Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement
Dispensations: The Future of South Africa as South Africans See It
The recent bid by the South African government to exchange Nelson Mandela for two Soviet dissidents is only one in a long series of efforts it has made to disencumber itself of its most famous political prisoner. As long ago as 1973 Mandela was offered freedom (of a sort) if he would agree to lead a retired life in the Transkei “homeland.” He refused. In 1985 he was offered release on the sole condition that he would distance himself from the advocacy of force. “Only free men can negotiate,” he responded. “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” He and the imprisoned senior leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) thus seem to be content, for the time being, to let Pretoria stew in its own juice.
In 1964, in his forty-sixth year, Nelson Mandela, with seven ANC colleagues, was sentenced to life imprisonment after being tried on charges of recruiting and training personnel to conduct revolutionary warfare, and of conspiring to aid foreign powers to invade the Republic. He did not attempt to deny the charges, the first of which was in essence true. He had set up an underground movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“The Spear of the Nation”), with the aim of carrying out sabotage attacks; he had toured Africa, raising support for the ANC; he had himself undergone guerrilla training.
In the four-hour statement he read at his trial—the most extended exposition we have of his political philosophy—Mandela took pains to distance himself, on the one hand, from an exclusive black nationalism (“Africa for the Africans”), and, on the other, from international socialism. Citing the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter, he called for a new constitution for South Africa, leading to a state free of racial divisions and class antagonisms, based on a mixed economy in which there would be a place for private enterprise.
There is no evidence that Mandela himself, or indeed the ANC leadership, has shifted from this position in the last twenty years. Beyond the immediate aim of eliminating the white monopoly of power and wealth, the ANC appears to envisage neither a dictatorship of the proletariat nor some “authentically African” form of social organization in which whites (and perhaps Indians too) will have no place.
If the South African regime had come to terms with the ANC in the 1950s, it would have been coming to terms with a fairly peaceable popular movement under petit-bourgeois, social democratic leadership. Instead it chose to brand the movement as subversive and its leaders as tools of international communism. Now it finds itself in the ironic position of being unable to find a way of releasing those same leaders without loss of face. Whether it even bought time for itself by proscribing the ANC is questionable. For today it is pitted against a mass movement of far greater insurrectionary power than it had a quarter of a century ago, with an armed wing far better equipped and trained, and with world opinion squarely on its side. Would the…
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