Friday, 6 December 2013

They come to bury Nelson, not just to praise him

Nelson Mandela's death is the best thing to happen to politicians everywhere. In death, he's frozen in history as St. Nelson, posing with every political hack and minor pop star whose PR advisers had enough clout to get them in the same room as him. 

Here's the son of a notorious racist and some manufactured corporate pop stars getting their moment. 

Here's the Prime Minister posing with the world's favourite grandpa, with his twinkling eyes and lovely sense of humour:

Last night I watched Richard Branson almost claim that Mandela couldn't have done it without him. Louise Mensch is currently tweeting that Nelson Mandela was never a socialist. 

Even Elle fashion magazine feels that it has to communicate its deep sense of loss amidst its usual parade of banality (let's not be so cruel as to calculate the white/black ratio in its pages):

Meanwhile everybody on Twitter, especially those with a public profile, are calling him 'Madiba', as though they spent the last 40 years in that prison cell with him, or storming the barricades with the ANC. Sorry: unless you're a black South African, a comrade or a personal friend, it's Mr Mandela to you. 

Because let's face it: Nelson Mandela is no longer a real person. He's hyperreal. He's become a brand, an icon, a signifier. Now he's dead, he's anybody's property. Take David Cameron, for instance. 

You'd never think, from that statement, that David Cameron once took a trip to apartheid South Africa, paid for by a pro-apartheid lobbying campaign. Nor that the notoriously extreme Federation of Conservative Students was distributing this image in the 1980s:

while the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, called Nelson Mandela a 'grubby little terrorist'. She wasn't alone, either:

'This hero worship is very much misplaced'- John Carlisle MP, on the BBC screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990
The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land' - Margaret Thatcher, 1987
'How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?' - Terry Dicks MP, mid-1980s
'Nelson Mandela should be shot' - Teddy Taylor MP, mid-1980s
And of course there's conservative satirist Kingsley Amis, who once remarked that the situation was easily resolved: 'You should shoot as many blacks as possible.'

But the point of history and politics when it reaches the public sphere is that the facts don't matter nearly so much as the battle over the airwaves. It's back to Karl Rove's statement about politicians 'creating new realities'. Celebrities and politicians (and us) can flood the media with platitudinous statements of sorrow and we'll forget what they really did and said. And we all get that little bit thicker, lazier and more dishonest.

It's not fair to Nelson Mandela. He wasn't a saint. He wasn't a god. He wasn't perfect (though he got closer than most). Putting him on a pedestal is dishonest partly because it makes him fair game for the opportunists I've mentioned above, but most importantly because it denies the complicated realities of what he did and what we all did. He shouldn't be turned into an all-purpose photo opportunity for people on the make. David Cameron shouldn't be allowed to cuddle up to him without question, Richard Branson shouldn't be allowed to claim him for capitalism. Louise Mensch certainly shouldn't be able to claim, unchallenged, that he was 'above' politics: this is a man who ruled in coalition with the Communist Party of South Africa.

You just know that whenever anyone rudely asks Tony Blair about all the kidnappings and deaths, or mentions tax evasion to Bono, these elitist capitalist shills scowl and then brighten as they pull out their mobile phones and point to one number. 'I'm on the side of progress', they'll say, 'I've got Nelson's phone number'.

Instead, let's deal with some hard truths. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. He was a non-state actor using violence to advance a political cause. Now, I've seen some people last night using the defence 'OK, but he changed'. WRONG. The proper response should be 'Yes, he was a terrorist. Good'. But that means that we'd all have to engage in a little thinking beyond 'terrorists bad'. Nelson Mandela used violence against a state which used greater violence against his people. He never renounced this: when negotiating his release from prison, he refused to commit to non-violence, qute rightly.

Another example. I remember very clearly the flag-waving in Northern Ireland. At football matches, nationalist and republican supporters would fly the Irish tricolour, Palestinian and ANC flags. The unionists and loyalists flew Union flags, Israeli and apartheid South African flags.

1980s ANC/IRA mural

Distastefully opportunistic and reductive of multiple conflicts you might say, but it's pretty clear that the IRA got it right and the loyal subjects of the crown got it wrong. The nationalists saw themselves as native peoples oppressed by settlers, the unionists saw themselves as superior bringers of civilisation now encircled and threatened by uppity natives incapable of running their own lives. The IRA, it seems, helped train the ANC's armed wing and carried out bombings for them, and Mandela – despite the cuddly persona – didn't think they should have decommissioned their weapons.

I've also been listening to news reports and interviews in which apartheid South Africa is presented as a uniquely horrible country, isolated from the international community which was merely waiting for it to catch up with civilised standards of behaviour. This too is a massive lie. Segregation in the United States was legal until the 1950s and still operates in practice. Australia had an official policy of banning non-white immigration, the 'White Australia' doctrine which wasn't overturned until 1966, and that country's current rules don't look much different. New Zealand was little better. Let's not forget, either, that apartheid didn't come from nowhere. South Africa was a British territory until 1931 and had a British Governor-General until 1961. Apartheid was merely the most recent legal system of racial separation, with plenty of British precedents.

Apartheid South Africa wasn't a pariah state. While you and I boycotted South African oranges, sherry, cricket teams and the British banks which invested there, it was a full member of the capitalist side in the Cold War. Aided by the French and the Israelis (who saw the apartheid regime as spiritual allies) in the 1970s, it built a nuclear weapons programme in case of Soviet attack, and was treated as a bulwark against communism by NATO. In return for remaining anti-communist, the South African racists were allowed to do whatever they wanted to their black population (many of whom consequently became communists, including Nelson Mandela). The US Navy had military bases there and President's from Kennedy to Nixon and Ford, then Reagan preferred apartheid South Africa to free South Africa.
Former President Ronald Reagan told CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite that if the United States could negotiate with Russia it could surely continue to negotiate "with a friendly nation like South Africa" that "strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals."
Dick Cheney even voted against a resolution calling for Mandela's release from prison.

All very complicated. I'm not going to tell you what to think. But I do insist that you do think. Look at the rightwing newspapers canonising Mandela today: they don't want you to remember what they said about him, the ANC and black South Africans back then. Nor do the politicians, nor the celebrities who don't really know who Mandela is, but whose PR agents have told them that they should say nice things about him.

Nelson Mandela has become a shell to be filled with idealised, dishonest and mendacious perspectives of opportunists. Now he's dead, it'll be even easier. We owe it to him and to history to make it more difficult to appropriate him for any cause, position and ideology. If we see him as a complex man, who held unfashionable and inconvenient opinions, who changed his mind multiple times, who didn't fit into the Madiba mould of the world's kindly grandpa, then we retain a history which is ambiguous, unresolved and much more interesting. More importantly, it's honest - a commodity in short supply this morning.

Forget Saint Nelson. Welcome – and remember – Nelson Mandela: terrorist, communist, lover, President and flawed human being. He's a much greater man than the one they're talking about on the news.


Jake said...

You know, even I have to admit it was a much younger and stupider David Cameron who probably feels a little bit embarrassed about that poster now.

Be nice if he'd have the moral courage to stand up and say, "Yes, I was young and stupid enough to believe that sort of thing when I was an undergraduate and I'm sorry" instead of sweeping it under the rug, mind.

And Louise Mensch continues to make me less and less inclined to defend her as having some redeeming features, even if she did help clear up a spot of bother involving Child Services and a typo in a PNC check (long story) when she was my local MP.

Anonymous said...

Really insightful post, well thought through, lots of great points.

Really brings you back down to earth and reality.

Well done!

simontcope said...

Excellent post; one small point - yes, the FCS were dreadful, and yes, Cameron visited RSA with lobbyists during the apartheid years - but no, he was never a 'leading member of the FCS':

Absolutely agree with Jake, why can't he just say, "I was wrong, I made a mistake, I know better now"?

Historian on the Edge said...

"But the point of postmodern history and politics is that the facts don't matter nearly so much as the battle over the airwaves."

I don't know what you mean by 'postmodern history' and - much though I love your blog and indeed the rest of this post - I'm not convinced you do either.

The Plashing Vole said...

In reverse order:
thanks Simon - I'll correct that. Looks like you're right.

Jake: yes, all it would take is an admission that we were all capable of being a bit dumb when young, and an apology. I think Cameron would get more respect by doing that.

Mensch - I'm glad she did some constituency work during her brief stay in Corby. I really resent the way she sits in NY and intervenes in UK politics. She had her opportunity and gave it away. A period of silence on her part would be most welcome!

The Plashing Vole said...

Historian. I've changed it - very much the wrong choice of word. I know you're a postmodern historian and understand the term to mean historiography which challenges grand narratives and simple interpretations. The point I was trying to make was that unscrupulous elements have used the opportunity to contest all narratives as a way of airbrushing out facts inconvenient to their current priorities.

Any better?

Geoff Adams-Spink said...

Well reasoned and thought through.

The West shares a large part of the blame for the survival of Apartheid - and Tory politicians should be hanging their heads in shame for their vile antics. Not the nasty party? Oh yes they are...! (Couldn't resist that with the panto season around the corner).

Anonymous said...

Here's another good example of what the post talks about:

Anonymous said...

Mmm…two pints and not very well thought through. Get the point about scumbag 'celebrities' attaching themselves, but make the point with accuracy.

Bear in mind also that His Saintliness also had a PR operation and one that worked overtime to make sure that the world saw 'Madiba' so that there would not be massive capital flight from SA.

I think it would be helpful if you would give clear and verifiable examples of where and how 'segregation' still operates in practice in the US (you know, that country with the black president in spite of all the Alan Parker movies you've watched over and over even if you've never been to the country itself).

In addition, I wonder if you have actually ever read Ronald Reagan's very clear position on apartheid as well as disinvestment, one supported by Alan Paton (was he before your time?) rather than his position on the strategic importance of South Africa during the Cold War (also clearly before your time.) It appears you can't distinguish between the two.

As an exercise in frivolity you might also do a word cloud on your Twitter posts over the past 48 hours and see whether Mandela or Cameron comes up bigger. (Just coz I think this is about Mandela, not how you think about Cameron however much your daily memos tell you to post).

Arthur Adams said...

An interesting argument and an honesty for left-winger. I've heard all the sugary peace-loving crap, which ignores the fact Mandela founded the ANC's armed wing.

I have one question for Plashing Vole to answer if he can. You destroyed that fallacy about Apartheid South Africa being uniquely evil, but you ignored the Communist World. All the comrades proudly state they stand with Placards outside South Africa House, but none of them ever seemed to think the Soviet Union or China needed to protested against, despite the fact that Soviet murdered more of their own citizens in a single decade than the South African Regime murdered in the entirety of it's existence.

On the West's attitude towards Apartheid South Africa, it was the Cold War and the Politicians in Whitehall and Washington were (Understandable)more worried about the Soviet nuclear arsenal that was aimed at them, than the murders of black South Africans.

And if you view this policy to be wrong, what about the alliance with Soviet Union during the Second World War. Why was it terrible for the west to carry out a strategy which didn't confront the Apartheid Regime in the fight to defeat the Soviet Union, but necessary to ally yourself with Stalinist Regime to defeat the Third Reich.

Anonymous said...

In 2006, David Cameron was talking about "the mistakes [his] party made in the past with respect to relations with the African National Congress and sanctions on South Africa".

So, it was not the mistake with respect to the Party's VIEW on the ANC, and it was not mistake with respect to the Party's VIEW on the South African regime of the time.

It was mistake with respect just to RELATIONS with the ANC, and it was mistake with respect just to SANCTIONS on South Africa.

By my book, those words mean that the Party's mistake was simply betting on the wrong horse and nothing else.

There is a joke in Balkans, when opposition leader goes on election campaign tour, and local peasant tells him after the rally: "I will vote for you. When you come to power."

This has some resemblances. But it's not a joke.

The Plashing Vole said...

Anonymous. I have been to the US. And not the touristy bits either - rural Arkansas. While I accept that legal segregation has gone, I saw separate communities. Radio and TV stations catering solely to one ethnic group. Segregated school lunchrooms. Prisons overwhelmingly packed with young black men, and racially segregated too. Churches overwhelmingly attended by one ethnic group.

As to Reagan: as a British PM said, 'fine words butter no parsnips'.

You've missed my point: the death of Mandela means that his image and meaning has been grabbed by every political hack and celebrity in the world.

Memos? I write all this stuff myself thanks!

Arron: your point would be a strong one if I thought that Communism = Stalinist USSR or China. Which I don't, and nor did a lot of communists well before Stalin. My political hero, Lewis Jones, refused to join a standing ovation to Stalin in Moscow, 1936 at a time when he was murdering thousands: he didn't think Communism involved Great Leaders.

Lots of decent communists opposed Stalinism and the USSR as a perversion of communist ideals. Sadly, lots of other countries' Communist Parties trapped themselves in the situation of defending anything the USSR did, including the CPGB. The same goes for China: while the USSR became a state capitalist formation largely dedicated to Russian nationalism, China went from state capitalism to hyper-capitalism, retaining only Maoist principles of repression. Not at all communist in my eyes.

You ask a good question about the WW2 alliance and SA in the Cold War. I'll say this: the USSR didn't want to exterminate entire races, like the Nazis. Nor did it want to subjugate them. Furthermore: SA wasn't essential to the Cold War at all.

Anonymous 2: Cameron made some signs of regret about his party's position in the 1980s. He hasn't once addressed his personal conduct.

Arthur Adams said...

I apologise I didn't intend to say you or a number of anti-totalitarian left-wingers were ignoring the crime of Communist states, because they were done by Communist states.

I wanted to know why it was that if apartheid SA was oppressing a large part of the population as the reason for the protests outside of South Africa House, why didn't the protestors do the same outside the Soviet Embassy, because it seems inconsistent. There seems to be a hierarchy of victimhood between those murdered by apartheid SA and the Soviet Union with the victims of apartheid at the top, even though the Soviets murdered more people.

Soviet Union didn't kill people by race, but class thereby. However, the methods of killing was very similar. You say the 'Nor did it want to subjugate them'. Would you like to tell that to say the Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Chechens, Ukrainians and Finns.

On the essentialness of SA during the Cold War, following decolonisation in the 1960s, South Africa, Rhodesia and the Portuguese Colonies were the only states, which if the Cold War had gone hot could have been relied on in the view of the British and Americans. Following the end of Rhodesian UDI and the Portuguese decolonisation, SA was the only reliable state in case of Hot War with the USSR, especially significant in the 1980s with the offensive policies of the Reagan Administration and the Thatcher Government. During the Late 1970s and the 1980s, the frontline of the Cold War in Africa was Namibia and Angola, making SA essential to Western strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.