Mandela: explaining the magnetism

While the world stops for Nelson Mandela’s departure from it, his iconic status is unquestioned. Yet there is a more complicated underlying narrative to tell.

Robin Wilson
12 December 2013
Mandela bust

Mandela: symbol of heroic fortitude already cast in stone. Flickr: G Milner. Some rights reserved.

As South Africans prepared for the huge funeral of their former president, Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela, in the eastern Cape on Sunday, the memorial service in Johannesburg spoke volumes: 52 presidents and 16 prime ministers attended to share in the global political stardust attaching to the man, while his successor, Jacob Zuma, was booed by a section of the domestic crowd.

A more perfect embodiment of Max Weber’s transition from ‘charismatic’ to ‘bureaucratic’ leadership could hardly be imagined than that between Mandela and Zuma. The one who emerged from 27 years imprisonment, morally upright with no concern to be a crowd-pleaser, the other a populist tainted by corruption and misogyny who emerged only from the African National Congress machine.

Yet the Mandela magnetism is not so straightforward. Yes, he withstood the ignominy of his prolonged incarceration by a brutal regime with an iconic fortitude. But out of the enhancing spotlight of the global media, that glittering bronze political statue has a little tarnish. This for two reasons nothing to do with any personal blemishes but all to do with the very particular and extraordinary context in which he found himself.

Cold war

First, apartheid South Africa was a key locus of the cold war. While leftists argued over whether the regime was or was not the best possible political shell for domestic and transnational capitalism—epitomised by the glittering gold and diamond mines with their super-exploitation of black workers—there was no doubting how much investment right-wing western cold warriors like Margaret Thatcher had in its survival and the Soviet Union in turn had in its demise, as with the neighbouring Portuguese colonies. Hence the rather embarrassing recollections of what some of those who now offer obeisance at Mandela’s grave thought of the ‘terrorist’ in earlier times.

This polarised international context and intense repression at home meant that the main intellectual force opposed to the regime—the South African Communist Party—was a defensive Stalinist entity quite unlike the liberal-socialist Eurocommunists who emerged in the more open political atmosphere of western Europe in the 1970s. Through its ‘triple alliance’ with Mandela’s African National Congress and the trade union federation, Cosatu, it carried an influence way beyond its small size.

Secondly, Mandela’s exclusion from the world on Robben Island coincided with decades of its most intense ever globalisation. The man who emerged from prison on that day in 1990 when he was previously the centre of a global emotional outpouring—just months after the fall of the Berlin wall—may have had his fist raised in confident assertion. But that very gesture indicated how metaphorically he was coming out of a deep pool of darkness, squinting and blinking in a new world he would struggle to comprehend.

After protracted constitutional deliberations, in which the ANC’s main antagonist was the formerly ruling National Party, Mandela was to become South Africa’s first post-apartheid president five years later. Honestly assessed, his time in office was a stark failure.

Almost alone among the world’s states, after apartheid South Africa fell to an even lower position on the United Nations Human Development Index. The ANC, having been committed to a statist Reconstruction and Development Programme, engaged in a rapid bouleversement when confronted with the era of informational capitalism, when socialism is about the advancement of the broader public good through a liberal and pluralist democracy and a strong civil society, recognising that states can no longer be omniscient nor omnicompetent. Only really in housing, where an old-style, state-sponsored house-building programme was led by the Communist leader Joe Slovo, did Mandela’s government make a significant positive impact.

In the world of work, ‘black economic empowerment’ became little more than a vehicle for the enrichment of a new bourgeoisie, tragically embodied by the former mineworkers’ hero Cyril Ramophosa, reduced to being a board member of Lonmin when it massacred its striking workers at Marikana in 2012. With unemployment endemic among the black majority, South Africa’s already huge Gini coefficient of inequality became even larger still.

Meantime, the clarion call of liberation turned to dust in so many South African mouths, as the HIV-AIDS epidemic cut a swathe of human sorrow in its wake. And the murder rate in the ‘new’ South Africa soon ran into five figures per annum.

Mandela’s aura has never been touched by these—entirely explicable—failings once in power. Nor has international opinion focused on his time-capsule comments on African dictators, like the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, as he interpreted the world still through the cold-war lens of anti-colonialism with which he had entered the long dark tunnel of imprisonment.

In that sense, his reputation has resembled that of other political icons—Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and Mary Robinson—who have held titular positions rather than being sullied by the inherent nature of day-to-day government, outside of dictatorships, as a shifting equilibrium of compromise between the forces of progress and reaction. Had he sought a second term as executive president—and he would have been a political shoe-in—Mandela’s image might have become less pristine through a clearer association with the shortfalls of the ANC in office.

Generosity of spirit

But there are also two reasons why history will, rightly, be extremely kind to Nelson Mandela and why the global public sympathy has nothing like the saccharin superficiality of that in Britain following the death of Diana, princess of Wales.

The first was his huge generosity of spirit. In a neo-liberal epoch where a fragmented and disoriented ‘precariat’ confronts the huge power of corporations which have escaped national regulation, and even those who seek election to achieve change become enmeshed in a detached political class endeavouring to pull rubbery policy levers, Mandela exuded a commitment to a common humanity and set a moral compass for a disordered world.

Famously, he used the theatre of the Rivonia trial to present his political credo. He concluded his speech from the dock thus: ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

Yes, the ANC engaged in ‘armed struggle’ to realise that end. But Mandela and his comrades set up its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in 1961 only after decades of patient, non-violent activism following the organisation’s foundation in 1912 had been met by repression, most graphically with the Sharpeville massacre of a year earlier. There were no democratic avenues open to the organisation to fight for its Freedom Charter. It thus fulfilled the first requirement of a ‘just war’, ius ad bellum. Yes, too, the Truth and Reconciliation Commmission found that MK had violated the requirement of restraint, or ius in bello, with its torture camps of alleged collaborators in the ‘frontline’ states neighbouring South Africa. But Mandela took that on the chin, whereas his immediate successor, Thabo Mbeki, would not.

Secondly, and above all, Mandela will be remembered as a symbol of reconciliation in a world so readily polarised--no longer between capitalism and what the Soviets told the Eurocommunists was ‘really existing socialism’ but along ethnic dividing lines in the context of what Ulrich Beck calls with heavy irony ‘really existing cosmopolitanisation’. Whereas Mbeki took the ANC back towards an inward-looking ethnic essentialism with his florid talk of an ‘African renaissance’, Mandela symbolised uniquely the intercultural ‘rainbow nation’.

The Turkish-Cypriot psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan argues that each of us in life inhabits an ‘ethnic tent’ of identity. For the intolerant—from the Nazi monsters of anti-Semitism through the embittered and unapologetic defenders of apartheid to the populist xenophobes sprouting up across Europe today—that tent must be purged of any element associated with the identity of the detested different other, the latter turned into a stereotype to which an enemy-image can be attached and on whom, consequently, brutal violence can be without the least qualm unleashed.

By contrast, reconciliation, peacebuilding, cosmopolitanism—call it what you will—can be simply defined as a capacity to revalorise the self from the perspective of others and to include the other in oneself. No one in the post-war era has more powerfully embodied this capacity for reciprocal recognition than Nelson Mandela. And one episode—inevitably turned into a Hollywood film—encapsulated it in the most corporeal manner imaginable.

In June 1995 in Johannesburg, Mandela as president presented the rugby World Cup to the captain, Francois Pienaar, of the victorious South African team. He did so having donned the Springbok jersey, a symbol hitherto caught in an apparently ironclad chain of connotation with Afrikanerdom and apartheid. The visceral reactions the gesture spontaneously evoked—how many worldwide were moved to tears as they observed it on their TV screens?—revealed just how somatically affecting the openness or closure of our ‘ethnic tents’ towards one another can be.

Many dictatorships have a vicious and violent after-life as even their opponents cannot shed the authoritarian mindset into which they have been socialised—witness the ‘Arab spring’ as it turned to ashes. But in that moment, Mandela’s finest, of supreme reconciliation, we knew that South Africa—however scarred socially and economically it would remain—would never again fall into the vortex of searing inhumanity.

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