Monday, December 09, 2013

Free Nelson Mandela

Jack Graham has already gotten the ball rolling on properly assessing the legacy and life of Nelson Mandela, who passed away last week. Here's his basic takeaway:
Let's mourn the passing of a fighter against racial discrimination, who endured decades of suffering (on a level that I can't even conceptualise, let alone imagine myself tolerating) for his principles. But let's not lose ourselves in lachrymose sentimentality and forget the real history of post-Apartheid South Africa.
And was that post-Apartheid history. Jack starts pointing us in the right direction with a pair of articles. The first is from John Pilger, who interviewed Mandela shortly before he died. The most salient grafs:
Few ordinary South Africans were aware that this “process” had begun in high secrecy more than two years before Mandela’s release, when the ANC in exile had, in effect, done a deal with members of the Afrikaner elite at a stately home, Mells Park House, near Bath. The prime movers were the corporations that had underpinned apartheid.

Around the same time, Mandela was conducting his own secret negotiations. In 1982, he had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive and entertain people. The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the resistance between the “moderates” that it could “do business with” (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Oliver Tambo) and those in the front-line townships who were leading the United Democratic Front. On 5 July 1989, Mandela was spirited out of prison to meet P W Botha, the white-minority president known as Die Groot Krokodil (“the big crocodile”). Mandela was delighted that Botha poured the tea.

With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid ended and economic apartheid had a new face. 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. ANC chieftains moved into mansions in “golf and country estates”. As the disparities between white and black narrowed, they widened between black and black.

The familiar refrain that the 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 changed. In 2001 George Soros told the World Economic Forum in Davos, “South Africa is in the hands of international capital.”
This is less an aberration of contemporary economic policy or simply a twisted echo of Apartheid, and more the bread and butter of modern Death Capitalism. Naomi Klein gives a full analysis which should really be read in its entirety, but here's a bit of it:
Some commissioners felt that multinational corporations that had benefited from apartheid should be forced to pay reparations. In the end the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the modest recommendation of a one-time 1 percent corporate tax to raise money for the victims, what it called "a solidarity tax." Sooka expected support for this mild recommendation from the ANC; instead, the government, then headed by Mbeki, rejected any suggestion of corporate reparations or a solidarity tax, fearing that it would send an anti-business message to the market. "The president decided not to hold business accountable," Sooka told me. "It was that simple." In the end, the government put forward a fraction of what had been requested, taking the money out of its own budget, as the commissioners had feared. 

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is frequently held up as a model of successful "peace building," exported to other conflict zones from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan. But many of those who were directly involved in the process are deeply ambivalent. When he unveiled the final report in March 2003, the commission’s chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, confronted journalists with freedom’s unfinished business. "Can you explain how a black person wakes up in a squalid ghetto today, almost 10 years after freedom? Then he goes to work in town, which is still largely white, in palatial homes. And at the end of the day, he goes back home to squalor? I don’t know why those people don’t just say, ‘To hell with peace. To hell with Tutu and the truth commission.’

Sooka, who now heads South Africa’s Foundation for Human Rights, says that she feels that although the hearings dealt with what she described as "outward manifestations of apartheid such as torture, severe ill treatment and disappearances," it left the economic system served by those abuses "completely untouched"—an echo of the concerns about the blindness of "human rights" expressed by Orlando Letelier three decades earlier. If she had the process to do over again, Sooka said, "I would do it completely differently. I would look at the systems of apartheid—I would look at the question of land, I would certainly look at the role of multinationals, I would look at the role of the mining industry very, very closely because I think that’s the real sickness of South Africa. . . . I would look at the systematic effects of the policies of apartheid, and I would devote only one hearing to torture because I think when you focus on torture and you don’t look at what it was serving, that’s when you start to do a revision of the real history."
And some numbers:
After more than a decade since South Africa made its decisive turn toward Thatcherism, the results of its experiment in trickledown justice are scandalous:
  • Since 1994, the year the ANC took power, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has doubled, from 2 million to 4 million in 2006.
  • Between 1991 and 2002, the unemployment rate for black South Africans more than doubled, from 23 percent to 48 percent.
  • Of South Africa’s 35 million black citizens, only five thousand earn more than $60,000 a year. The number of whites in that income bracket is twenty times higher, and many earn far more than that amount.
  • The ANC government has built 1.8 million homes, but in the meantime 2 million people have lost their homes.
  • Close to 1 million people have been evicted from farms in the first decade of democracy.
  • Such evictions have meant that the number of shack dwellers has grown by 50 percent. In 2006, more than one in four South Africans lived in shacks located in informal shantytowns, many without running water or electricity.
And let's not forget the time that Mandela, as Walter Glass puts it, "invaded a tiny country to crush a popular protest and take their water":
In recent years, the SADC — dominated by South Africa since the demise of apartheid (the South African economy is three times bigger than the economies of all other SADC countries combined) — has had another reason to want a pliant regime in Lesotho: the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

This US$8 billion, four-phase mega-dam project is jointly funded by South African capital and the World Bank. It is one of the largest infrastructure developments in the world and construction is to begin soon on the scheme's second phase.

The LHWP was dreamed up by the apartheid regime in 1986, and accepted by Lesotho's military regime recently installed by Pretoria.

The aim of the project was to pump massive amounts of water to South Africa to meet its agricultural and industrial needs. South Africa consumes 80% of southern Africa's water, yet has just 10% of its water sources. Studies have shown that without new sources of water, South Africa's fresh water resources would be fully used up by between 2025 and 2030.

Both Botswana and Namibia would benefit from the project. Lesotho, on the other hand, would be compelled to pump water to South Africa even in times of drought.
The picture painted here is of a great, revolutionary man and party ensnared by the forces of Neo-Liberalism. Whether the motivation was self-interest or a genuine belief that abandoning economic policies that would help the poor and disenfranchised would be offset in the long-run by the garnering of political power is beside the point. The levers of power are designed primarily to benefit elites, that some new elites can enter their ranks at the expense of the vast seas of the marginalized is no great victory.

On a related note, it's been disgusting see a week of the American news cycle breathlessly slobbering over Nelson Mandela, not for his truly courageous revolutionary period, but for his post-prison positions and policies. Besides the unfortunately usual grotesqueness that is seeing old, powerful, rich white men like Tom Brokaw reminisce with a barely constrained glee about how it was his imprisonment that made Nelson Mandela a great man (because no black man could be great if it weren't for the actions of his white betters, eh? Shades of the imperialist claptrap that is Richard Attonborough's Gandhi), there was the added insult of seeing talking head after talking head declare that it was Mandela's commitment to reconciliation and moving away from his past "divisiveness" that made him a paragon of virtue. Unfortunately, what the overhelmingly white, corporate class calls "reconciliation" folks like Pilger and Klein astutely recognize as the abandonment of policies of economic equality and the embracing of top-down class warfare.

It's tempting to lay blame at the feet of the ANC, or perhaps if we're feeling particularly cynical, at the feet of Nelson Mandela himself. But doing so would requiring disregarding the genuine courage and moral rectitude that characterized so much of Mandela's life. Instead, the lesson here is one of how structures of power imbalance tend to use people to perpetuate those structures, and not - as is popularly imagined - a sort of reversal where a person can come in and change the system from within. Nelson Mandela found that out, and so did we, when he was absorbed into the body of the state and its relentless drive towards neo-liberalism. As Kevin Carson puts it:
The state, in its essence, is a tool for exploitation by an economic ruling class. You’ll never end exploitation by putting “revolutionaries” in control of the state. You’ll just create a new ruling class.
After witnessing the rise of Nelson Mandela, I'm inclined to agree.

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