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Nelson Mandela: Peace at Last

17 December 2013

Nelson Mandela: Peace at Last

By Gwynne Dyer

The Catholic Church consecrates saints with less pomp and sentimentality than was lavished on Nelson Mandela during the week-long media orgy that we have just been through. We haven’t seen such a ridiculous spectacle since…oh, since the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy three weeks ago. But at least the Kennedy orgy was over a lot faster – and nobody compared him to Gandhi or Christ.

Pity the poor journalists who had to grind out endless stories about what was hardly a news event at all – 95-year-old man dies after lengthy illness – and inevitably ended up sounding like sycophants and fools. True, the world needed (or at least wanted) a political icon of perfect virtue, but the beatification of Nelson Mandela took much too long.

The problem was that everybody in the media knew well in advance that Mandela was dying, and had time to invest millions in preparing to “cover” the event. Hotel rooms and telecom facilities were booked, crews and anchors were deployed, and the expense had to be justified by round-the-clock, wall-to-wall coverage of funeral orations, vox pop interviews, and talking heads.

And of course all the world’s politicians showed up for the greatest photo op of the decade, including many who had condemned Mandela as a terrorist before he pulled off a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa. But now that the babble of rhetoric has died down and just before the myth takes over completely, let us talk honestly about who he was and what he accomplished.

Mandela understood that South Africans needed an icon, not a mere mortal man, as the founding hero of their new democracy, but he had a strong sense of irony. It would have got plenty of exercise as he watched the local politicos and the foreign dignitaries strew metaphorical flowers on his grave.

The man whom they buried at Qunu on Sunday was arrested by the white minority regime in 1963, probably on a tip from the US Central Intelligence Agency. He was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), at the time, and continued to back its campaign of sabotage, bombing and attacks on military and police targets throughout his 27 years in prison.

If the South African Communist Party is to be believed, he was a member of its central committee at the time of his arrest. It was a different time, when US President Ronald Reagan could declare that the apartheid regime was “essential to the Free World,” and the ANC’s main international supporters were the Soviet Union and Cuba. Mandela might have ended up as a man of violence if he had not gone to prison.

Instead, in prison, he had the time to develop his ideas about reconciliation and persuade the other ANC leaders who were also confined to Robben Island of their value. By the time he came out of prison in 1990, he had become the man that everybody knew they could trust – including the whites.

During the next four years, when he and F.W. De Klerk, the last white president, negotiated the transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority, he really was the indispensable man. His commitment to reconciliation was so visible and genuine that whites were willing to do what had once seemed inconceivable: to hand over power before they absolutely had to.

If you want to know what South Africa would have looked like if the whites had clung to power down to the last ditch, look at Syria today. But it was not only Mandela who saved the country from that fate: they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to both Mandela and De Klerk, because the miracle could not have happened if De Klerk had not had the will and the skill to lead his own Afrikaner tribe out of power.

Then, after the first free election in 1994, Mandela became the president, and frankly he wasn’t very good at it. He had no executive experience, nor much aptitude for it.

Thabo Mbeki did most of the hard administrative work behind the scenes during Mandela’s presidency (1994-1999), while Mandela greeted visiting celebrities, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and solicited donations for various causes that included, unfortunately, his own extensive family. He was not personally corrupt, but he was involved in a few dubious deals, and he tolerated corruption in others.

But he did his country one last big favour: he retired at the end of his first term rather than clinging to power. He was already 81 years old at that time, but lesser men (Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for instance) have not let that stop them. And he even had a few good years left to enjoy his family before age began to drag him down.

He was not a saint; he was just a man. But he was the right man at the right time.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“Pity…long”; and “Thabo…others”)

 

 

 

South Africa: The Politics of Massacre

20 August 2012

South Africa: The Politics of Massacre

By Gwynne Dyer

Forty-eight hours after South African police killed 34 striking miners last Thursday (16 August), Julius Malema showed up at the Lonmin platinum mine north of Johannesburg to assign the blame.

“President Zuma said to the police they must act with maximum force,” Malema told a crowd of thousands of miners. “He presided over the murder of our people and therefore he must step down….From today, when you are asked ‘Who is your president?’, you must say ‘I don’t have a president’.”

President Jacob Zuma was in Mozambique when the slaughter happened, and is unlikely to have given the police instructions on dealing with a local strike. But professional demagogues don’t have to worry about the details, and Malema was fundamentally right in what he said next.

“Zuma doesn’t care about the mineworkers, he came here last night and met with whites,” Malema said. “It’s not the white British (mine-owners) who were killed. It was you.” And in a final slap at the governing African National Congress (from which he was recently expelled): “They only come to you when it’s time for elections. Once you put that cross, they disappear.”

Julius Malema fills the same role in today’s South Africa that Winnie Mandela did in the dying days of apartheid in the early 1990s: the radical demagogue who uses violent, often anti-white invective to articulate the rage of the impoverished black majority. This terrifies South Africans who have something to lose, black and white alike.

Malema preaches hatred of the rich and hints at social revolution. The fact that he has become mysteriously rich himself at the age of 31, although his only jobs were as an official of the ANC Youth League, doesn’t bother his millions of admirers at all. They just want to see a real redistribution of the country’s wealth in their favour, and they think Malema is their best bet.

They are probably wrong. Malema is ruthless and cunning enough to have a chance at winning power some time towards the end of this decade, when the ANC’s political near-monopoly finally collapses. But he is not skilled enough, and perhaps not even clever enough, to push through that sort of redistribution without destroying South Africa’s industrial economy in the process. Nevertheless, many of the poor feel they have nowhere else to turn.

It is now 18 years since the fall of apartheid, and a substantial class of prosperous middle-class blacks has emerged (together with a small group of very rich people with close links to the ANC). However, the poor majority remain desperately poor, and they no longer trust the ANC to bring positive change in their lives. They are starting to defect politically, and the main battle is being fought on the territory of the trade unions.

Mining is South Africa’s biggest industry, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is the country’s biggest union. It is closely tied to the ANC, but many believe that it is also in bed with the bosses. Cyril Ramaphosa (who chaired the ANC’s disciplinary appeals committee that expelled Malema from the ANC early this year) was the founder of the NUM 30 years ago, but now he is on Lonmin’s board.

The Lonmin strike is actually a turf war. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (ACMU), a new, radical union, has been stealing the members of the National Union of Mineworkers, including three or four thousand of the 26,000 men working in Lonmin’s platinum mine. ACMU promised to triple the workers’ wages, and the violence began when it tried to stop NUM members from going to work.

Ten people were killed in clashes between the two unions in mid-August, including two police who were hacked to death with pangas (machetes). So the police were understandably nervous last week when they faced an angry mob of about 3,000 workers armed with pangas, spears and clubs.

Unleashing a torrent of automatic fire that killed 34 strikers and wounded 78 was an act of gross indiscipline, but frightened men, even if they have far better weapons, will not always respond in a measured and disciplined way when they are under attack. The reflex, unfortunately, is to hold the trigger down and spray the threat with bullets.

Nobody wanted this tragedy to occur, and it is unlikely to happen again in the same way. Jacob Zuma will still probably be re-elected as the leader of the ANC in December and go on to a second term as president. There will be a commission of inquiry, and judges will reach conclusions and make recommendations.

But the main political beneficiaries of the incident are the forces that are trying to loosen the grip of the ANC’s old guard on the unions and the country. It has been a very auspicious occasion for Julius Malema, who is trying to position himself as the only real alternative to Zuma and the gang. Some time later in the decade, the Lonmin massacre may come to be seen as a turning point in South Africa’s history. Or not, because history does not run on rails.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and . (“Julius…alike”; and “Mining…board”)

 

 

The African National Congress at 100

5 January 2012

The African National Congress at 100

By Gwynne Dyer

“It’s a bittersweet victory,” said William Gumede, a distinguished South African academic, about the hundredth anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC), which opens with a enormous party in Bloemfontein on Sunday. “This is our tipping point. From here things will go downhill. No liberation movement has moved upwards from this point.”

It’s a grim prognosis, but Gumede, author of “Thabo Mbeke and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC,” insists that South Africa is no exception to the rule. “Every African country thought it was exceptional. If you look at the archives of Nigerian papers at the time they got independence (1960), everyone in Nigeria, in Africa and indeed the world over thought they were exceptional. No one wanted to criticise them.” But then it all fell apart.

It has not fallen apart yet in South Africa. Eighteen years after Nigeria got its independence, there had been a terrible civil war, the generals were already ruling the country, and the average income was lower than it had been in late colonial times. Whereas eighteen years after the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, it is still a more or less peaceful democracy, and the living standards of the poor have at least not declined.

But maybe that was just because South Africa was fortunate to have an extraordinary generation of leaders: men like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo who were intelligent, incorruptible and dedicated to democracy. Without them at its head, can the ANC be trusted? A lot of people doubt it.

Mandela chose Thabo Mbeki as his successor because he trusted him to keep the government clean and democratic, but there was already something wrong there. However saintly Mandela was, the way he imposed Mbeki as leader of the ANC, and therefore president of the country, was considerably less than democratic.

Mbeki turned out to be more autocratic than Mandela had hoped, but his overthrow in an internal ANC coup in 2008 was hardly a triumph for democracy either. Of the two men who played the biggest roles in organising that coup, one, Jacob Zuma, is now president of the ANC and the country, while the other, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, spends all his days plotting to take his place.

Zuma, a man who has faced multiple charges of corruption and rape, miraculously emerges unscathed from the courts each time, and his co-conspirator in the main corruption case, Shabir Shaik, has just been released from prison for “medical reasons.” Malema, an accomplished demagogue, has built his popularity among the poor black majority on barely disguised racial incitement against whites, mixed-race people and other minorities.

Politics is a tough old game in every country, but there is a systemic problem here: the ANC doesn’t do democracy well. Gumede put his finger on it when he pointed out that the ANC, like other African parties that fought liberation wars, had a military structure. “They tended to centralise; there was not much internal democracy. When they came to power they couldn’t break away from this culture, which undermined internal democratic processes.”

Dozens of heads of state and an estimated 100,000 ordinary South Africans are flocking to Bloemfontein to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the ANC. They honour it because it brought freedom to the black majority in South Africa without destroying the country’s democratic institutions in the process. South Africa still has free elections, free media and a justice system that is free from government influence (most of the time).

But that has been relatively easy up to now. The ANC still enjoys mass support because of its heroic past, so it has won every national election so far without having to break the democratic rules. The question is: what will it do when it can no longer win without breaking the rules?

That day is probably not very many years off. The ANC’s share of the vote has been falling steadily, partly because of its perceived corruption but largely because almost two decades in power will erode the popularity of any political party. The election in 2014 will probably be the last in which it can hope to win a parliamentary majority honestly.

The most important crisis in South Africa’s history will occur when it loses the election after that. Only if the ANC then goes meekly into opposition can we conclude that South Africa really is an exception to the rule that liberation movements don’t do democracy.

The rule doesn’t mean that Africa is doomed eternally to political oppression and corruption. A number of African countries have passed through that long tunnel and emerged on the other end as flawed but generally law-abiding democracies: Kenya, Zambia, and Mozambique, for example. But it would be much better not to go into the tunnel at all.

The ANC will really deserve the admiration of the world if it can leave power without a fight. At the moment, the odds on that happening are no better than even.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“The rule…even”)

South Africa: Malema’s Game

14 August 2011

South Africa: Malema’s Game

By Gwynne Dyer

Julius Malema did something unusual on Saturday. The leader of the Youth League of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) apologised for something he had said. “We are a young people who will time and again commit mistakes and are prepared to learn from those mistakes,” he declared.

There were only three things wrong with his apology. One was the use of the “royal We”: it was Malema himself who said that the ANC should work to overthrow the government of neighbouring Botswana, not some anonymous group of youths. Secondly, he is not actually a youth: he is 30 years old. And thirdly, his remark was clearly premeditated, and he is not really sorry for making it.

Julius Malema is increasingly seen as a likely future president of South Africa: President Jacob Zuma has said that he is a good leader who is “worthy of inheriting the ANC.” But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Zuma really likes Malema. Most of the ANC’s leaders dislike him, but they also fear him, for he has the enthusiastic support of millions of the poorest people in South Africa.

The ANC’s goal was to bring power and prosperity to South Africa’s black majority, but it has only half-succeeded. Seventeen years after it took power, one-third of the country’s people are still living on less than $2 a day, and they are almost all black. So there is a promising political niche for somebody who articulates their anger and advocates radical solutions, and Malema has won the competition to fill that niche.

He won it by being more radical than anybody else. He’s the only prominent member of the ANC who has scolded the president for not being sufficiently supportive of Robert Mugabe, the octogenarian dictator who has reduced neighbouring Zimbabwe to penury. He advocates nationalising South Africa’s mining industry (by far the country’s biggest source of employment and revenue), and seizing the land of white farmers without compensation.

He insists on singing “Shoot the Boer” (the white farmer), the old apartheid-era “struggle” song, despite South Africa’s laws against hate speech and the fact that 1,489 white farmers actually have been murdered since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994. So the poorest and most marginalised people in the country love Malema for his ferocity and recklessness, and that gives him enormous leverage within the party.

Only once before has the ANC tried to discipline him, in May, 2010, when he was forced to make a public apology, fined, and ordered to take anger management classes after he “brought the party into disrepute” by criticising President Zuma. But he didn’t attend the anger management course, and before long he was back at it.

After his latest outburst, calling for regime change in Botswana, which he said was “a foot stool of imperialism, a security threat to Africa and always under constant puppetry of the United States,” ANC leaders called again for him to be disciplined, but it didn’t happen. Malema made a semi-apology (“We should have known better”), but he did not abandon his plan to use ANC Youth League resources to support the opposition in Botswana.

Neither did he repudiate his call for the nationalisation of the mines, and the ANC is so afraid of him that it has said that nationalisation “requires further study” – even though the party leaders know that it would cause the collapse of the South African economy.

Does Malema understand that? Perhaps not: he only finished high school at the age of 21, with near-failing grades. But since his whole political strategy requires him to be a raving extremist, he would probably still be arguing for the same measures even if he understood their consequences. Perhaps the heavens would fall if he got power, but so what? He would be in power, and that’s what counts.

It must also be acknowledged that the people who would lose in a South Africa ruled by Malema are not the people who support him, for they have absolutely nothing to lose, and there are a lot of them. The ANC’s leaders know that, and dare not take him on directly. They scheduled a meeting on Monday to discipline Malema for his most recent transgressions, but then they lost their nerve and cancelled it.

So could this reckless, ruthless demagogue end up as the elected leader of South Africa? Yes he could, and that would be the end of the brave experiment in tolerance and democracy that South Africa has been living through for the past two decades. But it depends on two things: how well the economy is doing, and how badly the ANC is doing in the opinion polls.

The two things are clearly linked: the better South Africa’s economy is, the more popular the ANC will be. An ANC that is not afraid of losing power in the next election would never give Malema a chance to take power.

But an ANC that foresees itself losing power in the next election – and after 17 continuous years in power, its popularity is eroding fast – might well turn to Malema in the hope of turning its political fortunes around. That’s unlikely to happen in the next general election in 2014, but by the one after that it could be a real possibility.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Does…cancelled it”)