No, Nelson Mandela did not “snub” Jeremy Corbyn

But the tensions between different anti-apartheid groups were real. 

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“Mandela snubbed Corbyn,” the Daily Mail reports. “Nelson Mandela declined to meet Jeremy Corbyn's anti-apartheid movement, book reveals,” declares the Daily Telegraph.

But is there any truth behind the headlines? Well, sort of; but its not the story in today’s papers.

In the book that’s being quoted: Youth Activism and Solidarity: The Non-Stop Picket Against Apartheid, by academics Gavin Brown and Helen Yaffe, there’s no indication that Jeremy Corbyn wrote to Mandela or received a “snub”. The authors point out that the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, which was behind the South African embassy protests, did indeed write to Mandela. Sadly, for them, they received neither acknowledgement nor reply.

Brown and Yates conclude: “These letters were part of a political campaign to gain Mandela’s (retrospective) approval for the Non-Stop Picket in the face of long-standing opposition from sections of the London ANC.”

So where does Corbyn come into the story? In an interview with the authors, he is proud to acknowledge he was part of the Non-Stop Picket, a protest outside the South African embassy in London that continued for half a decade. But so was almost every Labour MP. Fighting apartheid and racism in South Africa had been part of the Labour Party’s DNA since the days of Keir Hardie.

Even if Corbyn had written to Mandela, asking for a meeting (and I have no idea if he did) why should the South African president have made a special effort to meet him? Corbyn was an insignificant backbench MP; he was no big deal back in April 1990.

But there is substance behind the claim. There certainly was bad blood between the African National Congress and the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (CLAAG). This is the real story that Brown and Yaffe document.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement, of which the African National Congress was a part, was made up of local affiliates like CLAAG. The Movement took the view that it would only highlight the plight of one political prisoner: Nelson Mandela. In part this was sensible. Backed by an growing international solidarity movement, Mandela rose from relative international obscurity to become the symbol of resistance to apartheid.

There was a price to be paid for this decision. Other political prisoners languished in the shadows. When Norma Kitson wanted to campaign about the plight of her jailed husband, David, she found herself blocked, then ostracised.

She resorted to backing the Non-Stop Picket outside the South African embassy in London, but she soon found herself isolated. Nora Kitson vividly recalled the pressures the Communist Party put on her, memorably describing the London communists as the “Chevra Kadisha” – Hebrew for a Burial Society in her 1987 book Where Sixpence Lives:

“If anyone starts any activity that is not under their control they ‘bury them’ – immobilise them, or manoeuvre them out of the solidarity movement…There are many of us who don’t recognise the Chevra as communists although that is what they call themselves. The Chevra holds sway over the London ANC, and have influence over the Anti-Apartheid movement and David’s trade union, TASS. They’re a very small, powerful group over here – mainly middle class whites who left South Africa before the going got very tough.”

For the South African Communist Party, there could be only support for one organisation: the African National Congress. All other parties resisting apartheid – from the Pan Africanist Congress to the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman – were to be shunned. Even the non-racial trade unions that sprang up in the 1970’s were at first described as “yellow unions” – or state puppets. The Communists in the ANC were not going to be pushed around by the far left groups associated with the Non-Stop Picket.

This was something I experienced first-hand, as the Labour Party’s Africa secretary, from 1979 until 1984. Taking up my post, I found a resolution in my in-tray that had been passed by the Africa Committee and was about to be discussed by the International Committee and the National Executive Committee. It called for the ANC to be recognised as the “sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa”. For a moment I thought little of it, but then the significance struck me.

The Labour Party, in line with the UN and the Organisation of African Unity (predecessor of the African Union) recognised both the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress as liberation movements. If we accepted the ANC as the “sole legitimate representative” of all South Africans then Labour would have to abandon our recognition of the PAC.

It would effectively give the ANC a veto over any contacts between Labour and any other South African movement. I thought this could not be supported and took the issue to my boss, international secretary, Jenny Little.

She was rather taken aback that I should question a suggestion that had come from the ANC, but since I had circulated a note to the chair of the International Committee, Joan Lestor MP, it could not simply be buried.

I found myself summoned to a meeting with the ANC. Joan Lestor and Jenny Little participated but more or less as independent observers. The ANC, clearly furious that its plans might be derailed, sent a powerful delegation, led by Abdul Minty, the honorary secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Forced onto the defensive, isolated and vulnerable, I explained that there was no suggestion that the ANC was not the most important South African liberation movement and that the Labour party should acknowledge this. However, I argued, the ANC did not have exclusive ownership of the title of “liberation movement”, which it shared with the PAC. For the Labour Party to adopt this position would put us at odds with the Organisation of African Unity and UN. In any case, I suggested, the issue was one that could only be taken by the people of South Africa themselves, in a free election, after liberation. A rather awkward silence followed: the case was pretty unanswerable.

The ANC said it was not at all happy, but left it at that. The resolution was withdrawn, but the fallout continued. Soon dark rumours began circulating about me. This was very uncomfortable, since white South Africans were not flavour of the month at this time.

Nonetheless, I continued to work with the ANC and to represent the Labour Party on the Anti-Apartheid Movement, but the relationship was cold and sour. I got on with individual members of the exile community, but henceforth I was regarded with suspicion by the ANC and its allies.

The issue of the ANC’s status still rankles with some in the party. As recently as 2011, Cassel Mathale, then Limpopo chairman and incumbent premier for the region, complained that it had been “western nations…who failed to recognise our African National Congress as the sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa during the time when the apartheid government was killing and torturing us.” Mathale, like others in the ANC, forgets that it was Africa and the UN that took the lead on this issue, not “western nations”.

As Brown and Yaffe point out, "in reality, the integration of ANC and South African Communist Party cadre into the leadership of the Anti-Apartheid Movement ensured that it effectively recognised the ANC as ‘the sole legitimate representative’ of the South African people and seldom campaigned directly for PAC or Black Consciousness affiliated prisoners, largely excluding their representatives from public events.” Anyone who challenged this position was excluded and isolated. Joining the Labour party as a researcher, I found this to my cost. The impact on Norma Kitson was far more severe. 

This is the background to the split between the ANC and the far-left groups that were behind the Non-Stop Picket. It’s a sorry tale, but not one that involves Jeremy Corbyn.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.