Like most radicals my age, I remember the moment I heard Nelson Mandela would walk free. I also remember exactly when I heard the apartheid regime was finally gone. I also recall Nelson Mandela’s victory tour in the wake of the moment. When Mandela won the 1994 election, I wondered how the ANC would pull off the economic changes necessary to complete its campaign of bringing social justice to the formerly racist state. Of course, I wasn’t alone in this concern. The challenges were multiple and so were the national and international defenders of the previous reality.
While it is easy to criticize the African National Congress’ acceptance of neoliberal policies in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, acting as if the ANC could have done something different is a bit delusional. Important to understanding the situation post-apartheid South Africa and other newly independent nations and liberation movements faced in the early 1990s was the demise of the Soviet Union. Despite its oft-challenged interpretation of socialism, the fact remains that the Soviet Union did provide financial and military assistance to developing nations around the globe trying to create socially just economies in their newly liberated territories. Whether the Soviet Union’s support was motivated by imperial reasons or because Moscow was a bulwark of socialist liberation is a matter of perspective. As regards the nation of South Africa specifically, the support of the Soviet Union enabled the ANC not only to exist, but to also deepen and broaden its struggle against the racist regime of apartheid South Africa. The union between the ANC and the Communist Party in South Africa was crucial to the success of the anti-apartheid struggle. Once the Soviet Union met its demise in 1990, there was essentially no other economic resource outside of the already stratified and strapped South African economy that the ANC could turn to.
One part of the original economic plan of the ANC government was the nationalization of the mines and other industries to try and resolve some of the economic inequality that existed under the apartheid regime. Unfortunately, their timing was too late. When apartheid was finally abolished, the mechanics of neoliberalism were well on their way to controlling the very nature of the world’s economy. By 1994, even China and Vietnam were telling the ANC government to follow their lead and take the capitalist road, with modifications designed to lessen the most obvious injustices. As history has proven however, the machinery of neoliberalism not only creates inequalities, it exacerbates them. As a matter of fact, it depends on those inequalities to enhance profits and control. During 1993 GATT negotiations, the late U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown classified South Africa as a “developed” rather than “developing” country. As a partial consequence, South Africa lost preferential trade privileges and quickly ran up a $541 million trade deficit with the United States in 1995. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) negotiated an extremely exploitative free trade agreement which treated South Africa as Europe’s industrial equal, despite the obvious lack of substance to the claim.
Sure, the ANC could have refused to pay the debts the apartheid regime accumulated. However, the reality is that the very same institutions demanding the debt repayment were the institutions offering to loan the ANC-led government money. Without an international demand forcing amnesty on that debt, the new government probably felt it had no choice but to agree to repay. Most importantly, perhaps, is the usually unstated (by left critics of Mandela and the ANC post-1994) fact that neoliberalism was but the most recent incarnation of imperialism and, consequently, demanded a determined resistance not just from one nation’s people, but from an international anti-imperialist movement. That was a movement that did not exist in any real way in the 1990s.
Unfortunately for South Africa and every other economy caught in neoliberalism’s web, once an economy goes down the neoliberal road, it is almost impossible to turn back. This is due in large part to the global reach of the system. Just as neoliberalism mostly benefits the corporate financier class, it also works against the rights and liberties of everything and everyone else, individually, class wise and even in terms of local and national autonomy. Like previous incarnations of imperialism, the beneficiaries of the system are primarily certain northern capitals. Given the centrality of the US economy to the world economy, the primary beneficiaries are US corporations and banks. Likewise, the negative aspects of the economy intensify the further away from the center one goes.
Like virtually every other economy of the latter twentieth century, South Africa believed the promises made by the champions of neoliberalism. Similarly, it found itself ensnared in its web with no way out by the beginning of the next millennium. In recent years, working class South Africans have found themselves facing greater debt, stagnant wages and less job security. Their situation is replicated in every other country on the planet. Meanwhile, members of national and global elites around the world lavish in wealth never before seen on earth. Criticizing Nelson Mandela for not creating a socialist nation in the new South Africa ignores the greater failure of the rest of us in not fighting to replicate that reality around in our own nations. If we truly wish to honor Mandela’s legacy, we must recommit ourselves to that fight.