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Mandela – appropriation of an icon

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In reflecting fondly on Nelson Mandela, we should remember the considerable ‘walk’ still facing impoverished South Africans, writes John Hilley.

Nelson Mandela

RIP Tata Mandina.

His iconic part in bringing down South Africa’s apartheid regime needs little elaboration. Watching Mandela emerge that momentous day in 1990 from years of penury remains one of the most abiding reminders that brutal oppression can be overcome.

But it’s also a now more sobering reminder that true liberation involves the release of people from even higher forces of oppression.

Today, Mandela’s and South Africa’s ‘long walk to freedom’ has been deeply compromised by the ANC’s short stroll to neoliberal sellout.

It may seem somehow inappropriate at this sad moment to ‘sully’ Mandela’s reputation with such truths. Yet, reflecting Mandela’s own resistance to the system of apartheid, rather than any given leader of it, it’s appropriate that no one figure, however heroic, should be used to disguise any other oppressive system that comes to replace it.

As John Pilger recently asserted, ‘Mandela’s greatness is assured, but not his legacy’.

While a new black elite live in gated mansions, a still massive black underclass languish in poverty, deeply excluded by an economic system subservient to the global corporate order.

Following the recent murder of thirty four miners by South African police, Pilger wrote about the “illusion of post-apartheid democracy” and “the new worldwide apartheid of which South Africa is both an historic and contemporary model”; an abandonment of true economic liberation to the demands of privatisation and forces of international capital:

Enveloped in the hot air of corporate-speak, the Mandela and Mbeki governments took their cues from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. While the gap between the majority living beneath tin roofs without running water and the newly wealthy black elite in their gated estates became a chasm, finance minister Trevor Manuel was lauded in Washington for his “macro-economic achievements”. South Africa, noted George Soros in 2001, had been delivered into “the hands of international capital”.

Amid the official eulogies, little of this inconvenient reality is up for discussion, conveniently lost in the narrow narrative of South Africa’s ‘great democratic emancipation’.

Thus, an on-message media has seamlessly prioritised and approved those ‘free world’ voices so eager to mark and laud Mandela.

Between glowing commentaries on his life and struggle, the BBC has carried studious tributes from every other world leader, past and present, all desiring some association with the ‘Mandela brand’.

Barack Obama spoke of Mandela as a crucial formative influence, his conviction, incarceration and inspirational words helping to form Obama’s own ‘conviction’ politics. Visiting Robben Island recently and posing inside Mandela’s cell, Obama also spoke of Mandela’s fortitude in the face of harsh imprisonment. This from the man still refusing to shut down Guantanamo and directing a murderous drone war.

David Cameron and William Hague have also issued unctuous statements on Mandela’s passing, their cloying words still trying to deflect the shame of Thatcher’s denunciation of Mandela and the ANC as criminal terrorists.

Predictably, Tony Blair has also ‘honoured’ Mandela, ‘generously’ recognising their ‘disagreements’ over Iraq, Afghanistan and other ‘interventions’. Little, of course, will be made of Mandela’s resolute denunciation of US/UK-led wars, or support for Palestinians, as the media continue their choice presentations.

And so it goes on, every part of the establishment, every warmonger, every political wannabe grasping to the safe Mandela lore, many ‘belatedly’ finding their ‘role’ in the ‘anti-apartheid cause’.

Where do we see the same championing of the Palestinian cause, the castigation of ‘friendly’ apartheid states like Israel? The sins of Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha and De Klerk can now be safely exposed, but not, it seems, those of Ben Gurion, Sharon, Barak and Netanyahu.

As the presidents, prime ministers, princes and royals prepare for Mandela’s great funeral, consider just how suitable most of them are to be ‘mourning’ such a man.

How easily, too, the patronage and words of such figures displaces any true debate on Mandela’s politics or associations to those like Ronnie Kasrils, Joe Slovo and other such ANC subversives.

This is the context within which Mandela has been adopted and sanctified; an historic story and selective hagiography which can whitewash ‘Mandela-moment’ elites and harness safe liberal emotion over the evil of South African apartheid while avoiding much more awkward questions on its now imposed place in the global corporate apartheid.

Nor, as Jonathan Cook writes, is it disrespectful to Mandela and his huge achievements to see the ways in which he became appropriated and neutralised:

First, he was forced to become a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility. Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was forced to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.

In reflecting fondly on Nelson Mandela, this huge and defining figure, with his humanitarian gift for just forgiveness and reconciliation, we should remember the considerable ‘walk’ still facing impoverished South Africans, the dark collusion of their government and the ways in which this hypocritical deification of Mandela obscures the ongoing struggle to break the higher chains of oppression.

Glasgow-based Dr John Hilley is the author of Malaysia: Mahathirism, Hegemony and the New Opposition (London: 2001). He blogs at johnhilley.blogspot.com

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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12 Dec 2013 9.14pm

Yes brother you got it right

najib manaukau
8 Dec 2013 2.32pm

Why are all the Umno members keep asking to be given more hand outs and more hand outs when already they are already on hand outs, tongkats and wheelchairs ? Don’t they realise it is because of these Umno has become a minority elected government in spite of being the majority race in the country ? It is through deceives and gerrymandering that Umno remains in Putrajaya, or will they only be satisfied with a blank cheque handed to them ? Please remember it is solely because of these very policies the government is now in deficit plus at the rate they are given in to the demands of the members, soon very soon, the country will have to implement austerities. Greece has EU to help them in their hours of need, but who is going to help Malaysia, the only party one can only think of is Indonesia but they need help themselves and who else will come to Malaysia’s help ? Aleardy the present regime must have realise that and is now implementing unpopular new taxes cutting subsidises just to impede themselves from being… Read more »

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