Thursday, 12 December 2013

Mandela's Legacy

The death of Nelson Mandela is an extraordinary moment.  It marks the passing of the most admired politician in the world in the last 30 or 40 years.   It marks the end, arguably, of the great decolonizing wave that began in the Third World after 1945.  But the public and political reaction, at least in the West, is so powerful and striking as to invite, or require, a properly dialectical examination in its own right.   What one finds is that Mandela's symbolic stature and the overwhelming obsequies at his passing are in inverse but precise proportion to the redistributive and class content of the processes of dismantling apartheid and South African democratization.

So, two basic points have to be made.  First, that Mandela's personal qualities, and the allegorical power of his story, are not to be gainsaid.  Second, again, that the outpouring of official effusions, 'tributes', 'grief' may even be in inverse proportion to the radicalism of the actual content of Mandela's tenure.  For what Mandela and his accession to power represented was what Gramsci would have called a 'passive revolution' - a change in political power and popular sovereignty, which is nevertheless evacuated of social and economic change.  Mandela is credited with effecting change without bloodshed - in fact, though the situation might have been much worse, there was very considerable bloodshed during the process of democratization.  What was managed was political change with very little alteration in the distribution of wealth, in a country marked by enormous disparities between rich and poor.  During Mandela's presidency, and since, white wealth has been both joined and reinforced by a rapacious and corrupt black comprador bourgeoisie-bureaucracy, very much along the lines of Fanon's acid prognostications in his masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth - ANC senior worthies and serving politicians at the highest level, including Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, are part of this ugly formation.

One can then say, 'Well, Mandela was not personally corrupt, and he was only one man, and he was in executive power for a short time'.  This all may be true, but the question then must be asked whether that immense personal charisma, political authority and moral capital could not have been deployed to greater effect during his tenure.  One can also note that the balance of power was firmly with the ANC in the early 1990s, even before Mandela's election, and that it could have stood up firmly to the National Party.  But what one finds is that in the run-in to his period in office, and then during it, a devil's compact was negotiated between the incoming ANC, white South African power and capital, and the international institutions of neoliberal capitalism, dominated by the United States - the IMF and the World Bank. 

This tragedy is set out in chilling and clear terms by Patrick Bond, Director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban:

The Mandela Years in Power

Ronnie Kasrils, a former member of the ANC and government minister, suggests that the ANC has made a Faustian bargain in its accession to power, for which the poor of South Africa will pay a long and grim debt:  

How the ANC Sold Out South Africa’s Poor


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