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Nelson Mandela: The limits of nationalism

The death of former South African president and ANC (African National Congress) leader Nelson Mandela last December provoked a deluge of praise and appreciation for his remarkable life.  Those paying tribute ranged from the most oppressed people in the world to the most powerful and privileged.  This is not due to some universal appeal possessed by Mandela but to the nature of the politics he espoused and the political settlement that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Undoubtedly, to the mass of South Africans and the millions across the world who were in sympathy with the anti-apartheid cause, Mandela was a hero who was prepared to make sacrifices and take on personal privations in order to free people from racial oppression.  To the leaders of the imperialist states he represented a successful example of how a political transition could take place without fundamentally changing the capitalist order of things.  The likes of Obama and Cameron have been accused of hypocrisy.  But given the outcome of the  transition in South Africa, which has given free rein to international capital, their tributes should been taken as sincere.  

African National Congress

On the face of it there might seen to be a contradiction between the radicalism and the conservatism within the career of Nelson Mandela and the politics of the ANC.  But really there is no contradiction at all.  Indeed, it has been a feature of many nationalist movements, particularly in the colonial world, to combine radical methods (such as armed struggle and mass strikes) with an essentially conservative political objective (the achievement of a parliamentary democracy). This was also the case in South Africa.

The critical role that Nelson Mandela and his comrades played was to transform the ANC from a lobby group lead by tribal elders into a mass national movement which   adhered to a ideology that situated it and South Africa within the framework of national liberation.   It was   Mandela, along with Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who founded the ANC Youth League in 1944, creating a base from which they could challenge the old leadership and turn the organisation in a more militant direction.   By 1950 he was a member of the ANC’s national executive committee.  Mandela was instrumental in organising the 1952 Defiance Campaign – a movement based on non-violent civic disobedience.  During this period the ANC’s membership ballooned from 20,000 to 100,000.  In 1955 he convened the Congress of the People, which adopted the ANC’s defining statement, the Freedom Charter.  The following year he was arrested with most of the ANC   Executive and put on trial for “high treason” against the state.Following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 Mandela pushed ahead with plans for the creation an armed wing of the ANC.  And in 1961, he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – Spear of the Nation, a     military group committed to carrying out sabotage on military and civilian infrastructure within South Africa.

National Democratic Revolution 

Mandela’s role was not just organisational.  His most   significant contribution in this period was the cementing of the Alliance between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). This was not just an Alliance of convenience or necessity but one underpinned at a fundamental ideological level.  To understand how such an alliance could exist we have to understand the nature of Stalinism and the relation of the Soviet Union to the colonial world.  The triumph of Stalinism within the Soviet Union brought about an end to efforts to support revolution in other parts of the world.  The objective of the bureaucratic leadership was to avoid confrontation with imperialism and seek alliances with forces whose objectives didn’t go beyond democratic rights.  In the colonial world this led to Communist Parties being  instructed to ally with nationalist forces.  To achieve this those parties adopted a “stages” approach to revolution, which held that the cause of labour had to wait on the achievement of national liberation.  This stages theory, which later became known as the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), provided the basis for support for bourgeois movements and the limiting of working class demands.  As the NDR was essentially a nationalist ideology nationalist movements had no objection to it.  

In South Africa the ANC adopted the NDR as its own  ideology.  Also, leading members of the ANC, including Mandela himself, became members of the SACP.  For them there was no conflict between being a nationalist and a communist – the ANC and SACP were part of the same movement and had the same political programme.  The critical point is that this programme is not socialist.  This was made explicit by Mandela in his speech at the Rivonia trial in 1964 when he said that the ANC “has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist   society.”  Its objective rather was to  “open up fresh fields for a prosperous African population of all classes, including the middle class.”   This perspective - the development of black capitalism - has remained a consistent part of the ANC’s programme for sixty years.  Of course this does not mean that the ANC wrote off the working class.  Indeed, Nelson Mandela was one of the first ANC leaders to recognise the potential power of African labour.  However, for him this power had to be subordinated to nationalist demands.


Throughout out the 1970’s and 80’s South Africa was rocked by a series of revolts from Soweto to the township uprisings alongside sustained periods of trade union  militancy.  The system of apartheid, by creating a close identification between race and class, had produced a volatile situation for capitalism in South Africa.  From, the perspective of the capitalist class there was a real danger that the struggle against racial oppression could spill over into an anti-capitalist struggle.  For them apartheid had become a liability. It is therefore no co-incidence that the first talks on ending apartheid were initiated by the representatives of multi-national companies operating in South Africa. They clearly saw the ANC as a movement that could blur the dangerous race/class identification and bring about stability.  During the same period regime officials were engaged in talks with Nelson Mandela.  A critical point here is that these talks, which were ongoing since the mid 80’s, predated the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It certainly wasn’t a fear of Communism that was delaying a transition in South Africa.

Indeed, in the negotiations that took place after the release of Mandela and the un-banning of the ANC in 1990, it was the SACP that adopted the most accommodating position. It was the proposed “sunset clauses” – essentially an agreement to preserve the privileges of whites - put      forward by the SACP leader Joe Slovo that paved the way for the complete abolition of formal racial discrimination and the election on an ANC led government. This is the framework that politics in South Africa has been operating in over the past twenty years.

Black capitalism 

Given the nature of the settlement in South Africa the prospect of reforms that would uplift the mass of the population was always going to be limited.  The ANC had initially adopted a mildly reformist programme in government but this was quickly abandoned for the neo-liberal orthodoxy.  While the masses have seen little benefit from the end of apartheid a layer of Africans have done very well.  The black bourgeoisie – largely through the patronage of multinational corporations and the state – has expanded significantly.  Prominent among this class are many former and current ANC cadres such as former trade union leader, business executive and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa played a leading role in persuading Irish republicans of the benefits of the Irish Peace process and this has, of course, seen a similar though smaller scale degeneration in parallel with the ANC. The emergence of the African capitalists has been accompanied by reports of widespread corruption and  cronyism. (A farcical example of this was the exposé of the fake sign language translator at the memorial service for Mandela.) 

Class struggle 
Twenty years on from the end of apartheid South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on earth.  The material position of most black South Africans is no better than it was under apartheid.  Even the limited democratic rights that were achieved in the transition are coming under threat as capitalism puts the squeeze on workers. This was seen most dramatically in the 2012 police  massacre of striking platinum workers at Marikana.  What has been revealed since then is the role that ANC officials played in the incitement of this slaughter.  As a governing party it serves the interests of international capital (such as the mining corporations) and it is not just indifferent put actively hostile to the demands of workers. 

Yet despite this violence and political hostility South African workers continue to struggle.  They are also organising outside of the structures of the ANC affiliated trade unions. While at an early stage this marks an important breakdown in the cross class organisation and ideology that has dominated black politics for the past fifty years.  For many in South Africa the ideology of the NDR has never looked so threadbare.  

The Future 

The strategic importance of South Africa to the global economy, and the ongoing high levels of militancy by the working class and the poor, ensures that it will play a critical role in the revival of the labour and socialist movements across the world.  While the transition brought about by the ANC, which blurred the lines between race and class, may have served to defer the revolution it has not put it off indefinitely.   In the future South Africa will certainly throw up leaders who will be as well known as Nelson Mandela.  However, if they serve the cause of labour they are unlikely to receive the same adulation.      


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