Millions around the world are mourning the loss of the symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela. But people are mourning for different reasons. Most are mourning a freedom fighter who spent 27 years in jail for his opposition to colonialism and racism. Most are mourning a symbol of international solidarity, who spoke out against the Iraq War, supported people with HIV/AIDS and likened the Palestinian freedom struggle to his own. But others are using his death to hide the history of anti-colonial struggles.

Apartheid: a Canadian tradition

According to The National Post, Conservative Prime Minister Mulroney “spearheaded Canadian push to end apartheid in South Africa and free Nelson Mandela.” Mulroney welcomed Mandela into the House of Commons on June 18, 1990, later claiming that “the very notion of South Africa’s apartheid was anathema to me…I viewed apartheid with the same degree of disgust that I attached to the Nazis…I was resolved from the moment I became prime minister that any government I headed would speak and act in the finest traditions of Canada.”

But South African apartheid was based on Canadian tradition. According to Shannon Thunderbird, a Coast Tsimshian First Nations elder, “It is ironic because the Canadian Indian Act formed much of the basis for the oppressive apartheid policies in South Africa. It’s kind of an understood custom and practice that Canada’s Indian Act came to be known as the acceptable role model for apartheid policies and there are books and websites that outline all of this. It’s actually hypocrisy for Canada to stand forward as a kind of bulwark of protest against atrocities going on in other countries while at the same time we turn a blind eye to our own people.” Mulroney welcomed Mandela while the genocidal residential school system was still operational, and two months before sending thousands of Canadian soldiers to confront the Mohawk blockade at Oka.

It is not only the Conservatives whose tributes to Mandela reveal their hypocrisy. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and former Prime Minister Jean Chretien called Mandela’s life inspiring, but Mandela certainly did not inspire the White Paper. In 1969 — five years into Mandela’s incarceration, when Canada still supported South African apartheid — Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his Minister for Indian Affairs Jean Chretien proposed the White Paper to forcibly assimilate First Nations. As the Cree activist Harold Cardinal wrote in his book The Unjust Society (exposing Trudeau’s claims of Canada’s supposed “Just Society”), “In spite of all government attempts to convince Indians to accept the white paper, their efforts will fail, because Indians understand that the path outlined by the Department of Indian Affairs through its mouthpiece, the Honourable Mr. Chrétien, leads directly to cultural genocide. We will not walk this path.”

Anti-colonial struggles

The Red Power movement emerged to challenge Canadian colonialism and defeat the White Paper, and later solidarity with Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle swept the country. Mandela was part of a mass movement against apartheid that included student and township uprisings, armed resistance, mass strikes, and international solidarity. South African apartheid depended on black workers for profits, so the wave of unionization — including the founding of COSATU in 1985 — provided a powerful weapon to organize strikes of millions against apartheid. It was South Africans themselves who spearheaded the push to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela, not the “humanitarian intervention” myths about Mulroney.

But there was widespread solidarity against South African apartheid, which has inspired a similar movement against Israeli apartheid. Western elites are eager to detach Mandela from the struggle, counter-posing the South African freedom struggle with other anti-colonial struggles.Prime Minister Harper claims that Mandela “demonstrated that the only path forward for the nation was to reject the appeal of bitterness.” But it was the bitterness of fellow Conservative Rob Anders — who in 2001 called Mandela a terrorist — that best expressed how Western elites view anti-colonial struggles. That this label was imposed on South African freedom fighters should lead us to challenge the criminalization of other anti-colonial struggles — from Palestine to Tamil Eelam to Turtle Island.

South Africa after apartheid

Mandela’s rehabilitation in the eyes of the elites, from terrorist to inspiration, is not because of newfound solidarity with his anti-apartheid past but rather the neoliberal policies of the ANC government. Reacting to news of Mandela’s passing, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund offered their sympathies to the South African people — sympathies that were lacking when these financial institutions imposed structural adjustment policies in the 1990s.

According to South Africa’s Anti-Privatization Forum and Coalition Against Water Privatization,

“The majority of South Africans, made up of the poor and working class, fought and died not just for political freedom from apartheid, but for socio-economic freedom and justice, for the redistribution of all ‘national wealth’…This popular mandate was captured in the Reconstruction & Development Programme (RDP), which formed the basis of the ‘people’s contract’ with the new democratic government. However, it did not take long for the ANC government to abandon that popular mandate by unilaterally deciding to pursue a water policy that has produced the exact opposite result… Following the neo-liberal economic advice of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various Western governments (and heavy lobbying by private multinational water companies, such as Suez and Biwater), the South African government drastically decreased grants and subsidies to local municipalities and city councils and supported the development of financial instruments for privatised delivery. This effectively forced local government to turn towards commercialisation and privatisation of basic services as a means of generating the revenue no longer provided by the national state. Many local government structures began to privatise and/or corporatise public water utilities by entering into service and management ‘partnerships’ with multinational water corporations. The immediate result was a massive increase in the price of water that necessarily hit poor communities the hardest.

But the struggle for socio-economic freedom and justice, against the ANC government and global corporations, continues — from the Treatment Action Campaign for people with HIV/AIDS, to the protests outside the UN climate talks at Durban, to the strikes at Marikana and beyond. As Mandela himself said in 1993, “You must support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods, if the ANC government does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the apartheid regime.” The best tribute to Mandela is to continue the finest traditions of the anti-apartheid struggle: anti-colonial resistance, protests and strikes, and international solidarity.

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who like Virchow believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at,...