Brief Comment on the Death of Nelson Mandela

10 Dec

Last week, as news spread that the venerable South African leader had passed, I dashed off the following (favorably received!) bit of curmudgeonliness in response to a facebook reposting of The Onion’s ‘Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed‘:

One point that bears clarifying is that I don’t consider Mandela’s defense of violence to be a flaw per se; I merely intended to highlight how his positions on armed struggle point up the hypocrisy and amnesia afflicting mainstream liberal opinion.

Here I’ve collected excerpts from some of the better–or, at least, more interesting–remembrances and reflections:

Vijay Prashad, ‘Mandela, The Unapologetic Radical

Not long after his arrest in 1964, Mandela became the iconic figure of the South African struggle against apartheid – one that was not only against a ghastly political system, not only against the white ruling clique in South Africa, but also against the governments of the Western world which backed the apartheid regime virtually until the end (Mandela appeared on the U.S. terrorist lists until 2008). It was this iconic figure that the world knew from the 1960s until now. Rarely did people engage with Mandela’s ideas: rarely do we hear him quoted for his principled positions. Particularly after the struggles within South Africa weakened the regime and brought it down, it became impossible not to engage with Mandela – but it was only with Mandela as icon, as Madiba, not Mandela as the political person with deeply held views and commitments.

Everybody now is sad that Madiba is dead. Not a dry eye can be found. But many of these same people opposed freedom in South Africa to the very end. Many of these same people pilloried the struggles around the world in solidarity with Mandela’s ANC. And many of these people now ridicule the kind of views that Mandela held to the very end. When Mandela opposed the Iraq war (“All Bush wants is Iraqi oil”), the Western press lambasted him — the same press that is now aggrieved at his passage. All the obituaries detail what he did in his life, but none go into his political views.


In 2005, he went to the G8 meetings in the U.K. and made it clear that “where poverty exists, there is not true freedom. The world is hungry for action, not words. In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries—including South Africa—remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.” Where would this freedom come from – by constraining the rights of property to feed untrammeled off of social wealth? Poverty, like apartheid, is man-made, so it can be unmade by man. The rich, he said, must feed the poor.

Jonathan Cook, ‘On the death of Nelson Mandela: a dissenting opinion

Mandela spent most his adult life treated as a “terrorist”. There was a price to be paid for his long walk to freedom, and the end of South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. Mandela was rehabilitated into an “elder statesman” in return for South Africa being rapidly transformed into an outpost of neoliberalism, prioritising the kind of economic apartheid most of us in the west are getting a strong dose of now.

In my view, Mandela suffered a double tragedy in his post-prison years.

First, he was reinvented as a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility.

Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was required to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.

It is an indication of what Mandela was up against that the man who fought so hard and long against a brutal apartheid regime was so completely defeated when he took power in South Africa. That was because he was no longer struggling against a rogue regime but against the existing order, a global corporate system of power that he had no hope of challenging alone.

Patrick Bond, ‘The Mandela Years in Power

In addition to the 1990-94 dealmaking and ideological panel-beating, various other international economic constraints were placed on the New South Africa. A few weeks after liberation in May 1994, when Pretoria joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade on disadvantageous terms as a “transitional” not “developing” country, as a result of pressure from Bill Clinton’s White House, the economy’s deindustrialization was guaranteed. In January 1995, privatization began in earnest, with Mbeki facilitating the sale of a few minor parastatals but with much bigger targets looming.

More rapid financial liberalization in the form of the abolition of the Financial Rand exchange controls occurred in March 1995, in the immediate wake of Mexican capital flight that destroyed the peso’s value. Without capital controls, the Reserve Bank lost its main protection against a run on the currency. So when one began 11 months later, the only strategy left was to raise interest rates to a record high, resulting in a long period of double-digit prime interest rates.

The most important post-apartheid economic decision was taken in June 1996, when the top echelon of ANC policymakers imposed what Finance Minister Manuel termed a “non-negotiable” macroeconomic strategy without bothering to properly consult its Alliance partners in the union movement and SACP, much less its own constituents. The World Bank contributed two economists and its econometric model of South Africa for the exercise, known as “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” (GEAR).

With Mandela’s approval and Mbeki’s formal ideological U-turn – “just call me a Thatcherite,” he pronounced to journalists – GEAR was introduced in the wake of the long 1996 currency crash to promote investor confidence. The document, authored by 17 white men using the World Bank’s economic model, allowed the government to psychologically distance itself from the somewhat more Keynesian RDP, a 150-page document which in 1994 had served as the ANC’s campaign platform, and which the ANC’s civil society allies had insisted be implemented. An audit of the RDP, however, showed that only the RDP’s more neoliberal features were supported by the dominant bloc in government during the late 1990s.


It is here that the core concession made by the ANC during the transition deal was apparent: acquiescing to the desire by white businesses to escape the economic stagnation and declining profits born of a classical “overaccumulation crisis”, in which too much capital piles up in a given territory without sustainable ways to increase consumer purchases of goods, employment of idle labour, new investment of fixed capital, or value production to undergird financial speculation. Put simply, big business wanted out of South Africa and as part of the deal for the transfer of power, Mandela gave the nod to the extreme capital flight which today, leaves South Africa as amongst the countries most adversely affected by a current account deficit.


In sum, the acronym GEAR might have more accurately been revised to Decline, Unemployment and Polarization Economics. A great many South Africans were duped by Mandela’s persuasiveness into thinking that the economy Cecil Rhodes would have found “fit for its time” would somehow also fit the aspirations of the majority. The big question was whether a variety of social protests witnessed after apartheid by civil society – many groups associated with what was formerly known as the Mass Democratic Movement – would shift social policy away from its moorings in apartheid white privilege and instead towards a transformative approach empowering of poor people, women, youth, the elderly, the disabled and the ill.

Slavoj Zizek, ‘Mandela’s Socialist Failure*

The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans which one cannot but characterize as crowd pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, for instance. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. The ruling ideology mobilizes here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They start to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, they blame us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalist investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed.


At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

It also seems fitting to link Sarah Nutall’s prescient take on Mandela’s mortality (complementary podcast here).

If you can read French, Nutall’s occasional collaborator, Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe, recently published a sympathetic meditation on Mandela’s legacy in Le Monde. It’s as worthwhile as anything linked here. In case you can’t, an old friend who recently took a graduate course with Mbembe at Duke passes along the following notes on the professor’s remarks re: Madiba:

«Mandela has been “dying” for years. We’ve been eager to “kill” Mandela so we can memorialize, objectify, turn him into an object of discourse…Mandela is still alive, but there’s not much he can do. He’s already “dead” in the sense that he is being objectified. What is the space occupied by Mandela, somewhere in between subjectivity or objectivity?»

And to close with a perhaps minor artifact which I haven’t seen making the rounds on social media along with the manifold Mandela memorabilia that’s been dusted off for the occasion–footage of the philosopher Jacques Derrida visiting the cell at Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. The clip is taken from the 2002 documentary Derrida:

*h/t Doug Henwood


Three more bits of media worth sharing:

1. Noah Feldman, Was Mandela Right to Sell Out Black South Africans?


3. Mandela speaking candidly on Palestine,

If the Jewish leaders have any doubts about our stance, I am prepared to address them and allay their concerns because they are a very important community both in South Africa and of course in the States. And I’m prepared to iron out any differences that might exist, but they must know what our stance is: Arafat is a comrade-in-arms and we treat him as such…For anybody who changes his principles depending on [with] whom he is dealing–that is not a man who can lead a nation.


One Response to “Brief Comment on the Death of Nelson Mandela”

  1. filipegracio December 11, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Reblogged this on Social Pulses and commented:
    From Will Brown

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