7 December 2013
By Bill Van Auken
The death of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95 has touched off a worldwide exercise in official mourning that is virtually without precedent.
No doubt working people in South Africa and internationally pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice demonstrated by the African National Congress leader—as well as thousands of others who lost their lives and freedom—during his long years of illegality, persecution and imprisonment under the hated Apartheid regime.
Capitalist governments and the corporate-controlled media the world over, however, have rushed to offer condolences for their own reasons. These include heads of states that supported South Africa’s apartheid rule and aided in the capture and imprisonment of Mandela as a “terrorist” half a century ago.
Barack Obama, who presides over the horrors of Guantanamo and a US prison system that holds over 1.5 million behind bars, issued a statement in which he declared himself “one of the countless millions who drew inspiration” from the man who spent 27 years on Robben Island.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, the standard-bearer of the right-wing Tory Party, ordered the flag flown at half-mast outside 10 Downing Street and proclaimed Mandela “a towering figure in our time, a legend in life and now in death—a true global hero.”
Billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, who ordered flags in New York City lowered, and Bill Gates felt compelled to issue their own statements.
What is noteworthy in the sanctimonious blather served up by the media on the occasion of Mandela’s death is the way in which a man whose life is inextricably bound up with the history and politics of South Africa is turned into an entirely apolitical icon, a plaster saint embodying, in the words of Obama, “being guided not by hate, but by love.”
What is it that the capitalist oligarchs in country after country really mourn in the death of Mandela? It is clearly not his will to resist an oppressive system—that is something they are all prepared to punish with imprisonment or drone missile assassination.
Rather, the answer is to be found in the present social and political crisis gripping South Africa, as well as the historic role played by Mandela in preserving capitalist interests in the country under the most explosive conditions.
It is significant that on the day before Mandela’s death, South Africa’s Institute for Justice and Reconciliation issued an annual report showing that those surveyed felt overwhelmingly that class inequality represented the paramount issue in South African society, with twice as many (27.9 percent) citing class as opposed to race (14.6 percent) as the “greatest impediment to national reconciliation.”