Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 4 July 2020

A Lesson From History

Picture the scene, if you will; it is a Thursday evening in the mid-1980s in the home of a venerable seat of learning, and the smallest bar in town is hosting 'Red Shift', the weekly club night of University Left.

This political umbrella group embraces socialists of every hue, from earnestly myopic Fabians in ethnic scarves to donkey-jacketed hard-line Trotskyites, and this is where they all go to let their hair down among like-minded souls. It's not always easy - men can't ask women to dance because it upsets the feminists ('Don't you oppress me!') and, in any case, nobody wants to look as if they are having fun and ignoring the suffering millions.

But one thing is certain; as the strains of one particular track fill the room, the tiny dancefloor will suddenly be packed. This is the spiritual communion; the seemingly disparate united in song and dance, exhorting a detested regime to 'Free-ee Nelson Mandela'.

For three short minutes, everyone there is an honorary black South African, sharing the pain of an oppressed people and shouting the ANC's cause to the rooftops. The true cognoscenti alternate the lyric with 'Free Walter Sisulu', smugly demonstrating - albeit to the already converted - that their knowledge goes further than a mere song title.

It is, of course, compulsory; no one would dare sit this one out and risk the accusing looks and the taint of indifference to the cause or, worse, potential racism. It is the anthem that defines a generation of socialists, a manifestation of their political credentials as much as a genuine expression of belief; for those 1980s left-wing undergraduates, the ecstatic unity of purpose evoked by 'Free Nelson Mandela' may well have provided their closest approach to a religious experience.

(First posted here in 2013)


Some of those Red Shift habitués, of course, must have kept the flame burning; I suspect that, these days, they can be found in the higher echelons of the media, politics or the arts - remember, these are alumni of a prestigious university where influential contacts can be made by those with ambitions in that direction and the correct ideological leanings.

Others (like me) started to have doubts as details emerged of the ANC's actions and the philosophy behind the movement. Just over a year after the release of 'Free Nelson Mandela', the ANC's radio station broadcast a statement explicitly linking the party's ideology to that of Lenin, followed by a call to obtain weapons by purchase, manufacture or violence. 
“After arming themselves in this manner, our people must begin to identify collaborators and enemy agents and deal with themThe collaborators who are serving in the community councils must be dealt with. Informers, policemen, special branch police and army personnel living and working amongst our people must be eliminated." (April 1985: Radio Freedom)
While it might have been possible to doublethink one's way around accepting attacks on armed forces engaged in carrying out the policies of of an oppressive regime, even the most credulous and fervent of Red Shift's clientele must have struggled to find justification for black South Africans 'eliminating' members of their own community*.

By the time, a year later, that Winnie Mandela announced, 'With our boxes of matches and our necklaces [...] we will liberate this country', the magic was wearing off fast; the bravado of an armed struggle against oppression may sound attractive in the abstract - and while packed safely into a tiny bar in Britain - but the reality was far more problematic. Vocally supporting the ANC wasn't quite as cool as it had originally seemed.

While the club-goers still danced and sang about Nelson Mandela - after all, the terms and circumstances of his imprisonment were manifestly unjust - the ANC t-shirts were folded away, the badges quietly removed from lapels and a number of youngsters learned the valuable lesson that, before proclaiming allegience to a cause, it's a good idea to read the small print.

*The first 'necklace' killing caught on camera was that of a young woman, Maki Skosana, burned alive by a 500-strong mob of activists who suspected her of being a police informer. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found that Skosana was innocent of the charge and concluded that she had been made 'the scapegoat for growing rage'. I still find it hard not to think of that quote when I read of the 'anger' of some pressure group with large numbers and the potential for violent action.