Mandela in America
Neither Vaclav Havel nor Lech Walesa nor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn nor any other foreign visitor in memory was received by America with as much celebration, as much adulation, as much ecstasy as Nelson Mandela, the deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC), during his triumphal eight-day tour this past June. Only the reception accorded Pope John Paul II in 1979 compares, but the Pontiff also brought out more critics and protesters than did Mandela.
New York gave Mandela a ticker-tape parade and a rally at Yankee Stadium, and the Empire State Building was lit in the colors of the ANC. In Washington, Mandela visited with the President and then shared a press conference on the White House lawn. Later, he addressed a joint session of Congress. Altogether, hundreds of thousands attended rallies for Mandela in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, Georgia Tech’s Grant Field, the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the Oakland Coliseum. Dozens of popular entertainers donated their services, while crowds, imitating the practice at ANC rallies in South Africa, danced the toi-toi, and Mandela T-shirts sold by the truckload. In addition, Mandela received honorary degrees from 41 institutions of higher learning.
In between, he shared cocktails with celebrities at fund-raisers for the ANC. The movie producer Arthur Krim hosted one such party in New York which was attended, said the New York Times, by some of the same guests who had toasted the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein’s some twenty years ago. Still smarting from Tom Wolfe’s famous account of that shindig, Krim’s guests were anxious for reporters to know that the present occasion was not radical chic. But that rubric could easily be applied to another party the same night in New York at Robert DeNiro’s TriBeCa Film Center and Grill. It was hosted by DeNiro himself together with two other film notables, Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee, and the guests included stars like Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robin Williams, Bette Midler, Dick Cavett, Phil Donahue, Mike Tyson, and Madonna, to name only a few. Mandela’s visit made front-page news in the Washington Post seven days running, and New York’s WABC television station juggled the schedule of the network’s soap opera, One Life to Live, so as to avoid conflicting with live coverage of his tour.
It was not hard to figure out what all the excitement was about. The abuse of black people, through slavery and then Jim Crow, has been the most grievous sin in America’s otherwise proud history. Even today race remains the most sensitive, painful issue in our national politics. American blacks know, too, that their own sufferings constitute but one chapter in the long story of catastrophes and humiliations that have been visited upon their race. South African apartheid is the present-day epitome of that story, and Nelson Mandela, as the New York Times put it, is “the living symbol of resistance to South African apartheid.”
Mandela’s battle against apartheid began in the youth wing of the ANC in the 1940’s. He rose quickly to the post of president of the Transvaal ANC and deputy to the organization’s national president, Chief Albert Luthuli. In the 1950’s Mandela devised the “M Plan,” which reorganized the ANC into a cell structure designed to circumvent the “bannings” and repressions enacted by the Pretoria regime. In the 1960’s, Mandela took the lead in persuading the ANC to abandon its policy of nonviolence in favor of armed struggle, and he became the leader of its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”). As such, he led a campaign of sabotage for which he was sentenced to life in prison. (Even if the ANC’s violence is seen as justified by black disfranchisement, Mandela was not imprisoned, as so many Americans seem to believe, merely for his political opinions.) He served twenty-seven years, much of it at hard labor, before being released early in 1990.
Although many other ANC stalwarts were in jail with him, Mandela became the most celebrated of the ANC prisoners, and his status became the focus of much South African political activity. His release was the centerpiece of President F.W. de Klerk’s bid to open negotiations about a new order for South Africa. Oliver Tambo remains president of the ANC, but his health is poor and it is unlikely that he retains greater authority than his old colleague and present “deputy,” Nelson Mandela.
It was not only Mandela, leader of the ANC, who commanded the hero-worship of so many Americans. It was also Mandela the man. Here was someone who had absorbed the worst the apartheid regime could dish out (short of death) and had never flinched. In recent years he had often been offered his freedom for the mere price of renouncing armed struggle and had steadfastly refused.
Mandela was known, furthermore, not just for his courage but also for his intelligence. In his early years, he and Tambo had constituted South Africa’s most prestigious black law firm. He had made it through the bar despite the poor quality of education available to blacks and despite expulsions and other penalties imposed on him by school authorities for his protests against racial injustice. In prison he had mastered Afrikaans, the language of his oppressors, so as better to comprehend and express himself to them.
Today Mandela’s eloquent speech, erect carriage, and dignified bearing mark him out for the aristocrat that in fact he is within the Xhosa tribe. (His “aloof,” “arrogant” manner was once regarded as an organizational liability by some of his closest comrades.) It is his aristocratic heritage, too, no doubt, that enables him, on the one hand, to condescend, as he did, to the President of the United States and, on the other, to retain his modesty in the face of popular adulation. Reverend Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, captured the rapture of many when he called Mandela “the quintessence of African manhood.”
As imposing a figure as Mandela cut, it loomed all the larger in comparison with so much of what passes for black leadership in America today. Mandela’s precise phraseology in English—not his first language—won him an envious quip from George Bush, but it also made a striking contrast to the childish rhymes and alliterations of Jesse Jackson, the American black leader praised most often for his “eloquence.” Organizers of Mandela’s tour had assigned only a small role to the former presidential candidate, but exhibiting the genius for publicity that is his true forte, Jackson, as Time magazine put it, “had a way of getting into camera range at nearly every point along Mandela’s New York route.”
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, on trial for drug use and perjury, was deliberately kept off Mandela’s schedule. “Marion’s been very understanding about this,” one of the tour organizers told the New York Times. When Mandela appeared for a rally at the Washington Convention Center, however, Barry, double-crossing Mandela’s handlers, “pushed his way up, right onto the dais,” according to Mandela’s press secretary. The mayor so disrupted security arrangements, reported the Washington Post, that plans to allow $1,000 contributors to the ANC to shake hands with Mandela had to be scrapped.
Mandela arrived in New York just as the Reverend Al Sharp-ton began to serve a fifteen-day sentence for the disturbances that he called his “days of outrage.” As soon as Sharp-ton was out, he resumed his career of exploiting and stimulating racial tension, leading a group of demonstrators who took it upon themselves to hector the “Central Park jogger” at the trial of three of her confessed assailants. To be sure, Reverend Sharp-ton is a “leader” by appointment of no one but himself. Even so, he manages to keep himself in the public spotlight in part perhaps because of the indulgence of the media, but in part, too, because of the failure of the more authentic black leadership to pronounce on him the unambiguous anathema he so manifestly deserves.
In contrast to Sharpton’s self-appointment, Benjamin Hooks heads the largest and most venerable black organization, the NAACP, which held its 81st annual convention within days of Mandela’s visit. Hooks used the occasion to accuse federal prosecutors of “Nazi-like” activity for their sting operation against Marion Barry, in which an FBI informer provided the crack cocaine that the mayor smoked. Also, one speaker at a convention workshop, Legrand Clegg, uttered what the Los Angeles Times called “familiar anti-Semitic calumnies.” Although Clegg had some record of having said such things in the past, Hooks neither condemned his remarks at the workshop when called upon to do so by Jewish groups nor apologized for having invited him in the first place.
Given the behavior of men like Hooks, Sharpton, Barry, and Jackson, it was easy to see the point of the comment attributed to Cornel West, director of Princeton University’s African-American studies program: “Nelson Mandela’s visit has shown the hunger for leadership of integrity and dignity and humility in black America.”
The liberal columnist Mary McGrory made much the same point, describing Mandela as “the first world-class leader [blacks] have had since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.” More often during the visit, Mandela was likened both to King and Malcolm X. This is a curious coupling. King may not have been the only important leader of the civil-rights movement, but Malcolm was certainly not one of the others. Among those who piloted the historic victories of the 1960’s were Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. These were men not only of high intelligence, but of devotion to cause and seriousness of purpose. In this sense, their personas had much in common with Mandela and little with the likes of Jackson, Barry, Sharpton, and Hooks.
Yet in current mythology these heroes of the war against segregation seem all but forgotten in favor of Malcolm X, the apostle of black anger, who was not a leader but an opponent of the civil-rights movement. His claim to fame was his fierce rhetorical rejection of nonviolence, integration, and white people in general. Had he had his way, the civil-rights gains of the 1960’s would not have been achieved. That he enjoys pride of place in black lore over such figures as Wilkins and Randolph bespeaks a collective preference for cursing the darkness of past abuses over striking a match of progress. And what is even more ironic, the posthumous lionization of Malcolm is rarely accompanied by condemnation of the Nation of Islam, from which he had split, or its present leader, Louis Farrakhan, although it was widely reported at the time that the men who gunned down Malcolm in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965 were agents of Farrakhan’s predecessor, Elijah Muhammed.
Blacks were by far the group most moved by Mandela’s visit, but they were not the only constituency that took a special interest in it. Democrats on Capitol Hill scheduled a vote on the 1990 civil-rights bill to coincide with the ANC leader’s address to Congress. The main purpose of this legislation is to impose racial quotas throughout the nation’s workplaces. Overriding several recent Supreme Court decisions which restrict the use of reverse discrimination to situations where it is intended to remedy past instances of clear discrimination, the Democrats’ bill would compel any employer whose workforce did not conform to prescribed racial recipes to prove that his hiring criteria were essential to job performance. Some Democrats no doubt believe in such an approach in principle, although it would move American law further from the ideal of color-blind justice than at any time since the days of segregation. Other Democrats, it seems, see political hay to be made in supporting an extreme bill that will show them to be more “pro-black” than the Republicans. And what better occasion to underscore the point than Mandela’s visit?
Another constituency stirred by Mandela was the radical Left. Andrew Kopkind crowed in the pages of the Nation:
Mandela . . . is . . . the first real excitement to happen to and for the Left since—who can remember? At a time when practically every political commentator in the country has proclaimed the Left dead and buried, Mandela reaffirms revolutionary values, socialist ideals, and egalitarian sentiments. . . . The Mandela trip will not rejuvenate the Left, but it did give the Left a sense that all is not lost.
And indeed Mandela’s American tour was organized by a group of black leaders all of whom tilt sharply to the Left. The coordinator was Roger Wilkins, a long-time fellow of the far-Left Institute for Policy Studies, and the executive committee for the visit included Jesse Jackson and Randall Robinson, the director of the leftist TransAfrica. At his Harlem rally, Mandela shared the platform with three Puerto Rican separatists who had served prison terms for an armed assault on the House of Representatives in 1954. A fourth member of their group, who had been jailed for attempting to assassinate President Truman, was invited as well but was too ill to attend. Questioned about their presence, Mandela replied, according to the New York Times: “We support the cause of anyone who is fighting for self-determination, and our attitude is the same, no matter who it is. I would be honored to sit on the platform with the four comrades whom you refer to.” Having thus embraced the men who shot up Congress, Mandela went on to address a joint session of that body a few days later.
What endeared Mandela to the Left also was the source of the few sour notes that sounded during his tour. Asked on a television show about his support for Yasir Arafat, Muammar Qaddafi, and Fidel Castro, Mandela replied: “Our attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle. Yasir Arafat, Colonel Qaddafi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt.” Then he added: “We have no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries.”
The Washington Post commmented that while this position was “hardly noble,” it was “understandable at the least as the expedient tactics of a struggling Third World liberation movement.” “Understandable” perhaps, but not defensible. It takes no special investment of time to know that Castro and Qaddafi are among the most tyrannical and brutal of the world’s rulers and that Arafat has given lots of evidence that he aspires to follow in their footsteps. Moreover, Mandela announced before he left the United States that he plans to return to this country in October to take up the cause of American Indians. Apparently he has more time to look into some “internal affairs” than others.
This was not the only contradiction in Mandela’s argument. On the very same television program, Mandela berated Jews who criticized his links to Arafat: “One of the problems we are facing in the world today are people who do not look at problems objectively, but from the point of view of their own interests. . . . One of the best examples of this is to think that because Arafat is conducting a struggle against the state of Israel, that we must therefore condemn him.” The Jews were remiss, in short, for failing to transcend their parochial interests enough to see that they should not expect Mandela to transcend his.
A larger contradiction concerned Mandela’s entire mission. He could not claim, and did not, that the ANC would be a more faithful servant of America’s narrow self-interests than the Pretoria government wished to be. Would we allow it, Pretoria would gladly play the role of America’s regional surrogate, whereas it seems reckless to hope that the ANC in power would be even so much as neutral between the United States and its adversaries. Yet Mandela appealed for American support on the grounds of justice and human sympathy even while asserting the ANC’s right to choose its allies solely in terms of its own advantage.
It might be argued that this analogy is unfair, since the United States is a great and secure power, whereas the ANC is a small and struggling movement. This was suggested by the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who—though as redoubtable a foe as Castro, Arafat, and Qaddafi have—nonetheless came to Mandela’s defense. “Necessity has its claims,” he wrote. “One can hardly expect of a beleaguered people the high-minded clean-handed sifting of allies of a Sweden.”
The ANC, however, is no more beleaguered than Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola. Yet Mandela went out of his way during the visit “strongly [to] condemn” U.S. aid to UNITA. To put the best face on it, his objections to UNITA might be based on the fact that it has accepted aid from South Africa. But why should UNITA be blamed for that if the ANC is not accountable for the sources of its support? Indeed, UNITA’s options, once the U.S. Congress cut off American aid in 1974, were even narrower than those of the ANC which, in addition to Communist backing, enjoyed real or potential support around the world from the non-Communist Left.
Moreover, all the while he was accepting assistance from South Africa, Savimbi went on condemning apartheid. Mandela, by contrast, has not merely accepted help from tyrants, he has praised, endorsed, and flattered them. Qaddafi he calls a “comrade in arms” and addresses him as “brother leader.” Of Arafat he says: “We are in the same trench struggling against the same enemy: the twin Tel Aviv and Pretoria regimes, apartheid, racism, colonialism, and neocolonialism.” Of Cuba he says: “There is one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest—that is in its love for human rights and liberty.” For this there is no excuse of “necessity.”
The morning after Mandela’s controversial television remarks he addressed the UN, declaring: “We’re all moved by the fact that freedom is indivisible, convinced that the denial of the rights of one diminishes the freedom of others.” Perhaps moved by these words, seven Kenyan women greeted Mandela with an open letter when he stopped in Nairobi on his way home from the U.S. They appealed for his intercession on behalf of their husbands who have been imprisoned or gone into hiding for instigating protests on behalf of pluralism and multiparty democracy. Mandela ignored the women’s plea, and instead issued a ringing defense of the Kenyan dictator, Daniel arap Moi.
Mandela’s betrayal of human rights in Kenya was to go largely unnoticed, as did a friendly visit he had paid to the monstrous Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, prior to his American tour. But his celebrations of Castro, Arafat, and Qaddafi did register on ethnic antennae in America.
Thus, Mayor Xavier Suarez of Miami withdrew an official welcome of Mandela and joined four other Cuban-American mayors in criticizing his stance on Castro’s human-rights record. And when Mandela appeared in Miami to address a meeting of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, he was greeted by protesters, apparently the only time this happened during his tour.
Jewish Americans, too, were alarmed by some of Mandela’s comments—specifically about Arafat and Qaddafi—but their reaction was less straightforward. Long before Mandela’s arrival, Jewish organizations knew all about his meetings with, and praise of, these two Arab leaders. Some of the more militant community spokesmen had threatened to demonstrate against Mandela, but Mayor David Dinkins of New York warned that this would be “tactically very, very unwise” because some blacks might take “great umbrage.” Evidently hoping to find a way out of this dilemma, the major Jewish organizations decided to send a delegation to meet with Mandela in Europe prior to his journey to the United States.
“It was a warm session with good personal feelings on all sides,” reported Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The other Jewish participants said much the same thing in the statements they issued afterward, although neither Mandela nor the ANC seems to have issued any statement assessing the encounter from their side. All the Jewish spokesmen reported that Mandela had voiced unequivocal support for Israel’s right to exist, although none explained how this might be reconciled with his earlier declaration about being in the same trench with Arafat.
Foxman’s statement and that of Henry Siegman of the American Jewish Congress also said that Mandela had concurred in Israel’s need for “secure borders.” But this was a bit of casuistry. The term “secure borders” is widely understood to connote boundaries that are more defensible against attack than Israel’s were at the outset of the Six-Day War Mandela, however (as Siegman conceded), made it clear that to him the term meant the ’67 borders. Hence his support for Israel’s existence “within secure borders” constituted a qualification, not an enlargement, of his declaratory acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
Foxman also reported that Mandela had offered “sincere apologies” for past statements, but according to the other Jewish participants, Mandela had only expressed “regret” for the distress his earlier comments might have caused. (Those comments included his remark that “there are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO,” and that “if the truth alienates the powerful Jewish community in South Africa, that’s too bad.”) In any case, the Jewish leaders pronounced themselves reassured and eager to join in Mandela’s welcome. Foxman announced: “We will welcome Mandela . . . as the great hero of freedom.” And Siegman hailed Mandela as a “moral giant.” Yet when Mandela reiterated his support for Arafat and Qaddafi on television, Siegman, who was among the audience participants, rose to denounce this position as “amoral.”
Though Siegman’s manifest distress was surely representative of the feeings of the Jewish community, those feelings were kept under wraps, no doubt for fear of exacerbating an already tense black-Jewish relationship. The closest they came to open expression was when the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, perhaps emboldened by its Cuban-American neighbors, declared: “We separate Mr. Mandela’s role as a symbol for the struggle of freedom and equality in South Africa, from that of Mr. Mandela’s statements as an individual who supports terrorists, terrorism, and oppression.”
Cubans and Jews had particular reasons to be distressed with Mandela, but his comments about Castro, Arafat, and Qaddafi, as well as his visits to Mengistu and Moi, raise a wider question. The hopes for freedom of millions of South African blacks rest with Mandela, and even the plans of the white government in Pretoria for some kind of democratic transition are heavily invested in him. The question is whether Mandela himself understands and believes in freedom and democracy.
That Mandela is a man of the Left there is no question. But exactly what variety of leftist he is remains unclear. In the late 1940’s he proposed to exclude Communists from the ANC youth movement. Some fifteen years later, at his trial in 1964, he was confronted with some lectures in his handwriting that had been seized by the police. They bore such titles as “How To Be a Good Communist,” and the prose was pure Stalinist boiler-plate, littered with allusions to “the great qualities of revolutionary geniuses like Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin.” Mandela acknowledged that the handwriting was his, but he explained that he had merely copied a draft authored by a Communist friend in order to offer some editorial help. Mandela affirmed at the trial that he was “not a Communist” and had “never been a member of the Communist party.” He said, however, that he believed in “socialism” and had been “influenced by Marxist thought.” At a press conference soon after his release from jail, Mandela was asked if he is a member of the Communist party. “What my individual views are is a personal matter,” he said, “but let me say that I belong to no other organization apart from the ANC.” In July, when the South African Communist party (SACP) held a rally in Soweto to launch its renewed public activities after decades of being banned, Mandela, though presenting himself as an ally rather than a member, shared center stage with the SACP chief, Joe Slovo.
Whatever Mandela’s own ideological position, his rhetoric bears the earmarks of years spent within a Communist milieu. There are frequent references to “comrades,” including “Comrade Castro” and “Comrade Gorbachev.” Asked about the ANC’s appeal to South African youth, he speaks of the concordance between “the line” of the ANC and “the line” of the nation’s youth. And when asked whether the ANC prefers socialism or capitalism, he replies: “As somebody has said, we do not care whether the cat is black or white, as long as it can catch mice.” The “somebody” was Deng Xiaoping, who used this metaphor to explain that even with some market reforms, the Chinese economy would remain socialist.
If Mandela himself is close to the SACP, the ANC is, if anything, closer still. In 1960, when Mandela convinced the ANC to take up armed struggle, Slovo, according to Heidi Holland’s sympathetic history of the ANC, played the instrumental role of putting the same policy shift across in the councils of the SACP. At that time the ANC admitted only blacks and the SACP was a largely white organization. But from its inception, Umkhonto was racially integrated, functioning as the military wing of both the ANC and the SACP. Mandela was its original commander and Slovo was its chief of staff from the mid-1960’s until the late 1980’s when he turned that office over to a fellow Communist, Chris Hani. Umkhonto thus served as a wedge through which more and more Communist influence flowed into the ANC.
Today, the SACP has a heavy presence in the 35-member executive committee of the ANC. At its July public launching, the SACP revealed the names of 22 of its leaders. This list showed that the ANC executive includes nine acknowledged Communists. At the same time, the SACP declared that the identity of other leading cadres would remain secret. Surely, many of these are also ANC leaders, since it is the party’s main area of activity. But how many? Several years ago the CIA estimated that half the ANC executive were Communists, while South African intelligence put the number somewhat higher. The respected British journal, Africa Confidential, now asserts that fully 27 of the 35 are Communists, though without revealing its sources. Mandela has publicly denied the figure 27, but how, if he is not a party member himself, would he know?
But whatever the exact numbers, the SACP’s influence in the ANC is enormous and probably dominant. Assume, for argument’s sake, that as few as one-third of the ANC executive are party members—a rock-bottom estimate. All historical experience suggests that, given their discipline and dedication, this is more than enough for the Communists to dominate a body, except where the remainder consists of a disciplined anti-Communist bloc. And there is little evidence that there are any anti-Communists (as distinct from non-Communists) within the ANC leadership. Oliver Tambo, the ANC leader most clearly identified as non-Communist, called the ANC-SACP alliance in 1981 “a living organism.”
Of course, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and even in the Soviet Union itself makes the implications of being a Communist, or a sympathizer or ally of Communism, much less clear than they used to be, but it hardly guarantees that those who have been in that camp will now suddenly become democrats. Indeed, the least reassuring thing about the ANC in the months since its unbanning (and since Mandela’s release) is its failure to follow democratic norms in its own behavior. In marked contrast to Eastern Europe in 1988 and 1989, where the demand was that the authorities hold “round-table” dialogues with all elements of the opposition, the ANC has been demanding that Pretoria deal with it alone.
In recent years the South African government had tried hard to open a dialogue with Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. A former ANC leader, Buthelezi heads his own largely Zulu organization, Inkatha, which favors peaceful change and capitalism and opposes economic sanctions against South Africa. Though a moderate, Buthelezi foiled apartheid’s master plan by spurning independence for the Zulu tribal homeland, and he refused to join any formal dialogue unless Mandela was released and included. In the meantime, bloody conflict between Inkatha’s followers and those of the ANC began to take scores, and then hundreds, of lives.
When Mandela finally gained his release this year, it was announced that he and Buthelezi would meet and work jointly to quell the violence. But then Mandela, apparently under orders from the ANC executive, reneged. Instead, the ANC launched a “general strike” designed to force the Pretoria authorities to crush Inkatha. The strike failed, resisted not only by supporters of Inkatha, which stands to the ANC’s Right, but also by several black groups more radical than the ANC who suspected, not unreasonably, that if the ANC succeeded in destroying one competitor it might then turn on others.
In addition, in April Mandela confirmed allegations of torture and killings of ANC dissidents held in its own prisons in Angola. Mandela insisted, however, that these acts were contrary to ANC policy and that those responsible had been disciplined. Yet two months later, another group of former ANC member-prisoners emerged with still more such gruesome tales. Admittedly, terrible things always happen in guerrilla wars. But the harshness with which the ANC has treated not only its own dissidents but also other anti-apartheid groups which it views as competitors shows how far the organization still is from having absorbed a democratic ethos.
If this is the . . . least reassuring thing about the ANC, the least reassuring thing about Mandela himself is his wife Winnie, to whom he is fiercely loyal. She enjoyed considerable attention in her own right during the U.S. tour. Even after her husband spoke, crowds at the rallies chanted for her: “Win-nie, Win-nie.” In New York and Washington, she addressed rallies of her own, at one of which Mrs. Harry Belafonte said of her: “She has lived up to every bit of expectation and wonderment that we had. . . . She’s a wonderful role model for women.” At a Harlem rally, according to the Washington Post, “The crowd exploded when Winnie Mandela called Harlem ‘the Soweto of America’ and said that, if negotiations in South Africa break down, ‘we want you to be there if we go back to the bush and fight against the white man.’ ” Her threats of violence were repeated in other forums and seemed to have enhanced her popularity in the U.S. In South Africa, however, her affinity for violence has made her controversial.
In the mid-1980’s the ANC had adopted the slogan “make the townships ungovernable,” “townships” being the term for the suburban ghettos where most blacks live. In response, a wave of terror and murder was launched against black local officials, police, and others suspected of being “collaborators.” This mayhem featured acts of “necklacing”—that is, execution by igniting a gasoline-filled tire around the victim’s neck. In a 1986 speech at a Soweto rally, Mrs. Mandela proclaimed: “With our necklaces, we will liberate this country.” During her American visit, Phil Donahue apologetically asked her about this on his television show and she replied: “That was quoted completely out of context.” Yet Accuracy in Media has circulated videotaped clips of her speech, and anyone can see that there was no ambiguity about her message. Moreover, in the liberal South African magazine Frontline, the prominent Sowetan journalist and editor Nomavenda Mathiane writes that Mrs. Mandela’s speech shocked the community. Until then, the necklacing had been done by teenagers, “but when it came from Winnie’s mouth, it seemed that barbarism was now being legitimized and institutionalized.”
This summer, Jerry Richardson, “coach” of the “Mandela United Football Club,” was found guilty of the murder of fourteen-year-old Stompie Mokhetsi Seipei, one of Soweto’s adolescent anti-apartheid activists. The “Football Club” apparently never played a game, but constituted a kind of goon squad that lived in Mrs. Mandela’s house. It served as her bodyguard and was infamous for its violent quarrels with other residents of the community. In 1989, Richardson and members of his “team” abducted Stompie and three others and took them to Mrs. Mandela’s home. There, according to the testimony of the three surviving victims, Mrs. Mandela denounced them as informers and demanded that they accuse a white clergyman with whom they worked of sexually abusing them. They further testified that when they refused, she beat them with her fists, then called for a sjambok and whipped all four. She then left them in the hands of Richardson and his “team.” Young Stompie’s battered body was found some days later, dead of stab wounds.
Grim as it is, the Stompie case may not have been an isolated incident. During the campaign to root out “collaborators,” “people’s courts” were set up in the townships to legitimate some of the violence. Nomavenda Mathiane has written that in Soweto, “some have for years known of courts and punishments behind [Mrs. Mandela’s] walls, and when neighbors went to the leaders to tell of the screams the leaders said it was the work of the struggle.”
Both the necklacing quote and the Stompie case had been reported in the U.S., but they seem to have given Mrs. Mandela’s admirers here little pause. “A lot of things have been hurled at her because she has been an authentic freedom fighter [on] her own,” the New York Times quoted Jesse Jackson as saying. “I have no reason to doubt her courage or her character.” Journalists, too, were so reticent about these incidents that Phil Donahue was apparently the only one to ask her about them—and he did so in an entirely obsequious way.
The press was even more reticent about her remarks at a rally in the Washington, D.C. Convention Center. “Comrade Randall Robinson, Comrade Jesse Jackson, Comrade Harry Belafonte, and all my comrades,” she began. She then spoke of her movement’s need for financial help in order to provide relief and assistance to its persecuted activists. She spoke of its 20,000 exiles who will need homes. She spoke of the families of the men who are in prison or have died in the struggle that are “without any assistance because if you are a Communist in South Africa no one wants to come anywhere near you.” Although it is conceivable that she misspoke, the meaning of her words was clear: she was referring to the members of her movement in general as Communists. Plenty of reporters were present and the speech was broadcast live on television, but none of the print media, as best I can tell, mentioned it.
To be sure, whether Mandela, or Mrs. Mandela, or those who surround Mandela on the ANC executive committee are Communists is not nearly so portentous a question as it was just a couple of years ago, before the collapse of Communism at its center. Nevertheless, the hopes for a peaceful and democratic future for South Africa will depend largely on Mandela’s ability to free himself from the baggage of a lifetime spent in a milieu heavily influenced by Communism—a baggage of deceit, distorting lenses, and disastrously wrong ideas.
It is true that Mandela is currently strong in his assertions of democratic conviction. Addressing the Congress, he invoked Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and he spoke of the value of multiparty democracy. In an earlier day, these words would have had to be taken with many grains of salt, for Communists have disingenuously appropriated the same terminology many times. The Lincoln Brigade and the Jefferson School were American Communist fronts, and both Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas often spoke on the way to power of their commitment to pluralist democracy.
On the other hand, the very people who pioneered and engineered this deceit—the rulers of the Kremlin—have now all but acknowledged that “bourgeois” Western democracy is the only authentic kind. So what are we to think? The answer is that the touchstone of Mandela’s and the ANC’s democratic credentials must be their willingness to negotiate not only with the Pretoria regime, but also with other black (and Colored and Indian) groups of disparate philosophies; to create fully democratic internal structures of their own; and to insist that the ANC’s ally, the South African Communist party, come fully out into the light of day.
As for his economic policy, Mandela says that he is not opposed to private enterprise and favors a mixed economy. But he speaks, too, of the need to “restructure” the economy, redistribute wealth, and increase the role of government, including nationalization of some major industries. As far as he is concerned, the ANC “has already settled this question. Our policy is set out in the Freedom Charter.” That document declares: “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks, and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people. All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture, and to enter all trades, crafts, and professions.” An ANC Workshop on Economic Policy held in Harare, in Zimbabwe, a few months ago, probably represents the organization’s latest systematic thinking on this subject. While its summary document also calls for a mixed economy, it emphasizes that “nationalization would be an essential part of . . . reconstruction.” Currently state-owned industry would be retained; recently privatized industry would be renationalized; and “new state corporations” would be created in still other sectors.
What Mandela and the ANC seem to have in mind, then, is not a wholly state-run economy on the old Soviet model, but a state-dominated one. The vast disparities of wealth between white and black in South Africa do cry out for reform, especially to equalize the quality of education, and to provide some kind of social safety net within the country’s means. Yet the path to which Mandela and his confreres are pointing would lead not to economic uplift for his people, but to ruin. The ANC might no longer—as once it would have done—try to recreate the Soviet system, especially with the Soviets themselves now warning off all would-be emulators. Instead it might merely duplicate, say, the Tanzanian or Zambian economy. In light of the Soviet global retreat, this might be of little geostrategic concern to America. But the bitter result for South Africa could be that apartheid would be abolished with an accompanying plunge of the entire country into economic disaster.
Victories do not always bring the results that were foreseen. In the American civil-rights movement, most of us imagined that the defeat of segregation would open up a golden age of racial harmony and black progress. Although considerable progress has been registered, our idyllic vision was naive. In South Africa, an evil system is in its death throes, and it is fitting to salute Nelson Mandela for his battle against it. Yet there is no assurance that freedom and prosperity will follow, nor—given his associations and some of his expressed ideas—that Mandela will contribute to their achievement. With the fate of South Africa resting in such considerable measure in his hands, it well serves neither Mandela nor his country for Americans, because of the continuing tenderness of our own racial wounds, to mute these concerns, as almost all Americans, black and white alike, did during his unrelievedly triumphal tour.