Seven Stories Press has just released a book by journalist Danny Schechter that provides a revealing contextual background to Nelson Mandela, the man and the leader. You can obtain a copy of Madiba A to Z with a $25 minimal contribution to Truthout by clicking here.
Recently, Schechter was interviewed about Mandela and Madiba A to Z by Truthout:
Truthout ran an excerpt from your book about Mandela as a negotiator, which focused on the future and current economic status and structure of South Africa. It appears that you would side with the school of thinking that although South Africa is liberated in terms of ending apartheid and majority rule, the old oligarchy and the economic organizations of the northern developed nations still primarily run the economy.
The ANC never claimed or pretended to be making a socialist revolution, but what they called a “national democratic one.” so they cannot be faulted for not doing what they never claimed to be doing. They also were part of Government of National Unity at the beginning to try to neutralize threats from the heavily armed far right.
At the same time, it’s true that in their focus on democratizing the all-white apartheid-era political structures, they downplayed transforming the economy because, frankly, they had little leverage. This was a period of the collapse of the self-styled socialist countries that had been their allies. Some of those states advised them not to pursue nationalizations they had no experience in managing and feared that it would lead to less investment. At the same time, they promoted a strategy of building an African middle class that had some partial success. They were pressured by big corporations and their lobbyists, as well as international financial institutions, to pursue neoliberal policies. I write about secret economic talks that took place alongside televised political talks.
What do you make of Mandela’s campaign to become president of post-apartheid South Africa having been heavily advised by a key pollster (Stan Greenberg) for Bill Clinton and other Clinton consultants?
The ANC Campaign – Mandela was the candidate, not the political party, was brilliant. I made a film about it. The ANC had never engaged in electoral politics and needed a pro like Greenberg and others to advise them.
Greenberg was mostly a pollster but had earlier, at Yale, written critically about race and capitalist development in South Africa. He appears in The War Room, the movie about Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Mandela’s opponent DeKlerk was advised by Saatchi and Saatchi, the right-wing, UK-based ad agency.
The ANC had many senior people managing the campaign and others offering advice. This election also had an electoral commission setting the rules run by a tough judge, thousands of election observers and scrutiny from the world press. It had to be a First World election even though it was in a Third World country. Once they realized they could not take over the military, this was seen as the best way to win political power.
We know of Mandela’s heroic years as a prisoner on Robben Island, his unrelenting defiance, but you devote a section to his humility. What role did this characteristic play in his life?
Throughout his 67 years of political activism, Madiba, as he is known and called himself, was committed to collective leadership. Even in the ANC, the president was always called “the first among equals.” He never pushed himself even as he sometimes forcefully lobbied for his ideas. His humility was widely known and admired. It may have been inculcated in him in the tribal community in which he was raised, where leadership was by consensus, and the African philosophy of ‘ubuntu’ prevailed – “I am because you are.”
Along with humility, surely he was one of the more patient men in the world to see a political revolution through to its goal. Yes?
Patient? What choice did he have? He was serving a life sentence initially in a draconian maximum security hellhole. He had been told he would only leave “The Island” in a box. Yet, he tried to put his ‘hard time” to good use. He soon felt there wasn’t enough time in the day for what he needed to do; he maintained a disciplined schedule, year in and year out.
A former prison guard told me that he created a daily “schedule” that included physical exercise, gardening, studies, reading and writing letters. He counseled, and taught study classes. He always kept himself occupied, always believing that a breakthrough was possible. When an opening surfaced, he took advantage of it, but he was conscious of being a prisoner and not in control. He did not become passive or succumb to depression that was more common than has been reported.
He believed in armed struggle (as seen in “Stalwart” chapter), yet he emerged to lead a nation through a period of national reconciliation, to cleanse a nation of the need for vengeance – to have “truth” commissions. What in Mandela’s character made him rather unusual in his approach?
One reason I use the A-Z format and call the book, the Many Faces of Nelson Mandela is that he was forever evolving and playing new roles, from a shepherd boy to a lawyer, to a nonviolent activist to the commander and chief of the Spear of the Nation (Umkhonto we Sizwe) the ANC’s military wing, and then to the prisoner who became a president.
As conditions on the ground changed, as the repression tightened, he called for new forms of resistance. And was not alone, always loyal to decisions of a collective leadership. The ANC forged a strategy based on four pillars: uprisings in the townships; pressure for international sanctions to isolate apartheid; diplomatic lobbying at the UN; and armed resistance.
Later, after his release at age 71, he worked tirelessly to find a political solution and promote reconciliation. He grew up in a culture that prized forging consensus. He carried those values with him in later life.
“E” for eloquence is one of your sections. Was his eloquence due to, as Desmond Tutu said, that he was expressing his inner self without oratorical tricks?
Bishop Tutu told me he was a lousy public speaker, perhaps because as a lawyer, he was an advocate, not a demagogue. And then added, that people are mesmerized by him because he reveals his character in his speeches, offers well-formulated ideas and makes a case for them. He was a moving speaker, and as president, had some excellent speech writers whom he trusted and relied on.
Mandela’s personal life had its share of sadness and discord, didn’t it?
His personal life was often subordinated to his political work. He had two marriages that collapsed, and suffered painfully when his children died and he couldn’t bury them and when the love of his life, Winnie, abandoned ANC discipline and found comfort with others. He was frustrated by his inability to guide his children and troubled later by the loss of his former law partner and ANC leader Oliver Tambo.
He was under constant pressure from his adversaries and himself, often second-guessing his own decisions and, once, his life’s work questioning whether it was worthwhile. His last book dealt with confessions of his flaws and weaknesses. So he was clearly self-aware, but also, objectively aware, of the role the people wanted him to play.
How would you compare Mandela to Gandhi?
I have heard many comparisons and jokes like Gandhi wore no clothes while Mandela wouldn’t be caught without a fashionable look. Both men were role models and inspiring figures. The Mahatma was an apostle of nonviolence, while Mandela became an armed combatant. Both men started their activist careers in South Africa.
We know less about Gandhi’s movement than his tactics. Both men became iconic, with major motion pictures made about the. Mandela seemed to take Gandhi’s prescription to be the change you believe in seriously.
Here’s part of what he said at the unveiling of a monument for Gandhi in South Africa:
“We are unveiling here the very first statue of an anticolonial figure and a hero of millions of people worldwide. Gandhiji influenced the activities of liberation movements, civil rights movements and religious organizations in all five continents of the world. He impacted on men and women who have achieved significant historical changes in their countries, not least amongst whom are Martin Luther King. Mahatma Gandhi came to this country 100 years ago, to assist Indians brought to this country as indentured laborers and those who came to set up trading posts. He came here to assist them to retain their right to be on a common voters roll. The Mahatma is an integral part of our history because it is here that he first experimented with truth; here that he demonstrated his characteristic firmness in pursuit of justice; here that he developed Satyagraha as a philosophy and a method of struggle.”
Explain about Mandela’s defense of the African National Congress’s (ANC) relationship with Cuba when other nations, including the United States, were doing little to end apartheid.
When Mandela visited Miami in 1990 to speak to a union convention, the police were carrying submachine guys to protect him from anti-Castro Cubans who had threatened and denounced him as communist for supportive comments he made about Cuba and Fidel Castrol.
I was there. It was tense. A small plane carried a sign calling Mandela a communist flew over the Convention Center. Miami’s black community was outraged by the reception and later boycotted Cuban businesses in retaliation.
In an interview with PBS’s “MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” he said he considered the criticisms unreasonable since Cuba offered help to the ANC while the US government did not. (Mandela was only removed from the US “terrorist list” in 2008, 18 year after he was released from prison.)
The Cubans supported the ANC, trained their cadres, provided both schooling and medical care, all as part of their commitment to revolutionary movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
When South African forces invaded Angola, Cuba sent troops, not once, but twice, as an act of what they called “proletarian internationalism.” The Cuban army supported the Angolan military in a crucial battle defeating the South Africans in the town of Cuito Carnivale. That led to South African troops withdrawing, along with the Cubans, and made possible a negotiated settlement in Namibia. The change in South Africa came next, almost as if it was the last domino to fall.
It was not surprising that Fidel Castro was the most cheered foreign leader attending Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president in 1994. I reported on that in my film Countdown to Freedom: The Ten Days That Changed South Africa.
Do you think a political figure will arise in South Africa to achieve economic freedom for the indigenous black population or has that opportunity passed?
Two thousand fourteen is an election year in South Africa with the ANC being challenged by a party called “The Economic Freedom Fighters” and a new Workers party being organized by a leading union that has just broken with the ANC. Economic inequality is a major issue in South Africa, as it is here.
There are many political personalities in the fray, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a charismatic figure from this generation emerges as a leader. At the same time, South Africa is a democracy, with elections the main platforms for popularity.
Schechter added a note on Nelson Mandela’s death just after Madiba A to Z was released:
“The book came out in November but our book launch party was just three days before his death. His passing gave his long life major media visibility but the coverage mostly relied on commentators who covered him years earlier and broke little new ground. He was treated as an icon, but depoliticized at the same time.
I was pleased when a South African publisher, Jacana Media, also released the book and it has had positive coverage there. To my surprise, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post put it on its “must read” list while the New York Times, with a deep stable of South Africa “experts,” ignored it.
Barack Obama got more attention for posing for a photo of himself – a so-called “selfie” – than for the substance of his remarks that, to his credit, praised Mandela for his leadership of an armed struggle. He was one of 91 heads of state there, but few others received any attention in the US media.
Sadly, a columnist in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian bemoaned the way twitter feeds there kept the popular response superficial, treating it more as a celebrity media event than a time for deeper reflection.”
You can obtain a copy of Schechter’s book with a $25 minimal contribution to Truthout by clicking here.