Did Mandela really change South Africa?

[Article by TOM, a contributor to Socialist Voice, newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland and reprinted with their kind permission.  In essence it agrees with the analysis of Mandela and South Africa given by Stephen Spencer and Diarmuid Breatnach in an article reviewing statements of the Irish Left and Republican movement following the death of Mandela — Rebel Breeze]

The presence of such friends of genuine democracy as the war criminals George W. Bush and Tony Blair, David Cameron, Bill Clinton and such right-wing media hangers-on as Sir Bob Geldof and Sir Paul Hewson (Bono) at Nelson Mandela’s funeral raises questions about the real content of the new South Africa that appeared in 1994, when the apartheid elite seemed to cede political power to the African National Congress.

Twenty years later, given the continuing racial inequality in present-day South Africa, the much lower life expectancy of blacks and their much higher rate of unemployment, the increased vulnerability of the country to world economic fluctuations and accelerated environmental decay during his presidency, did Mandela really change South Africa? And, if not, how much room had he to manoeuvre?

For many are still remembering the Mandela years as fundamentally different from today’s crony-capitalist, corruption-riddled, brutally securitised, eco-destructive and anti-egalitarian South Africa. But could it be that the seeds of the present were sown earlier, by Mandela and his associates in government?

Ending the apartheid regime was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest events of the past century. But, to achieve a peaceful transition, Mandela’s ANC allowed whites to keep the best land, the mines, manufacturing plants and financial institutions, and to export vast quantities of capital.
The ANC could have followed its own revolutionary programme, mobilising the people and all their enthusiasm, energy, and hard work, using a larger share of the economic surplus (through state-directed investments and higher taxes), and stopping the flow of capital abroad, including the repayment of illegitimate apartheid-era debt. The path chosen, however, was the neo-liberal one, with small reforms here and there to permit superficial claims to the sustaining of a “National Democratic Revolution.”

The critical decade was the 1990s, when Mandela was at the height of his power, having been released from jail in February 1990, taking the South African presidency in May 1994 and leaving office in June 1999. But it was in this period, according to the former minister for intelligence services Ronnie Kasrils, for twenty years a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, that “the battle for the soul of the African National Congress was lost to corporate power and influence . . . We readily accepted that devil’s pact and are damned in the process. It has bequeathed to our country an economy so tied in to the neo-liberal global formula and market fundamentalism that there is very little room to alleviate the dire plight of the masses of our people.”

Nelson Mandela’s South Africa fitted a pattern, that of former critics of old dictatorships—whether from right-wing or left-wing backgrounds—who transformed themselves into neo-liberal rulers in the 1980s and 90s: Alfonsín (Argentina), Aquino (Philippines), Arafat (Palestine), Aristide (Haïti), Bhutto (Pakistan), Chiluba (Zambia), Kim (South Korea), etc. The self-imposition of economic and development policies, because of the pressures of financial markets and the Washington-Geneva multilateral institutions, required insulation from genuine national aspirations—in short, an “elite transition.”

This policy insulation from mass opinion was achieved through the leadership of Mandela. It was justified by invoking “international competitiveness.” Obeisance to transnational corporations led to the Marikana Massacre in 2012 and the current disturbances on the platinum belt, for example. But the decision to reduce the room for manoeuvre was made as much by the local principals, such as Mandela, as it was by the Bretton Woods institutions, financiers, and investors.

Much of the blame, therefore, for the success of the South African counter-revolution must be laid at the door of the ANC leadership, with Nelson Mandela at its head. Hence the paeans of praise for the dead leader from the doyens of international reaction.
[TOM]

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2 thoughts on “Did Mandela really change South Africa?

    • You are welcome. Diarmuid Breatnach and Alan Spencer covered the same ground quoting material of greater detail in the first article on this blog a few months ago perhaps, in the course of reviewing how Irish Left and Republican organisations had responded to the death of Mandela.

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