Probing Mandela's Politics

ANC's anti-colonialist history puts today's statements in perspective

NELSON MANDELA'S popularity in the United States as an individual opposing apartheid has over-shadowed the fact that he is deputy-president of the African National Congress. Yet Mr. Mandela has consistently reiterated he is a loyal and disciplined ANC member. The ANC is not well known in American politics, and Mandela's interview on the ABC News Program ``Nightline'' was probably the first time its views were presented to a large American audience. Mandela defended the ANC's relations with Cuba, Libya, and the PLO (not to mention the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). He emphasized there was no reason why ``America's enemies'' should be the ANC's enemies since these countries help the liberation struggle.

Many Americans may have wondered how the ANC's friends can help liberate South Africa if they deny basic rights to their own people. Does the company the ANC keeps call into question its democratic credentials?

Mandela's comments are consistent with the ANC's long-standing views on foreign policy. The report of the ANC's national executive in 1954 stated, ``The cardinal points of foreign policy are opposition to war and an uncompromising stand for world peace, and opposition to colonialism and white domination ... [we] must look for allies ... [and] we must ask ... the following regarding any prospective ally: (1) Is this country or group in the imperialist camp or in the anti-imperialist camp? (2) Is this country or group for equality or for racial discrimination? (3) Is this group pro-African or anti-African freedom? (4) Is this country or group anti-colonialist?''

These basic principles still determine the ANC's foreign policy because they are directly related to its struggle. If Americans are surprised by Mandela's views it is because they misunderstand South African politics.

Nelson Mandela is not like Martin Luther King. King was a Christian minister committed to nonviolence. Mandela was commander of the ANC's military wing. It is the ANC's former president-general, Albert Luthull, also a committed Christian who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nonviolence, who is similar to King.

South African politics is distorted when the struggle against apartheid is too closely identified with the US struggle for civil rights. South Africa is not Jim Crow writ large, nor are the Afrikaners like Southern racists. The appropriate background for understanding South African politics and the ANC is not the American struggle for civil rights, but the struggle for independence and national liberation in colonial territories. The struggle in South Africa against racism and segregation, and for black political rights, is part of the broader struggle between African and Afrikaner nationalism.

The British formed modern South Africa in 1910 following the Boer War against the Afrikaners. The peace settlement excluded Africans. The ANC was formed two years later to oppose this injustice. After nearly half a century of peaceful protest the ANC turned to armed struggle. This was defined as selective sabotage of government installations and economic targets, and not the indiscriminate attacks on civilians that define terrorism.

IN many ways South Africa is an unfinished colonial problem. Trying to understand it as if civil rights were the basic issue distorts the essential features of South African politics. Segregation, job reservation, and the entire system of white supremacy through apartheid were introduced for one main reason: to maintain Afrikaner survival. Since the 1970s black resistance, the development of a growing black middle class, and the needs of a modern economy with a well-trained work force have increasingly made apartheid obsolete as a means of guaranteeing this survival. The current reform initiative by the De Klerk government is a new attempt to guarantee Afrikaner survival in a fully democratic political system.

The fulfillment of Afrikaner nationalist aspirations was at the expense of African rights. The ANC was founded as an exclusive African nationalist organization. But once the National Party came to power and extended apartheid to Indians and Coloreds, the ANC began to work with the political organizations of other groups, including progressive whites. The ANC's African nationalism was transformed into a more broadly based non-racial South African nationalism. This non-racialism re-emerged during the 1980s in the United Democratic Front and, later, the Mass Democratic Movement.

Some commentators say Mandela's visit instilled black pride and could revitalize black American politics, but this runs counter to the ANC's principles of non-racialism. Trends in black American politics are closer to the various black consciousness organizations in South Africa or to the Pan-Africanist Congress, the ANC's main rival.

Mandela's support for ``America's enemies'' has concerned many Americans because they wonder if an ANC government will bring ``communism'' to South Africa and adopt a foreign policy hostile to the US.

In fact, the ANC is the most moderate alternative to the De Klerk government. It is opposed to politics based on racial affinity (white or black), tribal or ethnic affinity, and regionalism. Many other black groups in South Africa are not committed to the ANC's non-racial principles and have views on the socialist transformation of South Africa which are far more radical than that of either the ANC or the South African Communist Party.

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