Why aren’t we discussing Nelson Mandela’s politics?

As much as the world wants to deify Mandela, to do so in the abstract with no reference to his actual politics is absurd.

Image credit Steven Vacher via Flickr CC.

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 that, “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.

Further Reading

A forsaken people

The Indigenous people of the Tibetsi mountain range that straddles northern Chad and Libya have been neglected and stigmatized by the elites who control and favor development of the south.