Rob Ford's Nelson Mandela Day and other historical ironies

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It came as something of a surprise to hear that Mayor Rob Ford had declared July 18, 2013 'Nelson Mandela Day' in Toronto. But then again perhaps our dear mayor is in fact a fan of South Africa's elder statesman. Few people aren't these days, and to question him or is legacy is the closest thing one can get to secular blasphemy. It is a remarkable irony of history that many of those who, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, denounced him as a communist and a terrorist will soon remember him with heartfelt speeches.

Canadian conservatives and the history of Canadian pro-apartheid activism  

In 2010 Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement on the twentieth anniversary of Mandela's release from prison, which read: "It is a time for us to pause and reflect on the accomplishments of this great statesman who became a unifying symbol of resistance to the racism, intolerance and injustice that characterized South Africa's system of apartheid."

Nine years earlier, when MPs voted to make Mandela an honorary Canadian citizen Conservative MP Rob Anders jumped to his feet and shouted 'No,' in the House of Commons, proceeding to call Mandela a communist and a terrorist -- a popular catchphrase of 80s Thatcherites. We now know what Rob Ford was up to in the 1980s, and it wasn't picketing the South African embassy, but during this decade a host of other conservative Canadian politicians were active in denouncing Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) and newly independent African nations.

During his Reform Party days Stephen Harper and a number of up-and-coming Conservative politicians fraternized with openly pro-apartheid forces active in Canada. One such group was the Northern Foundation, which Murray Dobbin describes in his book on Preston Manning and the Reform Party as a pro-South Africa group formed in 1989 by an alliance of right-wing forces within or close to the Reform Party. Among its founding members were conservative ideologues like Peter Brimelow and Reform Party member Stephen Harper. Brimelow, among others, saw the struggle for a white South Africa as a defensive struggle for the rights of English speaking peoples around the world. This notion of a 'common heritage' with white settler colonies was voiced by founding Reform Party member Stan Waters: "South Africa should think twice before allowing majority rule because most black African countries live under tyranny … if history has any parallelism, you might find a very serious problem emerging in South Africa which may dwarf the objectionable features of the current administration."

While serving as a mouthpiece for apartheid state propaganda, the Foundation's magazine also carried a half-page ad for Phoenix, a pro-white South Africa magazine. While not a member, the late Peter Worthington, a right-wing press hack and sometime Tory candidate, was the author and director of a widely distributed video called 'The ANC Method: Violence,' which coincided with ANC president Oliver Tambo's 1988 visit to Ottawa.

This is the milieu that Harper emerges from. Is it any wonder then that he has been firmly on the side of Israel's apartheid policies, denouncing Palestinians as extremists and terrorists at every turn?

Brand Mandela: Depoliticizing a life and legacy 

Harper's warm feelings for Mandela are indicative of an overt depoliticization of Mandela and the politics of the anti-apartheid struggle, which, it is worth saying, included a great many heroes aside from Mandela. Today brand Mandela is, sadly, a public relations exercise for many charities, NGOs and now municipalities who appeal to ideas of tolerance and reconciliation that are far removed from the era of international solidarity and anti-colonial struggles. The story of Mandela's years as an underground freedom fighter, soliciting military assistance from newly independent African Nations and the Soviet Bloc, is erased in these celebrations. Mandela's role in the armed struggle is an inconvenient footnote in his role as a patron saint of innumerable causes.

Today brand Mandela is means toward profit for Hollywood studios, with another Mandela film slated for release in 2014, and a smiling figure at international sporting events. The battle for brand Mandela -- reportedly one of the most valuable personal global brands -- has even divided his family members who have set up companies using his name and image around the world. In the last year a fierce political battle has erupted between the ANC and the rival DA, a centre-right predominantly white political party, who claims it is the heir to Mandela's legacy.

While many rightly revere him as a figure of anti-racist struggle, there is little in these public celebrations of Mandela that captures the complexity of the man or the spirit of a struggle for both political and economic freedom. Perhaps worse is the fact that this constant deification makes any sober assessment of his politics and policy decisions remarkably difficult. It is worth repeating, as some have, that Mandela's failure to restructure the economy and his close relationship with white mining capital has had severe implications for the country's predominantly black population. These high profile celebrations of Mandela do not acknowledge the very real ongoing struggle against the remnants of apartheid, particularly its economic aspects, in South Africa.

Toronto and the global anti-apartheid struggle 

Any real celebration of Mandela in Toronto would be amiss without taking into account the crucial role this city played in the global anti-apartheid struggle. Sadly, this too is a history easily forgotten. In 1973 a group of Toronto activists formed TCLPAC (Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal's African Colonies) later TCLSAC (Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa). The committee coordinated international solidarity efforts in Toronto for more than 20 years, and relentlessly documented Canada's support for the apartheid state and its dithering position on international sanctions. The group spearheaded campaigns against Canadian banks and corporations doing business in South Africa while hosting liberation movement officials on solidarity visits to Canada. Notable too were efforts by students at the University of Toronto and York to convince both universities to divest from banks and companies which had business dealings in apartheid South Africa.

It seems unlikely that Rob Ford's office would endorse a day celebrating this rich history of dissent and international solidarity in the city.

Those who revere the man would do well to remember his words on the global and ongoing nature of the anti-apartheid struggle: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

Freedom from apartheid in all its forms, and across all geographies, is not something attainable in 67 minutes once a year. It is a lifelong commitment.


Chris Webb is a South African living in Toronto. He is co-editor of Canadian Dimension magazine and a PhD student at the University of Toronto.

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