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?

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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