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The great man who fought for change

No political leader in living memory has been so genuinely loved across the spectrum or touched so many people's lives

Global sorrow imbued with pride and admiration reflects the personal qualities of Nelson Mandela and underlines his revolutionary legacy.

No political leader in living memory has been so genuinely loved and appreciated across the spectrum or touched so many people's lives through his palpable humanity.

But it was not always so. Mandela rose to political prominence when most of Africa still toiled under colonial dictatorships, oppressed by the British, French, Belgian and Portuguese empires.

Apartheid South Africa was not regarded then as the "skunk of the world," as Mandela said during his 1994 presidential inauguration speech.

It was a close ally and trading partner of the colonial powers and developed close links with US imperialism and its protégé Israel.

When the Boycott Movement, later the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), was set up in 1959 in response to an appeal by African National Congress president Albert Luthuli, there was a response from the Labour, Liberal and Communist parties and sections of the trade union movement.

Our paper, then the Daily Worker, took a firm stand in support of the South African liberation movement, offering unparalleled coverage of AAM protests and taking exiled South Africans onto its staff.

However, the British state, irrespective of which party was in office, proved a consistent and shameless collaborator with apartheid, seeing the liberation movement in cold-war terms and justifying its stance on South Africa's provision of the Simonstown naval base for use by Royal Navy vessels.

Mandela: a true revolutionary

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher's close links with apartheid president PW Botha are well known, as are her views that Mandela was a communist terrorist and that anyone who thought the ANC would ever rule South Africa was "living in cloud cuckoo land."

Not to be outdone, her associate Ronald Reagan placed the ANC on the official US list of terrorist groups, such that as late as 2008, Mandela required a special government waiver to visit the US.

The apartheid regime's obsession with characterising the South African people's struggle for national liberation against what they called "colonialism of a special type" as an expression of the global conflict between capitalism and socialism was intended to sustain backing from the imperialist powers.

This partly explains Mandela's denial of his Communist Party membership after his arrest in 1962, together with a desire not to complicate matters within the ANC and possibly further afield.

It is surely no coincidence that, when the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign began to develop real traction in the US in the 1980s, driven especially by African Americans, Reagan and the far-right raised the "red scare" by stressing ANC links with the Soviet Union.

All these stories did was to reinforce among South African young liberation fighters the sentiment identified in the dock by Mandela - that many Africans "tend to equate freedom with communism."

This is no less true today, with 170,000 mainly young South Africans taking their place in the SACP, which had barely 1,000 official members when the apartheid regime bowed to the inevitable two decades ago.

Mandela embodied the struggle to overthrow apartheid. His generosity, openness and willingness to forgive have helped shape the image of what is called the rainbow nation.

Former mainstays of apartheid and capitalist power who would have gladly seen the ANC leader spend the rest of his days in jail now pay tribute to his life, grateful to have retained their privileged economic position.

Such a compromise was to a large extent forced on Mandela and the ANC by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies, depriving a newly liberated state intent on radical change of its natural support base.

ANC governments under Mandela and his successors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma have achieved much in improving the lot of South Africa's poor black majority, providing housing, clean water and electricity to millions, as well as replacing racist dictatorship with democracy.

But apartheid's divisions still hold sway, with land ownership and corporate power largely in the hands of a small white minority.

Economic justice is impossible as long as such inequality survives, making it inevitable that firm action will be required to champion the interests of the working class and the rural landless.

When that happens, Mandela's new devotees can be expected to counterpose his supposed moderation against his successors' extremism.

He will not be around to speak for himself, but his entire life record guarantees that he would be in the ANC camp, wearing its colours and backing its collectively decided approach.

President Zuma calls on all his people to reaffirm Mandela's "vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another" and his image should serve to remind us all that above all this great South African was dedicated to revolutionary change.

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