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Mandela’s Legacy And The Legacy Of Apartheid?


Mandela went from being a royal shepherd boy in the East Cape, to a jailed and labeled opponent of the colonial apartheid regime, to being the father of a nation. This trajectory will resonate with many at Christmas. It seems a universal story: resisting oppression, being demonized and then resurrecting as a forgiving saviour of the people. Yet Mandela always said that he should never be placed on a pedestal. More than anyone he understood that a global as well as local campaign was needed for him to be freed from jail. So what does it mean that after such a colossal life, he is being transformed into a saint-like icon?

Violence Short-Lived

Mandela should be remembered as a reconciler, as the great unifier. He won’t be remembered for the short period when the ANC embraced violent resistance to apartheid. A careful look at why the anti-apartheid movement succeeded will put the view of him as a “terrorist” to rest. The killing of 69 protesters at the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 led to a fundamental review of ANC tactics. With anti-apartheid organizations and peaceful demonstrations banned and the black population left so vulnerable to state violence, an underground organization seemed necessary. So the MK, the “spear of the nation” was formed as the armed wing of the ANC. For a while it tried to weaken the apartheid regime by attacking its infrastructure. But the armed campaign wasn’t effective. In 1964 Mandela and other comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. Yet in spite of the repressive power of the racializing regime, popular resistance continued. The big breakthrough was the 1976 Soweto uprising which quickly spread across the country. Then came the merging of popular resistance with the global anti-apartheid movement and later, in the 1980s, the economic boycott that fatally weakened the regime. This globalization of conscience occurred in many small and subtle ways. Rodriguez, a progressive Mexican-American folk singer from Detroit, had some of his biggest fans among South Africa’s upcoming Afrikaner generation. After Mandela was elected in 1994 as South Africa’s first black president, he worked hard to make reconciliation the political outcome of the post-racial solidarity in play for decades.

Free Speech With Freedom

The apartheid regime didn’t go quietly and we saw this first hand in Canada. In March 1986 South Africa’s ambassador Glenn Babb took a cross-Canada tour to shore up his apartheid government. He accused the western press of not accurately reporting what was happening in his homeland. And he had defenders, claiming he deserved freedom of speech to make his case. This would be justifiable if apartheid’s victims had been given equal time, but this was not part of the communications plan. Babb spoke at a closed session at the University of Regina’s Journalism school. The victims and opponents of apartheid protested. The May 1986 issue of the university publication Review carried a piece by the Director of Public Relations depicting the protesters as “the mob outside the door”. Amongt the “mob” were apartheid refugees including our friend “Beni” who had also served time at Robben Island. But freedom of speech for apartheid victims wasn’t affirmed; the apartheid ambassador was now the victim. I was a professor of Human Justice and couldn’t ignore the assault on freedom in the name of free speech. I tested the university’s tolerance for academic freedom and wrote a piece “Speaking about Big Brother and Apartheid” which got published in the June 1986 Review. The university had no option since they’d defended Babb’s right to defend apartheid in a closed university class. This subtle attempt to justify apartheid occurred at the same time as the Canadian government was promoting a boycott of South Africa. Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark and Steven Lewis all played important roles and Mandela notably made Canada his first destination after his prison release in 1990. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, initiated by Mandela and Bishop Tu Tu became a model for Canada to finally face our racialized history and the harm and healing necessary from the residential schools. When Prime Minister Harper was interviewed after Mandela’s death he made no mention that the apartheid system was inspired by Canada’s Indian reserves. While mobility blossoms in South Africa, economic inequality deepens and justice has a long way to go. The ANC decision to strategically focus on Mandela’s imprisonment was likely destined to make overthrowing apartheid the end rather than the means to a more equalitarian society. With the ANC’s bargain with the WTO and its nepotism, corruption and growing social problems, there are serious signs of fragmentation. HIV-AIDS is still rampant.

Apartheid Morphs

The ten days celebrating Mandela’s life have been moving but the legacy is uncertain. I have witnessed some of the contradictions first hand. In 2001 I travelled with my son Dagan to South Africa where we reunited with our Canadian/South African refugee friend “Beni”. He was visiting relatives at the time. Together we witnessed the persistence of apartheid-based stratification seven years after Mandela became president. We flew to Johannesburg and took a shuttle bus to the township of Spring. I kept a diary and noted: “We saw shanty towns all along the freeway and railway coming on the shuttle to Spring. Beni says they are often immigrant refugees from Mozambique and Zimbabwe”. There were “mountains” of toxic tailings left from the mining industry along the route. I was prepared for the township to be a rural community; Spring had two million people settled in a seemingly endless stream of small buildings. We couldn’t find a room so we went by train to the nearby old mining town of Dunnattor. From my diary: “Only saw one white person on the trains from Spring to Dunnottar. A different world on the two sides of the racial division left by apartheid.” We tried to get a room in Dunnattor’s only hotel. My diary: “…the white owner says there are no rooms, but Beni was told by a black worker in her own Zulu language that there were rooms, so we are facing discrimination…After the white man learned that Beni had a place to stay nearby, he informed us there was a room for two.” We soon realized the hotel was still segregated. When you came in the front entrance and turned to the left there was a private dining room, for whites only. To the right there was a lower class bar where there was gambling and where the blacks went. I now knew the hotel owner by his first name “Kevin”. When we told him that we intended to eat together, he looked flabbergasted. After some strenuous negotiations he agreed to set up a lone table in the hotel lobby where the three of us could eat together. He served us respectfully even if self-consciously. As people came into the hotel they gave surprised looks and went their separate ways. Huge inequalities build upon apartheid flourish in the corporate economy. Waiting for our return flight I noted: “The men behind me, all with U.S. accents, are chatting enthusiastically with each other about the deals (12,000 to 15,000 rands) that they got for diamond earrings in the duty free shop. I can still remember how grateful our black African waitress was that we tipped 7 rands ...” Before leaving South Africa I wrote: “The mal-distribution of wealth within and between societies allows some people to get their jollies by buying expensive wants and others to express such gratitude for the chance to just meet their needs.” The mostly peaceful outcome of the Mandela-led revolution should be honoured; the upcoming generation has much to do to overcome the legacy of apartheid.


I had serious problems with one eye after the 16 hour flight to South Africa. There wasn’t a clinic in the township and I was counseled to return home. Twenty-four hours later in Regina’s emergency ward I was seen by two doctors, both from South Africa. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

R-Town #213 December 20, 2013