Chavez vs. Mandela: Why did the media scorn one and mourn the other? By Hassan Reyes

11 December 2013 — Basics

For those many who identify with a progressive or liberatory politics, 2013 will be remembered as a year where two recognized leaders of the Left passed away.


One was still in his prime, having just won another election, and ambitiously continuing a national project of popular, socialist-oriented and democratic process of political decentralization coupled with a program of regional integration that went against the grain of corporate-led “free trade” projects.  He died relatively young.

The other had been out of politics for a decade and a half, and although still a political reference point within his country, had not been a leading figure in its political landscape for sometime.

Ideologically, both centred their politics around the building of socialism, challenged imperialism and led in some capacity armed movements which espoused to liberate their territories from the domestic and international structures of oppression that dominated them.

Despite their similarities, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and former South African President Nelson Mandela were not treated the same, at least not by the governments and media of North America and Europe.

Mandela’s funeral not only counted among its guests the presence of Presidents and dignitaries from across the Third World, but also on the Presidents of countries who most supported Apartheid South Africa including the United States, Britain and Canada.  These politicians and the media appear to pay their respects to Mandela, paying lip service to the anti-apartheid struggle and his place within that movement.  Cynically of course, the world’s elite used his passing as a platform to whitewash in one-fell swoop the history of apartheid, eliminating the brutality of the white-supremacist regime, the complicity of the imperialist West, and also the armed resistance of African people and their allies.  Nevertheless, the balance sheet of Mandela’s role in the liberation of the African continent from colonialism demands respect and admiration.

Nelson Mandela with Grace Machel and Joe Slovo, General Secretary of the South African Communist Party.

Chavez’s untimely death from cancer was afforded no such respect, however.  While millions lined up in Caracas to pay respects to the man they had just re-elected for a fourth time, the Harper Government in Canada used the occasion to issue a statement calling for the Venezuela people to build “democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights”.  On Saturday Night Live, Justin Timberlake performed as Elton John singing a version of ‘Candle in the Wind’ that ridiculed Chavez.

The contrast between the responses to the passing of these two working class heroes is telling.  This is more so when considering the differences and similarities in the political project and policies implemented in both countries and social conditions that are present, and how these are presented in the media.

Legacies and Policies

There can be no understating of the importance of the resistance to the elimination of the political and legal structures of Apartheid, and the victory that the liberation of Mandela and the ascent of the African National Congress represented for the peoples of Africa.  This is the legacy of Mandela and the Apartheid resistance – the uncompromising and forceful struggle for freedom against colonialism and imperialism – that should be upheld and re-appropriated as part of the same lineage of national liberation struggles from Cuba to Palestine (both of whom Mandela supported vociferously until his passing).

As numerous others have pointed out however, the promise of equality under the loose umbrella of socialism has never materialized.  According to the National Planning Commission of South Africa, the gap between richest and poorest (the Gini coefficient) actually increased from 0.64 to 0.67 between 1995 and 2005.

Moreover the proportion of people living below the poverty line (measured at $2/day) increased from 53 percent in 1995 to reaching 58 percent in 2001 before declining to 48 percent in 2008.  Nevertheless, 50% of the population remains in poverty.

It would certainly be unfair to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mandela, although it must be acknowledged that in 20 years of government the ANC and its tripartite partners in the South African Communist Party (of which Mandela was apparently a Central Committee member of) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the economic fabric of Apartheid has been left largely in tact.

Venezuela, on the other hand, has achieved significant social gains in a shorter period of time.  According to the World Bank, the initial reforms under the Bolivarian Revolution reduced “moderate poverty significantly, from 50% in 1998 to 25% in 2012. Inequality has also declined, as evidenced by the Gini Index, which fell from 0.49 in 1998 to 0.39 in 2011, one of the lowest rates in the region.”

Yet, the media portrayal of and political attitudes towards both countries (and the policies implemented under the leadership of Chavez and Mandela) is significantly different.

South Africa continues to be portrayed as an emerging, economic powerhouse with a stable government and social peace.  Venezuela on the other hand is presented as an instable, violent society with a repressive, autocratic regime.  In short, South Africa and Mandela are a success story while Venezuela and Chavez embody failure.

Yet, the social ills that reinforce the narrative around Venezuela and Chavez (high crime rates and government corruption and inefficiency) are also considerably present in South Africa.

With just shy of 16 000 homicides last year, South Africa remains one of the countries with the highest murder rates in the world.  In regards to corruption, there are certainly no shortages of scandals including current President Jacob Zuma who was recently derided for spending $20 million of public funds spent on renovations to his personal compound.  This is not to mention the considerable discontent from the popular classes that was seen prior to hosting the World Cup, or that resulted in the massacre of 44 striking workers at the Marikana mine.

So why the difference in portrayal?

The difference really lies in the approach to the economy, both within their nations as well as internationally.  While neither country can really claim to be ‘socialist’ (as production remains largely in the hands of the private sector in both South Africa and Venezuela), Venezuela has been active in not only attacking the supremacy of private capital through the nationalization of factories and sectors and regulation of the economy, but also through the promotion of ‘social economy’ through cooperatives, community-run productive enterprises and worker-run factories.

This has produced a backlash from the business class in Venezuela, who have been attempting to derail the government and its redistributive policies since 2000.  Most recently, large chains have been caught price gauging while many other vendors (as well as government distributors) have been caught hoarding products.  This model of fabricated scarcity was the same model of destabilization employed prior to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile.

As Slavoj Zizek mentions in a current article on Mandela’s legacy, in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and the perceived victory of capitalism, the ANC was faced with a choice of challenging the economic underpinning of South Africa or attempt to “play the game”.  Zizek reminds us, “if one disturbs these mechanisms, one is very swiftly ‘punished’ by market perturbations, economic chaos, and the rest.”

So it is that in Venezuela there are currently shortages of food staples and high inflation, whereas in South Africa these are not concerns.  Conversely, the concerns in South Africa are wages and income, access to utilities and services where these are (at least) less of a concern in Venezuela than they were prior to 1998 (when Chavez was elected).

Of course, the idea is not to try and reverse the narrative and claim that Chavez is a model and Mandela, a failure.

Liberation struggles and the people that emerge as leaders within them will be complex and have their contradictions, which we need to acknowledge and learn from.  This doesn’t mean we abandon these struggles and their figures in their entirety.

An example of how the corporate media tries to impose visions of history upon us.  Thatcher was one of Apartheids greatest supporters.

When we forget our history, we can be sure that the ruling classes will be quick to rewrite them for us.  We can’t let the corporate mass media and the capitalist politicians of the world tell us who our heroes are, let alone, let them set the criteria for who deserves our mourning and reverence, and who deserves our scorn and contempt. Stephen Harper’s and Barack Obama’s Mandela – the Mandela that every living imperialist has lined up to snap a picture with – isn’t Africa’s Mandela, the working-class’s Mandela, or history’s Mandela.  The Mandela we need to remember and uphold was the freedom fighter, the one labelled a ‘terrorist’ who refused to trade his own freedom at the expense of the armed liberation movement.   That’s the Mandela that helped dismantle the apartheid government; that’s the Mandela we need to reclaim.

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