Revisiting Lessons from Nelson Mandela

I refer to the 19 Dec 2013 TR Emeritus article “Lessons from Nelson Mandela & Little India riot” by Mr Albert Lim.

Mr Lim denounced Leong Sze Hian and Roy Ngerng for playing up class politics which he described as being the politics of division, envy and discord that only stirs up discontent and disaffection amongst people. He likened their tactics to those of the Bolsheviks who rose to power and reigned with terror by playing up class divisions.

Mr Lim also contrasted Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s actions with those of Nelson Mandela’s whom Mr Lim described as having many remarkable things about him that should be picked up such as: embarking on a path of reconciliation between the blacks and the whites, encouraging the whites to stay in South Africa and using his force of personality to nullify radicals and Marxists within the African National Congress.

The following were statements made by Nelson Mandela during his Rivonia Trial in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964:

• South Africa is the richest country in Africa, and could be one of the richest countries in the world. But it is a land of extremes and remarkable contrasts. The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Forty per cent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded … reserves … Thirty per cent are labourers, labour tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages … Yet most Africans … are impoverished by low incomes and the high cost of living.

• The highest-paid and the most prosperous section of urban African life is in Johannesburg. Yet their actual position is desperate. The latest figures were given on the 25th of March 1964 by Mr. Carr, Manager of the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department. The poverty datum line for the average African family in Johannesburg, according to Mr. Carr’s department, is R42.84 per month. He showed that the average monthly wage is R32.24 and that forty-six per cent of all African families in Johannesburg do not earn enough to keep them going.

• The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation.

• The other main obstacle to the economic advancement of the African is the Industrial Colour Bar under which all the better paid, better jobs of industry are reserved for whites only … The discrimination … towards African workers is demonstrated by the so-called ‘civilized labour policy’ under which sheltered, unskilled Government jobs are found for those white workers who cannot make the grade in industry, at wages far, which far exceed the earnings of the average African employee in industry.

• The Government often answers its critics by saying that Africans in South Africa are economically better off than the inhabitants of the other countries in Africa. I do not know whether this statement is true and doubt whether any comparison can be made without having regard to the cost-of-living index in such countries. But even if it is true, as far as African people are concerned, it is irrelevant. Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with white people in our own country …

Replace the word “white” with “men-in-white” and the word “African” with “Singaporean” in the texts above and Nelson Mandela’s words appear not too dissimilar to those of Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s. Like Mr Leong and Mr Ngerng, Mr Mandela employed socio-economic statistics to highlight real social injustices and to rebut government excuses. Similar people making similar statements about similar issues, yet the former is considered by Mr Lim as a unifying figure while the latter are labelled by Mr Lim as sowing discord and disaffection.

Division, envy, discontent and disaffection are born out of real social injustices; they don’t simply grow out of writings. Refraining from writing about social injustices will not make the feelings of social injustices go away unless the underlying problems are addressed. Highlighting social injustices isn’t wrong but is everyone’s moral obligation instead.

Mr Lim should realize that Mr Mandela didn’t just nullify the Marxists, he actually embraced key Marxist ideals and even adopted communist methods of sabotage and also considered communist style guerrilla warfare in preparation for civil war. These Mr Mandela readily admitted during his trial:

Mandela’s Marxist and socialist beliefs:

• Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organisation of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There was no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.

• It is true, as I have already stated that I have been influenced by Marxist thought. But this is also true of many of the leaders of the new independent states. Such widely different persons as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser all acknowledge this fact. We all accept the need for some form of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of the world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty. But this does not mean we are Marxists.

• The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the Freedom Charter. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. It calls for redistribution, but not nationalisation, of land; it provides for nationalisation of mines, banks, and monopoly industry, because monopolies, big monopolies are owned by one race only, and without such nationalisation racial domination would be perpetuated despite the spread of political power.

So while Mr Lim is against “helping the poor by taking away money from others”, he should realize that his respected Nelson Mandela preached redistribution of land, the exact opposite to what he believes in. We thus have this strange situation where the person Mr Lim holds up as someone who personifies the ideals he believes in is someone who actually preached the exact opposite to what he believes in.

Like Nelson Mandela, the Leftists who fought for Singapore’s freedom post World War 2 weren’t Marxists even if they held varying degrees of Marxist beliefs. If we can honour Nelson Mandela despite his Marxist beliefs, surely we can honour the Leftists too who were our true benefactors and freedom fighters.

Mandela involved in sabotage activities and prepared for guerilla warfare

• I do not however, deny that I planned sabotage. We felt that without sabotage there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the Government. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and when the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

• The shooting at Sharpeville, which resulted in the … declaration of the ANC as an unlawful organisation. My colleagues and I … decided that we would not obey this decree. The African people were not part of the Government and did not make the laws by which they were governed. We believed in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the Government”, and for us to accept the banning was equivalent to accepting the silencing of the African people for all time. The ANC refused to dissolve, but instead went underground.

• A Government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it.

• I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that … it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force … it was when all … channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so … because the Government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of Umkhonto … we said’, I quote:
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom”, unquote.

• When we decided to adopt sabotage … we realised that we might one day have to face the prospect of (civil) war … we did not want to be committed to civil war, but we wanted to be ready if it became inevitable.

• We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications would tend to scare away capital from the country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position.

• Attacks on the economic life lines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on Government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people and encourage them to participate in non-violent mass action such as strikes.

• Umkhonto had its first operation on the 16th of December 1961, when Government buildings in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban were attacked.

• We felt it our duty to make preparations as a long-term undertaking to use force in order to defend ourselves against force. If war became inevitable, we wanted to be ready when the time came … we decided, therefore, in our preparations for the future, to make provision for the possibility of guerrilla warfare.

• I had already started to make a study of the art of war and revolution and … underwent a course in military training … I attempted to examine all types of authority on the subject … covering such a variety as Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara …

Mr Lim should thus realize that the unity that he remembers Nelson Mandela by is not a single act but a series of actions that began with the questioning of societal differences and then progressing to violence before turning into the reconciliation that he is more familiar with. The moral of the Nelson Mandela story seen in its entirety is that, before there can be unity, unfair differences have to be addressed and ironed out. As long as there is anger, there can be no unity even if we make a determined effort not to highlight or talk about it.

Finally, another quote from Nelson Mandela:
I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one” – On the Larry King show 2000.

Those who decried Mr Mandela’s actions at first were eventually won over by him. So similarly, those who decry Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s actions today may someday be won over by them too.

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One Response to “Revisiting Lessons from Nelson Mandela”

  1. Open your eyes Says:

    You and others have to spend a lot of time and energy to rebut people like Albert Lime and Calvin Cheng and make sure they do not mislead others into whitewashing the regime. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Are the common folks better off than say, 5 years ago? Is there less conflict? Less worries about the next meal? Less graduates in desperate straits and more of them driving taxis? Of course those in power Want those who oppose them to “discuss” the issues in a soft tone, bowing low with respect. It ensures their grip on power.

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