Mandela: The Great Symbol of South Africa’s Unfinished Fight For Liberty

Nelson Mandela is many things to many people. There is certainly no one true story of the man most South Africans call “Madiba”. Like any human being he was complex, multi-faceted, and matured and changed throughout his long life. To some he was a hard-nosed revolutionary, to others a pragmatic and dignified statesman. To some a reconciler, to others a terrorist.

Mandela’s political philosophy seemed deeply eclectic. His Xhosa cultural context in which he descended from royalty undoubtedly stamped upon him a statist orientation. Mandela is part of a cultural ruling elite and everything about Mandela’s post-Apartheid South Africa is strongly imbued with economic and political elitism, wrapped in staunch, albeit liberal and democratically inclusive, statism. He admired both Britain’s left liberal democratic tradition and the Soviet Union’s revolutionary Marxism. He embraced multiracialism, especially when it was subsumed under a communist banner, yet he was also strongly African nationalist.

Of Mandela’s complex communism, Rian Malan, writing for the Telegraph, has this to say:

This wasn’t the sort of thing one wanted on the table at the height of the Cold War, because it would have devastated Western sympathy for the ANC’s cause. It was thus decided to obscure Mandela’s revolutionary credentials and present him to the world as a Jeffersonian democrat, willing to die for values Westerners held sacred. Ringing declarations along these lines turned Mandela’s 1964 trial into a global triumph for the anti-apartheid movement, and the rest is history – of a sort. Mandela was rebranded as an innocuous black liberal and Pretoria’s talk of a Communist plot laughed at, even as the ANC itself moved deeper and deeper into the Soviet camp.

The context of Mandela’s activism was also dealt a severe dose of complexity. In South Africa, unlike the rest of Africa, the fight for black African democratic power had morphed by the middle of the 20th Century away from anti-colonialism against the British to a fight against a more complex and stubborn political dominance by the descendants of white tribes that had been living in Africa for well over 300 years already. “Stubborn” because, for the Afrikaner, South Africa is not a colony but a homeland. The Afrikaner nationalists who ruled Apartheid South Africa, like other post-colonial movements throughout Africa, harboured considerable resentment toward the British, who they considered to be invaders of their own independent sovereign states in the 1800′s, known as the Boer republics. But by the mid-1960′s, when Mandela was commencing what was to be a 27 year prison sentence, Britain could no longer be the bad guy for black or white freedom-fighters, having had its long-neutered figureheadship over South Africa officially severed by the National Party in 1961, withdrawing rapidly from its African colonies, leaving Ian Smith’s UDI largely in the cold in Rhodesia, and firmly denouncing Apartheid, even if still sympathetic to its national corporate interests in South Africa.

These nuances of political circumstance meant Mandela often wasn’t anti-British or pro-black enough for his fellow northern post-colonial African revolutionaries, wasn’t communist enough to give up his Anglocentric democratic ideals, wasn’t (classically) liberal enough to shake communist dogma, and wasn’t Westernised enough to veil his inherently strong black African nationalism.

In many respects this made Mandela the perfect canvass upon which almost any subjective perception of him could be projected, and the global elite wasted no time projecting onto him the mantle of sainthood and transcendent global statesman, a ‘saintsman’ if you will. Long before his death, nay, long before is jail release, Mandela had been absorbed into the global superclass – a group of mega-wealthy mega-connected progressive liberal elites.

This elite shaped Mandela’s brand and the surrounding narrative. As Malan notes,

The plot required Mandela to be “good”, which meant that he couldn’t possibly be a revolutionary, even if he insisted otherwise. When he spoke admiringly of Castro and Gaddafi, demonised opponents or exhorted his troops to “tighten your belts for the final assault”, his words just didn’t register on the liberal imagination.

And of course, the “liberal imagination” ran wild, as did the racist one, when Mandela sat behind bars on lonely little Robben Island all those years. Locked up for so long, Mandela became in some respects a great mythical figure. Even Mandela’s transfer in 1982 to Pollsmoor Prison is ignored – Robben Island was a much more dramatic, even romantic, setting for the story to unfold in the collective psyche. As much as his long lock-up exaggerated his virtue, so it exaggerated his vice. The Apartheid propaganda machine was able to mythologise Mandela as the arch terrorist enemy of all that was civilised and peaceful. A Mandela on the loose with his savage hoards would pummel you with their hammers and slice you in half with their sickles, and pillage anything else left standing with a Soviet-sponsored smile.

This of course was deeply ironic…and moronic. Ironic because, yes, Mandela had resorted to rag-tag terrorist tactics, but so had the Boers in defense of their republics, and the Americans when they repelled the British in the Revolutionary War. As they say, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. More than this, the Apartheid regime was itself an out-and-out socialist dictatorship, with all the obvious signs of soclialist pillaging and engineering any good Marxist could hope for, like industrial nationalisation, price-fixing, central planning, conscription and trampling on property rights, to the less overt stuff like jobs-for-pals and endemic corruption, to the sickening aspects like race-testing and the hideous corpus of “Petty Apartheid.” Moronic because Mandela and his ragged band of exiled brothers had scant ability to militarily threaten South Africa’s fascist military state, one of the world’s most efficient armed forces at the time, with US backing intent on repelling the Red Peril to boot.

The irony of the Apartheid regime’s red scare tactics stretches much further. For it was the Soviet Union’s very existence that played such a key role in keeping South Africa’s own veiled socialist morass intact. As Ivo Vegter points out in his poignant, heartfelt piece for The Daily Maverick,

I…began to realise that the end of Apartheid did not merely signal a victorious campaign of armed resistance, or an effective campaign of economic sanctions, or a change of heart by the white oppressors. I started thinking of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the trigger. Before the end of the Cold War, South Africa was a proxy in the global standoff between the West and the East. That explained the link that was always drawn between “die swart gevaar” and “die rooi komplot”. The Apartheid government’s black threat propaganda, used to maintain the delusion of white supremacy at home, was anathema abroad. Not so a communist plot, which was a legitimate danger that kept Western powers, however grudgingly and reluctantly, on South Africa’s side. When the Cold War ended, so did the strategic reason to prop up the whites-only regime for the sake of stability. On its own, it could no longer sustain itself in the face of armed struggle, sanctions, ungovernability campaigns and open defiance.

The Mandela that emerged from prison was of course a very real man, shaped profoundly by his and the world’s circumstances. Whether Mandela wanted to create a Soviet style economy or not ended up being a moot point in the shadow of the far larger shifting tectonic plates in the early 1990′s. The Soviet Union had collapsed spectacularly, ending whatever communistic hopes Mandela might have harboured as much as it exposed the house of cards that was the Apartheid regime. Economic theory, as South Africa has come to discover since, was secondary in those days to the very practical task of wiping away an elite dictatorship propped up on a vile and shallow philosophy. The confluence of events, with Mandela at their helm, served to rid South Africa of one of the 20th Century’s most overbearing dictatorships, and a socialist one at that (although they always are), which ironically places Mandela, by design or by default, as one of history’s great usurpers of collectivist tyranny.

That South Africa instantly became a better place after 1994, notwithstanding its many imperfections, is doubted only by those who lack proper and broad historical perspective.

But we should place Mandela’s influence and achievements in their proper context, and yes, hindsight affords us this ability. While he played an immense role in ushering in a far greater degree of freedom in South Africa, Mandela’s revolution was really more of a ‘semivolution’. South Africa’s hard-won civil and political freedoms outstripped its economic freedoms. Astonishingly, 24 years after the crushing of the Berlin Wall, the communist core of Mandela’s ANC lives on with alarming vitality. If the National Party’s socialism was veiled behind American Cold War support and crony capitalism, so the ANC’s socialism is veiled behind constitutionalism and liberal democratic institutions.

Whatever one says about the nature of the state during Apartheid, the reality is that the ANC government now accounts for one third of final national expenditure, runs over 700 parastatal companies, engages in deep and pervasive regulation of almost all economic activity, kicks informal traders off the streets, forces companies to comply with arbitrary imposed rules, prints money, subsidises losing industries, reserves jobs-for-pals, and siphons vast amounts of loot out of the national coffers into the hands of connected elites.

The South African economy is stagnating, addicted to consumer credit while industrial output hasn’t grown in a decade. The national currency that now bears Mandela’s image has been debauched since 1994 with little sign of let-up. Few investors are confident enough to make long term capital investments in South Africa. A huge swathe of skilled human capital has left the country. Archaic capital controls remain. South Africa is sliding down the global education rankings, the global mining rankings, and the global corruption rankings. It is no longer a much freer economy than it was in 1995 according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, slipping from 44th most free economy to 74th over a period when most of the world got economically freer.

Perhaps the greatest indictment on Mandela’s ANC is that it’s failed to dent unemployment which is still at staggeringly high levels, and it’s failed to foster an environment of genuinely fair and broad-based opportunity for all South Africans. The evidence here is in the fact that South Africa’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is not only the highest in the world, but is as high or higher than it was in 1994. Whereas back in 1994 the Gini coefficient could be explained almost entirely by racial disparities, race now only explains one third of income inequality, which means a new black elite has emerged to benefit from South Africa’s crony capitalist favouritism.

Mandela’s immense achievements speak for themselves, but at least an inescapable part of his legacy is the current African National Congress (ANC) government, a ruling party demonstrably damaging South Africa socially and economically. Mandela’s love of communist ideals and his failure to relinquish them and stamp upon South Africa a truly free economic ethos, haunts the country, cripplingly, today. Overt communists with destructive interventionist machinations line the halls of South Africa’s economic policy-making departments and the results are predictable economic sclerosis.

It would have been a lot to ask of Mandela that he graduate his political triumphs into long-lasting economic ones. As it was, the advent of the new South Africa saw such a boost to the country’s global trade and investment openness and its domestic economic participation by formerly ostracised race groups that, in a way, Mandela did his part and then some for South Africa’s economy. The great disappointment has been the dearth of intellectual liberty leadership in Mandela’s wake to turn the initial strides into an ever upward trend. Can we blame Mandela for his successors’ ineptitude? It would be harsh, but to the extent that many of them are cut from the same economic cloth, not entirely unjustified.

What are we to conclude then? Through the nuance there are some undoubted truths. Mandela was imperfect. Mandela was complex. Mandela had many influences. Mandela was mythologised. Mandela was shaped after his prison release by his and the world’s shifting and even chaotic context. South Africa became a better place after 1994, and Mandela was without question the fulcrum around which that unlikely metamorphosis materialised.

More than all this, Mandela transcended what can, at certain points in history, become petty ideological squabbles. His mission was to end the injustice of Apartheid, not usher in a Rothbardian private property social order. And in that mission he succeeded. Were it not for Mandela, it is hard to imagine the world rallying around the anti-Apartheid cause like it did, or South Africa’s transition being as smooth as it was. I doubt Mandela planned all that, but when it played out like that anyway, there he was to be the story’s unlikely hero, a part he played (and needed to play) with media-airbrushed aplomb.

Vegter brilliantly sums up how Mandela transcended ideology for a higher cause at that particular time in history.

“…it was Mandela’s ability to negotiate with his enemies that taught me to always focus on the substance of an argument, rather than a caricature of the speaker.

Mandela drank tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of Apartheid, HF Verwoerd, in a remote Afrikaner enclave, Orania. Who are we to dismiss our fellow-South Africans simply for who they are, or denounce all they say simply because we don’t share their ideology?

If we do that, then everyone who has ever disagreed with Mandela, about communism, foreign policy, the armed struggle, voting age, or AIDS, would also have to reject the manifest greatness of his ability to lead a divided country to peace, reconciliation, justice and freedom.

Rejecting both communist totalitarianism and racist discrimination remained fundamental principles for me. Mandela taught us that a just society is based on certain basic principles, and that those principles are non-negotiable. But he also showed that human dignity demanded the inclusion and consideration of all, from the powerful rich to the outcast poor.

In those formative years, Nelson Mandela taught me that what I hated wasn’t the country, but its government. Never again have I confused the two.

He restored my faith in humanity. He reduced what I hated to nothing, and taught me to love freedom. He demonstrated that free people, together, can achieve miracles.”

More than that Mandela teaches us that freedom is worth paying a high price for, and that achieving it won’t always be easy, but that it will almost always be worth the price. Mandela’s legacy can inspire a generation of economic freedom fighters, like those of us in the Austrian and Austro-libertarian tradition, to radically and bravely speak truth to oppressive power, counting the cost as secondary to the goal. That is the TRULY difficult aspect of Mandela’s example to aspire to, because it requires real sweat and tears, not just rhetorical hot air. More than that, Mandela showed how to do it in humility, magnanimity, and respect for one’s adversaries. This, my friends, is not easy.

The mass praise of Mandela upon his death sits uncomfortably with those, myself included, who had little emotional resonance with the man, for whatever reason. For me, Mandela was the cool cuddly guy smiling and fist-pumping at the rugby world cup. At the time I cared far more about how many catches Jonty Rhodes was taking, or girls, or Seattle grunge than politics, and I’ve never been one for human reverence at the best of times anyway. But the posthumous praise Madiba is receiving reminds me that Mandela (in death more than ever) is not only the real symbol of liberation in this land, but also the canvass upon which people project their own hopes and dreams and wishes of who he was – perhaps even who they need him to have been – and why should we deny them that?

Mandela’s ability – whether due to his character or by sheer luck of circumstance, or both – to inspire love and hope and a desire for justice, certainly sets him apart. In one public address he said “I want you to know that I love all of you.” You just don’t hear other leaders talking like that, and before you protest that we shouldn’t need or want politicians to profess their love for us, we do well to remember that millions of South Africans at the time, beaten down by the humiliation and inhumanity of Apartheid, hardened by that philosophy of hatred and mistrust, or simply exhausted from a generation of rule by stilted bigots, needed ever so much to hear it.


About Russell Lamberti

Russell Lamberti is a regular contributor to Mises SA. He is Chief Strategist at ETM Analytics, an Austrian-influenced economic research firm based in Johannesburg. Although he wrties about many topics, you'll most often find him slaying patent and copyright law and exposing the biggest bubble in history: fractional reserve banking.
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  • Blah

    Thank you Mr Lamberti for your considered and respectably balanced article on this subject. I came particularly to the South African Mises institute for an South African perspective (I generally access your American counterparts’ website). In the European and north American mainstream media we are seeing nothing but the “cuddly” side of Mandela.

    He is something of a cause célèbre in other libertarian circles. As your article explains well, the subject is very complex, much of it goes beyond my capacity for comprehension! Like many famous/infamous historical figures, he seems to be a man of pragmatism more than anything else, adapting to the shifting circumstances as necessary, always dedicated to the dismantling of apartheid. That was a noble goal and a spectacular achievement undoubtedly. But there are also serious problems both during his government and in his legacy. You probably know more than me about that. I just wish there was more balanced coverage in our media!