This previously unpublished article was written as a response to a programme broadcast in 2004 by Channel 4 in the UK. I have decided to resurrect it now as Mandela’s iconic status is, if anything, even greater than it was at that time, and while his stataus as a great man is not questioned, his role in South Africa’s post apartheid history does need to re-examined. 




Gerard Coffey

I don’t believe in saints, preferring to comfort myself with the idea that most aspirants to that celestial category are probably sinners, like me, under the cloth. After all, so the saying goes, we’re all brothers (and sisters) in the dark. So it was with anticipation that I waited for Channel 4’s revisionist view of Nelson Mandela, an African political icon to rival India’s Gandhi – himself a second class saint in the eyes of the ‘untouchables’. The revisionists, I thought with relief, are finally at Mandela’s door.

And yes, as expected, Peter Hitchens’ rather pointed presentation did convey the idea that Mandela has feet of clay: a person whose status has been used by many to cover up the somewhat obscure manoeuvrings of the modern day African National Congress, the ANC, a party presented as heady with its own power, which is probably true, and awash with corruption, which remains to be seen. But by all appearances Mandela has allowed himself to be used for the purpose of shoring up his party’s image, while he himself remains above the political miasma.

Debatable as Hitchens’ claims may be, they do present a somewhat more human, and therefore more acceptable view of Mandela as a political leader in a complex and often murky world. That is not to say of course, as Hitchins himself was at pains to point out, that Mandela’s suffering, commitment and courage are to be questioned. Just that, while he is by no means ordinary, he is, after all, definitely human.

On another level the portrait is deeply flawed, failing to dig a little deeper into areas which might in fact show that Mandela’s actions as President of the new South Africa were not necessarily of his own making, or at very least were shaped by interests that were neither his nor South Africa’s. For example, while presenting the undoubtedly  correct opinion that the fall of Apartheid was delayed because the western powers were not keen to hand over a country as strategically important as South Africa to a party whose stance was decidedly Marxist, the Iron Lady herself was presented as a model of decency in pressing those bad old South African retrograde whites to free Mandela. Unfortunately, he doesn’t draw what for many of us would be the obvious, and probably correct, conclusion: that for Margaret Thatcher, Mandela was the ideal candidate to lead South Africa after the fall of Apartheid, not only because his inclusionary principles would avoid major bloodshed, as even his adversaries admitted they did, but that he was also the candidate most likely to implement an economic policy which would not overly compromise western interests. Thatcher, who for some can also lay claim to a sort of iconic status, was not after all an anti apartheid activist but the conservative business oriented Prime Minister of a Great Britain with major financial interests in South Africa. 

The facts and opinions offered by the Channel 4 portrait also show today’s South Africa as a place of profound economic inequality, differing little from the previous Apartheid regime. And while the assertion of greater inequality is highly debatable, – it would after all be difficult to achieve – there is no doubt that the market based policies implemented by the Mandela regime have contributed to a lack of progress by the marginalized, something almost all hoped would take place. The problem is that Mandela’s role here was presented as if his actions and those of his government, and even the ANC itself, were isolated from the type of market oriented economic policies being promoted at the time: policies which Mandela was undoubtedly obliged to implement in exchange for western financial and political support. And if we are to be fair to Mandela, we must also view his policies in context and admit that despite the best efforts of John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes, capitalism (and this is certainly true of the present day variety) has never been particularly concerned with the distribution of wealth.

In Hitchens view, one of the major culprits is not international finance, but rather a somewhat callous Mandela whose administration negotiated arms purchases with the West amounting to somewhere in the region of £6 billion. While this is rightly seen as a scourge on poor South Africans, once again we see it presented simply as a South African internal affair. But, as is widely appreciated, arms deals are by nature geo-political, and as the latest controversy about the £60 million BAE slush fund shows once again, inherently shadowy and open to very little public scrutiny. The issue of which governments and geo political strategies were involved, and on what terms the arms were sold, remained unexamined.

The same criteria can be applied to the criticisms made about Mandela’s, and now Mbeki’s, handling of the aids problem. And a massive problem it is. It may be that South Africa’s present Prime Minister, Thabo Mbeki, as a now reformed Mandela did before him, just doesn’t take the issue seriously. From my point of view, Mbeki’s espousal of marginal and rather incredible theories about AIDS, and his unwillingness to ‘do the right thing’ is highly suspicious and smells of political manoevering. All the more so if one takes into account, which Peter Hitchens unfortunately failed to do, the international context in which the South African Government has found itself on this issue.  


The actions of the Mandela and Mbeki governments cannot be truly appreciated without an explanation of the fight against the pharmaceutical companies who opposed the production of generic medicines in South Africa for the treatment of the country’s more than 4 million HIV positive citizens. The pharmaceutical companies were supported at the highest levels, witness the Clinton administration’s support for the campaign to force the South African government to withdraw or modify its legislation to allow the production of generics. And while it appeared at one time that South Africa might have won the right to save itself (the pharmaceutical firms’ legal action against the S.African government was dropped in 2001) the struggle over the HIV medication drags on, no doubt because of the enormous influence, both formal and informal, exerted by the companies on governments and their leaders.

The conflict over HIV and generic medicines has been a fundamental part of the S. African landscape over the last decade and constitutes the real world in which a very real and very human Mandela moved, and moves, and not the sort of imaginary landscape presented by Peter Hitchens where actions are discrete, self contained, and uninfluenced by outside factors. De-iconisation is a process to be welcomed, a process which will lead to a more human and real way of viewing our political leaders and, through them, ourselves. We must not whitewash the ANC and its governments, but any review of Mandela as a man and icon, must be carried out in a way that considers all the factors of a complex and self interested world.