Shakespeare, Mandela, Myth and Celebrations

To solemnize this day, the glorious sun Stays his course, and plays the alchymist; Turning, with splendour of his precious eye, The meagre cloddy earth to glittering gold“To solemnize this day, the glorious sun
Stays his course, and plays the alchymist;
Turning, with splendour of his precious eye,
The meagre cloddy earth to glittering gold.”

 (King John, act 3, sc. 1)

Comment.  When a man becomes a myth to say anything un-mythical partakes of the sacrilegious – even if the dissonance from the crowd does not imply the impugning or the destruction of the myth itself.

Nelson Mandela has already been beatified as the man who destroyed apartheid. Considering that within recent history the apartheid-based South African regime was considered “democratic” the achievement partakes of the miracle.

The words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu say it all and well , “Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela.”

Still, Mandela, according to even recent records, has undergone a remarkable transformation since the original fighting days, and even from the days when the ANC (contrary to the PanAfrican Congress) agreed to limited cooperation with the whites.

During the years leading to the end of apartheid Mandela was in jail. There was the Sharpeville massacre when 69 striking mine workers were killed. There were many other strikes and disturbances resulting in some economic concessions by the whites, all still of course under apartheid.

What led the government representing the 10% white population of South Africa to change its mind on apartheid is a matter for historians to debate.

What is meaningful, however, is that when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he and the ANC made specific important pledges.

The liberation government, Mandela had promised, would take over the apartheid economy, including the banks. On the issue Mandela said, “a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable”.

Once in power, however, the party’s official policy to end the impoverishment of most South Africans, the so-called the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was abandoned.

One of Mandela’s minister even stated that the  ANC’s politics were “Thatcherite”.

When journalist John Pilger questioned Mandela on the new official ANC  he replied,  “You can put any label on it if you like, …but, for this country, privatization is the fundamental policy.”

And when Pilger pointed out that the policy was the opposite of what stated in 1994, Mandela replied, “You have to appreciate that every process incorporates a change.”

It may be interesting to know when the ”process that incorporates change” began.

It had begun in high secrecy more than two years before Mandela’s release, when the ANC in exile had, in effect, done a deal with prominent members of the Afrikaaner elite at meetings in a stately home, Mells Park House, in Somerset, UK.

The prime movers for the negotiations were the very corporations that had sustained and defended apartheid.

Around the same time, Mandela was conducting his own secret negotiations. In 1982, he had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive and entertain people. The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the ANC between the “moderates” they could “do business with” (foremost Mandela and some associates) and those in the frontline townships who led the United Democratic Front (UDF).

In July 1989, Mandela was driven out of prison to meet P.W. Botha, the white minority president. Botha even poured the tea – what more could one expect!

With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid ended, and economic apartheid, a key if not the main trigger for the movement, suddenly took up a new face.

During the 1980s, the Botha regime had offered black businessmen generous loans, allowing them set up companies outside the restricted areas, the Bantustans. A new black bourgeoisie emerged quickly, along with rampant cronyism. ANC chieftains moved into mansions in “golf and country estates”. As disparities between elite white and elite black narrowed, they widened between black and black.

The Reaganesque mantra that the new wealth would “trickle down” and “create jobs” was lost in the dubious and familiar “mergers”, “consolidations” and “restructurings”. The usual Orwellian terms meaning “sock it to the working people.”

For foreign companies in South Africa, a black face on the board often ensured that nothing had changed. In 2001, George Soros could proudly say to the Davos Economic Forum, “South Africa is in the hands of international capital.”

In the townships, there has been little change. People were and are subjected to apartheid-era evictions.  Some even express nostalgia for the “order” of the old regime.

The post-apartheid achievements in desegregating daily life in South Africa, including schools, were undercut by the extremes and corruption of the “neoliberalism” to which the ANC has devoted itself.

This produced the state crimes such as the massacre of 34 miners at Marikana in 2012. The event evoked the infamous Sharpeville massacre more than half a century earlier. Both had been protests about injustice.

Mandela, too, fostered crony relationships with wealthy whites from the corporate world, including those who had profited from apartheid. Perhaps he saw this as part of “reconciliation”.

Some will rate these radical changes in perspective as consummate political skills. Others will rate them as treason of ideals.

There were those who genuinely wanted radical change, but perhaps the powerful influence of peaceful and missionary Christianity, embodied by Archbishop Tutu,  may have been, in the end, the yeast leading eventually to end political apartheid.

White liberals at home and abroad warmed to peaceful and missionary Christianity. It didn’t mean much but the very lack of a coherent vision for the future of South Africa (by Mandela and the ANC) was sufficient guarantee for the continuance of economic apartheid.

The process bears dramatic similarity to the US evolution of the civil rights movement. Slavery ended in 1865 but it took one hundred years of killings, lynchings, massacres at home and wars abroad to make it meaningful.

In the instance, Martin Luther King was the symbol and power that put an end to segregation. Unlike Mandela, though, Martin Luther King’s teachings and ideas started peaceful but revolutionary, remained peaceful but revolutionary and only ended with his assassination. Which may probably explain why he was killed and Mandela wasn’t.

However, economic segregation has grown in the US in parallel with the economic apartheid of South Africa. The despair and the accompanying incarceration of blacks (and urban poor) have dramatically increased. Even new descriptive metaphors have sprung up in the language, such as the “pipeline from school to prison”. Meaning that prison is the most likely next career step, after whatever something called “education” the urban desegregated poor may receive in the current conditions.

Meanwhile and paradoxically, blackness has become a convenient cover to hide rampant cronyism, while the wealth of the nation is spirited away (euphemism for stolen) into the pocket of the usual suspects, the desegregated and now color-blind crime-sters and crime-stars.

Of this moment in history Obama is the befitting symbol.

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