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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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