Always a Radical


The whitewashing of Nelson Mandela has begun. In the extreme examples it’s the most reprehensible knuckle-draggers of the right invoking his legacy. Rick Santorum is claiming that he stands in the tradition of Mandela while fighting against the Affordable Care Act — even while his home state tries to push voter apartheid. Rush Limbaugh, despite his long history of smears against Mandela (he once thought it was scandalous that Mandela was in league with communists) is now claiming that really, in his heart, he was a conservative.

Again, these are only the most extreme examples. But even the supposedly liberal accounts are doing their best to sidestep the very real struggles and sacrifices that had to be made by Mandela and the movement against South African apartheid. In fact, little is even being said about apartheid itself, brushed aside by rhetoric about reconciliation and non-violence. Even though Mandela himself had a fairly ambiguous relationship with the tactic of non-violence.

We should remember — as the above video, quite controversial at the time, reflects — that the fight against apartheid against South Africa was supremely militant. It was uncompromising; the right-wingers hated it. Ronald Reagan favored “constructive engagement” over boycott and sanctions even while the great majority of South African blacks were demanding otherwise. Mandela was frequently called a terrorist by mainstream politicians, and was on the US terrorism list until 2008! 

In short, the fight to end legalized racism was, again, a revolutionary situation. Artists United Against Apartheid are one of the great unsung (pardon the sickening pun) heroes of music. To this day I really don’t believe that they’ve gotten enough credit for what they did; rallying big-name musicians of all genres from rock to rap to soul and jazz to say that they refuse to play in South Africa. It was an artistic expression of, in the words of project co-founder Danny Schechter, “about change not charity, freedom not famine.” 

It needs to be noted that the group was musically pretty out there too. The song above isn’t pop, it isn’t rock or rap; it’s a fairly abstract piece. And yet it’s no less impassioned for that. The single that AUAA really put their weight behind was the famous “Sun City,” which was likely just as much out of political expediency; this was the song that delivered a concrete, unequivocal declaration by saying that they wouldn’t giving into the pressures of the white South African regime’s attempts to skirt the cultural sanctions then in place.

The song above, in contrast, is somewhat more of a meditation, albeit one whose chaos matches the high stakes of the struggle itself. Encapsulated in the thudding beats and tense instrumentation is the unrelenting resolve against the most barbaric of obstacles — both of which come into relief in the sound clips sampled into the composition. 

At the time this song was released (1985), Mandela was still in prison; he wouldn’t be released for another five years. Some on the ultra-left might criticize him for the role he played in the somewhat conciliatory negotiations that would most importantly end the legalized segregation that plagued his country, but he was also, in the words of Gary Younge, "never a revolutionary, always a radical." He was someone who understood the stakes of the struggle before him, spoke and acted accordingly. He didn’t just understand that power concedes nothing without a demand, he lived it. 

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse