With a huge outpouring of ‘homegrown Mandelamania’ in New Zealand at the moment, one leftwinger with a history in the anti-apartheid movement, Philip Ferguson, attempts to explain in this guest blogpost what the reaction here to Nelson Mandela’s death means. He draws parallels to the British response to the death of Diana Spencer, but also argues that the deification of Mandela in New Zealand represents some very important facts about the political left – especially its preference for liberalism over socialism. [Read more below]
The death of Nelson Mandela has had a strange impact in New Zealand. It has received massive media coverage on TV and in the papers. The Christchurch Press, which supported the 1981 Springbok tour and regarded the ANC as terrorists, devoted its entire front cover to a sombre picture of Mandela, on a black background, with a special four-page tribute section inside.
A high-level government delegation is attending the Mandela funeral. It’s led by prime minister John ‘I can’t remember where I was and which side I was on in 1981’ Key, and includes Maori Party founding co-leader Pita Sharples and 1990s National Party prime minister Jim Bolger, who was part of the government which oversaw the 1981 tour and turned on levels of repression not seen in New Zealand for decades. Bolger, of course, when he was prime minister apologised for that tour and said it should never have gone ahead. Key’s amnesia, however, continues.
Veteran anti-apartheid activists, such as John Minto, didn’t get an invite from Key. This has stirred up quite a twitter and blog war locally, with liberals being outraged at what they consider the snub to Minto. Minto has been highly critical of the course taken by the ANC in power and the role played by Mandela in that course. Labour leader David Cunliffe has tried to make some political capital, claiming he would have taken Minto if he were prime minister although, as we shall see, Labour has less than an inspiring track record on apartheid and sporting contact with the old apartheid state.
While it’s rather galling to see newspapers and politicians who were gung-ho for the tour, and clearly more supportive of apartheid than they were of the alternative to it, try to cover themselves with some of Mandela’s mana, there is also a lot of nonsense being talked by the liberal left about the man and his impact.
Indeed, I haven’t seen such an outpouring of mush since the death of Princess Diana. While Mandela’s prison sentence made him a personage of rather more gravitas than the royal airhead, the level of grief over the death of someone hardly anyone in New Zealand ever even met is as apparently strange. In both cases, it seems that much of the public has become extremely emotionally invested. Indeed, it seems that people unwilling or unprepared to fight for anything themselves, have invested in these folks qualities and achievements which they admire and perhaps feel run counter to a more market-driven way of life (compassion, kindness, fairness, principle). But this kind of emotional investment tells us more about the investors, and contemporary New Zealand society, than it does about Mandela (or Diana Spencer).
Invercargill mayor and former prominent protestor on many issues, including apartheid, Tim Shadbolt has encapsulated the sentiments of many liberals, ex-radicals and some continuing radicals. In an interview with the NZ Herald Shadbolt says, "That was our main chant, 'free Nelson Mandela', during that whole period. In all the speeches that were made, his name would be mentioned by virtually every speaker. Even though Mandela may not have been the administrative leader at the time, he was our spiritual leader in a way, and he was very inspirational to us. Thus Herald journo Matthew Theunissen opens his article with the claim, “When Tim Shadbolt and thousands of other anti-apartheid protesters disrupted the 1981 Springbok tour, there was no doubt their spiritual leader was Nelson Mandela.” Eh?
According to Tim, Mandela’s name was on the lips of every speaker at protests during the massive wave of popular opposition to the tour. He even seems to suggest that there was some kind of connection between Mandela and the Maori Land March of 1975 and the Bastion Point occupation of 1977-78. Historians of the anti-apartheid movement in NZ are going to be left with some very confused and inaccurate sources if they look at material such as the Herald article. I say this not to pick on the Herald, or the particular journalist, because this kind of inaccuracy is all over the New Zealand media right now.
Let’s have a pause in the gush and think about this a bit more.
I was involved in anti-apartheid protests for much of the 1970s. My first anti-apartheid protest was when I was still in short pants at school and joined in the attempt to oppose (and disrupt) the surf life-saving championships at New Brighton, where a South African team was competing. Hardly anyone in New Zealand had ever heard of Mandela, and even among most anti-apartheid activists his name meant very little, especially to the new generation of activists who emerged after 1970 with the formation of HART (Halt All racist Tours), the key anti-apartheid organisation in New Zealand. Some older activists who would have been around at the time Mandela, Sisulu and others were captured and imprisoned would have been a bit more familiar with their names and history but even most of them weren’t focussed on the prisoners, let alone on any particular prisoner. (There was a small solidarity group called the NZ Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa, which did have some focus on prisoners.) But to the new, wider and growing movement, these names meant very little.
This was also the case in 1981. The anti-tour movement was organised into squads, depending on what level of action people were prepared to take. For instance, Patu Squad was for people prepared to engage in fairly full-on stuff with the cops who had been let off the leash by Muldoon. The only South African liberation figure who had a squad named after him was Steve Biko. There was no Mandela Squad. Moreover, Biko was not in the ANC; before being murdered by the South African police in September 1977, he was the leading spokesperson for the Black Consciousness Movement and much better known in the English-speaking world than Mandela. Peter Gabriel wrote the song ‘Biko’, which appeared on his third album, released in 1980, the year before the tour. This song took on the quality of a global anthem and was very familiar to activists in New Zealand. In 1987, there was even a big Hollywood film made about him by Richard Attenborough, starring Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline. If any black South African hero’s name was on people’s lips during the anti-tour protests of 1981 in this country, it was Biko’s not Mandela’s.
Mandela only started to become well-known globally rather late in the struggle. Even in South Africa itself it wasn’t until 1980 that the Free Mandela campaign was launched. In Britain, there was a weekly picket organised outside the South African consulate in London. The picket was organised by the City Anti-Apartheid Group, led by the Revolutionary Communist Group, a small Marxist organisation. They certainly highlighted Mandela. I was on a work brigade in Cuba in 1985 that included an RCG member and he had us all singing a song about Nelson/Rolihlahla Mandela.
In 1983 the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain set up a Free Mandela campaign and the following year the left-wing ska band Special AKA released a very singalong song “Free Nelson Mandela”. It became something of a global hit, although the only place it made number one n the charts was New Zealand, a reflection of the fact that this country had the largest anti-apartheid movement outside South Africa itself. Other musicians got in behind a new, growing campaign to win freedom not only for Mandela but his co-prisoners. I recall attending a massive gig on Clapham Common in London in 1986, organised by the newly-formed Artists Against Apartheid. It attracted about 250,000 people and featured musicians like Hugh Masekela, Big Audio Dynamite, the Style Council, Sade, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron, Sting and Peter Gabriel, whose ‘Biko’ closed the show (watch here). In 1988 they organised a huge concert at Wembley Stadium to mark Mandela’s 70th birthday; among the bands appearing was Simple Minds who wrote ‘Mandela Day’ for their album Street Fighting Years. It was also the B-side of their UK number one hit, ‘Belfast Child’. It was only at this time, the late 1980s, that Mandela’s name had become famous in the English-speaking world.
However the boost to the campaign for the release of the ANC prisoners, which came to focus on the name of Mandela, was itself a product of the heightening of the struggle within South Africa, a struggle which Mandela could play little role in due to his imprisonment. Indeed, Mandela was largely ‘out of the picture’ from 1963 until the late 1980s.
The period of struggle in which he was actually active had been defeated. This was the period of mass, peaceful, civil disobedience which had gone on for several decades. Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and others had been important in pioneering as they developed from youth leaders to ANC leaders. (Before that the ANC had been a particularly moderate organisation). The period of mass, peaceful protest, boycotts and so on against the apartheid laws were brought to a halt by the police massacre at Sharpeville and the banning of the ANC. The ANC had little alternative but to go underground and establish an armed wing, while other parts of the organisation went into exile. That wing was still being established when Mandela and others were captured and imprisoned. That whole period of struggle, in which Mandela played a key role, came to an end.
For the next 10-12 years the apartheid system was very stable. South Africa benefited from the long, postwar economic boom and its abundance of precious natural resources, along with an abundance of cheap black labour, made it even wealthier. White South Africans were the best-off people in the world, protected by one of the most militarised state apparatuses in the world.
The ANC was lucky to survive this period. Much of its established leadership was in jail or in exile and, without the support of the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, it’s quite possible that the ANC would not have survived at all, much less survived with the capability of re capturing the initiative. When a mass new wave of struggle broke out, it had nothing to do with Mandela or the ANC. This was the 1976 township rebellion that began in Soweto, the massive collection of black townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg. What prompted the rebellion was the attempt to force the Afrikaans language on black school kids. Since Afrikaans was only spoken by whites in South Africa, and largely only by the section of whites most associated with apartheid, being educated in this language cut off black school kids from being anything other than the servants – whether domestic or industrial or agricultural – of these whites.
The school kids wanted to be instructed in English. This would at least provide the potential of a different and better life, as it opened up all kinds of knowledge not available in Afrikaans (or tribal languages, for that matter) and it meant they had a chance of escaping the most narrow type of education which the regime had in mind for them. It also meant the possibility of travel and being able to go to higher education in Britain, the United States, Australia and even New Zealand.
The rebels of 1976 were probably only dimly aware of Mandela. The ANC was very, very weak on the ground in South Africa and there was little news of the Robben Island prisoners. This was a new generation of rebels, more linked to the emerging Black Consciousness Movement than the ANC. The apartheid regime regarded people like Steve Biko as much more dangerous than Mandela. It was Biko, not Mandela, that they murdered in police custody.
While the regime put down the township rebellions with fierce repression and murder, things had changed. The 1976 revolt marked the beginning of a new stage in the struggle against the system; it marked the beginning of the end of apartheid.
The repression, however, meant that many activists from the rebellion had to flee South Africa. Several later did speaking tours of New Zealand. The left group that I was part of at the time, the (Trotskyist) Socialist Action League, were the main sponsors of one of these tours, while the (Maoist) Workers Communist League was by far the most consistently active left group in HART. Neither the SAL nor the WCL were pro-ANC. They were more supportive of the Black Consciousness Movement (SAL) and the ANC’s longer-time rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress (WCL). HART itself had no particular special relationship with the ANC, let alone Mandela.
The ANC had a small trade union federation, but it had little effect in South Africa. However, in the 1970s, especially in the period following the townships rebellion, new unions emerged, most significantly a militant new black miners union. These new unions, which organised hundreds and hundreds of thousands of black workers in the mines, car plants and other industries had no formal connections to the ANC and few of the workers would have seen Nelson Mandela as being more important than anyone else n the struggle.
The main group that began to orient to these new unions was the South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP had been banned in 1950, gone underground and its members had also joined the ANC, which remained a legal organisation for another decade. Over time, the SACP became a major force within the ANC and it was the SACP which was crucial for linking the new unions and the ANC. A merger took place between the new unions and what remained of the ANC’s old union federation (which had largely been led by SACP activists). The result was the COSATU federation. Moreover, COSATU, the ANC and SACP formed a very close alliance – the tripartite alliance – which was to carry through the ‘national democratic revolution’ in South Africa. The key force was really the SACP, since it had substantial influence in COSATU, was in control of the ANC’s military wing and party activists comprised at least a third of the leadership of the ANC itself. Moreover, the SACP was the link between the ANC and the Soviet bloc whose aid and assistance was crucial to the ANC’s survival. It was this SACP-ANC link and the link with the Soviet bloc which was the basis of right-wing claims that the ANC was “communist” or a “communist front” and “terrorist”. (Bizarrely, especially given that Mandela formally met a US president, George H. W. Bush, at the White House as early as 1990, he remained on the US terrorist watch list until 2008!)
In reality, the politics of the ANC were relatively moderate. It was the ultra-reactionary and repressive nature of apartheid which forced the ANC to be more radical than it would have otherwise been (and, in fact, it was a very moderate organisation originally). Once the South African ruling class was prepared to abandon apartheid, the ANC, including Mandela, returned to more ‘moderate’ politics – ie the politics that allow oppression and exploitation to continue, but under a prettier veil.
Globally, the left – the far left, the liberal left and the social-democratic left – took up the cause of Mandela quite late. For the liberal and social-democratic left, Mandela was an ideal icon for several reasons. He was safe. Because he’d been in prison so long, he hadn’t had to get his hands dirty at all in the messy struggles of the 1970s and early 1980s, he wasn’t responsible for or associated with armed actions against the apartheid state or some of the horrendous behaviour that occurred in ANC training camps. He was also safe because the vast majority of his involvement in the struggle was connected with peaceful protests. The liberals and social democrats could just ignore the untidy fact that what he was serving a life sentence for wasn’t sitting in the street singing ‘Kumbaya’ but helping start up a guerrilla army. He was also safe because he was committed to a Westminster-style system after apartheid. And, of course, once celebs started embracing him, a wider and wider layer of the public found him safe to embrace.
In New Zealand, we had a huge anti-apartheid movement by the 1980s. The anti-tour protests of 1981 were the biggest protests in this country’s history up to then. The movement was the work of initially a handful of committed genuine liberals and radicals in the 1960s and early 1970s, which spread everywhere as the 1970s advanced. I remember in the early 1970s how my mother, a working class housewife in Hampshire Street, Wainoni, would try to put aside a wee bit of money regularly so that she could buy stamps a couple of times a year to donate to HART for their growing mail outs. Later, she summoned up the courage to attend protests, beginning with those that took place around the Soweto events and, later, those against the 1981 tour. There were a lot of people like her, more and more indeed over the course of the 1970s, as the long, hard-slog work of HART permeated into every part of New Zealand society, from Wainoni to the heartland towns and the rural backblocks of New Zealand. For these people Mandela came, wrongly as it turned out, to symbolise hope and a brighter future during the depressing Muldoon era in New Zealand.
I say wrongly as it turned out, because when the South African ruling class decided it was time to negotiate away apartheid while making sure its capitalist sibling survived - see Ferguson & Jones' South Africa's non-revolution (1999) - it was important for the regime to pick the people they would negotiate with. Negotiating with Mandela, whose politics had been frozen in time since his imprisonment, was far more palatable than negotiating with the actual leadership on the ground. As John Pilger has noted, “The apartheid regime's aim was to split the ANC between the ‘moderates’ they could ‘do business with’ (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Oliver Tambo) and those in the frontline townships who led the United Democratic Front (UDF). On 5 July, 1989, Mandela was spirited out of prison to meet P.W. Botha, the white minority president known as the 'Groot Krokodil' ('Big Crocodile'). Mandela was delighted that Botha poured the tea.” Pilger actually interviewed Mandela back in the 1990s, when he was at the helm. Recalling that interview, Pilger recalls, “I had asked him why the pledges he and the ANC had given on his release from prison in 1990 had not been kept. The liberation government, Mandela had promised, would take over the apartheid economy, including the banks - and ‘a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable’. Once in power, the party's official policy to end the impoverishment of most South Africans, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was abandoned, with one of his ministers boasting that the ANC's politics were Thatcherite. ‘You can put any label on it if you like,’ he replied, ‘but, for this country, privatisation is the fundamental policy.’”
"That's the opposite of what you said in 1994," Pilger told him, to which Mandela responded, "You have to appreciate that every process incorporates a change." And what a change! A change, indeed, that has left many black South Africans economically worse off than they were under apartheid.
In New Zealand, the outpourings of emotion and identification also have some specific national characteristics. Indeed, what we’ve seen over the last few days tells us much more about New Zealand society than about Mandela.
In the 1980s, the left here lost all the economic battles. In particular, the fourth Labour government took an axe to workers’ pay, conditions and general standards of life. The old Keynesian consensus was abandoned for the most neo-liberal regime outside Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Unable to fight, let alone win, the economic battle, the left consoled itself with victories on other issues, issues which were immaterial to capital. Rather, they were issues which the liberal left (which included some of the nominally social-democratic and revolutionary left) viewed as defining not the kind of society NZ would be, but the kind of capitalist society NZ would be. This was especially so since everything conservative, backward, vulgar and just plain boorish and embarrassing, was associated by liberals with Muldoon, the ‘RSA generation’ and rugby. And there was a very strong overlap between the three. The people who ran the RSA and the Board of the Rugby Union were the same type. And so was Muldoon.
The three causes which ‘our’ side – the social liberals and the left – seriously took up in mass numbers were the 1981 tour, the anti-nuclear issue and homosexual law reform. ‘Our’ side won, or certainly believed they won, outright victories on the anti-nuclear and homosexual law reform issues. Moreover, while the tour went ahead, the moral victors were clearly ‘our’ side and 1981 marked the end of South African rugby teams coming here or the All Blacks going to South Africa. So ‘our’ side won that one, too. These three causes helped sweep away the old socially conservative right. Of course, what most of the left didn’t see was that the old right would be replaced by the new right – socially liberal but more viciously anti-working class than Muldoon and company.
Additionally, neither the anti-nuclear position nor the homosexual law reform represented any threat whatsoever to the overall politico-economic system. Behind the veneer of being progressive anti-nuclearists, the fourth Labour government stepped up NZ military involvement in the Pacific to levels not seen since WW2, opposed independence for East Timor and generally threw its weight around in relation to the peoples of the Pacific. The ban on American warships also helped NZ capitalists open up important new markets in countries which weren’t keen on the United States. Being seen as adopting an independent foreign policy was a boon to New Zealand capital.
In the case of homosexual law reform, a radical gay liberation movement had been replaced by a nice, safe, ‘gay community’ which just wanted to be treated legally like heterosexuals and have its ‘cultural difference’ respected. This type of change was easily granted, and fitted quite comfortably with a neo-liberal economic agenda.
Liberals also love to have heroes. They’re not that keen on the masses, or the masses effecting – as opposed to merely affecting - social change. Individual liberals see themselves and what they do as extremely important and they tend to identify with individual leaders rather than the hoi-polloi who go out on the street, get shot, but keep going out on the street and make society ungovernable in the old way, as the oppressed masses (and a layer of whites) did in South Africa.
Moreover, within the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand there was always tension between liberal and radical ideas. The liberal idea was that association with apartheid South Africa tarnished New Zealand’s reputation abroad and especially our supposedly wonderful ‘race relations’ record. This was a strong strand in the early days of the movement and one of the reasons some of the far-left hesitated to get involved. As the struggle in South Africa developed and the movement in New Zealand attracted a new generation of young activists the radical idea – namely, that the movement was not about helping protect NZ’s image abroad but about organising solidarity with a liberation struggle in South Africa – grew much stronger. It was this latter idea that motivated most of the on-the-ground leadership of the anti-tour movement in 1981, but many participants were still attached to liberal notions of NZ’s reputation.
The game of rugby itself also stirred up quite strong emotions. To many liberals it signified everything that was ignorant and uncultured in this society; lots of parents withdrew their sons from rugby as a result of the tour and transferred allegiance to rugby league and, more so, to soccer. On the other side, many rugby fans reacted to the protests in ways which simply confirmed the stereotypes many liberals and leftists had about rugby. The central role of rugby in New Zealand society and culture, and the fact that the Springboks were ‘our’ main rivals, intensified feelings around the tour. It was a cultural battleground too, seen by many as a watershed moment, a defining moment, in the history of this country. Sections of those who took part in the 1981 protest movement see themselves as the Down Under equivalent of the European social, political and cultural rebels of 1968. France has its ‘68 generation’; New Zealand has its ’81 generation’.
It’s not hard to see, then, why liberals involved in such issues in NZ identify with, and even deify, Mandela.
The mix of their courage in 1968 and their limited goals in New Zealand society are very similar to Mandela’s courage in prison in South Africa and his limited goals in South African society. A capitalism with the most blatantly nasty bits – formal legal discrimination (against blacks and coloureds in South Africa and gays in NZ) and nuclear weapons (in NZ) – removed. Moreover, the new right are entirely comfortable with this. Indeed, serious neo-liberals don’t believe in the state regulating people’s lives on the basis of distributing formal legal rights to whites and not blacks and to heterosexuals not homosexuals. The new right wants ‘the market’, a thing and therefore colour-, gender -and sexuality-blind, to regulate society. They also stress the importance of the individual.
In the case of the Labour Party, it has cost nothing to clamber aboard the Mandela bandwagon. In fact, Labour scarcely has a clean record on the issue of apartheid. Labour governments colluded with New Zealand rugby officials and the apartheid state in South Africa in excluding Maori players from All Black teams going to South Africa. Under the first Labour government, an all-white All Blacks team went to South Africa in 1949, right at the beginning of the apartheid era. Even as late as 1960, the year of the Sharpeville massacre, Labour prime minister Walter Nash agreed that Maoris be excluded from the All Black team going to South Africa. In 1970, when Labour was in opposition, an all-white All Blacks also went to South Africa, without a lot of fuss from Labour. In 1981, Labour MPs were very reluctant to speak out against the tour, never mind attend protests. What did the intense oppression of black South Africans matter when weighed against the parliamentary careers of Labour politicians? I remember my parents, who were members of the Sydenham branch of the Labour Party, being disgusted with the performance of their local MP, John Kirk, convinced he was pro-tour. Labour, as much as National, has reasons for joining the Mandela fan-club and obscuring the past. Key may pretend not to remember what he was doing in 1981, but Labour has no intention of remembering what they were doing in 1949 and 1960.
So, overall, in New Zealand we have a congruence of attitudes and interests between the liberal left and the socially-liberal right. The liberal left are thoroughly dominant on the left and the socially-liberal right are thoroughly dominant on the right. Thus the massive consensus on Mandela. It’s not simply Key and Bolger posturing.
Related to this is that one of the results of ‘more market’ policies has been the dumbing down of virtually every aspect of life in New Zealand. The more superficial capitalism has become, the more superficial public discourse has become. In a society in which Rachel Hunter gets to judge who is talented (and who isn’t), the word ‘awesome’ is applied randomly to the most banal things, and people climb the social and jobs ladder by repeating the buzz words of the moment rather than by hard work and talent, is it any surprise that Mandela should be seized upon and deified. That emotion and cheap politicking (the left trying to trump the right on Mandela, because it can’t on much else; the right trying to join in the circus and pretend they were on Mandela’s side all along) trump reason and reality?
Fair enough, that’s how it is now. A liberal left and a liberal right in a dumbed-down culture?
But let’s not pretend that the Mandelamania on display in New Zealand right now has much to do with the man’s role in the end of apartheid – he was important in *how* it ended, but not *why* it ended. Our homegrown Mandelamania tells us more about the evolution of politics in New Zealand, the rise of fatuous celebrity ‘culture’, the lack of any kind of serious culture of critique, the lack of serious political and economic struggle over material matters rather than hyperbole over symbolic issues, and the apparently endless capacity of a large section of this society for feel-good, self-validating myth-making and myth-believing.