06 December 2013

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013)

What Mandela taught me was the bankruptcy of political extremes and the need for a national leader to work in order to bring everyone around.

In the 1980s I was a Young Liberal, and bought into the whole notion that sanctions against South Africa were pointless. I bought into the idea that Mandela was a communist terrorist and that Mangosuthu Buthulezi was a good-enough replacement. I thought this only served to prove that the devil had the best tunes. Then I met more and more people emigrating from a country that was as good as it could have been, given the insistence on excluding most of its people from actual and potential opportunities, and given the sheer skill of their politicians at excuse-making.

What Mandela showed was the bankruptcy of class and sectional warfare in national governments. Yes he killed people, and he represented those who were killed on much the same basis. He spouted all that Trotsky/Maoist crap about armed struggle, which usually comes after you have ceased to represent working people and started to regard them as a sheeplike base which you own and punish. Unlike his contemporaries, he rose above it.

The apartheid state was formalised in South Africa in 1948. By the 1960s it was clear that it had failed. Kids born around and after 1948, who had known only apartheid, rioted at Sharpeville in 1960 and were neither cowed nor awed by the crackdown that followed. Mandela was arrested in 1964 and sent to an offshore detention facility, but not to the point where he was cauterised from his country's politics. Keeping him there was a smart move - the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, had been murdered by a parliamentary attendant in 1966, and it is highly possible that the seething politics of the ANC would not have similarly accounted for Mandela. His detention was a national insurance policy, and showed that the Broederbond who ran the politics of apartheid might have been stupid, but not crazy.

What, then, was the alternative to apartheid? At the time, communism was being imposed on people in Europe and China by regimes no better, and often far worse, than apartheid South Africa. Successful communist uprisings, such as those in Cuba and Vietnam, distanced themselves from the drones in Moscow. Those uprisings were largely free of race, gender, and other social cleavages not related to Marx-defined industrial classes; South Africa had no choice but to manage and accommodate myriad interests without the wittering about My Struggle Is More Important Than Yours, which renders the left a national joke almost everywhere else. South African communists were smart enough to realise that they were a support act to the ANC rather than the other way around. Joe Slovo or Ronnie Kasrils would have disappeared from history had they seriously regarded Mandela, Walter Sisulu, or Oliver Tambo as "useful idiots".

Australia began turning away from apartheid just as South Africa committed to it in the early 1960s. In early 1960s Australia you can see the earliest developments toward recognising Aborigines, which came with the 1967 referendum, the shift in emphasis on Colombo Plan toward encouraging students to stay here rather than just study and return, and the beginnings of the end of the White Australia Policy. It's funny how things turn out, really.

In the 1980s Australia underwent an economic revolution, predicated on the idea that the country was ready to deal with a global economy. For South Africa that didn't come until a decade later, and even then it was limited. Even so, South Africa under Mandela showed what can be achieved with real political leadership. The ANC made the country pretty much ungovernable in the 1980s, with small brushfires of dissent and violence, but threw the switch when it came their turn to govern. Trevor Manuel's economic stewardship came with a lot of goodwill, but didn't rely so heavily on pointless blame-the-predecessors to make positive cases for change.

South African voters in 1994 were as grateful for their franchise as voters in the former Eastern Bloc and USSR, which made Keating's "true believers" indulgence grate even more. Keating had a vision, but let himself down by refusing to rise to the occasion that leading a vision demands: if Labor limits its leaders in that way, then be that on its own head. Howard thought he could vault the lessons of history by being effusive, but the look of disgust on Mandela's face as he received an honorary Order of Australia from Howard showed the poverty of that tactic. Mandela was all about the repetition of simple, clear messages, but his lines looked like distilled wisdom rather than the focus-group muppetry of Australian politicians.

If you win government, then spend all your time blaming your predecessors until they become your successors, what have you won? Australian media organisations think they're clever by churning out pre-assembled content, but I doubt it's that insightful and reinforces their laziness rather than challenging it with topicality and reflections on a broad, tumultuous and often difficult life. Certainly, the Prime Minister shirked the opportunity to reflect on his example by consigning him, G W Bush-like, to "Africa".

Mandela knew the answer to that question, that you have a limited time in power and you have to take people with you. He didn't solve every problem, and it's silly to frame his legacy as a dichotomy between saint and sinner (though such a lame approach will get you top marks at journalism courses, because that's the house style at newspapers and magazines in the northeastern United States). Maybe it is unfair to judge Australian politicians against Nelson Mandela, but hey that's what greatness is. Churchill redefined the way his country should be governed and cast a shadow over those who followed, and so has Mandela in his country - preceded by that reverse-von-Papen F W de Klerk, and succeeded by the prissy and flaky Mbeki and the dodgy Zuma. Mandela is the Churchill of our time; that's what defines him, not the partisanship and political conveniences of a bygone era which he successfully transcended. Goodbye Mandela, and thank you.


  1. Andrew....raw account and disturbing that many Liberals of that time regarded him as a terrorist...sad really

    But you guys were immature and dumb
    Our p.m's address on 3aw radio in Melbourne was akward and full of fake sentiments

    That might explain not lowering our flag ....

  2. Yep - anyone can jump on the bandwagon now but you can't hail the man as a teacher and change-agent unless you can show how far you'd come. I took the same attitude toward Jose Ramos Horta, but that's another story. The point is to focus on core principles and only then dig your heels in when confronted with historic change.

    Abbott has no excuse for being caught out like that, he's had 20 years to reconsider.

  3. Lachlan Ridge7/12/13 12:16 pm

    It wasn't just the Liberals. As an anti-apartheid activist in Young Labour I remember the NSW Right, including Belinda Neal, Eric Roozendaal and John Hatzistergos at the 1986 NSW Young Labor Council Conference vociferously arguing that the ANC was a terr*rist organisation, that Eddie Funde (a tragic story, but then the ANC representative in Australia) should be excluded from the conference, before the Banks YLA ostentatiously sat through a standing ovation for Mr Funde's speech. You will find many scions of the Right across the ALP in Australia wgho held a similar position - among them Conroy, Shorten, Fitzgibbons and Feeney.

    It is yet another example of how those people that think the ALP is a "progressive" or "left" party are seriously deluded . It is an electoral machine - nothing more, nothing less - that includes many very conservative individuals and groups.

    I take issue with the Churchill analogy (Atlee and Bevan anyone? the 1945 election result?), but fully applaud your highlighting of the inane folly of "My Struggle Is More Important Than Yours" politics. We see this play out now with refugee advocates, gay marriage and climate change. So zealous are these advocates, and sure of their self-righteousness, that they don't even feel the need to advance their argument, simply insisting they are right. It's not that I disagree with them, but I find their tactics repugnantly lazy, and little wonder they receive a push back by people who refuse to be treated as ignorant sheep.

    The days when you could build coalitions based on solidarity have been seriously cauterised by an age when the minutiae of self obsession trumps the empathy necessary to appreciate what the fabric of good society entails.

    The one thing about Mandela that I have found deafening in its silence is the manifestation of how vacuous the concept of a terr*rist is. Mandela supported terr*rism, but now he's freedom fighter. There are literally millions of Mandelas throughout the globe, yet, to paraphrase the Special AKA, we are so blind that we cannot see.

    Meanwhile, poverty, AIDS, corruption and crime are the hallmarks of the "new" South Africa. Mendacity has arrived at equality, and any teleological measure of the dismantling of apartheid begs the question, qui bono? Heresy I know, but politics for me has always been about who benefits, and that club has been very narrow and sectional since the rise of Heyekian neoliberalism, where cronyism, corruption and theft of the public domain has been dressed up as market liberalisation, opportunity and deregulation.

    Vale Mandela, a pity we live in an age when nothing shall be learnt from this by those that sit at the world's cabinet tables.

    1. Churchill is widely regarded as a great leader, 1945 notwithstanding. Mandela did support terrorism, and as far as I can tell he backed Gaddafi because he backed him.

      Fair point about South Africa's many problems, exacerbated by the lesser men who followed Mandela. Still, those problems were rife under apartheid, but the mechanisms to address these are greater than they were. I guess Mandela is the counsel against despair.

  4. That's why I love you as an astute liberal mate..;)
    What a privilege to have seen Mr Obama's beautiful sentiment towards Mandela
    Isn't that a lovely gift and speech to show your children


    Tears were streaming down my face

    I would be

  5. Well said Lachlan.


  6. I would like a good journalist to investigate orgs like the maritime union and many other people in sport and now in the federal parliament who were in that era and supported apartheid

    Lovely blog entry

    Furthermore beyond the cult like status of Mandela , the great man had flaws

    He was authoritarian, flirty and surprise surprise not perfect

    Vale Mandela

    1. Lachlan Ridge10/12/13 1:57 pm

      Ummm,,the Maritime Union, then the Seamen's Union of Australia and the Waterside Workers Federation respectively, were the two major opponents of Apartheid South Africa in Australia. I don't know who is rewriting history for you, but the idea that the unions, any union, supported apartheid is so historically wrong as to indicate either ignorance or delusion on your part. I'm sure you're getting ready to post a retraction and apology as you read this Anon.

      God, we live in an age when the stupid is big.

    2. I know Mandela singled out Bob Hawke for his support for anti-apartheid movements. The Maritime Unions have been, not surprisingly, engaged with global movements of that type. Thanks for filling us in, Lachlan.

  7. I would like to email Andrew Elder, how do I do that?

    1. How does *who* do that? Try Twitter DM instead

  8. I would highly recommend people watch the very moving tribute by

    Maya Angelou and her poem on video


    Thanks Andrew.

  9. A leaders leader


    Cheers Andrew

    Postscript : We all have flaws and our leaders are not immune to them including Mr Abbott

    It's the actions of great men that notice their flaws and become humble with their quirkiness .

    We are not God's. ..

  10. Post script of Mandela's funeral

    The body language between
    Mr De Klerk and Mr Obama was disturbing and very revealing

    No acknowledgement at all.

    Mr Obama's speech will go down in history as a monumental moment

    A moment in time to remind us all we should respect and make it better for future generations.