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Is Mandela’s reputation overblown?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

Submitted by George Callaghan…

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s name is blessed by billions across the globe. He is held up as a paragon of morality and gallantry. But there is a less appealing side to his legacy.

To be sure Mandela’s foes were vile. No decent person can regret the passing of apartheid. Just because was wicked it does not automatically follow that all anti-apartheid activists were good. Apartheid is gone never to return. It is dead and buried, rotten away with quicklime poured on top. Mandela played a large part in accomplishing this. For that he has a strong claim upon the gratitude of posterity. He effectuated this change by resort to force. As the South African Government was deaf to reason and was often brutal his use of force is hard to quibble with.

Apartheid was an unjust and imbecilic piece of social engineering. The notion that races are very different is specious. The bid to force people to live separately was moronic. Moreover, denying the black majority well-paid jobs, good education and access to many facilities was grossly unfair and short sighted. The prohibition on interracial marriage and sexual relations was particularly galling. Love is not a crime. The idea that the black community had their homelands in Bantustans was bogus.

N R Mandela spent 28 years incarcerated. Contrary to popular belief he was not held on Robben Island all that time. On Robben Island and in other prisons conditions were not comfortable. Nevertheless, that he and many other survived sentences of this length says something about the basic humanity if the South Africa prison system at the time. Prisoners had a sufficiency of comestibles. They resided in sanitary conditions and had recourse to medical care. How long would he have lasted in Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda or any other of the anti-apartheid regimes across Africa that held political prisoners by the thousand. Conditions in the penitentiaries of most other African nations were abominable.

Whilst locked up Mr Mandela was allowed to send and receive mail. He had visits from his family. Anti-apartheid politicians from his country and abroad were allowed to come and inspect the place. Few African countries at the time treated their prisoners as decently as South Africa.

There were many times when those detained or abducted by the South African Police were treated abominably. Many were beaten to death. Steve Biko is a famous example of non-violent campaigner for equality who was savagely murdered. Torture was used on a fairly wide scale by BOSS (Bureau of State Security). Those kidnapped – not legally arrested –  by Cobus de Kok were tortured and discretely murdered at Vlak Farm. However, those who made it to prison were usually treated with a modicum of humanity.

Towards the end of his detention he was held in a prison on the mainland. In A Long Walk to Freedom he recalled that he was living in a bungalow in the prison grounds. He lived in great comfort and was cared for by a servant. Mandela wore tailored suits and drank wine. As a prisoner Mandela lived in luxury compared to most people in South Africa. The authorities’ motives in treating him with such unexampled kindness cannot have been entirely pure. They perhaps sought to curry favour with him prior to setting him free. It might also have been an attempt to divide and discombobulate the anti-apartheid movement.

Who was the Mandela of Uganda? Who was the Steve Biko of Libya? Why is it that no one knows the names of the numberless victims of the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners of other African governments? Torture was used promiscuously in other African nations. Tyrants across the continents treated their people appallingly. Nary a peep of protest ever escaped Mandela even when he was free. When he was President of South Africa he carried enormous weight. His country was the most puissant on the continent. Could he not find it in his heart to speak up on behalf of faithful servants of truth and justice engaged in struggles for self-assertion in other African lands? His unique authority would have gone a long way towards assuring mercy towards the luckless captives fettered and starved in countless dungeons across the continent.

One of the myths about Mandela is that he was a political prisoner. He was not in gaol for his opinions or even membership of an organisation. He was there for ‘hoogsverad’ or high treason. He was trying to overthrow the state by force. Most people would say that was amply morally justified. Be that as it may he was striving to do something which is unlawful in any country. It is horrifying then that when there were genuine political prisoners in other countries he did not lift his voice in their favour.

Mr Mandela never complained about the fairness of his trial. He was a barrister himself. He was still given defence counsel. His lawyer argued zealously. Innocence was presumed. The defendant was allowed to speak up for himself. His trial was not rushed. He was not awarded the most severe punishment available. He had the right to appeal which he declined to exercise. His trial was a model for the rest of continent. Very few people in Africa had the fair trial that he had.

In apartheid South Africa there was some freedom of speech. There was democracy at least among the white minority. That is better than having no democracy at all. There was freedom of movement insofar as people were allowed to leave the country. In many communist regimes the country was an open air prison in that only trusted communists were ever allowed out. The death penalty was used sparingly under apartheid.

The apartheid was guilty of two massacres. These were at Sharpesville and Soweto. That these crimes were heinous is beyond doubt. The impenitence of Pretoria aggravated the hurt that the bereaved felt. The apartheid government was rightly hauled over the coals for this. Why then did the ANC never denounce other governments that committed far larger massacres? Why did Mandela never speak out about the Tianamen Square Massacre, the Zheltoksan Massacre, the Andjion Massacre or Mugabe’s slaughter in Matabeleland? We are told that the white government in South Africa was completely illegitimate because of these crimes. But why do worse ones not de-legitimise other regimes?

If a principle is to be a principle at all it must be consistently applied. The Republic of South Africa was singled out for execration. Such principles were disregarded in relation to governments north of the Limpopo. The selective application of such principles speaks of ideological prejudice and cynicism.

This piece does not suggest that all African governments in the apartheid era were terrible. Some were humane. Tanzania, Botswana, Senegal and la Cote d’Ivoire were among the best.

Mr Mandela was a man of tremendous magnanimity. When he became president he had let go of his anger. He forgave his foes. His lack of vindictiveness was admirable. There were others in his movement who were revengeful. N R Mandela did much to accomplish racial rapprochement. He was broad minded enough to employ a white secretary. The female was an Afrikaner no less.

President Mandela was an indefatigable advocate of oppression for other countries. He had no beef with one party states. He did not object to the deprivation of freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of conscience or freedom of movement in other countries. Nor did he raise his voice against medieval tortures or state terrorism in other countries so long as the despot called himself an anti-imperialist. Where was he when the Darfur Genocide was going on? What did he say about the Rwandan Genocide? Mandela has just become president when the genocide broke out. Even a vocal intervention would have done some good. It would not suit his agenda to acknowledge that Rwandans had been far safer under Belgian or German rule.

Mandela went out of his way to speak up for dictators in China, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Libya. Apartheid South Africa had greater civil liberty than any of those countries. Could President Mandela with all his moral authority not find it in his heart to speak up for the downtrodden in these countries? He was held in the highest esteem and surely could have lessened the weight of oppression in tyrannies across the globe.

You might say that Mr Mandela did not criticise the behaviour of other countries because he did not poke his nose into the internal affairs of other lands. You would be dead wrong. N R Mandela had no hesitation in weighing in on the domestic affairs of other countries. He laudably denounced racism in the United States. I applaud him for that. Mandela had a cameo in the film Malcolm X. He supported the IRA’s terrorist campaign against democracy in Northern Ireland. It is nauseating that he was a vociferous defender of sadistic oppression on his own continent but a sworn enemy of freedom in the United Kingdom.

N R Mandela’s abetment and even advocacy of injustice and cruelty needs to be acknowledged. That he furthered the cause of evil in other lands is rendered even more obloquial by his being an apostle of liberty in his homeland.

The proximal cause of the downfall of apartheid is difficult to determine. A combination of factors led to it. Sanctions, the armed campaign, the sporting ban and protests all contributed to this.

The concertation of forces that accomplished the final defeat of apartheid included some nasty ones. The South African Communist Party was among them. The presence of totalitarians in this coalition put the back up of whites who were minded to dismantle apartheid.

As president of his country Mandela saw South Africa’s murder rate rise to the highest in the world. That is a damning record for anyone. Embezzlement became commonplace. His party did little for the black working class which had supported it so bravely through the years of criminalisation. President Mandela had his country export huge amounts of arms. His supporters in the West tend to excoriate the arms trade. But Mandela was exempted from criticism for fuelling other conflicts and impoverishing others through these sales.

Mandela long ago entered the pantheon of left wing heroes. As a right winger I too admire him for battling against the hideousness of racist bigotry. He was unafraid of death and willing to suffer life imprisonment for his cause. However, his wilful blindness to the gravest of crimes by his confreres is galling. Left wingers who effusively bless Mandela’s name should also acknowledge his manifold failings and hypocrisies.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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June 20, 2020

Apartheid is not dead and buried. It is alive and well in Occupied Palestine.   The notion that Rwanda was better off under Belgian rule might appear somewhat fanciful to its present day inhabitants. The whole of central Africa, a million square miles of the Congo Basin, was turned into a vast slave labour camp. Ten million perished in the first 20 years of Belgian colonial rule from 1890-1910, half the population. Mass mutilation and mass rape were routine standard official practice. The cutting off of hands for failing to collect enough rubber. All the horrors described and documented by… Read more »

June 20, 2020

I’m a white South African. For many of us Mandela was just a failed terrorist, who was then sanitized and beautified in order to make the forced revolution in Souh Africa palatable. Most of what was written about him was garbage. In most other African countries he would have either been executed or left in jail forever for the crimes he committed. He personally comandeered the destruction of Inkhatha Freedom Party in the 10 years up to 1994 in order to prevent Buthelezi from becoming president, who was favoured by many whites. During that strife between the IFP and the… Read more »

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