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The Mandela Myth — Ian Almond

It would be nice to be able to write the following in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s demise: Mandela was a freedom fighter to the end, a figure whose legacy has not only brought justice and equality to the people he left behind, but also has worked as a moving inspiration for the world leaders who gathered last week to bid his spirit farewell.

It would be nice to be able to write the following in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s demise: Mandela was a freedom fighter to the end, a figure whose legacy has not only brought justice and equality to the people he left behind, but also has worked as a moving inspiration for the world leaders who gathered last week to bid his spirit farewell.

It would be nice, but it would be a lie. A lie, I admit, in harmony with much of the overwhelmingly corporate global media about the event  – the BBC World/CNN/Reuters myth-recycling machine which decides, for all of us, each day’s narratives on the planet. But it would be a lie all the same.

Whenever a hundred leaders of the world’s political elites gather together to celebrate someone, you know something is wrong. Even before hearing any of the sugared speeches, the manufactured elegies, the anodyne descriptions of Mandela as a peace-lover and beacon of hope, you knew they were going to “Martin-Luther-King” Mandela (if such a verb doesn’t exist, it should after what we saw on Tuesday).

Some of the speeches were so hypocritical they bordered on the offensive: Obama’s criticism of other African leaders for paying lip-service to Mandela whilst repressing freedom in their own countries provided the lowest-point of the evening (Manning? Snowden? Guantanamo?). British Prime Minister David Cameron’s belief that “a great light has gone out of this world” was also fascinating, given the fact that in the last year of the apartheid regime he was wined and dined in South Africa on a sanctions-busting visit.

And yet, as is often the case, it is what was unsaid during this ceremony – and the deluge of media-info accompanying it – that is more significant. What was officially left out of all of these speeches at a great man’s funeral is useful, insofar as it gives us an idea of how both the history and the future of our planet is being news-managed. Some of these ommissions are an insult to Mandela’s memory; others, sadly, are a consequence of Mandela’s own political decisions after 1990.

There are omissions which were country-specific. There was no apology from Obama for the decades-long U.S. support of the apartheid regime – and the fact that Mandela remained on the ‘terrorist watch’ list right up until 2008. At Thatcher’s funeral, both Obama and Cameron had praised her as a warrior of liberty – Cameron made no mention of Thatcher and her government’s racist support of white South Africa throughout the 70s and 80s. To hear both men speak, you would think Mandela had always been a Friend of Freedom (heavy American accent).

The bigger omission, however, is the most painful one to report. It concerns a certain lie, a certain fantasy – one which has parallels with Obama’s own “post-racial” America. When Mandela was released from jail in 1990, one of the men escorting him out of prison was Cyril Ramaphosa – a man who, twenty years down the line, would become one of South Africa’s wealthiest mining magnates. Once a trade union leader, now a billionaire, Ramaphosa stands as a bitter yet succinct icon of what happened to post-apartheid South Africa. In the classic Ousmane Sembene film Xala, the white colonial rulers are thrown out of government, to be immediately replaced by black politicians wearing the identical clothes. A similar tale could be told of Mandela’s South Africa. Sembene understood all too well that colonial independence was often a purely dermatological affair – a change of skin-colour, rather than society.

It would be wrong to blame Mandela for the triumph of neoliberal, IMF-friendly economics in South Africa . It is equally wrong, however, to pretend that such a triumph did not take place – that economic apartheid has succeeded its dermatological version – and that Mandela did enough to prevent it. In 1988, two years before the break-up of the apartheid regime, a group of international banks and corporations had helped to arrange a meeting in the UK between an ANC (in exile) and certain key members of the Afrikaaner elite. The creation of a class of black entrepreneurs in the 1980s (under the scheme of Black Economic Empowerment) was already paving the way for a capital-friendly transition from apartheid to a South Africa the world could (literally) do business with.

Once in power, the ANC quickly renounced its promise to take over the country’s banks and abandoned its ambitious Reconstruction and Development Programme, as brick by brick the vision of a new South Africa gave way to a free-market economy – one which preserved the country’s wealthiest elites, black and white, but left the rest of the country to deal with the same levels of poverty as before. By 2001, as John Pilger reports, George Soros was able to assure the Davos Economic Forum that South Africa was “in the hands of international capital”. This is the road that leads today to the $25 million dollar home of the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, whilst millions of the citizens he is supposed to represent live in abject poverty.

Mandela’s complicity in all of this explains his adulation, today, by the “international community”. It explains why his funeral attracted the same crowd as Thatcher’s, and a different universe of media coverage than Chavez’s. When figures such as the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, or the U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, praise Mandela as a beacon of freedom, it is the freedom of the free market they really praise – not the freedom of the vast majority of ordinary people. The philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have said that the Empire of the twenty-first century will be an empire that, although built on violence, talks about nothing but peace – listening to the panoply of speeches from the world’s leaders last week, it was difficult not to think of this as Mandela’s revolutionary past was painted over by his “peace-loving”, reformatory present. A man of great personal courage and principle, his legacy will be tainted by what has happened (or failed to happen) for South Africa’s poor since his release – and by the use others have made of his image.

It is interesting how two of the most-commented incidents from the Mandela memorial service last week were the “selfies” Cameron, Obama and the Danish Prime Minister made of themselves, and the fake sign-language interpreter who stood alongside the world leaders as they spoke, making incomprehensible signs. They have aroused the most discussion because, as far as the speeches of the politicians were concerned, they were two of the most truthful moments from the memorial service – they revealed an obscene glimpse into the truth of the entire event. The fake sign-language interpreter, in particular, making signs and gestures with no meaning, provided an explicit metaphor of all the politicians he stood alongside as they spun their homilies. As Obama spoke about freedom and justice, the fraudster next to him reminded us of what we were really witnessing. Sometimes, there is a truth even in impostorship.


Ian Almond is Professor of World Literature at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar (Georgetown University). He is the author of four books, most recently Two Faiths, One Banner (Harvard University Press, 2009). His work has been translated into seven languages, including Arabic, Korean, Persian and Serbo-Croat.

2 thoughts on “The Mandela Myth — Ian Almond

  1. Doesn’t the post boil down to this — Mandela was not the messiah some want us to remember him as, particularly some in power? I wouldn’t disagree, but then the post itself turns utopian–critical of Mandela because he failed to bring about a solidly socialist state.

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