That Gift Called Mandela

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Nelson Mandela. Foto:
Nelson Mandela. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Desmond Tutu called Mandela a gift to humanity. I believe this is the best description I’ve heard of a man who – in prison, in power or at home – has accompanied us a good part of our lives. Mandela was, quite simply, immense and, thanks to his tenacious company, we are all in one way or another better people.

When men or women achieve such dimensions and pass away they become icons. Then, there is always the risk that they will be seized in fragments that move us or are somehow convenient for us.

What’s worse, since his different and great dimensions have become profitable, they are appropriated by all camps – and not as they were, but as tolerable caricatures. This is what has happened with Mandela in some circles of our transnational society, that is, in Cuba and among its émigrés.

For instance, Cuban government officials and their intellectuals have prostrated reverentially before the revolutionary leader who destroyed the opprobrious apartheid regime and was later a friend of Fidel Castro. They have chosen to forget, however, that he effectively destroyed this regime through democratic means, through dialogue, tolerance and organization, and that his friendly rapprochement with Castro was part of a wide-encompassing vision of international relations in which there was room for everyone.

They neglect that he had very little in common with Cuba’s “supreme leader”, who entrenched himself in power for five decades. Mandela, in contrast and despite the immense support he enjoyed, was in office for a mere five years. Mandela is presented as a revolutionary in line with those who, in many ways, are in fact his antipodes.

In the other camp – the always loquacious Cuban émigré community – opinions have been more varied. If I had to draw a connecting line between all of them, however, I would say that they are characterized by forgiveness – that is to say, they have forgiven Mandela, as the FBI did in 1988 when it removed him from its list of terrorists. They have forgiven him for two main reasons.

The first is that they have decided to turn a blind eye on Mandela’s relationship with the Cuban government, as one does with the shortcomings of a son who has gone astray. That is to say, they consider it an acceptable deviation that Mandela, as a statesman, politician and human being, should have maintained friendly ties with political leaders who always maintained a militant stance of support for anti-apartheid activists and who provided the military support needed to break the backbone of South African troops in southern Angola.

The alleged hidden motives that led the Cuban leadership to offer this support can be criticized ad nauseam, but the truth of the matter is that they did and that it contributed to the disappearance of apartheid. Many in Miami are today processing the pangs of their guilty conscience, for the days in which they protested against Madiba’s presence in their city.

Nelson Mandela. Photo:

The second reason is that they have produced a caricaturized version of Mandela, a palatable Mandela who went from being a Marxist terrorist to a liberal pacifist. This is a dreadful historical falsification. To say that Mandela was quite simply a Marxist is to simplify his position, and, as far as being a terrorist goes, we could say he was as much a terrorist as Washington, Jefferson, Bolivar and Marti were – no more, no less.

To believe that violence is a possible response to situations in which power exercises this violence with no regard for the dignity of society or individuals does not make one a terrorist. To be sure: it can prove counterproductive, but it is not illegitimate.

Curiously, Mandela never ceased being one or the other. He never ceased being a man driven by an intellectual formation which included Marxism – just not the Marxism caricaturized by those members of the vulgar Right who do not understand it, or, worse, will never understand it.

Nor did he simply reject violence as an instrument, and only instructed the ANC to renounce armed violence when the transition process was already underway and was irreversible.

In addition to other great, personal virtues, there are three other points that continue to make Nelson Mandela a relevant figure today, and explain why the members of opposing camps declare themselves his heirs.

In the first place, Mandela understood that the use of violence as a political instrument may afford short-cuts that facilitate the achievement of short-term goals, but that it ultimately represents an obstacle in the way of reaching higher, long-term goals, the goal of a democracy among them. It is the tragic story of nearly all revolutions.

This is why, though violence was always one of the ANC’s militant principles, it was always subordinated to other aims and, on occasion, it had only a symbolic existence. At the end of the 1980s, the political circumstances in which Mandela was released from prison and De Klerk was forced to negotiate allowed the leader to organize a peaceful transition process and to put his best skills as a negotiator and consensus-maker to the test. It was a perfect combination of intelligence and showmanship.

Later, Mandela had the foresight to understand that taking the heavens by storm without having first secured the conditions needed to keep the heavens operating as such would end up creating a hell on earth. Because of this – no matter what his most intimate political and ideological motivations were – he concluded that his agenda was to be limited to the elimination of the racist regime, the country’s democratic liberalization and the creation of conditions for the socio-economic improvement of the majority through reformist means.

I don’t know enough about South Africa to express an opinion on the results of this decision. The truth of the matter is that South Africa continues to be characterized by terrible inequalities (64 on the Gini scale), with 52% of the population (62% of the black population) living in poverty and 30% of these living in extreme poverty. These figures indicate that we must continue to make inroads in the direction pointed by Mandela, in a society that knew the worst of colonialism for centuries.

Finally, Mandela envinces a superior ethical quality that eclipses all contemporary politicians. Despite his overwhelming popularity, he decided to occupy the presidency for only one term, and to retreat from public life in 2004. With absolute modesty, he showed the world there were other ways to do things – and, doing this, successfully contributed to a long-term politics.

Mandela was not the last, great politician of the 20th century. He was the first great politician of the 21st century, and, if his message does not prevail, or merely subsists as an iconic reference, all of us stand to lose from it. To caricaturize Mandela is to besmirch his legacy.


(*) First published in Spanish by

13 thoughts on “That Gift Called Mandela

  • Thanks for the reminder.

  • Moses, Moses… For fanatical Leftists like John you will only have real democracy and real choice when there is One True Party and only one candidate on the ballot.

  • Well said, Esther.

  • Esther, what other real choice did Obama have? Especially given the reason he was forced to share the dais with this tyrant. Mandela stood for forgiveness and reconciliation. The least Obama could do is shake this poser’s hand.

  • Who defines capitalism as “rule by the very few”? Capitalism is apolitical. Why do you think a boss is a Dictator? If he/she is the owner of the business, shouldn’t they have the right to make the decisions? I voted for Obama in the Democratic Primary in June 2008. My vote, among millions of others, made him the winner over Hillary Clinton who also wanted to be the Party candidate. I voted for Obama again in November of 2008. He beat McCain in the Presidential election. I say I had a choice and my choices won. Are you nuts?

  • Real socialist countries are the ones that really exist. That their reality fails to live up to their billing is the whole point of my criticism: Marxism (or socialism or communism or whatever you want to call it this week) is a fraud.

    The ruling party of Angola is the MPLA, they are self-declared as a Marxist-Leninist party. Cuba helped install them in power. The ruling Party of Zimbabwe is ZANU-PF, officially socialist in ideology and modelled on the lines of typical communist parties. Neither party upholds egalitarian or democratic principles, but they do practice the brutal authoritarian political control all Communist parties are famous for. Again: that’s the point!

    I point to countries which proclaim they are socialist and which actually exist. You ignore them or pretend they don’t count as “real” socialist societies. Then you point to some imaginary socialist system which exists only in your imagination. Who is the idiot?

    As for educating myself about socialism and communism, I have read Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto. Unlike you, I actually understood what the society they were dreaming of would actually look like. It looks like hell on earth. Socially, politically and economically, Marxism is an evil failure. Every attempt to build a society based on that inhuman scheme has produced overwhelming human misery.

    Still the fools keep on chanting, “But they didn’t do it right, next time we will get it right!”

    Protest it if you will, but by waving the Red Flag, you stand with the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Kim’s North Korea, Castro’s Cuba and all the other totalitarian Marxist dystopias. Your side is the history and morality of gulags, famine and genocide.

  • Understand that the Havana Times is not edited or published in Havana. If it were, the editors and publishers would be dead.

    Havana times comes to us through Nicaragua.

    Obama should have shook his head, not Castro’s hand.

  • Typical oligarchic /capitalist bullshit about the great opportunities to raise oneself under capitalism that is clearly a lie, a fraud .
    Please tell me what is the percentage of South Africans living in poverty now and the percentage that were living in poverty under apartheid .
    I’ll make this simple for you.
    The parties that have the power to change the status quo vis a vis poverty of the majority , are locked into the same neoliberal ( neither new nor liberal) economics that have impoverished that majority.
    Do you really think that five minutes in a voting booth means anything to people who are hungry, homeless or just living out their lives in the same poverty and misery that has gone on for as long as they can remember ?
    Absent economic equity , the vote is a meaningless, empty act that changes nothing .
    That you chose to pair capitalism and democracy in your last sentence demonstrates your lack of logic and an understanding of what comprise democracy..
    Democracy comes from the Greek and means rule of the people which in today’s world translates into majority rule and capitalism is most definitely rule by the very few .
    When that economic power takes control of a government , it is called an oligarchy; rule by the wealthy which is certainly rule by the few over the majority, ergo an oligarchy: an unelected dictatorship of money..
    Capitalism is the antithesis of democracy.
    Democracy is banned under capitalism where the boss, the CEO, the Board of Directors are absolute dictators.
    Please explain why you think capitalism is democratic in detail.
    Please explain why you think elections in which the electorate have no say in the choice of candidates they are handed to vote for represents a democracy .
    ZNet ( currently under a denial of service attack from the right) has at least ten articles on Mandela and South Africa that can explain what I’ve posted here in great detail .
    Try reading a few of them if you have the courage of your convictions.

  • You should really look into the lives of the poor South Africans and how little those lives have changed because they continue with the same capitalist economy they had under apartheid and which consigns the majority of the population to grinding and perpetual poverty.
    FYI, neither Zimbabwe nor Angola have socialist societies.
    Zimbabwe is clearly an oligarchy
    Were you well educated or even capable of checking out what I have posted that has clearly laid out what constitutes a socialist or communist society, you would not be posting such ignorance of the facts.
    The fact that you continues to post such idiocies based on the crap you’ve been fed by the U.S. government and the parroting corporate media over your lifetime, indicates a willful ignorance of the historic facts that can be corroborated at any institute of higher learning.
    You have put yourself on the wrong side of both history and morality .

  • I guess that explains all the oppressed South Africans leaving in droves for their neighbouring socialist utopias, like Zimbabwe and Angola. It must be awful to live in the the most prosperous country in Africa, suffering the indignities of free elections, an unfettered press, an independent judiciary and the protection of human rights. Those lucky souls in Zimbabwe and Angola don’t have to worry about any of that nonsense.

  • Given this is Havana Times, it is appropriate to mention that for those who are preparing for the day that Fidel meets his maker, there are lessons to be learned in Mandela’s passing. There are no army tanks or heavy police presence in the streets of Johannesburg except as needed to control the huge crowds singing and dancing in tribute to Mandela’s life. There is no exile community of South Africans celebrating the joy of his passing. There is universal praise around the world for the leadership of Mandela despite his record of terrorist activities and ideological complexities. His memorial will bring former and current foes together in one place to celebrate the life of a man who was loyal to those who supported him but set aside personal politics and selfish ambition for the good of his people. Castro would do well to pay close attention to the South Africans these days. His own day of reckoning can’t be far off.

  • Once again, you spout off without doing your homework. Before restating this silly comment again, you should talk to a handful of Black South Africans who suffered discrimination under apartheid and now are able to live anywhere they can afford to buy a home and create businesses that serve ALL South Africans. Thousands sacrificed and died so that the “five minutes in a voting booth” would not be meaningless. Your lily white worldview has never had to fight for the right to vote. You have no idea how much that 5 minutes means to these people. Not everyone can and will succeed, but everyone deserves the opportunity to try. This is the legacy of Mandela and he wisely saw fit to set aside his personal leftist ideology to chart a democratic and capitalism course for the new South Africa.

  • A very well written piece Haraldo, thanks,

    That said, I have a problem with this excerpt from the piece:

    “…….and the creation of conditions for the socio-economic improvement of the majority through reformist means. -”

    As I posted in another thread, Mandela’s record is a case of victory over apartheid and a crushing defeat by neoliberal economic forces that has resulted in little change in the lives of the majority poor .
    I fail to see the “conditions” that were created to alleviate the economic situation of that majority poor .

    In a sense, the SA situation is no different from the U.S. “revolution” in which we traded a capitalist elite for royalty with no change in the totalitarian economy which today has naturally evolved into an oligarchy -rule by the very wealthy and a total loss of the marginally democratic form the ostensibly representative republic had at the beginning. .

    South Africa just changed a few white slave masters for the few new black slave masters sitting in the CEOs offices

    and of course now blacks get five minutes in a meaningless voting booth to select one of a few candidates who are about as revolutionary in the economic sphere as Ronald Reagan was.

    Plus ca change………..

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