Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: NZ reaction to Mandela death

Former South African President Nelson Mandela. File photo / NZ Herald
Former South African President Nelson Mandela. File photo / NZ Herald

You can't take politics out of the death of one of the world's most significant political figures. South Africa is a long way from New Zealand, yet the anti-apartheid struggle and the life of Nelson Mandela has greatly influenced our country's politics. Inevitably, then, the death of Mandela has given rise to some very important and interesting political debate.

John Minto: New Zealand's problematic anti-apartheid leader

At the centre of much of the New Zealand discussion about the death of Nelson Mandela is John Minto. This is partly because Minto was the main public face of the 1980s anti-apartheid movement in this country - a movement that has come to play an important part in our national identity and, in particular, the identity of the political left. So Minto's orientation towards Nelson Mandela in both life and death is always of great interest, and so his blogpost today is a must-read - see: Nelson Mandela - the triumph and the tragedy.

It is not particularly well known, but Minto has been an arch critic of both Nelson Mandela and the ANC Government of South Africa. His blogpost, although couched in the expected diplomatic language and form, expresses his careful critique of Mandela, explaining that although Mandela achieved important things for South Africa - legal freedoms in particular - a significant part of Mandela's legacy is the impoverishment of the black majority.

The key part of Minto's blogpost is this: 'Mandela's greatest fault was that he remained silent as corruption and exploitation within the ANC grew.

It's a very harsh truth to spell out but he valued loyalty to his former freedom-fighting comrades above the interests of the poor and the disposed majority of South Africans. So with Mandela as President old elites continued to run the country albeit with some more black faces at the top of the rich list. The South Africa Mandela has left is one where all people now enjoy civil and political rights, vitally important elements for democracy, but without significant economic change which would have made life better for the majority of South Africans'. Discussing Mandela's legacy, Minto says that 'in many ways the majority of South Africa's population are socially and economically worse off now than under the old apartheid regime'.

For more about Minto's contentious relationship with South Africa, see Mike McRoberts' 2-minute news report, Anti-apartheid campaigner cautiously optimistic on SA, John Stephenson's 2009 Photo-Essay: John Minto Visits South Africa, and Minto's own guest post on my blogsite - see: Political roundup about the 25th anniversary of the 1981 Springbok tour.

Delegation disputes

John Minto is also central to a major debate at the moment about who should be included in a New Zealand Government delegation to Mandela's remembrance ceremony in South Africa. In his blogpost, Minto condemns the inclusion of politicians who he regards as having been pro-apartheid: 'Don MacKinnon and Jim Bolger were tour supporters and apologists for the South African regime. They welcomed white South African representation in Wellington and supported all kinds of links with the apartheid regime. They ignored calls for a boycott. National said Mandela was a terrorist and the ANC was a terrorist organisation. It's an embarrassment to be a New Zealander when these hypocrites with so little character and limited integrity are to represent us'.

There are plenty of people who believe Minto should have been included in the Government delegation to South Africa - see Stuff's Kiwi Mandela delegation without tour protesters. There is an online petition which currently has over 2,000 signatures - see: John Key: Include John Minto in the delegation attending Nelson Mandela's funeral and Martyn Bradbury has set up a Facebook page: SendMinto. Bradbury goes as far as calling for John Key himself not to attend - see John Key shouldn't be going to Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Key is certainly facing questions about his own stance on the 1981 Springbok tour - see TVNZ's Key refuses to reveal 1981 apartheid stance. But as Matthew Theunissen reports, in the past Key has admitted that he was once 'mildly pro-tour' - see: Key stands by Mandela funeral delegation decision.

As to whether John Minto himself is interested in going, see his Official statement on being excluded from Delegation. Minto seems to have taken the position that he wants to go, but only if he's officially invited by the New Zealand Government.

The political left's orientation to Mandela

For New Zealand's political left, the death of Nelson Mandela is especially significant. This is largely because the anti-apartheid movement holds a very special place in New Zealand's anti-Establishment and leftwing history. For the epitome of this, see Matthew Theunissen's article, Mandela spiritual leader: Shadbolt. Shadbolt conveys the huge degree of mythology that has arisen about the 1981 anti-tour movement. Despite the fact that Nelson Mandela was at that time hardly known within New Zealand or even the movement, Mandela has taken on an almost godlike status. Shadbolt says, 'That was our main chant, "free Nelson Mandela", during that whole period. In all the speeches that were made, his name would be mentioned by virtually every speaker'; and 'Even though Mandela may not have been the administrative leader at the time, he was our spiritual leader in a way, and he was very inspirational to us. Despite the vast geographical distance between our countries, the New Zealand protesters felt very closely aligned with what was happening in the apartheid struggle'.

For an insightful examination of how and why the New Zealand left has come to identify so strongly with Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, see Philip Ferguson's blog post, Mandela and New Zealand: our 'Diana moment?'. Ferguson - a veteran anti-apartheid campaigner - argues that whereas in Europe the identity of the modern left was established by the '68 generation, in New Zealand it was the '81 generation that came to define progressive politics. He argues that the deification of Mandela in New Zealand represents some very important facts about the political left - especially its preference for liberalism over socialism.

See also, Andy Warren and Philip Ferguson's critique of post-apartheid South Africa and the role of the left - see: Nelson Mandela and the travesty of liberation. Similarly, leftwing blogger Steven Cowan details Mandela's surrender to capital.

Of course, for New Zealand's anti-racist and Maori nationalist movement, the South African struggle has been particularly salient. The Maori King, Tuheitia has put out a statement saying 'Mandela was the embodiment of the struggle of tangata whenua for control over their lands and their destinies' - see Radio New Zealand's Maori King remembers Mandela.

Elaborating on the importance of Mandela for anti-colonialism in New Zealand, Morgan Godfery says that 'Mandela's beliefs and legacy have been white washed' and his radicalism hidden away in favour of his more moderate nature. In New Zealand, 'it's still in the white establishment's interest to highlight, to celebrate and to push upon us their interpretation of Mandela. Highlighting his reconciliatory aspects gives the white establishment hope that Maori might - no, should! - let go of the past and let the status quo remain' - see: The Meaning of Mandela.

The political right grapple with the past

New Zealand's conservative and political right is having a more difficult time navigating the legacy of Mandela. This is very well conveyed in Torben Akel's 2-minute video for TV3: Rugby's relationship with apartheid SA. Akel says 'it should be remembered that while all of New Zealand is now honouring the passing of a great man, it wasn't all New Zealand who fought on his side while he was behind bars, but a movement of radicals and idealists'.

Similarly, Danyl Mclauchlan blogs to say that Being on the wrong side of history is awkward. He draws attention to Justice Minister Judith Collins' politicking tweets about Mandela's death and observes the difficult position rightwing politicians are in: 'So this whole "Death of Mandela" thing is really problematic. Right-wing politicians know that they have to be nice about Mandela and praise him as a hero. But it's awkward to be reminded that Minto was actually getting beaten up because he was protesting to try and get Mandela released and to get our country to break ties with apartheid South Africa, a regime that right-wing governments here and around the world enthusiastically supported. If Key takes John Minto to Mandela's funeral it means swallowing the gigantic rat that Minto - who they regard as the epitome of left-wing idiocy - was completely right, and the National Party was completely wrong. So no trip for Minto'. See also the blogpost of another 1981 protester, David Kennedy (John Key and Mandela's Funeral), who says "Mandela was labeled a terrorist by many New Zealanders, including our Prime Minister at the time, Robert Muldoon. Those who marched in support of Mandela were also considered traitors and terrorists by many'.

But not all of those on the political right are having trouble expressing their feelings about Mandela's death - see, for example, David Farrar's Nelson Mandela RIP.

New Zealand tributes to Mandela

There have been a number of personal tributes published about Mandela. Some of the most interesting are actually by journalists - see: Deborah Hill Cone's Belief in ubuntu drove Mandela - and my mum, Pattrick Smellie's Smellie: My encounter with Mandela, John Armstrong's Mandela, a servant of the people and former HART activist Trevor Richards' A firebrand who left the hate behind him.

Is it too early humour? Not for satirist Scott Yorke - see his blogpost, Man eats biscuit to commemorate Nelson Mandela.

Finally, some of most interesting debate about Mandela's life and death have been on Twitter - involving those of all political persuasions offering interesting and sometimes strange tributes - see my aggregation of some of these in the blogpost, Top NZ tweets about Nelson Mandela's death.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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