By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“… I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot…” (Mandela, 1964)
“We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty…” (Mandela, 1991)
The great Sri Lankan editor and Newsweek columnist Tarzie Vittachi, who preferred Jung to Freud, used to say that “everything is about something else”. So it is with the obituaries of Nelson Mandela. What is said by the western liberals and their pro-western Lankan epigone is not as important as what is left unsaid. The eulogies for Mandela have gutted him and turned him into a stuffed figure. What has been gutted is everything that goes against the Western liberal cosmopolitan consensus. While Mandela has been elevated to a saint who should be emulated by mere mortals such as the current leaders of the Third World, the content of his message and project has also been distorted, diluted and downsized to something that can be accommodated within the parameters of Western liberal cosmopolitanism. Thus it is that in an ideological sleight of hand, this great emancipationist has been turned into a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork and incorporated into a hegemonic discourse.
The enormous intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy that is involved in this exercise is best evidenced by the obliteration of three crucial ‘moments’ of the Mandela narrative and discourse. One is the leftwing component or aspect of his formation. The second and more important is the identification of the critical turning point in his release from prison and indeed in the downfall of apartheid as a system. The third is the structuring of Mandela’s political ethics and morality and the hierarchy within that structure.
While according due place to Nietzsche’s observation that there are no facts, only interpretations, it is also a fact that Mandela had his own interpretation of the critical turning point in his freedom from jail and of the trajectory of the anti-apartheid struggle. This has been ignored by the dominant reconstructions of Mandela’s ideas and political practice.
Even more significant is the moral and ethical factor. If any single cause is seen to be responsible for the enormous respect that Mandela enjoyed and always will well after his death, it has been the moral and ethical high ground that he occupied. It is however, unknown, ignored and obliterated from the record that Mandela himself identified a higher ground in terms of political and historical morality and felt himself humbled by those and that which occupied that higher ground. Who and what did Mandela the Moralist and Ethicist, salute as occupying an exemplary higher ground; who and what did Mandela place on a higher rung of a moral hierarchy?
Before we explore these crucial questions, let us first deal with the unacknowledged aspect of Mandela’s intellectual and political formation. It is hardly surprising that it is The Economist, London, once referred to by Karl Marx as the most intelligent defender of capitalism, which has demonstrated the intellectual confidence and journalistic integrity to surface that aspect.
“…His views about communism were less evolutionary. In the 1950s he had pictures of Lenin and Stalin on the walls of his home in the Johannesburg township of Orlando. He was influenced by Marx and made common cause with the Communist Party of South Africa; his writings then were full of sub-Marxist drivel. And he continued to the end to hold in deep affection such people as Joe Slovo, the chairman of the party, who was to him “dear comrade, dear brother, dear friend”, but to his opponents the “KGB general”. Mr Mandela insisted he was not a communist, though. He saw the ANC’s bond with the communists as a link with the only group that would treat Africans as equals and as a natural alliance with his enemies’ enemy…” (The Economist)
Of far greater import was Mandela’s own identification of the turning point in his story; his naming of the factor and the timing that opened the prison doors.
What makes his narrative even more significant is Mandela’s own tracing of the decisive factors in the defeat and fall of apartheid. In the narrative of the western liberals and their Lankan mimics, Mandela’s release and the defeat of apartheid was due to non violent agitation, economic and sports boycotts, music concerts in the West and above all, civil society pressure in the First World. While all these were certainly contributory, they were far from being the crucial reasons according to Mandela himself. The Western and Lankan liberal discourse completely omits that crucial reason.
“…The crushing defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for the whole of Africa! The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa! Without the defeat of Cuito Cuenavale our organizations would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuenavale has made it possible for me to be here today! Cuito Cuenavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!
The decisive defeat of Cuito Cuenavale altered the balance of forces within the region and substantially reduced the capacity of the Pretoria regime to de-stabilise its neighbours. This in combination with our people’s struggles within the country was crucial in bringing Pretoria to the realization that it would have talk.” (Nelson Mandela, ‘How Far We Slaves Have Come’, Pathfinder press, New York, 1991, pp.9-10)
It is noteworthy that Mandela places the military defeat of the apartheid army at Cuito Cuenavale as the factor which in combination with the peoples struggles within South Africa, forced the apartheid state to recognise that it could no longer maintain its rule in the old way and would have to seek a negotiated solution. Thus for Mandela the two main factors were the military defeat of the racist armies at Cuito and the mass struggles of the people within South Africa. He does not mention any other factors. Even in this itemization he speaks of the military defeat, combined with the mass struggle within South Africa.
What is he referring to? The battle of Cuito Cuenavale which Mandela recognized as utterly decisive in its effects, took place in 1988 on the Angola–Namibia border. On the one side were the powerful invading formations of the armed forces of South Africa, a state which had a tremendous military arrogance not only because of racism but also because it already possessed a small stockpile of nuclear weapons thanks to its axis with Zionist Israel. On the other were the Cuban volunteers including Cuban air force fighter bombers, supporting the armed forces of Angola’s revolutionary government and the Namibian guerrillas of SWAPO.
According to a Sir Leycester Coltman, a retired British ambassador, “Fidel Castro personally kept a tight grip on operations. For nearly a year starting November 1987, he devoted 80% of his time to the war in Angola, taking an interest in the smallest tactical deployments, and even in the rations and hours of sleep allowed to his troops. He saw Cuito Cuenevale as his Stalingrad, the rock on which the South African military machine would be broken, paving the way for the fall of the apartheid regime.” (Coltman, ‘The Real Fidel Castro’, pp. 257-8)
The arrogance and myth of invincibility of the South African state was shattered by the crushing defeat at Cuito in late 1988. Negotiations commenced, involving the US and with the Cubans on the independence of Namibia. The mood changed albeit in drastically divergent directions, among the blacks and the white establishment. Less than two years later, in 1990, Mandela was released.
The Western liberal imagination (and certainly the dwarfish imagination of civil society progressives and liberals in Sri Lanka) cannot conceive of a Mandela who would provide a testimonial for any society or state on moral and ethical grounds. The fact is that he did so, unambiguously and fulsomely – and it was very much an exception in his discourse. What were the place, phenomenon and process that received this rousing endorsement?
“…We come here with a great sense of humility. We come here with great emotion. We come here with a great sense of debt owed to the people of Cuba. What other country can point to a greater record of selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa? How many countries of the world benefit from Cuban health workers and educationists? Where is the country that has sought Cuban help and had it refused? How many countries under threat from imperialism or struggling for national liberation have been able to count on Cuban support?
It was in prison when I first heard of the massive assistance that the Cuban internationalist forces provided to the people of Angola, on such scale that one hesitated to believe, when the Angolans came under the combined attack of South Africans, CIA financed FLNA, mercenary, UNITA and Zairian troops in 1975.
We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise in defence of one of us.
We also know this was a popular action in Cuba. We are aware that those who fought and died in Angola were only a small proportion of those who volunteered. For the Cuban people, internationalism is not only a word…” (Nelson Mandela, ‘How Far We Slaves Have Come’, Pathfinder press, New York, 1991, pp.9-10)
Writing on the website of Al Jazeera, Simon Hooper discusses ‘Mandela the Radical’. Mandela’s radicalism was not the political correctness of civil society figures but a firm opposition to Western ‘liberal humanitarian’ interventionism as in Kosovo. It was also a radicalism that embraced figures who were hardly paragons of political correctness from a purely human rights point of view, but robust defenders of national sovereignty.
“…As a young man he had close ties to the South African Communist Party and plotted an armed uprising inspired by Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution in Cuba.
…Stephen Ellis, a professor of African history at VU University and the African Studies Centre in the Netherlands, believes that many people with only a vague awareness of Mandela’s struggle against apartheid are simply not aware of his youthful radicalism and commitment to violent means.
Mandela always denied being a card-carrying convert to Communism. But Ellis, in his most recent book, External Mission: The ANC In Exile, claimed to have uncovered documentary proof suggesting otherwise, albeit suggesting Mandela was more interested in securing support from Moscow or Beijing, rather than being a “heart and soul believer”.
“If you talk to many American liberals, they think Mandela was Martin Luther King,” Ellis said. “If you say, ‘No, Mandela started a guerrilla army, he was a Communist, he did this, he did that’, they just don’t get it. They don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Yet even later, as South African president from 1994 to 1999, Mandela would irk his friends in the west by expressing solidarity with leaders such as Cuba’s Castro and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, as well as finding common cause with the Palestinians in their struggle for statehood.
At a banquet in 1998 honouring Yasser Arafat, the then-Palestinian president, Mandela said: “You come as a leader of a people who have shared with us the experience of struggle for justice. Now that we have achieved our freedom, we have not forgotten our friends and allies who helped us liberate ourselves.”
Visiting Libya a year earlier, Mandela had greeted Gaddafi with a kiss on each cheek and said: “My brother leader, my brother leader, how nice to see you.”
Yet it was the Cuban revolution that held the highest place in his affections, a bond made stronger by his enduring friendship with Castro. On a visit to the Caribbean island in 1991, Mandela paid tribute to Che Guevara, calling his revolutionary exploits “too powerful for any prison censors to hide from us. The life of Che is an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom.”
David James Smith, author of Young Mandela, said: “He was very much inspired by the revolution in Cuba. He was studying what was going on in Cuba with a view to using that as a model for revolutionary activity in South Africa.”
Mandela’s gratitude extended to other members of the bloc of Communist nations that had backed the struggle against apartheid. In a speech in 1991 he also singled out the Soviet Union, East Germany and China for special mention, even as the political landscape of eastern Europe was being redrawn in the aftermath of the Cold War and despite Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989.
…Mandela, even after leaving office in 1999, remained fiercely outspoken in condemning what he saw as flagrant western imperialism. In 2003 he lambasted the United States and the United Kingdom for “attempting to police the world” over their military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq, even suggesting that moves to undermine the United Nations were motivated in part by the rise of a black African, Kofi Annan, to the office of secretary general.
He also urged US citizens to take to the streets in protest at moves to attack Iraq, accusing US President George W Bush of wanting to “plunge the world into a holocaust”.
“If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America,” he added.
Hain, then a minister in Tony Blair’s British government, recalls Mandela phoning him up at the time of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq as angry as he had ever heard him.
“He was just very angry and worried,” Hain said. “But I fully understood why; he is a man of principle. He would do things that offended the Bill Clintons and the Tony Blairs, like he would say to Fidel Castro, ‘Thank you for supporting us’, and visit Cuba, or he’d do the same to Gaddafi in Libya.”
Smith believes Mandela would have been deeply uncomfortable with efforts to de-radicalise his legacy by portraying him in bland terms as simply an inspirational and reconciliatory figure.
“There are many people around him who believe he has been devalued by the use of his celebrity,” he said. “He stood for very firm anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist values. Yes, he would go and do business with the West, but ideologically he would always be first with Castro and independence leaders in Africa...” (Simon Hooper, Al Jazeera, Friday Dec 6th 2013)
It is rankest hypocrisy then, to read, see and hear the salutations to Mandela by those who obliterate the real history of the turning points in Mandela’s and the South African peoples’ long walk to freedom; to read the invocation of Mandela by those “countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty” and by those Sri Lankans who cheer such countries and such efforts on, seeking to piggyback on them instead of resisting them. It is heartening that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have been and still our defended in the international arena by precisely those countries and peoples that earned such unprecedentedly high moral commendation by Nelson Mandela, a moral and ethical giant of our age.