Cold War / Contested History and Memory / Southern Africa

African Agency: Nelson Mandela and the South African Communist Party


Since Mandela’s death, contemporary politics, remembrance, and debates have pivoted on whether or not Mandela was a Communist and what it means to Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC), and the legacy of the liberation struggle if Mandela was a Communist. In an article entitled, “Was Madiba Co-Opted into Communism?” Hugh MacMillan defiantly argues that Stephen Ellis’ remarks that Mandela was a Communist and that the ANC had been hiding this reality are tendentious. Furthermore, MacMillan offers the subtle critique that Ellis’ word choice has the connotation of imploring that being a member of the South African Communist Party is akin to “admitting” to crimes and other misdemeanors. For MacMillan, the proper word choice should have been “claimed,” not “admitted.” While this critique, hinged on a singular word, might seem particularly “picky,” it captures the sentiments pervading the association of an individual with communism as being evil or somehow a criminal.

Ellis argued that the South African Communist Party, at the Emmarentia conference in December 1960, which was only attended by twenty-five people, started the armed struggle and not Mandela, as Mandela has previously claimed. According to Ellis, Mandela was simply one of the few black people present at the event. In asserting this, Ellis continues to further the viewpoint that Mandela and the ANC were simply communist stooges. One of the most “liked” comments after Ellis’ article was by writer with username: “common-tator.” The commentator wrote that Ellis’ work reveals how the communists were “conniving, lying dirt.” For the writer, the communists “used every deception in the book to get their murderous little corrupt feet into the country (South Africa) to create a sham called democracy.” This comment reflects the reflective Cold War sentiments that continue to paint Communists as “dirt” and the ANC as having been manipulated into a contract with them.

Ron Radosh, whose website, PJMedia, has arced across its left hand side: “Exposing the ideas of the influential American left wing,” wrote on his blog, “We’ve known for some time that Nelson Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party.  It was hard for fawning liberals to acknowledge the meaning of his membership, so they came up with a narrative explaining it. Their story went something like this: He only briefly joined to get the benefit of their organizational talent, and his membership was rather symbolic, and hardly meaningful. What is important is his steadfast commitment to nonviolence, his adherence to political democracy, and the role he played after emerging from prison in the waning days of apartheid.”  In an effort to shore up his argument, Radosh argued that Mandela’s unpublished autobiography states:  “I (Mandela) hate all forms of imperialism, and I consider the US brand to be the most loathsome and contemptible.”

“To a nationalist fighting oppression, dialectical materialism is like a rifle, bomb or missile. Once I understood the principle of dialectical materialism, I embraced it without hesitation. Unquestionably, my sympathies lay with Cuba [during the 1962 missile crisis]. The ability of a small state to defend its independence demonstrates in no uncertain terms the superiority of socialism over capitalism.” Mandela did not shy away from revealing how he began to be cognizant of and negotiate with the ideological construct of dialectical materialism. Mandela came to sincerely believe that dialectical materialism was a good tool to remove the strong stench and oppressive structure of apartheid. It would seem incongruous, perhaps odd, that an individual fighting against apartheid, colonization, and imperialism would not be entirely antagonistic towards all forms of oppression. During his trial, Mandela famously noted that he has fought against white and black domination and that it was an ideal he was prepared to die for. Thus, it is not radical, or new, to assert that Mandela was against all forms of imperialism–Mandela had admitted that himself. Furthermore, Mandela wrote that he was against the economic features and exploitation of the capitalist-centric mining industry, which exploited the African laborer. He had always thought that a return to a more traditional African economic blueprint was far more desirable to capitalism. It is as though Radosh was unaware of the economic conditions of South Africa, which shaped Mandela’s views on the matter.

Tim Graham, in his article, “Rest In Whitewash: Networks Set to Ignore Mandela’s Communist Party Ties, Dictator Friends,” attempts to make the case that the U.S. media, unlike their coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s death, in which they showed her in cohorts with Chile’s Agosto Pinochet, failed to highlight Mandela’s ties to individuals like Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddafi. Yet, it must be noted, Mandela himself questioned who the Americans were to question and dictate to whom he could and could not see. Individuals like Qaddafi and Castro had long supported the anti-apartheid movement, unlike the Americans and British, who, MacMillan argues, only began to divest from South Africa when a fierce campaign was waged in their countries to do so. In response to Graham’s comments, the most “liked” comment was by “David Davis.” He wrote, “That the self-loathing white liberals are falling other themselves to fawn over the corpse of this communist is no surprise. That so many who call themselves conservatives are doing so is sickening. Every man who died fighting Communism for this country, as well as the Boer farmers being murdered by Mandela’s henchmen cry the truth from the[ir] graves, but our media can[’]t hear them. Mandela, suffering his eternal punishment will hear them forever.” One of the most liked comments in the British paper, the Telegraph, in response to Colin Freeman’s article, “Nelson Mandela ‘Proven’ to be a Member of the Communist Party after Decades of Denial,” states quite simply: “Mandela and his communist pals in the ANC are entirely to blame for the utter destruction of the once most prosperous, modern, civilized, advanced and creative African nation in history. Now, much like Zimbabwe, it has been utterly destroyed by the same people. Everything Ian Smith said would happen to SA and Zimbabwe has been proved sadly correct. Why on earth a communist terrorist like Mandela is treated like some kind of saint is beyond me, cant people see what he and his party did to South Africa? Bottom line is this, both SA, Zimbabwe, Haiti and just about every other former African colony were better off under white minority rule and control.” Indeed, there is a very real, sinister, and racist underlying tone to these comments and views. And it is also clear that the utterance of communism brings this to the foray. Scholars should be extremely cognizant of this reality.

While only Mandela will truly know whether he was a “Communist” or not, this short blog post, which will become a longer article, has attempted to show what the general implications of Ellis’ work have been. Assertions cannot be made divorced from their political and social realities. Ellis, in pushing the argument that Mandela was a Communist, has taken evidence and come up with a different set of conclusions based upon an underlying assumption that the Communists were smarter, or more suave than the African nationalists and, with that assumption, that there was no such thing as a mutual partnership between the Communists and the African nationalists. It is this underlying Cold War assumption that undermines Ellis’ interpretation of the facts he presents, which, it must be recalled, do not contradict the facts Mandela presented. As Mandela maintained and which the South African Communist Party’s statement in reaction towards Mandela’s death revealed: “For Madiba, national reconciliation was a platform to pursue the objective of building a more egalitarian South African society free of the scourge of racism, patriarchy and gross inequalities. And true national reconciliation shall never be achieved in a society still characterized by the yawning gap of inequalities and capitalist exploitation.”

Mandela’s works highlight his dissatisfaction with the exploitative features of capitalism, as the realities of the South African mining industry upon Africans laid bare. Mandela had never cowed from the fact that he had worked with Communists prior to and after the creation of MK, that some of his best friends were Communists, that he admired how the Communists were helping liberation struggles, or that he had begun to think that some of the Marxist principles, like dialectical materialism, applied to the South African struggle. Ultimately, the close collaboration between the Communist Party and the non-Communist liberation party should not be viewed as the mental inferiority of the latter, but as two groups with similar visions, anti-imperialism and anti-racism, pushing to achieve those ends.

K.N. Osei-Opare is a PhD student in History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He received his Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Stanford University.  He is interested in state capitalism, modernization, intellectual networks, Nkrumaism, and African philosophy. He is also an avid cricket, football, and Manchester United supporter.

3 thoughts on “African Agency: Nelson Mandela and the South African Communist Party

  1. Osei
    I think you are allowing the western agenda to shape your discourse. Dig a little deeper into the early history and you will find that Mandela met with the early African nationalist leaders of Africa who told him that the South African movement should be an African nationalist movement and not subsumed under a communist umbrella. They told him in no uncertain terms to separate from the Communist Party. From that moment on the communist party were allies not leaders and the ANC became a separate organisation. I hope you insist that as the leader of the armed struggle Mandela was never committed to non-violence. Any such suggestion is a typo: GHANDI is spelt g-h-a-n-d-i.

    I am always amused when Europeans express surprise that Mandela had a military funeral. For his former commander in chief, Zuma could do no less.

    • Dapo,

      Thank you very much for your comment. While I had to truncate this paper to fit certain word-limits, a longer essay will be on the way discussing what you just pointed out. However, I would like to point out that it was the PAC and South African Government that went around Africa (and world) insisting that Mandela and the ANC were working under the Communists, were Communist cannon fodder, and not their separate organization.

      There certainly were high members of the ANC Party who were Communists, but this is not to be confused with Communists running the ANC. The ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) had a mutual beneficial relationship. To say that the SACP was at any moment “leaders of the ANC” is mistaken and falls under propaganda spewed by the PAC and the South African government to undermine the ANC and Mandela during this time period. Long before Mandela went on his tour of Africa, the young Nelson Mandela was staunchly against non-Blacks joining the ANC and assisting in their cause, he saw the ANC as an African Nationalist movement solely. However, as he debated and met more Communists, while also reading more literature on it, he came to appreciate some of the Communist thinking, especially dialectical materialism. It was never the African nationalist leaders outside South Africa who first proposed the separation of the ANC and the SACP – Mandela had thought that himself when the SACP was non-existent and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) was present. After his tour of Africa, and the surprising response he got from African leaders who had assumed that Umkhonto we Sizwe was a Communist front, Mandela went back to South Africa and told his Communist allies that propaganda was spewing that the Communists were running the ANC’s military wing. Because of this, it was now important for the ANC to appear to be the first among all equals.

      As for the non-violence comment, Mandela himself says that he only saw non-violence as a tactic. He is the one who started the ANC’s military wing, “Umkhonto we Sizwe,” not the Communists as some might like to think.

  2. I think you may misunderstand my comments .. but more important, please don’t understate the role of the rest of Africa in supporting ANC- which was crucial. Rather than denying the role of the other African leaders it would be better to see it as they were pushing at an open door.. All my reading and understanding is that early on there was considerable deference to SACP, that there was a defensive attitude about excluding whites – i.e. there was too great threat of domination. Once the primacy of ANC was established and deference removed the threat is removed and there could be no objection to having whites in ANC. The African leaders did not swallow the foreign propaganda about Mandela being a Communist stooge BUT they could see the deference and wanted that removed.

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