The death of a figure like Nelson Mandela makes it particularly challenging to write anything of value. So many others are having their say and, if not saying it better than I can, at least to a much wider audience. Since much of what is being said leans to the hagiographic there is room to talk about what one sees as mistakes, but really, what is the point? I don’t have a problem including criticism in obituaries, but in the context of such a heroic figure who got so much right it would just seem petty.
My friend Charlie Goodman put this quote from Mandela on his Facebook page: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He then added the comment “Sometimes there’s nothing to say about someone that they didn’t already say better themselves,” which is probably sage advice. Neverthless I will ignore it.
I do have a very indirect personal connection to Mandela to talk about, but his falling out with his second wide Winnie rather takes the edge off it. My mother was a social worker in South Africa in the early 1960s. Her family had always been opponents of Apartheid (it is through her that I am related to Albie Sachs). However, she had been shielded from the worst aspects of the situation until she worked with people who had lost limbs. White people who were missing a leg were entitled to an artificial limb. Blacks got a pegleg, while “coloureds” (and I think Indians) got a pegleg and a foot.
My mother was appalled by this discrimination, and her work brought her in contact with Winnie Mandela, who was possibly the most senior black social worker in the country at the time. Together they agitated for a change. My mother pointed out that while the peglegs were cheaper they also wore out faster, and so their provision was a false economy. For this reason, rather than justice, the practice was changed so that at least some black amputees were fitted with artificial legs.
This story was told frequently in my household growing up. It probably contributed to a family tendency to use pragmatic arguments to win just outcomes and to not care much whether change has occurred for the right reasons. However, the connection to Nelson is tenuous to say the least. Winnie would probably have been working in a similar position even if she had not married him, and it is unlikely he was in a position from Robbin Island to provide much tactical advice on the eventually successful campaign. Given how limited his contact with the outside world was at the time he may not even have known about it.
One of the great things about Mandela was his willingness to put past atrocities behind him in the search for a future without violence. I heard a story about a South African comedian who, in the late 90s, walked on stage to a largely white audience, took a long pause and barked, “WHAT IF MANDELA HAD COME OUT OF PRISON AN ANGRY MAN?”. Apparently the response was a devastated silence. The consequences would have been awful for the audience, but probably worse still for the most vulnerable members of society.
Some would argue that in this spirit of reconciliation we should also forgive and forget those in the wider world who contributed to his suffering. I’m afraid I disagree. For a start, the process Mandela established was not called Reconciliation, but Truth and Reconciliation. The facts needed to be brought to the surface. Moreover, while I do not advocate violence or imprisonment for overseas supporters of Apartheid, I think it is relevant to their placement in positions of power, particularly when these people now sing Mandela’s praises hoping no one will remember their past attitude.
Reagan and Thatcher branded Mandela a terrorist. The youth wing of the British Conservative Party made posters calling for him to be hung. In his great book The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank details at great length the way young Republicans went to South Africa on activist training camps and tracks how many of those taught how to lead the fight against leftist views went on to play crucial roles in the Bush administration. Although Howard campaigned against sanctions on South Africa the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Students, generally took a more moderate line – possibly thanks to Fraser’s influence. Support for Apartheid was concentrated amongst the Moderate Students Alliance/Democratic Clubs (different names for the same organisation at different universities). The leading light in this organisation was one Tony Abbott.
I don’t have access to the relevant student newspapers of the day, but I gather people are looking for the source of quotes where Abbott condemned money going to “South African terrorists ” (ie the ANC). I can’t find it online, but have read reports and spoken with those who recall Abbott going to South Africa on a “rugby scholarship” that was universally recognized as a promotional tour for Apartheid.
Oddly, David Cameron’s links to the pro-Apartheid movement have attracted more attention. It’s quite legitimate to attack Cameron over this, but he at least has admitted he was wrong. As far as I know, Abbot never has, yet the media gives him a free pass. Moreover, Cameron’s actions in standing up to the government of Sri Lanka suggests that he may have learned something from the experience. Abbott, not so much.
Is there no one in the Australian mainstream media willing to call Abbott on this? Even to ask him whether he agrees with Cameron that this was wrong?
Update: It occurs to me that some people might assume that I am calling Abbott a racist. I don’t think that follows from his support for Apartheid, any more than his providing boats the Sri Lankan military means he hates Tamils. Many of the supporters of Apartheid in the west saw it as a bulwark against Communism, with its opposition to sexual liberation and feminism a not insignificant bonus. They didn’t necessarily have anything against black people, but were willing to sacrifice their freedom and rights for the greater cause. That wasn’t racist – they’d have done the same for any inconvenient whites.