Nelson Mandela has become an international icon principally because of his long struggle against apartheid. In post-apartheid South Africa, his legacy of resistance, however, has had mixed reaction without taking away anything from his personal charisma.
While Nelson Mandela has been in the hospital for a critical lung condition since June 8, the reports of his death are greatly exaggerated, to quote Mark Twain. It is not precisely certain what the outcome will be, whether the messages pouring in from around the world to the hospital room will turn to mourning or congratulations on recovery. But his legacy of resistance against South Africa’s apartheid government is still one that deserves tribute, even while taking stock of South Africa’s complicated post-1994 political history.
Mandela was born in the Xhosa village of Qunu, where he grew up in a family and community structure that was relatively untouched by apartheid and the British-Afrikaaner power culture, as represented by the distant white magistrate to whom taxes were paid. Many observers and biographers have pointed out that Mandela’s later stand against apartheid is rooted in the idyllic childhood he spent in the country, where cultural memories of native African kings resisting the British empire were kept alive in oral traditions. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recounts how he returned to his hut after playing with the children of the village, his father would relate to him stories of historic battles and heroic Xhosa warriors who fought against the colonialists.
After Mandela’s father died, he went to Mqhekezweni and was adopted by the king (Mandela’s father had been an appointed chief under the king). Mandela learned about conflict resolution from the tribal court of the king, where he attended discussions with the counselors and advisors. At the same time, the duality of colonialism began to exhibit itself under him — he relates in his autobiography that the few whites he saw in the area appeared as “gods” to him, whether they were provincial policemen or poor white shopkeepers in the Transvaal.
Perhaps this duality was accentuated in the education he received as a young man. He attended the University College for Fort Hare during WWII, where he studied for a bachelors in anthropology, English, native administration, and Roman Dutch law. At the same time, he was able to situate this bastion of Europeanization within a pre-colonial geography of resistance. “Fort Hare was perfectly situated to enable the British to fight the gallant Xhosa warrior Sandile, the last Rharhabe king, who was defeated by the British in the final frontier battles,” he later noted.
By this time, the apartheid system in South Africa had become institutionalized in its most oppressive form. The discovery of gold in South Africa necessitated a form of slave labor, so the government used the 1913 “Land Act” (which delivered control of 87% of the land to the whites) and economic strangulation as a means of forcing the Africans off their autonomous villages and into the mines. Racial segregation was instituted, where coloreds (Asians) and Africans were relegated to live within particular areas, further immobilizing and impoverishing them within ghettos and shantytowns. Annual poll taxes were levied on Africans. Travel and mobility became almost impossible after an elaborate system of documents and permits was instituted. The regime’s oppression was capped by police terror, through forced interrogations, surveillance, finger-printing, breaking and searching homes, kangaroo trials, and mass incarceration.
Mandela first became radicalized at the university as he and his friend Oliver Tambo became involved with communist groups, where he became conscious of how the stark racial hierarchy of South Africa was married to class hierarchy. Mandela did not gain his degree from Fort Hare, rather he was expelled for his revolutionary activities. But his time spent there was invaluable — his exposure to mainstream intellectual traditions, as well as counterculture intellectual ferment, shaped his activism against the apartheid state. Mandela went on to pursue a law degree and along with Tambo, he opened the first African law office in South Africa.
Mandela became increasingly involved with the African National Congress in the 1940s, particularly after the extreme right-wing National Party was voted into office. By 1952, he became one of the ANC’s deputy presidents. During this time, Mandela went underground, helping to organize members of the ANC toward active resistance of the apartheid government, evading police capture by adopting disguises, working with black policemen who were pro-ANC informants, moving around the country and hiding at the residences of friends. Mandela’s success in evading the government earned him the romantic sobriquet of the Black Pimpernell, a reference to Baroness Orczy’s fictional character who evades capture during the French Revolution. In 1956, Mandela went on trial for treason, but was acquitted after five years.
One of the watershed moments of the resistance struggle was the massacre of 1960, when the South African police fired upon anti-government demonstrators at Sharpesville, killing 69. Hitherto, the ANC subscribed to a policy of non-violence. However, from Sharpesville onward, Mandela began to advocate armed struggle against the regime, declaring that popular violence was the only answer to the brutality of state violence. Mandela helped establish the ANC’s military wing, “Umkhonto we Sizwe,” or the “The Spear of the Nation.” He left the country, traveling to countries in Africa, including Algeria where he received military training from the FLN; and to Britain, where he worked to popularize the ANC’s cause. Soon after his return, he was captured by the South African police along with other ANC leaders, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela went on to spend 27 years in prison, exposed to harsh living conditions and hard labor, 18 years at Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town.
Mandela’s post-1990 history, when he transitioned from newly released prisoner to statesman and celebrated international figure, is a rather complicated one. Mandela’s extraordinary contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle, his personal sacrifices (his first two marriages suffered as a result of his activism), and the personal grace he exhibited in his prison ordeal are not to be denied. But while South Africans often lament the current problems of their nation upon their current leadership — Jacob Zuma and his personal scandals throw the rosy light of nostalgia on Mandela’s reign — the status quo directly hinges on the reconciliation deal negotiated by Mandela after his release from prison.
Mandela, the ANC leaders and their allies of the 1950s and 1960s saw economic redistribution to be one of the key aspects of their program. After his release from prison, however, Mandela agreed to protect property rights and continue conservative macroeconomic policies in exchange for full political equality. This step brought about electoral freedom for South Africans, but institutionalized apartheid-era inequality under the global regime of neoliberalism. The result is that the economy continues to benefit a highly skilled minority while leaving millions of black South Africans structurally unemployed — leaving the shantytowns and ghettos intact, this time under the structures of economic segregation rather than overt racial oppression. The ANC’s main economic reform, the Black Economic Empowerment, and its counterparts in the South African Indian community, created a rich elite that enjoys a portion of the wealth still ensconced in the hands of apartheid-era and multinational oligarchs.
While democracy espouses the decisions of the many, the hybrid frankenstein of democracy and capitalism that is effectively installed in nations worldwide actually privileges the few. Mandela’s post-1990 choice invokes pragmatism, the choice of an elder veteran of struggle who believed in limited, practical outcomes rather than broad-based, revolutionary change. However, the consequence has been the sense of moral bankruptcy that has set in the Rainbow Nation after the period of hope and uplift following his tenure. As with the grim electoral outcome in Egypt, one sees that democracy in and of itself becomes the stage of misdirection for the mechanics of power wielded by entrenched interests unwilling to distribute common resources to the masses.