A tarnished halo: Reassessing Nelson Mandela’s legacy 10 years after his death

Nelson Mandela

First published at Daily Maverick.

Before entering into the contested terrain of Nelson Mandela’s legacy, it is important to remind ourselves of the key markers that constituted Mandela’s life journey and which together shaped his personality, sociopolitical views and overall ideological frame.

A brief pre-1990 biography

Born on 18 July 1918 into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape, Rolihlahla (Nelson) Mandela was the son of the principal councillor to the acting king of the Thembu people. After his father died when he was 12, Mandela became a ward of the king.

Mandela completed his primary and secondary schooling at church-affiliated institutions in the province, but was expelled from the University of Fort Hare (where he met his lifelong friend and comrade Oliver Tambo) in 1940 for taking part in student protests. He moved to Johannesburg where, after a stint as a mine security officer, he completed his articles through a firm of attorneys and finished his BA degree through the University of South Africa.

In 1944, he married Evelyn Mase, the cousin of Walter Sisulu — another close friend and comrade — and joined the largest and oldest black nationalist organisation, the African National Congress (ANC). Alongside Tambo and Sisulu, he was instrumental in forming the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), through which he soon ascended to become a leader of the Defiance Campaign (which sought to use mass civil disobedience against unjust laws).

After a short stint in the early-mid 1950s running South Africa’s first black-owned law firm with Tambo, Mandela was arrested and charged with many others in the five-year-long Treason Trial, during which he divorced Mase and married social worker Winnie Madikizela.

Mandela’s life took a decidedly different turn after his 1961 acquittal in the Treason Trial. He went underground and after a planned national strike was called off, became one of the first leaders of the newly formed ANC-led armed struggle wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation).

After spending a few months abroad to receive military training and garner support for the armed struggle, Mandela was arrested inside South Africa in August 1962. This led to his being put on trial for sabotage with other ANC colleagues in the Rivonia Trial. In June 1964, they were all convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mandela spent the next 27 years in various prisons (mostly Robben Island), both with fellow activists and alone. During his last few years in prison he engaged in talks with representatives of the apartheid state about starting negotiations to end the apartheid system.

Leading the way to the (com)promised land

In those last few prison years of the 1980s, Mandela not only acted as a conduit between the apartheid state and the external ANC leadership, but also became the dominant face of the anti-apartheid struggle domestically and internationally.

By the time he was released from prison on 11 February 1990, Mandela had effectively assumed the mantle of leadership of the ANC and been moulded into the individual incarnation of the organisation and its struggle for power — hastened by Tambo’s debilitating stroke in August 1989. As such, he emerged as a personified moral beacon and symbol of hope (politically and organisationally) for a majority of weary and expectant South Africans as well as hundreds of millions across the globe.

The first formal talks between the ANC and the apartheid state followed in the weeks after his prison release, in the form of a series of personal meetings between then President FW de Klerk and Mandela. This sent a clear signal that much of the early negotiation process would be dominated by personalised engagement between the two “big men”, as opposed to a more democratic, collective process. This was a trend that continued until a final political agreement was reached more than three years later.

Even if it did not seem so at the time, this was hugely important for two reasons: it gave a firm indication of the acceptance of Mandela’s almost supernatural status outside and beyond the democratic collective of the ANC and its Alliance partners; and it laid the groundwork for what was to become a series of secret negotiations and unilateral decision-making, centred on post-apartheid economic policy and involving a select group of leaders from the ANC and domestic and international corporate capital.

In linked developments, Mandela set off in mid-1990 on the first of many foreign trips during which, as the international political and moral symbol of the South African liberation struggle, he was feted as a hero wherever he went and fawned over by heads of state. While this was to be expected, given Mandela’s personal sacrifices and disarming humility, it opened up the organisational and ideological space for him to deviate from long-held and popularly backed policies of the ANC such as “the nationalisation of the mines, the financial institutions and monopoly industries”.

It also facilitated Mandela’s hypocritical and unapologetic acceptance of large amounts of money for the ANC from the likes of the Suharto military dictatorship in Indonesia and the autocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

Regardless of such things (which were not widely reported on in South Africa) and the ongoing killing of thousands of ANC and Alliance partner activists, workers and community residents by the apartheid state and its proxies during 1990-93, on the home front Mandela remained hugely popular and virtually immune from criticism.

For most South Africans, he stood out as the torchbearer of hope and the possibility of a better political and socioeconomic future after lifetimes of suffering and repression. Such loaded expectations often trumped the conflicting realities of decisions that were being made by Mandela and the ANC leadership. The best pre-1994 examples were the 1993 agreement with the International Monetary Fund to take a significant loan ($850-million), committing any future government to a range of corporate-friendly macroeconomic policies; and the ANC’s agreement to honour the massive and illegitimate apartheid debt.

Power to whom?

By the time the April 1994 elections rolled around, the ANC, thanks in no small part to Mandela, had been able to exert overall political and ideological authority over the “liberation forces” and the majority of the population that supported them.

The subsequent overwhelming electoral victory of the ANC and Mandela’s ascension to become the first democratically elected President of South Africa gave confirmatory testimony. There was, understandably, an outpouring of genuine celebration, joy and optimism, with Mandela occupying centre stage.

However, despite this electoral success and the subsequent adoption of a socially progressive Constitution, Mandela’s ANC was already well on its way to substituting the power it derived from the majority of workers and the poor for that derived from party-political control over the state and ever-closer embrace of those holding economic power.

To try to justify or, more accurately, hide the ideological and strategic gymnastics, Mandela made the astonishing argument that the path to power they had chosen had nothing to do with ideology, since it “would split the organisation from top to bottom”.

This, of course, was absurd, a truth that was soon confirmed when Mandela and the ANC unveiled (in 1996) a capitalist neoliberal macro-economic policy framework, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) programme. Driving home the point that they wielded ultimate political/state power, both Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Mandela declared that Gear was “non-negotiable”.

The developmental duality that followed over the remaining years of Mandela’s presidency was not therefore surprising.

On the one hand, there was the overseeing and delivery of some (time- and access-bound) positive achievements and progress. These included:

  • The ushering in of a constitutional democracy with an institutionalised democratic system based on nonracial ideals;
  • A Constitution that legally affirmed a range of civil, political and socioeconomic rights;
  • Progressive legislation that provided a legal framework for the realisation, protection and advancement of certain rights; and
  • The expansion of certain basic needs/services such as electricity, piped water, tertiary education and primary healthcare.

On the other hand, there was the rapid implementation of a wide range of policies and practices negatively affecting the majority poor and working class and narrowing the democratic space. These included:

  • The corporatisation and privatisation of basic service provision and state-owned enterprises;
  • The commodification of land redistribution as well as worker pension funds;
  • A secretive and unnecessary arms deal that opened the door to the intensified corruption of politics and the public sector;
  • The institutionalisation of political party patronage and the privileging of elite economic empowerment;
  • The weakening and/or absorption of mass, working-class movements; and
  • The use of the coercive forces of the state and intelligence services to crack down on critical thinking and political-ideological dissent.

A contradictory journey and outcome

Indeed, the contradictory nature of Mandela’s post-1994 personal political and ideological journey parallels the first few years of South Africa’s democratic transition.

Arguably the most crucial contradiction when it comes to Mandela’s legacy is the historic “trade-off” that he played such a central role in first ushering in and then institutionally managing; namely, the gaining of democratic legitimacy alongside political control of the state without a corresponding transformation of the socioeconomic sphere.

What emerged from this fundamental contradiction was (and remains) an approach to liberation that orients to existent, dominant political and economic power (ie, the state and capital) as opposed to the contingent power of the majority of people (ie, workers and the poor).

For some, Mandela was a tactical genius, adapting his personal, political and organisational approach to meet the changed circumstances of the period, whether applied to armed conflict, peaceful negotiation or democratic governance.

For others, his tactical nous was secondary to the strategic and ideological continuity in pursuit of a deracialised accession and incorporation into existent power. In this respect, regardless of which side of the proverbial fence we might sit on, there is almost certainly one thing we (whether in South Africa or globally) can all agree on: Nelson Mandela’s multifaceted legacy will continue to have equally multifaceted relevance for many decades to come. 

An edited version of this article was recently published on the website of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Dr Dale T McKinley is an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and a long-time political activist He is presently a research and education officer at the International Labour, Research and Information Group.