Saturday, December 7, 2013


Yesterday, our Current Events discussion group at the Downtown Oakland Senior Center did something unusual. We took turns reading from an eleven page text of the entire opening statement of Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial on April 20, 1964. It was a revelation, so much more enlightening than many of the tributes on TV.

Here was a young man on trial for his life, soon to be given a life sentence at hard labor by a government as beastly as any of the fascist regimes that had launched and lost a war for world conquest. What stands out though is not just his courage and self-sacrifice; he gives a remarkably reasoned account of what the struggle for freedom in South Africa was about, of his political and philosophical views, of the principles to which he dedicated his life — summed up in the final lines:

… 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.

In the speech, he takes difficult questions head on, telling his persecuters and the whole world why he and the African National Congress eventually moved from non-violent resistance to sabotage and armed struggle, why they put aside ideological debates and made common cause with communists, why he combined his admiration for parliamentary democracy and acceptance of private enterprise with ultimate belief in socialism.

Many eulogies have pointed out that Mandela never regarded himself as a saint or anointed authority, that he was flexible in his thinking, and respectful of differing opinions. That’s what makes his Rivonia speech so interesting, so worthwhile engaging with, so suited as a takeoff for considering issues of our time as well as of our history.

While the expected flood of eulogies for Mandela can never be “too much”, I must admit impatience with the glorification in death of Mandela by some pundits who, in the early years when it really mattered, ignored or even vilified him and the ANC as terrorists. One TV clip I saw shows Reagan praising Mandela after the victory over apartheid. But I remember Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with South African Apartheid when the ANC and worldwide movements for sanctions were striving to bring the beast down. Historical truth gives way often to fairy tales, fashioned to fit current political constructs and media mythology.

Steve Biko
The fact is that historical truth is complicated, that it encompasses contradictory, sometimes sharply conflicting realities. The media’s memorializing of Mandela is bound to run into difficulty on matters where “cold war” thinking still dominates. One can expect silence on the sorry tale of the West’s truck with the Apartheid regime, including US and Israeli collusion on military support and aid toward its acquiring nuclear weapons. We can expect equally uncomfortable silence on Mandela’s embrace of crucial support for the ANC by the Soviet Union; also the fact that black and white South African communists were prime allies of the ANC and among the most committed freedom fighters and martyrs.

The point here is not to overlook the history of atrocities and human suffering that is part of the legacy of the 20th Century, whether in the name of falsely claimed communist ideas or on behalf of capitalist "free enterprise" and colonialism. But we should honor, as Mandela does, the truthful legacy of all who fought heroically side by side for freedom.  Mandela was not a communist, although he was held guilty as a communist by the Court. This is what he said:

It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society...

It is not only in internal politics that we count communists as amongst those who support our cause. In the international field, communist countries have always come to our aid. In the United Nations and other Councils of the world the communist bloc has supported the Afro-Asian struggle against colonialism and often seems to be more sympathetic to our plight than some of the Western powers. Although there is a universal condemnation of apartheid, the communist bloc speaks out against it with a louder voice than most of the white world. In these circumstances, it would take a brash young politician, such as I was in 1949, to proclaim that the Communists are our enemies.

Ruth First poster in South Africa
Perhaps I focus too much on Mandela and the communists. In part, it’s my reaction to a book I recently read: Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, by Alan Wieder, with a forward by Nadine Gordimer  (Monthly Review Press, July 2013) 

They were wife and husband, South African Communists. The Apartheid regime assassinated Ruth by way of a mail bomb. Joe was one of the founders and builders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC; he was a member of the cabinet Mandela chose when he became President. Their story is fascinating, including differences between them on attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Steve Biko and all the other heroes, their courage is almost beyond belief.

We would all do well to read and think about the Ravinia address of a young, brilliant and brave Nelson Mandela, probably the most outstanding person of our times.

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