Half Nelson - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Half Nelson

On the Saturday following Nelson Mandela’s death, the crowds at several British soccer stadiums applauded in his memory for 60 seconds. The event was not spontaneous, but announced in advance by the sport’s governing bodies. It is strange and full of portents, and we should all pay attention to it. Professional soccer, a coarse, spiteful, and mildly violent sport, has become the United Kingdom’s real national religion, and its arenas, nowadays often grandiose, are our cathedrals.

Soccer is not exactly an intellectual game, and I would be surprised if most of those who applauded have much interest in modern history or foreign affairs. Nor, though it is fashionable among pretentious London intellectuals to feign a liking for soccer, is the game known for its links with liberalism. In fact I should guess that there are quite a lot of genuine racial bigots among its enthusiasts. I do not think the regimented ovations had anything much to do with South Africa. They had much more to do with a new conformism, one in which leftist ideas are largely triumphant, and it is wise, in public, to appear to accept them. Any who disagree will quickly find themselves accused of racial prejudice, or of sympathy for the indefensible system of Apartheid. And against such charges, innocence is no defense.

 The more or less compulsory clapping of hands was an important departure from the previous tradition of observing a minute’s silence, not always for very good reasons. Silence is somewhere between a neutral and a passive action, if it can be called an action at all. A dissenter can stay quiet while inwardly thinking this public reverence is silly or out of proportion. His doubts will remain private. But applause is active, and to fail to take part is to draw attention to your refusal to conform. You would have had to be brave to keep your hands by your sides, and I have not heard of anyone daring to do so. 

There was and is a stink of totalitarianism about this obligatory public worship, like the little red flags that citizens of Communist states used to have to display on their balconies on certain Marxist feast days. All must actively assent. Open disagreement with any aspect of the Mandela Cult would be risky to almost any career or public position. The British Broadcasting Corporation televised a mighty river of eulogies, reminiscences, and praise of the dead man, whose departure from us was not really a surprise. One of its most prominent broadcasters compared the late president with Jesus Christ. Newspapers cleared their front pages and many inside pages too, for square miles of praise, with any doubts and criticisms well-concealed.

As in the strange days after the death of Princess Diana, there was a strong sense that we were living under a dictatorship of compulsory grief. Doubts were expressed in whispers.

News is always a matter of proportion, and when news outlets get things out of proportion, it is always worth wondering why. 

Contrast the reaction of broadcasters and newspapers to the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who never advocated violence and opposed the Soviet monolith with nothing more than his brain, his tongue, and his pen, but whose death in 2008 passed with one twentieth of the coverage. Personally, I think Solzhenitsyn measurably greater than Mandela. He too endured imprisonment, exile, and persecution. He faced a regime which allowed even less room for dissent. And some of his writings will live for many years. Of course, he was a Christian, a patriot, and a conservative, which predisposes many elite figures against him in our secular, globalist, and liberal world. But the same cannot be said of 

Vaclav Havel, the equally pacific hero of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Havel was a man of the liberal Left. I suspect that he failed to attain Mandela status because he had helped to overthrow a regime of the Left. For although the Left were often embarrassed by Soviet power in action, they still instinctively sided with it against its critics. 

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The new surge of Mandela worship is important because it conceals a scowling intolerance behind the gently smiling face of a decent old gentleman. The older he got and the more he withdrew from public life, the more he was used. Now that he is dead, I think it will get worse. Our freedom to think and speak about the recent past and the present is becoming significantly narrower. And the memory of a political prisoner, locked up by a deeply unpleasant government, is somehow being used to help achieve this.

In the greatest paradox of our time, the collapse of the old Communist despotisms allowed leftist bigotry to spread with great rapidity into the free countries of the world. Left-wing utopians had to explain why “Real Existing Socialism” had turned out to be a tyranny of censorship, one-party rule, prison camps, and secret police, made worse by economic failure. After 1990 they were freed from that restraint, and a reborn New Left resumed its interrupted forward march, through social, cultural, sexual, and moral revolution, through globalism, multiculturalism, and open borders, and through the growth of supranational authorities. [[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”93310″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”178″,”style”:”float: right;”,”typeof”:”foaf:Image”,”width”:”250″}}]]

This beatification of Nelson Mandela (which now extends to picture books for children) is a key part of this campaign. The idealization of that supposed “Rainbow Nation” is as false as the similar misrepresentations of Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and Castroist Cuba. All informed commentators know that the country is an economic and social mess, governed by an openly corrupt elite, whose problems are only just beginning. But it appeals to the same instincts—that bizarre mixture of soppiness and ruthlessness which has always characterized fellow-travelers of any totalitarian movement. 

It also has little to do with Mandela himself. He was an interesting and complex man with some undoubted virtues. Many of those who now praise him didn’t in fact much like those virtues at the time. His imprisonment and hero status were very convenient for the Stalinist Communists who actually run the African National Congress. He was not their creation, and might well have got in their way if he had remained free. 

His genuine belief in a free society, demonstrated by his behavior in office, did not accord with their views. But, once he was locked up, he made a good focus for their propaganda. And when the end of the Cold War made it possible for the great powers to contemplate an ANC government, Mandela was again very useful, both to the old regime seeking a compromise, and to the ANC needing an inspiring figurehead. By then he was too old to be much more than that, exercising moral force but little detailed political authority. While he undoubtedly did much to prevent far worse violence during the handover of power, he did little to change the general direction of his own country or of Africa. He also continued friendships with some grisly despots and apostles of terror who during the Cold War had loyally backed the ANC—including Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Muammar Gadaffi. 

As much of his reputation depends on the belief that he prevented civil war, the greatest test of his reputation is yet to come. The story of South Africa is far from over, and many fear that he only postponed bloodshed.

But these facts make little impact on the Mandela Religion. It has much more to do with the Left’s search for a new Utopia and a new deity, after the undeniable failures of its past attempts at paradise. But what few now understand is that the story of South Africa is as much part of the Cold War as were the snowy dramas that took place in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Moscow. 

In most of Africa, opposition to colonial rule came from black nationalist leaders who simply wanted power and could not have it until the colonists had gone. But South Africa, almost uniquely on the continent, had a large indigenous white minority, which held its own views on the national future.

So the most powerful and well-organized anti-colonial force in the country was not the black liberation movement but the white Afrikaner Nationalist Party, which still bitterly resented the British domination that followed the Boer War. It was the Nationalists (many of them former supporters of Hitler) who first voted the pro-British Jan Smuts from office and began to construct Apartheid. Then they got rid of the remaining trappings of British monarchy, hauled down the Union Jack, declared the country a republic, and finally left the British Commonwealth, the last echo of empire. They thought this would leave them totally free to pursue their dream of permanent racial segregation and white supremacy. They were very nearly right. 

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The second most powerful force—mainly because it was so well-organized and dedicated—was the South African Communist Party. It had once notoriously used the slogan “Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa” during a 1922 miners’ strike. But, seeing which way the winds of change were blowing, it quickly allied itself with the black nationalist struggle. Even so, it remained an orthodox Communist party, and was heavily dependent on support from Moscow. Communist conspiratorial techniques enabled it to stay in existence under strong persecution, and it gained a reputation for courage, resilience, and effectiveness, as zealots often do in times of repression. 

The experience of tyranny did not make it any more sympathetic to freedom. While other Communist parties softened and reformed, it remained as rigid and uncompromising as its Afrikaner foes. Notoriously, it attacked the 1968 Prague Spring as a “serious and growing threat” from “reactionary and anti-socialist forces.” And when the Warsaw Pact moved to crush “Socialism with a Human Face,” it loyally accepted the Moscow propaganda that the outrage was a response to a request from the Czechoslovak Communists, and was intended “to defeat the threat of counter-revolution, of the restoration of capitalism and the opening up of Czechoslovakia to penetration by international imperialism.” Some, including Ruth First, protested, but they were marginalized and shunned. The SACP remained, throughout the Cold War, the most icily pro-Soviet of all the world’s non-ruling Communist parties. It was deeply embedded in the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and many of the most prominent figures in the ANC received Communist “training” in Moscow or other Warsaw Pact capitals. 

Enlightened and liberty-loving opponents of apartheid, such as the admirable Helen Suzman, existed in the tiny space allowed by the Afrikaner Nationalists for legal opposition. But they were squashed between the concrete-headed forces of fanatical racialist nationalism and fanatical Stalinist Communism. And there, for long decades, lay the dilemma for the rest of the world. Overthrow the Apartheid regime and risk replacing it with a People’s Republic, complete with secret police, concentration camps, and Soviet naval bases at the Cape and on the Indian Ocean. South Africa, with its vital strategic position and its enormously important reserves of rare metals and minerals, would have been a tremendous prize for the USSR in the Cold War. 

And that is why the slow but accelerating collapse of the Apartheid state coincided so closely with the parallel collapse of the Soviet Empire. As late as 1988, Nelson Mandela’s face was appearing on Soviet postage stamps. But in 1989 it became clear that the Soviet Union had given up trying to be a global superpower. And it was then that F.W. de Klerk—South Africa’s Mikhail Gorbachev—began discussions on legalizing the long-banned ANC. This decision came immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall showed that Perestroika was undoubtedly real. The basic objections to ANC rule were now invalid. By February 1990, as the USSR itself hurried towards its doom, Mandela was free and the long, slow handover was beginning. The collapse of apartheid is often simply attributed to economic sanctions, but would those sanctions have been so extensive, or the Afrikaners ready to buckle rather than endure a siege, had the Cold War not been coming to an end? 

Mandela himself had played almost no part in any of this long process. His imprisonment in 1964 removed him from the ANC’s leadership. In his absence, the Communist domination of the ANC continued to grow. Mandela’s later sainthood was also not foreseen at the time, even by the earliest and most principled opponents of Apartheid. The British section of Amnesty International had adopted Mandela in 1962 when he was imprisoned for organizing labor unrest. But when he explicitly endorsed violence, the organization decided—after a tortured and stricken debate and a ballot of its members—that he could no longer be regarded as a prisoner of conscience. They then went on to campaign for him anyway, but in a constrained way. This was wise of them. The organization Mandela had helped to found, “Spear of the Nation,” later committed several quite serious atrocities in which innocent bystanders were killed. It also became notorious for its violent and brutal internal discipline. Mandela himself was offered his freedom in return for renouncing violence, and declined the offer, though it is hardly surprising that he refused to grant such a propaganda gift to his jailers. A saint, which he was not and which he never claimed to be, would have renounced violence but refused to be released.  

We are present at the birth of a myth, whose purpose is to sanitize a complex past, to re-romanticize radical leftism and by innuendo to dismiss its opponents as racial bigots. It is already out of control. But I for one shall not be applauding. 

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