Honouring Mandela means more than just words
Wednesday 11th December 2013
His legacy should lead us to question the unbridled power of corporations, argues JEREMY CORBYN
Nelson Mandela made many brilliant comments in his life.
One of the most significant was his final speech to the UN general assembly as South African president in September 1998.
Speaking on nuclear disarmament, he announced: “We must ask the question – which might sound naive to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction – why do they need them anyway?
“In the end, no rational answer can be advanced to explain in a satisfactory manner what, in the end, is a consequence of cold war inertia and an attachment to the use of brute force to assert the primacy of some states over others.”
South Africa under Mandela had of course renounced the use of nuclear weapons. Some have argued that they may actually have been decommissioned by the outgoing De Klerk government, last administration of the apartheid regime that had been supplied the knowhow and equipment for nuclear arms by Israel.
But Mandela‘s statement was nevertheless extraordinary. For a country with the enormous industrial power of South Africa to willingly and deliberately renounce nuclear weapons was unprecedented.
And it turned the entire continent of Africa into a nuclear weapons-free zone. This is one of the many reasons that Mandela‘s place in history is guaranteed.
For he was always a campaigner for peace. A strong critic of the Gulf war and, in retirement, of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he observed: “What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, now wants to plunge the world into a holocaust.”
And some of those world leaders queueing up to heap praise on him might recall that he also pointed out that “if there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.”
As a prisoner Mandela was an iconic figure whose name reverberated across the world and gave hope and inspiration to many of the poorest and most marginalised.
On his release he showed his brilliance at uniting a huge political movement that subsequently elected him president.
And in retirement his pronouncements on peace, in support of the Palestinians – perhaps why Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t attend his memorial service – and on many other causes made a huge difference.
On Monday the House of Commons business was changed by the Speaker to allow MPs to spend a whole day paying tribute to Mandela.
Even David Cameron managed to say that Mandela was “the embodiment of that struggle. He did not see himself as a helpless victim of history. He wrote it.
“We must never forget the evil of apartheid and the effect on everyday life.”
I don’t make a habit of quoting Cameron but I’ll make an exception for this as it’s interesting to see a man who went to South Africa during the apartheid years and has no known record of ever opposing feeling the need to make such a contribution.
Many other MPs did the same. Malcolm Rifkind, never known for his opposition to apartheid, acknowledged Mandela‘s “patience, courage and diplomacy.”
Others spoke with greater feeling and greater credibility, including Peter Hain and Frank Dobson who were seriously active in opposing the apartheid regime.
Many others paid tribute to the anti-apartheid movement and its great campaign from its formation in 1959 in Holborn.
Everyone rightly lauds Mandela for his presence, charisma and leadership. But it’s easy to forget the reality of South African history.
Exploited by international mining companies, bled dry by adventurers like Cecil Rhodes and the De Beers Corporation, South Africa had long had a rich white minority at the top of society.
This social injustice didn’t begin when the National Party won its election in 1948. The change was in the nazi-like methods that the party introduced, the complete racial separation, the Group Areas Act, the Pass Laws, the denial of the vote to the black majority and the sponsorship of bantustans or ethnic homelands for particular groups such as Bophuthatswana.
The apartheid system guaranteed almost slave-like conditions in the mines and on the big farms, and desperate poverty in the African townships.
Anyone who protested was in danger of being arrested and given long prison sentences – if they were not shot on sight.
The world’s attention was vividly drawn to South Africa by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and later at the Rivonia treason trial where Mandela and others faced the death penalty for countenancing armed opposition to white minority rule.
The campaign against apartheid was fought bravely by students, trade unionists and others who stood up against the racist police, while much of the rest of the world happily traded with South Africa.
The US saw the racist regime as a reliable ally against Soviet influence in Africa.
The anti-apartheid movement grew very rapidly in Britain but for a long time was still in the minority. Solidarity grew in a practical way with the campaign for sanctions, which increasingly isolated the regime.
But the white minority government extended its influence for most of the cold war, supporting Ian Smith‘s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain for white-ruled Rhodesia in 1965 and through economically undermining states such as Zambia and Tanzania.
Notably the post-colonial war in Angola was a proxy for the cold war as the US and South Africa backed Unita against the MPLA forces which had become the government of Angola on independence.
The vicious war was finally concluded in 1987 when the MPLA and Cuban volunteer forces defeated the South African army at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
From that point on the apartheid regime was in headlong retreat. The business interests that had hitherto supported the white supremacist government sought to have private meetings with the ANC in Lome.
Mandela‘s conditional release had been offered before, but he refused all conditions and was eventually unconditionally released in 1990.
His walk out of Victor Verster prison was one that many of us will never forget, just as we will never forget the freezing days and nights standing outside South Africa House on vigils for those about to be executed by the regime.
Apartheid ended. A new constitution was adopted and South Africa launched itself on a very different path.
There are many who should be remembered as recognised for their heroic work in the anti-apartheid movement, such as Mike Terry, Bishop Trevor Huddleston and others.
We should also remember the important practical work done by Ethel de Keyser in the British Defence and Aid Fund for the victims of apartheid.
We should remember those imprisoned with Mandela such as David Kitson, who lived in my constituency, and Denis Goldberg who later opened a bookshop to raise money for Community Heart.
At a recent fundraiser for the charity Goldberg was vociferous in his pride at the defeat of apartheid and the success of the anti-apartheid movement.
He was proud of those in South Africa who have achieved better education, housing and other opportunities, though he expressed great anger about corruption, the power of the mining companies and the poverty and crime that the poorest in South Africa still face,
Mandela fought an incredible battle against overwhelming odds. He suffered grievously for his principles.
In his memory we have to work to understand colonialism and its influence and, above all, question the power of the global corporations that played along with apartheid and still act in an unaccountable and arrogant way towards the poor all over the world.
Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North.