Nelson Mandela, Communist

President Nelson Mandela paid tribute to the Communist leader Joe Slovo at a state funeral in Soweto in January 1995.

IN 2011, the British historian Stephen Ellis published a paper concluding that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party — indeed, a member of its governing Central Committee. Although Mandela’s African National Congress and the Communist Party were openly allied against apartheid, Mandela and the A.N.C. have always denied that the hero of South Africa’s liberation was himself a party member. But Ellis, drawing on testimony of former party members and newly available archives, made a convincing case that Mandela joined the party around 1960, several years before he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government.

Does it matter?

The news excited some critics and historical revisionists, who claimed it exposed the A.N.C. as a Stalinist front. (“ ‘Saint’ Mandela? Not So Fast!” exulted one right-wing blog.) It probably stirred a sense of vindication among Americans who endorsed their government’s Cold War support of the fiercely anti-Communist apartheid regime. Professor Ellis is no apologist for white rule — he occupies a university chair in Amsterdam named for another hero of the South African resistance, Archbishop Desmond Tutu — but he contends that the affiliation with the Communists shaped the A.N.C.’s ideology in ways that endure, ominously, to this day.

“Today, the A.N.C. officially claims still to be at the first stage ... of a two-phase revolution,” Ellis told me in an email exchange. “This is a theory obtained directly from Soviet thinking.”

Indeed, the remnants of Communist protocol and jargon — “comrades” and “counterrevolutionaries” — live on in the platform and demeanor of South Africa’s ruling party. My own perspective on this question, shaped by covering the Soviet Union from 1986 to 1991 and South Africa from 1992 to 1995, is respectful of scholarship, but also wary of its limits. Both in Gorbachev’s Russia and in transitional South Africa, I realized that what people profess at party plenums and codify in party records is not always a reliable guide to what they will do, or even what they actually believe.

But Mandela’s Communist affiliation is not just a bit of history’s flotsam. It doesn’t justify the gleeful red baiting, and it certainly does not diminish a heroic legacy, but it is significant in a few respects.

Credit...Philip Littleton/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

First, 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. He was at various times a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence, a hothead and the calmest man in the room, a consumer of Marxist tracts and an admirer of Western democracy, a close partner of Communists and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists.

The early collaboration of the A.N.C. with the Communists was a marriage of convenience for a movement that had few friends. The South African Communist Party and its patrons in Russia and China were a source of money and weapons for the largely feckless armed struggle, and for many, it meant solidarity with a cause larger than South Africa. Communist ideology undoubtedly seeped into the A.N.C., where it became part of a uniquely South African cocktail with African nationalism, Black Consciousness, religious liberalism and other, inchoate angers and resentments and yearnings.

But at important junctures — in negotiations to end white rule, then in the writing of a new constitution, and finally in governing — the faction of nationalizers and vengeance seekers lost out to the compromisers. In the talks that set the stage for democracy, Joe Slovo, the longtime leader of the South African Communists and a man fluent in revolutionary rhetoric, was the most ardent advocate of sharing power with the white regime. The prevailing doctrine was whatever worked to advance the cause of a South Africa governed by South Africans. This was true of Mandela and equally true of his successor, Thabo Mbeki. The current president, Jacob Zuma, seems to have no ideology at all except self-enrichment.

In one of his several trials, Mandela was asked if he was a Communist. “If by Communist you mean a member of the Communist Party and a person who believes in the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and who adheres strictly to the discipline of the party, I did not become a Communist,” he replied. The answer was both evasive and perfectly accurate.

Perhaps the most important and lasting personal effect of the South African Communist Party on Mandela was that it made him, or helped make him, a committed nonracialist. The A.N.C. in its formative years admitted only blacks. For a long time, the Communist Party was the only partner in the movement that included whites, Indians and mixed-race members. That relationship is one of the main reasons Mandela cited for his rejection of black nationalism and his insistence that multiracialism remain at the heart of the A.N.C. ethic.

A third reason the Communist affiliation matters is that it helps explain why South Africa has not made greater progress toward improving the lives of its large underclass, rooting out corruption and unifying a fractious populace. The many failures of the A.N.C. during its 19 years in power can be explained by the fact that it has never fully made the transition from liberation movement to political party, let alone government. The Communist Party is as culpable in that as anyone, but I think what incapacitates the A.N.C. is not Stalinist doctrine, or any doctrine for that matter. It is something in the nature, the culture, of liberation movements. United by what they are against, they tend to be conspiratorial, to discourage dissent, to prize ends over means.

In the end, of course, the greatest favor Communism performed for Mandela and the A.N.C. was collapsing. Once the Soviet bloc had disintegrated and China had gone capitalist, the last white rulers of South Africa could no longer pose as necessary allies on the right side of the Cold War. They knew the game was up.

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