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Mandela and our fight against apartheid

By Aziz Salmone Fall


The false sign language interpreter making meaningless gestures during the memorial ceremonies for Madiba Mandela at the Johannesburg stadium may have been surreal, but he was certainly not the only impostor among the many figures posing as early anti-apartheid activists. Only in 2008 did the U.S. remove Mandela’s name from the terrorist list. Mandela is a noble Thembu, privileged and educated black man who at the risk of his own life stood up for the freedom of his people and a more multi-diverse, democratic nation.

The history of the fight against apartheid is a complex one, full of significant suffering, struggles and contradictions. Despite courageous work by some media outlets, not enough is being said about the role of workers and of unions in that fight, or about the challenges of building a political front that could have brought to life the Freedom Charter and the reconstruction and post-apartheid development (RPD) plans. And yet, this complexity and those challenges are what explain the socio-economic crisis that clouds the future of South Africa. Here in Canada, those challenges were manifested in our failure to build a pan-Canadian network against apartheid. In Québec, we managed to build a network by overcoming political and personal divisions.

The workers of South Africa and of Canada were at the core of the fight against apartheid. Unions such as CUPW created connections with workers who were leading the struggle. In South Africa, workers were divided on the issue of organizing with banned organizations, but also of becoming more political. FOSATU rejected the class collaboration that it suspected the ANC was engaged in, while SACTU which was more aligned with the ANC increasingly embraced nationalism and democratic socialism. In Canada, SACTU linked up with CUPW following the major strike of 1973. More than 290 Canadian unions and branches offered material and financial support to the labour and political movements against apartheid in South Africa. Our friend Peter Mahlangu was provided an office in CUPW’s Toronto branch. Postal workers refused to deliver mail, auto workers offered various supports, communications workers blocked communications. Clearly, unions were among the first to challenge South Africa’s apartheid and we owe much to the support offered by these politicised Canadian and Quebec workers.

«Madiba » visited Montreal.  We had previously succeeded in convincing the city to stand against apartheid, and it had cut off business relationships with South-African suppliers. Montreal had also renamed a park “Nelson and Winnie Mandela” (But when Winnie had her legal problems, the city was quick to remove her name). As coordinator of the anti-apartheid network in Québec, I had planted a maple tree from Norway in that park, in honour of Mandela and our freedom fighters. The tree had been roughed up a few days later but survived nevertheless, like Mandela, full of scars but standing strong and overcoming time.

aziz Fall at the Parc Mandela Sunday
aziz Fall at the Parc Mandela Sunday

Madiba Mandela was born at the end of World War I and in prison, like his father, he had become infected with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. His father, a well-off Xhosa prince had died of lung disease in front of nine-year old Mandela. Mandela went on to have an eventful life. The young, proud Thembu prince learns about humiliation when in a tussle with a donkey, the animal throws him in thorn bushes in front of his friends. He will feel the same humiliation and the same rage as a young adult faced with racial discrimination. A lawyer, freedom fighter, revolutionary, Mandela forms his political awareness, fights against apartheid and organizes the ANC’s armed struggle of self-defense imposed by the apartheid regime. This is what will lead to him spending 27 years in jail.

At the 22nd year mark, as the apartheid regime tries to start negotiations, GawieMarx, the assistant commander of Pollsmoor prison, where Mandela is held brings the prisoner for an impromptu two-hour-ride in the city, then leaves him alone as he goes to get drinks. Madiba is alone, without a guard, in an open car. Was it a trap? He can’t help himself, he gets out and runs straight ahead, sees a park where he could hide, but feels irresponsible. He heads back to the car where his jailer comes back to see him with two coke cans.

The South-African army had a major defeat at Cuita Cuonavale in Angola in 1987. Meanwhile the front line countries were becoming increasingly ungovernable due to imperialist activities aimed at destabilizing the region. The only thing that could be hoped for with the end of apartheid was political independence and the advent of the rainbow nation, and people had to fight hard to get even that. On August 12, 1988, Nelson Mandela is hospitalized due to tuberculosis and this is used as a pretext to step up the secret negotiations between members of the South-African bourgeoisie, representatives of imperialist forces and the ANC leadership. Mandela is a prisoner of this situation, and will have to learn to navigate it.  His long march to freedom pushes him to negotiate almost alone with the authorities. He does it in the name of the ANC for his own circumstances, for the circumstances of his friends and for the end of apartheid.

To lack full freedom, to be constrained by events, to remain firm while showing a lot of wisdom and restraint – it seems to me Mandela will have lived in that state of conditional freedom over and over again throughout his life: during the transition era of former South-African president de Klerk, in his brief time in power, and until the end of his days. Those are odd and exceptional circumstances that set him apart and gave him a certain aura and discretionary power in everything, but they also handcuffed him. He remained mainly a prisoner of his economic policy but also of his relationship with workers. For it is workers and unions who are the real heroes of the fight against apartheid and who will pay the price of sacrifice: abandoning the socialist revolution in the interest of national construction and liberal reforms. Some trade unionists will betray their ideals and enrich themselves in the new arrangement.

The fall of apartheid is a Pyrrhic victory. Noble-minded, Mandela forgave his jailers even as the agony caused by apartheid was getting bloodier with the actions of the extreme right and the Inkhata party. The country renounced nuclear arms. Economically, the scenarios from the Freedom Charter and the ambitious platform for development (RDP) alarmed investors, the World Bank and donors. With the death of Oliver Tambo, the assassination of Chris Hani – the only one with real potential to succeed Mandela – and the legal issues that marginalized Winnie Madikizela, the radical wing of the ANC was slowed down. The technocratic wing of the party took over and imposed structural adjustments to the country.  GEAR (Growth Employment and Redistribution Strategy) put the final nail in the coffin of economic transformation and social redistribution.

The ascendancy of the moderate wing of the ANC, the advent of a small group of black bourgeoisie and of a class in the middle linked to it; the pain caused by accusations against his wife whom he supports even after their divorce; the problems caused by the denial of Aids; military spending, increased economic gaps between the haves and the have-nots, the land question and so many more issues cause divisions in the party. They cloud Mandela’s aura. Mandela finally begins to think of himself, remarries with Graca Machel, (the widow of Mozambican revolutionary Samora Machel), and in 1999, leaves power one year before the end of his term to live a peaceful retirement in his village of Qunu. This proves impossible as the whole world wants to be seen at his side. At the death of his son in 2005, Mandela changes his mind on his initial wrong-headed opinions about Aids which came from the time when Umkhonto we Sizwe (ANC armed wing) combattants were said to be the ones bringing the disease to the country. He will dedicate his foundation to the fight against Aids.

Some are saying the country will implode in the post-Mandela era, with insecurity, violence, social inequality, and attacks against immigrants. But Mandela had not been in politics for a long time and his symbolic position will remain as a national glue, but also as testament to collective popular struggles. Madiba will remain with us as an eternal optimist and a committed panafricanist. And in Montreal, other young people continue to read and to play under the tree that has his name. In paradise, Madiba, had predicted, I will rush to find the closest branch of the ANC.

Aziz Salmone Fall is a former coordinator of the network against apartheid, Quebec and a political scientist



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