Mandela and Morons

Growing up in the political hotbed of 1980s Cold War London, I found myself among interesting people. The African National Congress, after being banned in the 1950s, had set up a leadership-in-exile, based in London and Amsterdam. One of my teenage friends was the son of senior ANC exiles, a couple who had fled South Africa when the clampdown on the ANC began – including the jailing of the activist lawyer Nelson Mandela.

My friend, and other children of the ANC leadership, tried to be normal teenagers, but that must have been hard. I was warned to keep phone conversations with him minimal and to the point: their phone was almost certainly bugged by British intelligence which, despite our nation’s professed love of “freedom”, was working to monitor and help the South African government suppress the ANC. These children of the ANC had been raised in London, but groomed for political leadership when they one day returned to a country they had never visited. They also had to endure their parents leaving on long, secret trips to southern African countries, from which they might never return.

When Mandela walked free, my friend’s parents returned to South Africa, his father becoming a government minister in the first ANC government. My friend moved to Johannesburg shortly afterwards, was offered a diplomatic career, but decided to follow other paths.

Mandela, like many leaders of oppressed people, showed immense bravery and self-sacrifice. He famously spent 27 years in prison for his “seditious” activities, and refused to leave until a transition to democracy was assured. But Mandela differed from other revolutionary heroes: he tamed his people’s justifiable thirst for revenge, and instead crafted a new, multiracial South Africa; he taught a love of democracy and racial tolerance; he stood down from power rather than try to cling on to the bitter end, like so many other African revolutionary heroes had done. He refused to repeat the mistakes of earlier African independence movements which had angrily expelled the white and Asian elites, only to lose their most educated people and wealthiest investors.

Racists and white supremacists hate Mandela more than any other black leader because he didn’t just outperform other black leaders: he has a valid claim to be named as the greatest national leader of the 20th century. Neither of the great Western “heroes” of the 1980s, Reagan and Thatcher can remotely compare.

Yes, the ANC’s acts of resistance included acts of terrorism. But ANC atrocities are tiny compared to the real terrorism of that era. South African forces repeatedly gunned down civilians, including school children. The South African, US and UK governments supported far greater acts of terrorism in Mozambique and Angola, as they tried to stamp out the ANC’s fighters. How ironic that Mandela, a creator of democracy, was labelled a terrorist by the terrorists – Thatcher and Reagan – who crushed democracy and free speech in the name of freedom.

Mandela rose above all the world leaders of his generation. It is testament to his greatness that the people and newspapers that labelled him a menace in the 1980s are today lining up to praise him.

“But Mandela wasn’t a saint”, people are saying. So what? Both right and left revel in the simplistic idea that the world divides easily into good and bad people. His early activism, his time in prison, his ascent to the Presidency, his founding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his creation of a stable nation where most others would have created war and misery; all these things mark him out as far greater than his peers. He wasn’t a superman. He was a human being. But he was a remarkable human being.

“But look at South Africa now”. It’s easy to cherry-pick bad things in the country today. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was easily convinced that AIDS was not caused by the HIV virus, and effectively killed hundreds of thousands of people by suspending treatment programmes. Corruption is rife. The ANC leadership now stuffs its pockets, gorging itself on countless millions of dollars. President Zuma lives in enormous luxury, and boasts an impressive collection of wives. South Africa is a violent country – but then that’s nothing new. Only generational change, coupled with free speech, housing, education and healthcare, can address the violence. South Africa is a deeply racist place too, as attacks on immigrants (mostly other Africans) demonstrate.

Mandela understood his country and his continent. He must have realised much of this was inevitable. Just as in the rest of Africa, the liberation struggle was just the first of a series of struggles. Colonialism and Apartheid put a racial mask on inequality, but now in South Africa, as in the rest of Africa, inequality, corruption and brutality can no longer be conveniently blamed on a foreign devil: it is home grown. Mandela and his ANC comrades, sowed the seed of democracy, human rights and free speech, allowing future generations to renew the struggle – this time a class struggle, not a racial or tribal one.

Nelson Mandela died in a very different world to the one he was born in. His death prompted an inevitable barrage of abuse from morons, but this just served to highlight how much organised racism has declined worldwide. The racist American right settled for complaining that America’s black President was attending Mandela’s funeral but hadn’t attended Thatcher’s (ignoring the facts that Thatcher was not a head of state, and that her greatly-contested achievements were tiny compared to Mandela’s).

I finally visited my old friend in Johannesburg last year. A local celebrity, he mixes in a wide multiracial circle. His black friends are internationally educated and well travelled, unlike their parents’ generation. They are part of a confident and rising Africa that is just starting to be noticed internationally. This Africa is the creation of generations of leaders who shook their people awake and harnessed their resentment; but one man stood head and shoulders above the others.

RIP Madiba.

From Our Aussie Correspondent

More from our intrepid Aussie reporter Georgia Lewis as she chronicles Australia’s recent attempts to win the World’s Dumbest Nation award.

I’ve just come back from three weeks in my home country of Australia – and it was a time of friends, family, beer, beaches, more rain than you might expect, a road trip, a lot of seafood and, in between the merriment, there were plenty of morons to watch. Here is a handpicked selection from Federal politics.

The obvious moron to watch is Tony Abbott, the newly elected Prime Minister and leader of the conservative Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is in power in coalition with the National Party, a right-leaning party that focuses on rural interests. At least this coalition makes ideological sense, unlike the shambolic Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition but a car crash has ensued since the election.

In the space of three months, he has presided over Australia-Indonesia relations reaching a new low over spying allegations, a Burmese asylum seeker from the seriously persecutedRohingya minority getting sent back to a detention centre four days after giving birth to a sick baby by c-section (Abbott is meant to be the pro-family, pro-motherhood, prolife Prime Minister…), a policy to buy boats of people smugglers resulting in no boats being bought from people smugglers, a revolt by state governments of all political stripes over a broken promise on school education funding, an Australian government no-show at COP19, the United Nation’s annual climate change summit, and the giving of gun boats to the human rights-abusing Sri Lankan government at CHOGM.

But obviously Abbott isn’t doing all this by himself. He is being ably assisted in these endeavours by the likes of foreign minister, Julie Bishop (the only woman in his cabinet), his Gove-like education minister Christopher Pyne, and Bronwyn Bishop, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives (the Aussie equivalent of the House of Commons) who has busied herself setting new standards in bias. It’s brilliant!

Now, about these spying allegations… The Australian government has probably been snooping on Indonesia well before Abbott was the PM. But the problem is that now Australia has been busted, the diplomacy by Abbott and Julie Bishop has been pitiful. In this instance, a humble apology by Abbott probably wouldn’t have led to Australia cutting back on its surveillance (please let us not be naive here…), but here’s the thing about diplomacy – it stops countries bombing the crap out of each other and it is important for maintaining trade relations, which any you’d think a capitalism-loving government would be keen to do.

Instead, we have an embarrassing regional spat. As a result, Indonesia is not really keen to help Abbott with his “STOP THE BOATS!” policy on asylum seekers arriving by sea. FYI it’s a policy that is basically a load of shouty, vote-grabbing rhetoric. And none of this nonsense does a damn thing to stop people smugglers, or to improve the lives of people who do take desperate measures to get away from awful situations (such as the Burmese woman who had a c-section and is now back in detention…), or to solve the problem of people who arrive in Australia illegally by plane, or the thousands of British and American people who are in Australia illegally and far outnumber asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

The Australian no-show at this year’s COP19 climate change conference in Warsaw was also pretty special. Admittedly, it was probably a tad excessive of Kevin Rudd, the former PM, to send 114 people to last year’s COP18 in Qatar in taxpayer expense. But to send nobody was pretty moronic on Abbott’s part.

Having been to COP17 and COP18 in the line of duty, I can indeed confirm that there is much hot air generated in terms of endless discussions on climate change and emissions targets. But if you want your country to have a say in agreements that have far-reaching implications for business, the economy and industry, it’s wise to send someone along. Hell, if Abbott stands by his climate change-denying views, what better place for him to try and convince the world to come around to his way of thinking than at an international forum?

But Abbott’s idea is being part of the international community is to attend CHOGM without questioning the human rights record of the host country, Sri Lanka, and giving them a couple of boats at a cost to the Australian taxpayer of $2 million to help them prevent people from leaving a frequently terrible regime.

But moronic behaviour is not reserved for the government. Kevin Rudd, as the losing PM in the last election, has decided to quit politics. He won his seat in the election so he could always try representing his constituents with dedication and dignity for this current parliamentary term. But he has thrown his toys out of the pram and now the people in his seat will have to go back to the polls for a by-election at further taxpayer expense.

Sigh… I’ve barely scratched the surface of Australian political morons. I am reserving judgement on whether billionaire Clive Palmer will be a moron MP until he actually says a bit more in the House. Then there is Gina Rinehart, the mining billionairess, who may as well be in Parliament for the influence she is currently wielding. And billionaire James Packer who has plans to build a high rollers’ casino in exchange for a $60 million “arts gift” for Sydney and the promise that it will not degenerate into yet another low-rent gambling venue full of poker machines…

Meanwhile, in overgoverned Australia, there are always morons to watch at state and local government level, there is all the fun of successive governments having no idea how to sort out public transport in Sydney, corrupt councils and nanny state road signs. Then again, I have come back to Britain and it’s moronic business as usual in the House of Commons here too.