On Mandela’s legacy: Three political innovations

Political and strategic legacies tend to be obscured in the mourning over the passing of a great leader and human being. Let us honor his memory not by regarding him as a flawless saint but as a comrade.

By Ran Greenstein

It is difficult to say anything not full of clichés about the death of Nelson Mandela. When tributes are pouring in from all over the world to the greatness of a unique leader, elevated to the status of a global icon and a saint, it is easy to forget that before he became a widely admired statesman who led South Africa through a peaceful transition to democracy, he had been a radical militant who dedicated his life to a struggle against injustice, for freedom and equality.

We know and will continue to hear about his central role in the reconciliation between black and white people, living in a country scarred by racial divisions and political conflict. But what about his earlier career, before he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison – together with many of his colleagues – in the infamous Rivonia trial of 1964?

Three crucial political innovations form an essential part of his legacy, which was developed over a period of decades jointly with contributions by many other activists and intellectuals. Mandela’s leadership qualities and his status as first among equals cannot be denied, but we must recognize, as he himself did on many occasions, that he did not operate on his own but rather as part of a group of people who shared collective responsibility for the direction taken by the ANC and the South African anti-apartheid movement more broadly.

On Mandela's legacy: Three political innovations
Nelson Mandela in 1937 (Photo: Unknown, public domain)

The first innovation was the move toward mass mobilization and popular struggle. Before the rise of the Mandela generation in the 1940s, the ANC was perceived to be an elitist organization, largely composed of educated African professionals – teachers, clerics, lawyers, businesspeople – who spoke on behalf of the impoverished black masses but made little attempt to get them into action. Their mode of operation was that of conferences, petitions, article in the press, legal and diplomatic campaigns – all useful tactics no doubt but without the involvement of the constituencies most directly affected by the conditions the ANC was fighting against.

The shift in strategy took time to develop but by the early 1950s the ANC had decisively moved toward mass action with the Defiance Campaign that saw thousands of people actively defying unjust laws, burning permits that controlled their movements, occupying spaces from which they were barred, challenging segregation and curfew regulations, with Mandela acting as volunteer-in-chief, coordinating the campaign. In the process of organizing the action, the ANC recruited tens of thousands of new members and established a network of offices and cells covering the entire country. It thus became a mass-based movement that continued to shape the fight against the apartheid regime. Clearly inspired by Gandhi’s passive resistance campaigns (also developed in South Africa decades earlier) it inspired, in turn, the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

The second innovation was the link between political and social struggle themes. The overlap between race and class has been a feature of South African society since its inception, but it was only by the middle of the 20th century that it had taken a clear organizational form in the shape of an alliance between the ANC as a broad liberation front on the one hand, and trade unions representing black workers together with the Communist Party on the other. What became known later as the Tripartite Alliance was a manifestation of the close links between struggles for civil rights and for social equality, against political oppression and class exploitation. Mandela was not an immediate convert to this notion, but by the mid-1950s he had become convinced that the broad constituency of rural and urban peasants and workers could be mobilized only on the basis of advancing a program that would address their material, social and livelihood needs, alongside explicit political slogans. The crucial role played by the labor movement in the 1980s, perhaps the single most important political force at the time, had its origins in those early days.

The third innovation was the move to transcend the racial boundaries created by the apartheid regime. Encoded above all in the Freedom Charter of 1955, this notion was captured by the famous preamble: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” This was not merely a noble but hollow verbal statement. It was expressed in practice in the attempt to create a movement that would go beyond racial divisions – without ignoring the real consequences these created over decades if not centuries – and recruit activists and constituencies of all backgrounds, unified in opposition to the oppressive regime.

This meant transforming the movement from one organized on a racial basis into a mass democratic campaign aimed at creating a non-racial society. The goal was not achieved overnight. Dissidents within the ANC split off in 1959 to form the Pan-Africanist Congress in protest against cooperation with the mainly white Communist Party. Later on the Black Consciousness Movement called on all those excluded from the system of white supremacy to organize independently of white liberals and even radicals. At the same time, the ANC moved forward to admit members regardless of racial background in 1969, and to allow them to assume leadership positions by 1985. Mandela was not directly involved in these decisions – he was arrested in 1962 and his ability to shape decisions was limited – but he had started the move in that direction back in 1960, working with white Communist colleagues to create an armed struggle wing that would supplement above-ground mobilization. Black and white cadres and commanders operated in the new formation – Umkhonto we Sizwe, popularly known as MK – without racial distinctions.

We must not be naïve about that, however. Overcoming a deeply entrenched legacy of racial divisions cannot be done by proclamation. It requires consistent and uphill effort to eradicate racially based thinking and practices, and it continues to face challenges and reverses. But it was an effort that Mandela and the ANC made during the years of struggle, and enshrined in the post-apartheid South African constitution. It is also important to realize that it does not lead automatically to a unified campaign that ignores the different structural positions of racially-defined groups in society, and their divergent historical experiences. Social, geographical, residential, cultural and educational backgrounds dictated the adoption of strategies of mobilization that addressed the specific needs and concerns of many groups in a differentiated manner, without imposing artificial uniformity on all of them. South Africa then and now is far from living in non-racial harmony. This is true for the society as a whole, within the ANC, and even in the ranks of progressive activists. What matters is the goal of breaking through these barriers while recognizing that they may be re-created as we move along.

These political and strategic legacies tend to be obscured in the mourning over the passing of a great leader and human being. Let us honor his memory not by regarding him as a flawless saint but as a comrade; that can inspire us to learn from his achievements (and mistakes!) and apply such lessons to our own struggles.

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born associate professor in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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