I have not offered any personal reflections on the death of Nelson Mandela last week, in part because, like so many people around the world, the past few days have involved a period of self-reflection in which I have tried to understand why he had such a hold over me. I think now I have a better understanding of why this inevitable death has struck me, and many other comrades, so hard.
I never met Mandela. However, all the friends that I know who did meet Mandela share a remarkable trait: a picture of Mandela occupies a central place in their home. For these remarkably principled activist-academics, who lived in Tanzania or Mozambique or Zimbabwe during the darkest days of apartheid, were all immensely moved by his sacrifice, his struggle, and his success.
Some in the media, reflecting on his death, have challenged this 'success'. They note the remarkable worsening of inequality in South Africa since the first democratic elections in 1994 (despite the construction of Africa's best social protection system), the high share of the population – one-third – that live in dire poverty, the absurdly high levels of unemployment amongst the black working class, even though all the while a small share of the black population has become fabulously, even obscenely, wealthy. The figure of Cyril Ramaphosa looms large here: in the 1980s, as leader of the National Union of Miners, Ramaphosa was an inspirational leader in the struggle against apartheid, both in South Africa and outside it. I personally felt it. Now he is a very wealthy possible future president, heavily invested in the Marikana mine, where 34 striking workers were shot dead last year. For many of us involved in the struggle against apartheid, the Marikana massacre was a trip back to the future: where the heavy hand of a ruthless state was once again violently repressing black workers, with the key difference that this time the ruthless state now was run by the African National Congress rather than the National Party of the unrepentant Pik Botha (famously caricartured on Spitting Image as saying 'Fish live in trees and eat pencils. We are bringing reform to South Africa').
For my friends of my generation, the loss that we feel with the passing of Mandela is rooted in something very real: he was a great anti-imperialist leader of a national liberation struggle who stands apart because he succeeded in what he set out to do. Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, Maurice Bishop – they are long since dead, largely forgotten by the wider world (but not by us!) and they all died a violent death. Robert Mugabe and Daniel Ortega are hopelessly compromised. Fidel Castro's achievements will be undone when he dies. Only Mandela, in relentlessly maintaining that the Freedom Charter was the basis by which the ANC would rule, and then keeping his promise, succeeded in what he set out to achieve, terminating a labour regime based upon racial oppression and replacing it with a vibrant, inclusive non-ethnic multiparty political democracy.
That was why we marched to Trafalgar Square every year, come what may, to hear Oliver Tambo (whose ANC offices were close to where I was living, in a then-shoddy but now gentrified part of north London) and other exiled leaders of the ANC, some of whom were our good friends, along with Trevor Huddleston and the other senior leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in the United Kingdom, which was vibrant and alive and joyous. During the 1980s it was as if a family was coming together to surround the South African Embassy to demand an end to apartheid, and to celebrate the community that was the left in the UK in the 1980s: anti-apartheid, to be sure, but also the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, miner support groups, the left of the Labour Party, Trotskyists, liberals, Eurocommunists, environmentalists, gay activists, and more. Margaret Thatcher denounced us as 'the enemy within', and we took to wearing badges that proclaimed that we were the enemy within. I recall in 1986 when we were organizing a 40 mile bike ride to raise money for an ANC school in Tanzania; I had not planned to actually ride, but at the last minute decided to do so, on a glorious day, arriving in Luton to a reception at the local working men's club where we were made to feel so welcome, by total strangers, united only in our denunciation of apartheid. Or a dinner in Winnipeg in 1987 to raise money for the ANC, when one of Winnipeg's small African community rose to say that until South Africa was free none of us would be free.
Mandela may have been a radical, but he was also a pragmatist who realized that his own personal world-historic role was not to build socialism in South Africa but to terminate a racially-based labour regime and ensure that the transition to majority rule and political democracy worked. He also knew what had happened in other societies where minorities had violently repressed majorities, and understood that for the political transition to work he personally would have to reconcile with his jailers. Much of the current celebration of his life revolves around this seemingly unique ability to accommodate, but I suspect that behind his steely exterior he hated what he had to do, as his life and, notwithstanding his marriage to the great Graça Machel at the age of 80, his family had been ripped from him, and he only relentlessly pursued reconciliation because he believed he had to do it. Which, for those of us who remember the state-fomented violence in KwaZulu Natal with Inkatha, was correct. That could have been the future – but it was not.
I must confess – in 1993 and 94 and 95 I was a pessimist. When Chris Hani was assassinated prior to the first democratic elections, and in light of the violence in KawZulu Natal, I thought the country would descend into a bloodbath, the inequities and injustice were so great. That it did not was due to the moral force of Mandela, as well as his uncanny political acumen. What Mandela lost, though, with Hani's assassination, was the next step of the transition: if he had been president, Hani would, in my view, have overseen the dismantling of the economics of apartheid, which to this day remain too largely in place.
In 1990 when Mandela was released I was on the prairies; my stepfather had suddenly died two days before, we were arranging his cremation, but we still had to watch Mandela walk out, fist aloft, wondering what he was like, what would he say, this man for which whose release we had campaigned for a very long time indeed. Margaret Thatcher still thought he was a terrorist, the US still had him on their terror watch list, and don't start me going on about Chester Crocker or David Cameron or Stephen Harper. Mandela's release was not due to governments in the West, no matter what they are saying today as his funeral approaches. It was due to resistance in the townships and in the mines that was supported by the sanctions and divestment movement, which was a movement of people of which we were a part. But it was more, and this cannot be forgotten. It was not just the economic contradictions of an unprofitable racially-based labour regime that made the fall of apartheid inevitable by 1990. No: Victoria Brittain's reports in late 1987 and early 1998 about the ongoing battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in Angola, made it very clear. The Angolans were facing defeat at the hands of the invading South African Defence Forces, and, in their desperation, they called on Cuba. Fidel Castro responded by sending thousands of troops, who defeated the South Africans in a series of set encounters and demonstrated to the apartheid regime that military defeat was inevitable.
So Mandela's triumph was far from inevitable, and that is the single most important lesson that I carry forward with his passing. Nelson Mandela showed us that immense change is possible, but it takes a movement to build it. He showed us that processes of change must be very carefully and judiciously navigated, and that it does require, at times, knowing when to compromise and when not to compromise. He also showed us, in his post-retirement campaign work around HIV/AIDS, that the process of change is still not finished: “Poverty is not natural. It is man-made” and “while poverty persists, there is no true freedom”. Mandela played a critical role in ending one of the most putrid labour regimes of the 20th century, rooted as it was in racial oppression. The best way of living up to his ideals will be to carry his struggle forward, build a movement, and end systems of economic exploitation, in our homes, in our communities, in our countries, and across the face of world. To paraphrase the man himself, sometimes it falls on a generation to be great, and we can be that great generation.