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Did Nelson Mandela sell out?

It’s an uncomfortable question, but one that bears asking, because it has far reaching implications for the future of South Africa.

The battle for Nelson Mandela’s legacy has begun, even before his death.

In an interview published by the London Evening Standard, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had no doubts as to where her ex-husband stood. “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”

How did this happen?

A few weeks ago Black Consciousness expert Andile Mngxitama wrote in a column about some bizarre aspects of the Freedom Charter. For example, he asks how, at the height of the struggle, the Freedom Charter demands equal voting powers to all when it was clear that the main area of disenfranchisement were land and freedom. Paint it in any colour you want, it is obscene that 85% of the population were forced on to 13% of the available land. That fact is simply indefensible.

A quick aside: you may wonder why anyone bothers with a document written over 50 years ago, and seems to be, for all intents, dead and forgotten. The reality is, when it’s convenient for the ANC to remember it, the Freedom Charter is trucked out and paraded as a pillar document of the National Democratic Revolution and even our Constitution. Take, for example, the ongoing debate regarding the nationalisation of the mines. The Freedom Charter unambiguously states that “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and the monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people (socialist-speak for “the State”) as a whole.” Julius Malema likes to remind everyone that when Mandela left prison, nationalisation was almost a given for him. But by the time he ascended to power, he was strangely mute on the subject. We’ve got to the point where the current government unequivocally states that nationalisation of the mines will not happen. I’m not complaining, mind you. Just making an observation.

When Mandela was released from prison, he put into place steps that would eventually lead to the present state of events, where not much has changed for the average black South African, who remains economically sidelined. The current system only benefits the connected few, the Sexwales, the Ramaphosas and the Motsepes of this country. Let’s not forget the Malemas as well. Is this what the struggle was about? Did thousands of people die, tens of thousands more suffer countless horrors so that a select few could live in decadence?

Mandela (and Mbeki) lead us away from a path of greater economical parity, our dialogue being directed away from a question of economic distribution, and towards a system that culminated in cronyism, meaningless tokenism and even more suffering for the majority of South Africans. T Osiame Molefe puts it more forcefully, “Instead, and admittedly reasonably, but I contend cowardly, an uneasy compromise was reached. Black South Africa would be allowed to phase in reclaiming what they’d waited for, in exchange, white South Africa, the beneficiaries of apartheid, would keep their ill-gotten gains.”

Before you leap on your high, “Oh, but look at what happened in Zimbabwe” horse, consider this: the tragic situation in Zimbabwe is an extreme example. In fact, it’s what is definitely going to happen within the next 50 years if we don’t fix our situation now.

Whenever the topic of economic redistribution gets raised, people point at Zimbabwe and claim that we’ll end up like that if we even contemplate the idea of sharing the economy more equally with everyone. That is absolutely not true. I can’t state that more vehemently. The reason why we seem to think Zim is the only end point of economical parity is because we’ve never had the debate. We’ve never discussed, as a nation, what the options are. We’ve never seriously contemplated how everyone in the country can benefit from democracy. We’ve been content to let a few fat cats stuff themselves, and the poor could go to hell for all we (yes, we) cared.

I agree with Mondli Makhanya that land redistribution as it is occuring now isn’t the best option, given that the trend is towards urbanisation. Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti only recently conceded that most of the repossessed farms are not functional. Leave farming to those who really want to do it.

A democratic movement that sought to implement meaningful change may have been lost as far back as 1955 when the Freedom Charter was penned (the whys and hows are a debate for another blog post). Mandela may have just laid the final brick by selling out on the struggle to achieve his dream of political victory. A dream which is fast becoming our nightmare. We need to have this debate, and soon, before the truly disenfranchised decide to do something drastic about their worthless freedom. Because then we’ll really have Zimbabwe on our hands.

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  • Sipho Hlongwane is a journalist and columnist for the Daily Maverick. He is an avid fan of jelly beans, Top Gear, Arsenal and thinks that South Africans tend to take themselves a little too seriously. [email protected]


  1. sthembiso sthembiso 19 July 2012

    Hey guys reading your articles and comments bring sad memories, Im 46 years old today, and I joined the struggle at the tender age of 16 in 1983, I lived at Kwamakhutha a township that was an epicentre of political violencee. My close friend Victor Ntuli lost 13 family members through the operation marion attack at hii home that was commissioned by General Magnus Malan and other generals in 1987. So when you ask me is this what we fought for, especially in the United Democratic Front, I would unequivocally say no…Its now history that all the generals were acquited, and something in me died in that day. There are many like me who decided to keep quiet, withdrew from politics or just watch we did not see any alternatives. We know the truth we know what happenned, but at our age we now focus on raising our children,struggle to make ends meet, killing ourselves with alcohol and once after five years go and reluctantly cast our votes. I hope my unemployed children and sufffering fellow africans will find courange and heart to forgive me for not being brave enough to take the struggle to its ultimate conclusion. but the anger burning inside cannot be equated…

  2. Nosipho Nosipho 26 June 2013

    My question to Freedom Fighters fight… did they fight for blacks’ emancipation so that they could get handouts from the new black government and become overnight millionaires??? Or did they fight so that their children could have the right to walk the streets of South Africa without the pass, so their children could have the right to an education equal to that of whites, so that their children have the freedom of choice to better themselves and their livelihoods,??? I am not South African so I will not begin to pretend that i understand the struggle, I lived in South Africa for 3 years and I have met many South Africans who have taken the opportunities afforded to them to improve their livelihoods that they would have never had had the country still been under the apartheid regime. Freedom is more that just repossessing farms from whites and giving them to blacks…do those blacks have farming skills??? Democratic South Africa is 20 years old…to expect that every black person should magically now be rich because the struggle was won is asking a bit too much. The only threat to South Africa’s freedom is corruption by the black government that emancipated the people…the curse of most African countries unfortunately. Maybe we concentrate too much on what we are owed…rather than looking for the opportunities that black people now have in Democratic South Africa. And the Freedom Fighters, did they join the struggle so they could be paid out once it was won???

  3. Khipheyakhe Khipheyakhe 18 December 2015

    “Let it be said that (we) lived in the age of great heroes. We lived in the days of Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe.” But we also lived in the time of laggard sloth and indolence, when many detested hard work and would have everything delivered to them on a silver platter.
    Mandela advanced and covered tremendous ground on a slippery slope…. and dug in… We did not get it all. We gained some.. Enough. We aren’t where we were in 1961.
    “Selling out” is an undeserved and ungrateful epithet for Mandela, personally. We have political freedom… an effective tool in the hands of those endowed with a creative mind. If we can’t get the land and the other outstanding resources using the tools that Mandela placed in our hands then maybe we don’t deserve them. Maybe as some like to insinuate, we would be unable or too lazy to use those resources anyway. If we don’t know how… there are schools (with free education, though one is not convinced the stuff taught there is properly suitably designed to be of adequate benefit), libraries, universities… a wealth of knowledge resources at our disposal…. (Just wondering aloud,)

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