Mandela and Memory

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.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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12 Responses to Mandela and Memory

  1. Nilmini W says:

    While I do not wish to detract from your article about the great Nelson Mandela, Sri Lanka’s situation is in no way comparable to South Africa’s apartheid, which you seem to be doing in your article. There is no official, systematic discrimination against ethnic minorities. If you have been to and lived in Sri Lanka you will know that approximately two-thirds of the population of Colombo is actually made up of the ‘minority’ community and we live in peace and harmony for the most part, with minor skirmishes as are also seen in Australia, when different communities live together.

  2. George says:

    I’m sorry Stephen but your disclaimer at the end there really grates. It is only with a racist mindset that you can support Apartheid. The logic you use to rescue Tony Abbott is the logic used by people everywhere to justify racsm. It is a very naive viewpoint (and one often held by white people) that this and other sorts of systemic oppression can be justified by some “greater good” (for who? Certainly not those Africans!). It is astounding that you think that the fact that it was black people being systemically oppressed was incidentaI. That system was only able to survive because of the racial component. It would not be tolerated against whites! For example, the outpouring of sympathy for white farmers in Zimbabwe by white western media, when it was and is black Zimbabweans who were and always have suffered the most. If people running from Sri Lanka were white they would not be in indefinite detention, it is as simple as that. This position is based on an unexamined colonial mindset, and I am very disappointed by it.

  3. Peter Murphy says:

    Check out the 1977 campaign by Abbott, Costello and others that led to a Federal Court ruling that donations by the Australian Union of Students to groups like the ANC were ‘ultra vires’.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. Sadly I must, at least in part, disagree with all of you.

    Nilmini: While there are certainly major differences between the situation in Sri Lanka and in South Africa under Apartheid, the fact remains that independent human rights orginisations have documented horrendous abuses committed by the Sri Lankan military, apparently with government support if not under direct orders. Unlike in South Africa the Sri Lankan government did have to deal with a genuine terrorist opponent, but these abuses have continued after the Tigers ceased to be a threat. In this context Abbott’s provision of ships to be used to round up people fleeing persecution and return them to torture or death is outrageous, while Cameron’s efforts to expose what is happening are praiseworthy.

    George: In case it is not clear, I am not in any way excusing Abbott’s historic position. Firstly, I am certainly not saying he is *not* racist, just that his support for Apartheid does not prove the case on its own – other evidence is required. Moreover, in some ways a willingness to trade away the rights of those acknowledged as full human beings in the service of what you see as being the greater good is even more chilling than if someone simply didn’t accept a particular race as fully human. While racism was a key element of Apartheid, it was possible for people outside South Africa to support it for many reasons. None of these were remotely acceptable, but they were different, and I think it is important to understand these differences in order to fight them. I don’t have a position on which of the repulsive motivations drove Abbott – possibly all of them.

    Peter: While I disagree with the idea that bodies should not be allowed to dispose of their funds in whatever direction they choose, so long as the process of decision making was properly democratic, I don’t think opposing giving money to outside causes necessarily means one opposes those causes. There certainly are good people who are willing to privately donate money to various things but believe it is in appropriate for their local council, federal parliament or tennis club to do the same. The campaign waged by Robert Clark, Abbott and Costello to stop money from student unions going to other causes certainly arouses suspicions that they opposed those causes, but is not convincing proof to my mind. If Abbott did indeed say that money to the ANC was going to terrorists, OTOH, the case is pretty much closed.

    • George says:

      1. “Support for Apartheid does not prove the case [for racism] on its own – other evidence is required.”
      What sort of evidence would this be? A long letter to his mother detailing his racist thought processes?

      2. “Moreover, in some ways a willingness to trade away the rights of those acknowledged as full human beings in the service of what you see as being the greater good is even more chilling than if someone simply didn’t accept a particular race as fully human.”
      Here is the evidence of that colonial mindset and why your disclaimer is confused. You cannot truly acknowledge people as full human beings but be willing to “sacrifice” them for the “greater good”. The issue is that you seem to take peoples’ acknowledgement of others’ humanity at face value and accept it as evidence that they truly do believe and respect those others’ humanity. It should be obvious that this is not the case – just look at our own political parties: they will swear black and blue that they respect human life regardless of their race, yet we continually lock up refugees and allow Indigenous people to live in poverty. This is evidence of racism, not daily journals where Rudd and Abbott detail how they hate brown people.

      “While racism was a key element of Apartheid, it was possible for people outside South Africa to support it for many reasons. None of these were remotely acceptable”.
      Here you acknowledge my previous point – whatever reason you supported Apartheid for, this was inherently a racist position, because in order to support Apartheid for whatever other reason it might have been you would have to ignore the reality of Apartheid. Trying to understand how all of this worked in people’s minds is fine, but just because it might be a little more complicated it does not change the fact that they were prepared to ignore what was going on there, and that this was something being done by white people to black people.

      “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.”
      So it comes back to this point – you seem to think that someone has to “actively” be racist in order to behave in a racist manner, and I think that this is what is wrong with the discussion about racism in Australia today.

  5. Nilmini W says:

    Thanks for your considered reply, Stephen. You might be aware that Sri Lanka is moving down the path of Truth and Reconciliation (LLRC) based on Nelson Mandela’s legacy. I believe that David Cameron is being far from “praiseworthy”. Just as Tony Abbot is serving his own/Australia’s interests with his stance on boat people so that he can win future elections, David Cameron is criticising Sri Lanka, and being far from constructive, in order to win the hearts of a significant Tamil population in the UK (along with their generous political donations). Neither are praiseworthy – in fact, they are both trying to grab votes, in much the same way that past politicians did regarding South Africa (as per your article). Probably neither Abbot or Cameron are doing anything useful to help Sri Lanka with its issues; as with most countries they are meddling in other people’s affairs to serve their own interests.

  6. George, I don’t think we are going to convince each other, but I think it is at least possible that our disagreement comes down to a difference in definition of racism. I don’t want to put words into your mouth on how you define it, but to me racism is the view that some people are better or worse, or more or less entitled to rights based on the characteristics that get labelled race (usually skin colour).

    Some people are willing to harm *any* group of people if it suits their ends. Imagine, for example, a country that brutally repressed left handers based on some antipathy of the dictator, possibly combined with a search for useful scapegoats. One can imagine someone who has absolutely nothing against left-handers being quite willing to prop up that regime for geopolitical ends, or because the incumbent government is an eager buyer of their products. Such a person is an appalling opportunist who should be tried for crimes against humanity, but if there were a term for prejudice against left-handers I wouldn’t describe them as having it.

    Based on that analogy, someone who supported a racist system for reasons other than their views on race is not, to me, a racist. But I think they might well be considered to be worse.

  7. Nilmini, it is possible that Cameron’s motivations are bad. However, the reports of groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, combined with the sheer numbers of Tamils risking their life to flee Sri Lanka, suggest that what is going on there is very different to the process established by Mandela.

    • Nilmini W says:

      Dear Stephen,

      It may be interesting to find out how many people are economic ‘refugees’ – I believe there are a number of Sinhalese also who masquerade as refugees, suggesting that these aren’t all political refugees. Things aren’t always as clear-cut as Amnesty International paints it. I also don’t see large numbers of Tamil people fleeing from the capital Colombo, where they are well established and living together with other Sri Lankans. Peace building takes time – give Sri Lanka a chance to do it instead of advocating the heavy-handed, unfair and hypocritical actions of David Cameron.

  8. Dear Peter, I hope you get to read this. Could you direct me to anything about that court case and/or campaign? I’m researching an article at the moment about Abbott’s rather interesting positions on South African apartheid while he was at University (I go to his alma mater – the University of Sydney).

  9. Pingback: Adam Goodes and that Special Racism | secretagoo

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