The falsification of history is nothing new. “Falsification” means more than an interpretation of history that may be biased in one direction or another. Indeed, it is inevitable that proponents of, for example, the Whig view of history will differ fundamentally about the selection and interpretation of facts and events from those committed to a Marxist perspective. Falsifying history means deliberately suppressing facts, twisting or distorting the historical record so as to present a systematically untruthful account intended to mislead. It is to concoct a body of lies intended to serve the interests of those who expect to benefit from their deceit by persuading the gullible that their falsified account is the truth. It is propaganda pure and simple. Propaganda is still frequently associated in the public mind with the practice of totalitarianism, and amongst the most blatant examples is the perversion of the historical record of the Russian revolution and the frame-up trials of old Bolsheviks in the 1930s, exposed in 1937 by Trotsky in The Stalin School of Falsification. Although in retrospect Stalinist methods of falsification may now seem crude in the extreme, many loyal communists worldwide were prepared to believe, on the basis of Stalin’s perceived infallibility, the lies they were told.
The funeral of Nelson Mandela in early December 2013 was the occasion for a rather more subtle, but nonetheless egregious example of historical falsification. The world’s media assembled to report on the coming together of thousands of mourners, including numerous heads of state and political leaders from every part of the globe, clergy and celebrities, all gathered to pay their last respects to the great man who, they would have us believe, had been such an inspiration to them all. Admiration was universal. This was the sanctification of Nelson Mandela. The media coverage of the event presented him as some kind of secular saint, although even this needs qualification as it was also suggested that he may after all have been a man of religious faith. His greatest virtue, it was suggested, was his gentleness; his preparedness to forgive his enemies - a great Christian virtue – and to work for reconciliation with them. The four decades of bitter struggle against the monstrous racist tyranny of apartheid received little attention as did the continuing extreme poverty of the great majority of South Africans and the continuing oppression of its grossly exploited workforce.
That Nelson Mandela was a man of heroic stature is beyond doubt. His inspiring example as a freedom fighter and his resilience during 27 years of incarceration should not and cannot be gainsaid. For nearly three decades he personified the struggle against apartheid and his leadership in that struggle is central to the historical record. But there were thousands of others and many of them also suffered years of imprisonment and exile. Many, like Ruth First, Steve Biko and Chris Hani paid with their lives, murdered by the fascist thugs who enforced the regime. And in looking at the historical record we confront the hypocrisy of so many of those who were most prominent amongst Mandela’s mourners. The record needs to be set straight.
Mandela’s funeral was preceded earlier last year by that of Margaret Thatcher. Some of the same people who attended Mandela’s funeral were also at hers. Amongst them was British prime minister David Cameron. Thatcher, as is well known, had no time at all for Mandela. She denounced the ANC as a terrorist organization and regarded Mandela as a terrorist. Throughout the 1980s her government had close relations with the Apartheid regime. She and her party were totally opposed to the boycott of South Africa. In the 1980s, the Confederation of Conservative students, to which David Cameron then belonged, were enthusiastic supporters of apartheid. Many Tory students wore tee shirts with the logo “Hang Mandela”. Cameron now says that he was inspired by Mandela, but before the end of the apartheid regime, he was part of a delegation that paid an official visit to South Africa. There is no evidence that any Tory MP or anyone prominent in the Tory party ever expressed any sympathy with or gave any support to the anti-apartheid movement in this country.
How little interest the BBC took in the political struggle against apartheid in their coverage of Mandela’s commemoration was evident in their treatment of the speeches made by visiting heads of state. Six were scheduled to speak – the Presidents of Brazil, Cuba, India, Namibia, the USA and the Vice-President of China. Barack Obama spoke first, for about 25 minutes. The whole of his speech was transmitted uninterrupted to viewers. After that the presenters ignored all the other speakers and cut to interviews with various people in order to discuss Obama’s speech and other sometimes trivial matters such as the weather, which was very wet. No other speaker was thought worth hearing. One of the most important speeches, packed with political acumen and recollections of solidarity with the ANC struggle, came from Raul Castro. He referred to the decades of support Cuba had given to the liberation struggle in South Africa and southern Africa when the Western powers were supporting the apartheid regime. The BBC didn’t think this worthy of attention.
Here is an irony. Obama, in his funeral oration, said in ringing Shakespearean style “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.” His soaring rhetoric, though probably heartfelt, was actually insubstantial. He made no apology for or reference to the decades-long co-operation between the CIA and the South African security services in their hounding of anti-apartheid activists and support for the regime. Raul Castro (whose handshake with Obama was the subject of much media gossip) referred to the close cooperation between the ANC and Cuba from the 1960s to the 1990s. What modesty prevented him from saying was that Cuba, despite the punitive 60+ years of US blockade, gave unstinting military and other support to the ANC and the liberation movements in Angola and Namibia. In fact it was the decisive victory of the combined Cuban and Angolan forces over the US-backed Savimbi counter-revolutionaries of Unita and their South African allies in Angola, and the defeat of South African forces by the Cubans and ANC fighters at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 that led to the independence of Namibia and hastened the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The truth is that the United States and Britain supported the South African regime. Cuba, motivated by a profound sense of international solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America, gave its unstinting support to those fighting against it. Following his release from jail, the first country Mandela visited was Cuba. In a speech at Matanzas in 1991 he said “I must say that when we wanted to take up arms we approached numerous western governments for assistance and we were never able to see any but the most junior ministers. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest officials and were immediately offered whatever we wanted and needed. That was our earliest experience with Cuban internationalism.”
In the Western plaudits for Mandela none of this is mentioned. Its erasure is part of the deliberate falsification of the historical record. No mention is made of the fact that Mandela was for years a member of the South African Communist Party and, at the time of his arrest in 1962 sat on its central committee. In the falsified account of the struggle to end apartheid, the “great man” version of history looms large. It is almost as though the regime melted away in shame due to the power of his example. No mention is made of the role in this struggle played by the South African Communist Party. Its numerous activists set an example which the ANC took very seriously. The SACP’s influence infused the ANC. Whatever one may think of the party’s ideological subservience to the Soviet Union, its activists worked selflessly to rid South Africa of the world’s most brutal racist regime. In the post-1990 falsified account of this epic struggle they, like the Cubans, have been airbrushed from the picture.
In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein deals with post-apartheid South Africa in a devastating chapter entitled Democracy born in Chains. The ANC’s “Freedom Charter”, drawn up in 1955 after deliberations involving three thousand supporters, became the program to be implemented once the struggle against apartheid had been won. Its first commitment was that “The People shall govern”. In recognition of the fact that apartheid was also an economic system, land was to be given to landless people; education would be free regardless of color, race or nationality; the wealth of the country would be transferred to the people. This referred to mineral wealth (South Africa had the biggest goldfields in the world), the banks and monopoly industries. In January 1990, while still in prison, Mandela, in a note to his supporters, wrote decisively “The nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC and the change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable. Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.”
Within a few years, prior to the 1994 election, the Freedom Charter had been scrapped and the ANC had capitulated to neoliberalism. Why this happened is still subject to controversy and the most generous explanation is that the ANC negotiators were outwitted, blackmailed and outmaneuvered by representatives of the Nationalist party, the IMF, the World Bank etc. and forced to accept responsibility for the national debt accumulated by the apartheid regime. Whatever the explanation, the ANC negotiated away the country’s economic sovereignty. In 1994, following the capitulation, Mandela said: ”In economic policies…there is not a single reference to things like nationalization, and that is not an accident…There is not a single slogan that will connect us with any Marxist ideology.” In 1996, his successor as president, former Marxist Thabo Mbeki, who had taken the process of large-scale privatization much further, announced: “Just call me a Thatcherite.”
Today, twenty years after the end of the apartheid regime, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. In 2007 Naomi Klein reported that since 1994 the number of people living on less than $1 a day had doubled from 2 million to 4 million; between 1991 and 2002 the unemployment rate for black South Africans had risen from 23% to 48%; by 2004 almost 1 million people had been evicted from farms and the number of shack dwellers had grown by 50%. Many shacks were without water and electricity.
The failure, during the commemoration of Mandela’s life, to mention any of this, and in particular to place the main responsibility where it belongs – on the rapacious multi-national corporations and the largely, but not entirely white economic dominant class that has maintained and extended its privileged position in South Africa, is an example of the falsification of history.
A final example of this falsification by omission, often overlooked, is the fact that the abandonment of the Freedom Charter and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism followed immediately on the collapse of the Soviet Union. This allowed the ideologues of the Friedmanite Chicago School to proclaim loud and clear that “there is no alternative.” But, just as Fukuyama’s proclamation of “the end of history” turned out to be premature, the last chapter in South Africa’s “long march to freedom” still has not been written.