You don’t get to be ‘on the right side of history’ on questions history has already decided

1 November 2023
Diane Fieldes

It was only in July 2008, four years after Nelson Mandela announced that he was retiring from public life and fourteen years after he had been elected president of South Africa, that US President George W. Bush signed a bill to remove Mandela’s organisation, the African National Congress, from the US terrorism watch list.

Mandela being on that list in the first place is a reminder that the US and numerous other governments were on the side of the apartheid regime for decades. They were prepared to defend any atrocity when it suited them.

It is worth remembering this as governments around the world line up to defend Israel using the language of “historical memory”, “universal values” and “decency”.

Every government that today supports Israeli apartheid, is now (and supposedly always has been) against South African apartheid. But when the question was posed at the time, many were, like today, on the wrong side of history. Yet you’d never know it from what they say these days.

Indeed, the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013 led to an outpouring of self-congratulatory revisionism.

On leaving Australia to attend the memorial service, Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that both sides of Australian politics had campaigned for an end to apartheid. A Toronto Star headline claimed: “Canada helped lead international fight against Apartheid”. But Canadian and Australian governments had done nothing of the kind.

As late as the 1980s, the decade when the international campaign to free Mandela and end apartheid reached its peak and the struggle by the Black South African working class intensified, conservative leaders around the world rallied to support the South African regime—just as they had done for decades.

Following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, decolonising African and Asian countries moved to have South Africa excluded from the Commonwealth. Australia’s prime minister, Robert Menzies, rejected such moves, refusing to condemn apartheid.

Nelson Mandela’s sentencing to life imprisonment in 1964 left Western powers totally indifferent. In fact, after a voluntary arms embargo was agreed by the UN in 1963 (and widely ignored), the French government increased its trade with South Africa, including becoming the leading supplier of arms to the regime. Within a decade, France was a major trading partner with South Africa, second only to Britain.

The imperialist powers’ support for apartheid South Africa was at least partly motivated by the chance to profit from the supply of super-exploited Black labour that apartheid ensured, and to make money from the arms trade.

Added to this were the requirements of inter-imperialist competition (in this period, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union), which is always bound to trump humanitarian concerns. In 1969, the commandant general of the South African Defence Force (SADF) summed up this reason succinctly:

“In the entire ocean expanse from Australia to South America, South Africa is the only fixed point offering modern naval bases, harbours and airfield facilities, a modern developed industry and stable government.”

And should the West need military help in keeping Russian influence out of Africa, the SADF would provide it.

The arms prohibition that the UN declared mandatory in 1977 after the total failure of the 1963 voluntary embargo simply meant that South Africa developed its own technology, manufactured its own weapons and looked for new military supplies.

Apartheid South Africa also found a new strategic partner. Israel was openly critical of apartheid through the 1950s and 60s as it built alliances with post-colonial African governments. But those links were broken by its wars in 1967 and 1973.

In 1976, Israel invited South African Prime Minister John Vorster—a Nazi sympathiser who had been interned during World War Two—for a state visit. Vorster’s trip laid the ground for a collaboration that transformed the Israel-South Africa axis into a force in the international arms trade.

Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, explained how this worked: “At the UN we kept saying: we are against apartheid, as Jewish people who suffered from the Holocaust this is intolerable. But our security establishment kept cooperating”.

It was only in the late 1980s that the United States, the United Kingdom, and 23 other states passed laws placing various trade sanctions on South Africa. Not because they’d had a moral epiphany. Their victory in the Cold War meant that the release of Mandela and a negotiated settlement involving the African National Congress were now their preferred method to generate stability for future profitable investment in South Africa.

Now that the issue has been settled by history—apartheid having been smashed by the irrepressible organising and mass movement of Black South Africans—the Western establishment clings to the anti-apartheid legacy as a way to make themselves look historically progressive.

This is not the only example of a historical reversal to claim contemporary anti-racist credentials. As Louise O’Shea wrote in a 2017 Marxist Left Review article:

“Enthusiasm about Mussolini or the Third Reich is rightly regarded as shameful today, but it was common currency within Australian conservative circles of the 1920s and 1930s. Repression and intimidation of the union movement and the left, a willingness to dispense with democracy in favour of dictatorship and rampant authoritarianism—all qualities the Australian far right admired about European fascism—were widely considered at the time to be both desirable and applicable here.”

The Brisbane Courier wrote in 1923 of Mussolini’s ascension: “every barrier against Communism—and the Fascisti have proved a strong one—is a bulwark of civilisation”. In 1923, the premier of Victoria, Harry Lawson, had a private audience with Mussolini in which he expressed his “keen sympathy with the fascist movement”.

In Britain, Hitler was applauded, like Mussolini, for restoring order and national pride, bringing economic revival and, not least, for suppressing the left and the workers’ movement. Once war began, these embarrassments were buried as if they had never happened, as the “fight for democracy” became the justification for another inter-imperialist slaughter.

Every respectable politician and establishment figure now touts their credentialed anti-Nazism and purported admiration for Mandela. But you don’t get to be on the right side of history when the questions have already been decided.

Today, Israel is the oppressor state. It is carrying out a genocide and practises apartheid. This is history’s litmus test—not past horrors on which everyone can now comfortably agree.

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