People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 50

December 15, 2013




World Bows to Mandela

Sitaram Yechury


THE SPECIAL Air India plane carrying a six-member delegation headed by President Pranab Mukherjee, to attend the international memorial service for Nelson Mandela on December 10, landed in the midst of heavy rain at the Waterkloof military airbase, Pretoria, South Africa. This was once a notorious military base for the apartheid South African government that mounted its oppressive air attacks against the non-white South African people whom they mercilessly exploited and segregated. Minutes behind us arrived US President Barack Obama, followed by several US planes carrying former US Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush. There was really no count of the dignitaries who have poured into South Africa, literally, like the rain. As we departed the same evening after the memorial service was over, we were informed that there were at least 53 heads of State, plus one king and one queen, apart from nearly a score of heads of government. The count was still on. The only other memorial service at the death of a world leader since the 20th century, which saw the presence of more heads of State/government, we are told was that of Winston Churchill. However, at that time a number of countries were still colonies. The large array of world leaders present here at Johannesburg was probably the largest such a gathering in recent history.


This is not unnatural. Nelson Mandela was indeed one of the tallest world leaders to have presided over humanity's transition into the 21st century in more ways than the mere passage of time. It was indeed a daunting task for the South African government to have chosen just eight leaders from across the world to speak at the memorial service. These were led by the United Nations Secretary General, followed by the Chair of the African Union Commission, the US President Barack Obama, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchou, Namibian President Pohamba, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Cuban President Raul Castro. The proceedings of the memorial were conducted by Cyril Ramaphosa, former COSATU leader during the apartheid period and Baleka Mbete, chairperson of the ANC. 


The Western media, on whose reports unfortunately the mainstream Indian media relied, in their competitive frenzy to 'manufacture consent', highlighted President Obama's long address and the presence of former US presidents, along with sensationalising flippant events like Obama's flirtatious interaction with the Danish prime minister to the discomfort of the US first lady; all the 'boos', that the South African President Jacob Zuma was greeted with by the huge crowd that braved incessant rain. The solemnity and the mood of celebration, indeed a rare combination, seen amongst the vast crowd who were both weeping as well as dancing in the typical South African way at the same time, was little comprehended and also what went unreported was the fact that after the initial cheering that Obama was received with, the stadium reverberated with boos that rose like a Mexican wave around the circular stadium. George Bush was particularly targeted for such booing, while Raul Castro was lustily cheered. This left no option for Obama but to shake hands, probably the first US president in office with the president of the Socialist Republic of Cuba. The loudest of the lusty cheering was reserved for the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose bold land reforms depriving the colonial whites of the former Rhodesia their huge land ownerships and distributing this among the blacks, evokes widespread empathy among the South African black population, who continues to wait for their economic empowerment.


The mood at the FNB stadium, South Africa's most modern and largest one, was indeed electrifying and contagious. Here were the world's leaders and the people of South Africa paying homage to a man and his work that transformed not only South Africa, but impacted upon the world. To put it in a nutshell the message was the following: 'Thank you for your life and work; Many more thanks for making our lives better'.


This atmosphere reminded me of a popular English song when my generation was in its teens, a popular song went as follows: 'To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go/To right the unrightable wrong.../To reach the unreachable star/This is my quest/To follow that star/No matter how hopeless/No matter how far...'


If there is one person who lived up to these ambitions and more importantly reached these milestones in his own lifetime, it was Nelson Mandela, Madiba as he was fondly called.


His political life and work is indeed well documented and hence needs no repetition. His times and contribution have been documented, apart from his autobiography, 'The Long Road to Freedom', by his comrades-in-arms, like Ahmed Kathrada and others and these will surely be enriched and refined further in the future.


As my generation grew up, Mandela symbolised the unquenchable human spirit for freedom and liberty. As a teenager, he organised the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and went on to become the first chief of the ANC armed wing Umkhonto We Sizwe – Spear of the Nation. He was a passionate fighter against the hated apartheid regime that denied the South African people their elementary human rights while oppressing them mercilessly. He was arrested and in what had became the famous Rivonia trial, was sentenced for imprisonment for life. Concluding his testament at the trial, he stated: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. (June 11, 1964)


He was offered conditional releases on six occasions during his long detention in the notorious apartheid prison in the Robben Island. He refused each one of them and on last occasion, while refusing said: “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a past offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected? Only free men can negotiate...I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free”.


Such was his indomitable spirit that explains his enduring inspiration.


His eventual release came when the whole world realised, ironically including those ardent supporters of the oppressive regime, that the apartheid system had become an anachronism. As the Cold War was coming to an end, an objective that appeared impossible a few years earlier was also approaching its end – the destruction of the apartheid system and freedom for the people of South Africa. Here was a lesson to be learnt – history always unfolds in contradictory terms. The crisis that was about to engulf the world, with the dismantling of the socialist Soviet Union and the end of the countervailing military and economic bulwark to imperialist hegemony was accompanied by the release of Mandela and freedom from bondage for the peoples of a large part of the African continent. The wisdom of the ancient Chinese saying, that 'every crisis encompasses an opportunity', appears true.


I had the opportunity of meeting Nelson Mandela. The first, was on the occasion of the 48th Congress of the ANC, the first since its banning in 1960 to be held on South African soil in July 1991 at Durban. The atmosphere was indeed an experience of a lifetime. Comrades separated from each other, imprisoned in solitary confinement for more than three decades were meeting each other for the first time, struggling to recognise each other as all had grown old. Many tragically ceased to exist. The city of Durban still continued with the trappings of apartheid segregations, with its famed beaches splattered with hoardings: 'Non-Whites and Dogs – Out of Bound'. While there was euphoria that apartheid was ending, Mandela however struck a note of caution when he spoke to the Congress saying: “We have suspended armed action, but have not terminated the armed struggle. Whether its is deployed inside the country or outside, the Umkhonto We Sizwe has therefore a responsibility to keep itself in a state of readiness in case the forces of counter-revolution once more block the path of a peaceful transition to a democratic society. It is precisely that struggle which has changed the balance of forces to such an extent that the apartheid system is now under retreat. Through the struggles of our people the ban on the ANC has been lifted and we are able to meet in our own country today. A regime whose ideology is based on a virulent anti-communism has been forced to unban our ally the South African Communist Party (SACP), and remove provisions from the law prohibiting the propagation of communist ideals”.


One of the main charges against Mandela, which led to his arrest was that he was a communist. Indeed, he was a member of the central committee of the SACP once, before his arrest. In the period of the collapse of the Cold War, frenzy of anti-communism in the air, such charges were once again levelled against free Mandela as a warning by the imperialist West, when it became imminent that he would lead independent South Africa. He answered such an ideological offensive at the massive public rally at the conclusion of this Congress by saying: “who are your allies is your business and who are our allies is our business”.


I met Mandela once again, in December the same year on the occasion of the 8th Congress of the SACP, where Mandela's successor as the chief of Umkhonto We Sizwe, Chris Hani was elected as the Party General Secretary. Comrade Hani was subsequently assassinated by the counter-revolutionary apartheid forces. This was in line by the imperialist policy in Africa, where every communist leader who emerged as the leader of the national liberation movement and independence from colonial rule was assassinated – Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau, Augusthine Nato of Angola, etc, etc. By then, Mandela with the resilience of a visionary had come to the conclusion that the South African population had suffered more than what a human being was capable of and hence peace was the most required objective. He had proposed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a method to stave off continued conflict and perpetuation of violence as the reactionary colonialists continued to be superiorly armed. This apparent gesture for peace and reconciliation tempered the bitterness and the sense of revenge that many rightfully harboured. There were many sceptics who saw in this an element of passivity. Mandela, however warned the SACP and the tripartite alliance partners, ANC and COSATU that they should never lower their guard against the possible armed retribution by the enemy. For Mandela, therefore, 'non-violence' was more of a tactic than what is often misunderstood as the Gandhian strategy. Incidentally at Durban, it was he who first told me, which has now by now become almost a cliché, that we from India had sent Mohandas to South Africa, while they returned the Mahatma to India.


The last occasion that I met him was at the SACP 10th Congress at Johannesburg in July 1998. Mandela had voluntarily stepped-down and handed over the presidency of the Republic to Thabo Mbeki, a move that was accepted by the people of South Africa with widespread dismay. He was probably the only African leader to have ever done so. The only other person that I can recollect having done a similar thing was Jyoti Basu, when he voluntarily stepped-down as the Chief Minister of West Bengal.


Jyoti Basu and Mandela shared a very unique relationship. On Mandela's first visit to India, soon after his release, he insisted on visiting Calcutta and was moved to tears witnessing the reception he received. He told the roaring crowds: “The welcome accorded to us in the streets of this city today, convinces us that we have come home, and that here we are among fellow revolutionaries...Your heroes of those days became our heroes. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was indeed among the great persons of the world whom we black students regarded as much our leader as yours...I am full of strength and hope after visiting Calcutta. I feel like a man with his batteries recharged”. (October 1990)


At the SACP 10th Congress, Mandela was intensely engaged with the debate which centred round the economic policies being followed by the ANC government that came under severe criticism and correctly so, by the communists. The economic policies were integrating South Africa more and more into the neo-liberal order of imperialist globalisation, while the promises of liberation for the people continued to remain a distant possibility. The SACP had threatened the Mbeki government that while they continue to be part of the ruling tripartite alliance, they shall play the role of a 'watchdog' and not that of a 'lapdog' of such government policies. This in fact reflects the unsolved legacy of the South African liberation movement. Much as Mandela would have liked to have seen, far reaching radical land reforms that were essential to empower the impoverished black population economically are yet to see the day. This objective continues to remains a part of the original ANC Freedom Charter and the agenda of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). The levers of economic power, even today continue to remain in the hands of the former colonial masters or the small black bourgeoisie that has now emerged as their collaborators. This remains the unfinished agenda which Mandela could not see to its fruition in his lifetime. In essence this is a task that the current generation has to resolve urgently in the future. The SACP 10th Congress slogan: “Future is Socialism” is an ongoing class struggle that continues to take place in South Africa.


Notwithstanding this, Nelson Mandela, strode like a colossus in humanity's quest for scaling ever higher peaks, constantly pushing higher the bar that defines human liberty and freedom. This would have been impossible without the revolutionary foundation that moulded Mandela's outlook, life and work. It is precisely this, that the western media and its political leaders seek to obfuscate in the homage that they have congregated to pay at his memorial service in Johannesburg.


It was Mandela's revolutionary upbringing that continues to remind us of the song that we began with, which ends...'Still strove with his last ounce of courage/To reach the unreachable star'.