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Daai Een
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Mandela: South Africans and that dreaded 'k'-word...

10 December 2013, 15:54

While filtering through all the Mandela posts on social media and the web, I came across a staggering amount of posts calling Mandela a kommunis (communist) in a very accusatory tone.  The k-word is typically accompanied by a zillion or so exclamation marks, presumable to enhance the severity of this devastating, earth shattering exposé.

Recently professor Stephen Ellis wrote a book, allegedly backed by extensive evidence that Mandela was a member of the SACP, getting the enemies of ‘die rooi gevaar’ hysterical. It was thus with great jubilation that various far-right wingers finally got to say 'I told you so' on the release of a press statement by the South African Communist Party (SACP), confirming that Mandela 'was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of [their] Party's Central Committee'.  The release is available on their website, here:   

Now, I will neither defend nor attack communism and socialism in this space, but I’m really baffled that so many people regard this ‘revelation’ to be so shocking.  In a democracy after all, communism is not really something you can ‘accuse’ a person of, and it’s hardly something worthy of an exposé, considering that it is a legitimate belief.   However, I do see this frenzy on the fringe as an opportunity to debunk a widely believed myth that South Africa is a communist or socialist state. 

Basic but insightful definitions and the distinctions between communism and socialism are available here:  Communism is basically a non-party system that promotes the abolition of class distinction.  The aim is to redistribute wealth so that all citizens get equal shares, and all production is controlled by the state.  Socialism on the other hand is a system that promotes equality and diminishes class distinction, although it is possible to earn more than the norm through own initiative.  Socialism usually promotes democracy, and although various sectors are nationalised, private enterprises are permitted. However, socialism has more than one variant, and socialist systems differ from country to country.  

A very uncommunist fact about South Africa is its thriving private sector.  As recently as 2012 South Africa was ranked second in the world for the accountability of its private institutions, and third for its financial development by the World economic forum.  The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is also ranked among the top 20 in size internationally. Zero government involvement, thus no ‘k’-word in that.   (   That brings me to neo-liberalism, which, in short, is a capitalist system that favours free trade, deregulation and privatisation of key industries. A very recent display of the ANC’s commitment to neo-liberalism was their announcement that nationalisation of mines was not part of their policy.   

Many answers to how the current economic policies in South Africa came to be, can be traced back to 1980s Britain  – the days of Margaret Thatcher.  In a nutshell, Thatcher’s Conservative Party initially supported Apartheid, but when she realised how sanctions against South Africa could hamper her free trade policies (and British business interests in SA) she got on with the program and offered her support to the ANC. More about that here:  Thatcher was an uber-capitalist, and she was aggressively pushing her neo-liberal agenda in the international political landscape.  Through offering her ‘support’ to Mandela’s (and the ANC’s) plea, it was inevitable that neo-liberalism would become the dominant ideology in South Africa as well. We’ve had Thabo Mbeki declaring in so many words, that he was a Thatcherite, as early as 1996, a mere 2 years into democracy.  ( )

  Back to Mandela and the ‘k’- word:  Mandela was always outspoken about his socialist beliefs.  The initial policies of the ANC during Apartheid were indeed socialist, and based on the Freedom Charter, which dictated that the land should belong to all the people in South Africa, and that all the people should be sharing in the wealth of the land:  He was also a fierce democrat (which makes his SACP membership somewhat strange), specifically favouring a tribal model of democracy.  This entails the right of all relevant parties involved in a situation to air their views before important decisions are made.  Mandela in fact declared that often his decisions were a mere representation of a consensus of what he heard in a discussion, regardless of his personal opinions. (

 And that is how I think South Africa came to adopt a neo-liberal as opposed to a socialist (or communist) system.  During the past few days various commentators praised Mandela for his ability to delegate and admit his short comings.  He realised that he didn’t have experience in running a country and consulted various experts before and during his days in office.  The consensus reached by these ‘experts’ on our economic policy was clearly neither socialist nor communist, because instead of prioritising the redress of inequality and nationalising key industries, Mandela ended up going abroad in an attempt to restore the faith of the international community in South Africa. Foreign business expansion picked up during his rule, and today it is still a popular place for investors, as mentioned above.     

Anyway, despite all the theories doing the rounds, Mandela’s political philosophy, whether ‘kommunis’ or socialist became pretty much irrelevant in the very beginning of our democracy.  Best-sellers, SACP press releases and exclamation ridden Facebook updates won’t change anything – Capitalism in South Africa prevails, courtesy of democracy…

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