Mandela and the communist spirit

Nelson Mandela’s death aroused a global chorus of praise for the man and his work. At the premiere of his biographical film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, wept when news of Mandela’s death reached her and Prince William. Bill Gates, who, with $67 billion, is the second richest man on earth, expressed profound admiration for Mandela’s struggle against apartheid and his campaigning on HIV/AIDS issues.

For the wretched of the earth – its 2.4 billion people living on less than $2 a day – Mandela was also their hero. This global carnival of tears; this celebration of his life and struggle, this festival of memories of revolutionary dreams is classless. Mandela’s death signals a momentary lapse into a universal emotional state that commemorates the colossal revolt of the masses against oppression. By unifying the psychic state of the princess and the pauper, the billionaire and the beggar, Mandela, in death, has awakened a moment of global mental unity, in which the idea of communism – of a society where there are no classes – temporarily penetrates the universal mind.

Bertolt Brecht once wrote a poem called “General your tank is powerful” to which the following lines might be added:

The forbidding prison has high walls of steel, covered by electrified fences,
It crushes resistance and breaks a thousand spirits,
But it has one defect,
It needs a guard.

Many years ago, my deceased friend and comrade Nimrod Sejake, who shared a prison cell with Nelson Mandela in the 1950s, told me tales of their life in that cell. From behind prison bars they continued their revolutionary work by speaking and acting in ways designed to penetrate, the conscious and unconscious minds of their prison guards. They would explain to their jailers that they too were in prison – forced there by economic laws- but without criminal charges.

Over the 27 years of his incarceration, Nelson Mandela was able to win the sympathy and support of many of his warders by such means. His struggle for equality and justice continued from inside his prison cell and his silent whispers of revolt found wings with which to fly to all corners of the earth. And so they did.

This week the South African Communist Party (SACP) revealed for the first time that Mandela was a leading party member at the time of his arrest. He was a Marxist who viewed the struggle for democracy as part of the struggle for socialism.

The Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC) adopted in 1955 declared that:

“The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people. The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.”

Mandela’s dogged determination inspired the revolt of the African masses. He showed that struggle tempers the soul of humanity. His face remained hidden throughout his prison years. His voice spoke with slow measured words, expressed in a mesmerizing tone, revealing the profound wisdom acquired by deep contemplation.

On his release from prison in 1990 he praised the vital role of the South African Communist party in the struggle for democracy and he saluted the working class as the “most dependable force in the struggle to end exploitation and oppression.” Indeed, it was the struggle of the workers and the youth in the 1980s that mobilized wave after wave of strikes, demonstrations and marches, and that forced the apartheid state to seek a peaceful transition by means of negotiation.

The SACP leaders in exile were deeply influenced by Moscow and often lagged behind the growing militancy of the masses inside South Africa. Unfortunately, the upheavals of 1989 and victory of capitalist democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union had a profound impact on the leadership of the SACP and the ANC. It was understandable that Mandela and most other revolutionaries were unable to envisage how socialism could be realized after such profound defeats internationally. Consequently the ANC dismantled the racial laws of the Apartheid state whilst maintaining its mother, South African capitalism, intact.

At the time it was unclear if this would be possible, as capitalism and the system of racial segregation appeared to be inextricably interconnected. Many feared that a bloody civil war would follow when the entrenched interests of the white capitalists and their Zulu allies were attacked. But such was the overwhelming political power of the masses, that the ruling class gave way, and successfully, if corruptly, nurtured a black capitalist class to share “the burdens of wealth and power.” As a consequence there is a very real sense of betrayal amongst South Africa’s working class and this will no doubt find its voice in the SACP and the ANC following the death of Mandela.

Nelson Mandela was a giant in world history. He endured unspeakable pain to fight for the freedom of his people. Let the memory of his noble deeds inspire the youth of the world to continue his unfinished struggle – to create a world of peace, freedom and plenty for all.


Heiko Khoo
Also published on where
 theĀ author is a regular columnist.

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