This Bulletin editorial originally appeared in the June 22, 1990 issue.
After more than 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the racist regime in South Africa, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela is being greeted as a conquering hero in the center of world imperialism. The 12-day, eight-city tour of the US, organized with the direct participation of the State Department, is the clearest signal that the US ruling class sees Mandela not as a revolutionary threat, but as an essential prop for its profit interests in southern Africa.
As every class-conscious worker knows, American capitalism has throughout its history awarded revolutionary opponents of imperialism not with ticker-tape parades and stadium rallies, but assassination, imprisonment and torture. So why the unprecedented celebration of Nelson Mandela?
Understanding the significance of the Mandela visit requires cutting through the sanctimonious and hypocritical praise for Mandela generated by the capitalist media and politicians in order to make a clear historical analysis.
On the eve of the visit, the revelation surfaced that Mandela’s arrest in 1962 was directed and organized by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which had infiltrated the top leadership of the ANC. A retired CIA officer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the CIA “turned Mandela over to the South African security branch” and then hailed the arrest as “one of our greatest coups.” The vast majority of the capitalist media blacked out this story, so as not to mar the current celebrations.
Now, Mandela is to be welcomed to the White House and “congratulated” on his release from prison by President George Bush, the former head of the same CIA which had him arrested in the first place.
Asked whether he would apologize to Mandela about the US having him arrested, Bush declared cynically, “No, I will take my leadership on that question from Mandela, who put it very well when he said, let bygones be bygones.”
Behind this apparent historic irony lies the role of bourgeois nationalism in southern Africa as well as internationally. The ANC is following a well-worn path of counterrevolutionary betrayal of the struggle for national liberation at the hands of the bourgeois nationalists. The enthusiasm of US big business for the Mandela tour is a function of the reactionary politics for which he is the most prominent spokesman.
Nelson Mandela is the conscious representative of an aspiring black bourgeoisie in South Africa which opposes apartheid from the standpoint of the racist restrictions which deny it the possibility of joining in the exploitation of the labor power of the black workers. His movement, the ANC, its left rhetoric notwithstanding, has always pledged to uphold private property and the institutions of the capitalist state.
What prestige Mandela enjoys after his 27 years in jail is consciously being used as a weapon against the working class, aimed at blunting its class consciousness and subordinating it to the bourgeois nationalists. His racist jailers released him precisely to help impose a counterrevolutionary settlement which would abort the South African revolution and preserve the interests of both foreign and native capital in the subcontinent.
As South African apartheid ruler F.W. de Klerk—who is continuously described by Mandela as an “honorable man”—bluntly explained following the release of the ANC leader, his actions were all aimed at “avoiding revolution.”
The bourgeois nationalist leadership of the ANC shares this aim. It is dedicated not to the revolutionary overthrow of the apartheid regime, but to the imposition of a negotiated settlement which would maintain capitalism in South Africa, preserving the most fundamental instruments of oppression of the black working masses, in exchange for privileges and positions for a thin layer of the black petty bourgeoisie.
More important than all the public relations hype and hoopla over the Mandela trip will be the private meetings which he holds on Wall Street with the top US bankers and corporate chiefs, and in Washington, with Bush and Secretary of State Baker. In these sessions, he will give his assurances that the ANC will respect and protect imperialist interests in South Africa. This follows similar meetings with Thatcher in Britain, Mulroney in Canada and Mitterrand in France. This is why the American imperialists see it in their interests to boost Mandela’s stature and to offer themselves as a broker in the deal being worked out between the ANC and the apartheid regime.
The task of handling Mandela’s tour has been assigned to a collection of corrupt capitalist politicians and union bureaucrats who are anxious to use what credibility Mandela enjoys because of his years in prison to boost their own discredited images and to spread pacifist and democratic illusions among the working class. In addition to Democratic Party hacks like New York’s Mayor Dinkins, the leadership of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy will also embrace Mandela. These labor traitors, who regularly collaborate with the CIA against the workers’ movement in Africa and internationally while refusing to lift a finger in defense of framed-up workers in this country, will masquerade as champions of human rights for South Africa’s black majority.
Significantly, the ANC’s embrace of US, British, French and Canadian imperialism coincides with a ferocious internal witch-hunt against left-wing elements. The leadership is carrying out the systematic expulsion from ANC-led organizations and unions of all those advocating socialist revolution and insisting that the destruction of apartheid requires the overthrow of capitalism.
The money being raised by prostituting Mandela’s reputation for T-shirt sales and cocktail parties with the rich will go toward building up the ANC’s apparatus for repressing left-wing opponents.
Having agreed to the preservation of capitalist property relations and imperialist interests in South Africa, the ANC is offering itself to the imperialist and South African bourgeoisie as an instrument for holding back a social revolution and containing the struggles of the black working class.
On the basis of a negotiated settlement between the African National Congress and the apartheid regime, not even the ANC’s own minimal bourgeois democratic demands can be achieved. The apartheid system is inseparable from capitalist exploitation. Any deal which is based on the maintenance of capitalism—no matter what formal agreements to “power-sharing” or “democratic” reform—can only serve to intensify the brutal exploitation of the masses of black workers and oppressed.
The Mandela tour is only one of the more grotesque manifestations of the degeneration of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist movements on a world scale. The capitulation of these movements to imperialism has become ever more open. It is not that the democratic demands and national oppression facing the working masses have disappeared, far from it. But the national bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeois nationalists in every comer of the globe have proven unwilling and incapable of resolving them.
The crisis of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has only served to accelerate this process. For decades, the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists, from the ANC to the PLO and Sandinistas, sought to use Stalinism as a buffer in their relations with imperialism. In return for limited Soviet aid, they all tailored their policies to Moscow’s search for “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism.
Hostile to the independent struggle of the working class and accepting the imperialist propaganda that the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe represents the “failure of socialism,” the leaderships of these movements now see no alternative to shamelessly prostrating themselves before imperialism.
What has been the result of these attempts at accommodation? In December 1988, the PLO’s Yassir Arafat begged the imperialists not to force him to do a “striptease” after recognizing the Zionist regime and renouncing “terrorism.” Now, after 18 months of US-PLO discussions, Washington has broken off talks, while in Israel an extreme right-wing regime is accelerating the imposition of Zionist settlements on the occupied West Bank.
Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who bowed to both US demands and the pressure of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow to hold “democratic” elections supervised by Washington, has turned over power to the counterrevolutionary forces which the Nicaraguan workers and peasants resisted arms in hand for over a decade.
In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, having first supported the Indian invasion and then announcing its backing for the racist regime of Premadasa, have succeeded only in paving the way for the renewal of the racist war against the oppressed Tamil minority.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, bourgeois nationalism, like Stalinism, has reached its own historic breakdown. The collapse of the political and economic relations through which the imperialists sought to safeguard their interests and stave off socialist revolution in the aftermath of World War II has driven all of these nationalist movements into the arms of imperialism.
The movement of the working class is heading toward an inevitable clash with the reactionary perspective of the bourgeois nationalists. Nowhere is this more clear than on the African continent. Even as Mandela makes his tour, calling for peace and harmony in his homeland, the black South African workers are intensifying their struggle. While Mandela was landing in New York, over 9,000 striking municipal workers in Cape Town were facing down police armed with shotguns and riot shields. And from the former French colonies of west Africa to Zimbabwe, the continent is being rocked by mass strikes against the starvation economic programs being imposed by the IMF and the national bourgeoisie.
Ending apartheid in South Africa will be achieved not through deals with the racist regime and with the blessings of the imperialists, but through the independent mobilization of the black working class, drawing the masses of oppressed behind it, in a socialist revolution. This requires above all the building of a revolutionary party fighting for the independence of the working class from the bourgeois nationalists of the ANC and basing itself on the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution. Such a party must be built as a section of the International Committee of the Fourth International.