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Mandela the communist?

By Dr John Lamola

Stephen Ellis’s approach in the brouhaha that has followed the SACP’s December 10 2013 statement that Nelson Mandela was a member of its central committee when he was captured in August 1962 exposes the enormity of the implications of this claim of the SACP. It places the matter within the context of the nature of the contestation on the historiography of modern South Africa. In a column published in the Mail & Guardian of January 3 2014 Ellis grabs on this development to accuse the ANC of having suppressed this information all along as part of its alleged tendency of manipulating access to archival material for its own political ends.

In the interests of responsible scholarship, and the impending project of constructing the intellectual profile of Mandela as one of the leading contributors to modern African social thought in the lineage of the likes of Léopold Sédar Senghor and Kwame Nkrumah, this assertion that Mandela landed on Robben Island as a communist leader has to be researched, explained, debated and settled with utmost scientific and scholarly rigour.

If the SACP claim is true, what remains to be explained is the evidence emanating from two sources, both of which happen to be primary as they carry Mandela’s words by himself. These are: a set of assertions made by Mandela in his ominous statement from the dock at the close of the Rivonia Trial in April 1964 (The Struggle is my Life, pp148-181) as well his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom of 1994. These two sources collectively bear a testimony which contradicts the SACP claim. And it is not enough to dismiss them with a comment that Madiba was hiding that he is a communist for tactical reasons.

Is the famous Mandela smile a Mona Lisa smile? Is this some secret he has teasingly decided to take to his grave, to remain ever smiling at our fumblings about who he really was?

Mandela’s statement from the dock was to him his last political testament, as the Rivonia trialists were expecting and ready for a death sentence. In it he gives the most comprehensive outline of what the ANC in essence is all about on the one hand, and what he understood the SACP was all about, on the other. He specifically delves on how the nature and policies of these two organisations respectively influenced him. He boldly states his relationships with both of them, which by 1962 were banned organisations, and membership of any of them would corroborate an additional count on the guilty verdict.

In a moment of epic and solemn gallantry, he declared to the court: “Although I have never been a member of the Communist Party, I myself have been named under that pernicious Act [Suppression of Communism Act] because of the role I played in the Defiance Campaign.” This is a categorical statement that he was not, and had never been a communist. He further concluded this section of his oration with a summation that “I have denied that I am communist, and I think under the circumstances I am obliged to state exactly what my political beliefs are”.

Proceeding to give the court what is arguably a seminal lesson on the principles and strategy of the national democratic revolution, he made the definitive remark that, “Indeed, for my own part, I believe that it is open to debate whether the Communist Party has any specific role to play at this particular stage of our political struggle”. How can a member of the central committee utter such equivocal words?

The SACP statement implies that Mandela was coy with the truth. What reason did Madiba have to lie about his membership and views on the SACP when he knew that chances were that he would never again speak in public? In Long Walk to Freedom (pp429-431) he describes the atmosphere during the two weeks it took him, “Accused No1″, to prepare his court speech, summing it with the words, “I felt we were likely to hang no matter what we said, so we might as well say what we truly believed … Bram [Fischer] begged me not to read the final paragraph, but I was adamant”.

Incidentally, Govan Mbeki, according to Mandela, “proudly related to the court his long time membership of the Communist Party” (p439). This proves that it was not part of their legal defence strategy to conceal or deny association with the SACP where it existed.

Debunking the triumphalism expressed by Ellis in his article that the SACP claim corroborates his long-held view that MK was formed at an SACP meeting held “in Emmarentia in December 1960”, Mandela addressed this well-worn-out legend in his statement. Being a lawyer, he charged: “As I understand the state case … the suggestion is that Umkhonto was the inspiration of the Communist Party, which sought to play on the imaginary grievances to enrol the African people into an army which ostensibly was to fight for African freedom, but in reality was fighting for a communist state. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the suggestion is preposterous.”

In the Long Walk to Freedom Mandela relates an incident during his Africa tour in 1961 when he and Oliver Tambo had to grapple with the reluctance of Zambia to support Umkhonto due to the prevalent claims of the PAC that Umkhonto was a brainchild of the Communist Party and white liberals who had hijacked the ANC. When Zambia’s Simon Kwapepe was persistent on this accusation, “I blurted out that I was astounded that he could not see himself how damnably false this story was”, writes Mandela, and continued to press on, quoting himself, that “I am here to tell you at the risk of immodesty that I myself was the prime mover behind MK’s formation” (p353).

Mandela dedicated a special section in his autobiography where he seemed intent to once and for all define his conception of Marxism, and his regard for the SACP. This is in pages 137 to 139 of the book where he gives one of the most eloquent and cogent expositions of the value of dialectical materialism to African nationalism. In concluding, he discloses his conduct from the period since his views evolved to where he started to defend the inclusion of communists into the ANC only in the mid-1950s to his views by 1994. Tellingly, he declares: “I was prepared to use whatever means necessary to speed up the erasure of human prejudice and the end of chauvinistic and violent nationalism. I did not need to become a communist in order to work with them … the cynical have always suggested that the communists where using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?” (p139).

Of course, as a dedicated product and leader of the congress alliance and the later tripartite alliance, Madiba was not anti-communist. In fact he was one of the best articulators of the tactical reasons for the alliance. References to his appreciation of Marxist theory are legion. However, the question of whether he was communist or not is important. It is vital to establish the basis of the moral, intellectual and spiritual belief system that inspired and created an individual of the like of Mandela. Was he shaped by his African personality, Ubuntu, and the humanism innate in the historical ANC? Or was he shaped by the pragmatism and revolutionary stoicism that scientific Marxism inculcates? Is the fact that he may have been shaped by both of these factors not sufficient?

Dr John Lamola is a member of the Panel of Experts at the National Heritage Council. He writes in his personal capacity.

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    • Karel Vorster

      Mandela’s first book was a 27 page document titled “How to be a good Communist”. I am surprised that this is not mentioned in this article. Surely, the simple Google search for same (which can be freely downloaded) is not too difficult for the author?

    • Cam Cameron

      “It places the matter within the context of the nature of the contestation on the historiography of modern South Africa. ”

      Write more simply.

    • John Lamola

      On “How to be a Good Communist”, presented as prosecution evidence at Rivonia to prove that he was a communist. Mandela explains in Long Walk p.429 how he had scribbled this to prove a point to Moses part of their protracted debate on whether it is possible to present Marxist theory to an African audience without it being “esoteric and Western-centred”. He creartively took the title from Chinese theoretician, Liu Shao Chi.

    • Call for Honesty

      Albert Luthuli was very unhappy about the views of the Communists and was not asked to give any input into the Freedom Charter (1955). It is worth noting that his writing have not been collected and published – which they deserve to be – because they are an embarrassment to the ANC and the memory of Mandela who did not follow in the footsteps of one who was truly a great South African.

    • http://YahooI Foster Low

      Let’s look at the real history.
      Mandela faced the death penalty, but a lenient AFRIKAANS judge gave him life in prison.

      WHEN Mandela was moved from Robbin Island to Polsmoor, DeKlerk offered him immediate freedom ON CONDITION THAT HE RENOUNCE TERRORISM.
      He refused, and went died an unrepentant terrorist at heart.

      Mandela was not involved in the Communism which has placed the whole country in the hands of Communist Jews – Alby Sachs etc.
      These people actually control South Africa’s money.
      The Chinese are Colonising Africa, as they need land, while Russia is waiting on the sidelines to grab the minerals.

      Mandela proved to be an outstanding statesman, and held the various tribes together, but now he is gone, the tribal antagonism is starting to show.
      We are in for a typical African result, and it will affect the entire country.
      God help us all.

      Real Historian.

    • alexx zarr

      Thanks for views, Dr Lamola, but on a point of logic; not being a member of the SACP does not at all imply one may not be a communist. In the former USSR, no more than 10% of the total population were communist party members, but I am damn sure there were more people who considered themselves to be communists…
      But, in that time (1960’s) it may have also been a case of realpolitik to brand oneself as communist (or not). I wonder if it really matters today?

    • bernpm

      With all due respect, the man died as an “icon” (whatever that is) who’s legacy (whatever that is) we are suppose to admire and follow.

      27 years on Robben Island might have dented his interest in the communist ideas. Change of mind happens often when we get older. It is often called “maturity”.

    • isaac mpho mogotsi

      Great article. Well done John. I have never believed that Nelson Mandela was a Communist, for the very good reasons you articulated above. But additionally, Mandela used his last major book, Conversations with Myself, which he wrote after stepping down as South Africa’s president, to kind of tie up the loose ends of what he probably suspected would evoke controversy after his death, eg read how goes to pain to clarify his utterances and views on former ANC president Dr. James Moroka, regarding the latter’s refusal to join the collective defence of the ANC leadership and to go his way in his own defence in the early 1950s. I believe Mandela had nothing to lose by admitting that he was a Communist, if indeed he had been one. We continue to deeply admire Walter Sisulu, arguably the second most respected ANC leader after Mandela, despite us knowing that he was a proud and self-declared Communist. Same with all the other titans of the Rivonia Trial. The only reason Mandela did not confirm that he was a Communist, is because he was never a Communist. True enough, in a speech welcoming Mandela to Cuba once, Fidel Castro referred to Mandela as a “Marxist ” This may be closer to the truth, in the sense of believing in some egalitarian Marxist principle, without belonging to the SACP, being its card-carrying member, pay subscription fee to it, and being subjected to its discipline and democratic centralism. In this sense there is a distinct difference between a Marxist and a…

    • Moltov

      Mandela was a great man, and a global icon. However it is a disturbing irony that those right-wingers who claimed that Mandela was indeed a Communist (as now noted by the SACP) – were in fact correct – and the vast majority of left wingers, global civil rights groups, and indeed 99% of the world, who claimed vehemently that he was not – and indeed protested a little too much – were wrong. Truth is stranger than – and stronger than – myth.

    • john b patson

      Not convinced — if the evidence was so strong the story would have come out while he was still alive and able to sue.

    • Stephen

      … or, he remained a communist at heart,until the Chicago [Business School] Boys got hold of him shortly after his release (Noami Klein, The Shock Doctrine).

      @ Moltov: methinks myth is far stranger than truth. Who knows, in 60 years or so the Mandela cult may become a religion.

    • John Lamola

      Instructive. Thanks for all the comments.

    • Seroke

      Whether he was a communist or not is really of no consequence. As the Freedom charter was the product of the collective which included communists. What is of importance is the values the man espoused however one cannot identify with these values without identifying with the transformation agenda set in 1994. Unfortunately, those who purport so are disgraced by the evidence. Dr. Lamola perhaps the time is ripe to speak of African Nationalism and Socialism within our daily discourse. I wonder whether as an ANC member or purported Communist, Mandela would look at the avirice, lack of transformation of the minority as living upto his ideals of a just nation. As Africans we speak of a child being raised by a village; that you are a person because of others; that when only the one mouth eats it insults the other. This is African socialism; our compatriots are to be taught these values as these were a guiding light for our leaders such as Madiba. Communist or not he has played his part; ours of land reform, economic transformation; rebuilding our cultural pride and pride in our languages remains. Lembede, Sobukwe, Luthuli, Biko and their peers would shudder at the gains made yet being in power.

    • Thapelo

      It is amazing how all these piece writers choose to ignore Flod Shivhambu’s piece denying the sacp claim. It would have been wise to read it