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David Watterson is a pianist and advocate for music and art as a strategy for social impact. He lives in San Francisco. You can find him on Twitter.

Author’s note: I wrote this on the evening Nelson Mandela died, after re-reading a chapter from Naomi Klein’s excellent book, “The Shock Doctrine,” which discussed the rise of neoliberal economics in post-Apartheid South Africa. I encourage people to read the book for much greater detail on the subject and opinions expressed here.

I admire Nelson Mandela deeply. But it is worth saying that the man whose life we celebrate today is a man who might as well have passed away in 1994. We have chosen to freeze his legacy in time and celebrate only what he represented in terms of racial progress in a country that was so desperately in need of it. What we have chosen to ignore is his betrayal of an equally important component of his life’s work with the ANC: economic empowerment for blacks and non-white minorities in South Africa. He wasn’t just fighting for blacks to have equal rights, but to ensure that all people could have equal economic opportunities. In the radical Freedom Charter of 1955, the ANC and Mandela demanded labor rights for the working class, reform for the poor, and the nationalization of key industries. It stated, “The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people.” It was a matter-of-fact rejection of free-market capitalism, and advocated for a strong governmental role for what is called economic developmentalism. The demands of the charter, and the widespread popular support for it among blacks rightly scared the shit out of the white ruling class.

Despite supporting the Freedom Charter as late as January 1990, saying that any deviation from it in the ANC’s political platform is “inconceivable,” Mandela fully abandoned those principles after negotiating for loans with the IMF upon his entry as President in 1994. At the same time that blacks became full citizens in the eyes of the law, South African industries and natural resources were being transferred into private (often foreign) ownership more than ever before. Since then, the ironic result is a South Africa in which whites have prospered more than ever while blacks have suffered at unprecedented levels. Consider the following facts:

  1. Between 1991 and 2002, the unemployment rate for black South Africans more than doubled, from 23 percent to 48 percent.
  2. Of South Africa’s 35 million black citizens, only five thousand earn more than $60,000 a year. The number of whites in that income bracket is twenty times higher, and many earn far more than that amount.
  3. The ANC government has built 1.8 million homes, but in the meantime, 2 million people have lost their homes.

I say all this not to diminish the humongous achievements of Mandela (whose life accomplishments are matched only by a handful of human beings), but to point to a part of his legacy that I feel is too conveniently forgotten or shuttered from our memory, because to remember it, is to remember that the work of justice is so very far from done. The capitalist elite who have benefited so much from the post-apartheid free market do not want us to remember this part of the ANC’s political agenda. They want us to only celebrate Mandela as a harmless figure who healed racial tensions. Please don’t let them have their way.