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.
This was the world of Mandela and his comrades, and this was the world that gave birth to today’s ANC. Few of Mandela’s admirers, who seem to think of him as a Martin Luther King or Gandhi of Africa, appear to appreciate this Communist background. The international context has since dramatically changed — but not the ANC’s Soviet vision of the world. The ANC in power is still trying to build socialism (nationalisation and redistribution) through its NDR. Many of its current leaders still believe that Communism is the best and quickest way to prosperity and general happiness. It is not by chance that the ANC invites Cuban doctors to treat South African patients and Cuban engineers to repair South African water pipes. There is no logic behind such decisions except political sympathy.
But this was just one aspect of Soviet influence on the ANC. When the SACP leaders decided to launch armed struggle Mandela was sent to seek assistance in Africa but his closest comrades went to the USSR. The Soviets agreed to help. For three decades, from the early 1960s until the early 1990s, thousands of ANC cadres, generation after generation, were trained in the Soviet Union or by Soviet military advisers and specialists in Angola. It is difficult to calculate how many of them received such training, as some returned several times, but Viacheslav Shiriaiev, the first Soviet main military adviser to the ANC in Angola, reckoned that in 1979-1983 alone about 6,000 cadres were trained. And a remarkable 95 per cent of the ANC leadership received some form of Soviet military training.
This did not mean training in purely technical military skills. The most basic background course, taught to every ANC military cadre and practically to all the leadership of the organisation in exile — often more than once — was MCW, or Military Combat Work. The course included instructions in the organisation of the military underground and in the waging of an underground revolutionary war. Some researchers believe that the ANC leadership got the idea of the bloody “people’s war” which unfolded in South Africa’s townships in the late 1980s — replete with necklacings, targeted assassinations and terrifying “people’s courts” —from Vietnam. An ANC delegation visited Vietnam in the late 1970s to benefit from the wisdom of General Giap. But long before then MCW provided manuals on how the “people’s war” should be organised and waged. Ronnie Kasrils, one of the ANC’s top military commanders, described MCW as the “major influence” on the changes in ANC policy (ie, its adoption of the “people’s war”).
But MCW was even more influential than that. The course contained as much political indoctrination as practical advice on the subversion of a state. It offered the same principles and ideas as the ANC’s political documents but without the veneer that the official and open status of such documents required. It described “Lenin’s principles of party leadership of MCW” and hailed the goals of the NDR which included not only democracy and self-determination, but also “the redistribution of wealth, of land and other means of production”, which, in the view of the authors, should “dramatically improve the living and working standards of the oppressed”, as well as the “implementation of the Freedom Charter with its programme of profound agrarian transformation and socialisation of those sectors of the economy in the grip of Monopoly Capitalism”. By the late 1980s the MCW had become the ideological, strategic and tactical foundation of the whole movement. According to Kasrils, long an SACP stalwart, the pamphlet, based on the course but written by South African disciples, became its “Bible”.
Soviet military assistance to the ANC involved not only military training, but also the supply of arms, ammunition, uniforms and, in effect, every facility needed in the military camps. Umkhonto we Sizwe received an enormous boost in the late 1970s, when the youth of the Soweto generation fled the country in their thousands in order to fight the regime. There was nowhere for them to go but the ANC camps in Angola, which were built by the Soviets and maintained by Soviet supplies.
Military assistance was crucial for the ANC, though not in a military sense. There was never any hope that the ANC could vanquish the Pretoria regime militarily, but its armed struggle was a powerful propaganda weapon that turned the ANC into a symbol of opposition to the regime. It helped to attract more cadres and win national and international support. But simultaneously it helped the ANC to spread its socialist message and its mentality of a besieged, conspiratorial but righteous organisation.
The ANC enjoyed other forms of Soviet assistance: financial, logistical and educational, among others. Assistance to the international anti-apartheid movement and general support in the international arena were also important. But none had a greater impact both on the ANC itself and its place in South Africa’s history than Soviet military aid.
Successive apartheid governments explained Soviet attention to the South African region by the idea of “total onslaught”: they believed that there was a worldwide Communist conspiracy, led by the USSR, to destroy South Africa, an outpost of European civilisation and Christianity in Africa, and grab its resources in order to weaken and destroy the West. This idea has been so thoroughly discredited that it is now mauvais ton even to mention it. Yet defeating the apartheid regime was a goal which the USSR openly proclaimed. It did everything in its power to achieve it, short of open military intervention — but the language it used was not that of the total onslaught but rather of a just struggle against racism, colonialism, imperialism and oppression.
But, paradoxically, the Soviet Union’s greatest contribution to the fall of apartheid was not its military assistance to the ANC but its change of heart about this organisation and then its own collapse. Doubts about the support for the ANC surfaced among the Soviet elite much earlier than is usually thought, in the late 1970s and particularly in the early 1980s. They were prompted by the ANC’s lack of military success and by the USSR’s diminishing enthusiasm about the prospects of the so-called “countries of socialist orientation” — those that proclaimed themselves “socialist” but, from the Soviet point of view, did not quite fill the bill. For it was dawning on the Soviet elite — and the Russian public — that nowhere in the Third World had “socialist orientation” been a success.
A testimony to this — and perhaps this was our most dramatic discovery-was the fact that already in the early 1980s the KGB had established direct relations with South Africa’s National Intelligence Service. The Russians and Afrikaners got on well together, and sympathy with the embattled apartheid regime grew among some of the Soviet elite.
During the Gorbachev era in the late 1980s, debates about policy towards South Africa came to the fore in the Soviet Union. Not only the ANC’s ability to win but even the desirability of its victory were now openly questioned in the media. Many in the Soviet Union were completely disillusioned about their own country’s socialist experience, and some of those who were concerned with South Africa thought that discontinuing Soviet aid to the ANC would prevent it from coming to power, for they now assumed that the ANC, with its Soviet ideology, would destroy South Africa’s economy. It was even suggested, quite openly, that establishing diplomatic relations with the apartheid government would be beneficial for Soviet interests.
Soviet support for the ANC did not cease until the collapse of the USSR. But these debates and the growing contacts with different circles of the South African public, as well as Soviet participation alongside the apartheid government, in the negotiations over Angola and Namibia, were noticed — painfully by the ANC and triumphantly by Pretoria. Pretoria was greatly reassured about Soviet goals in southern Africa, while the ANC feared it might lose its most powerful ally. These opposing reactions to the changes in the USSR definitely helped to bring both to the negotiating table.
Mandela finally left prison in 1990. In his very first speech he advocated nationalisation. He was soon disabused by foreign bankers and for the rest of his presidency the word was not heard again. But the seeds of the decades of propaganda did not go away, and to a degree which most of the rest of the world does not appreciate, the struggle for the National Democratic Revolution — and a socialist South Africa — continues fiercely to this day.