Mandela: Death of a Politician
Stephen W. Smith
In the early 1990s, after more than four decades of stringent enforcement, South Africa ceased to be a country where races were segregated by law. Yet no one in a position of power was called to account for the relegation of millions of South Africans to derelict Bantustans, the forcible removal of hundreds of thousands of non-white urban dwellers to shanty towns and rural areas, the coercive discrimination in every aspect of public and private life, the systematic abuse by the police and the military, the countless assassinations by hit squads, the disappearances and arbitrary detentions, the manipulation of a ‘third force’ to exacerbate so-called black-on-black violence, the cross-border raids into neighbouring countries, the destabilisation of Southern Africa, and the ‘bush wars’ in Angola and Mozambique.
Vol. 36 No. 2 · 23 January 2014
Stephen Smith says that it matters that Mandela became a communist in 1960 (LRB, 9 January). This, as R.W. Johnson notes in a letter in the same issue, has now been confirmed by the South African Communist Party. In my recent book Young Man with a Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution 1960-63, I revealed that Mandela participated in the secret conference of the underground party in December 1960 at which the resolution to prepare for armed struggle was unanimously passed. It is entirely credible that Mandela was then co-opted onto the central committee to work closely with Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu and others in establishing Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.
The significant issue is whether Mandela was ever ideologically committed to the Leninist ideal of a two-stage national democratic and socialist revolution, espoused by the Communist Party in ‘The Road to South African Freedom’, the programme adopted at another secret conference in October 1962, by which time Mandela was in jail awaiting trial on charges of inciting an unlawful stay-at-home against the declaration of a white republic. I was his legal adviser during that trial, in which he refused to recognise the authority of a white court. Dressed in traditional African gear, he wanted to be seen as the embodiment of African nationalism in order to counter the claim of the rival Pan-Africanist Congress that they were the true patriots. He had been alarmed on a recent visit to other African countries to find that the ANC was viewed not as a genuine African organisation but as being under the control of white communists.
From my discussions with him both during the trial and before that as one of his underground support team, I concluded that he was never committed to the CP’s aim of a socialist South Africa, laying the foundations for a classless communist society. He was, and remained, an African nationalist whose aim was a non-racial democratic South Africa. However, as Smith points out, he was a remarkable and courageous politician, who saw great practical advantages in working closely with the communists.