The Search for Nuance about Nelson Mandela — as the World Celebrates His Legacy

As South Africans mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find any honest and balanced assessments of Mandela’s legacy. Indeed, particularly on the broadcast media, including Fox News, it seems to be all accolades with nary a word of criticism.

Instead, you have many sites by liberals condemning conservatives for their view of the African National Congress back in the 1980s, during the Reagan years. At the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner argues, for example, that conservatives viewed their struggle through the prism of the Cold War, and hence thought nothing of backing apartheid because that government was our ally against the Soviet Union.  Liberals like Chotiner argue that the ANC had to take allies where they found them. Yet their struggle was moral and should have been supported then by the United States.

The Cold War, he argues, “prevented many of the people fighting it from viewing Mandela in anything but Cold War terms.” How, he asks, could anyone even think of the apartheid regime as part of the Free World? The Cold War, he writes, “didn't require anyone to wear these blinders.”

Strangely, but predictably, Chotiner does not ask why Nelson Mandela and the Communist leadership of the African National Congress -- which was controlled completely by the South African Communist Party -- did not see any contradiction between their own calls for sanctions against the regime (as well as requests for international solidarity) and their support of the most brutal and repressive Communist regimes and leftist tyrannies, including Gadaffi’s Libya and Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The issue was raised in the New York Times by former executive editor Bill Keller, in a column titled provocatively: “Nelson Mandela, Communist.” Acknowledging that Mandela was probably both a Party member as well as on its ruling Central Committee, Keller, unaware that the SACP had acknowledged his membership proudly a few days earlier on its own web page, asked a simple question: “Does it matter?”

Keller answers his rhetorical question the following way: People say one thing, but party platforms and ideology are often ignored. This, he says, is what the pragmatic Mandela did. Conservatives who harp on it are engaging in “gleeful red-baiting.” The truth, he writes, is that Mandela “was at various times a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence, a hothead and the calmest man in the room, a consumer of Marxist tracts and an admirer of Western democracy, a close partner of Communists and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists.”

In other words, he was a man of contradictions. His alliance with and membership in the SACP was simply a “marriage of convenience,” in a movement with few friends. He was able to receive money and arms from his Soviet and Chinese comrades for their “feckless armed struggle.” Despite ideology, when push came to shove, the pragmatists and the realists won out.  Mandela emerged from prison a changed man, who brought reconciliation to his native land that could have erupted in civil war, and both avoided bloodshed and gave his backing to South African capitalists who could have been his enemy.

His Party membership can be explained simply by the fact that the Marxist-Leninist group was the only political group that allowed whites, blacks, Indians and mixed-race people as members.

What Keller ignores, as do others, is that Mandela not only accepted the Party positions, but used its strength to turn the once non-violent ANC to terrorism, as well as to an alliance in which the worst left-wing tyrannies were endorsed and supported. Mandela himself welcomed Fidel Castro with open arms, calling him upon his release from prison the leader of a country that “stands out head and shoulders above the rest…in its love for human rights and liberty.”  This about a country in which political opponents were regularly tortured and starved in the most brutal prisons, and in which many prisoners received and served far longer sentences in prison than Mandela himself.

After his release, he welcomed Muammar Gadaffi to South Africa, calling him a comrade and praising his dictatorial regime as a land of freedom. Libyan exiles protested and pleaded with Mandela for his support, telling him that his backing of Gadaffi was an insult to the “thousands…who are still in the jails of the tyrant, subjected to torture on a daily basis for asking nothing more than what you and the people of South Africa have asked for: to breathe free in our own land.”

Mandela responded by saying that the internal conditions of these countries were their own business, and any interference from other nations was a violation of their sovereignty. Somehow, the very acts of solidarity he asked for from the West were wrong when victims of human rights violations by leftist regimes requested the same kind of support he and the ANC expected during the years of apartheid.

No one has made this point better than Michael Moynihan at the Daily Beast, who writes:

For a man imprisoned for his political beliefs, he had a weakness for those who did the very same thing to their ideological opponents, but were allowed a pass because they supported, for realpolitik reasons, the struggle against Apartheid. So Mandela was painfully slow in denouncing the squalid dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. He was rather fond of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (it won’t take you long to find photos of the two bear-hugging each other in Havana) and regularly referred to Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi as “Brother Leader of the Revolution of the Libyan Jamahariya.” It was on a return visit to Robbin Island, when Mandela, as president, announced with appalling tone deafness that he would invite both Castro and Qaddafi to South Africa.

Moreover, during the years of armed struggle, the ANC ran brutal training camps in which scores of young blacks were purged as unreliable, and tortured and then burned to death in the chosen method of the ANC -- necklacing -- the term used for putting them in rubber auto tires and setting them afire. It was for this reason that even Amnesty International refused to give him the status of “political prisoner,” as a critical report in  conservative Catholic magazine Crisis points out.

As author Timothy J. Williams writes in this magazine, the record of South Africa today is also Mandela’s legacy:

Mandela did, however, leave behind another socialist nightmare in the making. With their motto of “liberation before education,” the ANC has proved itself completely incapable of governing, and South Africa is sliding into chaos at an alarming rate. Since 2004, South Africa has experienced almost constant political protests, many of them violent. Activists like to refer to the nation as the most “protest-rich in the world,” which, along with prison camps, is the only type of “riches” a socialist nation can produce. The nation is staggered by unemployment, corruption throughout all levels of the police, military, and civil service, and ubiquitous, inescapable crime. Life in South Africa is far more dangerous, especially for blacks and women, than it was under Apartheid. With about fifty murders a day, the nation is now among the undisputed murder capitals of the world, most of these crimes going uninvestigated.

"The astounding estimates of other violent crimes, including rape, are almost impossible to believe," Williams adds. "But only the truth of such figures could account for the fact that the private security business in South Africa is the largest in the world, with over a quarter-million private security guards in a nation of under 53 million."

If you don’t trust Williams’ account, read the frank article in TNR by reporter Eve Fairbanks, who lives in and reports from South Africa. While the media at Tuesday's memorial report on how everyone in South Africa loves Mandela and what he did for them, Fairbanks reports the truth:

People are deeply, deeply disillusioned with the leaders who’ve followed Mandela, both official African National Congress politicians and emotional leaders like Mandela’s offspring. Mandela’s relatives seem to have bucked his example entirely; some have banked millions in mining, an industry against which the apartheid-era ANC railed against as the heart of South Africa’s satanic injustice, while others have cashed in with a reality TV show. The allegations against the politicians in actual office are more troubling. The country’s second democratically-elected president, Thabo Mbeki, was bitterly criticized for denying South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. Mbeki’s successor, President Jacob Zuma, was prosecuted for both rape and racketeering; he was acquitted of the former, and the latter charges were dropped on technicalities, but recently a huge scandal around taxpayer-funded upgrades to his massive home dominated the papers until Mandela’s—for Zuma, very propitiously timed—death. Daily, the whole black political class is accused in the media of corruption in the awarding of government contracts and greed in treating itself to swanky vacations and flashy vehicles. “They were heroes,” one of the students standing beside me on the police line mused grimly, “but then they started buying cars.” As they buy cars, economic growth has slowed, basic education has fallen into disrepair, and inequality has deepened. This fall, The Economist concluded in a cover package pessimistically titled “Cry, the Beloved Country” that South Africa “is on the slide both economically and politically” and that the ANC’s “incompetence and outright corruption are the main causes.”

Fairbanks dares, in a liberal publication, to point out what you will not hear on TV and radio by the mainstream press, and asks this tough question: “Great leadership involves building a political culture that mirrors your virtues. Can a leader truly be considered great if those who come right on his heels are terrible?” Praising Mandela for honesty himself in the post-apartheid government, she nevertheless concludes that “Mandela didn’t do enough to actively establish a culture of honesty, selflessness, and good conduct in the government he founded.” She adds that  Mandela also “vigorously defended an ANC leader named Allan Boesak who was accused of embezzlement, even directing his Minister of Justice to make a speech supporting Boesak. (Boesak was soon convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.)”

You wouldn’t know much of that by our media reports, which celebrate Mandela as if he was a saint, and which really amount to self-glorification and their desire to identify with the old opponents of apartheid. So Kudos to Eve Fairbanks for her courage in daring to spoil the party by telling some of the uncomfortable truths the regular media does not let anyone know about.

Yes, Nelson Mandela deserves credit for helping South Africa avoid a civil war, for not creating an all-black racist government, and for creation of a commission that allowed those who had engaged in unconscionable acts to atone for their crimes and that created the structure that allowed the society to move on. One must also remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union -- its main benefactor -- did a lot to prevent the country from becoming an African version of the old Stalinist state. With the Soviets not around to back them into becoming another “people’s democracy,” there really was no option around but to allow capitalism to continue.

Yet if one takes the case of its most likely next president -- Cyril Ramaphosa -- one can see the corruption that allowed the former left-wing socialist union leader to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country. As in Russia after the fall, where the former Communists grabbed the wealth of the nation for themselves, leading ANC and Communist leaders did the same in South Africa.

In 2012, the ANC directed police to shoot down striking mine workers in cold blood -- something that the ANC in the years of the “liberation struggle” would have never tolerated from the apartheid regime. Thirty-four miners were shot in the back and killed, and 78 others were seriously injured. Ramaphosa, the former head of the mineworkers union, called the strikers guilty of “dastardly criminal conduct.”  He is widely regarded as the man who was responsible for the police response to the strike. When ANC leaders now own the mines, they have a different set of standards.

In honoring Nelson Mandela, let us not forget his easily discovered “dark side.” To ignore it is to fail to understand why South Africa is in such trouble today.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple images.)