As everyone reading this blog will know by now Nelson Mandela died this evening New York time, bringing to an end a tumultuous chapter in Africa’s history which saw the end of apartheid in South Africa and the political empowering of the millions of black Africans who were denied the most basic political and economic rights by their white rulers.
Understandably, much of the media coverage in the coming days will dwell on Mandela’s role as the courageous inspiration and figurehead of the struggle against apartheid – with special emphasis in the West on his allegedly non-violent role – but sadly very little of it will subject the South African state to the sort of scrutiny such a passing demands.
In particular do not expect many in the media to ask whether and to what extent black South Africans really achieved the goals and won the liberation, economic as well as political, that Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) set out to accomplish at the start of their journey. The death of the leader of the ANC’s revolution is surely the appropriate moment to assess the extent to which they failed or succeeded in this mission.
To compensate for that, here are two aids to the process of judging just what the ANC revolution has really meant for South Africa.
The first is a short but telling biography of Cyril Ramaphosa, the former trade union and ANC leader, compiled by Forbes magazine in its profile of Africa’s richest men. Irish readers will remember Ramaphosa as being one of two international monitors called in to keep a watch on a number of IRA weapons dumps during the early days of decommissioning.
I remember attending a Sinn Fein rally at the Ulster Hall not long after his appointment and it was clear from his performance that evening that his role was to assure the Provo grassroots that no sell out was on its way and that isolating IRA weapons in monitored dumps was essentially meaningless. How could it be otherwise? Cyril Ramaphosa was himself a revolutionary and would never collaborate in such an enterprise!
In a critical sense Cyril Ramaphosa represents the failure of the ANC revolution to liberate the black masses from the real system of apartheid, that which was and still is based upon their economic exploitation. The truth about the ANC’s revolution is that it ended in a sordid bargain with the white rulers: South African blacks would get the right to vote and its leaders propelled into power but the ANC would leave the white economic establishment and its sources of wealth untouched.
The result is a country in which the whites still enjoy enormous privilege and wealth while the blacks, although able to vote, still live in shanty towns.
To be sure some black South Africans have risen to wealth and privilege thanks to the ANC and Mandela’s efforts. And Cyril Ramaphosa is their symbolic leader. Once a leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Ramaphosa is now a successful businessman with a finger in half a dozen corporate pies. Forbes estimated his wealth at $700 million. Read his bio, it is hugely revealing.
Last August, South African police opened fire on striking platinum miners protesting for better conditions at the Marikana mine, killing forty-four of them. Most were shot in the back and the massacre was deemed the largest loss of life at the hands of security forces since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The day before the killings, Cyril Ramaphosa had called for action against the miners, accusing them of ‘a dastardly crime’. The next day the police obliged.
The second is a memorable film made by John Pilger about the basis of the deal to end white rule. Titled ‘Apartheid Did Not Die’, Pilger’s film was made in 1998 and he charts the the ANC’s journey to its historic compromise with white South Africa.Although made nearly fifteen years ago, it is still relevant.
The deal that ended apartheid can be seen as the West’s quintessential template for ending all such struggles: the former revolutionaries obtain political power for themselves while agreeing to leave the economic and, if appropriate, the political system largely untouched. It is arguable that in this context Sinn Fein’s infatuation with the ANC during the peace process was hardly a coincidence.