Though he is popularly regarded as one of the most significant political figures of the late 20th century, Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who became a living symbol for peace, dignity and reconciliation after 27 years as a political prisoner, played only a peripheral role in my political education. Since his death from natural causes at age 95 on Thursday, innumerable articles by people far more informed than I have sprung up across the Web, rendering the prospect of my saying something useful about the meaning of his life more conspicuously absurd. Nonetheless, I did what I could in a Saturday reading about the man — grasping along the way that like all dead people of public consequence, his memory would be twisted, cleansed and bent, especially by the right — and will share some of what I found and what I thought of it here.

The legal policy of racial and social segregation known as apartheid, which translates literally from the local Afrikaans to “apart-hood,” goes back to the consolidation of political and economic power in the Dutch and British colonial-based South African National Party in 1948. Naturally within colonialism, the white minority, which at the time enjoyed the highest standard of living in all of Africa, exerted near complete control over the vastly larger black majority. Members of the black underclass were disadvantaged in every way: They suffered lower incomes, marginal educational opportunities, poor housing conditions and shorter life expectancies. Early in the ’40s, while working as a law clerk during his 20s, Mandela was exposed to and became sympathetic with the pro-black African National Congress party. Only whites were allowed to vote in the election of 1948. Against the increasing power of the openly racist National Party, Mandela, now studying law and gaining influence in the ANC, pushed the organization in a “more radical and revolutionary” direction.

In 1950 Mandela was elected national leader of the youth league of the ANC. He consumed and took seriously works by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin, the traditional texts of communism. On pragmatic grounds, he adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s method of nonviolent resistance. He gave speeches to crowds of 10,000 people, was arrested, rose higher in the ANC’s ranks and was arrested again. A full-fledged attorney in 1953, he opened Mandela and Tambo in downtown Johannesburg, the only African-run law firm in the country. During this time he struggled to be a husband and raise a family while evidence he was having affairs with ANC members alienated him from his family, and his wife, who was uncomfortable with his civic interests, joined the officially politically neutral Jehovah’s Witnesses. (The two divorced in 1957.)

The failure of nonviolence to secure political victories against the oppressive ruling whites persuaded Mandela to turn to “armed and violent resistance.” He sent for weapons from Communist China and advocated the transformation of South Africa into a democratic, non-segregated state with public control over major industries. The arrests and crackdowns under various laws designed to keep the black majority from organizing continued. Riots broke out, people were killed and Mandela was unsuccessfully tried over a period of six years for treason. Following the not guilty verdict in 1961 he co-founded a militant group inspired by Fidel Castro’s success in the Cuban Revolution. The members committed acts of sabotage, bombing military facilities, power plants, telephone lines and transportation routes with minimal casualties in attempt to scare the government into cooperation. Possibly with help from the CIA, the South African authorities captured him in August 1962. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison on charges of inciting worker strikes and leaving the country without permission. The charges became more serious when a raid on a farm turned up paperwork linking Mandela with the sabotage group: four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. The accused used the trial to give impassioned speeches giving voice to the organization’s cause, with Mandela famously ending an address with the words: “If needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” The court found the members of Mandela’s party to be violent communist agitators and in June 1964 sentenced them to life in prison, rather than death, which was expected.

The next stage of his life is the one most amenable to legend. Twenty-seven years in prison in damp, tuberculosis-producing cells measuring little longer or wider than a man is tall, forced to perform manual labor in the blinding sun without protection, which damaged his eyesight, refused newspapers, permitted at times only one visit and letter every six months, and locked in solitary confinement for possessing smuggled news clippings. He struggled to continue his education, debating politics with fellow prisoners. He was kept from attending funerals for his mother and his son and denounced as a terrorist by some of his capitalist bête noires, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In time his privileges improved. A commanding officer’s respect enabled him to create a roof garden and read and correspond more frequently. He enjoyed the support of a devoted second wife: social worker, ANC member and current member of parliament Winnie Mandela, whom he married in 1958. A lucky break came when the country’s then-president, P.W. Botha, attempted to divide the anti-apartheid movement across race lines by granting Indian and other citizens the right to vote for their own parliaments but withholding the right from blacks. Mandela had been appointed a leader of the multiracial United Democratic Front, and in 1985, when violence across the country flared and economic stagnation became possible due to the withdrawal of investments from the country by international banks, Botha sought to defuse the situation by offering to release Mandela. Mandela refused on the grounds that the ANC remained an illegal organization. Violence between the government and the organization continued. Secret talks Botha held with his cabinet led to the terms that political prisoners — including Mandela — would be released and the ANC legalized provided they permanently renounced violence, broke ties with the Communist Party and promised not to insist on majority rule. Mandela held his ground and refused the offer, demanding that the government renounce violence too.

In 1989 a single health crisis changed history. President Botha suffered a stroke, and his successor, F.W. de Klerk, heeding the demands of growing international pressure, announced apartheid was unsustainable. After freeing all other political prisoners, de Klerk in 1990 freed Mandela, then 71, unconditionally, and legalized all formerly banned political parties. Apartheid was dismantled in a series of negotiations from 1990 to 1993. The 1994 elections, the first in South Africa with universal suffrage, saw the election of an ANC government with more than 62 percent of the vote. Nelson Mandela was its president.This is the story of the remarkable struggle of an individual, an oppressed majority and an entire society. Wrongful policies were overcome and explicitly and officially consigned to history. Just celebration was the order of the day, and it is a chapter of history all humans should be proud of. But like every other great triumph of the 20th century, the taste of victory turned sour when the capitalists took over.

My searches suggest the definitive article on the betrayal of hope and change in South Africa at the turn of the millennium comes from Patrick Bond, the director of the Centre for Civil Society, a public interest research group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. Bond’s long, intricate piece details the theft of Mandela’s promise of democracy and equality by the Western nations and businesses behind international neoliberalism — the ideological facade of a governing principle that says no government should prevent those who already have money from taking whatever they can from others who have little or nothing. He describes behind-the-scenes economic policy agreements made by Mandela’s government: the auctioning off of the country’s wealth of resources to multinational corporations; the loosening of regulations, including rules to keep money in the country; the granting of lavish corporate subsidizes; a shift of the tax burden from the wealthy to bottom earners; the privatization of public utilities and housing; deepening inequality along the race divide; unemployment; the desertion of small businesses; the abandonment of a stated intent to nationalize key wealth-producing industries; the gutting of infrastructure services and social programs for the poor, women, youth, the elderly, the disabled and the ill; rampant, unmitigated AIDS; state schools without running water, electricity, libraries or computers; the business exploitation-led destruction of the environment and wild animals; etc. These deliberate acts generated predictable social unrest, including “epidemic levels of rape and other violent crimes.” The poor remained impoverished, bound to their anxiety, despair and absent prospects, and all the evils those produce. Naturally, workers struck and left-wing activists and intellectuals took to the streets.

Observing these disappointments, Bond asks: “The question raised by the failure of Mandela’s government to solve all these foundational problems is whether matters could have been different if activists and leadership had agreed on a strategy of transformation based on popular empowerment, as well as renewed international solidarity to change global power relations. To some extent, many of the policy papers drafted during the second half of the 1990s contained rhetoric promoting popular participation, but these were consistently undermined by the harsh realities of power relations experienced in every sector.

“Instead of combating adverse global, regional or local power balances, Mandela’s government generally legitimized the status quo. The occasional exception — his outrage at the execution of Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa — proved the rule; the unanimous backlash against Mandela by other African elites convinced [the government in] Pretoria not to side with democratic movements. Only Palestine solidarity was durable, but this only after Pretoria’s pro-Zionist (black) ambassador was replaced in the early 2000s. And because the post-apartheid era’s internal social unrest festered, one result was amongst the world’s worst cases of xenophobia.”

What emerges is a disheartening and entirely unexceptional picture of what neoliberalism does everywhere it exists. It steals the energy of those who oppose it by depriving them of an economic basis to live, organize and resist, and generally destroys the sustainable well-being of the majority of the population. Bond calls it “the replacement of racial for what we might term ‘class apartheid’ … under Mandela’s rule.” It is an arrangement in which ruling elites don’t need an official policy like apartheid anymore. The economy divides people for them, and does it precisely as credentialed and respected academics say it should. The rich do not need to be beasts tearing in the open, and indeed are not according to the standards that were so violently explicit in the past. People are told those difficulties have been overcome, when they’ve merely been transferred to a different cause. And many, maybe most of the people — for a time, at least — believe it. Neoliberalism is the new oppressor, and once its laws are in place, the oppression occurs as an unthinking matter of course.

In short, South Africa’s enduring “class apartheid” is an economic confirmation of the same destructive white and elite privilege that the recently deceased Mandela spent the majority of his life struggling against. In describing the direction his country must take, Bond is frank and unsparing — and by the evidence presented in his article, fair — in his criticism of South Africa’s beloved “father”: “To solve South Africa’s vast problems — not least of which is being both a major victim and a major villain when it comes to climate change — will require a major overhaul of every system in our lives here: production, consumption and social reproduction, energy, transport, agriculture, disposal, financing and everything in between. What is Mandela’s legacy, if not cementing the worst features of these systems, aside from beginning to undo their correlation with racism?”

Much as the Catholic Church may try to convince us otherwise, saints are made of fiction. No woman or man is equivalent to the object-figure fashioned in fairy tales to inspire hope, determination and awe in receptive hearts. We can both honor successes and recognize failures. A dedication to truth demands it. Nelson Mandela took a costly and unequivocal stand against plain, brutal and unnecessary oppression that exploited differences between people. My day with his memory suggests he understood his work was not finished. For giving the rest of us an example and a direction, we honor him as our Truthdigger of the Week.

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