We should treasure the memory of the Mandela our rulers hated: the lonely, courageous, unbowed political prisoner, condemned for his resistance to racial oppression


The world is mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela. Our rulers are showering their praises on his memory. Long before his death, he had become a global icon: a symbol of something sublime, beyond doubt, criticism, or controversy, a figure of universal veneration.

It was not always so. Our rulers make a habit of appropriating historical figures they once excoriated. In the early 1980s, when Mandela was languishing on Robben Island, apartheid South Africa’s most notorious prison, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan denounced him as a ‘terrorist’. Student Tories wore badges inscribed ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’.

When Mandela was dangerous, when he was a leader of mass struggle against racial oppression (and so inspirational that he remained such even while imprisoned), the rulers of the world hated him. That is the Mandela we should celebrate.

Migrant labour and racist laws

The young Mandela’s South Africa was a ghastly creation of colonial capitalism. He was radicalised by the brutal mix of institutionalised racism and grinding poverty to which the system condemned the vast majority. Marx was among his formative political influences. He remained close to the South African Communist Party throughout his active life.

The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand region of the northern Transvaal in 1886 quickly turned South Africa into the biggest gold producer in the world. South African gold was abundant but hard to extract. The profits of the British bosses who controlled the mines depended on a large supply of cheap black labour. To provide it, the British colonial administration created what would later be called ‘apartheid’.

African peasants were driven off the land and herded into impoverished reserves. To make a living and pay their taxes, they had to sell their labour to the mine bosses. They were employed as migrants on short-term contracts. When their contracts expired, they were forced back to the reserves. Black people were required to carry passes to prove they were permitted in ‘white’ areas of their own country.

After the Second World War, as the South African economy expanded and manufacturing industries developed, the whole apartheid apparatus of racial and class oppression was formalised. Black Africans, making up three-quarters of the population, were allocated 13% of the land (now renamed ‘bantustans’). Many migrants, especially in the mines, were housed in huge single-sex compounds. Others lived in sprawling slum townships on the edge of the industrial areas. All were subject to routine police harassment. Hundreds of thousands were arrested under the hated pass laws and deported to the bantustans.

White South Africans – the descendants of British and Dutch settlers (the latter known as ‘Afrikaners’) – ran all the large businesses, controlled the state, and had most of the professional and skilled jobs. White wage rates were between ten and twenty times those of Africans. Only whites (15% of the population) could vote.

But as the black working class on which South African capitalism’s wealth depended grew larger, waves of mass struggle broke across the country from the 1950s onwards. Each time, the black resistance faced murderous state repression.

Mass resistance

Soweto, June 16, 1976. 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, one of the first killed in the massacre. Photo: Sam NzimaThe African National Congress had been founded in 1912 as a moderate campaign for reform within the system. It was taken over by young radicals like Mandela during the 1950s and began to organise mass protests. When the police opened fire on black demonstrators protesting the pass laws on 31 March 1960, murdering 69 of them, Mandela was among a group of leading ANC members who drew the conclusion that the liberation movement should attempt guerrilla warfare.

The ANC formed an armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK: ‘Spear of the Nation’) in 1961, and Mandela assumed a leading role. But MK was hopelessly outgunned by the apartheid regime and could make little impression. Mandela, along with much of the ANC leadership, was captured, tried, and condemned to life imprisonment.

A fresh wave of mass struggle erupted in the 1970s, first with strike action and the rise of a new union movement in 1973, then with a student and community revolt in Soweto and other African townships beginning in 1976.

The new movement was battered by ferocious state violence. Hundreds were killed. But this time the black resistance could not be broken outright. Within a decade, the struggle blazed up again, reaching unprecedented levels of strike action and community revolt. Much of the English-speaking capitalist class and some of the Afrikaner elite that had colonised the state became convinced that South African capitalism was unsustainable without major political concessions to the black resistance.

The ANC’s political infrastructure was rebuilt in the mass struggles of the 1980s, and the imprisoned Mandela became a symbol of the entire movement against apartheid, both inside South Africa and internationally. Eighteen years of his imprisonment had been spent on Robben Island, in a damp concrete cell measuring 2.4m by 2.1m, with only a straw mat to sleep on. Prisoners spent their days breaking rocks (the bright sunlight permanently damaged Mandela’s eyesight). Bullying by racist guards was routine. As the lowest grade of prisoner, Mandela was allowed only one visit and one letter every six months.

His sacrifice and stoicism made him a legendary ‘prince over the water’ for the new activists of the 1970s and 1980s. By the end of the 1980s, the pressure from below meant that the regime was forced to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC. Its attempt to cut a deal with ‘moderate’ black community leaders failed when direct action by township radicals destroyed the collaborationist councils central to its elaborate plans for preserving white-minority rule. The stability of South African capitalism had come to depend upon a transition to black-majority rule.

Race and class

The ANC had a two-stages view of the struggle for change in South Africa. First, they believed, racial oppression should be ended through the establishment of universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy. Then, at some future time, capitalism would be replaced with a socialist system based on democracy and equality.

This meant that the ANC was willing to negotiate an end to white-minority rule with the regime. The process was long and fraught, but it culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and then his election as the first black president of South African in 1994.

The separation of the struggle against racism from that against capitalism has been a disaster for the majority of South Africans. Racial oppression was always rooted in class exploitation: it arose to supply white mine bosses and later other capitalists with a large supply of cheap black labour. Racial oppression determined that it was black South Africans who lived in the bantustans, the townships, and the mine compounds. But it was capitalism that made these necessary; capitalism that condemned the majority of South Africans to poverty and squalor so that a few could be rich.

Mandela’s life was an inspiration to everyone fighting for a better world. But his politics meant that what was achieved fell far short of what was possible. The main beneficiaries of the end of apartheid have been a class of black capitalists, politicians, managers, and professionals. Like their white colleagues, and like people of this class the world over, they have been enthusiasts for neoliberalism, privatisation, and cuts in public services and welfare. At the top, the ANC has decayed into a corrupt establishment of political bosses and crony capitalists.

The old ANC-linked union machines are part of that corruption. This has produced the most important fracture-line in modern South African politics, as black miners attempt to build new fighting unions that will break with class collaboration and organise militant action against the bosses.

On 16 August 2012, South African police killed 34 striking miners on the edge of Marikana township. It was the worst massacre since apartheid. It surely represents a watershed in the history of the country. It is certainly a measure of how far South Africa’s black majority have yet to travel to achieve the democracy, equality, and peace for which so many gave their lives in the dark days of apartheid.

We should treasure the memory of the Mandela our rulers hated: the lonely, courageous, unbowed political prisoner, condemned for his resistance to racial oppression. We should, at the same time, regret that our rulers can fete him now only because the struggle against apartheid left South African capitalism intact.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.