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On the death of Nelson Mandela: a dissenting opinion

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Nelson Mandela addresses the UN's Special Committee Against Apartheid. (UN Photo/Flickr)

Nelson Mandela addresses the UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid. (UN Photo/Flickr)

Offering a dissenting opinion at this moment of a general outpouring of grief at Nelson Mandela’s death is not likely to court popularity. It is also likely to be misunderstood.

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 widespread 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, an Israeli one that is 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 required 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 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 watery-eyed 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.

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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23 Responses

  1. Krauss on December 6, 2013, 11:18 am

    I’m decidedly mixed about this post.

    Yes, inequality in the Western world has risen, as it has in China, but the average wealth of the global citizen has multiplied by manyfold over the last few decades alone. Over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty.

    There are fewers wars fought than ever before. There are more democracies than ever.
    It’s easy to be cynical about democracy in the Western world, since we know just being given the right to vote isn’t a full indication of how democratic the system is. But voting rights matter. It matters a lot. It isn’t the end of the process, but it’s a huge deal for people who have lived under totalitarian oppression, like my mother who lived in Communist East Europe. And there were a lot worse places which didn’t have democracy and later got it, where people who did get the vote are much better off than under the dictatorship. Anyone not acknowledging that is either ignorant or jaded.

    This bit in particular is merely bizarre, a mindless rant against modernity:

    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.

    I think this piece smacks of euro-centrism. A lot of people in the left, and I’m talking about the white left of a certain age, see the era of the 1950s and especially the 1960s as the golden age. Jobs were plentiful, racism was still strong but declining fast. The cultural left was very strong, the economic left was so, too. If you lived in homogenous Europe, or your parents did(like Cook’s), then you had no experience with racism directly and everything seemed even better.

    The problem is that 90% of the planet’s population didn’t live in Whitopia.

    And they had it much, much worse back then than now.

    Look at the absolute poverty rates, calculated by the UN, in places like Brazil, India or China. In Brazil alone it has gone from 30-40% of all children to 5% today. China was similar, India is making huge gains. This is simply the left’s stupidity on these issues. Because the people who write these things don’t live in those societies, their cultural anchor is Europe/USA 1960s for a white family. But sorry, that’s not representative.

    I’m not saying global inequality isn’t an issue, it is, or global warming(which Cook never explicititly states, but which can be sensed in his writing), but as I said, on issues like wars, democracy, famine, absolute poverty, starvation and so on and so on; these past few decades have been a complete miracle for the majority of the world’s population.

    The issues of inequality and a rising dominance of the capital class have to be adressed, but to somehow suggest that the world has gotten much worse the past few decades is not borne out of facts, and it’s an indication of eurocentrism.

    Secondly, I’m not sure why Mandela’s name should be hijacked for a socio-economic discussion. This article feels like a cynical attempt by the writer to stand on Mandela’s grave and use his name to talk about a subject which is not about Mandela, but about the author’s poltical views. One of the few things I agree with in the article is Mandela’s less than stellar record on I/P but I do still think that’s a bit harsh. He was early on those issues and got a lot of attacks from the Jewish organizations(ADL etc). In many ways, he gave legitimacy to the Palestinian cause in the Western mainstream as well as many other societies around the world which wasn’t necessarily sympathetic to the Palestinians.

    • miriam6 on December 8, 2013, 10:14 pm

      Excellent post Krauss – you skewered Cook’s silly ‘moral panic’ handwringing and self hatred about the deleterious effects of consumerism.

      Liberals in the West do suffer from a curious type of self loathing which ultimately causes them to reject modernity and it’s benefits.
      They have forgotten that up until the 1970’s achieving prosperity was very much a mainstay and goal of leftist politics.

      Instead, our public conversation sounded much as it did in Trollope’s England, an empty lament of commercialism run amok. It makes for great novels but terrible social policy. If we want to be productive, and if we want to adhere to the wise teachings of our faith, we would do well to begin by acknowledging the merits of consumerism and devising measures that foster rather than negate it.

  2. Denis on December 6, 2013, 11:37 am

    What a piece of rubbish, written by someone probably not even old enough to remember what SA apartheid was all about, or, more to the point, what Mandela’s presidency was all about. Not a word here about Truth and Reconciliation.

    After 27 years in Robben Island you apparently think Mandela was supposed to emerge and solve every problem in the world, and you fault him for falling short of your juvenile expectations.

    Why don’t you at least give the body time to come to room temperature before start in with your anti-eulogy and trying to show the world what a spiffy, out-of-the-box thinker you are.

    My guess is that your real, inner complaint is that he wasn’t Jewish.

    • Donald on December 6, 2013, 12:01 pm

      Try reading the piece again. Cook acknowledged Mandela’s greatness–his complaint is against the political mainstream for embracing him and in the process attempting to make it seem like he was one of them. The same thing happened to Martin Luther King.

      And your last line is utterly bizarre.

      • Rusty Pipes on December 6, 2013, 3:21 pm

        Mandela’s legacy is being sanitized in the MSM coverage I’ve heard by omitting Mandela’s support for Palestinians and the demonizing of him in America by the Israel Lobby (not to mention Israel’s connections to Apartheid South Africa).

      • Denis on December 7, 2013, 8:01 pm

        @Donald: Try reading the piece again.

        OK. I did. Thanks for recommending it. I also read all of the other rancid online commentaries circulated by impotent white guys who never accomplished squat in their lives and never will but have the gall to complain about Mandela b/c he didn’t cure AIDS, and didn’t make all the poor people in the world rich, and he didn’t stop iPhones from plundering the planet, and he didn’t . . . [enter your own personal bitch with the world here].

        @Donald: And your last line is utterly bizarre.

        Donald, this post is bizarre. I’ll eat that last line if Cook writes Sandy Koufax’s eulogy when the time comes and bitches b/c Koufax never won at Wimbledon, never won at Augusta, never won at Talladega, and never cured MBL’s drug problems.

    • Bumblebye on December 6, 2013, 12:13 pm

      Jonathon Cook isn’t Jewish.
      Mandela achieved the goal of his life, the ending of apartheid. Jonathan seems to have wanted him to take on the corporate world, and finds him wanting because he didn’t. If that’s your goal, Jonathan, stand up and be counted. Most of us probably feel that way, whatever country we’re in – but we need those figures who can articulate what is needed in ways most of us cannot, in order to rally round and get ‘activised’. It took small armies of people around the world to keep Mandela -and what he stood for – in the public consciousness while he was incarcerated, and they worked tirelessly to do so, and spread the message. There is / are as yet no such rallying figures, no lasting slogans, or new political creeds for us to get behind in relation to the creeping (but fast!) corporate neo-feudalism. IMO that needs to be a group of such people from many lands who are able to work together, who inspire many activists, who can get us behind them to tackle these tremendous wrongs. Just one person in only one country is simply never going to be enough.

      • adele on December 6, 2013, 12:39 pm

        in case you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, we’ve had uprisings and strikes all over the world in response to corporate neo-feudalism & tyranny. We are living in tumultuous times and only if one is living off the grid do you not see the movements and leaders that have emerged and will continue to emerge in response to the corporate stranglehold over our resources and communities. Also, I suggest you read up on the economic struggles South Africans have been enduring in the wake of apartheid’s end. That transition came at a price, one that I am sure was worth it but it gave birth to a new, different struggle that, as Jonathan pointed out, is a global problem.

    • Donald on December 6, 2013, 12:39 pm

      Here’s a piece at the Crooked Timber blog (where Corey Robin sometimes posts) which says essentially what I think Cook is saying–that Mandela’s legacy is being appropriated by the respectable mainstream types–

      Mandela sanitized

    • joemowrey on December 6, 2013, 5:26 pm

      Denis, you clearly have no idea of the personal and career sacrifices Jonathan Cook has made in order to support the cause of Palestinian rights, not to mention truth in journalism in general. It’s hard to imagine anyone less interested in trying “to show the world what a spiffy, out-of-the-box thinker” he is than Cook.

      Also, Cook was born in 1965, so your assumption that he is too young to know about SA apartheid delegitimizes the rest of the “rubbish” in your post. If you are going to attempt to smear someone, at least google the guy so you don’t stumble over basic lack of knowledge about your target.

      Your uninformed petulance suggests you know as little about Mandela as you do about Cook.

  3. John Douglas on December 6, 2013, 11:42 am

    “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 mistaken to claim that, upon his coming to power, Nelson Mandela was “defeated”. He had achieved, I’m sure far beyond his expectations, what he set out to do and that achievement was remarkable. The fact that he remained to focus upon managing his revolution in his own homeland rather than directing his efforts globally in no way implies that he was defeated, even less a defeated man. He was a man of unimaginable courage and heart who engineered the freeing an oppressed majority and managed to establish a democratic nation without retribution against the minority, indeed with a place for the minority in that nation. Briefly scan the revolutions and coups of the last two-hundred years to see if you can find the likes of what Mandela accomplished.

  4. Bumblebye on December 6, 2013, 11:53 am

    “He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana”
    I went down to London for that. A totally surreal experience.
    I recall thinking then that the only other figure in the world whose death could cause such an outpouring of grief would be Mandela.

  5. adele on December 6, 2013, 12:16 pm

    Excellent, and sobering, analysis that is very needed in this moment as Mandela’s legacy and South Africa’s apartheid & post-apartheid struggle is being re-shaped, distorted and contextualized to fit the political class’s narrative.

    “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.”

    • AdamAW on December 7, 2013, 12:14 pm

      Yes, I’ll second that view-point. The heart-breaking compromises that he had to engage in have been well documented by Naomi Klein in a chapter of her book ‘The Shock Doctrine.’

    • Keith on December 7, 2013, 5:51 pm

      ADELE- “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.”

      Yes, and a major reason why Mandela, once treated as a terrorist, is now lionized by the doctrinal system is the invaluable service he provided in enabling the relatively smooth introduction of full-blow neoliberalism into South Africa. Simply stated, South African blacks are worse off now than under apartheid, their so-called liberation leading to black politicians implementing the corporate agenda. And Nelson Mandela was critical to the process, his black face and iconic status serving to defuse resistance to neoliberal globalization. Perhaps there is a parallel with Barack Obama who also has smoothed the way for structural adjustment, American style.

      Over at Counterpunch, Patrick Bond has a detailed account which I recommend. Some quotes followed by the link, but first, I can’t help but think that all of this hero worship is encouraged by the media as a subterfuge to keep us from thinking in systemic terms. Forget looking for the next Gandhi, etc, it is the system which needs changing, not some new hero needing finding.

      “The self-imposition of economic and development policies – typically at the behest of financial markets and the Washington/Geneva multilateral institutions – required an extraordinary insulation from genuine national determinations: in short, an “elite transition.”….This policy insulation from mass opinion could only be achieved through the leadership of Mandela.”

      “South Africa’s democratization was profoundly compromised by an intra-elite economic deal that, for most people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”

      “As a result, according to even the government’s own statistics, average black African household income fell 19 percent from 1995–2000 (to $3,714 per year), while white household income rose 15 percent (to $22,600 per year). Not just relative but absolute poverty intensified, as the portion of households earning less than $90 of real income increased from 20 percent of the population in 1995 to 28 percent in 2000.” (Patrick Bond)

  6. Seth Edenbaum on December 6, 2013, 12:45 pm


    You can put any label on it if you like,” he replied. “…but, for this country, privatisation is the fundamental policy.”

    “That’s the opposite of what you said in 1994.”

    “You have to appreciate that every process incorporates a change.”

    Few ordinary South Africans were aware that this “process” had begun in high secrecy more than two years before Mandela’s release when the ANC in exile had, in effect, done a deal with prominent members of the Afrikaaner elite at meetings in a stately home, Mells Park House, near Bath. The prime movers were the corporations that had underpinned apartheid.

    Around the same time, Mandela was conducting his own secret negotiations. In 1982, he had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive and entertain people. The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the ANC between the “moderates” they could “do business with” (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Oliver Tambo) and those in the frontline townships who led the United Democratic Front (UDF). On 5 July, 1989, Mandela was spirited out of prison to meet P.W. Botha, the white minority president known as the ‘Groot Krokodil’ (‘Big Crocodile’). Mandela was delighted that Botha poured the tea.

    …Mandela seemed unfailingly gracious. When my interview with him was over, he patted me on the arm as if to say I was forgiven for contradicting him. We walked to his silver Mercedes, which consumed his small grey head among a bevy of white men with huge arms and wires in their ears. One of them gave an order in Afrikaans and he was gone.

  7. miriam6 on December 6, 2013, 1:04 pm

    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..

    ..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.

    Cook is really soft soaping the hard reality of the innate political and economic conservatism of the pro – capitalist ANC and Mandela here by erroneously presenting Mandela as an ‘opponent’ or ‘challenger’ of economic liberalism.

    Capitalism manifested itself AS apartheid in South Africa from the outset.

    So neo liberal economic policies hardly need to be forced on Mandela or the ANC – those neo policies were the very economic cornerstone foundations of ANC policy – decades long before the end of apartheid.

    The ANC and Mandela were therefore always more than willing to accept the ideology of free market capitalist economics at the expense of achieving real economic and social justice for the black working classes of South Africa.

    The white pro – capitalist middles class and ruling elite in S.A recognised that the essentially politically conservative pro – capitalist black ANC and the black middle
    classes were people with whom the business of the promotion of capitalist neo liberalist policies could continue to function smoothly in post apartheid S.A.

    That was the real reason Apartheid was jettisoned relatively easily in S.A.

    The real betrayal was that of the alliance formed and then jettisoned – when no longer politically useful to the ANC – of the South African Communist party with the ANC – and the subsequent betrayal of the support of black working class in S.A and their representative black socialist and communists leaders who did so much to properly mobilise the black masses to fight apartheid in a way the conservative and middle class ANC knew it never could do.

    On Nelson Mandela’s inspiring achievements and tragic failures.

    On one level, it is quite legitimate to describe Mandela as a victim of Apartheid. As we will see below, all blacks living in South Africa in the postwar period were victims of racial prejudice.
    But victimhood, suffering through oppression, is not the same thing as consciously resisting one’s oppression. To do that, what is needed is not the moral high ground that comes with victimhood, with accepting one’s lot, but rather ideas and politics that are capable of inspiring and mobilising one’s fellow victims to change their lot.

    We owe it to Mandela to assess his qualities as a politician and leader, and his true impact on South Africa, rather than simply remembering what was done to him by others


    Charles Longford is a London-based writer on South African current affairs. He is the author of South Africa: Black Blood on British Hands.

  8. DaveS on December 6, 2013, 1:43 pm

    I don’t think Cook draws the right conclusions from the Tom Friedman mock memo affair. He gets the facts right: Arjan el-Fassed composed the memo, a parody of Friedman’s common memo-columns from one political leader to another. However, while everyone knew Friedman’s columns were his own and not actually written by the supposed author, Arjan’s column was widely misinterpreted, even though he clearly used his own by-line. Palestinian rights supporters believed it actually was authored by Mandela, and hasbarists excoriated it as a deliberately decptive hoax. It all makes for an interesting story, but Cook’s complaints about Mandela seem ill-conceived.

    First, he claims that Mandela “should have written” the column. Obviously, he cannot mean that Mandela should have thought of the precise words before el-Fassed did. Cook must be accusing Mandela of not expressing similar sentiments about the Palestinian struggle, but that’s not at all accurate. Indeed, it seems to me that Arjan hypothesized that Mandela would be inclined to deliver this stern lecture to Friedman (if he were to bother with Friedman at all); he was not criticizing Mandela for failing to have made public his solidarity with Palestinians.

    Second, Cook takes issue with Mandela’s staff threatening legal action. I’m not sure what the circumstances of that were, but it does not strike me as a repudiation or even disagreement with Arjan’s points. It was the common (mistaken) belief that Arjan had deliberately passed off this column as Mandela’s, and it seems reasonable to take offense at such duplicity regardless of whether Mandela agreed with it. How dare someone author a column and put someone else’s name on it! As it turns out, poor Arjan el-Fassed had acted honorably throughout the affair. For Cook to single out this incident as evidence of Mandela’s failings strikes me as wildly off base (and very uncharacteristic of Cook as well).

  9. OlegR on December 6, 2013, 2:38 pm

    /threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet./

    Oh dear oh dear .
    well at least the author didn’t use the word cabal or something similar.

    What was the purpose of these musings and why did Mandela had to conform to whatever the author wanted him to conform to?

  10. sydnestel on December 6, 2013, 3:18 pm

    It is not a coincidence that Mandela was freed from prison and the ANC legalized only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet Union. Turns out that South African whites were really more afraid of losing their class privilege than having to share swimming pools with blacks. Once the South African Communist Party could be effectively neutered, Mandela and the ANC didn’t seem so scary.

    That was the basis for freeing Mandela, legalizing the ANC and ending apartheid.

    Did Mandela explicitly agree to this? I don’t know. Did he understand the nature of the deal. I’m pretty sure he did.

    Does that make him less great? Maybe a bit. But a good leader knows when to take what is possible, and hope for more to come later.

  11. seafoid on December 6, 2013, 3:53 pm

    A superb piece. Mandela became safe, like Elton John. Look how groovy and prog we are. Not like the greedy 80s. Planet continues to be raped and poisoned. The world gets worse do you get the picture?

  12. Daniel Rich on December 6, 2013, 5:03 pm

    Mandela is the only politician I ever shook hands with and the only politician I’ve ever respected. I would’ve come out of that jail on Robben Island raging like a lunatic and filled to the brim with revenge.

    Mandela’s lack of vindictiveness [ Springboks, anyone? ] does not equate a lack of consciousness or awareness of worldwide problems. Perhaps the ‘address by President Nelson Mandela at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People – 4 December 1997, Pretoria’ is a fictional part of his legacy as well?

    27 ff-ing years of your life behind bars for being the wrong color and then you’re supposed to come out as the next Jesus, seriously?

    Mandela had his faults and shortcoming, but as a human being, I have many more…

  13. Stephen Shenfield on December 6, 2013, 6:09 pm

    The ANC Charter demanded not just the end of apartheid and political rights but also a wide range of social and economic rights such as decent housing and healthcare. The deal that was struck between the ANC and the representatives of local and foreign capital was that the nonwhite people of South Africa would be allowed to take the first step toward freedom provided that they gave up the prospect of further steps. No encroachment on white property rights, due subservience to the international financial institutions, etc.

    The main responsibility for the victory of neo-liberalism in SA was not Mandela’s. The key figure was Thabo Mbeki. See the book by William Mervin Gumede “Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.”

    Actually, a secular democratic state in Palestine may also prove to be only a first step toward freedom. I remember a discussion with a Palestinian friend at university who said to me that even if the secular democratic state were achieved (this was about 1969 or 1970, not long after the PLO adopted that as its goal) Jews would remain in economic control of the country. I replied that the main beneficiaries would be the privileged from both communities, including people like him, and he cheerfully agreed. It’s a long and winding road.

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