Nelson Mandela Wasn't Radical Enough

Although he and his movement eliminated apartheid, they left in place a government powerful enough to control the economic system to the detriment of working people.

I suppose we will forever be subjected to incomplete accounts of the life of Nelson Mandela and the evil he struggled against. Both the Right and the Left (as conventionally defined in America) are too busy pushing agendas to provide the full story.

On the establishment Right (with some honorable exceptions) apartheid was deemed unimportant in the context of the Cold War. Conservatives found it easy to condemn Mandela as a terrorist and a communist, while minimizing or ignoring the violence perpetrated by the South African regime against blacks (and other nonwhites). The implication was that apartheid wasn’t really so bad and that the militancy of its opponents was unreasonable. South Africa, after all, was a U.S. ally against the Soviet Union and a member of the “free world” — a shocking notion when one considers the appalling lack of freedom there. This complacency had its parallel in the attitude of many conservatives toward government-enforced racial segregation in the American South.

Apartheid South Africa, of course, brutalized, humiliated, and stifled individuals merely because of their race. Had blacks been oppressing whites, voices on the Right would have howled without end. Apartheid should have sickened and infuriated anyone who believed in the dignity of the individual and the freedom each person deserves by virtue of his or her humanity. But even at this late date, praising Mandela — for embracing racial reconciliation and averting civil war, for rejecting dictatorship and the cult of personality — can evoke vicious reactions from the Right, as Newt Gingrich learned. (Of course this is not to say that Mandela was a saint.)

But the establishment Left also leaves out a big piece of the story: the precise nature of apartheid. Progressives portray apartheid as the systemic violation of blacks’ civil rights, including the freedom to move about freely without an internal passport. True enough. But what progressives and mislabeled liberals don’t understand — or don’t want to admit — is that apartheid was a legislative prohibition of the free exercise of choice in a marketplace unfettered by government-bestowed privilege. Indeed, one cannot conceive of apartheid without official interference with markets. The opposite of apartheid is laissez-faire.

Apartheid did not merely consist of the state’s denial of the right of blacks (and whites!) to trade goods and services — including labor — with whomever they wished. The system was instigated by white labor unions precisely to keep blacks from competing.

This was clearly spelled out in 1964 in The Economics of the Colour Bar by University of Cape Town economist W.H. Hutt (1899–1988), a self-described classical liberal (libertarian), a leading opponent of apartheid, and a prominent critic of Keynesian economics.

While formal apartheid got started in 1948, Hutt wrote, legislation protecting white workers from competition goes as far back as 1907. In the second decade of the 20th century, the government effectively prevented black workers from competing with whites by forbidding blacks from offering to work for less than the wages artificially inflated by restrictive legislation. So-called “standard rate “ (or “equal pay for equal work”) legislation may sound humanitarian, but by intention and in practice it facilitated racism by preventing a group disadvantaged by bigotry from offering more attractive terms to employers. Apartheid made racism costless and so encouraged it.

That such restrictions were enshrined in legislation indicated that white employers would otherwise have hired black workers, enabling blacks to advance and prosper. As Hutt wrote:

The lesson of history, explained by classical economic analysis, is that disinterested market pressures, under the profit-seeking inducement, provide the only objective, systematic discipline that would dissolve traditional barriers and offer opportunities irrespective of race or colour.

In the decades following World War II, legislative decrees formalized racial bigotry by “accord[ing] dictatorial powers over the use of African labour.” These powers included control even over where blacks could live and work, and what kind of work they could do.

This horror ended in the early 1990s, with credit due to Mandela. But he and his movement were not nearly radical enough, because although they eliminated apartheid, they left in place a government powerful enough to control the economic system to the detriment of working people. The market still needs to be freed.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Acosmist||

    What conservative is pro-apartheid? Beat the FUCK out of that straw man!

  • wwhorton||

    It's not that conservatives were pro-apartheid, it's that they were less anti-apartheid than they were anti-communist. And attacking conservatives over their lack of moral fiber in the 80s from the comfort of the 2010s is a little disingenuous. After all, we routinely deal with countries that embrace social or political policies that are naughty. I mean, if in 50 years Saudi Arabia starts allowing women the right to ride in cars driven by non-relative men are we going to start lambasting the government for supporting the oppression of women?

  • ||

    All the more ironic coming from the leading Iran apologist on the Reason editorial staff.

  • mtrueman||

    Why wait 50 years to condemn the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when you can start today? You don't have to take your cues from conservatives, you know.

  • Drake||

    So Conservatives are bad because they "found it easy to condemn Mandela as a terrorist and a communist..." But Mandela was bad because he liked big government? Uh... isn't it one or the other?

    The white guys running South Africa in the 80's were in a bind - how could they turn over the country to somebody who wouldn't turn around and kill them? Mandela made the smart play by transforming himself into the semi-moderate they could trust not to slaughter Whitey.

  • wwhorton||

    ^This.

    Look at Zimbabwe. Hell, there are farm invasions in South Africa, too, although they're at least not officially sanctioned.

  • Free Society||

    just unofficially sanctioned. The National government was directly handing out pardons for atrocities committed for 'political reasons'. And the local governments were instructing their police forces not to protect white landowners who were targeted by monsters freedom fighters.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Mandela made the smart play by transforming himself into the semi-moderate they could trust not to slaughter Whitey.

    I hate to nitpick, because the crux of your argument is right. But, my understanding is that that didn't really happen until after he assumed power. He'd long been offered release in exchange for renouncing violence as a political tool. He refused. The South African government released him unconditionally.

  • wwhorton||

    Nelson Mandela was a socialist to the bone. He was against what the government was doing with the power it had, not with the government having that much power. Once apartheid ended, it was "mission accomplished" as far as he was concerned.

  • mtrueman||

    "Once apartheid ended, it was "mission accomplished" as far as he was concerned."

    But as far as everyone else was concerned it was "business as usual."

  • Free Society||

    But even at this late date, praising Mandela — for embracing racial reconciliation and averting civil war, for rejecting dictatorship and the cult of personality

    Take a closer look at his reconciliation process. It was genocide facilitated by property forfeitures and a permissive criminal justice apparatus. On numerous occasions, entire white families would be raped, tortured and murdered while Mr Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission would pardon perpetrators who pled guilty as long as they claimed their actions had 'political motives'. You could rape and murder children and as long as the victims were white and you claimed you did it "because of apartheid" you got a full pardon. I'm so sick of people praising Mandela, especially libertarians who claim to value freedom and genuine equality.

    Had blacks been oppressing whites, voices on the Right would have howled without end.

    After the ANC came to power they did, and you didn't hear anyone howling, since it would improper to condemn these "freedom fighters".

  • Calidissident||

    It's a bit disingenuous to bring up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (as a side note, the name reminds me of Halo 2) and not mention the fact that white perpetrators of violence during apartheid were also given amnesty (which resulted in a lot of criticism from black and left-wing groups and individuals. White South Africans actually had a higher opinion of the reconciliation brought about by the commission than black South Africans did). Criticizing the TRC is fair game, pretending it was one giant instance of persecuting whites while giving blacks a free pass is simply not true.

  • Sunken Idaho||

    Radical enough? He bounced "whitey" from South Africa! If you honestly believe that Mandela had other intentions beyond that I would like to see it. South Africa has devolved into a tribal kleptocracy with a lower GDP, standard of living and escalating rape and AIDS victims yet, Mandela became the black Dalai Lama and basically went on a global ass-kissing tour, treated by celebrities and heads of state.

  • Free Society||

    but but apartheid!

  • Calidissident||

    You make it sound like South Africa became Zimbabwe. It didn't, even though it could have, and Mandela deserves a lot of credit for that outcome. Obviously, violence of any sort is heinous, and it is a problem in South Africa, whether its the rape crisis, racially-motivated murders, or any other forms of violence. That said, the plight of modern white South Africans is not comparable to the oppression faced by black South Africans under apartheid. I'm not sure where you're getting your GDP figures. From all the figures I've seen, there was a dip from 1995-2000, but it's grown since then, and per capita income is well above what it was under apartheid, and is growing faster than it did then. The unemployment rate is higher, but it was also very high under apartheid, and I think that's a pretty good tradeoff overall. Obviously, South Africa's economy could use a lot more free-market reforms and economic policy could have been a lot better over the last 20 years. But, as Richman pointed out in this article, South Africa was certainly no free-market paradise under apartheid, and overall, the economy is freer today than it was back then. I am not defending the bad actions of the post-apartheid government, or non-governmental groups or individuals, but the current government, flawed as it is, is simply not equivalent nor inferior to the apartheid government.

  • Calidissident||

    I do agree that the canonization of Mandela (and historical figures like him) is annoying. Historical figures should be looked at objectively, their flaws and virtues both taken into account, neither one whitewashed out of existence.

  • ||

    ...the plight of modern white South Africans is not comparable to the oppression faced by black South Africans under apartheid.

    And until it becomes comparable, everybody should just shut the fuck up, sweep that shit under the rug, and properly fellate Mandela's corpse like all Right Thinking people.

  • Bramblyspam||

    I still say Mandela was a better leader than any of us could reasonably expect - much like Gandhi and MLK. He clearly made the world a better place. It seems awfully petty to put him down for not creating libertopia.

  • Free Society||

    Not creating a 'libertopia' is hardly the most profound anti-Mendela argument. And I fail to see how an avowed racist terrorist who targeted civilians before his reign and who permitted the murder of whites after his rise, could be compared to MLK and Gandhi. But that doesn't stop every other historical revisionist, so why should it bother you.

  • Bramblyspam||

    It's quite true that Mandela didn't start out as a pacifist. He should be judged by his impact on his nation (and the world), and I can't envision any other leader bringing about a more positive result than Mandela did.

    Was Mandela a terrorist? Perhaps. I'm not aware of him deliberately targeting innocent civilians, but I'll freely admit that I haven't studied his early history. He wouldn't be the first revered statesman to start out as a terrorist. While I don't mean to excuse the bad parts, I still maintain that the end result in South Africa was better than anyone could reasonably have expected, and it seems awfully petty to chide him for not doing better.

    Here's a link that touches, however superficially, on the anti-Mandela sentiments. I remain unconvinced by them. If there's more detailed evidence of his perniciousness, feel free to post links.

  • ||

    While I don't mean to excuse the bad parts, I still maintain that the end result in South Africa was better than anyone could reasonably have expected, and it seems awfully petty to chide him for not doing better.

    Ends always justify means. I mean, that's the classical liberal/libertarian position on any given issue, right?

  • Bramblyspam||

    Feel free to post links documenting his murderous rampages. I'm open to changing my mind.

  • ||

    If he'd repudiated political violence he could have gotten out of jail 5 years sooner. Are you even vaguely familiar with the ANC?

  • Calidissident||

    Answer this question: Without Mandela, would South Africa be a better place today than it is now? Was it a better place under apartheid? Violence by non-whites under apartheid was definitely justified. Far more justified than it was in our own Revolution. Violence against civilians wasn't, and that wasn't something the ANC and its allies always adhered to, and they should be condemned for it. That said, I agree with Bramblyspam that the end result was as good as anyone could reasonably have expected. Would it have been preferable if there had been zero civilian deaths from anti-apartheid attacks, or if there had been zero racially-motivated murders of whites since apartheid fell, or if South Africa had adopted a totally free market? Yes, obviously. But as I said, I don't think those things could reasonably have been expected. I don't have a problem with criticizing Mandela for his shortcomings. All I'm saying is that they must be put in context. If Washington, Jefferson, and many other Founding Fathers get a pass on slaveowning, stealing land from Native Americans, and violence against civilians during the Revolution (which wasn't to a large extent, relatively speaking, but did happen), because they made America a more free place than it was under British rule, then I don't see how Mandela doesn't get a pass for his faults.

  • ||

    Answer this question: Without Mandela, would South Africa be a better place today than it is now?

    Riddle me this: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Historical speculative fiction may be barrels of fun, but it's ultimately pretty pointless. And that's a dodge anyway. It's a concession that, yes indeed, ends justify means. You could have saved a lot of logical masturbation by just answering directly.

    If Washington, Jefferson, and many other Founding Fathers get a pass...

    They don't. It's brought up nearly every time their legacy is mentioned. QED.

  • KPres||

    "He clearly made the world a better place."

    I agree with this. But, then again, there are plenty of people out there pointing that out. It's good to hear the other side of the story.

  • ||

    they left in place a government powerful enough to control the economic system

    Oops, their mistake. It's not like they were communist sympathizers who believed 100% in the total state or anything.

  • Bramblyspam||

    Mandela allied with the commies because they were the only allies available in the fight against Apartheid.

    Newt said so, so it must be true!

  • Brian||

  • ||

    Right, Mandela totally opposed centralization and economic intervention. Purely a marriage of convenience. What was Richman thinking saying:

    they left in place a government powerful enough to control the economic system

    Everybody knows Mandela was an ancap! Bramblyspam said so, so it must be true!

  • Brian||

    The opposite of apartheid is laissez-faire. ...That such restrictions were enshrined in legislation indicated that white employers would otherwise have hired black workers, enabling blacks to advance and prosper.

    This. When progressives pretend that racism and slavery naturally follow from a laissez-faire economy, they're ignoring history. When people are trying to do their best to make money in a free market, you have to use the violence of the state to force them to give race-based privileges on any scale. The government track record of racial prejudice is far more extreme than the effects of the odd, backwards employer who isn't fond of a certain race, color, or creed, and who can probably, even under current law, get away with racist/sexist hiring practices, as long as he doesn't blatantly admit them.

  • Tchapell||

    A very good article and the context of which really needs to be the conversation of the day in our country. Where our own lower class is growing and our middle class is disappearing as a direct result of our growing government, especially the growing Bureaucracy in our national government, that is an unchecked power and is quickly evolving into a fourth branch of government. This was not the intent of the founding fathers and runs contrary to our Constitution. It is this reason, for one, that is crippling our economy along with the decay of morals and the family unit that is creating our own form of apartheid in this country. Not that its a segregation of race in our case but more a segregation of classes. Helping people who need help should be a mandate in this country but growing an entitlement handout society under the auspice of humanitarianism is in fact segregating the middle and lower classes from the upper class by creating a lack of incentive and opportunity to raise yourself up to your fullest potential instead of tearing the upper down in the name of equality.

  • LIFE.time.opertunity||

  • Winston||

    Conservatives found it easy to condemn Mandela as a terrorist and a communist

    Yet at the end:

    they left in place a government powerful enough to control the economic system to the detriment of working people. The market still needs to be freed.

  • Calidissident||

    You do realize there's a gray area between a laissez faire free rket and communism? Mandela may have been a communist at one point, and he was certainly sympathetic towards communists, but he definitely did not govern as you one. Socialist? Perhaps. South Africa's economic reforms in the 90s were a mix of socialist (bad) and market-oriented (good), not even counting the economic liberalization of ending apartheid. Overall, it could have been a lot better, but I also think it was a lot better than what many people were expecting to happen. South Africa has plenty of economic problems, but it is not a communist state.

  • ||

    Calling people assholes for criticizing Mandela's communist ties and then pointing out that SA is an economically dysfunctional social democracy isn't without just a hint of irony though.

    Applying the same standard you apply to Mandela, China really ain't so bad either. It's certainly not a communist state. And besides, the trains run on time!

  • Black Liberty Unchained||

    Discrimination still continues in South Africa today as the government encourages the hiring of black people with economic incentives. The population classfied as colored are marginalized from employment oppurtunities.

  • Stephdumas||

    I spotted 2 articles about Mandela, one at American Thinker
    http://www.americanthinker.com.....ndela.html
    and the other at City-Journal
    http://www.city-journal.org/2013/eon1209gs.html

  • LIFE.time.opertunity||

  • Jan B.||

    Nelson Mandela wasn't holy enough. All initiatives are eventually corrupted without God at the center, and virtue honored. It will bring down the US and South Africa and Norway and the UK and Brazil and -- all.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement