Saint or Revolutionary?

Book Review:

Sampson, Anthony, “Mandela.”  1991. Dallas Public Library e-book. I learned a lot about “Madiba” Nelson Mandela in this even-handed account. Sampson had known Mandela since 1951 and was generally favorable to his efforts.

Mandela was born into the family of a tribal chieftain. (Xhosa tribe?) He was educated largely at Methodist institutions and eventually qualified as a lawyer. The African National Congress, which began I believe in 1912, was at that time pan-Africanist. Mandela believed in armed struggle and eventually became the head of the armed struggle wing of ANC. He was pictured in fighting attire in those days.

The Afrikaners took over the government of South Africa (1947?) and established apartheid fascism. They had a network of informers, black and white, so that very few militants escaped their grasp. Mandela was arrested. I don’t think he had actually led any armed conflicts at that time, but was more of an organizer.

During one of his hearings, Mandela appeared in full African traditional regalia. But his speech in his trial was what gained international recognition. Then he spent 27 years in custody. Most of the time was on Robben Island.

During that period, Mandela showed how dignity and wisdom can help people cope with even the most difficult of situations. Even his Afrikaner warders tended to respect him. Mandela and others began to call for a united effort of all South Africans of all racial backgrounds. He also called for a peaceful solution to the apartheid situation, but he demanded full voting rights for all.

Mandela’s great ideological contribution to South African history was his idea of uniting all races. Previously, the ANC had no such plan. Another group “Pan African Nationalists” became one of the main competitors with the ANC. The Zulus and several smaller tribal-based groups also opposed integrating democracy. But of course, the biggest opposition was the privileged white Afrikaner nationalists.

The armed struggle, the organizing effort within the country, and international pressures eventually forced the fascists to negotiate some kind of democracy. They greatly preferred to “negotiate” with some of the Black compradores that they had put into power and, often secretly, supported by force of arms. The top Zulu, Buthelezi (?) was the Afrikaner’s choice over Mandela. But the public and the international community were settled on Mandela, so it was he who eventually led the negotiations that ended in a more democratic nation.

I read with personal pride about the effect of international opinion, because my union, the United Auto Workers was very much a part of that effort. My own union local, UAW 848, was involved. I myself led pickets at Shell Stations against apartheid. My wife and I regularly sold “Free Mandela” buttons. They were very popular in the early 1990s. Mandela became President of South Africa, I believe, in 1994.

It is interesting to contrast Mandela’s “Peaceful Road” to that of President Allende in Chile. Most radicals believe that Allende should have armed the public and confronted the military rather than try the peaceful road that eventually led to his death and fascism. We usually say that Allende was totally wrong.

How then, would we explain Mandela’s comparative success with the peaceful road? Was it comparable to Allende’s situation? If it was, then his success would detract from the argument that Allende was wrong to focus on the peaceful road. I don’t think the two are comparable. Allende was trying to institute socialism. Mandela, for all of his communist ties, didn’t even try to dismantle capitalism in South Africa.

Anthony Sampson’s account leaves one with the impression that Mandela was one of the great men of history, but even Sampson would probably say that Mandela was more saint than revolutionary. I recently met a member of the All African People’s Revolutionary Party here in Dallas. I told him I was reading about Mandela and he said, “We don’t think he was any good!”

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” program every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

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