Nelson Mandela’s death has elicited fulsome tributes from those who were happy to truck with the apartheid regime when he was in prison. There’s no need to linger over their hypocrisy here. Those who supported the struggle against apartheid before it was easy or fashionable will rightly mourn a great popular leader whose personal sacrifices are well-documented.
Yet Mandela leaves behind an ambiguous legacy for South Africa. Strongly influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of neo-liberalism in the West, Mandela and the ANC leadership accepted a peace settlement that left the economic structures of apartheid in place while the political system was being democratized. Two decades after the first multi-racial elections were held, white households still earn almost $50,000 a year on average, compared to $8,000 for their black counterparts.
This article was first published by the Irish Socialist Network as a pamphlet in 2009. Since it was written, Jacob Zuma has replaced Thabo Mbeki as South African president and ANC leader. More importantly, the massacre of 34 striking miners at Marikana in 2012 has dramatized like nothing else the yawning gulf between the ANC and the people who brought it to power. As Mandela himself warned in 1993: ‘How many times has a labour movement supported a liberation movement, only to find itself betrayed on the day of liberation? There are many examples of this in Africa. If the ANC does not deliver the goods you must do to it what you did to the apartheid regime.’
Writing in 1989, the journalist Heidi Holland concluded her sympathetic history of the African National Congress (ANC) with a warning about economic policy in the post-apartheid era: ‘The greatest threat to future economic prosperity under majority rule is that blacks may have become so disillusioned by the capitalist system, identifying it with repression, that they will demand sweeping nationalization of industry.’ Two decades later, her concerns appear totally misplaced. But they would have found support in the early remarks of Nelson Mandela after his liberation from Robben Island: ‘The nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industry is the policy of the ANC and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.’
We know now that a reversal of the ANC’s commitment to public ownership was anything but ‘inconceivable’. The movement that led the struggle against apartheid for half a century has embraced the orthodoxy of the ‘Washington Consensus’ and governed in strict accordance with neo-liberal tenets. Whether this move is considered a welcome embrace of pragmatism or a shameful capitulation, its emphatic nature cannot be denied. Thabo Mbeki’s willing description of himself as a ‘Thatcherite’ could readily be applied to his party and government as a whole.