One narrative that comes up very often is the view that Nelson Mandela was a traitor who sold out South Africa. This is a topic that I have addressed in a couple of my books before, but a recent exchange which I participated in has motivated me to address this issue in a more direct way, which is what I aim to do in this article.
In the first place, it is necessary to understand the type of organization that the African National Congress (ANC) was prior to Mandela joining. At the time, the ANC was made up of leaders who advocated that Africans should embrace European civilization. Influenced by Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist views, the ANC leadership discouraged direct confrontation with racists in South Africa. Dr. A.B. Xuma, who was elected as the president of the ANC in 1940, was concerned that radical activism would jeopardize his ties with the white establishment. This was the type of leadership which the ANC had at the time. The ANC Youth League, led by Anton Lembede, adopted a more nationalistic position. Mandela was among the members of the Youth League who helped to move the struggle in a more progressive direction.
There was still a split between the moderates and the nationalists within the ANC. Mandela was on the side of the nationalists in the Youth League. After Lembede died, A.P. Mda took over leadership of the Youth League. Mda’s views were much more moderate than Lembede’s African Nationalism. The Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) was formed as a break away group from the ANC. The PAC, which was led by Robert Sobukwe, was more closely aligned with Lembede’s nationalist views than with the moderate position of the ANC. I wrote a short ebook on the issue titled “Anton Lembede and The Influence of Africanism in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle” which addresses this particular topic in more detail.
The PAC’s role in the struggle should be addressed as well. In the video below, Omali Yeshitela expresses a view which is held by some. That view is that foreign powers played a role in PAC’s lack of electoral success. The situation is more complex than this, however.
The reason why the ANC came into power in South Africa instead of the PAC is that the PAC was poorly organized. Much of this lack of organization came from the fact that Sobukwe and other leaders in the PAC were in prison, so the PAC became an organization without clear leadership or direction. There were also ideological problems as well. The PAC was originally meant to be people of African ancestry only. This was a position for which the PAC was criticized for, but the PAC eventually reversed position and began accepting white and Indian members. Some PAC members who were imprisoned were not aware of this change in policy, however. They believed that this was “ANC propaganda” when it in fact was not. The PAC also ran a very ineffective and poorly planned campaign for the election in 1994. The PAC rejected the negotiations with the government of South Africa and there were internal arguments within the PAC over whether or not the PAC should even partipcate in the 1994 election. Throughout the anti-apartheid struggle, the PAC had no clear leadership or consistent ideological approach regarding how to conduct the struggle.
The failures of the ANC since taking power has perhaps blinded some to the flaws within the PAC, but the PAC was in fact a very flawed organization. Space won’t permit to provide a more detailed analysis, but for those are interested in a more detailed analysis of the PAC see my book Muhammad Ali, The Confederate Flag, and Other Essays.
By 1994, the ANC was the only viable political option for the people of South Africa since it was the best organized of the anti-apartheid organizations. I mentioned the ideological differences within the ANC before to make the point that the ANC was not an organization in which everyone shared the same views on the struggle. These differences came out once again came to the forefront. When negotiations began, not everyone in the ANC was supportive of this. Some, such as Chris Hani, preferred to continue waging an armed struggle for liberation.
Mandela was tasked with making a peaceful transition from racist apartheid rule to an African controlled government. This was at a time when racial tensions were very high and Chris Hani had been assassinated in an attempt to spark a race war in the country. There was also the fact that Mandela inherited a country with empty coffers. The previous government ran up a record deficit, so Mandela was not coming into power under ideal conditions.
I also want to reference a piece written by my friend Farida Nabourema, which documents many of Mandela’s accomplishments while in power. One which stood out to me was that he provided free medical care to pregnant women. This is significant considering the number of African women who have died in childbirth due to lack of access to medical care. Farida also mentions the significant increase in the number of rural areas which gained access to clean drinking water and contrasts this with Togo’s lack of access to clean drinking water. Farida explained that Mandela “has accomplished much more than almost all contemporary African leaders who, for the most part, have spent more than one decade in power.”
Farida also made the important point that when Mandela took power, Africa was completely dominated by neo-colonial regimes. Farida points out that when Sekou Toure took over power from the French colonialists, he was left to manage a nation without the resources and intellectuals required to manage a nation. Toure had the benefit of being able to rely on Pan-African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and Slyvanus Olympio, however. Mandela did not have this advantage.
Given the poor state of South Africa and the lack of nationalist governments in Africa, Mandela was not in an easy situation. One thing that Mandela gets criticized for often is the failure to return the land which was stolen by Europeans. Mandela did in fact make small steps towards land reform, though not as sweeping as what Robert Mugabe would do in Zimbabwe. Though, as Farida points out, Mugabe undertook the Fast Track land reform program after he was in power for more than a decade. Mandela only served one five year term before he resigned, so Mugabe was in power much longer than Mandela was before Mugabe decided to undertake radical land reforms. Of course, we know that this fast track program was followed by Western sanctions on Zimbabwe. If South Africa had been placed under sanctions in the 1990s, which African nation could have rescued South Africa from the type of economic collapse which Zimbabwe experienced?
This is not to say that Mandela did not make mistakes. Once apartheid was over, the capitalist system of the previous apartheid regime remained in place. This allowed a small segment of the African population to enrich itself, as the masses remained poor. This was precisely the situation which Steve Biko warned against when he said:
If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday.
Today South Africa has earned the distinction as being the most unequal country in the world. The same oppressive apparatus which was used to suppress rebellion on the part of African people during apartheid also exists today. This was demonstrated during the “Marikana massacre” in 2012 in which South African police officers opened fire on striking miners.
Mandela does deserve some of the blame for the corruption in South Africa as well because he tolerated it and at times even defended it. When Allan Boesak was accused of fraud, Mandela supported him, despite the fact that Boesak was later convicted. Mandela also defended Nkosazana Zuma against criticisms of her role in the unauthorized expenditure of more than 10 million rand ($2.2 million) of European Union donor money on an extravagant AIDS-awareness play. He also denounced journalists for criticizing the ANC. Corruption scandals involving members of the ANC have been commonplace in South Africa and one can certainly point to Mandela’s willingness to defend members within his own party who were accused of corruption as helping to foster a culture of corruption.
BBC News | Africa | Anti-apartheid hero falls from grace
The former prominent African National Congress (ANC) official was found guilty of one charge of fraud and three charges…
Perhaps Mandela can be faulted for being too much of a reformist, rather than pursuing more revolutionary changes in South Africa, but one must also keep in mind the challenges that confronted Mandela once he came into power and the fact that he was only in power for one term. As I noted before, Mandela is not flawless and there are certainly aspects of his politics which should be critiqued, but I personally don’t view him as a traitor or sellout given the limitations which confronted him once he came into power.
It is also difficult to maintain the view that Mandela was a puppet in the way that some African leaders today (Faure Gnassingbé comes to mind) are puppets who follow whatever it is that they are told to do by the West. Mandela openly criticized the Iraq War and supported Fidel Castro. Some seem to forget that Mandela was regarded as being a terrorist by the American government until 2008.
In conclusion, my personal view is that there are certain things that Mandela can be faulted for, but in light of everything that Mandela was confronted with after he came to power, I think it is a bit extreme to call him a sellout. As I have explained elsewhere, African leaders who took over power were often tasked with the challenge of trying to build a nation from the little that the colonialists left. As such, many mistakes and errors were made even by leaders whose intentions may have been genuine. None of this is meant to excuse or defend the rampant corruption and inequality which the ANC has overseen in South Africa since the ANC has been in power, and I do believe that Mandela is at fault for some of this. At the same time, my personal view is that Mandela’s faults should be weighted against his accomplishments as well, rather than merely dismissing him as a traitor without properly studying the situation. Others are free to disagree with my conclusions.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.