Written by Rupert Hickory (21 May 2004)
On Monday 10 May 2004, the ex-Trotskyite now Conservative journalist, Peter Hitchens, broadcast on Channel Four “’Mandela: Beneath the Halo.’’ His major attack at times seemed to be largely against Mandela’s fellow prisoner on Robben Island, Thabo Mbeki, especially on AIDS. But even at those times Hitchens haply thought he would get more attention by attacking him indirectly via Nelson Mandela. He is, after all, a more well known target.
Is Mandela a saint? Hitchens says he does not deserve the halo that the left has put on him. He is a good man, but not a saint. However, Hitchens is keen to make clear that he is not out to deny that Mandela is a special character. This is no ordinary man, he says. Mandela's long gaol sentence, and how he bore it, shows that he is special, but on coming out of gaol he once again became an ordinary politician. Hitchens laments that he neglected AIDS and he has neglected other problems also. The African National Congress (ANC) was long associated with the late USSR and that prolonged apartheid, says Hitchens. It was only after the fall of the USSR that the real and effective opposition got underway and he says it was Mrs Thatcher that played a major role in it. Nelson Mandela knows that fact and he always visits her whenever he is in London. She gave great support to President De Klerke who in turn did a great deal to aid Mandela's rise to power.
Hitchens is not going to deflate Mandela completely and he half goes along with the idea that he is a great man, but it seems clear that the man has next to no merit. He bore his time on Robben Island with many others and almost anyone would be happy to face prison when they have just been let off an expected death sentence, as Mandela did. Some would sooner have death than loss of liberty, as famously Patrick Henry boasted, but most men would haply sooner face gaol. So, contra Hitchens, there seems to be nothing exceptional in that. As a terrorist, Mandela can hardly complain much about his punishment. There would seem to be little substance in Mandela but Hitchens did not want to go that far. He was at pains to make that clear.
The nationalist government left a big debt of a £100 million, says Hitchens. Mandela got rid of it by arms sales. Mandela was then shown as saying there was nothing wrong with arms sales. But Hitchens tends to think there is and he said that usually the left has held that there is. Hitchens then pointed out that they were sold to troubled spots like Rwanda, where a million people were killed, to the Congo where three million were killed, to Indonesia and to Algeria where there was also plenty of conflict.
The ANC also bought lots of arms when they did not need them, said Hitchens, for they had no enemies. There were rumours of corruption. Tony Yengeni was arrested but soon released pending an appeal. All those deals were set in motion by Nelson Mandela. Many criticise the ANC for this but few extend the criticism to Mandela himself. Patricia De Lillie MP worked hard to expose the scandal and she got death treats in response. Hitchens put it to her that it is odd to criticise the ANC and not Mandela as they are more or less one and the same, and she laughed in agreement.
Hitchens says there is great inequality in today’s South Africa. Hitchens seemed to be relapsing into his Trotskyite past even more with this point than with his earlier one. There is a very large underclass in South Africa, he says. Many now say that the ANC is Thatcherite and in that respect way worse than was the National Party. But that is an odd thing for the now Conservative Hitchens to say. Many whites left after the ANC came to power but those who stayed on held that Nelson Mandela saved the nation from civil war. Hitchens says that Thatcherism tends to neglect the poor. The ANC cleared up the old shanty towns but new ones shot up to replace them. Households are allowed 1300 gallons of free water each month but over that they have to pay for it, and Hitchens feels few can really afford it. One woman openly said that she preferred things before the ANC came to power. She thought that the National Party were better. Ex-ANC members like Trevor Wgwane, now in the Anti-privatisation Forum says that Mandela panders to the capitalist class. Hitchens accepts all this as if it was useful stuff but it is clearly unrealistic dogma. There is no chance of a class struggle in the Marxist sense and Marx’s main example of it in wage bargaining was ironically a self-refuting counter example. All bargaining, including that over wage rates, will be a pocket of zero sum within an overall positive sum game. Anywhere they settle will be within the area where their interests are mutual and thus common. Throughout this lot I was beginning to wonder whether the ANC was a party worth supporting after all. If they are privatising then presumably they are freeing up things for most of the population to make a go of things. They can hardly do much better than that. It is the open market that allows people to make a go of things.
Hitchens then tells us that there is a murder or attempted murder every twelve minutes in today’s South Africa. A lot of this is the crimes carried out on the whites by blacks in Johannesburg but it is even worse elsewhere. This violent crime is rising rather than falling. That clearly scotches liberty, for to be free we need the streets to be safe to use at will.
Nelson Mandela’s worst legacy, says Hitchens, is his appointed successor, Thabo Mbeki. He is far more concerned with race than Mandela ever was. Mbeki delivered hardly disguised treats against the judiciary who have attempted to uphold the rule of law, that he seems to be opposed to. Mbeki says the judges ought to pay more attention to the people, by which he seems to mean the ANC. Chief Buthelezi has complained that he is out to set up a one party state and that by encouraging the act of crossing the floor of the parliament he is getting all to join the ANC. Helen Suzman says there was far more free speech in the days of the National Party than there is today. Hitchens says that Mbeki seems to be in favour of totalitarianism. He seems to be near the mark here as Mbeki does seem to be fairly intolerant and keen to exercise more control, but how does this fit in with his privatisation programme? Mbeki would seem to have an inconsistent outlook.
We are then shown Nelson Mandela with Fidel Castro. He is celebrating Castro’s rule but, Hitchens tells us, the gaols he rules over are way worse than Robben Island ever was. Hitchens seems to recall that he is now a Conservative once more as he criticises Castro as a despot. Then Mandela is shown shouting “long live Castro!’’ as Hitchens moves on to announce that Mandela also likes Gaddafi, whom Hitchens also criticises as a despot. Mandela is then shown walking arm in arm with Mugabe. This leads Hitchens into the ANC policy on land reform. It pledges land reform but 86% of the farms are still held by whites. Many in the ANC admire what is going on in Zimbabwe, and Mugabe is generally held in high esteem in South Africa. There have been many attacks on white farmers. An even more favourite class of victims are the Indian farmers, who are thought to be a soft target and if anything they are attacked to a greater extent. Many of the Indians have been forced out of their homes and they have lost everything. Hitchens says that it is clear that the rule of law in South Africa today is in danger. Here the state is shown to be indifferent to thuggishness and to be slowly going over to what we see from Mugabe in Zimbabwe, to their north.
Mandela ignored AIDS whilst he was in power but since he has focussed on it to a greater extent.
By contrast Thabo Mbeki doubts that there is a link between AIDS and HIV and he often expresses the idea that the whole thing is greatly exaggerated. The mythology around Mandela has made the AIDS problem worse as it has helped excuse Mbeki’s stance on it. However, how much is AIDS the business of the state? Surely it is a health issue that is mainly a matter of individual responsibility.
The worship of Mandela also obfuscates many real problems that South Africa faces today. Hitchens concludes that it would be more realistic to treat Mandela more as a real person with real problems that he tends to ignore rather than to face up to. Hitchens wants people to forget the halo.