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Comrades: Nelson Mandela (centre) with his then wife Winnie and SACP leader Joe Slovo in 1990

Ever since I began planning my most recent book, The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era, looming in front of me like a cliff in the mist was the question of Nelson Mandela's relation with the South African Communist Party (SACP). Mandela had, of course, strongly denied that he was a party member at his trial in 1963, and his comrades in the party and in the African National Congress (ANC) loyally followed suit. But it made no sense. He was the co-founder and first commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing — and the momentous decision to start the guerrilla war against apartheid was taken by the SACP's central committee, and by it alone. Gradually, old comrades began to speak out. Mandela was, indeed, a party member. Moreover, he was no ordinary SACP foot soldier but a member of its central committee. 

Does this really matter so many decades later? Why can't historians leave Mandela's party membership alone? After all, he didn't remain in the party for long. After his trip to several African countries in the early 1960s he argued that African nationalism, not Communism, was a better tool to further the goals of the anti-apartheid struggle. He did not go to study in Russia, nor did he even travel there until very much later when he went in his official capacity as South Africa's president. In the early 1960s he did manage to secure a donation from Moscow, but it was only a token sum of $100. He was in prison from 1962 and for many years had no connection with the outside world, including the SACP. Ideological debates with his comrades behind prison walls may have affected the younger generations of fighters who arrived there in the 1970s and 80s, but they remained just that — debates. Now that Mandela has long been out of politics and his days are clearly coming to an end, why bother about his views in the distant late 1950s or early 1960s?

The interest that historians take in Mandela's Communist past is, however, fully justified by the fact that he and his close Communist associates of that time left an indelible impact on the ideology and political instincts of their ally, the ANC, the party that has ruled South Africa since 1994. This influence is reflected, for example, in the ANC's Freedom Charter, which was written by leading Communists and adopted by the ANC and its allies in 1955. Today, it still remains its foundational policy document. The Freedom Charter stresses non-racism but calls for the nationalisation of mines, banks and "monopoly industries", for control of  "all other industries and trade" and for the redistribution of land. The young firebrand Julius Malema demands the full implementation of the Charter.

No wonder the SACP's first programme as an underground organisation in 1962 hailed the Freedom Charter as a "suitable general statement" of the aims of the ANC's "National Democratic Revolution" (NDR) and promised the party's "unqualified support" for it. Both the SACP programme and the suitability of the Freedom Charter as the agenda for the NDR had been discussed with Moscow even before the programme was adopted. 

The NDR, with its "anti-imperialism" (read "anti-Westernism"), "anti-capitalism" and socialist aspirations and rhetoric, is the other cornerstone of the ANC's ideology and policy today. It also came straight from the 1962 SACP programme: until then there was no talk of the two-stage revolution in South Africa — first the national, and then the socialist one. The NDR, as a description of an incremental, non-insurrectional transition to socialism, emerged in the Soviet political vocabulary of the late 1950s. According to one of its authors, it was first "put forward" by the Soviet Communist Party, then "widely accepted" by the international Communist movement, and then "extensively used at the 1969 International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties". It was in that year that the ANC adopted the NDR as part of its Strategy and Tactics programme in exile. In spirit and letter this document was almost a word-for-word copy of the resolutions of the International Meeting of Communist and Workers' Parties in Moscow.

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