Western eulogies to Nelson Mandela are trying to airbrush out of history the man who never renounced the revolutionary fight...
Two foreign leaders gave orations at the memorial service to the great Nelson Mandela on 14 December. One was Barack Obama of the USA, whose windy rhetoric lectured the 90 or so government heads present about following the example of “the great liberator”. The other, Raul Castro of Cuba, spoke of Mandela as the “ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice”.
The statue of Nelson Mandela erected on the South Bank, London, installed in 1986 by the Greater London Council shortly before Thatcher abolished it.
Of course it was Obama’s speech that featured in western press coverage largely promoting Mandela’s life as one of saintly fortitude in the peaceful fight for freedom.
After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 Mandela called for an end to peaceful resistance and for people’s armed struggle against the brutal apartheid government. He was a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of South Africa when he was subsequently imprisoned, and he was able to take part in leading the struggle even from a prison cell. All this was airbrushed out by capitalist leaders rushing to be part of the eulogies.
Also heard was Mandela’s unswerving support for the ANC’s armed campaign of sabotage, bombings and attacks on the police and military to destroy the regime.
The crowd’s huge cheers for Castro went unreported here. As did those whenever Robert Mugabe was mentioned – he also led a bitter struggle against a western-backed racist tyranny and was a lifelong friend of Mandela. There was good reason for Castro to be introduced on the memorial platform as from the “tiny island that fought for our liberation”. In 1988, Cuban forces defeated South African troops in Cuito Cuanavale, Angola (see Workers July 2010, available online).
Mandela said in Havana in 1991, “Without the defeat inflicted at Cuito Cuanavale our organisations never would have been legalised... The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.”
Contrast this record with that of the USA and Britain, whose presidents and prime ministers present and past were obliged to travel in 2013 to South Africa to speak admiringly of Nelson Mandela.
The British state was apartheid’s greatest foreign supporter. In 1960 the Sharpeville massacre, when police shot dead 69 peaceful demonstrators protesting against the Pass Laws, and the Coalbrook gold mine disaster where 435 miners were buried alive (their bodies never recovered), both laid bare the brutality of a state where the black population was treated as expendable in the search for ever greater profits. Yet in 1961, the British government opposed the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth (it was outvoted).
Then, in 1962, the UN called for sanctions against South Africa on the grounds that the regime was a threat to international peace. The British government opposed this, and also refused to observe the UN embargo on arms to South Africa.
In June 1964, the UN passed a resolution calling on the South African government to end the trial of Mandela and the other imprisoned ANC leaders. The British and US governments shamefully abstained. For three decades, although you wouldn’t know it from the present words of politicians, the ANC’s main international supporters outside African armed struggle were Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Mandela stayed on the US terrorism watchlist until 2008. Reagan described the apartheid regime as “essential to the free world”. The CIA helped the regime, and information from the Agency led to Mandela’s arrest. Margaret Thatcher saw Mandela and the ANC as terrorists and opposed sanctions.
Norman Tebbit, an ageing Thatcherite ex-minister, still holds that view as correct. At least he is prepared to acknowledge it, unlike Cameron, who joined in with pro-apartheid junkets but now fawns at Mandela’s memory (although, unlike many other young Tories and always the PR man, he avoided wearing a Hang Nelson Mandela T-shirt).
Mandela was released from jail in January 1990 and President de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC. Talks on a new democracy for South Africa began. When in 1993 Mandela was elected the country’s first black president, at his inauguration as President, he embraced Fidel Castro, saying, “You made this possible.”
Of course, it was the South African people who made it possible, with their brave fight over many years, black and white together, to bring about the downfall of the brutal apartheid regime. But Mandela’s tribute acknowledged the truth of what happened and reflects the true source of his huge moral authority – the understanding that nothing less than a lifelong revolutionary fight is needed to overthrow the people’s enemies. ■