Mandela’s secret history

Rian Malan – on the significance of the great statesman’s covert Communist party membership

This is a story about Nelson Mandela, the world-famous “freedom fighter” and “democrat.” You’ll have to pardon those slightly sardonic quotes, because I’m afraid this is that kind of story: a bit iconoclastic, and likely to provoke howls of outrage from Western liberals who see Mandela as a benign black moderate who led an army of hymn-singing Uncle Toms to the promised land.

The technical term for those liberals is “useful idiot,” but even I must concede that their intervention was actually quite intelligent, back in the 1950s, when this all started. In those days, good men were weak, and their apartheid adversaries invincible on all but one score: propaganda. The war of perceptions thus became the most critical of all battlefields, with the African National Congress constantly seeking to exaggerate apartheid’s evils while portraying itself as “good” in a way that was universally appealing.

In the early sixties, Special Branch detectives came upon a piece of evidence that made this a bit tricky in Mandela’s case – a handwritten essay titled, “How To Be A Good Communist,” in which the leader of the ANC’s newly-formed military wing opined that South Africa would become “a land of milk and honey” under Communist rule. We were told that Mandela was innocently toying with Marxist ideas, trying to understand their appeal, but this made little sense. Almost all his co-conspirators were Communists, wedded to a Sovietist doctrine that envisaged a two-phase ending to the SA struggle – a “national democratic revolution,” followed by second revolution in which the Marxist-Leninist vanguard took power.

If Mandela wasn’t in on this plot, it would have been exceptionally stupid of him to participate in it, and Mandela was not stupid. On the other hand, he had to be very careful what he said on this score. The ANC needed the support of Western liberals, and by l964, those folks had come to realize that Communist revolutions inevitably led to the outcome satirized in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – a dictatorship of pigs who hogged the best things for themselves, impoverished the proletariat and murdered or imprisoned dissenters by the million.

In such a climate, one didn’t want to focus attention on that hand-written “milk and honey” essay. On the contrary: one wanted the world to see Mandela as a democrat, willing to die for values that Westerners held sacred. Toward this end, Mandela and his lawyers (with a bit of help from British journalist Anthony Sampson) crafted a masterful speech for Mandela to deliver from the dock during the Rivonia trial.

“The ideological creed of the ANC is, and always has been, the creed of African nationalism,” he said. “It is true that there has been close cooperation between the ANC and the Communist Party. But cooperation in this case is merely proof of a common goal – the removal of white supremacy.”

Mandela went to describe himself as a democrat in the classic Western sense, and a fervent admirer of the British and American systems of governance. “Africans just want a share in the whole of South Africa,” he said. “Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent…It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

These words rang out around the world, and still echo today. Type Mandela’s name into Google, and you come upon millions of essays, articles and book-length hagiographies depicting Madiba in exactly the way he presented himself in that speech: a black liberal, driven to take up arms by a white supremacist state that seemed utterly impermeable to calls for dialogue.

The Rivonia statement has become the foundational text of a semi-religious movement that seeks to canonize Mandela as the 20th century’s greatest proponent of freedom and democracy. Or perhaps I should say, “bourgeois democracy,” in order to distinguish between democracy of the sort practiced in Britain and America and the diseased parody encountered in Marxist-Leninist police states. Nelson Mandela never stood for that sort of democracy.

Or did he?

It takes a brave man to address that question, and lo, one such has emerged. Professor Stephen Ellis heads the African Studies Centre at the University of Leiden, and holds the Desmond Tutu chair of social sciences at the Vrije University of Amsterdam. He is also one of the great authorities on the ANC, author of Comrades Against Apartheid and a former editor of Africa Confidential, a magazine valued for its authoritative gossip about what was really going inside the anti-apartheid movement in the l980s.

Now Ellis has published a study that sheds startling new light on Mandela’s early political career and the circumstances under which he launched his armed struggle against apartheid. The study contains at least one revelation that can only be described as a bombshell — Mandela was, at least for a time, secretly a member of South Africa’s Communist Party.

The strange thing about Ellis’s bombshell is that South Africans appear to be deaf to its detonation. I know this because I started hyping it to fellow journalists the instant it appeared in print. To a man (or woman) they all shrugged and said, “So what? It’s not really a story.” This tells us something interesting about South Africans: we are at once riven with ideological obsessions and hopelessly ideologically naïve.

The blame for this rests largely on our charming and literate Communists, who go to great pains in their memoirs to disguise the true nature of their beliefs. They tell us that they stood for fairness, justice, and racial equality, and against all forms of exploitation and oppression. They’d also like us to believe that their party was outlawed in l950 because they treated blacks as friends and wanted them to enjoy the franchise. Well, yes. I suppose this was a factor, but the overriding consideration that led to the SACP’s banning was something else entirely.

At the Yalta Conference of l945, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin assured the Western powers that all the countries his forces occupied at the end of World War 2 would be allowed to determine their own destinies via free elections. With his international image in mind, Stalin instructed commissars in the occupied territories to observe the outward forms of “bourgeois democracy.” Towards this end, liberals and social democrats were lured into broad fronts in which all key decisions were secretly made by tiny Communist minorities, with the backing of the Soviet’s secret police apparatus.

These Communist conspirators then staged spurious elections that brought Soviet puppet regimes to power throughout Eastern Europe, usually with majorities implausibly close to 100 percent. Historians concede that Tito of Yugoslavia was genuinely popular, but elsewhere, the rule of Soviet proxies was imposed by deceit and enforced by tyranny. Tens of thousands of class enemies were executed, millions imprisoned, all vestiges of freedom eradicated.

The problem with Communist parties, including the South African one, is that they blindly supported this Soviet outrage, and seemed intent on pulling similar moves everywhere. If Joe Slovo and Rusty Bernstein were still alive, they’d stoutly deny such charges, but they’d be lying. We know this because Rusty’s wife Hilda lived long enough to acquire a shrewd understanding of herself and the Communist movement of which she was a life-long part. “Joe and Rusty were hardline Stalinists,” she said in a 2004 interview. “Anything the Soviets did was right. They were very, very pro-Soviet.”

It is important to note that Mrs. Bernstein was by no means suggesting that her husband or Joe were evil men. On the contrary: they were religious zealots who genuinely believed that the Soviets had discovered the cure for all human misery.

“I’ve often thought about this,” she said. “They wanted something bigger than themselves, something to believe in. People are always seeking for the meaning of life and if you’re not religious, what is it? To us, working together in a movement that had rules and attitudes and comradeship gave important meaning to our lives.”

In short, being a Communist was much like being a Christian. One studied the sacred texts of Marx and Engels, engaged in polemics as a form of prayer and ruthlessly suppressed all doubts, including one’s own. Mrs. Bernstein says she was adept at this until l956, when Kruschev revealed the appalling extent of his predecessor Stalin’s atrocities (he murdered around 16 million people, either by having them shot for thought crimes or starving them to death with mad policies). Her husband dismissed these reports as “lies and capitalist propaganda,” but Hilda’s bones told her it was all true.

“We had a fight,” she said, “a battle that went on into the small hours of the morning. I wanted to leave, but we had three dependent children, and there wasn’t any possible way in which we could have separated economically and so on. So we stayed together, and I accommodated myself by refusing to talk about it any more.”

And so it came to pass that Hilda Bernstein, the secret doubter, had a ringside seat for the epochal events of the late fifties and early sixties, a time when her husband Rusty was one of South Africa’s most senior Communists, and one of Mandela’s closest allies moreover.

It was in this capacity that she learned of Madiba’s secret membership in the Communist sect. “Mandela denies that he was ever a member of the party,” she said, “but I can tell you that he was a member of the party for a period.”

When this interview appeared on the website of the O’Malley archive, it caused a brief frisson among old Cold Warriors, especially when former SACP central committee member Brian Bunting verified Hilda’s account. The interview also caught the eye of the aforementioned Professor Ellis, a lifelong student of the byzantine inner workings of SACP. He notes that the SACP of the early sixties was of necessity a pathologically secretive organization, a network of cells with little or no knowledge of each other and no official membership records.

“SACP members were formally required to keep their membership secret,” says Ellis. “In principle, only the members of each four or five-person cell knew each other. One person reported to the next higher level, and so on. But there was also a special category of ultra-secret members who were not required to join a cell and whom even very senior party members might not know about.” With this in mind, Ellis proceeded very cautiously before publishing anything about Mandela’s apparent role in the Communist conspiracy.

One item in his files was an old police report claiming that two arrested Communists had identified Mandela as an SACP member.  A similar admission appeared in the minutes of a 1982 SACP meeting. The final breakthrough came when Russian researcher Irina Filitova interviewed veteran conspirator Joe Matthews, who confirmed that Mandela served on the party’s innermost central committee alongside him. “In the light of this evidence,” Ellis concludes, “it seems most likely that Nelson Mandela joined the party in the late l950s or in 1960, and that he was co-opted onto the Central Committee in the latter year, the same year as Joe Matthews.”

Even as I write this I sense that I am losing the average South African. I can almost see you shrugging and saying, “So? This still isn’t a story.” But it is a story, and here’s why: if Ellis’s evidence is correct, the fatal decision to launch a war against apartheid had nothing to do with the ANC. It was a decision taken unilaterally by the Communist Party, and then imposed on ANC president Albert Luthuli by a prominent African nationalist who was secretly a member of the Communist underground. His name: Nelson Mandela.

It seems fair to say that black South Africans have entertained thoughts of armed revolt since the day Jan van Riebeeck landed in Table Bay. It is therefore clear, as Ellis stresses in his landmark paper, that no political party held a patent on the term armed struggle. The Pan-Africanist Congress was dead keen on it, and elements in the ANC thought it was inevitable from the early fifties onwards.

The difference between those organizations and the Communist Party is that peaceful change via the ballot box was never really on the Communist agenda, because that sort of change invariably left the capitalist edifice standing. “Classes do not commit suicide,” said Joe Slovo, a dutiful acolyte of Vladimir Lenin. Enemies of the working class had to be undermined, subverted, and conclusively defeated before the socialist millennium could begin.

There was a time when this socialist millennium did not seem particularly attractive to South Africa’s so-called “bourgeois nationalists,” Marxist code for Africans who would have been perfectly happy to defeat the Boers in a bourgeois democratic election and then help themselves to a fairer share of the nation’s riches. Communists did not approve of “bourgeois nationalists,” and vice versa, which is one reason why Nelson Mandela spent the l940s breaking up Communist rallies with his fists.

In the early fifties, however, the SACP realized that cooperating with the nationalists was likely to hasten the fall of the Boers, thus creating conditions conducive to a more rapid advance towards true socialism. At more or less the same time, nationalists like Mandela realized that the Communists could bring several desirables to the party. Around half of them were white. They had cars, houses, telephones, organizational skills and access to funding. Soon, Communists were supporting the ANC’s legal campaigns and recruiting ANC members into their own underground party.

As Ellis observes, this strategy did not enjoy the approval of the high priests of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary science, who were located in Moscow. It was a home-grown initiative, devised as a means of amplifying the influence of a tiny body of true believers. (At the time, the SACP had barely 500 members.) The SACP was thus delighted to discover, at a 1960 conference in Moscow, that these high priests were now thinking along similar lines. The imperial powers were pulling out of Africa, and alliances with previously detestable nationalists provided a way for tiny bands of Communist intellectuals to stay in the game, and perhaps wind up in control of a few key ex-colonies.

Out of this emerged the SACP’s new revolutionary doctrine, which has always reminded me of the hoary old fable in which a scorpion convinces a frog to carry it across a river. The frog (or bourgeois nationalist) does all the work, staging a “democratic national revolution” that topples the imperial or colonial power. The scorpion (representing the Communist cause) goes along for the ride, only to sting the frog to death just as it reaches the far bank. The punchline of the original remains entirely apposite: scorpions do such things because that is their nature.

Something else happened in l960, something very important. The catalyst was the PAC, a movement of hardline African nationalists who’d broken away from the ANC the previous year on the grounds that it was “dominated by white Communists” whose ultimate loyalties were open to question (see above). In April, l960, the PAC staged a nationwide protest against the hated pass laws. In Sharpeville, police opened fire on a crowd of PAC supporters, killing an estimated 69. The resulting outburst of rage shook the apartheid government to its core, and led to the outright banning of both the PAC and ANC.

From afar, it seemed that the mood in South Africa had at last turned revolutionary, which is presumably why Joe Matthews and Michael Harmel of the SACP were given a stellar reception when they turned up in Beijing a few months later to canvass support for armed struggle.

According to Ellis, the Chinese had previously been sceptical of such plans, but now, the SACP delegates were considered so important that Chairman Mao himself took time to meet them. They were accorded a similar honour in Moscow, where they apparently stayed in Stalin’s former dacha while conducting top-secret talks with senior Soviet officials.

The precise outcome of these discussions remains uncertain, but Ellis presumes that Matthews and Harmel came away with pledges of support, because the SACP now moved swiftly forward, adopting a policy of armed struggle at a conference in Johannesburg “towards the end of 1960.”

It now became necessary for the SACP to convince the ANC to join its initiative. White Communists couldn’t act in this regard, because they weren’t allowed to join the racially exclusive ANC or take part in its deliberations. The task thus fell to black ANC leaders who wore two hats – which is to say, were members of both the ANC and the SACP. In some cases, this joint ANC-SACP affiliation was open and well-known, at least to those in the underground. In others, it was secret. The most important of these secret members was the charismatic Nelson Mandela.

On the day the SACP took its fateful decision, Mandela was a defendant in the Treason Trial, a marathon affair that had been dragging on since l956. The rest of South Africa was extremely tense, but inside Judge Rumpff’s courtroom, the atmosphere was oddly congenial, considering that Mandela and his co-accused were on trial for high treason, and that the three judges were officials of a white supremacist regime that Mandela frequently characterized as “Nazi.”

In theory, the gap between the white judges and the mostly black accused was unbridgeable, but these men had been staring at one another across the courtroom for years, sparring, joking, taking each other’s measure and acquiring a measure of mutual respect.

All the accused were out on bail, but when they were re-detained during the post-Sharpeville State of Emergency, Judge Bekker’s wife came to their aid, running errands on their behalf and carrying messages to their families. Judge Kennedy was so impressed by the pro-ANC testimony of Professor ZK Matthews that he came down from the bench and shook Matthews’ hand, saying, “I hope we meet again under better circumstances.” Judge Rumpff was a grumpy old Afrikaner and a reputed Broederbonder, but even he seemed to be softening.

On March 23, l961, Rumpff took the unprecedented step of interrupting the defence’s closing argument, saying, in effect, we don’t really need to hear this. Some of the accused took this to mean that the judges had decided to disregard the evidence and hang them – the predictable totalitarian outcome. They were wrong. A week later, Rumpff asked the accused to rise, and pronounced every one of them innocent.

This was a dumbfounding outcome, given the enormous resources the apartheid state had devoted to the treason case. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was in the habit of telling the world that most blacks supported the principle of separate development, and that only a handful of misguided troublemakers opposed it. Rumpff’s judgement annihilated that argument. In rejecting the state’s case, he had in effect ruled that the ANC’s cause was just, its grievances legitimate, and its strategy of non-violent defiance acceptable in the eyes of reasonable men.

This outcome hugely strengthened the hand of ANC president Albert Luthuli, a devout Christian who continued to believe that peaceful change was possible in South Africa. After the Sharpeville shootings, his stance was bitterly criticized by ANC radicals, who thought the time for talking was over. Rumpff’s verdict suggested otherwise. It showed that South Africa was still a land of law, with judges willing to hand down decisions that infuriated the ruling party.

South Africa also had a relatively free press, a vigorous democracy (albeit for whites only) and, as Mandela acknowledges in Long Walk To Freedom, a police force that still conformed to British norms, with due process respected and torture at this stage unheard-of. Some observers saw Rumpff’s verdict as a watershed of sorts, a development that could easily have led to further liberalization.

Nelson Mandela was totally disinterested. In Long Walk To Freedom, he writes that he went underground within hours of Rumpff’s verdict. Officially, his mission was to organize popular support for a national convention, but Ellis thinks this unlikely. “A close analysis of the campaign for a national convention concludes that this initiative was primarily intended to provide proponents of armed struggle with a paper trail that would justify their forthcoming change of policy,” he writes.

In other words, the SACP was angling to regain the moral high ground. It knew that the verdict had come as a surprise to international observers, who were left wondering if Verwoerd’s regime was indeed as evil as it was held to be. But the SACP also knew that Verwoerd could be relied on to reject any call for a national convention, thus restoring his reputation as an intransigent racist. As Ellis notes, this would allow the party to present the coming declaration of war “in the best possible light for public and international consumption.”

The second leg of Mandela’s underground mission was of course to convince ANC president Albert Luthuli to follow the lead the Communists had taken. Luthuli was not a pacifist per se, but he believed that non-violent options remained viable. Like many others in the ANC and even the SACP, he also believed it would be folly of the highest order to take up arms at a point when the ANC was still struggling to organize effective protests.

Luthuli and Mandela had it out in June l961, at a tumultuous meeting of the ANC’s national executive in Tongaat, Natal. The debate raged through the night, but when the sun rose, Mandela was triumphant; the ANC had authorized him to launch Umkhonto we Sizwe, and to start making preparations for war against the apartheid state.

This is Mandela’s version – or more accurately, one of his versions. In Long Walk, he acknowledges that the outcome of his clash with Luthuli was actually very messy. “The policy of the ANC would still be that of non-violence,” he writes, and the new military organization was required to be “entirely separate from the ANC.” Luthuli himself remained committed to non-violence until his death six years later.

Reading between the lines, Mandela seems to be suggesting that Luthuli was willing to turn a blind eye to his military adventure, provided it did not damage the mother organization. Durban Communist Rowley Arenstein rejected this out hand. “Luthuli was simply brushed aside,” he said. “Adoption of armed struggle by the ANC was the act of a Johannesburg SACP clique, a hijacking.”

Arenstein was subsequently purged from the party. Mandela returned to Johannesburg to plan his sabotage campaign, heedless of the counsel of men with clearer heads. “If you throw a stone into the window of a man’s house,” said SACP general secretary Moses Kotane, “you must be prepared for him to come out and chase you. The backlash will be fantastic. The police will go mad.”

The first MK bombs went off on December 16, 1961. The rest is history.

2 thoughts on “Mandela’s secret history

  1. It seems to me as though a completley different man walk out of prisen, many years later, with a completley different mindset + attitude to the one that went into prisen. This change in Nelson Mandelas perception is what set him aside as a man who had managed to transform himself, in the most unlikely settings and stuck to these new beliefs even though his old followers would not agree with him, this transition is what made him stand out supreme and shows that humans can change their ways and gives hope that others may follow suit. In enlightenment of Nelsons past, I understand how truley great this transformation of his inner self as being

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