Nelson Mandela is greeted by Fidel Castro on a visit to Cuba in 1991. Photograph: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images
The ANC liberation hero has been reinvented as a Kumbaya figure in order to whitewash those who stood behind apartheid
We have now had a week of unrelenting beatification of Nelson Mandela by exactly the kind of people who stood behind his jailers under apartheid. Mandela was without question a towering historical figure and an outstanding hero of South Africa's liberation struggle. So it would be tempting to imagine they had been won over by the scale of his achievement, courage and endurance.
For some, that may be true. For many others, in the western world in particular, it reeks of the rankest hypocrisy. It is after all Mandela's global moral authority, and the manifest depravity of the system he and the African National Congress brought to an end, that now makes the hostility of an earlier time impossible to defend.
So history has had to be comprehensively rewritten, Mandela and the ANC appropriated and sanitised, and inconvenient facts minimised or ignored. The whitewashed narrative has been such a success that the former ANC leader has been reinvented and embraced as an all-purpose Kumbaya figure by politicians across the spectrum and ageing celebrities alike.
But it's a fiction that turns the world on its head and obscures the reality of global power then and now. In this fantasy, the racist apartheid tyranny was a weird aberration that came from nowhere, unconnected to the colonial system it grew out of or the world powers that kept it in place for decades.
In real life, it wasn't just Margaret Thatcher who branded Mandela a terrorist and resisted sanctions, or David Cameron who went on pro-apartheid lobby junkets. Almost the entire western establishment effectively backed the South African regime until the bitter end. Ronald Reagan described it as "essential to the free world". The CIA gave South African security the tipoff that led to Mandela's arrest and imprisonment for 27 years. Harold Wilson's government was still selling arms to the racist regime in the 1960s, and Mandela wasn't removed from the US terrorism watch list until 2008.
Airbrushed out of the Mandela media story has been the man who launched a three-decade-long armed struggle after non-violent avenues had been closed; who declared in his 1964 speech from the dock that the only social system he was tied to was socialism; who was reported by the ANC-allied South African Communist party this week to have been a member of its central committee at the time of his arrest; and whose main international supporters for 30 years were the Soviet Union and Cuba.
It has barely been mentioned in the past few days, but Mandela supported the ANC's armed campaign of sabotage, bombings and attacks on police and military targets throughout his time in prison. Veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC's armed wing, emphasise that the military campaign was always subordinate to the political struggle and that civilians were never targeted (though there were civilian casualties).
But as Ronnie Kasrils, MK's former intelligence chief, told me on Wednesday, Mandela continued to back it after his release in 1990 when Kasrils was running arms into South Africa to defend ANC supporters against violent attacks. And there's no doubt that under today's US and British law, he and other ANC leaders would have been jailed as terrorists for supporting such a campaign.
One of the lessons of Mandela and the ANC's real history is that the cold war wasn't just about capitalism and communism – or freedom and dictatorship, as is now often claimed – but also about colonialism and national liberation, in which the west was unmistakably on the wrong side.
South Africa wasn't an anomaly. The brutal truth is that the US and its allies backed dictatorships from Argentina and Greece to Saudi Arabia, while Soviet support allowed peoples from Vietnam to Angola to win national independence. Cuban military action against South African and US-backed forces at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1988 gave a vital impetus to the fall of the racist regime in Pretoria.
That's one reason why Mandela was a progressive nationalist, and Raul Castro, the Cuban president, spoke at Tuesday's celebration of Mandela's life in Soweto, not David Cameron. And why the man Barack Obama called the "last great liberator of the 20th century" was outspoken in his opposition to US and British wars of intervention and occupation, from Kosovo to Iraq – damning the US as a "threat to world peace", guilty of "unspeakable atrocities".
Such statements have barely figured in media tributes to Mandela this week, of course. The enthusiasm with which Mandela has been embraced in the western world is not only about the racial reconciliation he led, which was a remarkable achievement, but the extent of the ANC's accommodation with corporate South Africa and global finance, which has held back development and deepened inequality.
There have been important social advances since the democratic transformation of the early 1990s, from water and power supply to housing and education. And in the global climate of the early 90s, it's perhaps not surprising that the ANC bent to the neoliberal flood tide, putting its Freedom Charter calls for public ownership and redistribution of land on the back burner. But the price has been to entrench racial economic division, unemployment and corruption, while failing to attract the expected direct foreign investment.
The baleful grip of neoliberal capitalism, and the growing pressure to break with it, is a challenge that goes far beyond South Africa, of course. But along with the struggle for social justice and national liberation, the right to resist tyranny and occupation, and profound opposition to racism and imperial power, that is part of the real legacy of Nelson Mandela.
watch THE LONG WALK OF NELSON MANDELA from PBS on Frontline