Seumas Milne (Comment, 12 December) is right that Nelson Mandela’s leading role in launching the armed struggle in South Africa tends to be played down, but wrong in his assessment. Milne repeats what the ANC/Communist leadership said at the time: that the murder by the police of 69 protesters at Sharpeville in 1960 was a sign that peaceful protest was no longer possible. However, it was also a sign that the mass democratic movement – which built up a head of steam in the 1950s and comprised a plurality of local community bodies, trade unions, women’s organisations, even peasant revolts, as well as rival national movements – was seriously impacting on the apartheid regime. Their voices were politically marginalised but prescient. The turn to armed struggle proved disastrous. The bombing campaigns were ineffective and those involved were quickly rounded up. Sabotage, secrecy and vanguardism took over from the mass democratic movement, which did not recover until the rise of black consciousness and then the new unions in mid-1970s.
Mandela doubtless reflected on these issues during his years in prison, not to disavow armed struggle but to re-orient the movement toward a negotiated “elite” settlement. He understood that it was no longer enough to recycle cold war homilies about armed struggle and western imperialism.
Emeritus professor of sociology, University of Warwick
• In the appraisal of Mandela’s life the Liberal movement has been airbrushed out of South African history. Liberals carried the torch in the struggle to free the black population in SA while the ANC was seeking help from the Soviets of the kind that had the Russians sending snowploughs to Kenya.
In contrast, Peter Brown, the chair of the Liberal party, acted first and theorised afterwards. He turned his (wealthy) farm into a non-racial co-op. He volunteered in the local township and sponsored a private school that accepted black pupils in defiance of the apartheid ban. After 1994 liberals like him joined municipal governments and even the ANC to effect local changes. What did the ANC achieve that was comparable? The Transkei, which for example needs dams to save its precious water, has seen little or no development. Wages there are not enough to survive. It is pointless seeking “new paradigms” and “vertical structure” when not a single plough or cow is new.
Deputy chair, Cape Liberal party, until being made stateless in the 60s
• Except for flag-waving – a rhetoric whose vulgarity they seem unwilling to recognise – people of the right tend to be reluctant to allow loftiness and nobility to human actions. So Simon Jenkins (11 December) proposes to bring Mandela down to our level. Reconciliation was, says Jenkins, merely pragmatic – for the sake of winning in the end. Yet by relinquishing the presidency, Mandela set a constitutional rule for the future.
I’d suggest that he saw that the black majority would prevail in the war that he could unleash, but only at great cost of black blood. And worse, the new state would be raised upon the foundation of a genocide. It was his choice, not De Klerk’s.
• Simon Jenkins says that what he remembers Mandela possessing to the full was “not saintliness, it was a hardened sense of irony”. Irony, yes; but irony is a fundamental characteristic of a Christian perspective on human existence, so part of saintliness, not opposed to it. Hence the great tradition of ironists from Jesus through Jonathan Swift and Sydney Smith to people such as Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop.
House of Lords
• Mandela helped defeat apartheid but did not bring economic transformation for the mass of people living in poverty. In terms of the media and political lexicon it is interesting to compare the attitude to his death to that of Hugo Chavez, who did bring economic transformation to Venezuela. While Mandela is viewed as saint, Chavez remains a sinner – which says much about the capitalist values that underpin many Mandela tributes.
• Nelson Mandela reformed the internal politics of a regional African state. How will the world view the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who effectively (albeit perhaps unwittingly) singlehandedly ended the cold war, dismantled the Soviet Union and brought freedom to Eastern Europe and Soviet Cental Asia?
Bishops Castle, Shropshire
• Mandela preached reconciliation for South Africans while the Palestinian leadership preaches incitement and hatred towards Israel. Calling Israel an “apartheid state” is an insult to the millions of black South Africans who suffered under that system. South Africa can be grateful that a man of Mandela’s stature came to lead its people to a better future (Palestinians draw parallels with Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle, 12 December). Sadly, there has never been a “Palestinian Mandela”, only leaders of the calibre of Yasser Arafat and Hamas, no wonder the Palestinians find themselves in their current predicament.
Managing editor, HonestReporting
• Though headlined “The Future of South African Literature”, Stuart Kelly’s piece (Saturday Review, 13 December) focuses almost entirely on authors whose careers are drawing to a close and whose overriding preoccupation in their writing was the workings of apartheid and of resistance to it. In the years that have followed the demise of apartheid, South African literature has continued to address apartheid and the oppressions that have survived it, but from fresh perspectives. More especially, there is a real sense that younger writers have been liberated to address any aspect of experience in their immensely complex society that they wish. Some of this has created considerable controversy: notably, Jason Staggie‘s horrific off-campus novel, Risk, and Thando Mgqolozana’s A Man Who Is Not a Man, a searingly powerful novel that tackles the persistence of cultural practices such as ritual circumcision.
National University of Lesotho
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