Remembering Mandela – Striking Similarities and Coopting Power Elite

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Nelson Mandela is no more. As Indians were readying to remember their founding father Dr Ambedkar in the early hours of December 6th, came the news of demise of Nelson Mandela, the father of ‘modern’ South Africa. World over, there is a grief yet Africans are celebrating his life. Amidst this pouring grief is another gimmickry of the western powers who are now canonizing Nelson Mandela today for their own benefits and ignoring their vast track record of violation of human rights of the people in Africa and elsewhere.

A common point of the tributes emerged is that Mandela was great because he did not believe in ‘retribution’. He was for ‘reconciliation’ and is father of a ‘united’ South Africa. I heard President Obama’s speech at White House converting Mandela as his icon and maintaining that his first ‘political action’ was fight against apartheid. The British Prime Minister David Cameroon went a step ahead saying the ‘light has gone’. Mandela was a man of reconciliation said his former tormentor FW D Clerk who shared the Nobel Peace Prize along with him.

In India the prime minister and commentators lost no time in describing Mandela as their friend and ‘inspired’ by Gandhi. The President, Prime Minister and all were in unison proud that Mandela learnt so much from ‘Gandhi’. It is other matter that Indian political class learnt little from Gandhi except in manipulating things and distorting the facts.

Let us try to recapture some of the historical facts of Mandela’s life before analyzing his politics and life. He was first arrested in 1955 along with 156 activists. Later he was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964. The struggle for life and dignity of the majority black population continued and African National Congress was their legitimate representative.

It is not mythological story that the American, British and rest of the western governments had no shame in supporting the racist South African regime till 1986. Mandela for them was a terrorist and ANC a terrorist organization. In fact US Congress passed Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 against the veto of President Ronald Regan who termed ANC as terrorist organization. Dick Chaney, American Vice President was a member of American Congress and voted against the bill. The ruling Republican Party was against the bill which was putting some stricter restrictions against the apartheid regime of South Africa. Chaney is not unhappy for what he did in 1986. Mrs Margret Thatcher and President Regan have openly supported the racist P.W.Botha regime of South Africa against the wishes of international community. It is a fact that the same ‘champions’ of human rights have no shame in defending the illegitimate government of Israel and its discriminatory attitude towards the Palestinians.

In February 1990 Mandela was released from the prison after lots of pressure and realization in the western world that it was impossible to stop violence and retribution in South Africa. The darker side is that in the name of ‘reconciliation’ a lot of things have happened which can say that ‘political’ South Africa may be led by the blacks but economic power remains in the hands of white minority and somewhere Mandela was unable to challenge that. One can see in sports and other sectors too, there is little change in Africa as far as representation of blacks is concern. The African cricket team still consists of a majority of white minority players. One does not know whether blacks have got fair representation in the government services and power structure but one of the biggest ‘victory’ of the minority white regime was that the ‘reconciliation’ was done without ‘legitimate’ ‘land reforms’ and banking and financial institutions of South Africa remained solidly and powerfully in the hands of minority white community.

Mandela was definitely a revolutionary influenced with communist ideology. He had got support from all those regimes who were fighting against US hegemony. Countries like Cuba supported the movement for the rights of blacks and that is why Mandela’s first invite was to Fidel Castro to visit to Africa. In an interview he said, ‘

“From its earliest days, the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist-orquestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gain made in the Cuban Revolution. … Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro.”

In fact after his becoming president of South Africa, Mandela was categorical in his opposition to Israel and war in Iraq. He condemned it. He supported Palestinian demand for their homeland and said,’

“Israel should withdraw from all the areas which it won from the Arabs in 1967, and in particular Israel should withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, from south Lebanon and from the West Bank.”

For many in the West, these are difficult points and they do not expect Mandela who was now absolutely ‘fixed’ in Western ‘democracies’ to support Saddam or have any relationship with Castro regimes. But when the outpouring started today, western commentators completely ignored Mandela’s ideological tilts.

Though, it is not that Mandela changed according to western framework yet the influence was visible in the later years. Perhaps when you participate in power structure it coopt you. Mandela became a ‘statesman’ without fulfilling his party’s agenda. The blacks of South Africa still revere him yet the reality is that the ‘freedom’ has not got them much except the ‘political participation’. Is it not irony that when people seek justice they are fired and killed by the police?

In the new set-up of Africa when Mandela was being canonized and glorified to maximum hiding the western hypocrisy and double standard about human rights and democracy, the person who stood with him and took his battle further in his absence, his partner Winnie was villainised. In a revealing interview to Nadira Naipaul, in March 2010, she said, ‘

“This name Mandela is an albatross around the necks of my family. You all must realise that Mandela was not the only man who suffered. There were many others, hundreds who languished in prison and died. Many unsung and unknown heroes of the struggle, and there were others in the leadership too, like poor Steve Biko, who died of the beatings, horribly all alone. Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary. But look what came out,” she said, looking to the writer. He said nothing but listened.

It is hard to knock a living legend. Only a wife, a lover or a mistress has that privilege. Only they are privy to the intimate inner man, I thought.

“Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”

She was pained. Her uncreased brown face had lost the softness.

“I cannot forgive him for going to receive the Nobel [Peace Prize in 1993] with his jailer [FW] de Klerk. Hand in hand they went. Do you think de Klerk released him from the goodness of his heart? He had to. The times dictated it, the world had changed, and our struggle was not a flash in the pan, it was bloody to say the least and we had given rivers of blood. I had kept it alive with every means at my disposal”.

We could believe that. The world-famous images flashed before our eyes and I am sure hers. The burning tyres – Winnie endorsed the necklacing of collaborators in a speech in 1985 (“with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country”) – the stoning, the bullets, the terrible deaths of “informers”. Her often bloodthirsty rhetoric has marred her reputation.

“Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He should never have agreed to it.” Again her anger was focused on Mandela. “What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried? That Bishop Tutu who turned it all into a religious circus came here,” she said pointing to an empty chair in the distance.

“He had the cheek to tell me to appear. I told him a few home truths. I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and me. Because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom.”

Winnie’s pain has to be understood. She was sounding bitter but then it is a reality when friends part ways, when you see the one become larger than life while other colleagues are painted as villain then what can we expect? Except for Mandela, most of the ANC team was relegated to nothingness and those who were assertive were projected negatively by the western media. Can we truly say that South Africa is a country of unity at the moment? The lofty ideals of ‘forgiveness’ as being hailed by Clintons and Obamas need to be asked to those who have witnessed those humiliation of living life pushed as slaves.  I know Winnie was charged with murders, retribution, frauds and what not but none can deny her commitment to the cause of her people and her struggle in building up organization with other people in the absence of Mandela. After Mandela was released, she was sidelined and it is certain that a person who commits herself so much feel bitter which the interview clearly reflected.

The double standards are visible. You glorify a person because he has been fixed into your ‘democratic’ ‘tolerant’ model. So, you are great because you have ‘forgiven’ the tyrants, the democratic ones, who left no stone unturned to kill you and your ‘violence’. ‘We’ are opposed to ‘violence’ they would say without giving any alternatives to those who suffers in indignity and humiliation daily. Yes, violence does not mean the P.Botha regime was killing the blacks, firing upon them when they were raising issues of their human rights. Yes, ‘slavery’ is not violence perhaps and that was you can bring Gadhafi to law books, kill Saddam Hussein for violating human rights of the people but whether it is Yitzhak Rabin or FW D Klerk you baptize them through your Nobel Prizes and the entire ‘past’ is ‘forgiven’. In this battle the Western regimes have won but they have actually created differences among the communities who have been oppressed. Whether Mandela or Yasser Arafat, people of both South Africa and Palestine felt betrayed as their dream lands still eludes them.

Many of the Western commentators are still not happy with Mandela as they charge him of befriending Fidel Castro, Gadhafi and others. How much adjustment would they like once you are in power? Yes, you want ‘reconciliation’ and not retribution but is it possible to talk about ‘reconciliation’ without justice. If that is true then should we say that has happened in South Africa? Have the heart melt? How should people forget the inexplicable wounds that have been inflicted on them over a period of time? Why the racist regimes actions have gone unpunished? You punished Pinochet of Chile, executed Saddam and Ghadafi. You got Nazib killed even though by the Talibanis but you want forgiveness for a regime that violated all norms of human values and governance of modern day.

The Indian hypocrisy is much bigger than the Western World. Though it was Nehru who stood clear in his condemnation of the apartheid regime of South Africa, it would be highly unjust to say that we did enough to eliminate that regime in Africa. We are we proud of? To hide our own hidden apartheid, we can speak volumes on Africa but not allow our own people to power structure. The hatred that exists in India today clearly reflects even in the tribute to Mandela.

Leaders after leaders and speakers after speakers have mentioned Mandela that he was influenced by Gandhian values. One does not know what Gandhi did for the toiling masses of Africa. Even when Gandhi was in Africa, his struggle was not really for the blacks of Africa but for the Indian community there, which was mostly businessmen Gujaratis who actually remain dominant in a large part of Africa and who as many people allege are no less racist and casteist than their white counterparts.

Secondly, India is home to a system which is much bigger and more discriminatory than Africa. Over 160 million people in India suffer from hidden apartheid which has divine sanction and constitutional framework has not been able to protect those rights which are violated every day. Yes, Mandela came to India in 1990, a year which was the most turbulent in the history of independent India. A year in which the most marginalized got right to participation in governance structure, a long standing demand of reservation for the OBCs was fulfilled. It was a year when a government honored the father of Indian constitution with the highest honor of Bharat Ratna. It was along with Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Nelson Mandela also was awarded Bharat Ratna by the V P Singh government. Hence these two icons are entirely different in the entire list of Bharat Ratnas which has always been used by power elite to promote their own people. For the first time, we felt that Bharat Ratna deserving went to right people.

Mandela died just in the intervening night of 5th and 6th December. None of our commentators could find similarities with Ambedkar who fought singlehandedly the battles for the rights of Dalits in India who suffer similar prejudices and discrimination in India. He appreciated Gandhi as it is a ritual for every head of a state or a leader to appreciate Gandhi and Nehru as they are part of power structure now. There are awards and ceremonies in their names. If Mandela had time to read Ambedkar, I am sure, he would have appreciated his struggle. I don’t know how much he would talk about ‘forgiveness’ and ‘large-heartedness’. I am amused why the ‘forgiveness’ and ‘large-heartedness’ is expected from the victims. When there is laws then why not take all these action to law and human rights bodies? Can ‘forgiveness’ and ‘large-heartedness’ undo historical wrongs which the parent systems of our societies have inflicted upon the oppressed masses? If not then what is the remedy for that? If the black population in South Africa still suffers and Dalits in India are still asking for basic human dignity then what is the meaning of the so called ‘transfer of power’ and ‘inclusive democracy’. The fact is the power elite have very well manipulated this ‘inclusive’ democracy to validate on their ‘exclusive’ rights over our natural resources, our finances and our power structure.

Mandela is gone and he will always remain there. It is essential that we do not ‘deify’ him. Let there be a critical analysis of his legacy so that the movement that he launched is not stuck in the din of ‘forgiveness’ forever.


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