The rich mourn Mandela, the man who saved them from the wrath of the poor

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9 December 2013

On Tuesday in Johannesburg, four current and past British prime ministers, both Labour and Tory, attended a memorial service for Nelson Mandela. They joined 50 heads of state from all over the world, politicians of every description, plus celebrities - from Bono to Richard Branson.

Whatever they may claim, however, the rich and powerful were not mourning the man who was once seen, both in South Africa and abroad, as the symbol of the struggle of the black South African poor majority against apartheid.

If only because that man - whom Thatcher famously branded a "terrorist" - had long been dead: he died on that day in 1990, when he was pulled out of his jail; the day when he agreed to sell out the black working class and its decades-long struggle.

A loyal servant of the capitalist order

When they released Mandela, to negotiate a way out of apartheid, the representatives of the white South African capitalist class knew what they were doing. Mandela had fought tirelessly for the rights of the black majority, against the hated apartheid system, but he had never put into question the capitalist social order which had produced this system.

In 1990, nothing seemed able to stop the unrest that was developing in South Africa's mines, factories and townships. Against this backdrop, Mandela appeared to the South African white bourgeoisie and to their British and American business partners, as their last resort against the rising tide of workers' militancy.

And Mandela played the part he was expected to play. Four years of negotiations later, the institutions of the regime had been tweaked far enough to allow the first multi-racial elections to be held and to accommodate majority rule. But everything had been done to ensure that the power and profits of the white South African capitalists and their western partners remained intact.

Mandela's organisation, the African National Congress, and its allies - the Confederation of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party - had thrown all their energy into convincing workers that they should be patient and allow time for the new multi-racial South Africa to deliver on its promises.

But it didn't. A small minority of ultra-rich blacks - the so-called "black diamonds" - emerged out of the ranks of the ruling parties, joining the white capitalists in their parasitical lives. But the black majority remained as poor as ever, if not poorer.

As a result, the South African working class was deprived of the victory it should have won from its struggle. The same capitalist interests remained in the driving seat, instead of being overthrown, as they should have been. And this is why the rich and powerful are so grateful to Mandela: because he saved them from the wrath of the poor.

Men die, the power of the masses doesn't

It didn't take very long after the first multi-racial elections for workers' militancy to rise again. Neither the betrayal of the post-apartheid leaders, nor the resulting disillusion, succeeded in disarming the South African working class. Strikes began to spring up again and townships to erupt in anger.

Today, judging from the singing and dancing taking place in the streets, the black poor are celebrating Mandela as a symbol of their struggle, because that is what matters - a struggle which will continue, as long as this exploitative capitalist system remains.

As to those politicians who claim Mandela's mantle to cover their subservience to the exploiters, they get the treatment they deserve. President Zuma, who shares responsibility for the murder of 34 striking platinum miners last year at the Marikana mine, was intermittently booed. He and Mandela's other successors may be black, but the South African working class has learnt to recognise its enemies, and Zuma is one of them, just as much as Cameron and Blair and Co., are our enemies.

It was only 20 years ago that the apartheid system was ended. Having helped create so much profit for the mining and financial conglomerates, it came to threaten these same profits, thanks to the mobilisation of black South African workers against it - a mobilisation which had the potential of turning into a general uprising which might have spread over the African continent.

Mandela and his successors may have rescued big business. But this rescue will only be temporary. Ever since the end of apartheid, the explosive power of the South African working class has been building up. We can be sure that it will erupt again, and that this time, it will find leaders from within its own ranks, to take its fight as far as it should have gone at the time - all the way, right up to the overthrow of the capitalist order.