Spot the similarities:
1/ From BBC News (East):
Banksy anti-immigration birds mural in Clacton-on-Sea destroyed
A new Banksy mural showing a group of pigeons holding anti-immigration banners has been destroyed following a complaint the work was “racist”.
The mural in Clacton-on-Sea – where a by-election is due to take place following the local MP’s defection to UKIP – appeared this week.
It showed four pigeons holding signs including “Go Back to Africa”, while a more exotic-looking bird looked on.
The local council, which removed it, said it did not know it was by Banksy.
Tendring District Council said it received a complaint that the mural was “offensive” and “racist”.
The artist, who chooses to remain anonymous, posted pictures of the work on his website earlier.
But by the time it had been announced, the mural had already been removed due to the complaint received on Tuesday.
2/ From politics.co.uk
Thin-skinned anti-racist protestors shut down an anti-racist exhibit
By Ian Dunt
The closing down of the Barbican’s Exhibit B event marks a significant moment in the rise of censorship in Britain. We have now become so sensitive, so uninterested in the purpose of a work of art, that we are closing down exhibits intended to support our own politics. We are censoring ourselves.
What an extraordinary point to have reached. Self-professed anti-racist campaigners shutting down an anti-racist exhibit because it features images of racism. Two hundred of them blocked the entrance and the road leading to the building. Organisers cancelled last night’s performance and then confirmed the remaining performances would be cancelled as well.
One wonders how else we are supposed to dramatise racism without featuring images of it? Should 12 Years a Slave have been banned too? It was hardly an easy watch.
The black performers in Exhibit B stand perfectly still, in chains, in a reference to the ‘human zoos’ of the Nineteenth Century. There are also exhibits featuring modern-day asylum seekers, with accompanying text describing them as “found objects”
This is how the actors themselves described it:
“Each audience member walks in alone into the exhibit, and each performer is exhibited in their own tableau vivant. Each performer is instructed by Brett to look into the eyes of each audience member. On arrival, at the first tableau, most people don’t even recognise that human beings are standing there. For a moment, particularly for the first few, we are objects.
“Then, our eyes meet.
“In that moment when our eyes meet, we cease to be objectified and become human. Some people literally jump back. Some break into tears; others immediately look away. Others still gaze deeper as their eyes well up.
“As they move through the exhibit, we watch them and witness anger, grief, pity, sadness, compassion. Above all, we witness a dawning of awareness. This is why we keep doing this, and would keep on doing it, if we could.”
I haven’t seen the exhibit. I can’t, because the protestors have managed to shut it down. But even without having seen it, it is quite clear that it was an anti-racist event, conceived by someone challenging racism and performed by those who shared his vision. It was trying to draw links between the injustices of the past, which we understand to be so, and those of the present, which are still subject to debate. The Guardian, that bastion of racism, called it “unbearable and essential”.
It is perfectly obvious the Barbican would never put on a racist event. It would be almost impossible to smuggle a racist piece of theatre, TV or visual art into modern Britain. So the ultra-sensitivity which has overcome our political debate feeds not on racism, but on the use of shock in art. The same applies in journalism. Demands for ‘trigger warnings’ are fired off angrily every time something even remotely emotive is published online.
For whole sections of the left and right, offence is something to be wallowed in, to be savoured. It is as if they are dedicated to seeking out and exploiting opportunities for it.
And yet, there is precious little support for actually tackling the brutality of Britain’s immigration and asylum system. Earlier this month Rubel Ahmed died in a British immigration detention centre. Authorities say he took his own life. Fellow residents say he was crying out in pain and no-one came to help. Either way, he was a victim of an immigration system which locks up the most vulnerable people in our society without them having committed a crime. And yet when protests are organised against it, the numbers are far fewer than the 22,000 who signed a petition attacking the Barbican for Exhibit B.
The modern censorship movement dresses itself up in compassionate clothing, but it is fundamentally selfish. It does not care about the world. It cares only about its own feelings.
The protestors who shut down Exhibit B should be ashamed of themselves. They act against their own principles, while doing nothing to help those who might actually need them.
* depressing, self-righteous rubbish in the Morning Star
* A more intelligent view from Catherine Bennett in the Observer
Cross post By Eric Lee
I have just come back from attending a large demonstration in central London [on Sunday -JD] protesting the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK.
The demonstration was organised by a new group called the Campaign Against Antisemitism. It was backed by all the major Jewish organisations in Britain, including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and many others. Nearly a thousand people signed up to attend the demo on Facebook; it looked to me like there at least that number there. The crowd seemed overwhelmingly Jewish.
Now if this had been a demonstration against racism, organized by the leadership of the Black communities in Britain, I can guarantee you that a wide range of Left groups would have been there to show their solidarity. You would have found assorted Trotskyists and others selling their newspapers, handing out leaflets and showing that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with an ethnic minority group struggling against racist assaults, while busily trying to recruit new members.
But at this demonstration, I didn’t see a single left group of any kind with an obvious presence. There may have been individual socialists – like myself – there; but there were no banners, newspapers, or flyers.
The Jewish community seemed to be very much on its own. As if it alone could sense the danger.
On the face of it, this is odd. The rise of anti-Semitism in Britain and across Europe is well documented. Even the Muslim Council of Britain seems to acknowledge this problem in the joint declaration it issued last week together with the Board of Deputies calling for a joint fight against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The eloquent Owen Jones addressed the problem in a recent column for the Guardian. Entitled “Anti-Jewish hatred is rising – we must see it for what it is”, Jones wrote that “there really is plenty of antisemitism that must be confronted.” And he then went on to point to rising anti-Semitism on the far Right in Greece. And Jew-hatred among the far-Rightists in Hungary. And of course anti-Semitism on the French far Right, in the form of the National Front.
But not a word about anti-Semitism in the UK. And of course no mention of anti-Semitism in Muslim communities, or the Left.
Jones is possibly unaware of the long history of anti-Semitism on the Left, a history that goes back to very earliest days of our movement. August Bebel, the great leader of German Social Democracy, famously called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools”. (Some scholars think that the quote is wrongly attributed to Bebel, but no matter – it was widely known more than a century ago.)
Classic anti-Semitic ideas like exaggerated notions of Jewish power and wealth grew in the fertile soil of the Left long before the Palestinian issue ever arose. Left anti-Semitism pre-dates the recent Gaza war by at least a century. It may flare up when the guns are firing in Gaza, but it is always there, a low flame that doesn’t extinguish.
People like Owen Jones, and many of those on the British Left who were so notably absent from today’s demonstration, seem prepared to see anti-Semitism everywhere but in front of their noses.
Their opposition to Jew-hatred may be called the “anti-anti-Semitism of fools” as it has nothing in common with a real fight against anti-Semitism.
As a result, they leave the Jewish community alone – or drive it into the arms of right-wing demagogues who are happy for any excuse to bash the Muslim community or the Left.
And it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Left should be in the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism, should embrace that fight and claim it as our own. We should be helping to build widespread public support for that fight, and providing it with analysis and programme.
Instead, the Left sits by the sidelines, its head in the sand, muttering about “Golden Dawn” in Greece rather than actually fighting the poison of anti-Semitism here in the UK, and here on the Left.
Protest against IS and the genocide of the Yazidis! Support workers, women and oppressed minorities in Iraq!
6 – 8pm, Friday 22 August, Downing Street, London
This rally is organised by the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan, UK organisation, in alliance with other Iraqi, Iranian and UK organisations (see below).
A Yazidi family on Mount Sinjar
The organisers say:
“Against the Genocide of the Yazidis
Against the Bloodthirsty Forces of IS
Against Fascism and Racism
“Support our demands:
1. Immediate steps and actions must be taken to help all those who are displaced, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. The Yezidis, in particular, are most desperately in need of such help.
2. The countries which have supported the IS financially and militarily should be condemned and held responsible.
3. The ruling parties across Iraq propagate racist and ethnocentric sentiments among the people, causing tension between Arabs and Kurds, as well as Sunni and Shiites. This is catastrophic and has brought about high levels of ethno-sectarian hatred in Iraq and Kurdistan. Pressure should be exerted on the political parties to stop this.
4. Any activities and demonstrations by IS supporters must be organised against by the trade unions, community groups and political organisations. What they do does not constitute freedom of political thought; they advocate hatred and killing. Tolerating these groups may create circumstances for other racist groups to flourish and spread hostility towards people from Muslim backgrounds.
We hope that the EU will register our concern on the matter and act against any and all forms of racist and sectarian attacks and incitement.”
Other sponsoring organisations
Worker-communist Party of Iraq UK Organisation
Worker-communist Party of Iran UK Organisation
Worker-communist Party of Iran Hekmatist UK Organisation
International Federation of Iraqi Refugees – IFIR
Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation in Britain – KMEWO
For more information please contact: 07577 781 626 or 07446 135 857 or 07894 252 708
Nice to know he really was a good guy (is that Nina Simone he’s holding hands with?)
This project – a collaboration between the Cincinnati youth arts centre ‘Elementz’ and the (Reform synagogue) Temple Sholom – may seem a strange way of remembering the Holocaust. Some might even consider it inappropriate. But it’s clearly well-intentioned and seems to be raising awareness amongst these young people. It’s also in marked contrast to the trend in some “radical” circles these days to down-play Holocaust remembrance, or dismiss it as an “industry” or a pro-Zionist conspiracy.
Here’s something you won’t often read at Shiraz or hear from me: I recommend you to buy this week’s New Statesman.
Perhaps intended to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, the current issue carries two articles on anti-Semitism: Anthony Clavane on anti-Semitism and the left, and Andrew Hussey on Dieudonné and the re-emergence of the “negationist” tradition in French politics. Both are very informative and well-argued pieces, but their real significance is that they appear in the New Statesman at all. In recent years the magazine’s anti-Zionism has often taken on a strident tone and in the case of regular contributor John Pilger, veered dangerously close to outright anti-Semitism. And, of course, back in 2002, under then-editor Peter Wilby, the magazine brought out its infamous “A kosher conspiracy” edition. An apology was eventually extracted from an initially defiant Wilby, but the wretched man continues to contribute a regular column.
The present issue is not yet available online, so I’m reproducing an excerpt from Clavane’s piece, including a reference to the “A kosher conspiracy” row:
Criticising Israel, as many Jews do, and Zionism as an ideology, which a much smaller number but still a significant minority of the community does, are perfectly valid positions. Publishing an anti-Zionist cover story featuring a golden Star of David stabbing a pliant Union flag with the headline “A kosher conspiracy?”, as the New Statesman (then under different ownership and editorship) did in 2002, is not. It should not have to be spelled out, though this magazine’s then editor did so in a subsequent apology, that all principled critics of Israeli policies should avoid using anti-Semitic images and narratives. They should not, as the BBC’s Tim Llewellyn once did, accuse American politicians such as Dennis Ross of hiding behind “a lovely Anglo-Saxon name”. (Llewellyn went on to say that Ross is “not just a Jew, he is a Zionist … a Zionist propagandist”.) They should have no truck with vile anti-Jewish calumnies, including the blood-libel slur, routinely rehearsed in anti-Zionist Arab textbooks.
“The Zionist lobby,” Dieudonné told the Iranian-funded Press TV, “have taken France as hostage and we are in the hands of ignorant people, who know how to structure themselves into a Mafia-like organisation and…have now taken over the country.”
As Dave Rich at the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, explains: “this is not the anti-Zionism of people who think that the Palestinians get a raw deal from Israel: it is the anti-Zionism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a conspiracy theory that believes Jews pull all the strings.”
“We need to keep things in perspective,” warns David Feldman, of the Pears institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “we have experienced the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, with Jews prominent in many places [in finance]. Yet in contrast to the situation 80 years ago, few radicals have proposed anti-Semitic explanations.”
As Jonathan Freedland, who writes a weekly column in the Guardian and a monthly column in the Jewish Chronicle, points out, so far only “a few marginal political voices” on the British left have flirted with anti-Semitic tropes. However, after a property website owned by a Jewish businessman withdrew its sponsorship of West Brom on 20 January, and then the FA announced it was charging Anelka, the liberal-left commentariat was presented with a perfect opportunity to take a stand against such tropes. Yet more silence. In fact, it was left to the right-wing controversialist Rod Liddle to condemn the striker’s “repulsive” support for his Jew-baiting friend.
“On this issue,” Freedland told me, “all anti-racists of good conscience should have leapt in. Dieudonné is aligned with the far right. He’s had criminal convictions for anti-Semitism. My worry is that, as time passed before the FA’s announcement and the lack of outrage continued, it didn’t send out a strong message about anti-Semitism
“The quenelle was a previously obscure gesture in this country and now it’s known. So this is the moment to make the point that no self-respecting person on the left should accept a supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ position which in fact says it’s the Jews who are ‘the establishment’.”
Anthony Clavane’s latest book is “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” (Quercus £6.99)
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Above: Kassim Alhimidi (left) and Trayvon Martin (right)
By Unrepentent Jacobin (Reblogged from Jabobinism):
On the Hounding of Adele Wilde-Blavatsky
There is a damaging idea fast gathering influence on the Left that – like a lot of contemporary postmodern Leftist thought – urgently needs dismantling. This idea holds that racism is only possible when prejudice is married with power. The corollary of this premise is that racism may only travel in one direction – from the powerful to the powerless – and it is therefore nonsensical to discuss, still less condemn, racist attitudes expressed by ethnic minorities. In the West, racism is the preserve of the white majority who use it – often, it is claimed, unconsciously – to sustain their advantage and to oppress those they deem to be ‘other’. In the geopolitical sphere, meanwhile, this racism is the preserve of the world’s wealthy democracies and is expressed as Orientalism, Military and Cultural Imperialism, and Neoliberalism, all of which are used to dominate and subjugate the Global South.
Furthermore, racism exists independently of individual prejudice and cultural mores – like the power systems of which it is a part, it is abstract; metaphysical; unavoidable; unchanging. It is all-pervasive, ‘structural’, endemic, systemic, and internalised to such a degree that even (or especially) white liberal Westerners who perceive themselves to be broad-minded and non-prejudicial are not even aware of it. It is therefore incumbent on every white person, male or female, to ‘check their white privilege’ before venturing to comment on matters pertaining to minority cultures, lest they allow their unconscious ethnocentricity to reinforce oppressive power structures. Instead, moral judgement of minorities by universal standards should – no, must – be replaced by a willingness to indulge and uncritically accept difference.
In the view of this layman, this kind of thinking is wrong, both morally and in point of fact.
Postmodernism is notoriously unhappy with anything as concrete as a dictionary definition. However, the inconvenient fact is that racism remains clearly defined in the OED, and by the common usage its entries are intended to reflect, as follows:
Racism, n: The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities.
That the effects of this prejudice and antagonism are aggravated, perpetuated and sometimes institutionalized by the effects of power is undeniable, but this is a separate issue. Many unpleasant aspects of human nature and behaviour (greed, for instance) are also exacerbated by power, but that doesn’t change the ugly nature of the behaviour itself, nor allow us to infer that the powerless are incapable of making it manifest.
Efforts to effect an official change to this definition should be strongly resisted on grounds of egalitarianism (an idea the Left once cared about deeply). The difficulty with the power + prejudice formulation lies, not just in its dilution of what makes racism so toxic, but in a consequent moral relativism which holds people to different standards. It is manifestly unjust to hold some people to a higher standard of thought and behaviour based on their unalterable characteristics. However, it is far worse to hold others to a respectively lower standard based on those same characteristics, which insists on the indulgence of viewpoints and behaviour by some that would not be tolerated from others.
This separatist thinking has given rise to identity politics, moral equivalence, cultural relativism and what Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others have called “a racism of low expectations”. As Hirsi Ali remarked in her memoir-cum-polemic Nomad (excerpted here):
This Western attitude is based on the idea that people of colour must be exempted from “normal” standards of behaviour. There are many good men and women in the West who try to resettle refugees and strive to eliminate discrimination. They lobby governments to exempt minorities from the standards of behaviour of western societies; they fight to help minorities preserve their cultures, and excuse their religion from critical scrutiny. These people mean well, but their activism is now a part of the very problem they seek to solve.
Identity politics reinforces the racist argument that people can and should be judged according to their skin colour. It rests on the same crude, illiberal determinism, and results in what the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has described as a “racism of the anti-racists”. This, as we shall see, leaves those vulnerable to oppression within ‘subaltern’ groups without a voice and mutes criticism of chauvinism and out-group hatred when expressed by minorities.
The alternative to this, now routinely derided as ‘Enlightenment Fundamentalism’, is a principled commitment to egalitarianism and universalism – the notion that what separates us (culture) is taught and learned, but that what unites us is far more important and fundamental: that is, our common humanity. On this basis, the same rights and protections should be afforded to all people.
This is what underpinned the idealism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, two of the most noble documents produced by Enlightenment thought. It was the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and adopted in the wake of the carnage of the Second World War. And it is the basis upon which civil rights groups and human rights organisations have sought to advance the laws and actions of nations and their peoples.
The answer to prejudice, and to the division and inequality it inevitably produces, is not exceptionalism based on a hierarchy of grievance, but to strive for greater equality on the basis that we belong to a common species, divided only by our ideas. As Martin Luther King declared on the steps of the Lincoln memorial:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
On 20 December, the feminist writer and activist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky published an article in the Huffington Post entitled Stop Bashing White Women in the Name of Beyonce: We Need Unity Not Division. Wilde-Blavatsky’s post was a rebuke to those – on what she described as the post-colonial or intersectional feminist Left – who use identity politics and arguments from privilege to delegitimise the voices of white feminists speaking out about the abuse of women in the Global South and within minority communities in the West. Read the rest of this entry »
Of all the eulogies to Nelson Mandela there have been over the past eleven days, this one was probably the most powerful, sincere and moving. I defy anyone to watch and listen with completely dry eyes:
Below is the official version of Ahmed Kathrada’s speech, but it varies somewhat from what he said on the day, suggesting that some of his remarks (eg: that extraordinary closing comment, “My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to”) were entirely spontaneous:
The last time I saw Madiba alive was when I visited him in hospital. I was filled with an overwhelming mixture of sadness, emotion and pride. He tightly held my hand until the end of my brief visit. It was profoundly heartbreaking. It brought me to the verge of tears when my thoughts automatically flashed back to the picture of the man I grew up under. How I wished I’d never had to confront the reality of what I saw.
I first met Madiba in 1946; that’s 67 years ago. I recalled the tall, healthy and strong man; the boxer; the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel at the lime quarry on Robben Island. I visualised the prisoner that vigorously exercised every morning before we were unlocked. What I saw at his home after his spell in hospital was this giant of a man, helpless and reduced to a shadow of his former self.
And now the inevitable has happened. He has left us and is now with the “A Team” of the ANC – the ANC in which he cut his political teeth; and the ANC for whose policy of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa he was prepared to die.
He has joined the “A Team” of his close comrades: Chief Luthuli; Walter Sisulu; Oliver Tambo; Dr Yusuf Dadoo; Jack Simons; Moses Kotane; Bram Fischer; Dr Monty Naicker; JB Marks; Helen Joseph; Ruth First; Professor ZK Matthews; Beyers Naude; Joe Slovo; Lilian Ngoyi; Ma Sisulu and Michael Harmel.
In addition to the ANC’s “A Team”, Madiba has also joined men and women outside the ANC – Helen Suzman, Steve Biko, Alan Paton, Robert Sobukwe, Cissie Gool, Bennie Kies, Neville Alexander, Zeph Mothopeng and many other leaders.
We are a country that has been blessed by many great and remarkable men and women, all of whom played a critical part in this grand struggle for freedom and dignity. We have been blessed by the contributions of many different movements and formations, both inside and outside the country, each making an indelible imprint on our history. We have been blessed by a struggle that actively involved the masses of the people in their own liberation.
We have been blessed that under the collective leadership of the ANC, we can proudly proclaim that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. We were mightily, and unexpectedly, blessed when the old, oppressive, undemocratic order succumbed and bowed to the inevitable. And then, finally, we were truly blessed by the far-sighted wisdom of our collective leadership – with Madiba at the helm – that took us into a democratic future. For all of this and much more, we are deeply grateful.
We are fortunate that today we live in a noisy and lively democracy. We are eternally grateful that dignity has been restored to all South Africans. We are forever grateful that the lives of many are improving, although not enough yet. We are deeply grateful for a constitution that encompasses all that is good in us and a constitutional order that protects our hard-won freedom. Finally, we are infinitely grateful that each and every one of us, whether we are African, white, coloured or Indian, can proudly call ourselves South Africans.
Mindful of our gains, we nevertheless know that a long, long road lies ahead, with many twists and turns, sometimes through difficult and trying times. Poverty, ill-health and hunger still stalk our land. Greed and avarice show their ugly faces. Xenophobia and intolerance play their mischief in our beautiful land. Parts of the world out there find themselves in unhappy situations; economies falter and stagger; extremism and fundamentalism of all kinds are rampant; the Earth reels from climate change, and the poor battle to survive. Ferocious struggles for democracy unfold daily before our very eyes and the numbers of political prisoners grow in step with rising intolerance. For instance, we think of the Palestinian Marwan Barghouti, who is languishing in an Israeli prison. All of these people and prisoners throughout the world will continue to draw inspiration from the life and legacy of Mandela.
And finally Mr President, I wish to address myself directly to Madala, as we called each other. What do we say to you in these, the last, final moments together, before you exit the public stage forever?
Madala, your abundant reserves of love, simplicity, honesty, service, humility, care, courage, foresight, patience, tolerance, equality and justice continually served as a source of enormous strength to many millions of people in South Africa and the world. You symbolise today, and always will, qualities of collective leadership, reconciliation, unity and forgiveness. You strove daily to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.
In this spirit, so exemplified in your life, it is up to the present and next generations to take up the cudgels where you have left off. It is up to them, through service to deepen our democracy; entrench and defend our constitution; eradicate poverty; eliminate inequality; fight corruption, and serve always with compassion, respect, integrity and tolerance. Above all, they must build our nation and break down the barriers that still divide us.
Xenophobia, racism and sexism must be fought with tenacity, wisdom and enlightenment. Anything that defines someone else as “the other” has to go. Tolerance and understanding must flourish and grow. In all these actions we are and will be guided by your wisdom and deeds.
Today, mingled with our grief is the enormous pride that one of our own has during your life, and now in your death, united the people of South Africa and the entire world on a scale never experienced before in history. Remarkably, in these last few days, the masses of our people, from whatever walk of life, have demonstrated how very connected they feel to you; how the story of your life is their story and how their story is your story. Madala, you captured this relationship beautifully on the occasion of Walter Sisulu’s death, when you said: “We shared the joy of living, and the pain. Together we shared ideas, forged common commitments. We walked side by side through the valley of death, nursing each other’s bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savoured the taste of freedom!”
To Mrs Graça Machel and the Mandela family, our love, respect and support go out to you. We wish there was a way that we could ease your grief and pain. These last few months have been particularly hard, and we trust that in the ensuing weeks you will be able to find the rest and peace you need so much. We mourn with you and wish you strength in this time of need.
Madala, while we may be drowned in sorrow and grief, we salute you as a fighter for freedom to the end. Farewell my elder brother, my mentor, my leader. With all the energy and determination at our command, we pledge to join the people of South Africa and the world to perpetuate the ideals and values for which you have devoted your life.
Hamba Kahle, Madala! Hamba Kahle, my dearest friend!
(from the Guardian)
“We do him no honour to subsume his politics, or his personal peculiarities, beneath an aura of sainthood”
Above: Hugh Masekela’s musical dedication to Mandela
By Robert Fine at the Workers Liberty website
Nelson Mandela was a big man and his long life was punctuated by huge personal and political achievements. Foremost among his personal achievements was the dignity and apparent lack of bitterness with which he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment by the apartheid regime in South Africa. He had the personal grace to embody the long struggle against racism and for democracy when he re-entered the public sphere in 1990 and by nearly all accounts he set an example of leadership during his own long years in gaol. During this period Mandela was himself rather forgotten for much of the time, out of sight in the 1960s, eclipsed in the 1970s by the Black Consciousness Movement and Steve Biko, denounced in the 1980s by various world leaders (including Thatcher, Reagan and Bush Senior) as a terrorist, but increasingly in this period lionised in political and cultural circles. Who can forget Hugh Masekela’s musical dedication to Mandela!
Foremost among his political achievements was of course the role he played in steering South Africa from apartheid to democracy, from a state in which to be black was to be less than human to one man, one woman, one vote. This was no easy road. There was violence from members of the old regime, from Zulu nationalists in the Inkatha Movement, from ‘white’ ultra-nationalist in the AWB, and not least from among some black radicals (including Mandela’s wife, WInnie) within the black townships. Once in power as the first President of the new South Africa Mandela formed a government of National Unity with the Afrikaner Nationalists and Inkatha, oversaw the drafting of the new constitution including a strong Bill of Rights, and gave the go-ahead for Bishop Tutu to establish his famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
One of the many iconic moments of the Rainbow Nation Mandela sought to establish was presenting the Rugby World Cup trophy, held in South Africa, to the Springboks captain Francois Peinaar. Rugby was a generally ‘white’ sport and those of us who remember the anti-apartheid demonstrations we held against the visiting Springboks will understand the great symbolism of this occasion.
Mandela was a human being and despite all the efforts to sanctify him we do him no honour to subsume his politics, or indeed his patrician personal peculiarities, beneath an aura of sainthood sometimes constructed for the narrowest of political purposes. Mandela came from a Christian, aristocratic and propertied African family – very different in culture and social status from the mass of ‘blanket’ Africans. He became involved in ANC politics in the 1950s, when he was active in the non-violent Defiance Campaign and then in organising the Congress of the People in 1955. It put forward the famous and at the time controversial Freedom Charter:
“We the people of South Africa declare for all our country: That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.
In a context of plural political movements vying for popular support, the notion of ‘we the people’ had obvious political advantages for the ANC, but what was more important was that it set a basically multi-racial path for the liberation movement.
There has been debate over whether Mandela ever joined the South African Communist Party, which had of course strong Soviet connections, but whether or not he did join, he worked closely with some of its members. What first thrust Mandela into international fame, his first moment of glory, was perhaps his least auspicious contribution. He was involved in the late 1950s in the turn to armed struggle, the establishment of an armed wing of the ANC, known as MK or Umkhonto We Sizwe, and the reorganisation of the party in accordance with the ‘M-Plan’, setting up a cell structure for military operations. Mandela was acquitted at the long drawn out Treason Trial of 1956-61, but he was then convicted of ‘sabotage’ at the Rivonia Trial in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
We should acknowledge that the so-called turn to armed struggle was a disaster. The bombing campaigns were ineffective and those involved in them were quickly rounded up. More importantly, the mass democratic campaigns, which rocked the apartheid regime in the latter half of the 1950s, all quickly collapsed as sabotage, secrecy and vanguardism took over. The murder by the police of 69 protesters at Sharpeville – a protest organised by the PAC, a rival organisation to the ANC – was treated by the ANC / SACP leadership as a sign that peaceful protest was no longer possible. However, it was also a sign that the mass democratic movement as a whole – which comprised community movements, trade union movements, women’s movements and even tribal peasant movements – was seriously impacting on the apartheid regime.
After the turn to armed struggle there ensued a decade of state repression and intensified racist legislation, marked by the defeat of popular struggles. I do not think this downturn can be separated from the ill advisedness of the ‘turn’ Mandela helped to implement. Mandela was inspired, as many radicals were in that period, by Castro’s 26th Movement, the example of Che Guevara, and by various armed African liberation movements. The long period of his prosecution in the Treason Trial may have cut him off from active involvement in the mass democratic movement (I am not sure of this). In any event the strategic turn taken by the ANC, which Mandela supported and personified, probably had more to do with the wider strategic turn enforced by leaders of the Soviet Union on most Communist Parties they supported, than with any local conditions. Mandela’s ringing speech at the Rivonia Trial – “I was the symbol of justice in the court of oppression” – was undoubtedly true but of course did not address the democratic and class issues involved in turning away from mass struggle.
There was always a patrician and intolerant edge to the ANC movement, but it was the turn to violence in 1961 that for many years broke its connection with grass-roots democracy. The protests that broke out in the mid-1970s, a decade and a half after Sharpeville, were conducted more in the name of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko than the ANC and Mandela. In the 1980s the ANC began to get back into the picture internationally as a largely exiled movement, but the internal movement of new non-racial trade unions (especially under the umbrella of FOSATU) and new community movements (especially under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front) showed a considerable degree of independence from the ANC–SACP alliance. In the UK I remember ANC-SACP people in the anti-apartheid movement denouncing in this period the new industrial trade unions and their solidarity supporters in the UK, including myself, as queering the pitch of the ‘official’ trade union wing of the movement, SACTU, or worse as collaborators.
Once Mandela was out of prison in 1990, his conciliatory strengths were manifold: he certainly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. There was at the time violence in the air – the murder of Chris Hani, massacres at Sebokeng and at Shell House, the AWB car bombs, the ‘necklacing’ of ‘collaborators’ committed by young activists in the townships, even the tortures and murders committed by the Winnie Mandela’s thuggish ‘United Football Club’. Directly or indirectly, Mandela helped to resolve tensions between the independent unions and the ANC and the former head of the Mineworkers Union Cyril Ramapoza led the ANC delegation into negotiations with the government. Mandela was a force for reconciliation but this did not mean that he simply gave in to stronger forces. He was strongly critical of de Klerk, the leader of the Afrikaner Nationalists, when the latter granted amnesty to the police and defended his old Defence Minister, Malan.
However, reconciliation meant not only reconciling oneself to the past but also reconciling oneself to the present – and to forces that would keep the great majority of ordinary black people in poverty and subjection. Strengths can turn into weaknesses and this is what happened to Mandela’s undoubted strengths. The ambitious social and economic plans of the ANC-SACP, articulated in the election campaign of 1994 in the Reconstruction and Development Programme, were frustrated by business friendly policies (tight budgets, fee trade, debt responsibility, etc.), the allure of unheard of riches corrupting all manner of officials, and an increasingly evident anti-pluralist streak within the ANC and SACP themselves. The trade union independence so carefully built up in the 1980s was compromised by its alliance with the ANC and SACP in the 1990s. By the time Mandela decided not to stand again as President in 1999, there were pronounced signs of growing unemployment, inequality and governmental authoritarianism – as well as the peculiarities of certain policy traits like Mbeki’s almost unbelievable refusal to recognise the existence of AIDS or the importance of anti-viral treatment.
Mandela was not uncritical of his own role, notably in relation to the whole question of AIDS, but whether or not he spoke out publicly on these issues, he remained a force for decency in the background of a state that was becoming disturbingly violent, anti-egalitarian and grasping. The police murder of 34 striking miners at Marikana mine, owned by a British company Lonmin, one of whose well paid directors is Cyril Ramapoza, the former leader of the Mineworkers Union and Deputy leader of the ANC, and its cover up and normalisation by leading figures in the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, is just one exemplar.
Mandela will be missed today not because he was a perfect role model, and he was certainly no saint, but because he knew what is important in life and represented something authentic in the South African revolutionary tradition. Now that he has gone, I wonder what is in store for the revolution, which his presence did much to foster and civilise but which his aura served to insulate from the normal processes of intellectual and political criticism.