A Dissenting Opinion on Nelson Mandela

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey


The following is an article by Jonathan Cook, copied here with permission, from Information Clearing House.


A Dissenting Opinion on Nelson Mandela

Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001. http://www.jonathan-cook.net
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001. http://www.jonathan-cook.net

By Jonathan Cook

What I am going to write here will doubtless make me unpopular with some readers, even if only because they will assume that what follows about Nelson Mandela is disrespectful. It is not.

So let me start by recognising Mandela’s huge achievement in helping to bring down South African apartheid, and make clear my enormous respect for the great personal sacrifices he made, including spending so many years caged up for his part in the struggle to liberate his people. These are things impossible to forget or ignore when assessing someone’s life.

Nonetheless it is important to pause during the general acclamation of his legacy, mostly by people who have never demonstrated a fraction of his integrity, to consider a lesson that most observers want to overlook.

Perhaps the best way to make my point is to highlight a mock memo written in 2001 by Arjan el-Fassed, from Nelson Mandela to the NYT’s columnist Thomas Friedman. It is a wonderful, humane denunciation of Friedman’s hypocrisy and a demand for justice for the Palestinians that Mandela should have written.

Soon afterwards, the memo spread online, stripped of el-Fassed’s closing byline. Many people, including a few senior journalists, assumed it was written by Mandela and published it as such. It seemed they wanted to believe that Mandela had written something as morally clear-sighted as this about another apartheid system, one at least the equal of that imposed for decades on black South Africans.

However, the reality is that it was not written by Mandela, and his staff even went so far as to threaten legal action against the author.

Mandela spent most his adult life treated as a “terrorist”. There was a price to be paid for his long walk to freedom, and the end of South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. Mandela was rehabilitated into an “elder statesman” in return for South Africa being rapidly transformed into an outpost of neoliberalism, prioritising the kind of economic apartheid most of us in the west are getting a strong dose of now.

In my view, Mandela suffered a double tragedy in his post-prison years.

First, he was reinvented as a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility.

Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was forced to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.

It is an indication of what Mandela was up against that the man who fought so hard and long against a brutal apartheid regime was so completely defeated when he took power in South Africa. That was because he was no longer struggling against a rogue regime but against the existing order, a global corporate system of power that he had no hope of challenging alone.

It is for that reason, rather than simply to be contrarian, that I raise these failings. Or rather, they were not Mandela’s failings, but ours. Because, as I suspect Mandela realised only too well, one cannot lead a revolution when there are no followers.

For too long we have slumbered through the theft and pillage of our planet and the erosion of our democratic rights, preferring to wake only for the release of the next iPad or smart phone.

The very outpouring of grief from our leaders for Mandela’s loss helps to feed our slumber. Our willingness to suspend our anger this week, to listen respectfully to those leaders who forced Mandela to reform from a fighter into a notable, keeps us in our slumber. Next week there will be another reason not to struggle for our rights and our grandchildren’s rights to a decent life and a sustainable planet. There will always be a reason to worship at the feet of those who have no real power but are there to distract us from what truly matters.

No one, not even a Mandela, can change things by him or herself. There are no Messiahs on their way, but there are many false gods designed to keep us pacified, divided and weak.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “A Dissenting Opinion on Nelson Mandela”

  1. Neil
    What makes Nelson Mandela great is not his contribution to the downfall of Apartheid in South Africa. Many, many people played a role in that. Roles that were both positive and negative. What made Mandela great is the humanitarian values he stood for; values for which he was prepared to give his life. “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose,” (Mandela wrote from Robben Island). Not only his own dignity but “the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me”. That, Neil, was the essence of Nelson Mandela. It was this value, human dignity, that lit the fire in this man’s belly. All the rest, the political or economic issues, are secondary to the basic humanitarianism of Nelson Mandela.

    Yes, we can argue re the vehicles Mandela used to pursue his goal of a humanitarian South Africa. And, no, the end does not justify the means in any humanitarian context. Mandela paid the price for that anti-humanitarian error with his 27 years in prison. (That his captors were also morally irresponsible does not grant moral stature to the victim who responds in kind. Morality does not spring forth from might).

    Perhaps, at the end of the day, the very thing that Mandela cherished – ..”the ideal of a democratic and free society..” was, when achieved in 1994, not his crowning glory but was, in reality, his bending the knee to the white man’s political fantasy. A political legacy inherited from the white man. A shabby political legacy that was/is inherently unable to generate a free economic society.

    (“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”)

    Political democracy, the ballot box, was the context in which Mandela functioned. It was a value he cherished and was prepared to die for – believing it the vehicle that would allow his people to live freely with their dignity free from attack. Reality challenges that belief: Putting a cross on a piece of paper has become more a surrender of economic freedom than a celebration of it. The majority of black South Africans don’t live any better now than they did under Apartheid. (I recently returned to the UK after living over 40 years in SA).

    However, all that said, the failure of the ballot box to deliver any sort of economic freedom for black South Africans aside – Mandela remains a potent symbol for millions of people: A hero who was able to grasp the moment and steer South Africa away from a nightmare of racial conflict. For that moment in time – Mandela deserves all the accolades that are presently being voiced.

    For those saying Mandela did not do enough; did not use his position to call for this, that and the other, in or out of SA, I’ll simply say that Messiah figures only make sense when they function within a specific context; within a certain people. Yes, others can applaud, or denigrate, such figures – but they cannot experience the impact such a figure has on his own people. Nelson Mandela is set to have one of the biggest ever funerals – it’s no ordinary man that can command such esteem. This is a man who leaves behind a footprint on a road forward; a man who inspires others to greatness. This is a man who has set alight the pride and dignity of his people. Living in abject poverty as millions of them are, to them, Mandela is a hero, a messiah figure, a star to direct their way forward. Symbolism, of course, but what is life without a star in the night sky?


  2. History is complicated; even the greatest of men are not supermen. The fact that Mandela compromised with neoliberalism to achieve his goals is not a knock on his greatness – on the contrary, it IS his greatness and it places him in excellent historical company.

    Abraham Lincoln’s triumph over slavery led to a century of legal apartheid in the American South. Then Dr. King’s triumph over Jim Crow led to the continuing economic apartheid of modern America. Both these men nevertheless deserve all their plaudits for doing what they did and compromising where they did to effect a long-term improvement. They had failings; they were compromisers; they had and have more radical critics; they were men of their times, and they did not conquer alone, nor did they conquer completely – but they were nevertheless heroes, warts and all. That popular history sanitizes such heroes is natural and probably inevitable, but that should not in any way prevent us from acknowledging their greatness as something both to honor and to aspire to.

    It’s important to recognize that the world did not stop changing when Mandela went to Robben Island. During his 27 years in prison he missed out on neoliberalism’s ascendancy, the decline of the Soviet Union, etc. What would have resulted had he, as leader of post-apartheid SA, attempted to force a radical alternative to neoliberalism? Could he have delivered? I think not. I think Mandela realized that the jobs of reconciliation and establishing democracy were work enough without also taking on an even greater economic challenge to which he was not suited. Once again, this demonstrates his greatness. He changed what he could, and did so with more grace and moral authority than any other leader in memory.

    1. The differences here are that Lincoln and King were cut down in their prime. However, with respect to MLK, he actually did push for economic equality.

      If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

      In his imaginary epistle of Paul to America, he wrote:

      God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.

      Here’s another quote from 1965:

      Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.

      dn, you speak of a “a radical alternative to neoliberalism.” You’re offering a false alternative. Even a push toward good old capitalist Keynesian reforms could have made a difference. You ask, “Could he have delivered?” We will never know. But at least King tried.


      1. Thanks for responding, Tim.

        The fact that Lincoln was cut down in his prime doesn’t make a great deal of difference; though Lincoln’s economic views beyond slavery are not so widely discussed, I think it’s fair to say he was not much of a leftist. He supported free labor, free education, and corporate capitalism, not the redistribution of wealth. More importantly, his approach to reconciliation with the South was quite lenient in comparison with the far more radical approach his party followed after his death. Though obviously this is mere speculation, I am personally fairly certain that Lincoln, had he lived, would have taken an approach little different from Mandela’s with regard to Reconstruction: focusing on national reconciliation and a new birth of democracy, with economic matters a wholly secondary concern. And yet this would in no way lessen my esteem for Lincoln as a great man, if anyone deserves the title. (Not that there aren’t people who would disagree with me, of course; I believe Lincoln has been criticized on this score by many.)

        As for Dr. King, I am well aware of his leftist advocacy and indeed share his views. However, King was never an elected official; he didn’t compromise on economics because he didn’t have to. Recall also that King was working at a time when Keynesianism was considered utterly mainstream, when LBJ could talk about ending poverty and mean it, when even a conservative like Nixon could support a negative income tax as a real policy proposal. By the time Mandela was freed “socialism” was at its low ebb and Keynes was in eclipse around the world, and he came out of prison having largely missed out on these developments. How on earth would Mandela have charted any seriously left-leaning economic course while also trying to hold a black-white ruling coalition together, given that he himself was (given the times) not in much of a position to be making pronouncements about economics at all? No leader in a position of actual institutional power can do it all. Reconciliation and democracy had to come first. Mandela did the right thing where it counted.

        Here is an interesting take on Mandela with regard to these issues: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/6/mandela-the-radical.html

      2. All this is mostly to say that I tend to agree with this part of the original piece: “Rather, they were not Mandela’s failings, but ours. Because, as I suspect Mandela realised only too well, one cannot lead a revolution when there are no followers.” Where I disagree is with the suggestion that praise for Mandela is part of the problem. It is a sign of Mandela’s greatness that everyone feels compelled to offer tribute this week, even those who hated him at the time; this is an indication that his accomplishments are lasting. Even vacuous tributes are of some value if they have the ultimate effect of reinforcing the belief that what he actually did was good and worthwhile; his life will speak for itself in the long run.

        Mandela is known to have esteemed Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” highly. Shakespeare’s Antony, of course, says that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” I submit instead that the actual good that Mandela did will live longer in memory than what he failed to do. Now, to appropriate Lincoln again, “it is for us, the living” to push onward.

      3. Tim

        “…..economic equality.?”

        There is no such thing! An economic system is not compatible with equality. Equality is a harebrained notion not a reality. An economic system is free in so far as it allows itself to continually rise and fall. An economic system is not free to disregard the basic humanitarian needs of society. It is the manipulation and control of an economic system that presents the ever widening frozen divide between the rich and the poor. It is the categories of permanently rich and permanently poor that are an abomination not that inequality is an abomination. Inequality is a reality that no amount of intellectual wishful thinking can change. A moral social/political society has to deal with inequality – not side-step this reality by trumpeting a pipe-dream of economic equality.

        What SA, and the world needs, is not a free economic market but an economic democracy. An economic system where people come first and not the chase for the dollar. Some things, life shows us, are beyond price. That is what limits, puts the breaks on, ‘controls’ an economic democracy. Put ones own house in order, put the basic needs of people first, and then, only then, let the chase for the dollar take on the vagaries of an economic market – an economic democracy free from any charge of being anti-humanitarian.

        Mandela was indeed well aware of the “false arguments” of “free marketers”. “Free marketers” who uphold every and any methods to control the economic markets and willingly take whatever protection any government has to offer them.


        “….the challenge of transformation requires that we address also this important question of capital and society and refuse to be seduced by the false arguments of the free marketeers who would have human society surrender to the economic processes about which such eminent business people as David Rockefeller and George Soros have sounded the alarm.”

        50th National Conference: Report by the President of the ANC, Nelson Mandela.


        The immediate concern for Mandela, and the ANC, was to provide social needs. For that they needed money. Education, water, electricity, health services, housing. Basic needs. When a man has no education the finer points of economics do not help his situation. Mandela had to be seen to address basic humanitarian issues. Yes, as the above quote makes clear, Mandela was aware of the failure of the present economic system. However, the burden of shouldering an economic ‘revolution’ was not something he choose to carry. His shoulders were already heavy with the social/political realities of South Africa.

        For instance:


        Chris Hani was assassinated on 10 April 1993:

        “Historically, the assassination is seen as a turning point. Serious tensions followed the assassination, with fears that the country would erupt in violence. Nelson Mandela addressed the nation appealing for calm, in a speech regarded as ‘presidential’ even though he was not yet president of the country:”

        Mandela on South African TV.

        “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. … Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”

        That was Mandela’s burden – saving a country from “the brink of disaster”.

        So, the great man is gone. What now for SA? Undoubtedly, the great economic divide, the great economic abomination, will now take center stage. With the restraining influence of Mandela now gone – the road towards an economic ‘revolution’ is open. But that ‘revolution’ has only a worn-out blueprint to follow – a failed blueprint that can only bring trauma in it’s wake. “Zimbabwe in slow motion” was one of the recent comments on the SA economic situation. Perhaps, who knows, it might yet be the task of South Africa to finally put the nail in the coffin of the Apartheid economy that enslaves us all. When an economic system produces or upholds a frozen economic divide between racial groups the die is cast for ‘revolution’. Such an economic system can no longer maintain any facade of morality.

        What ‘free marketeers’ frequently forget is that the dollar sign in the sky has to give way to the shape of a heart upon the sacred ground – sacred ground upon which we all walk and depend upon for our sustenance. Ideas come and they go, economic ideas come and they go – human needs, humanitarian needs, are the constant reality that claim our first allegiance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading