid hopes he symbolized. He is the icon whose struggle, suffering and sacrifice defined and led the long fight for freedom.
That may not be a memory that today’s self-interested political or business wheeler-dealers want to sustain.
Finally, he symbolizes a moment of victory for a county that is today mired in anger by its failures to achieve his commitment to a “better life for all.”
Poverty is said to be worse today then when the man who is widely known by his clan name, Madiba, or just “Tata” (father) was released from prison.
For many in power, he is already as dead as the period he was part of. He may be memorialized on the nation’s currency, while gold coins with his name have replaced the Kruggerands of a darker time, but his embrace of unity and non-racialism seems for many a sentiment anchored in the past.
Monuments to Mandela are in malls and public spaces, but he has said repeatedly, that’s not what he wants.
He has not built a museum to himself but a Center of Memory, a repository for a treasure trove of information and artifacts about the struggle he was part of.
Some memories are fading. When I asked a young woman if she knew about his law partner and closest comrade, Oliver Tambo, who led the ANC in exile, she responded by asking if I meant the “airport guy” because the airport in Johannesburg is now named after him.
The “official” tributes and well wishes to Mandela have become a mighty stream, often from politicians who lack his courage and would never have fought for freedom the way he did.
With the passing of time, even Mandela’s role may be minimalized in the same way that Martin Luther King’s whole contribution to the civil rights struggle seems now to be summed up in only four words, “I have a dream,” with his opposition to the War in Vietnam and fight against poverty, sanitized, if not buried.
People make history, but not always in the way they wanted. When he left prison, his country’s main challenge was to avoid a race war, and to promote reconciliation. The goal was to achieve a multi-racial democracy based on a universal franchise with rights guaranteed for all.
In those years, it was by no means clear that the far right could be contained, and majority rule assured.
That was his priority, and he achieved it by dint of his personality and policies.
It is not clear, even today, who else had the moral stature to navigate between black demands and white fears, to lead by example, and persuade, even cajole, critics on all sides including those who felt he wasn’t moving fast enough and others who worried that he was moving too fast.
He pulled that off, but never alone. He was always an organization man and had the support of the movement he helped keep alive through all the long years of imprisonment. “The Struggle Is My Life,” he once said but that struggle was collectively managed, never a one-man show.
The African National Congress that he led worked in alliance with civic groups that are a shell of their former selves. Trade unions that are wrestling with the ANC and each other, and a Communist Party that has moved to the right and has no real left agenda. A Movement that led protests for decades is now the target of them.
Racial apartheid has given way to economic apartheid with continuing major chasms of inequality.
At his core, Nelson Mandela was a politician and like many politicians not focused on economics, even though South Africa’s massive structural poverty was fueled by apartheid.
The country was — and still is — dominated by a vast Mineral Energy Complex presided over by mostly white ruled business. While a relative handful of black entrepreneurs have now become part of what was once an all white economic elite, it is now dominated by globalized business interests, with South Africa subject to the global market economy.
Back in the 1990’s in the South African “spring,” negotiations for a political settlement took place openly and on TV. The nation watched as the political parties worked out their differences and handled some explosive issues.
At the same time, unknown until recently, there were economic negotiations taking place late at night and in secret with big business lobbyists, The IMF, World Bank and representatives of the US and Britain assuring that there would be not nationalizations, even though the Afrikaner government had nationalized many industries and set up what were called “parastatal” enterprises to keep control over the engine of the economy.
Mandela, and many ANC leaders, anxious for a quick transition to majority rule were, it seems, seduced by corporate interests and willingly, or not, made key compromises that assured private interests would still dominate on the economic front.
He was wooed and cultivated by business leaders who assured him that only a “mixed Economy”—on their terms, would bring in jobs and investments. The process was subtle: it was a sell-in as much as a sell out, but the impact was the same.
Alas, when the West got what it wanted, it moved on and poverty deepened.
Not surprisingly, corruption followed as a sleazy deal making culture drove out more radical ideas for transformation and a redistribution of resources.
Co-optation became the order of the day – a small minority got the rewards while the majority was pushed to the side.
Soon, a top-down government ruled by a small self-dealing elite displaced a democratic movement that had always been populist and bottom-up. Redistributive initiatives were axed in favor of more trickle-down economics. That corrupted the movement’s values on a political level and some of its key players on a personal one.
The result is there for all to see.
During the bitter fight against apartheid, many South Africans pined to live in a “normal country.” Now they must make do with all of its “normal” class and race divides with its own one percent now cheering on an ANC that has, in the eyes of many, become a guardian of the status quo.
Nelson Mandela is still a global hero for all, for what he did and how he did it, but his movement seems less and less heroic every day. Was that inevitable? Who knows? A well-known leader of the Chinese Revolution was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution. His response: “It’s too early to say.”
News Dissector Danny Schechter has been engaged with South Africa since the 1960’s. He produced the South Africa Now series from l988 to 1991 and directed six documentaries with and about Nelson Mandela. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org