From the NS, 19 January 1990: Mandela at large

After 27 years in detention the release of Nelson Mandela was awaited like a second coming. On the eve of the prison doors opening Ivor Powell wondered if he could fulfil these great expectations.

When Nelson Mandela is ­finally released, the first disappointment is likely to be the absence of attendant trumpeting angels or a darkening of the skies at noon. In the minds of ordinary South Africans, the myth surrounding the world’s most famous political prisoner is so powerful that the man is scarcely any longer flesh and blood.

Here is Lucky, a notorious and hardbitten Soweto gangster on the subject: “Let me get one thing clear. I don’t support the UDF or the MDM or the ANC. I’m not a politician and I’m not waiting for liberation. I’m a man who makes his own freedom. But that man is my leader. He is bigger than all the parties and the movements. I don’t think they can afford to release him because that day there will be chaos in this country.” Lucky sketches a ­scenario in which the people rise up, rally round Mandela; the Boers get their come­uppance; the tyranny is toppled.

The blunt truth is that it’s not going to happen like that. Mandela is going to be released from the limbo of Victor Verster Prison so that he can take his place at the negotiating table. And negotiating a settlement is going to take a very long time. The signs are that the Mandela of real life will preach compromise and conciliation rather than revolution and take-over. In truth he could do little else. If Mandela does hold mass rallies it will still be under the watchful eye of the authorities, and only on their tolerance and after he has applied to the relevant magisterial authorities. And it will only be as a concession from the government that the ANC will cease to be a banned organisation. Pretoria still has the muscle to call the shots in any face to face confrontation. The people may be expecting King Nelson, but, willy-nilly, they are going to get Citizen Mandela.

But Citizen Mandela remains a personage of extraordinary force and prestige, both inside the country and beyond its borders. At least in his absence he looks to be the one figure who could effect unity among the various factions of the South African resistance. Or at least this is how it will appear initially – opposing black politicians will be loath for some time to tackle the myth head on.

One activist returning from a visit to ­Mandela recently described the encounter by saying: “You know all the nonsense that gets written about Mandela, how youthful he is, how he has a stomach like a washboard and can convince you that green is pink? Well it’s all true, he’s even more impressive than that.”

Perhaps the most significant factor though, as far as the ANC is concerned, lies in Mandela’s enormous credibility within the movement itself. As the prospect of negotiations looms, large sectors of the ANC’s internal grassroots support grows increasingly bewildered. Long nurtured on the rhetoric of revolution and the adrenalin of confrontation, the slogans and myth of a total transfer of power, the militant youth is approaching the prospect of negotiations with a certain dubiety. For such as Marcus, an 18-year-old Soweto youth activist, veteran of several ­detentions and tortures, the principle of a negotiated settlement is a hard one to swallow. “If the climate is right I can believe in negotiations,” he says. “We are young and we understand there must be democracy and people’s power. But we don’t understand the best ways of moving in that direction. But there can be no negotiations for the youth without Comrade Mandela. Then we will know that de Klerk is serious and there will be no sell-out.”

However, as the prospect of a settlement looms, cracks are starting to appear in the coalitions which have characterised the resis­tance in the past. Leading trade unionists have been heard to say in private that nothing short of a transfer of power will be acceptable to their membership. And the alliance of the South African Communist Party and the basically social democrat ANC, always only secure in its shared opposition to the South African state, is showing signs of strain. It will fall to Mandela to resolve all these tensions and to re-cement the alliances in the face of all the ideological difficulties and contradictions which loom as reality ­begins to erode the dream.

One difficulty, however, is the trial of the so-called “Mandela Football Team”, the ­private thug detachment surrounding Mandela’s wife Winnie, accused of murdering child activist Stompie Seipei in 1988, which seems to have been carefully contrived to coincide with the release of Mandela. It is more than likely Winnie will be named in the trial.

Though her husband is personally untouched by the scandal, he reportedly blames himself for what he perceives as the lack of guidance given to her. Whatever emerges ­regarding Winnie’s role, Nelson is almost certain to stand by her. Admirable as this attitude is, it may prove politically problematic: she remains one of the most feared and hated women in the country. Should she be deeply implicated by the accused in the trial, her husband may be forced to take a more retiring political role.

One more fact needs to be mentioned in connection with the phenomenon that is Mandela. When his jailers first consulted him regarding his release, he referred the matter back to his fellow prisoners. In secret, the cell block consulted and deliberated, ­finally making the decision by referendum.

For all his charisma, for all the manifest power of his personality, the man is no autocrat. He will abide by the consensus of his comrades. He will no more submit to the pressures of his own personality – or that of his wife – than he will be bought by crumbs from the white man’s table. That is the force de Klerk will now face. That is why blacks look to his release like a second coming.

 

elson Mandela and his then-wife Winnie raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison in Paarl, South Africa on February 11, 1990. Photograph: Getty Images
ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times