The last laugh
Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. This is, in any case, my feeling after reading Slavoj Zizek’s Opinion Piece in the New York Times, Mandela’s Socialist Failure. Zizek argues that Mandela abandoned the socialist perspective after his election as president, which is why, instead of celebrating his life, we should consider it a failure.
In contrast to many of my friends, I’ve never been a fan of Zizek’s work, mostly because his remarks are often unspecific crowdpleasers – ‘Communism will win‘ – and when he talks about economic issues, he equates capitalism with Ayn Rand. This is like looking at a rainbow and just seeing red. But his piece on Mandela warrants a response, for two reasons: he lies, and does so repeatedly.
Zizek starts off with two ‘key facts’: “In South Africa, the miserable life of the poor majority broadly remains the same as under apartheid, and the rise of political and civil rights is counterbalanced by the growing insecurity, violence, and crime.” He doesn’t cite a source for either, probably because there are none. The first is the easiest to dispel. As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, South Africans today are better-off than they had been under apartheid. This is confirmed by countless surveys and poverty analyses; the most recent one, a study by the National Planning Commission and UCT found that since 2008 (the beginning of the recession, remember), poverty levels have fallen significantly. Since 1994, the poorest of the poor have gained access to services: water, sanitation, housing, and electricity.
His second fact is equally dubious, although it is slightly more difficult to disprove. Crime statistics are notoriously suspect and there are few reliable estimates for crime and violence in South Africa’s black townships during apartheid. But there is absolutely no evidence that violence in South Africa is on the increase or, as Zizek puts it, ‘growing’; in fact, official South African Police Service statistics show that the absolute number of contact crimes (murder, attempted murder, sexual offences, assault and robbery) have declined by 30% between 2003 and 2013. And this has happened while the South African population has increased by more than 5 million individuals.
Zizek uses these two ‘facts’ to argue that Mandela’s ANC should have pushed for a total transformation of the South African economy; his suggestion of exactly what should have happened is vague as always. He notes that, in general, as soon as a political revolution is successful, the new political leaders succumbs to the ‘ruling ideology’ (i.e. capitalism) and therefore fails to pursue the revolution to the extreme. This is because “the ruling ideology mobilizes here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They start to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, they blame us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalist investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed.”
Okay, so let me get this straight. Nelson Mandela was a failure because he valued education above having fun?
“We can safely surmise that, on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter, old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat.”
Mandela had much to be happy about (see picture). There is no doubt that things could have been even better; much of South Africa’s recent ‘success’ has been achieved despite and not because of our leaders. But South Africa today is a vastly different country than the one of two decades ago. It is safer, wealthier, and more optimistic about the future, mostly because South Africa integrated into the global economy, improved its productivity, trade, and foreign investment, which resulted in higher economic growth. Growth created tax income, which the government used to fund large service improvements in many rural areas, increase education and health spending, and other social transfers. Capitalism – not the Ayn Rand type but the social democratic type – won.
Mandela was not a ‘bitter, old man’ wearing ‘the mask of a bitter defeat’. Instead, I suspect Zizek may be referring to himself.