Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela
18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013

Throughout the 1980s, the Revolutionary Communist Group and City of London Anti-Apartheid Group actively campaigned against apartheid and for the release of all political prisoners. In particular our members were central to the organisation of the non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square from April 1986 until Mandela was released in February 1990.*

For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.’

US President Barack Obama, Tribute to Nelson Mandela Soweto, 10 December 2013

Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and the first black President of South Africa, died on 5 December after a long illness. He deserves to be remembered as a committed revolutionary who gave many years of his life in the struggle against apartheid. He was instrumental in the instigation of armed struggle in 1961, with the formation of Umkonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing. In 1964 at the Rivonia trial, along with fellow ANC leaders, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in the liberation struggle.At that time, life imprisonment meant incarceration for life in the harshest conditions; there was no parole. During many years of imprisonment, Mandela played a crucial role in keeping the ideas of the liberation movement alive.

In particular, in February 1985, at the height of the township revolt, Mandela refused to bargain with the regime for his freedom. Thousands gathered in a stadium in Soweto to hear his response to PW Botha’s offer of conditional release: ‘I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.’ It was a profound moment in the struggle, when the blandishments of the regime that it would reform apartheid were swept aside by this commitment to take the side of the oppressed. For all this Nelson Mandela should be remembered with profound respect.

The millions of words written and spoken in memory of Nelson Mandela since his death serve as a reminder that history is rewritten by the ruling class to suit its own purposes. The world leaders assembled at the FNB stadium in Soweto on 10 December to ‘remember’ Mandela included a rotten collection of representatives of imperialism: from US Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush Junior and Obama, to British Prime Ministers Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, to an assortment of entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, pop singers and Hollywood ‘stars’. They were united by one message aimed at the rest of us. This was the culmination of a long process which robbed Nelson Mandela of his reputation as a revolutionary and substituted the dubious title of ‘reconciler in chief’.

In the rush to claim a piece of the Mandela magic following his death, a phalanx of major and minor officials rushed into print and video interview to claim that they influenced ‘the great man’ when he emerged from prison in 1990 or uniquely understood the nature of his ‘greatness’. Former British ambassador to South Africa, Robin Renwick, for instance, told Telegraph readers, absurdly, how he helped Mandela back into political life on his release, winning him away from ‘nonsensical’ policies like ‘nationalisation’. In this world turned upside down, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan became opponents of apartheid and campaigners for Mandela’s release from prison. With all the sincerity of a coca-cola advert, both Blair and Cameron invoked Mandela’s spirit of forgiveness, in the hope, perhaps, that some of this forgiveness might come their way.

It was left to US President Obama to crystallise the message: Mandela’s greatness lay in his reconciliation of opposing forces. Without Mandela, the argument goes, South Africa would have descended into racial chaos. The spectre was raised of violent revolution that would have driven the whites into the sea and destroyed civilisation (that is, the capitalist system). The achievement of justice in the world, according to President Obama, must come from individuals striving to forgive their enemies, not from overturning the capitalist system.

It is worth remembering how seriously the makers of the Mandela myth have failed to make reconciliation and forgiveness the centre of their own imperialist activities. In the 1970s and 1980s it was the US and Britain that backed the invasion of Angola by the apartheid regime, killing thousands of innocent people in the ensuing war. The slaughter was ended only by the intervention of Cuban troops who aided the military defeat of South Africa’s army at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987/88. So decisive was the battle to the subsequent defeat of apartheid that Fidel Castro observed: ‘the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale’.It was Thatcher and Reagan, acting as the international sponsors of apartheid, who promoted the regime’s war on the frontline states. It was they who systematically undermined sanctions against the apartheid regime, backing bandit organisations like Unita (Angola) and Renamo (Mozambique) whilst branding Mandela and the ANC as terrorists – in the case of the US this lasted until 2008.

In reality, reconciliation and forgiveness have been required only of South Africa’s black working class and the poorest of its citizens. Instead imperialism has waged decades of war on the world’s most oppressed. A simple test of Obama’s sincerity would be the end of the blockade of socialist Cuba, the freeing of the Cuban Five and the closure of Guantanamo with the release of the detainees.

Rewriting history has not been solely the preserve of imperialist leaders. Apparatchiks of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) have taken the opportunity to promote their role as opponents of apartheid and supporters of the Mandela myth. Peter Hain, writing in The Guardian, claimed that: ‘Long years in prison turned him [Mandela] from burly, pushy freedom fighter into wise, almost saintly, statesman, able to heal a bitterly divided people.’ Reminiscing about the good old days, Bob Hughes, Labour MP and AAM chair, reflected on the height of the AAM campaign, the pop concert for Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988: ‘On the Wednesday before the concert on the Saturday, a group led by the Tory MP John Carlisle tried to pull the plug on it by claiming that the BBC was funding a terrorist organisation. We were not because we were giving all the money to charities.’ What a relief! It was this same Bob Hughes who in 1986 called for the end of the successful boycott of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, organised by black Commonwealth countries in opposition to Thatcher’s pro-apartheid stance, on the grounds that a boycott would harm Scotland.

Seumas Milne writing in The Guardian on 12 December complained, correctly, about the airbrushing of Mandela’s reputation: ‘The whitewashed narrative has been such a success that the former ANC leader has been reinvented and embraced as an all-purpose Kumbaya figure by politicians across the spectrum and ageing celebrities alike.’ What Milne does not record is the fact that The Guardian newspaper, for which he was a reporter at the time, opposed sanctions and, at the height of the struggle in the 1980s, carried full-page adverts from the apartheid regime promoting PW Botha’s policies. Nor does Milne, himself a leading CPGB member, record his own role in trying to destroy City of London Anti-Apartheid Group in collaboration with the AAM leadership, the police and the British state. City Group’s four-year long non-stop picket of the South African Embassy has been airbrushed from the record along with Mandela the revolutionary.

Reconciliation is the political expression of the defeat of the socialist content of the liberation struggle in South Africa, of which the ANC was the leading force. Today, almost 20 years on from the first free elections, South Africa still ranks amongst the world’s most unequal societies with 85% of black South Africans remaining poor, while 87% of whites are middle or upper class according to World Bank definitions. Unemployment remains at 25% overall, but rises to more than 50% for young people: 70% of the jobless are aged between 15 and 34. The ANC government has spectacularly failed to restructure South Africa’s economy: there has been no land reform to speak of, the mine-owners still reap superprofits and the majority still struggle to survive with poor housing, poor education and health services.

The seeds of this tragedy were planted while Mandela was in prison and at the height of mass revolt in the black townships. The regime imposed a seven-month state of emergency lasting up to 7 March 1986 during which 7,992 people were detained without trial, many of them tortured and thousands were killed. This reign of terror failed to quell the uprising. On the contrary, in the townships around Johannesburg the black population was organising to resist and to rule on its own behalf with local councils and street committees. The apartheid regime’s former backers, among them the leading mining bosses at Anglo American and Consolidated Goldfields, now realised that apartheid was a fetter on the future stability of their profit-making activities, so they sponsored talks between the government and the ANC, including the exiled leadership in Lusaka, Zambia, and in Britain, but most importantly including Nelson Mandela in prison. The ANC leadership was being lured into the capitalist camp, away from any commitment to a socialist future – a process accelerated by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and socialist bloc.

The negotiations led to the release of Mandela from prison in 1990 and, as Ronnie Kasrils, erstwhile ANC stalwart and recent critic, has said: ‘That was the time, from 1991-1996, that the battle for the soul of the ANC got underway and was lost to corporate power and influence. That was the fatal turning point.’ Nelson Mandela was a leading architect of the neoliberal economic policies, adopted by the ANC when it was first elected in 1994. Reconciliation instead of revolution. By 2001 international financier George Soros could assert that ‘South Africa is in the hands of international capital’.

The tripartite alliance of the ANC, COSATU (the trade union federation) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) around the Freedom Charter promised that the ‘national democratic revolution’ would bring about equality and freedom for the majority without destroying the capitalist infrastructure which they believed necessary to sustain wealth creation. This was, in reality, a compromise between different classes; they promised that the capitalist system would be reformed and controlled to benefit the black majority. Twenty years later the realities of life in the townships of South Africa are testimony not to the success President Obama’s preferred strategy, but to its abject failure.

Mandela and many others in the liberation movement have been appalled that ANC policies aimed at empowering black entrepeneurs have led to the creation of a super-rich corrupt black elite. The size of the black middle class more than doubled between 1993 and 2008. Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC deputy president and former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), now has an estimated personal fortune of $675 million as a result of his business activities. He is not alone. ANC President Zuma, the subject of many scandals, is currently under investigation for spending $20 million of public money on his luxurious private residence.

Since the massacre of 34 striking platinum miners at the Lonmin mine in Marikana in August 2012, the ANC has been under increasing pressure. The official investigation into the police shootings and the subsequent attempts to blame the miners and their families for the deaths (initially the surviving strikers were charged with murder) will report in 2014, but already there is evidence that the massacre was preplanned.1 Rifts are appearing in the Charterist alliance, not only with the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters in July (followers of former ANC Youth leader Julius Malema) but also within COSATU itself. This was behind the booing of President Zuma by sections of the audience at the Mandela Memorial on 9 December. In the face of political disagreements, with a general election looming in 2014 and with a worsening economic outlook, the ANC, COSATU and the SACP are once again appealing to the memory of Nelson Mandela in order to silence criticism and restore unity in their ranks. It will be the greatest pity if the real legacy of Mandela the revolutionary is forgotten.

Hamba kahle Nelson Mandela

Carol Brickley

* The history and politics of the Non-Stop Picket is the subject of a research project currently underway at the University of Leicester. For archive material see: Further information about the history of City AA and the AAM’s attempts to undermine its campaigns can be found in the RCG’s pamphlet South Africa – Britain out of Apartheid; Apartheid out of Britain, Larkin Publications, 1986: see:

1. See Carol Brickley, ‘Writing on the wall for the South African “national democratic revolution”’ Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 229, October/November 2012: index.php/international/2718-writing-on-the-wall-for-the-south-african-national-democratic-revolution



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