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Author and filmmaker Danny Schechter says although the ANC’s political choices included compromises with neoliberalism, it should not be used to discount Mandela’s achievements

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On Sunday, South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, was laid to rest in his childhood village of Qunu. More than 100,000 people visited Mandela’s coffin as it lay in state over the past several days.

Now joining us to discuss Mandela and his legacy is Danny Schechter. He’s an author and filmmaker who first went to South Africa 40 years ago. He’s made six documentaries with Mandela. And his most recent book is Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela.

Thank you so much for joining us, Danny.


NOOR: So, Danny, how do you balance the role Mandela played as a unifying force against apartheid with the current economic situation that South Africa is in? We interviewed Glen Ford after Mandela passed away, and he described a conversation with leading anti-apartheid activist Ronnie Kasrils, who said that the ANC and the South African Communist Party chose to make an unfinished revolution a change in regime but not a change in the relationships of economic power.

SCHECHTER: First of all, let’s recognize that Mandela was part of a collective leadership of the ANC. Everything that was done by the party was not done by him, and everything that he did was not necessarily supported at every stage by the party.

He was a leader, a visionary figure, and a reconciler, a person who could reach beyond the confrontation that was brewing in South Africa and avert a race war and promote reconciliation at a time when no one thought that would be possible.

So let’s start with the positives. The positives is that apartheid was demolished, that a multiracial government was formed in South Africa, that the country held its first democratic elections in which everyone participated. That was largely part of his, really, forte.

He was not an economist, and a lot of people in the ANC were rather naive about economics. They were being promised all sorts of things by Western companies and Western governments that never came to fruition.

But this was also a period when their allies, the Soviet Union, basically had fallen apart, and many of the countries that they had been allied with were not able to help them.

So, in essence, they had to be pragmatic. They had to find a way to move forward with as much support as they could achieve.

Now, in the course of that, they made deals which in retrospect and in hindsight don’t look very good, deals with the IMF, deals with the World Bank, deals with various companies who were promising to make changes but didn’t really quite make them.

Mandela was, you know, a steward of all this. He was a president, a political leader, but not necessarily the person calling all the shots, in the same way that Obama is the president but Wall Street calls a lot of the economic shots. So it’s unfair to dump all of this on him.

And what we do know, though, is that the ANC, when it came to power, was more preoccupied with political change than with economic change. And I think the problems that we’re facing in South Africa today and in many other countries are because movements for change don’t focus on economics. They mostly focus on politics.

NOOR: So, Danny, in a recent piece you did in Truthdig, you criticize The New York Times‘ Andrew Sorkin for writing about Mandela’s infatuation with the freedom of markets. Talk more about exactly how these deals were struck and under what pressures the ANC and Mandela were when they took power in the early ’90s.

SCHECHTER: I don’t think the viewers of The Real News Network have to be persuaded that there’s an imperialist system out there, that there’s a system of big powers dominated by a corporatocracy that really dominates our economic decision-making. The ANC thought they were just fighting apartheid in South Africa. They would soon learn they were up against a world system of economic domination, where what they wanted to do, which was transform the economy, end poverty, create jobs, create schools, create other services, was handicapped for a number of reasons.

One, the old government, the Afrikaner government, have actually stolen a lot of money. There was probably more corruption there than there has been since the ANC took over.

Secondly, the forces of the neoliberal, say, elite, which–you know, I’m not being conspiratorial here, but I’m talking about the people who were advising the ANC–avoid demanding nationalization–it’s not going to work; you’re just going to create problems for yourself. Those voices were not just voices on the right. They included China, they included Vietnam, the included many so-called socialist countries, who are advising them to try to negotiate and navigate some sort of middle path. And they thought they had. But in many ways they were undermined by pressure, lobbying, media attacks, and all sorts of consultants and others who were trying to steer them in a neoliberal direction, and they were successful in doing so.

But this isn’t a simplistic process where there’s a bunch of bad guys and a bunch of good guys. These were people who were grappling with the problem of how do we transform a country. Here’s a man who came out of jail just a few years before he was elected president. He wasn’t involved in, you know, negotiating on economic issues. He was trying to get his people out of prison. He was trying to stop a race war, neutralize the right wing, neutralize the armed forces of the Afrikaner military. And he was successful in doing a lot of it. But he wasn’t–you know, he didn’t have a magic wand, and he couldn’t turn South Africa totally around.

And the other thing is that this was not a socialist revolution. It was a national democratic revolution, as they call it. So it wasn’t as if they had a clear agenda–we want to do X, Y, and Z. And even the countries that had socialist revolutions–let’s take a look at China, for example–have moved, you know, in a market Leninist position, really, building the market system. It’s very hard to go against that in the world today. And, you know, as the reforms in Cuba show, as the reforms in Venezuela show, it’s not easy to stand up against the combined economic power of the whole world.

I’m not saying this to rationalize decisions that I think really should have been made differently, but that’s me. What do I know? I’m in New York. I’m not, you know, on the front line of this battle. And there were major debates and discussions inside the ANC about what to do. And I write about that in my Truthdig article,, about how neoliberalism pushed its way into South Africa.

But, you know, you have to realize that this was part of, you know, a struggle that people–there’s a learning curve in every struggle. You start off wanting to do A, and you end up settling for B. And that’s compromise. That’s the real world, unfortunately.

So it’s easy to take potshots at Mandela. And I don’t. In fact, Jay Naidoo, the person who ran the Reconstruction and Development Programme in South Africa, was charged by Mandela to promote the transformation, said later, he said, it was not his fault. We–it’s our generation that dropped the ball here.

And even Ronnie Kasrils doesn’t blast Mandela specifically. He’s talking about, you know, the process of a lack of determination on the part of the ANC, which had been fighting for all those years to get to where they were. It was overwhelming. And they maybe underestimated what they had to do.

But I think it’s unfair to sit up here in the United States and, you know, shoot some academic left-wing points at them when in fact they achieved quite a bit but they were also restrained in what they could achieve.

NOOR: And finally, Danny, what do you say to critics who say that later on Mandela had the moral authority, he could have, you know, shaken the ground of the other ANC leaders as the inequality worsened, but he chose not to?

SCHECHTER: Well, coulda, shoulda, woulda. Okay? I mean, this is what I’m talking about. Your question really is what I’m talking about, is the assumption somehow that there were these clear options and that you could have gone for option A–oops, total revolution; option B, partial revolution; option C–. You know, no, it wasn’t like that. There were constant problems, constant crises that were going on not only from external pressures but internal pressures, inside the ANC, of people who needed houses, who needed salaries, who needed, you know, some sort of future for their families. You know. So there was a lot of pressure on him from all sides.

I think in retrospect it’s pretty amazing what he achieved. I would have liked to have seen him achieve more. But I don’t think this playing this he-sold-out game, really is appropriate, particularly a day after he’s been put in the ground. I mean, I think we have to recognize the tremendous strengths of this person. We have to recognize that this South Africa movement achieved so much more than any movement in America has achieved, as far as I can tell, in terms of political power, in terms of, you know, freedom and equality, in terms of a Constitution that’s so much more progressive than our own. So let’s not get into this game of–you know, kind of zero-sum game.

I think there are contradictions, you know, in everything, and there were here. And I myself am an admirer of Madiba. I’m somebody who understands what he was going through. I wasn’t in the rooms when a lot of those decisions were made, but I’ll tell you this: he was a standup person. He stood up for certain principles. He took unpopular stands. He believed in bringing people together, and he was successful in doing that. And I think the fact that so many leaders and so many people in South Africa came out to mourn his passing is a sign of how deep the respect for him was and will remain.

And I think it’s important for us in America to try to take a deeper look at this. That’s why I wrote this book Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela. And I urge folks who want to know more about this man and about this movement to read it. Thank you.

NOOR: Danny Schechter, thank you so much for joining us.

SCHECHTER: Thank you very much for talking to me about this book and about a man I think we all have to admire and all have to learn from, both the weaknesses and the strengths.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnooor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Danny Schechter, "The News Dissector," is a former network TV producer, radio newscaster, and edits He has written nine books on media themes. His latest, 'Plunder', was inspired by his latest film, In Debt We Trust: America Before The Bubble Bursts