On December 4, 2013, the former President of South Africa, Comrade Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, universally known in South Africa by his clan or praise name, Madiba, passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg. South Africa’s president has announced that Madiba will be buried in his mother’s village, Qunu, in the Xhosa heartland, as he wished. President Obama and many other world leaders have announced their intention to attend.
Mandela’s death came as no surprise, as he had been ill for months, and was in his 95th year. Nevertheless, there is an outpouring of grief not only in South Africa, but worldwide. Countless messages of love, condolences and solidarity have poured in, from the great and powerful and from ordinary people on every continent. Some of the messages from political leaders may be suspect, but there is no doubt that the grief expressed from the grassroots, in the multiracial crowds gathered in front of Mandela’s Johannesburg home to our own country, are absolutely sincere. Mandela stands as one of the greatest political figures of the 20th and early 21st century, and the peoples of the world show they recognize this by their response to his departure.
The Communist Party of the USA shares in the mourning, and sends its heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Graca Mandela, to all Madiba’s other relatives and friends, to the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South Afican Trade Unions, and the South African people.
Furthermore, we urge all to study the life of Nelson Mandela and to absorb the lessons it offers.
Mandela was influenced by many currents of thought. As a child, he was exposed to Xhosa traditional history and philosophy, and also Protest Christian theology and ethics. As a young man, African nationalism influenced him for a while. As he developed as an activist and political thinker, the revolutionary ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and of the great liberators of oppressed people such as Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro made a strong impression on his thinking. The heroes of South Africa’s freedom struggles, from the 19th Century Xhosa leader Hintsa, to his predecessors and colleagues in the leadership of the African National Congress such as Chief Albert Luthuli, James Moroka, Oliver Tambo and Walter and Albertina Sisulu, were always in his thoughts and utterances. The heroic leaders of the communist movement in South Africa, such as Moses Kotane, Yusuf Dadoo, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, Harry Gwala, Moses Mabhida and Chris Hani were Mandela’s closest allies and personal friends. Many of these activists were also trade unionists. The fact that many leading communist, ANC and labor union activists were imprisoned along with Mandela on Robben Island for many years enhanced Mandela’s stature and effectiveness as a leader as he organized and led outstanding political education sessions among the prisoners.
Mandela’s involvement in the freedom struggle began before the apartheid era, during the government of Prime Minister Jan Smuts. But the coming to power, after the 1948 elections, of the infamous Dr. Daniel Malan and his National Party showed that things were getting rapidly worse. There followed more repressive legislation, much of it in the name of “suppression of communism”, and brutal acts by the police against pass-book protesters and others. Mandela and his comrades fought back hard, through peaceful protest and civil disobedience similar to that of the contemporaneous Civil Rights Movement in the United States, but the government was thorough and relentless in its repression.
In 1961, in response to the government’s suppression of all legal forms of protest, Mandela became one of the main organizers of the armed struggle wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Mandela explained that this was a necessary step to channel the blazing anger of the African majority into a coherent strategy; otherwise it might have dissipated itself in random acts of violence. But in 1963-1964, with the aid of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, Mandela was tracked down, arrested and, along with a number of colleagues, sentenced to long prison terms. Mandela himself served 27 years, much of it on bleak Robben Island in the South Atlantic. The Reagan administration declared the ANC and its leaders to be terrorists, a designation that was only lifted in 2008, 17 years after Mandela was freed from prison. Mandela’s colleagues are still sometimes harassed at U.S. airports because of this vicious policy.
Mandela was a fighter and a revolutionary, ready, as he said, to lay down his life for the struggle. But he always believed that the broadest possible unity was essential to winning his people’s freedom, and to build the nation thereafter. This led him to distance himself from narrow Africanist Nationalism and anti-communism, to emphasize reconciliation with the white population, and to firmly oppose all calls for violent revenge. When a key ANC and Communist Party ally, Chris Hani, was murdered by white racists in April of 1993, Mandela made a special point of emphasizing that the gunman had been captured with the aid of a white woman of Afrikaner descent. He said:
“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin… Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for-the freedom of all of us”
A high point of his early work was the bringing together, in 1955, of the Congress Alliance, a gathering of all major ethnic groups in South Africa which produced the supremely important Freedom Charter. This document, which is still basic document of the African National Congress, calls for a non-racial South Africa based on equality and justice, as well as the people’s control of the nation’s subsoil and other wealth. The largest scale organizational fruit of Mandela’s work is the Tripartite Alliance of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which is still the governing political alliance in South Africa today.
Both when he was negotiating his freedom with the government of President P.W. de Klerk and after he was freed, he firmly adhered to the principle of not betraying those who had helped the South African struggle. This included the South African Communist Party. He was particularly emphatic in his declarations of thanks and support to Cuba and to its then President Fidel Castro, who had played such an important role in forcing the apartheid regime to understand that the game was up, when Cuban and Angolan troops defeated the South African Army at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987 and 1988.
Like his country, Mandela still faced many tragedies and crises. But when he left the South African presidency in 1999, he continued, while he was physically able, to work for social justice worldwide. He made a major contribution to changing South African policy toward HIV/AIDS sufferers, and continued to speak out on international issues, notably the rights of the Palestinian people.
We, in the United States, are personally grateful to him also. The South African struggle, and particularly the worldwide “Free Mandela” campaign, struck a chord here, especially but not only with the Civil Rights Movement and the African American Community. Millions of Americans made the inevitable connection between our own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another outstanding revolutionary figure who stood both for peaceful but radical change and for reconciliation. The coalitions that were built in the movement of solidarity with South Africa, notably including major sections of organized labor, have served us as a model and inspiration for our own ongoing work for social justice here. Now that he is no longer with us physically, his transcendent figure and example will continue to inspire people here in the United States and everywhere who yearn for freedom: We and they learn from Mandela that even in the most barbarically repressive states, unified struggle brings victory.
We also owe a debt to Madiba’s memory, and to his people. Many of the goals in the Freedom Charter have yet to be achieved, and the single greatest obstacle to this is the stranglehold of international monopoly capital over the economies of poor countries such as South Africa. Corporate pirates continue to plunder the subsoil and agricultural resources of South Africa and other poorer countries, in Africa and elsewhere, leaving the working class and peasant majorities destitute and angry. Political leaders in the United States and the other wealthy industrialized countries are complicit in this situation. Progressive people in the United States, need to study and understand that and act accordingly, in the many political spaces available to us.
Some of the commentary we hear and read, both from the right and from sectors of the left, is less than useful. The situation of South Africa today is comprehensible only in this international context. What is needed is solidarity, not back seat driving.
Mandela did his job and has departed in peace. Now we must roll up our sleeves and do ours.
PHOTO: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science (Nelson Mandela, 2000), via Wikimedia Commons