Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Mandela: A Figure of Spectacle, a Historical Subject, and a Dream

Comments on Posts by Eijaz Ahmad and Yash Tandon Number of visits: 1350

In a recent CODESRIA newsletter, both Tandon and Ahmad describe Nelson Mandela as “humane” and “inspirational”; he “may be even a ‘saint.’” In this, and this alone, they do not differ from the almost universal proclamations of sainthood within corporate media and government circles. Certainly there are some on the far margins of rightist corporate orthodoxy (see, e.g., Rian Malan’s Telegraph article) who refuse to let go of the idea that Mandela is little but an unreconstructed and unrepentant Communist. For some on the more anarchist left, on the other hand, Mandela the president was little more than “a consummate opportunist, with a lawyer’s nose for the money.” Schmidt mentions one of the unmentionables, that Mandela was quite friendly at times with Western dictator Suharto as well as corporate dictator Abacha. Even these commentators, however, make certain that they laud something about Mandela (perhaps his heroism, or perhaps his pragmatism). Furthermore, marginal critiques such as these were not allowed to impede on any organ of the “respectable” media, with their narrative long since written. For corporate media, Mandela was the late 20th century incarnation of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a humorous man, a man of peace, who refused to seek revenge in the quest for civil rights and market-based freedom.

As befits CODESRIA, Ahmad and Tandon mobilize their long and deep familiarity with the anti-apartheid struggle and afterward to go underneath the Debordian spectacle and situate Mandela within the far more problematic material realm of class and broader landscapes of political economy. They locate Mandela and themselves in the off-stage (Goffman, 1959) everyday South Africa of Marikana mine massacres, Kennedy Road shack-dwellers movements and billionaire ANC figures like Cyril Ramaphosa. They ask core questions of South African transformation post-apartheid: How and why did South Africa’s freedom fighters sell the country out so completely to corruption and foreign corporate control? Did it have to be this way?

When Yash Tandon asks the latter question, he does so with authority borne out of hard experience working for independence in Uganda and elsewhere. He is also clear that a better agreement could have been negotiated, invoking Georgi Plekhanov: “For [people] to change the course of history they must understand the underlying social and economic forces that define that course.” This implies that Mandela did not fully understand the world he entered into upon his freedom. He was therefore unable to exploit the historical forces arrayed before him at the time, which leaves us with an open question about why he did not understand those social and economic forces. Did Mandela’s problems with understanding lie deeper than Habermasian rational consensus or Gramscian fragmented consciousness? Was he hamstrung by long isolation while others were conspiring on the outside to build post-apartheid neoliberal economic structures into which he would walk, almost as if he were under opulent house arrest, upon his release? Chris Hani seemed to understand the history, and he was quite close to Mandela as seen in the strong speech Mandela gave on the occasion of Hani’s murder.

Tandon’s narrative brings to mind Bond’s question in a far more expansive and equally valuable historical piece about whether Mandela jumped or was pushed into the “pact with the devil” that is neoliberalism. While Tandon suggests that Mandela was overcome by historical forces, Bond and Ahmad leave the question more open. Of Ahmad’s five quite reasonable hypotheses, I think his Fanon quote is particularly appropriate: “the historical phase of the national bourgeoisie is a useless phase.” If such people as Nicaragua’s Ortega, Ecuador’s Correa or Bolivia’s Morales have such difficult times mobilizing lives of freedom (albeit oppressed freedom) to effectively battle neoliberalism, how could Mandela emerge from long years of isolation to engage that battle at such a time (the late 1980s and early 1990s) of vulnerability for alternative imaginings? At the same time, Ahmad and Bond (along with John Pilger) are more accurate I think to ascribe much of the failure for confronting neoliberalism to Mandela himself. Perhaps his royal upbringing was an obstacle; perhaps he focused on racial and civic liberation at the expense of political economy; perhaps he was more of an opportunistic pragmatist than a socialist or even a progressive liberal nationalist. However, Ahmad, Tandon, Pilger and Bond appropriately end at the same point, leaving final answers to history.

I would very much have liked for Tandon to offer in his piece an expanded analysis of lessons to be learned from the Ugandan experience and elsewhere for assessing Mandela’s legacy, independent national development and ways forward for South Africa. First, Museveni’s Uganda also pivoted sharply toward neoliberalism and has in the end become one of the most reliably neocolonial regimes whether one speaks of enmeshment in the global market, military adventures throughout the region, or Museveni’s most recent leadership in the vicious campaign by U.S. evangelicals and “inspired” associates in Africa to persecute, prosecute and even do mortal violence to the LGBT community. Secondly, how might even Boer national development (hearkening to dependency theory and “delinking”) lead to better outcomes than neoliberal enmeshment or other alternatives? Is independent development even possible given the deep global ties throughout South African industry? Apartheid figures would likely have been able to destroy this project quickly, but might such destruction have been better in the end than putting in place the corrupt, violent, unequal and still-dependent South Africa of today? Would Mandela have been blocked by even erstwhile freedom-fighter allies like Cyril Ramaphosa who were already deeply embedded in the highly profitable sphere of global corporate exploitation? Thirdly, Tandon talks of the goodwill that Mandela possessed immediately upon being freed. What resources did he have given that the Soviet Union was imploding, Eastern Europe was emerging with eyes primarily for the West, and Latin America and South Asia were at the beginning stages of their “independence redux” movements that have been quite powerful at times from the late 1990s to today? Neoliberal acolytes led by Jeffrey Sachs and others of less public prominence (the Harvard University Russia program and Jonathan Hay come to mind, as narrated so well by Janine Wedel in Shadow Elite as well as in The Nation) were licking their chops as they spread their shock doctrine rapidly throughout the uncertain world. Could Mandela have risked the corporate goodwill he possessed (and which never left him to the end of his life) in undertaking the dangerous project of creating ties with non-Western regimes (perhaps China? Malaysia? Zimbabwe? Iran?). Would he have met the fate of so many revolutionaries including Chris Hani, Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara who lost their lives in assassinations and coups? Chris Hani, indeed, was a victim of violence and disorder perpetuated by furious adherents to apartheid. It is worth noting that even as a “saint,” Mandela was labelled a terrorist by the United States until 2008. These are very difficult questions, deserving of much more work.

In conclusion, Ahmad and Tandon make important and provocative contributions to a broad and yet also broadly ignored literature seeking to position Mandela not as a saint, or a sinner, or a schemer but as a historical, political, geographic and cultural subject. By positioning Mandela, we also position ourselves as people engaged in, or seeking, transformation in our own ways and from our own positions. What lessons might Mandela hold for us as we seek to confront the same monstrosities as Mandela except that we have fewer, or at least different, resources. Might we be able to collectively say “No” with more effect and less hesitancy, by mobilizing that which was transformative about Mandela and rejecting that which was reformist or even reactionary about him and his associates?


Ahmad, Aijaz. “Mandela’s Legacy: A Man of Many Parts.” CODESRIA Newsletter. Accessed March 14, 2014.

Bond, Patrick. "The Mandela Years in Power." CounterPunch. December 6, 2013. Accessed March 14, 2014.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007.

Mandela, Nelson. “Address by ANC President, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, at the Funeral of Martin Chris Hani.” African National Congress, 19 Apr. 1993. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.



Malan, Rian. "Nelson Mandela: He Was Never Simply the Benign Old Man." The Telegraph. September 24, 2006. Accessed March 14, 2014.
Pilger, John. “Nelson Mandela’s Greatness May be Assured – but not his legacy.” New Statesman. July, 2013. Accessed March 15, 2014.

Pithouse, Richard. "Struggle Is a School: The Rise of a Shack Dwellers’ Movement in Durban, South Africa :: Monthly Review." Monthly Review. Monthly Review Foundation, 10 Oct. 2005. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.



Schmidt, Michael. "Nelson Mandela." Anarkismo. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

Tandon, Yash. “Mandela: Could he have negotiated a better deal at independence?” CODESRIA Newsletter. Accessed March 14, 2014.

Wedel, Janine R. Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

. "The Harvard Boys Do Russia." The Nation. May 14, 1998. Accessed March 14, 2014.,0.

March 26 2014