The peoples politics of Nelson Mandela

Harry Boyte

Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College

Across the world, people have rightly celebrated Nelson Mandela as a figure who “now belongs to the ages,” as President Barack Obama put it in his tribute to the late South African leader. But recognition of his people’s politics has been largely absent. We need to switch from the dominant “great man” view of Mandela as a singular savior of South Africa to an understanding of his citizen-empowering politics if we are to do justice to his legacy and its potential for contribution to a world in turmoil and crisis.

Nelson Mandela was a populist not in the sense in which the term is commonly used in the media, to mean a rabble-rousing demagogue. Mandela was a populist in the deepest meaning of term. He had a profound and also unromantic belief in the potential of everyday citizens to shape the world.

Today’s public discussion of Nelson Mandela is decontextualized and depoliticized, as well as sanctified. Lost is his schooling in the ancient civic culture of the Eastern Cape.

Mandela was born in Mvezo, a tiny village in the Transkei, in the southeast of South Africa. When his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyisa, was stripped of his chieftainship after defying British authority, he was taken into the home of the paramount chief of the Thembu people.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described the meetings at “the Great Place,” Mquhekezweni. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. … All were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens.”

These experiences became seasoned in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1950s called the Congress of the People (CoP). It produced the Freedom Charter of 1955, the anti-apartheid movement’s manifesto, and aimed at a national awakening instilling freedom consciousness.

In the view of its organizers, the people, not the African National Congress or other political parties, were the driving force of change. As one leader, Rusty Bernstein put it, the ideas of the Charter needed to be “an exercise in getting the people to tell the leadership and self-regarding elites what THEY ought to work for in the name of the people.”

The Congress of the People also challenged anti-apartheid whites to organize in their own communities. Estranged from the white mainstream, they were largely unable to do so.

This movement powerfully shaped Mandela. The Charter, he argued was “by no means a blueprint for a socialist state.” Rather it was “a programme for unification” involving “a democratic struggle of various classes and political groupings.”

Mandela’s schooling generated a clear distinction in his thinking between ideological politics, or “party politics,” and people’s politics. The distinction is clear in an interview published last year in the Australian journal Thesis Eleven with Jakes Gerwel, aide to Mandela throughout his presidency.

Mandela, Gerwel argued, stressed psychological liberation akin to the emphasis of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko. “Not to be victim to your suffering [and] to be victim of those who perpetrated it against you … He rose above that by the generosity of spirit….”

Gerwel traced such generosity to Mandela’s politics. “People often talk about Mandela’s values,” Gerwel said. “The thing that I remember him teaching me was: ‘Jakes, never let your enemy choose the terrain of combat by reacting in anger. If you act in anger to anybody, you are allowing that person to choose the terrain.’ This was a combination of genuine principled morals with a great tactical sense.”

Gerwel emphasized that “Mandela is a politician through and through. He understands party politics and politics to his finger tips. He is not a saint, and he often made that point. He is a hard politician [who] uses power and his political agency for the good.”

In his prison years on Robben Island, Mandela further developed his commitment to nonracial people’s politics. Afrikaner guards who smuggled in newspapers for him to read, provided extra rations, and taught him Afrikaans, the main language of the white population, tempered any desire for racial recrimination.

Meanwhile, exchanges with young hotheads brought home the dangers of a politics of posture. “When you say, ‘What are you going to do?’ they say, ‘We will attack and destroy them!'” he recounted. “I say: ‘All right, have you analyzed how strong they are? Have you compared their strength to your strength?'”

In 1986, Mandela, still in prison, began negotiations with moderates in the National Party government. Simultaneously, parallel efforts began to appear among whites on a large scale.

In 1986, Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, leaders of the white opposition party in the South African Parliament, resigned in frustration at the Parliament’s inability to address the country’s growing crisis. They founded the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa), with the aim of generating discussion and work across the deepening racial divide. Slabbert called this “the politics of negotiation.” Their politics, in the same vein as Mandela’s, took up the challenge to whites made by the Congress of the People and leaders like Mandela, more than thirty years before.

For most whites in South Africa in the 1980s, the everyday lives, concerns, talents, and oppressive conditions of blacks were invisible. Idasa’s work closely paralleled Mandela’s efforts.

In 1987 in Dakar, Senegal, the organization brought together white moderates among politicians, labor unionists, journalists, religious and business leaders with exile leaders of the African National Congress for the first time. The meeting reverberated around the world. Over the next seven years, Idasa followed up by organizing hundreds of meetings which brought whites together with blacks, colored and Indians.

After the 1994 election, Idasa became the leading force on the African continent emphasizing the idea that democracy is a society, not simply a state. Its grassroots popular education efforts taught organizing community methods and nonpartisan empowering citizen politics to thousands of people. Throughout its history, Mandela remained Idasa’s friend.

Nelson Mandela believed that ordinary citizens can become bold, confident, responsible agents of change, able to rise to the occasion of even the most daunting challenges. He devoted his life to seeing the democratic potential of the people realized.

The wisdom of his people’s politics has never been more needed.

Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, lives several months a year in South Africa, where he is also a Visiting Professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Productive property

Prometheus Unbound: Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention

The good society, vol. 21, no. 2, 2012  Copyright © 2012 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

How, exactly, does Taylor understand the history of popular movements in America?

In the early 18th century, there were a myriad of government programs created to give public land to American citizens, and this continued into the 19th century. At the same time, corporations were able to obtain massive amounts of this same land and when corporations could be created simply through registration, a reversal of fortune for ordinary people ensued. Because people were so focused on property as being a means to which they could live and thrive, losing property (or the ability to obtain property) due to an ever increasing corporate structure driven with the intent on reducing property ownership for the common people meant they were threatened. Thus was born the Farmers Alliance, the Colored Farmers Alliance, and the Peoples Party. These were movements designed to thwart the growing control of the corporate structure over peoples lives, livelihood and feeling of self-worth.

“At the center of the struggle of the populist movements of the late 1800’s, both Black and white, was an attempt to free themselves from debt peonage, wage slavery, and the domination of the rising industrial constellation made up of manufacturing enterprises and joint stock corporations that organized significant combines of land, capital, and workers” (pg.222)

Property and the labor to produce property one would own, grew America from a colony to a country to an economic powerhouse, and as the people began to realize there were far fewer people owning far more than everyone else, populist movements began to sprout with the same beliefs and goals that drove other people to join them – that owning something and making something, was a self-fulfilling prophecy towards independent and just prosperity.

Evidence to support Taylor’s claim to the history of populist movements can be found in excerpts of the Omaha Platform. For example in the preamble “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few” is in alignment with Taylor when he writes, “By the late nineteenth century less than a third of white households owned significant free-holding property, a dramatic reversal from earlier decades” (pg.222)

Taylor says in a callout on page 226, “The populist movement demonstrated that both individual and collective ways of achieving property ownership were available”, on this point he loses me a bit. I wouldn’t go so far so say that the American Medical Association, comprising of “intellectual artisans” in Taylors words, was in fact a populist movement. First of all, shouldn’t a populist movement by it’s own apparent definition require more than one person to participate?  The AMA was formed as a collection of individuals who wished to operate as a group for monetary and influential gains (sounds like the Farmers Alliance, yes) but it was not formed as a response to a growing sense of loss of property among the disenfranchised – quite the opposite. Doctors were able to benefit from and rise above the problems created by the widening economic gap, especially with the creation of Medicare. Poorer people derived unhealthy people, and those without the means to take care of themselves would have to turn to hospitals and doctors offices for refuge, especially when you consider the mental anxiety and depression surely caused by a feeling of loss. One could even argue that it was not populist at all when you consider the requirements for membership.

In his eyes, what potential connections exist between earlier movements, current challenges, and a potential future for popular democracy?

In a sense he poses the same questions to the same issues that have plagued our American democracy for centuries. “to what degree in a democratic society should the autonomy for self-organization of business enterprises and the economic sphere be limited?” To this question he does not deliver a solid answer. Instead he insists that rather than try to limit what a corporation can do, we should limit how society and government considers it to have the same rights as citizens. Simply because corporations are not people, they are not citizens. A citizen can be in charge of many corporations, or a single large corporation, but at the end of the day, they are still one person. But when a corporation obtains the same rights and privileges afforded to hard working people, the control of citizens over their own lives is lost.

He argues that because populist movements of the past have focused on enabling people to own “productive property” a contemporary movement should do as much, with the caveat that the idea of property ownership needs to “stabilize citizens and their communities” He doesn’t say specifically how or what this means, and I think this is where the article falls just short. Perhaps I am taking it too literally, but if property ownership is going to evolve into something more than an individual owning property, I’d like to know how this is supposed to happen.  Understandably, this is an idealistic outlook of the future he is presenting and so generalities must exist, but it’s difficult for me to imagine a world where people own things for the betterment of the people and not for the betterment of themselves (or their families) without some kind of specific proposal to start with.