Why Mandela accepted a market economy

The media is still trying to figure out exactly why — or even if — Nelson Mandela changed his views about socialism. Clearly Mandela was a socialist prior to becoming president (he said so in his autobiography, The Struggle Is My Life ).

What would it have meant if South Africa had become a socialist country rather than a capitalist one? And why is it that, at least in public, Mandela seemed to abandon the socialist  dream?

If South Africa had become socialist, the oil, gas, coal, and mining companies, the big banks, and medical industry would have been nationalized. No longer would the rich control all of the nation’s wealth. The people — the working people — would have more than just a vote: they would have some measure of social justice. In real day-to-day terms that would mean clean water, decent housing, competent medical care at no cost, and an  environment protected from the ravages of capitalist exploitation.

A living breathing socialism should promise freedom from hunger, disease, poverty, and the God-given right to dignity, self-respect, and a life with purpose and meaning. Sadly that is not the condition of the working class or the poor in South Africa — or just about anywhere else.

But socialism was not in the cards in South Africa in 1992. Why did Mandela appear to backtrack on his views before becoming the nation’s first democratically elected president?

In a revealing column in the business section of today’s New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin shared his view, and that of author and Mandela biographer Anthony Simpson, about why Mandela “changed his mind,” and embraced capitalism…

Ironically things appear to have changed after Mandela met with representatives of the People’s Republic of China at the 1992 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. According to Sampson, the Chinese capitalists told Mandela, “We are currently striving to privatize state enterprises and invite private enterprise into our economies. We are ‘Communist Party’ government, and you are a leader of a national liberation movement. Why are you talking about nationalization?”

Though socialist Cuba offered to help Mandela build socialism, there was little they could do to assist an economy as large as that in South Africa. After all, the Cubans were trying to keep their heads above water after the U.S. capitalists imposed a brutal embargo on their tiny island nation.

It is easy to understand why Mandela “changed his mind”: if China embraced capitalism, who could Mandela turn to for support?

What’s more the ANC was a liberation movement, a united front of many different tendencies and social groupings, including capitalists. Due to its class basis, structure and stated goals, the ANC was in no position to lead South Africa to a revolutionary social system.

As it was they faced a monumental task: uniting the people of South Africa — a multi-ethnic, multi-national people — into one nation, while abolishing apartheid and dealing with an entrenched racist ruling class.

Being a practical man, Mandela chose the fight he thought he could win. By doing so, the people of South Africa, led by Mandela, made one of the most astonishing achievements  of the 20th Century — they abolished apartheid.

I’m pretty damn sure Mandela knew that to bring true democracy to South Africa, freedom from want, and dignity for all the people, it would eventually need to become socialist.

He made the correct decision, under the circumstances. And the struggle that remains  for the masses of people in South Africa is the same great struggle which all of us who support social justice, peace and freedom around the world must undertake if we are serious about saving our planet: Socialism.


The following Sorkin’s piece as it appeared in today’s NYT: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/12/09/how-mandela-shifted-views-on-freedom-of-markets/?_r=0


The Struggle is my Life

By Nelson Mandela