Arts & Culture

Mandela’s greatness may be assured, but not his legacy

Mandela’s greatness may be assured, but not his legacy
  • PublishedDecember 18, 2013

In this extract from his 2006 book, Freedom Next Time, in the chapter titled “Apartheid did not die”,  John Pilger, the Australian-born journalist tells how despite the release of Mandela from prison and the ushering in of anon-racial democracy in 1994, which ended political and racial apartheid in South Africa, economic apartheid took on a new face. In the townships, people have felt little change since the end of apartheid era.

When I reported from South Africa in the 1960s, Johannes Vorster occupied the prime minister’s residence in Cape Town. Thirty years later, as I waited at the gates, it was as if the guards had not changed. White Afrikaners checked my ID with the confidence of men in secure work. One carried a copy of Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. “It’s very inspirational,” he said.   

Mandela had just had his afternoon nap. Wearing a bright gold shirt, he meandered into the room. “Welcome back,” said the first president of a democratic South Africa, beaming. “You must understand that to have been banned from my country is a great honour.” The sheer grace and charm of the man made you feel good. He chuckled about his elevation to sainthood. “That’s not the job I applied for,” he said drily.

Still, he was well used to deferential interviews and I was ticked off several times – “you completely forgot what I said” and “I have already explained that matter to you”. In brooking no criticism of the African National Congress (ANC), he revealed something of why millions of South Africans will mourn his passing but not his “legacy”. 

I had asked him why the pledges he and the ANC had given on his release from prison in 1990 had not been kept. The liberation government, Mandela had promised, would take over the apartheid economy, including the banks – and “a change or modification of our views is inconceivable”. Once in power, the party’s official policy to end the impoverishment of most South Africans, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was abandoned. 

With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid was ended, and economic apartheid had a new face. During the 1980s, the Botha regime had offered black businessmen generous loans, allowing them to set up companies outside the Bantustans. A new black bourgeoisie emerged quickly, along with a rampant cronyism.  As disparities between white and black narrowed, they widened between black and black.

The familiar refrain that the new wealth would “trickle down” and “create jobs” was lost in dodgy merger deals and “restructuring” that cost jobs. For foreign companies, a black face on the board often ensured that nothing had changed. 

The background

In the 1970s, the ANC declared: “It is a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact … does not represent even a shadow of liberation.” But in 2001, seven years after the ANC had come to power with Nelson Mandela as the first black president of a democratic South Africa, George Soros told the Davos World Economic Forum: “South Africa is in the hands of international capital.”

While average white household income has risen by 15%, according to government statistics, average black household income has fallen by 19%, a descent from one level of poverty to another. In 2004, the Landless People’s Movement accused the government of reneging on its “liberation pledge” to redistribute 30% of the country’s agricultural land from 60,000 white farmers to the rural and urban poor. Little more than 2% of land had been transferred in the decade since liberation.

“We seek to establish,” said Finance Minister Trevor Manuel “an environment in which winners flourish.” So economic apartheid has replaced legal apartheid with the same consequences for the same people, yet it is greeted as one of the greatest achievements in world history.

In its early years, the ANC government was subjected to an “ideological barrage”, as the writer Hein Marais describes it, with “incessant” pressure from the US to accept the message of a “plethora” of research projects launched by the IMF and World Bank. A seduction of the ANC and its allies was well under way. Was it simply a matter of the ANC having been in exile so long it was willing to accept power at any price? Although there were those who had flirted with radical change, it was mission Christianity, not Marxism, that left the most indelible mark on the ANC elite in exile and prison. Even the revered Freedom Charter, a “rights of man” document, was an expression of hopeful liberalism rather than a blueprint to transform a repressed society. 

So what exactly was the deal struck between the ANC leadership and the [Afrikaner] Broederbond which stood behind the apartheid regime? What had Mandela and Thabo Mbeki and the other exiles in Zambia offered? What role had the Americans and international capital played?

A deal was put together in high secrecy between November 1987 and May 1990, when ANC officials led by Thabo Mbeki (who had attended the Lusaka meeting as Oliver Tambo’s political secretary), met 20 prominent members of the Afrikaner elite at a stately house, Mells Park House, near Bath, in England. “It’s a civilised world there,” recalled Mof Terreblanche, a corpulent Afrikaner stockbroker and close friend of F. W. de Klerk. “If you have a drink
with somebody and you argue and you sit [down] and talk, and
have another drink, it brings understanding. Really, we became friends.”

So secret were these convivial meetings that none but a select few in the ANC knew about them. Mbeki feared that his plans for a deal – he preferred “historic compromise” – would be
rejected as a sell-out by those of his comrades facing the full fury of the apartheid regime in the townships. It was understandable as the prime movers behind these meetings were those who had underpinned and profited from apartheid – as the British mining giant, Consolidated Goldfields (which picked up the bill at Mells Park House, where it was clear that the most important item to be decided around the fireplace was the economic system that would accompany “democracy”).

The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the ANC between the “moderates” they could do business with (Mandela and Tambo, together with Mbeki) and the majority who made up the UDF and were fighting in the streets. Mandela’s principal contact with the regime was Neil Barnard, an apartheid true believer who ran the National Intelligence Service.

Mandela constantly offered reassurances that whites had nothing to fear from black liberation. He went so far as to phone P. W. Botha. On 5 July 1989, Mandela was taken to meet the “Groot Krokodil” (Big
Crocodile) himself, as P. W. Botha was known. This was the man who had caused more suffering among the South African people than almost any of the verkramptes (extremists, literally “narrow ones”). 

After small talk, Mandela asked for the release of political prisoners. Botha refused. However, Big Crocodile did something that mattered a great deal to Mandela. He stood and poured the tea. “I came out feeling,” said Mandela, “that I had met a creative, warm head of state who treated me with all the respect and dignity I could expect.”

De Klerk

Botha’s successor, F. W. de Klerk, met Mandela on 13 December 1989. He did not pour the tea. Contrary to the myths about him, De Klerk was no liberal or reformer. During the 1980s, he had rejected even Botha’s revolving position and argued against the very idea of blacks in parliament; a black president was anathema to him… He fought to keep blacks out of white universities. And he repeatedly stressed his commitment to “group rights” – the guiding principle of neo-apartheid. It was “group rights” that the white negotiators demanded at Mells Park House.

What was forcing “pragmatism” on De Klerk were the signals from Washington. American companies pumped 40% of the oil that powered apartheid, and supplied the computers that ran the police state, and the trucks and armoured vehicles that attacked the townships. At the UN, America protected South Africa by vetoing hostile Security Council resolutions. And when the regime developed nuclear weapons, Washington winked.

At 4.16 pm on 11 February 1990, Mandela walked free. He wanted an extra week in prison to prepare himself, but De Klerk said no. He was bundled out. When he stepped out onto the balcony of Cape Town City Hall, he reached for his spectacles and realised he had left them in prison. Wearing his wife’s glasses, and with Cyril Ramaphosa supporting him, he spoke to millions in South Africa and around the world. “Now is the time to intensify the struggle,” he said, warning the regime that if its orchestrated violence continued, “the people will not hesitate to fight back.” It was a proud and angry statement and perhaps the most militant speech Mandela ever made.

The next day he appeared to correct himself. Reassuring the white establishment that he was “not a communist” and that majority rule would not result in “the domination of whites by blacks”, he repeated his earlier description of De Klerk as “a man of integrity”. This upset many in the resistance, and when
word spread that he and Mbeki had been secretly negotiating for more than two years, there was widespread disappointment and dismay. This turned to anger when it was revealed that Mandela had written to P. W. Botha offering special constitutional protection for whites.

“Do you recognise that many people saw this as betrayal?” I asked Thabo Mbeki during an interview. He replied: “Had we not made the historic compromise, there would have been bloodbath and a great suffering across the land.”

While it is true there was no civil war, the political decisions made by Mandela, Mbeki and their fellow “moderates”, have allowed the continuation of suffering by exclusion: apartheid by other means. Over the course of three years, half a dozen critical decisions were made by a small group around Mbeki (who was advising Mandela), Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, and Trade Minister Alec Erwin. These were, in 1992, to drop nationalisation, to endorse the apartheid regime’s agreement to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, the forerunner of the WTO), which effectively surrendered economic independence and, in the same year, to repay the $25bn of apartheid-era debt, grant the Reserve Bank formal independence, and accept loans from the IMF, and in 1995, to abolish exchange controls which allowed the wealthy whites to take their capital overseas. 

When I interviewed De Klerk in 1998, I asked him if the ANC’s fear of civil war was justified, and about his own role in the state terrorism that sought to sabotage the 1994 elections? De Klerk began with a series of sentences with the words “I deny …” and “I knew nothing …” 

He denied he knew anything about the murderous, covert operations confirmed by two cabinet committees that he chaired. He denied knowing about the death squads of Vlakplass, the headquarters of a South African Gestapo, even though one of its commanders, Dirk Coetzee, had publicly confessed. He denied receiving a letter from Coetzee alerting him to assassination orders given in his name.

“How could you know nothing?” I asked him. “You were at all the meetings, you were privy to all the planning, all the documents. You were the president of South Africa …”

De Klerk interrupted me: “I knew nothing,” he said.

“About any of it?”

“Any of it.”

There was silence. A chain-smoker, De Klerk puffed on his cigarettes, and finally said: “I remind you; I have been awarded, with Mr Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize.”

“Mandela regards you as duplicitous,” I said. “He can barely speak your name.”

De Klerk shrugged and took a drag. “That is for him …”

“Mandela says you were no more than the head of an illegal, discredited, violent minority regime.”

“You must understand there is a difference between illegal and illegitimate.”

“You described ‘separate development’ (apartheid) as an idealistic mission.”

“That is a complex issue … and I believe history has moved forward. We are now at peace.”

“Didn’t you and your fellow white supremacists really win?”

De Klerk’s expression changed as if a secret truth had been put to him. He waved away the smoke. I pressed home the point: “You ensured the white population had to make no substantial changes; in fact, many are better off, and white corporate power has never been stronger.”

Smiling, De Klerk replied: “It is true that our lives have not fundamentally changed. We can still go to the cricket at Newlands and watch the rugby. We are doing okay …”

He warmed up to this implied criticism of the ANC and agreed that his most enduring achievements was to have handed on his regime’s economic policies, including the same Reserve Bank governor, the same finance minister in the post-1994 “government of national unity”, the same corporate brotherhood. He spoke about blacks who “now live in big houses” as the beneficiaries of “affirmative action”.

“Isn’t that the continuation of apartheid by other means?”, I asked De Klerk. “You must understand, we’ve achieved a broad consensus on many things now.”

The new South Africa

In the “new” South Africa, as in the old, the symbolic relationship with Britain has a special place. It was British capital that “opened up” South Africa in the 19th century and laid a foundation of racial division and white supremacy. With apartheid legally enforced in the 1950s and 1960s, and the black resistance progressively crushed, British investment rose correspondingly, doubling between 1956 and 1970.

At Sharpeville in 1960, two British-supplied Saracen armoured vehicles mounted with machine-guns were used against peaceful protestors – 69 people were killed and hundreds wounded. After a brief pause, foreign investment poured into South Africa, with British companies accounting for 61%. 

Profits were huge. In the 8 years after Sharpeville, the return on investments was 12%, a third more than throughout the rest of the world. By the end of the 1980s, despite a United Nations embargo, British investment in South Africa accounted for as much as 50% of all foreign investment in the country. With democracy, it was business as usual.

Cosmas Desmond, speaking on the elite in South Africa, white and black, said: “They confuse knowledge with wisdom. The West has a lot of knowledge; Africa has a lot of wisdom. Each needs the other, though what are we without wisdom?”

The generosity is astounding. I failed to meet a black South African who dreams of revenge of persecuting whites, as whites persecuted blacks… Behind their walls and dogs, those whites who neither expected nor deserved so painless a transition from the atrocities of apartheid have yet to appreciate the second change they have been given.

Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader, was interviewed by Donald Woods in 1976 – 18 years before an elected black government. I am struck by his prescience. Biko said: 

“For the white man, [one man, one vote] would be the greatest solution! It would encourage competition among blacks, you
see, and it would eliminate the most important ground for critique from abroad of the present regime. But it would not change the position of economic oppression of blacks. That would remain the same.”

Mandela’s interview

I went to interview Mandela in the president’s residence in Groote Schuur, outside Cape Town. “Weren’t there two kinds of apartheid and the more entrenched kind was economic, which hasn’t changed?”, I asked him.

Mandela replied: “You must remember that the best way to introduce transformation is to do so without dislocating any aspect of our public life. We do not want to challenge big business that can take fright and take away their money.”

Q: But what about the rich getting richer and the poor …

A: As for poor people, here is an example for you. There is no country where labour tenants have been given the security we have given them, where they now have a right to the land they occupy, where a farmer cannot just dismiss [them].

Q: But they are evicting them, regardless of the new legislation. For most tenant farmers, little has changed.

A: No, no, that’s an exaggeration. We have set up a process and proper structures…

Q: The Freedom Charter said the people of this country would share in all its wealth. Is that still possible?

A: Why not? They are beginning to share in that wealth. You now have blacks, coloured and Indians involved in companies that command billions-worth of assets, something totally new in this country. You see in Johannesburg many blacks now buying properties in the wealthy suburbs.

Q: Many?

A: Compared with before…

Q: A government minister called the ANC’s policies Thatcherite, complete with privatisation and deregulation.

A: You can put any label on it you like; you can call it Thatcherite but, for the country, privatisation is the fundamental policy.

Q: That’s the opposite of what you said before the first elections in 1994.

A: There is a process. You have to appreciate that every process incorporates change.

Q: Reconciliation has been your constant theme. Do you reflect on the fact that not a single leading figure in the old regime – from the military, judiciary – has shown any genuine remorse for apartheid.

A: That’s going too far. The Dutch Reformed Church was publicly commended by Archbishop Tutu for apologising. You have individuals, like Leon Wessels and a city mayor and some others who have apologised generally. What the public wants is for those on high to confess that they authorised the crimes of apartheid. That has not been forthcoming … and yes, it’s a tragedy that
De Klerk has avoided accepting responsibility for what he

The reality  

The post-apartheid achievements in de-segregating daily life in South Africa, including schools, were undercut by the extremes and corruption of a “neoliberalism” to which the ANC devoted itself. Mandela, too, fostered crony relationships with wealthy whites from the corporate world, including those who had profited from apartheid. He saw this as part of “reconciliation”. 

Ironically, Mandela seemed to change in retirement, alerting the world to the post-9/11 dangers of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. His description of Blair as “Bush’s foreign minister” was mischievously timed; Thabo Mbeki, his successor, was about to arrive in London to meet Blair.

Mandela seemed unfailingly gracious. When my interview with him was over, he patted me on the arm as if to say I was forgiven for contradicting him. We walked to his car, which consumed his small grey head among a bevy of white men with huge arms and wires in their ears. One of them gave an order in Afrikaans and he was gone. 

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New African

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