Once canonized and unassailable, the legacy of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s most iconic political figure, is now tortured. The fact that post-apartheid South Africa exists in a state of unending political, economic, and social despair has led many to disillusionment with Nelson Mandela and the political settlement that he came to represent.
The current South African political order — in terms of the Constitution, the governance system, and economic policy framework — bears the imprint of Mandela’s generation. Mandela’s reputation as a world statesman derived from the so-called success of the transition. But South Africans are divided about their first democratic president. Depending on who you ask, Mandela is either fondly remembered as a hero of liberation or scornfully derided as a “sellout.” And more recently, those unwilling to seat themselves on either side of what feels like an existential divide have become satisfied with a third option: one where Mandela is neither a god nor a fallen angel but, with atheistic incredulity, is cast as nothing more than myth — literally.
Last week, South African social media was ablaze with fresh allegations that the real Nelson Mandela died in 1985 at the age of sixty-seven years. This, the conspiracy went, explained why, on Mandela’s birthday, South Africans are encouraged to perform “sixty-seven minutes” of charity. And, more important, that after Mandela supposedly died in 1985, the apartheid government installed an imposter by the name of Gibson Makanda to play Mandela. That is the man who negotiated the end of apartheid and would be the country’s first democratic president. For good measure, some on Twitter credited the Illuminati for all this, an antisemitic conspiracy whereby a supposed small network of individuals run the world. The implication was that the man leading the African National Congress’s negotiations with the National Party in the early 1990s was not the radical freedom fighter but instead a puppet of his very opposition. Although this conspiracy has circulated for a while without gaining real traction, it made a proper comeback in July last year when an image of a younger Mandela’s face was put into the popular FaceApp application. FaceApp “revealed” that its version of an aged Mandela looked nothing like the man released to the world from Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990.
Conspiracy theories have always been a mainstay of public discourse worldwide — from suspicions that the 1969 moon landing was fabricated to claims that the September 11, 2001 attacks were an “inside job.” Throughout human history, conspiracy theories have mostly felt like the work of people with too much time on their hands or that of racist and antisemitic kooks. More recently, conspiracy theories have steadily become ubiquitous. For example, in 2016, the belief fueled by the UK Independence Party that the result of the Brexit referendum would be predetermined in favor of the Remain vote was widespread. Last year, the suspicious circumstances in the run-up to millionaire financier and child trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s death caused many to conclude he didn’t commit suicide, as officials ruled. Conspiracy theorizing knows no political differences, finding a home on both the Left and the Right. US president Donald Trump wonders aloud about various offensive conspiracies on his Twitter feed.
The political scientist Michael Barkun identifies three elements of any conspiracy theory. First, the belief that nothing happens by accident and everything results from willful action. Second, that nothing is as it seems — appearances are deceptive, and no group or individual is benign. And, finally, that nothing is random; things are connected and patterns of behavior spring from them. This means that conspiracy theories become both frightening and reassuring, the former for reducing the world to a Manichean struggle between hidden forces of good and evil, the latter because it “promises a world that is meaningful rather than arbitrary.” So, as many people point out, the diligent pseudo-scholarship that gathers evidence in argument for any given conspiracy theory expresses an inclination toward a critical theory of society but eschews it all the same.
Conspiracy theories typically project a basic structure of the world in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few, whose interests run against that of the many. The radical British journal Aufheben, in an article in 2011, put it best when dissecting the similarity between this anti-establishment impulse and that shared by political critique, but also its simultaneous cheapening of critique:
It agrees with revolutionary theory that the world is structured by unequal power relations, and that the powerful act in their own interests and against the interests of the majority. It is a parody because of its simplification of complex phenomena to a straightforward act of will; no longer are state actors vulnerable, human and sometimes competent; rather they are super-competent.
Nonetheless, it is an attempt to make sense of a complex and confusing world whose injustices seem maddeningly simple. So, what can we understand from the claim that the “real” Mandela did not ultimately liberate South Africa?
The truth about post-apartheid South Africa is that the majority of black South Africans achieved emancipation without liberation. Liberation here must mean something beyond just formal political equality, and closer to the economic freedom and human flourishing promised by the 1955 Freedom Charter that Mandela played a key role in drafting. The fact that this promise was not delivered, and that the eventual settlement negotiated has instead brought about widespread inequality that persists across racial lines, a social breakdown evident in high rates of crime and violence, and profound government incompetence that sees it unable to provide even the most essential of services, rightly leads some to wonder — what happened? It’s no surprise then that this question becomes more urgent at precisely the moment the ruling African National Congress celebrates its 108th birthday, when the contrast between the organization it once was and the one it is today is starkest.
What explains the ANC’s abrupt turn in the 1990s from these radical beginnings is a combination of global macroeconomic forces that were largely not within its control, and its structural inability to discern and manage what was within its control. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, capitalism emerged victorious as the basic economic structure of the world. What’s more, its neoliberal variant was ascendant — promulgated by institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. This was an orthodoxy based on trade liberalization, privatization, and refashioning the state to entrench and promote globalized free markets. The many Western social democracies that the ANC was hoping to emulate were outmoded by the 1970s and in quick decline. It is at this critical juncture that the ANC found itself, needing to reintegrate into a world capitalism remade, and one where, increasingly, global finance capital dictated the rules of engagement.
But the ANC shouldn’t be exonerated completely. Sure, the game and its rules had been determined, but it could’ve played its hand differently. That it didn’t also comes down to the ANC’s structure—notwithstanding its monumental role in the liberation movement—which meant it wasn’t organically an economically progressive force in the way that a workers’ party would be. Rather, it was, and still is, a broad-church coalition of different economic tendencies from Marxist to laissez-faire capitalist, and there was no certainty that a redistributive economic path would be hegemonic in the first place.
In fact, the fact that there were any inklings of a radical economic program was only because of the participation of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions in the struggle, and that these unions went on to play a role after the Tripartite Alliance was forged in 1990. Naturally, though, as an organization created for the purposes of political liberation, the political aspect of nation-building and ensuring a peaceful transition overshadowed the socioeconomic dimension. Arguably, the Freedom Charter was the ANC’s most sophisticated economic blueprint up until that point, and, as the journalist Hein Marais explains in his meticulous study of the transition, the lack of “a coherent economic programme, based on sound analysis of both local and global economic realities and options” meant that the ANC was without “a platform from which to bargain a new economic dispensation.”
It is these explanations, rooted in political economy, that better explain the conditions that overdetermine the actions of individuals like Mandela. As Rekang Jankie of the Institute for African Alternatives writes, the decisions Mandela made had to do with “his calculations of what he considered to be politically feasible at the time.” It must not be forgotten that he wasn’t making these decisions alone, nor is it the case that he was as individually powerful as many people think. To think otherwise, either in viewing Mandela as a sellout or as a man who didn’t exist at all, commits the very contradiction earlier pointed out by Aufheben, that of viewing him as godlike, albeit failed or thwarted. This sentiment is borne precisely from a mythic conception of Mandela that thinks him capable of single-handedly overcoming whatever obstacles confronted him and the nation at large. To call an inevitably flawed individual a sellout betrays a quiet disappointment that comes only after having once thought them flawless. To assert that this individual was eliminated by the forces of evil betrays a stubborn longing to think he was still flawless.
In the end, conspiracy theories are substitute explanations for struggles in and around the state and capitalism. As a shortcut to anti-capitalism, rather than making qualified structural critiques, they risk settling on mysterious bogeymen — and a lot of the time, this happens with devastating consequences. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany took place in a period of social and economic breakdown much like our own, and the historian Moishe Postone describes the conspiratorial antisemitism that took root then as seeking “a concrete carrier — whether political, social or cultural — through which it can work. Because the power of the Jews, as conceived by the modern anti-Semitic imaginary, is not limited concretely, is not ‘rooted,’ it is considered enormous and extremely difficult to check.”
This reveals a basic feature of conspiracy theorizing — a sense of impotence in the face of political decay. Although a conspiracy will identify a target for its suspicion, the real suspicion is itself limitless. To claim that the apartheid government killed Mandela is to elevate it to an invincible omnipresence. Indeed, it is common today for people to believe that the apartheid government “never left”; the best example of this being charges that the ANC government is secretly controlled by forces of “white monopoly capital.” Such conspiracy theorizing is the outcome and cause of powerlessness and despair, because if everything is forever going to be stacked against us, can things be changed meaningfully? What is the point in trying?
The last decade in South Africa has been a turbulent one, replete with unrest. Yet, rather than pushing forward an alternative, the protests taking place — such as the student protests that engulfed campuses in 2015 and 2016 — have had the character of a grand refusal, an inchoate rejection of all that exists. This is understandable. Thirty years of neoliberalism across the globe have led to what the English cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism,” the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” The decline of the South African left, both tethered to and external to the ANC, only further delimits the horizons of our collective political imagination. But around the world, this despair has been transformed first to discontent and then to a demand for, and belief in, a better world. Insurgencies against neoliberalism and the inequality, austerity, and lack of agency it brings are happening in Chile, France, Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti, Uganda, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
If conspiracy theories express a sense of powerlessness and defeat, to counter them, we must believe in our power to change things. The history of the world is not preordained. South Africans are correct to think that our social relations are unequally distributed — but rather than being at the mercy of unseen and hidden forces, that structure has a name, and its fundamental precepts and alternatives have been sufficiently theorized. All that’s left to do is captured by the words of Joe Hill: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
And, by the way, Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself.