Why aren’t we discussing Mandela’s Politics?

Now that the first week after Mandela’s death is coming to a close, we’re finally beginning to see more critical obituaries, or at the very least nuanced accounts, and a gradual abandonment of hagiography. Of course, idealistic elements will remain for quite a while (if not forever), and even that vainglorious cynic Slavoj Žižek can’t help but reference “his doubtless moral and political greatness.” Still, at least Žižek rightly observes that Mandela’s universal appeal belies a lack of politics, or at the very least, a lack of politics in the representation of Mandela with which we’ve all been inundated. The fact that he’s universally beloved by world leaders, businessmen, and activists alike means that the name “Mandela” has become something of an empty signifier, representing freedom, justice, triumph, and a whole slew of other positive abstractions ripped from their historical context.

Unfortunately, the bulk of Žižek’s argument is contained in his title – “If Nelson Mandela really had won, he wouldn’t be seen as a universal hero” – and the more he tries to write, the more he undermines his own attempt to critique this well-intentioned hero worship. By the end of the piece, he’s only reinforced the notion that Mandela stands in for “the good,” as opposed to, say, “Mugabe”:

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.

While I like the thrust of his closing line (“His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power”) there’s a way in which Žižek only reinscribes the notion that Mandela is some kind of Weberian charismatic authority in overdrive. More importantly, there are so many digressions in the piece that there’s an excursus on Ayn Rand, but no substantial support for the claim advanced in the title and final sentence.

How then to transcend the Mandela of the global elite, the empty signifier worn like a gaudy tie clip by the likes of Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Benjamin Netanyahu? For starters, writers could dispense with the patronizing wonderment, instead critically engaging the thing that made Mandela famous in the first place: his politics. Instead of this ridiculous notion that one man lifted his people out of apartheid by means of his unparalleled leadership and correct program, we might instead ask what his politics actually were. This is not the place for a full treatment of his political trajectory, but the man was hardly alone in the multi-decade struggle against the apartheid regime. Indeed, it was the Pan-African Congress that played the central part in the early 1960s struggles after Sharpeville, and it was Black Consciousness militants and unaffiliated students who rose up in Soweto in 1976; the ANC only claims credit for both uprisings in revisionist accounts. And neither the civic associations nor the unions that played such a decisive role in bringing down the National Party were initially aligned with the ANC. The point is – and this can’t be said often or loudly enough – Mandela and the ANC did not bring down the apartheid regime. A thirty-year cycle of struggle by community organizations, students, unions, and independent workers secured victory. Mandela was of course a part of this history, and this is precisely why we need to understand how his politics and leadership fit in with the broader trajectory of organized militancy at the time of the transition.

Of all the writers I’d expect to give a decent preliminary account, I have to say, I’m blown away that Andrew Ross Sorkin tops the list, at least as far as major news outlets are concerned. Sorkin, the precocious business journalist and author of Too Big To Fail, has written such paeans to nepotism as “Hiring the Well-Connected Isn’t Always a Scandal.” While his argument (on “DealBook,” the New York Times’ financial news service site) is far from original – you can find a nearly three year-old version here for example – it’s also virtually alone in the first batch of Madiba reflections in its treatment of concrete political positions and their consequences, especially for what matters: macro-economic policy.

As Sorkin points out, for the 35 years between the drafting of the Freedom Charter and his release from prison, Mandela was a staunch proponent of nationalization. The Charter itself, the founding document of the Congress Alliance, contains the following lines, though it of course does not use the word “nationalize”:

The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;

All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people;

All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.

Political theorists Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson, writing together on Al Jazeera America, are quick to point out that the Freedom Charter doesn’t really advocate nationalization in the sense in which you’d expect, insisting, “this step was to be achieved within the context of a mixed economy, without comprehensive central planning.” The only supporting evidence they provide is a line from Mandela’s own biography, of course published after he’d already begun to express ambivalence about nationalization himself. It’s hard to take their account seriously at all though, given that their entire argument is that Mandela was a Rawlsian this entire time, but just didn’t know it. (Given that the pair co-edited a book on John Rawls and property, one wonders if this is more of an opportunistic pitch for their own work than a serious analysis of Mandela’s politics.) With concluding platitudes like, “Mandela stood for the end of economic marginalization and the broad advance of equality of opportunity,” we are left wanting something, anything really, that moves us beyond the myth and toward the political operator.

And this is where Sorkin is at his best. He reproduces the famous line on nationalization from one of Mandela’s first post-prison speeches in 1990:

The nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.

This emphasis on inconceivability recurs throughout Mandela’s speeches over the years. Here’s another widely cited line from a 1956 speech:

It is true that in demanding the nationalization of the banks, the gold mines and the land the [Freedom] Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realization of the Charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country turned over to the people.

Sorkin identifies the less than two years between Mandela’s release from prison and his visit to the World Economic Forum at Davos as the decisive turning point on this question. He writes,

Two years later, however, Mr. Mandela changed his mind, embracing capitalism, and charted a new economic course for his country.

The story of Mr. Mandela’s evolving economic view is eye-opening: It happened in January 1992 during a trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Mr. Mandela was persuaded to support an economic framework for South Africa based on capitalism and globalization after a series of conversations with other world leaders.

“They changed my views altogether,” Mr. Mandela told Anthony Sampson, his friend and the author of Mandela: The Authorized Biography. “I came home to say: ‘Chaps, we have to choose. We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.”

But here’s the part that gets me. Remember, this is Andrew Ross Sorkin, not South African political economist Hein Marais or CUNY’s resident Marxologist David Harvey we’re talking about. He points out,

But for all of Mr. Mandela’s embrace of capitalism and free markets, as demonstrated though his policy called GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), the results raise more questions than answers about its success.

South Africa has certainly grown, but at an annual 3.2 percent clip from 1993 to 2012, far below other emerging countries like China and India. And the gap between the haves and have-nots is now higher than it was when Mr. Mandela became president. Inequality in South Africa is a real and growing issue.

Of course, the narrative is not as simple as one man’s political preferences, and the origins of South African neoliberalism are observable as early as the late 1970s. As much as austerity and privatization were imposed on Mandela by Davos and on the ANC by the IMF, they were equally the product of South African economic thought. Rather than unwitting gulls being conned by the multilaterals, the ANC knew exactly what they were doing, and it’s no coincidence that they adopted many late NP policies whole cloth.

That said, it is to Sorkin’s credit that he breaks the ridiculous taboo on discussing the content of Mandela’s politics, rather than treating him as some kind of deity. Here are his closing lines:

Mr. Mandela may have ended apartheid and years of awful violence, but his dream of creating a country that, as he said, is “a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” may still remain a dream that capitalism and free markets have yet to solve.

And he’s hit the nail on the head. As much as the world – and above all, the non-African world – wants to deify Mandela, to do so in the abstract with no reference to his actual politics is absurd. The man was famous for being a political operator, so why aren’t we discussing his politics? Why have we been subjected to bumbling idiocy about moral authority in Invictus, but not to an analysis of the political debates that led Mandela’s ANC to attain hegemony over rival tendencies? Unless we agree with these hagiographers that South Africans are too dumb to take politics seriously and that these mindless dupes were all blinded by Mandela’s halo, let’s discuss what it was about his program that was so appealing, and above all, what worked and what turned out to be limited.

As far as the Times goes, hopefully Thomas Friedman will be locked up on Robben Island for writing this embarrassing nonsense, Bill Keller will never be allowed to pontificate on South Africa again, and someone will overnight the three volumes of Capital to Sorkin stat, or at the very least get him started with Harvey’s lectures on volume one.



Zachary Levenson

Zachary Levenson is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley. His current research investigates housing delivery and the politics of land occupations in post-apartheid cities.

  1. well you want to discuss his politics and you don’t even mention the RDP period (that was the time before GEAR). and secondly you don’t seem to get that the historic compromise was – the anc gets a social democracy instead of a socialist democracy – which means – they redistribute growth instead of property.

    1. I understand that quite well, Joe. So would you argue that growth was itself redistributed, given that we now have nearly two decades of hindsight? And more importantly, how would you explain the “redistribution of growth” as a concept? I’m not sure why you think that would sufficiently remedy inequality given the concentration of ownership in white hands. In other words, what good is the redistribution of growth if there’s no redistribution of property?

  2. well the “redistribution of growth” concept i would explain as the classic fordist concept – rising wages – rising consumption – rising property ownership a.s.o.. it didn’t work for the majority in sa so far but great for two groups as you can see in the following chart “average income by population group” (http://www.economist.com/node/21580215?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/dc/mdla/longerwalkequality)

    and i am 100% sure that socialism would not cure inequality as you insinuate in you’re postings here constantly – if you have a group of people and nearly all of them are poor – rising inequality is a sign – that at least some escape poverty (black diamonds…). i want to live in a society with no poverty – but i definitely don’t want to live in a society where everybody is equally poor and some apparatshiks run everything. idealtypically redistribution of growth should lead to the redistribution of property – if you do it politically you fuck up the country – and to me it looks as if mandela got that.

  3. or to put it more bluntly – you take all the riches from the white people and give them to the black people – the black people would still be poor because of the numbers – check the chart.

    1. What do you think the Economist graph is evidence of? It would seem to reveal that what you’re calling social democracy did little to nothing to stem inequality between racial groups.

      1. the graph shows that there are round about 40 million black people and 4 million white people and i tried to make the point that if you redistribute all the riches of the white people to the black people the black people would still be poor.

        i wrote that it (social democracy) didn’t work for the majority so far but great for two population groups (asian and white). and social democracy led to the development of “black diamonds” or what “ly” quoted to be the development of a “Non-European bourgeois class” – this class is a minority.

        “For the first time in the history of this country the Non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own in their own name and right mills and factories, and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”

        to own in ones own name is a fundamental right of a bourgeois society/liberal democracy (code napoleon) – and the bourgeois class will obviously be constituted of individuals.

  4. Mandela in Liberation, No. 19, June 1956:

    “Whilst the Charter proclaims democratic changes of a far-reaching nature it is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state but a programme for the unification of various classes and groupings amongst the people on a democratic basis… It is true that in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land the Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude… The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the Non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own in their own name and right mills and factories, and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”

    “[T]he development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois class”: This does not strike me as advocacy of a “nationalization” that I would expect, which in my view tends to support the interpretation of O’Neill and Williamson, no matter the spin on the 1992 abandonment of “nationalization.”

    1. True, and as another reader reminded me, in Tom Lodge’s 2007 biography, the fuller version of the 1956 quotation in my piece (and in your comment) is critically considered. As it turns out, Ruth First apparently excised the lines about a “Non-European bourgeois class” from the text when the speech was reprinted in a Pathfinder Press volume, which is why that quote typically gets read out of context. Mea culpa. Still, that’s precisely the sort of evidence I would’ve liked to see O’Neill and Williamson marshall! I’m very receptive to the argument that Mandela didn’t quite do a 180 in 1992, but that he was in fact lukewarm on nationalization all along.

  5. First of all, the name of this website: Africa Is A Country, is plainly wrong. Secondly, what turned Mandela into the great Statesman, were the decisions he made after he assumed power. So you have to take into account his great judgement & moral greatness for choosing privatization instead of nationalization. We can talk about his politics surely, cause there were none, he didnt play politics! During the apartheid era & when he assumed office the economy was going downhill due to sanctions, he made the smartest decision in opening up markets & not embracing Socialism, which he could’ve done, due to the political context of the era.

  6. Thank heavens someone has finally located Nelson Mandela appropriately in the history of the transition process in South Africa. It’s also great to see the critical role of the unions and the BC movement in the evolution of the transition process highlighted. If there is to be any one party singled out as having made the transition happen in South Africa, this accolade would have to go to the black trade unions whose contribution far exceeded that of Mandela in terms of both duration and sacrifice. There can be no argument but that Mandela was a sincere humanist but he was also a chillingly pragmatic person and it was this characteristic that I would see as his great contribution to change in South Africa.
    He was the one person with the capacity to unite and lead the dispirate elements of the black community in the game of negotiations and he drew on his innate pragmatism to ensure the relevance of this diverse constituency in that game. Mandela quickly realised that some form of liberal or social democracy was the only game in town and he used his power and influence to steer the belief systems of the revolutionary leadership in the appropriate direction.
    This is not to deny the opinions of Marais, Terreblanche, Bond and others who accuse business of capturing the incoming ANC leadership in a web of lucrative business deals. In my own research I have been shocked at the overt nature of such ‘relationship-building’ as took place in this regard. However, it is already widely acknowledged that the alliance partners were ill-equipped to assume the mantle of government e.g. Turok and Stephen Ellis’ recent book, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, demonstrates in great detail the extent to which this lack of capacity was actually characteristic of the organisation in exile. Through Ellis’ work one can see that the problems of competence and corruption that permeate the ANC/SACP today are not post-apartheid phenomena or due to the corrupting influence of business but are, rather, artefacts of a culture that was nurtured by the movement in exile.
    South Africa will not be able to move out of its current state of economic lethargy until some myths about the transition to democracy are slain, thus providing a reliable understanding of the character of the SA political economy and a firm basis on which to design meaningful development policy. The million Rand question is whether such a retelling will ever be permitted by the ruling elite of big business, union and political leadership.

  7. This reads like a religious tract by someone who believes with all his heart (the mind entirely unengaged) as an article of undisputed faith that ‘nationalization’ is the panacea that will bring both economic growth and economic growth to South Africa. Where is the evidence for this religious belief? China with its nationalized economy? Nigeria with its nationalized oil sector? I present China and Nigeria as evidence that nationalization of major industries is not a panacea. Robust regulations aimed at economic growth and economic equality are the measures to attain those goals. Those goals are still attainable in South Africa. The relative peace and reconciliation and stability that is Mandela’s lasting legacy, is exactly what will make the pursuit of those goals possible. South Africans should get to work toward those goals using the foundation laid by Mandela (and of course others). Adopting nationalization is no panacea just as privatization is no panacea. Both these require robust regulations to deliver for the people and the economy.

  8. if uou want to tackle mass poverty, nationalise key industry, like mining and oil. It worked for Venezuela, they have obliterated poverty. It is not a panacea, but it helps. Naomi Kleins “Shock Doctrine” has a wonderful and damning chapter on the topic of the anc and in particular Thabo Mbekis role in screwing the country.

  9. Two shout outs and one real comment.

    Ivan- thanks. I’ve often wondered about the title of this blog. Thanks for the clarity.

    Conrad- Venezuela as an example- have you opened a newspaper lately? If Venezuelans aren’t convinced about the success of nationalization, why should I? Ah- the blessing of viewing events from a distance. While I am sympathetic about socialism and nationalizations, the successes are few and far between.

    Mandela is suffering from the MLK’s perception problem. We all remember the “I have a dream” speech, but no one remembers his stands on poverty and Vietnam. Mandela and MLK are heroes because they helped us redeem ourselves. We can look at apartheid and segregation and say “thank God, MLK, and Mandela legal discrimination is over & we are better for it.”

    However, poverty is a tougher nut to crack.

  10. Lets look at the facts :- The issue with South Africa is bigger then the country itself bigger then Africa as a whole, the war against the well being of humanity is on a global stage not just one country (i say this to point out that there’s a far greater enemy involved in controlling the resources South Africa then a mere “so-called” revolutionist or revolution political party) ; All forms of opposition towards this enemy is wiped out, swiftly and untraceable for example Chris Hani, Steve Biko, Tsietsi” MacDonald Mashinini, Robert Sobukwe and many more ; The problem at hand is not about race but about the “have” and “have not” and the “have’s” are determined to stay in power no matter cost hence the poor suffer. Nationalization of the regions resources is mandatory though it has to be regulated through a certain belief which will regulate mans behavior and responsibility with the countries resources. The likes of Iran are examples of how beneficial it is to have the nationalization of the country resources is to the people of that region. Based on that, Monotheism is by far the respectable belief globally I have come across. Let me point out that I do stand to be corrected on whatever I have mentioned and this views are but what I felt I should share

  11. It’s like you held the truth upside its head, slapped the heads that let it clinker clanker inside of it like a lone coin in a piggy bank, and it finally came out, solid, shining and and out.

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