December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela — the good, and the flawed, and not "too soon"

And, yes, he had a lot of good. Ending apartheid. The truth and reconciliation idea. And more.

But, he had plenty of flaws. No, I'm not talking about personal pecadillos. I'm not talking about former wife, Winnie, either; her flaws are her own.

I'm talking about how he largely bought into the ideas, and the demands, of Western neoliberal economics. His "slouching toward Davos," if you want to put it bluntly, as this piece does.
One of his worst U-turns was to embrace the owners of the mines, who had quite literally treated the indigenous population as slaves. In 1994, Mandela went so far as to submit the African National Congress’ economic programme to Harry Oppenheimer for his approval.  Oppenheimer had been the chairman of De Beers and Anglo-American, two mining firms that had provided crucial economic support for apartheid.  

I have no doubt that Mandela was put under enormous pressure by the world’s leading politicians and businessmen to behave in the way they wanted.  By his own admission, the ripping up of the commitment to nationalise South Africa’s mines was the result of his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Almost certainly, South Africa was threatened with losing investors if Mandela went about putting the Freedom Charter into effect. 
Representatives of the European Union effectively mugged his people.  
As president, Mandela oversaw the conclusion of a “free trade agreement” with the EU. It was grotesquely unjust.  South Africa was required to remove taxes levied on 81% of food and other agricultural goods from the Union.  As most of these goods benefit from generous subsidies, there was no way that South African farmers could be expected to compete with them.
Some people might wonder: "What choice did he have?"

I'd say, a fair amount. Diamonds, and gold, re the mines and miners, are lusted-after commodities by the rich, and South Africa has enough of a share of world production of both to affect prices.

And, if he was going to sign off on not nationalizing the mines, he should have made that part of getting a much better free trade deal with the EU than he actually did.

Other people, such as one Facebook friend, trot out the "too soon" argument. They may acknowledge his flaws, but say it's too soon to point them out.

Wrong. Not pointing them out at the time is how people become two-dimensional cutouts.

Look at Steve Jobs. Obits were too ready to paint him as an iGuru, and too ready to overlook Apple's Chinese factories (which he did later than competitors, to be honest), and even more too ready to overlook that he was marketing genius first, creative genius second.

Or, the Gnu Atheists ready to make a deathbed secular saint out of Chris Hitchens while overlooking his neoconservative Islamophobia.

People who say "too soon" need to look at American history. While Lincoln, it is true, was immediately canonized, George Washington was NOT at his death. Many Democratic-Republican newspapers had no problem criticizing him as soon as they heard he was dead.
There needs to be balance, of course. And, the piece above notes all of Mandela's good as well as all of his flawed. And, with that, let's end with the last part of the linked piece:
Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Mandela is to rekindle the ideals of the Freedom Charter.
Triumphing over inequality requires constant dedication; unforgivably, some of his comrades in the ANC forgot this message as soon as their fortunes grew.
The struggle did not end when Mandela was released from prison.  It cannot end with his death.  In one form or another, it must continue.  And it will.
Let's hope that future South African leaders find a way to undo some of Mandela's concessions to neoliberalism. Let's also hope that the West helps them do so, before China jumps in.

Speaking of, Mandela's not on the same sainthood platform in South Africa as in the West. He's not denigrated, but the issues I mentioned above are seen clearly, "accepted" in the sense of acknowledging that they are a significant part of his post-apartheid legacy, while often not "accepted" in terms  of not being found acceptable.

The fact that many Westerners might want to say "too soon" about a three-dimensional obit probably says more about what many Westerners wish South Africa were, what they're trying to see it as being, than it says about anything else.

Well, native South Africans are the ones living on the ground with Mandela's legacy — all of it, not just parts of it that look the most shiny and bright.

And, that's another reason this isn't "too soon." Per the writer of this piece, Mandela did not live in a vacuum.

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