Tears for Mandela the man but not his political legacy

An ocean of tears, including my own, have been shed since the sad news that Nelson Mandela had died. I sat next to Mandela in 1993, after arranging a meeting between him and the parent’s of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. It was a magical moment when Mandela walked into the room at the Athenaeum Hotel, Piccadilly, London.

Afterwards, in front of TV cameras, he said: “The Lawrence tragedy is our tragedy. I am deeply touched by the brutality of the murder – brutality that we are used to in South Africa, where Black lives are cheap.” This monumental statement jerked the Met police into arresting the suspected murderers after they’d been dragging their feet.

Mandela was an international ambassador for the black cause without equal. But white people would not have cried a single tear if Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe had died. Yet both men are Black political giants. As we mourn the death of Mandela, the most famous person on the planet, it is important to separate out the politics from the emotion. In historical terms Black people in the West understand, Mandela was a Martin Luther King and Mugabe, a Malcolm X. One preached forgiveness and reconciliation towards the oppressor and the other Black power. So, it’s no surprise which one has been afforded iconic status by the West’s leaders and news media.

Mandela served a life sentence in jail because he dared to fight for the overthrow of South Africa’s racist apartheid state. His sacrifice was heroic. But so was the sacrifice of others, including the often forgotten Black nationalist Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, who died in jail. Let’s be clear, the African National Congress (ANC) Mandela led to an electoral win in 1994, struck a compromise deal, with the country’s old rulers that Black nationalists have heavily criticised.

Under the deal, South Africa’s Black majority gained political power for the first time – Black faces in high places – but the old rulers kept a firm grip on economic power and key civil service and other public sector jobs. Another controversial plank of the compromise was that those people responsible for tens of thousands of murders, beatings and false imprisonment during the appalling apartheid era, from Presidents Botha and De Klerk downwards, would not be brought to justice. In keeping with this narrative, Mandela played his role as “healer of the nation”, most memorably when he donned a Springbok shirt and cap after the South African team won the rugby world cup title in 1995.

The photograph used in news media around the globe featured a beaming President Mandela surrounded by white players. It was a bit much for some Black people to take, mindful that after the photo opportunity, life remained just as impoverished and disadvantaged for the vast majority of South Africa’s Black population. Not that some elite Black South Africans haven’t got their hands on riches. Fellow Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu once chided Mandela by saying that the ANC complained about the apartheid state’s “gravy train”. But, once the party won power they had merely stopped it so they could climb on board. There are now Black millionaires, including controversially ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, the former mineworker's union leader.

I went to South Africa in June and discovered that, 20 years after the ANC was elected, a furious row is still going on about the changing of street names from ones from apartheid times.

It is therefore no surprise the Afrikaner names of the two major cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria have remained the same. This is symbolic of how South Africa, far from being Mandela’s claimed “rainbow nation” is still the Guinness nation with white people on top. But, with elections coming up next year, political rebels who are ex-ANC, including the charismatic Julius Malema, are mounting a challenge. They claim that inequalities have become worse even than under apartheid. The top five percent of earners take home 30 times more than the bottom five percent. One in three South Africans are unemployed, often having dropped out of school into an underclass scarred by poverty and crime. Malema has formed the Economic Freedom Fighters party, which is winning big support from the Black poor and dispossessed. Now Mandela is dead the gloves are off.

* Marc Wadsworth is editor of the The-latest.com.