Yet more of the Mandela I knew…

The best three things  that I’ve seen, that actually enlighten the reader on the whole Mandela/South Africa thing, are not to be found in the mainstream press.

Firstly, the always excellent Charles Crawford, at the Commentator. Crawford is an  ex-ambassador, and a very accomplished writer. He has the relevant personal experience, and a complete lack of the usual bullshit:

So, why is Mandela so revered? Partly it’s a carefully cultivated mythology that this saintly man presided over a saintly process. Type “South Africa peaceful transition” into Google and over a million hits appear.

There are references aplenty to statements such as this: South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy was indeed a miracle that captured the imagination of people all over the world.

Fine, soaring sentiments. And quite untrue.

Between 1985 and 1996 deaths from political violence in South Africa exceeded 20,000, with a large number taking place in the KwaZulu/Natal area. In Poland by contrast deaths from political violence of different shapes and sizes during the Solidarity period and through to the first free elections were very rare, to the point where individual killings of pro-democracy activists such as Father Popieluszko were a major mobilising event.

That small death toll did not make the Polish transition from communism ‘peaceful’. During the Martial Law period thousands were beaten or tortured or imprisoned or harassed or otherwise brutalised. From the outside it probably looked relatively calm and restrained. For Poles at the receiving end of this nationwide oppression it did not feel that way.

The point is that the world sees South Africa as a ‘peaceful’ transition only because not many pale-skinned people were killed. The fact that tens of thousands of dark-skinned people died in a disgusting civil war between Mandela’s African National Congress plus its Communist Party ally with every other African political tendency across the political spectrum is too ghastly to contemplate. So we don’t contemplate it.

Much more important – because it is true – is that Mandela came to symbolise a powerful idea that took hold round the planet: that categorising people by race is morally and politically unacceptable.

Secondly, the noted uberlefty, colonial journalist John Pilger.  Pilger has a few blind spots, but many fine attributes: he is a real reporter; he certainly cares; he has quite a few scoops, not least the incredible expose on Pol Pot’s killing fields. He also knows Mandela and  South Africa. Here he is a few months ago on Mandela’s legacy:

I had asked him why the pledges he and the ANC had given on his release from prison in 1990 had not been kept. The liberation government, Mandela had promised, would take over the apartheid economy, including the banks – and “a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable”. Once in power, the party’s official policy to end the impoverishment of most South Africans, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was abandoned, with one of his ministers boasting that the ANC’s politics were Thatcherite.

“You can put any label on it if you like,” he replied. “…but, for this country, privatisation is the fundamental policy.”

“That’s the opposite of what you said in 1994.”

“You have to appreciate that every process incorporates a change.”

Few ordinary South Africans were aware that this “process” had begun in high secrecy more than two years before Mandela’s release when the ANC in exile had, in effect, done a deal with prominent members of the Afrikaaner elite at meetings in a stately home, Mells Park House, near Bath. The prime movers were the corporations that had underpinned apartheid.

Around the same time, Mandela was conducting his own secret negotiations. In 1982, he had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive and entertain people. The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the ANC between the “moderates” they could “do business with” (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Oliver Tambo) and those in the frontline townships who led the United Democratic Front (UDF). On 5 July, 1989, Mandela was spirited out of prison to meet P.W. Botha, the white minority president known as the ‘Groot Krokodil’ (‘Big Crocodile’). Mandela was delighted that Botha poured the tea.

With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid was ended, and economic apartheid had a new face. During the 1980s, the Botha regime had offered black businessmen generous loans, allowing them set up companies outside the Bantustans. A new black bourgeoisie emerged quickly, along with a rampant cronyism. ANC chieftains moved into mansions in “golf and country estates”. As disparities between white and black narrowed, they widened between black and black.

Which references, to Thatcherism and PW Botha, bring us neatly to the last piece, which is Maggie’s detailed and exceptionally well argued letter to the Groot Krokodil, back in 1985, where she politely and with real insight explains how SA should get out of the mess that it was in, including, very specifically, releasing Mandela. It’s on a pdf file here, and it’s worth reading in full. I had never realised, until I read this, quite how brilliant a writer Maggie could be, and how, very concisely, she could convey a complex message. The letter is a masterpiece of living history. As someone who lived through the 1980’s listening to my peers singing and shouting about freeing Mandela, without actually knowing who he was – that was most people, believe me – it’s quite an eye opener to find just how switched on the Hated Thatcher was on all the necessary detail, and how influenced she was both by basic morality and pragmatic common sense.

So, a tribute to Mandela turns in part into a tribute to Maggie. It’s what he would have wanted.


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