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Comrade-in-arms

Print edition : January 10, 2014

Nelson Mandela with Fidel Castro. As many as 2,600 Cubans laid down their lives in the fight against apartheid and colonialism in southern Africa.

Mandela and post-apartheid South Africa have been consistent supporters of people still trying to liberate themselves, like the Palestinians and the Sahrawis.

WORLD leaders were present in strength to honour the memory of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela on December 10. It was United States President Barack Obama who got the loudest ovation from the people assembled in the Soweto Stadium, Johannesburg. He recalled how Mandela endured “brutal imprisonment” but did not bother to recall the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) long-term collaboration with the apartheid regime. Mandela’s name was officially removed from the U.S.’ “terrorist list” only as late as 2008.

Other leaders present on the occasion were those who led the liberation struggles in southern Africa—Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano. Cuba, which played a pivotal role in the struggle against colonialism in Africa, was represented by President Raul Castro. India too sent a high-level delegation headed by President Pranab Mukherjee. India had played an important role in isolating the white minority regime internationally. It was among the first Asian countries Mandela visited after he became a free man.

Most of the leaders extolled Mandela as an apostle of peace. His revolutionary background was glossed over by the international media. Mandela, after all, began his political life as a radical leftist. The South African Communist Party (SACP), which played a key supporting role to the African National Congress (ANC) in the liberation struggle, revealed after Mandela’s passing away that he was, from his early political career, its member. Membership of the party was deemed a treasonable act by the apartheid regime and carried the death penalty. At the time of his arrest in August 1962, Mandela, according to SACP, was a member of their central executive committee. The party spokesperson said that this fact was not revealed during the apartheid era for “political reasons”. The apartheid regime was seeking the death penalty for Mandela on charges that he was a card-carrying member of the SACP. “To us as South African communists, Comrade Mandela shall forever symbolise the monumental contribution of the SACP to our liberation struggle,” the SACP statement said.

Mandela had come to realise that a Gandhian non-violent strategy would not be sufficient to remove the entrenched apartheid regime. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the ANC concluded that resorting to peaceful forms of resistance was no longer the only viable option. The party then adopted a strategy of armed struggle. Important economic enterprises and the security apparatus of the apartheid regime were specifically targeted. Mandela and his fellow revolutionaries were inspired by the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the Algerian war of 1962. Mandela, during his revolutionary days, as is now sought to be portrayed, was “no worshipper of bourgeois legality”, but an exceptional political leader whose strategy and tactics varied as the conditions under which his battles were waged changed, Cuban paper Granma noted in an editorial.

Inspired by Che

Mandela had acknowledged the critical role played by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution in triggering the demise of the apartheid regime. In prison, the stories about Che Guevara’s revolutionary exploits were a source of inspiration to him. On a visit to Cuba, he said that Che’s revolutionary exploits were “too powerful for any prison censors to hide from us”. It was the timely intervention of the Cuban forces in the Angolan civil war that saved the day for the liberation forces in southern Africa. In the crucial Battle of Cueto Cuanavale on March 23, 1988, Cuban and Angolan forces defeated the South African army and a mercenary army financed by the CIA. The South African army, which was the most powerful on the African continent, was trying to arrest the decolonisation process by installing puppet regimes in Angola and Mozambique. The monumental defeat of South Africa’s much-vaunted military machine accelerated the decolonisation process.

Mandela was quick to acknowledge Cuba’s role in delivering the knock-out punch to the apartheid regime. Writing from his prison cell, Mandela compared Cueto Cuanavale to the Battle of Stalingrad, acknowledging that it “was the turning point for the liberation of our continent —and of my people, from the scourge of apartheid”. The defeat of the apartheid forces ended white South Africa’s occupation of Namibia. With the military option no longer looking feasible, the apartheid regime started serious negotiations with the ANC.

As many as 2,600 Cubans laid down their lives in the fight to end apartheid and colonialism in southern Africa. “The Cubans have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment and apartheid—we vow never to forget this unparalleled example of internationalism,” Mandela said in a speech he delivered in 1995, after becoming the President of South Africa. Fidel Castro, who enjoyed a very close friendship with Mandela, once observed that Mandela “would not go down in history for the 27 consecutive years he spent incarcerated without ever renouncing his ideas; he will go down in history because he was able to expunge from his soul all the poison that such an unjust punishment would have created”. Fidel stressed that Mandela “was able to so brilliantly lead his self-sacrificing people, knowing that the new South Africa could never be constructed on the foundations of hatred and vengeance”.

The change in ANC tactics that was evident after Mandela’s release was dictated by the negotiated deal that led to majority rule. The exiled leadership of the ANC had given a commitment to international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that the capitalist infrastructure of Africa’s most developed country would not be tinkered with. The South African economy, which is often described as the engine of the African continent, was spluttering at the end of the 1980s. Industrial action, strikes and violence in the townships, coupled with the impact of international sanctions, had left the apartheid regime reeling and looking for a negotiated way out of the economic quagmire. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Socialist bloc was also a factor that influenced the ANC’s decision.

Change of course

Soon after his release, Mandela reiterated the ANC’s commitment to the nationalisation of banks, mines and big industries. But once he assumed office, the economic edifice that sustained apartheid remained virtually untouched. Land reforms were not seriously undertaken. Stephen Ellis, an American academic who has written extensively on the ANC, believes that Mandela was essentially pro-Soviet in his views. But by the time he was released, geopolitics had undergone fundamental changes. The ANC leadership, according to Ellis, were wary of Mandela’s radical views, and effectively steered him away from government and party affairs, even when he was the President.

The party’s official policy to end the impoverishment of the majority of South Africans, the Reconstruction and Development Programme, was abandoned. The main focus during Mandela’s presidency was on reconciliation with the white minority. Those responsible for reprehensible crimes during the apartheid regime went scot-free. Mandela’s close comrades such as Chris Hani and Ruth First were assassinated by agents of the apartheid regime. South Africa’s Constitution, drafted after the collapse of the apartheid regime, is held as a model for the entire world. It was among the first to recognise same-sex unions. But South Africa today is among the most unequal societies in the world. The gap between the rich and the poor has been widening since the time Mandela took over the presidency. Under the Black Economic Empowerment Plan that was implemented after Mandela took over, a tiny black minority have become very rich. The current number two in the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, is reputed to be one of Africa’s richest men. He made his fortune after the collapse of the apartheid regime. He was a former leader of the mine workers’ union. South Africa is often described as a country where the “first world and the third world continue to coexist”. And it is once again a society that is threatening to violently come apart. The killing by the police of 32 striking miners of Marikana in August 2012 is an illustration.

The day before Mandela’s death, the South African Institute of Justice and Reconciliation issued an annual report revealing that the majority of South Africans view class inequality as the most important issue facing them and “the greatest impediment to national reconciliation”. Ronnie Kasrils, who fought under Mandela’s command and later became the Intelligence Minister, has, in retrospect, questioned Mandela’s role in endorsing neoliberal policies. “History will judge whether we lost a golden opportunity to press on then rather than make the concessions we did regarding economic control,” he has written.

Mandela, probably for tactical reasons, took varying ideological stances at different junctures. During his treason trial, Mandela had stated that the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” would open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class. “The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society,” Mandela had told the court at the time. But after Mandela went to jail, the ANC took a strong leftward turn. On his release from prison in 1990, he said that there “was no change or modification” in ANC’s views on nationalisation. But his views underwent a change in 1992, according to one of his biographers, Anthony Sampson, after he attended a conference in Davos. According to some of his close associates, his views on the market changed radically after he took the advice of Chinese and Vietnamese leaders. The governments of the two countries, avowedly Communists, had adopted free market policies.

This correspondent was told by two senior members of the ANC youth wing that their role models today are Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe. Castro is admired for his revolutionary ideals and Mugabe for implementing land reform and economic empowerment programmes. The former ANC Youth League chief, Julius Malema, has launched a new party, The Economic Freedom Fighters Party. Malema, while praising Mandela, has been saying that the present leadership of the ANC has betrayed its mandate. He has said that revolution in South Africa will only be complete after the nationalisation of the mines, the banks and other strategic sectors of society.

Friend of Third World struggles

On foreign policy issues, Mandela, as President and even later as an elder statesman, never shirked from taking a stand. After being released from prison, the first thing he did was visit Cuba. After the unbanning of the ANC, he visited Libya, despite protests from the apartheid regime and the West. He warmly embraced Muammar Qaddafi and thanked the Libyan leader for his help (Libya had provided the largest amount of financial aid to the ANC). As President, Mandela visited Libya two more times. South Africa bestowed its highest honour, the Order of Good Hope, on Qaddafi in 1997. It is another matter that the government led by President Zuma was not very proactive when the West intervened militarily in Libya and got rid of their long-time bête noire.

During the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Durban in 1998, President Mandela even rubbed the Indian government the wrong way. Despite the best efforts of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Kashmir, along with other regional disputes of the time, was mentioned in the final communiqué. The Indian side was livid with the host country’s stance. Mandela had also differences of opinion with the leaders of Angola and Zimbabwe on regional issues after he became President.

After retiring from office, he felt freer to criticise the West and imperialism. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America—they don’t care for human beings,” Mandela told an International Women’s Forum. In the run-up to the Iraq War, he said that President George W. Bush had “no foresight” and was a man who could “not think properly”, who wanted to plunge the world “into a holocaust”. Referring to the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he said: “Because they decided to kill innocent people in Japan, who are they to pretend they’re the policemen of the world?” Mandela had also spoken against American plans to deploy its troops in the African continent.

Mandela and post-apartheid South Africa have been consistent supporters of people still trying to liberate themselves, like the Palestinians and the Sahrawis. While welcoming the late Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, Mandela said that South African freedom “would be incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. South Africa has recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and supported its membership of the African Union (A.U.).

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