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.

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

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.