Monday, January 6, 2014

NELSON MANDELA and the Unfinished Revolution in South Africa

Like Martin Luther King, Mandela, 1918-2013,  has been praised after his death by hypocrites who opposed everything he stood for while he was alive. Mandela was a staunch supporter of revolutionary Cuba and the Palestine liberation struggle. Apparently the CIA played a role in his capture by the Apartheid authorities in 1962 – though this has been little noticed in the US press. He was officially categorized as a “terrorist” by US law until 2006.

Mandela was also a member of the South African Communist Party – at least for a while.  There was nothing unusual about that – the SACP functioned as a kind of brain-trust for the ANC and included many of the movements leaders and activists in its ranks.  However, by and large the SACP served the interests of the liberation movement, rather than the other way around.  This is still largely its function as part of the governing ANC Alliance that has ruled South Africa since its first free election in 1994.
The achievement of equal rights for all is no small thing.  Mandela’s role in this change has made him a beloved figure -- watch this touching video for a heartfelt tribute to Mandela by South African youth.
But as we have also learned in the US, it is not enough to lift the oppressed out of enforced poverty and social subordination. Tragically, the ANC came to power at the worst possible moment, when their allies in the Soviet Bloc had collapsed and Neoliberalism seemed everywhere triumphant. Mandela and the other ANC leaders suffered a failure of nerve and felt compelled to make compromises that left Big Capital dominant in the new South Africa, now with an occasional Black face in the boardroom.  This set the stage for the sad degeneration of the former liberation movement into the political spoils-seeking and corruption that is evident today.  Many former liberation movement leaders have parlayed their political connections to achieve great wealth within the corporate world. But if the South African elite is now partially integrated, the poorest of the poor are still exclusively Black.

A detailed analysis by South African activist Patrick Bond:  The Mandela Years in Power

“Youth Day” in South Africa, 2012  

When I visited my old friend in South Africa we spent Youth Day in the township of Atteridgeville, just outside the South African administrative capital of Pretoria, where he lived. 

In the new South Africa June 16 is Youth Day, a national holiday commemorating the 1976 student uprising in Soweto which signaled the beginning of the end for the Apartheid system. The celebration is second in importance here only to Freedom Day, which marks the date of the count first non-racial democratic election on April 27, 1994 that made Nelson Mandela president of the country.

This is what I wrote at the time.

Though just a few kilometers away, the sprawling, dusty community of 45,000 could not be further from the seats of government and economic power in this country.  While the “official” national Youth Day celebration rotated this year to the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth, where the news was full of factional maneuverings within the ruling African National Congress and potential candidates for president jockeying  for support in the upcoming elections later this year, here the day had a decidedly spontaneous and grass-roots spirit.

Local youth led the way in Atteridgeville, with a message of “back to Basics” calling for more government support for education, job creation and improved public services.  Here the young people still idolize former ANC Youth leader Julius Malema, who they refer to as “Juju”, despite his  expulsion from the ANC for his fiery populist rhetoric, strident attacks on the established party leadership – and his sometime veiled threats of violent protest.

Poverty, substandard housing and disastrously high unemployment are still urgent problems in Atteridgeville and other townships, despite the political emancipation that was achieved with the end of Apartheid 18 years ago.

The needs are daunting.  Although there has been significant progress in South African development under democratic rule, wealth and economic power continues to remain in the hands of the large corporations and the wealthy – now including black as well as white billionaires. 

In Atteridgeville, tiny older brick houses crowd the neighborhoods, alternating with new zones of makeshift corrugated iron shacks sheltering more recent migrants from impoverished rural areas arriving in search of scarce urban jobs.
Many of them have no access to water, electricity or toilets.  Resources at the disposal of the ANC government remain inadequate to meet the challenges, and frequent revelations of official corruption have further undermined confidence in the reform process.

Nevertheless, the youth celebration in Atteridgeville was enthusiastic and joyful.  We followed a parade of cars and vans that wound its way  through the narrow township streets, horns tooting, young people leaning out of the doors and windows waving colorful ANC banners and loudly shouting political slogans.  Town folk cheered the kids with shouts of support and clenched-fist salutes. 

Now and again the caravan would stop for a spontaneous march with high-energy singing and the traditional bouncing “toyi-toyi” dancing that was seen everywhere during the anti-Apartheid struggle.

The parade climaxed with a big demonstration at the new township shopping center – itself a visible sign of progress in recent years.  Before that, the residents of Atteridgeville had to buy what they needed at tiny – and expensive – local “Spaza Shops” or travel a long way into the city.

Finally, the activities ended at an indoor hall, where youth leaders spoke to the crowd and also invited contributions by older veterans of the freedom struggle.
My friend Jabulani, a participant in the original 1976 Soweto protests and now after years in the ANC guerilla army Ukhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) a colonel in the new South African National Defense Force, spoke about the struggle to achieve the liberation of South Africa. He recounted to the young audience how the events unfolded after 1976 that lead to the defeat of Apartheid --  though not without the sacrifice of many thousands in exile, underground political organizing, mass protests and armed resistance. 

“I’m old now.  People of my generation laid the groundwork for you young people, who have grown up in a democratic South Africa.  But the work of building a truly free and just country has a long way to go.”  He added: “The future is up to you.  The torch is yours to carry.”  The young crowd cheered.

During the ride back to Pretoria, where once only whites were allowed to live, it was natural to think about the larger significance of the Soweto youth rebellion – and not just for South Africa.

It was hard to disagree with the words I read the next day, in  City Press column by Sibongile Mkhabela, director of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund:

“The 1976 uprising was a wake-up call to all sectors of society.  It gave new meaning to the spirit of resistance, the civil rights movement and black power among communities in South Africa and elsewhere -- including that bastion of white supremacy, the United States…   We have not yet reached the end of our journey.”

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