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Thursday, December 5, 2013


This evening it was reported on Television that Nelson Mandela had passed away, several hours earlier, at the age of ninety-five.  A great man has died, and something must be said by way of recognition of his passing. 

The word "great" is used promiscuously these days.  Winston Churchill was not a great man.  Ronald Reagan was not a great man.  John F. Kennedy was not a great man.  Margaret Thatcher was not a great woman.  But Nelson Mandela was truly a great man.

I never had the honor of meeting Mandela, though he was an enormous presence during my visits to South Africa, starting in 1986 and continuing until last year, when I made what may well be my last real trip to that country, to receive an honorary degree at the University of the Western Cape.  In order to make clear the lineaments of his greatness, some detailed history is required.  I should caution you that what follows is very much my own view, not at all the official hagiography associated with his name.

The struggle against South African apartheid took many forms, as did the lives of those in the struggle.  Some, Like Thabo Mbeki, fled the country and went into exile, fighting against the regime from abroad.  Some, like Mandela and Mbkei's father, Govan, went to prison, and fought the regime from their cells on Robben Island.  And some remained unimprisoned in South Africa to form what became the Mass Democratic Movement, fighting the regime from within the country.  Those outside the country formed Umkhonto we sizwe ["The Spear of the Nation"], the armed wing of the struggle.  Those elsewhere in the world organized boycotts of South Africa -- academic boycotts, sports boycotts, cultural boycotts -- and, most effective of all, economic boycotts.  Both the disinvestment movement [pulling investment capital out of the country] and the divestment movement -- urging funds to sell stocks of companies doing business in South Africa] had by the early eighties brought enormous pressure to bear on the business community, which in turn pressured the Afrikaner government to make some sort of settlement with the Black [i.e., African, Indian, and Coloured] population.  My introduction to the movement came through my decision to take part in a demonstration at Harvard to try to get that august institution to divest.  [We failed.  Even after I succeeded in getting Archbishop Desmond Tutu elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers, Harvard did not divest.  Instead it changed the rules for electing Overseers so that nothing like that would happen again.  Naturally after the struggle was over and Mandela had been released from prison, Harvard gave him an honorary degree.  That university is really a piece of work!]

The manifesto of the movement was a document called The Freedom Charter, adopted at a mass meeting in 1955.  The two most controversial demands of the Freedom Charter were nationalization [which is to say, socialism] and land reform.  The former should be clear enough, but the latter requires some explanation.  The Afrikaner Nationalist government had implemented a policy of apartheid, or "separateness,' according to which South Africa was to be disaggregated into "homelands," each of which would be the separate and rightful place of one of the many peoples living within the borders of the country.  The Whites, needless to say, would get all the good stuff -- cities, factories, mines, and the rest.  The Africans would be divided into cultural and linguistic fragments and consigned to Homelands ruled by puppet Black governments, complete with all the trappings of pseudo-governmental status -- KwaZulu, Lebowa, Bophutatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and so on.  Africans were ordered to go to their "homelands," in many cases breaking up families on the grounds that this member was a Northern Sotho and that member was a Zulu.  The borders of the Homelands were carefully drawn so that the richest and most fertile land was reserved for the White homeland -- South Africa -- while the leavings were allocated to this or that homeland.  Thus land reform, the return of fertile land to African farmers, whose ancestors had cultivated the land for generations, was one of the key demands of the Freedom Charter.

By the early eighties, the armed struggle was pretty much a failure.  The government had successfully infiltrated the ranks of the Umkhonto we Siswe, and the Mass Democratic Movement, crippled by bannings and imprisonments, was stalled.  But the economic boycott was cutting very deeply indeed, and the business community was pressuring the government to do something to regularize economic affairs.  South Africa, one must recall, was far and away the best developed and most economically advanced country in Southern Africa, and its further development required integration into the world capitalist system.

At this point, a draft of a revised Freedom Charter began to circulate, although to the best of my knowledge it was never officially promulgated.  A friend of mine bootlegged a copy to me.  The biggest changes were the omission from the demands of both nationalization and land reform.  Instead, there was a heavy emphasis on formal democracy -- one person, one vote.  In effect, the new Charter was prepared to trade the key economic demands for an almost assured shot at control of the State.  I was very disappointed in the changes, but it seemed pretty clear to me that Mandela and his colleagues had made a hard-eyed choice.  They might just be strong enough to take control of the State through free elections if they agreed to leave ownership of the means of production in the hands of the business community and the good land in the hands of the Afrikaner farmers.

The one puzzle was why De Klerk, the President, would agree to such a deal.  By this time, the state was the power base of the Afrikaners.  An unusually large proportion of Afrikaner men held government jobs -- sinecures, in effect.  A deal along the lines of the revised Freedom Charter would be acceptable to the business community -- they didn't care about the color of anyone's skin, so long as they could retain control of capital.  The Afrikaner farmers could keep their land.  But De Klerk and his retainers would be out on their ear if a Black government was elected.  What was in it for them?

I puzzled over this a good deal, and here is the explanation I came up with.  This is largely speculation, but it may well be true.  At this time, the Black population was divided.  The large majority supported the African National Congress, the ANC, Mandela's organization.  But a significant minority, based in KwaZulu with supporters on the mines and factories, owed allegiance to Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, the IFP.  In the middle 1980's, De Klerk's government was feeding weapons and money to the IFP, encouraging its attacks on ANC supporters.  De Klerk was positioning himself as a neutral party capable of making peace between the factions.  I think that he actually thought he could ride that role into a victory in an election in which the Black vote would be split and the White [and Coloured] vote would go to the Nationalist party.  In the end, of course, Mandela was elected overwhelmingly as the first President of a free and democratic South Africa.

It would be natural, but wrong, to suppose that Mandela had an easy time of it handling the transition to the new South Africa.  The example of other successful liberation struggles in Southern Africa was not promising.  What is more, there was a great deal of scary talk about Afrikaner commando units forming to wreak havoc on the newly liberated Blacks.  In retrospect, it is obvious that there was never much danger of that.  The Afrikaners talked a good game, but they were fat and pampered and accustomed to having their way without much effort, and the few attempts were pathetic and easily put down.  Much more serious was the threat of internecine warfare among the liberated peoples of South Africa.

The true greatness of Mandela was revealed in the way in which he guided the country into a new, free era without violence, and for the most part, without the corruption that had so bedeviled other Southern African nations.

The story after Mandela is not a terribly happy one.  The scourge of HIV-AIDS, the failure of the corporate world to create real opportunity for the impoverished African population, the inadequacies of Thabo Mbeki and the clownishness of Jacob Zuma have done much to tarnish Mandela's accomplishments.  But with wisdom and skill and great strength, he brought South Africa into the modern world.  He was a truly great man, and I count myself fortunate to have lived to see him .



Marinus said...

It should be said that the Afrikaners threatening to form commandos and ravage the new multiracial republic were a small and politically marginalised group (as these things always are), and officially marginalised even under the apartheid regime. During the referendum among whites (of whom Afrikaners are and were a clear majority) in 1992 on whether to accept the terms of the negotiated end of apartheid, the National Party government campaigning for a 'yes' vote partly by making a 'no' vote out to be a vote in support of those militias. The 'yes' vote passed with almost 69% of the vote (over two-thirds) and in every electorate bar one.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think we need to speak ex ante, not ex post, about such things. Eugene Terreblanche may be seen now as the leader of a "small and politically marginalised group" but at the time, he constituted a serious threat to the transition to democracy. It was not foolish, at the time, to fear that he would succeed in fomenting a violent civil war in South Africa.

Bjorn said...

The racist bile, hatred and vitriol of the American Right assembled on this page is absolutely stunning. There are many crazy people out there.

Howie said...

I can't say what qualifies an individual to rank greatness in world leaders.
The criteria for judging that quality may simply be how much they independently shaped events and how much independence in their struggle they displayed.
Reagan and Kennedy might be dismissed as historical accidents; but Churchill; didn't the man for all his flaws, stare down Hitler?
Mandela must have been a terrifically great man- this debate is like in a way comparing different levels of infinity, isn't it?

Bjorn said...

By the way, the BBC's Louis Theroux did an interview with Terreblanche shortly before he was murdered. It didn't go well...