Should the Left celebrate Nelson Mandela?
David Renton | December 9th, 2013


Over the past few days some have queried the near universal sadness and admiration with which the left is responding to Mandela’s death. His government was to the right of its voters, they point out, and co-existed with rather than challenging neoliberalism. They are right, but miss the point.

The African National Congress (ANC) of the early 1990s had an enormous task to deliver a peaceful transition. And from the point of human liberation it was a victory that they did so.

People with no sense of South African history might kid themselves that the country would have benefited from a civil war as this would have been a clearer defeat for apartheid. They are wrong. Through the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, the apartheid state was preparing a civil war which would have pit East against Western Cape, the ANC against the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) with the National Party posing as honest brokers.

People forget that something like that “cold” civil war had actually begun at Boipatong and elsewhere, so that the closer South Africa came to defeating to apartheid, the more it was that the violence was not between the ANC and the state but between the ANC and various black proxies acting on behalf but independently of the old regime.

Believing in the necessary moral virtue of popular insurrection against a state is not the same thing as wishing for a civil war in which tens of thousands would have died and which would have delivered no more than was won peacefully.

Second, the price of the pacification of the revolution was that the ANC acted consciously as a moderating force on the armed wing of the revolution. But Mandela played a role that was different from and better than that of his party as a whole.

When Mandela was released, the consensus among the ANC exiles was to negotiate a peace at any price with the Nats. What happened next was a revolution within and against the ANC, characterised by mass strikes, stay-aways, “workerism,” etc. To Mandela’s immense credit, he did not turn on his party critics but essentially conciliated them, allowing their demands to displace those of the exiles..

The left which shaped things wasn’t a military one (the MK) but a political one based on the organisation of class struggle.

Under its impact, the ANC returned to the table, calling not for a compromise with apartheid but its utter defeat.

This is why my son aged eight knows the name of Nelson Mandela: because the black majority of South Africa won. (And where else in the last 20 years has our side had such a clear victory?)

This is the Mandela who needs celebrating, the Mandela who, if he was not Lenin, never pretended to be.

Finally, there is a left common sense in which the fault of our leaders is that by their elevated positions they are separated from the hardships of the struggle and return only to bask in a glory won truly by the rank and file. There are plenty of ANCers who fit this narrative, either for their separation from the bitterest periods of the struggle, or for the ease with which they have become a new owning class. But not the Mandela who rotted for decades on Robben Island.

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David Renton

David Renton is a barrister in London and blogs about politics, history and running.

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