Why Mandela’s Communist Party membership is important

As we mourn Mandela's death we should not forget and acknowledge the role that communists played in befriending and influencing this great man.

On the day of Nelson Mandela’s death the South African Communist Party chose to reveal a fact that it had long denied: that he was a party member. Indeed, at the time of his arrest he was on the Central Committee. The statement read: "At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party's Central Committee... After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days."

Commenting on this revelation, the New York Times columnist, and former Johannesburg and Moscow correspondent, Bill Keller was sanguine: “Mandela’s brief membership in the South African Communist Party, and his long-term alliance with more devout Communists, say less about his ideology than about his pragmatism.”  Quite how Keller deduces that Mandela’s membership was “brief” is far from clear. The Communist Party statement does not indicate whether he remained a member to his death (although the carefully phrased statement suggest not) and if he resigned from the party why he did so and when this took place.

Mandela himself had repeatedly denied any membership of the party. During his speech from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia trial in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 24 April 1964 Mandela was categorical: “I turn now to my own position. I have denied that I am a communist, and I think that in the circumstances I am obliged to state exactly what my political beliefs are. I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot.”

It can be argued that Mandela and his co-defendants were fighting for their lives and would grasp any straw that might lighten their sentence. After all, they were facing allegations that they had committed a series of extremely serious offences including acts of sabotage, public violence, and bombings. In the end the judge sentenced the accused to life imprisonment, rather than having them hanged.

What is more difficult to understand is why, after the ANC and Communist Party were unbanned in 1990 and Mandela was freed, the matter was not cleared up. All it would have taken was a simple statement from either organisation. Instead it required painstaking work by the journalist and academic Stephen Ellis to uncover Mandela’s links with the Party. After a lengthy trawl through the archives he published his conclusions in 2011.

So what should one make of Mandela’s allegiance to the Communist Party? It is certainly more than just a quirk of history.  One only has to consider some of the ANC’s current positions to see the Party’s imprint on its thinking.  Reading the ANC’s most important current blueprint, Strategy and Tactics, adopted in 2007 we see its analysis of the nature of South African society. This refers to the country as “Colonialism of a Special Type, with both the coloniser and the colonised located in a common territory and with a large European settler population.” This formulation is lifted, almost word for word, from the programme of the South African Communist Party adopted in 1962.

Of course South Africa is hardly an orthodox Communist state. Its gleaming shopping centres and the organisation of its factories and mines owe more to the United States than the USSR.  Instead one should turn to another facet of South African life to see the real impact of the Mandela’s comrades from the 1940s. The Constitution of 1996 introduced by the ANC is built on a commitment to the non-racial ideal. Yet it could have been very different. There have been times when the ANC flirted with an African Nationalism that would not have looked out of place in Zimbabwe.

Mandela himself acknowledged the Party’s role in weaning him from views not very dissimilar from those of Robert Mugabe. Mandela was initially adamantly opposed to any links between the ANC and the Communists for precisely this reason, as his speech from the dock in 1964 made this clear.

“I joined the ANC in 1944, and in my younger days I held the view that the policy of admitting communists to the ANC, and the close co-operation which existed at times on specific issues between the ANC and the Communist Party, would lead to a watering down of the concept of African Nationalism. At that stage I was a member of the African National Congress Youth League, and was one of a group which moved for the expulsion of communists from the ANC.”

This transformation was a slow process which began soon after Mandela arrive in Johannesburg in 1941. Mandela was taken in by a law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman. Mandel's friend, Walter Sisulu had introduced him to the firm and one of the partners, Lazar Sidelsky agreed to take him on as a clerk while he studied to become a lawyer.  Sidelsky was not a Communist, but others on the staff were.

In 1943 Mandela enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. He was the only black African in the law faculty, and it could have been a lonely existence. But he soon made friends with a multiracial group of young men and women, including Joe Slovo, Ruth First, George Bizos, Ismail Meer, J N Singh and Bram Fisher.  All were active on the left. Gradually Mandela’s attitude mellowed. As Mandela put it at his trial: “for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society.”

It was the intervention of Communists and others on the tiny South African left that transformed not only Mandela, but also the stance of the ANC as a whole.

Without their intervention who can be certain that the ANC would have adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955, with its opening declaration: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white?" We cannot know, but as we mourn Mandela's death we should not forget and acknowledge the role that communists played in befriending and influencing this great man.

Mandela and his fellow prisoners leave the Pretoria Supreme Court after being sentenced to life imprisonment. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Emmanuel Macron offers Theresa May no comfort on Brexit

The French presidential candidate warned that he would not accept "any caveat or any waiver" at a press briefing in London.

Emmanuel Macron, the new wunderkind of French politics, has brought his presidential campaign to London. The current favourite to succeed François Hollande has a natural electoral incentive to do so. London is home to 300,000 French voters, making it by France's sixth largest city by one count (Macron will address 3,000 people at a Westminster rally tonight). But the telegenic centrist also took the time to meet Theresa May and Philip Hammond and to hold a press briefing.

If May hoped that her invitation would help soften Macron's Brexit stance (the Prime Minister has refused to engage with his rival Marine Le Pen), she will have been left disappointed. Outside No.10, Macron declared that he hoped to attract "banks, talents, researchers, academics" away from the UK to France (a remark reminiscent of David Cameron's vow to "roll out the red carpet" for those fleeing Hollande). 

At the briefing at Westminster's Central Hall, Macron quipped: "The best trade agreement for Britain ... is called membership of the EU". With May determined to deliver Brexit, he suggested that the UK would have to settle for a Canadian-style deal, an outcome that would radically reduce the UK's market access. Macron emphasised that he took a a "classical, orthodox" view of the EU, regarding the "four freedoms" (of people, capital, goods and services) as indivisible. Were Britain to seek continued financial passporting, the former banker said, it would have to make a significant budget "contribution" and accept continued immigration. "The execution of Brexit has to be compliant with our interests and the European interest".

The 39-year-old avoided a nationalistic tone ("my perspective is not to say France, France, France") in favour of a "coordinated European approach" but was unambiguous: "I don't want to accept any caveat or any waiver to what makes the single market and the EU." Were the UK, as expected, to seek a transitional arrangement, it would have to accept the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Elsewhere, Macron insisted that his liberal economic stance was not an obstacle to his election. It would be fitting, he said, if the traditionally "contrarian" France embraced globalisation just as its counterparts were rejecting it. "In the current environment, if you're shy, you're dead," he declared. With his emotional, straight-talking approach (one derided by some as intellectually threadbare), Macron is seeking to beat the populists at their own game.

But his views on Brexit may yet prove academic. A poll published today showed him trailing centre-right candidate François Fillon (by 20-17) having fallen five points since his denunciation of French colonialism. Macron's novelty is both a strength and a weakness. With no established base (he founded his own party En Marche!), he is vulnerable to small swings in the public mood. If Macron does lose, it will not be for want of confidence. But there are unmistakable signs that his forward march has been halted. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.