Nelson Mandela: Armed struggle and communism in the fight for freedom

Dec 6, 2013

Left to right: Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo

Nelson Mandela, longtime leader of the African National Congress, and first Black president of South Africa, died quietly in his home December 5, after a long battle with illness. Mandela became the world’s best-known political prisoner in the 1980s, and following his imprisonment gained even more stature as the leading figure in the transition from apartheid, a task for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Mandela is being praised in the corporate-owned media and western governments for his achievements and especially for his policy of “peace and reconciliation” with the former racist oppressors following the fall of the apartheid system. This wave of pro-Mandela coverage has the effect of masking the ugly truth that these same entities branded Mandela as a terrorist for much of his public political career.

While the legacy of some of his post-apartheid policies is in places contradictory, it helps illuminate his life to note that while he is being lauded now as a patron saint of “peace” in its most abstract sense, Mandela was in fact one of the foremost advocates of the rights of an oppressed people to resist by whatever means available, legal and illegal, including armed struggle.

As often happens with great revolutionaries and liberation figures after their deaths, and sometimes even in the latter part of their lives, a process of sanitization is occurring, where the reality of Mandela’s life is being replaced by a well-vetted and stage-managed narrative. To paraphrase Lenin, the revolutionary hero is being turned into a harmless icon. Because Nelson Mandela chose to pursue a path to majority rule through compromise and accommodated the settler minority and Imperialist capital, he won the plaudits of the world capitalist establishment.

However we evaluate this aspect of his historic role and his legacy as a whole, it must be noted that to even be in a position so as to achieve such an outcome was the result of an unceasing struggle by Mandela, the South African people and their organizations the African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress, Azanian Peoples Liberation Organization, the United Democratic Movement, the Black Consciousness Movement and others. This was a struggle that shook and inspired the world, drew the opprobrium of the most powerful nations and finally ended the formal period of white minority political domination of the African continent. For that we owe leaders like Nelson Mandela a great debt and a place of honor in the hearts of revolutionaries.

Defiant spirit

Born in July 1918 in the rural village of Qunu into a family of royal lineage, Nelson Mandela was born with the given name of Rolihlahla, which meant “troublemaker.” He was given the English name Nelson upon entering school.

Mandela pursued higher education in the 1930s and 1940s, becoming known both for his intelligence as a young activist, moving in circles of African nationalists, liberals, and Communists dedicated to ending subjugation of the Black population and other injustices.

Mandela was part of a growing cohort of young Black leaders including figures like Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Robert Sobukwe who grew impatient of political strategies limited to petition and protest aimed at the racist elites who controlled South Africa. In 1944 Mandela became one of the founders of the ANC Youth League which became the home for like-minded militants.

In 1948 the new National Party came to power in a whites-only election, and began to set up the official legal framework of racist oppression that became known as “Apartheid” or “apartness” in Afrikaans. The ANCYL and Mandela advocated an aggressive response, calling for the ANC to adopt strikes and direct-action protests to challenge white domination. Eventually Mandela and his compatriots were able to capture the leadership of the ANC in the late 1940s and change the organization’s direction to one which sought to counter the legal oppression of Blacks with extra-legal tactics of civil disobedience.

In 1952, when the white-settler minority was celebrating 300 years of colonial oppression, the ANC called for a campaign of mass defiance against apartheid laws, with Nelson Mandela taking a key organizing role as “volunteer-in-chief.” While the campaign roiled South Africa, it was eventually suppressed, and Mandela and other leaders were tried, convicted, given suspended sentences, and then subjected to the process of “banning” that is, being confined in both their movements and speech by the apartheid government.

The “Defiance campaign” of 1952 had led to immense growth of the ANC and throughout the 1950s the struggle against apartheid laws continued to grow. In 1960 the PAC led a campaign against the “Pass Law” which required Blacks carry a pass book at all times. This campaign led to major protests across the country. On March 21, 1960, racist police opened fire on demonstrators in Sharpeville, killing 69 in what would become known as the Sharpeville massacre. Alarmed by African militancy, the apartheid government banned both the ANC and PAC.

Prepared to die

Mandela by this time had become influenced by Communism and, was briefly a member of the South African Communist Party as now confirmed by the ANC. Mandela and other comrades surveyed the African scene, deciding in his words: “The hard facts were that 50 years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.”

And further:

“After a long and anxious assessment…I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence…was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.”

With that in mind—and influenced by revolutionary movements in Cuba among other places–Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and white Communist Joe Slovo, founded Umkhonto We Sizwe, (“Spear of the Nation”) which ultimately became the armed wing of the ANC, to answer the terrorism of the racist white minority with acts of sabotage aimed at dealing blows to the machinery of the apartheid government.

As the head of the MK, the group’s abbreviation, Mandela traveled the country in disguise, gaining fame in the press for his ability to elude the apartheid authorities. He was finally captured in 1963 along with other ANC leaders. At the Rivonia Trial Mandela gave one of his most famous speeches known as “I am Prepared to Die” which echoed the closing words of an oration in which he explained not only the history of the ANC and the unjust nature of apartheid, but took responsibility for MK’s acts of sabotage and explained the historical justification of an oppressed people, who finding no other relief, decide to take up arms.

Nelson Mandela never denounced the armed struggle, even when offered freedom from prison in exchange for doing so. When he was finally able to travel abroad after being released from prison, Mandela traveled to Cuba, giving praise to the revolutionary government there for offering key assistance to ANC armed forces and medical personnel. Mandela spoke on more than one occasion of the role played by Cuba in Angola, where along with Angolans and MK fighters they delivered a deathblow to the apartheid army, freeing Namibia and accelerating the collapse of the racist regime at home where the mass movement of the townships was rapidly making the country ungovernable.

Fighting even behind bars

Sentenced to life imprisonment at the brutal apartheid prison on Robben Island. Mandela began his prison term listed as a “class D” prisoner he could receive visitors and send letters only twice a year, and was forced to work first breaking rocks into gravel, then in the lime quarry. He was consigned to a roughly 2×2 meter cell.

Mandela assumed with others a leadership role amongst ANC prisoners that busied itself with prisoner strikes and slow-downs as well as other concerns such as letter writing. Mandela was key to establishing political education classes among prisoners and attempting to forge unity between prisoners from various forces in the liberation movement.

The banning of books, and particular topics of study was routine, and the very ability of prisoners to receive educational resources was considered the prerogative of the prison, not a right of prisoners. Mandela had his “study privileges” revoked for four years in the late 1970’s when authorities found several pages from the autobiography he was secretly writing.

In 1980 the ANC launched a major campaign for Mandela’s freedom, hoping his long history in the liberation movement, which included his eloquent defenses of the anti-apartheid cause, could inspire wider support for their struggle across the world. And indeed the slogan of “Free Nelson Mandela” caught fire in all corners of the globe. The struggle to free Mandela personified the broader struggle and helped to bring new supporters into the fold, particularly in the Western countries, in a powerful international movement that sought to isolate the apartheid regime.

It was during this period of the mid-to-late 1980s that the ANC leadership began tentative negotiations with the apartheid regime mostly indirectly. In 1989 Mandela sent a secret letter to South African president P.W. Botha seeking to advance this process. Mandela’s letter sought to provide an opening for direct negotiations between the ANC and the South African government.

This was the beginning of a transitional process that lifted the bans of liberation organizations, and eventually to elections in 1994, in which the ANC was victorious with Mandela assuming the mantle of President of South Africa.

A legacy that can still inspire

It is this latter part of Mandela’s political career, 1990-1999, that gained Mandela praise and celebration in legislatures and executive mansions that had once shunned him as a violent terrorist. Hatred turned to hypocritical praise because of the outcome of the transition to majority rule.

Mandela and the ANC secured the political rights of Black South Africans by leaving largely intact the economic structure of the apartheid era. The extractive sector and stock exchange stayed firmly in the hands of the British and/or Boer descended white elites, with a co-opted layer of Black capitalists brought into the fold, while the land remained largely un-redistributed.  White flight and neoliberal nostrums combined to deal a serious blow to the integrity of the public sector. The ANC government did embark on some large-scale projects like a home-building program in the townships. However, divorced from any sort of long-term economic plan, such projects were limited in their ability improve the lives of the mass of the Black working class and could not keep pace with the growth of impoverished conditions endemic to the South African capitalist system.

Corruption blossomed as government officials rushed to the feeding trough created by white capital to cover their economic continuity with Black faces. Black police replaced the hated settler cops, but quickly acquired a similar record of abuse and brutality.

It can be difficult, in the face of these facts—and more if you choose to look—not to see the career of Nelson Mandela as either tragedy or betrayal.

Since 1652 the settler-colonial minority set to work to marginalize the majority of Africans in their own land. Engaging in all the excesses of war, pillage and plunder they separated the Africans first from their land then from their labor, forcing them to learn alien languages and surrender their dignity. Hunted and humiliated, told to deny their own intelligence and will and be nothing more than obedient servants, the white minority built up a powerful bulwark of capitalism on their backs, one that was central to the archipelago thuggish regimes employed by Western powers to keep the formerly colonized in check.

South Africa was the best of friends with apartheid Israel, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Shah, enabler for the colonial bitter-enders in Lisbon, and a sugar daddy for every mercenary and renegade hoping to destabilize newly independent African nations. To the very end apartheid South Africa sought to hold on to the most disgusting of ideologies: white supremacy. It represented the odious philosophy that whites were superior in every way to those of a darker hue.  The nation was the very embodiment of colonialism, in Africa and everywhere.

In the late 1980s, liberation movement leaders were looking at what was essentially a deadlock. The mass movement and armed struggle had clearly put the apartheid regime on its back foot, unable to fully contain the fury of the Black majority and their white and Indian allies. Nevertheless the racists still had a powerful security apparatus and were engaging in a very serious strategy of division in an attempt to split the Black population through both political violence and stoking the flames of violent criminal activity.

There were two basic choices in such a situation: either a strategy of deepening the military struggle and attempt to defeat the apartheid regime through military and political struggle or negotiations to attempt to achieve the end of apartheid.

In the climate of declining support from the crumbling Eastern bloc, and changing dynamics in at least some of the “frontline states” in Southern Africa which faced the continued lash of South African hostility for their support of the liberation movement, Nelson Mandela choose the latter, delivering a dramatic blow to the philosophy of white supremacy if not the economic domination of whites in South Africa. While only a partial liberation, how can we lose sight of the tremendous accomplishment of driving the most explicitly racist regime on earth out of existence?

While the results, as we have seen them so far, have been truly disheartening as South Africa has descended into the darkness of deepening poverty and violence. It seems inappropriate to label the choice Nelson Mandela made a betrayal, and if it is a tragedy, it is the tragedy of the trends in the world that created a context where a deepening of the revolutionary process in South Africa would have taken the form of a blind-alley struggle.

As Lenin once stated about bitter compromise: “It is incredibly, unprecedentedly hard to sign an unfortunate, immeasurably severe, infinitely humiliating peace when the strong has the weak by the throat…Yet even so, the peoples crushed by bestially cruel conquerors were able to recover and rise again.”

Indeed, it seems appropriate that right now as we remember the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the people of South Africa are rising again, in the mines and in the townships, returning to the “old” methods of struggles: the strikes, the burning tires. The received truths are being questioned, old allegiances fraying and the political winds shifting. The continued efforts to contain the anger and aspirations of the working people of the country are becoming less and less effective, the demands of the exploited and oppressed for humanity becoming louder and louder.

Nelson Mandela has left much for this next phase of the struggle: a legacy of steadfastness, discipline, organization, militancy and devotion to the cause of Liberation. The new generation emerging now is emerging just as Mandela and his generation did, at the end of one phase of struggle, superseding the protestations and conservative nature of their leaders to renew the national liberation movement.

His body may have left us, but his spirit remains alive in the flames of struggle in South Africa, and everywhere the exploited seek to throw off their chains.

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