Mandela: The Authorised Biography 
by Anthony Sampson.
HarperCollins, 500 pp., £24.99, May 1999, 0 00 255829 7
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One of the oddities about living in South Africa is that a whole lot of people who have left the country still believe that they know better than those of us who live here what goes on. The reason for this is that South Africa is seen as the supreme paradigm both of colonial exploitation and of black-white relations – what Nadine Gordimer called ‘the last great colonial extravaganza’. Having seen apartheid crumble and the ANC come to power, such folk know that good has triumphed over evil and that if any problems persist, they can only be due to the legacy of apartheid. Any suggestion that the truth is actually a lot more complicated is often met with rage and moral disapproval.

This Manichaean certainty reaches its zenith in the cult of Mandela. The cult has solid foundations, of course; Mandela himself is far too nice a human being to encourage it – though being human, he undoubtedly enjoyed floating around in the bubble of adulation it created. The facts are that he is a fine-looking man of great moral stature and integrity who displayed a stolid and unbroken resolve through 27 years of captivity. He is, at the same time, a gentle person who loves children and is not averse to a joke at his own expense. ‘Never underestimate his simplicity,’ one of his fellow prisoners on Robben Island told me not long after his release. ‘It is his weakness and it is his overwhelming strength. He had a delight in simple games which was frankly childlike.’ But there is also the small matter of his Presidency, in a country which is notoriously difficult to govern and which has not fared well under his stewardship. The bill which is now coming in for those five years is so big that it is impossible not to feel sympathy for his successor.

The problem is that the world needs a hero like Mandela. The burden of white guilt is so heavy and yet the facts of African failure are so incontrovertible. The certainty that racism and slavery, white supremacy and apartheid were all evil and wrong is fiercer now than ever, but if the only alternatives on offer are corruption, tyranny and decay then how can one confront those ghosts of the past without hearing a mocking voice of self-justification? To beat that, one needs a black superman, an embodiment not only of suffering but of virtue and wisdom. And there have been so many disappointments. Nkrumah turned out to be a despot, Nyerere and Kaunda destroyed their own countries and did not tolerate opposition, Amilcar Cabral’s country split into two and fell into decay just as the Portuguese said it would. And so on. The demand that Mandela should be the true black superhero has been correspondingly fierce.

All of which makes the biographer’s job difficult: Sampson continually tells us that ‘Mandela is no saint’ but he never describes any unsaintly behaviour. In any case the glaze of admiration around Mandela is so thick that it can take any amount of knocks. For example, Sampson approvingly quotes Mandela’s condemnation of British behaviour in Kenya – ‘Children are being burnt alive, women are raped, tortured, whipped and boiling water poured on their breasts’ – though Sampson surely knows that the British didn’t go about roasting babies. Another politician might be damaged by making such statements or, as Mandela has, by demanding the vote for 14-year-olds or, worst of all, by claiming at the ANC’s conference in 1997 that the opposition parties and much of the press were part of a vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy which was also deliberately fomenting crime. But Mandela has got away with this, and more. The need for the black superhero is too overwhelming for any criticism to stick and the fortitude of those years in jail trumps all other considerations.

Sampson’s book is a commendable assemblage of a great deal of history, with quite a bit of new interview material; it is also a seamless web of ANC and South African Communist Party mythology. At one stage he tells us that Mandela liked to quote Nehru to the effect that ‘nationalism is good in its place, but it is an unreliable friend and an unsafe historian.’ Wise words which the author would have done well to heed. As it is, he regurgitates the SACP/ANC ‘official version’, which now encompasses the whole of South African history. He refers, for example, to Dingane’s Day (16 December) as commemorating ‘the Afrikaners’ massacre of Zulus in 1838’. What in fact happened was that, following Dingane’s massacre of the 69 Boers negotiating with him – each man in turn was impaled through the anus and beaten to death – a Zulu impi carried out a second massacre of Boers (41 men, 56 women, 185 children) at Weenen. Then, on 16 December, a force of some 12,000 Zulus attacked a defensive laager of 464 Boers on the Ncome river. The laager was so cleverly constructed that the Zulus took tremendous casualties, but failed to breach it. To refer to this defensive battle as a massacre of Zulus is a classic nationalist rewrite, especially when all mention of the two previous massacres is cut out. Similarly, Sampson writes of the 1949 Durban riots (when Zulus massacred 142 Indians) that ‘whites had encouraged the riots by transporting Zulus to the scene.’ This fabrication, put about by a small clique of Communist Indians, has no historical basis whatever and is certainly not believed by the bulk of Indians, nor by any of the survivors and eyewitnesses I have interviewed over the years.

This is as nothing, however, compared to Sampson’s treatment of the ANC’s own history. Take, for example, the Party’s adoption of its fundamental document, the Freedom Charter, by the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955. Sampson clearly believes that the Liberals made a major mistake by turning down an invitation to attend because they feared they were being ‘lured into a “popular front” whose decisions were taken in advance by Communists’. The truth was not obvious. The Communist Party had been banned in 1952 and thereafter Communists could only organise in secret. They generally attempted to pass themselves off as something else and to pooh-pooh the subject of Communist influence, as if anyone who brought it up was a McCarthyite. Only a very small circle at the top of the Party knew who the other members were and very quickly, of course, they found that having secret Party members was very useful, for it enabled them to control organisations and situations without even fellow ANC activists suspecting what was going on.

Moreover, foreign sympathisers (such as Sampson) would have been greatly put off if the full extent of Communist influence were known, so they had to be lulled with elaborate disclaimers and the use of a decidedly liberal style of rhetoric. By the mid-Fifties this was already second nature. Coming in to the movement a little later, I did the same thing myself. We knew just what we were doing and when the foreign visitor – Anthony Sampson, if you like – left the room, we relaxed immediately into more Marxist language and far more of a Party style. The truth was that Communist influence was pervasive – and how could it not be? The ANC was a shambles; only the small group of efficient and dedicated white and Indian Communists in the Congress Alliance could be relied on to get anything done. They were better educated, richer, had cars, phones, typewriters, nice houses and they knew how to do things. Best of all, the whites were immune to apartheid and could dismiss the police as their social inferiors. Nor did the Indians have to worry about pass laws or curfews or learning English or the thousand and one other handicaps that beset Africans. You would have needed to reverse the law of gravity for them not to have dominated the ANC. I never knew a Communist who didn’t believe that, though of course we were all happy to argue the opposite for the benefit of non-comrades. It was often quite easy to snow them.

And Sampson has been snowed. At the same time that the Liberals were invited to the Congress of the People a myriad political, civic and cultural associations were set up – classic front organisations when they existed at all, but quite often existing only on paper – so that they could attend at Kliptown and send their (pre-selected, politically reliable) delegates to swamp the Liberals. Sampson makes no mention of these fronts. When it comes to the drafting of the Charter itself we get Joe Slovo’s famous line about how ‘tens of thousands of scraps of paper came flooding in,’ as if the Charter was really put together on that basis. Initially, Sampson suggests that its author was the black academic, Z.K. Matthews, but he goes on to admit that it was drafted by the white Communist, Lionel Bernstein. The Congress itself was stage-managed: on the first day the Charter was simply recited to the delegates, who accepted it ‘by acclaim’, which meant that the front organisation delegates had done their job, shouting out applause and ramming it through. No wonder the Liberals, and the Pan-Africanists under Robert Sobukwe, were appalled: a room full of black people had cheered the Charter through and felt empowered in the process, but a small number of white Communists had run the thing from start to finish. The Congress was their idea, they had organised it; the fronts were also theirs. They had outmanoeuvred the Liberals and the Pan-Africanists, they had written the Charter and arranged the agenda – and then of course they wrote the history, too, replete with touching details about the ‘thousands of scraps of paper’.

It was much the same with the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983. Once again Sampson makes no mention of the front organisations which sprang into existence in order to be part of the UDF. As he delicately puts it, ‘the ANC’s contribution to the UDF would often be debated.’ Which means that both the ANC and UDF indignantly rejected the Government’s claim that the UDF was an ANC front. It was, of course, a complete accident that the UDF had been launched straight after the ANC in London had proclaimed 1983 ‘the Year of United Action’, just as it was a fluke that all three of the UDF presidents, its other leading officials and the opening speaker at its launch were all ANC. Then – although Sampson doesn’t mention it – after seven years of fierce denial that the UDF was an ANC front, the ANC was legalised and immediately ordered the UDF to disband on the grounds that it had only ever been an ANC front and that it therefore had no further function. The UDF obeyed without a whimper, leaving seven years of self-righteous denials hanging in the wind.

This careful elision of embarrassing truth occurs so frequently that for someone who knew what was going on, the result is often comic. Sampson talks about the ‘peculiar South African obsession with Communism’ and clearly doesn’t realise how thoroughly he has been misled by Party people. Quite a few blue-chip Stalinists are here gently described as ‘left-wing’. It’s odd to read one of them being described as ‘a fiery freedom fighter’ – actually a blustering, hard-drinking tankie who owed me a lot of money. Similarly, the Fifties newspapers, the Guardian and New Age, are described as ‘left-wing’ papers, which would have made my old friends who wrote for them – Party people through and through – laugh delightedly. Sampson even talks in a slightly worried tone of how the ANC paper, Sechaba, was ‘full of pro-Soviet propaganda’ and anti-imperialist rhetoric, as if it had been straying a bit too close to the Communist line. The late Barry Higgs, one of my dearest friends, used to edit Sechaba from East Berlin: I can imagine him exploding with laughter at this méprise.

Naturally, Sampson makes no mention of the fact that the SACP and ANC supported the Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). He tells us that Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader, reacted against ‘the white leadership’ of the National Union of South African Students, but even in my day (and Biko was just behind me in Durban) the NUSAS leadership included non-whites like Thami Mhlambiso, Rogers Ragavan and Kenny Parker, all of whom whites like myself were proud to follow. (Thami would also have found Sampson’s determination to find no Communist influence in the ANC a little perplexing. We used to meet in his office under a giant poster of Mao.) Similarly, Sampson writes of how the ANC underground in South Africa was ‘wary’ of Biko, but never mentions that the ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, refused all of Biko’s entreaties to meet with him for fear of bestowing extra credibility on a man then seen as a dangerous political rival.

The person who seems to have taken Sampson for the most extensive ride is the SACP leader, the late Joe Slovo. Sampson quotes as fact Slovo’s assertion that from 1963 the ANC’s military wing, MK, ‘was almost exclusively directed by ANC exiles while the Party involvement was negligible’. This is a whopper of huge proportions. MK was, from its inception to its end, under the tightest Party control for it provided the Party with leverage and insurance vis-à-vis the ANC – the SACP alone had access to guns and money from the Soviet bloc. MK was set up at Slovo’s instigation and the bravest and most dedicated of my Communist friends, like Ronnie Kasrils and David Kitson, were in it from the start. All MK’s High Command were Party members. Slovo himself was its supreme commander for years and its last commander, Chris Hani, was the SACP leader. It is impossible to imagine Slovo trying to sell the idea of non-SACP control of MK to anyone whom he didn’t consider a proper Charlie. Inevitably, Sampson has missed the fact that Slovo skipped the country to become the kingpin in exile only by disobeying a strict Party command that no cadres were to leave.

Sampson is much bothered by the allegation that Mandela was a secret SACP member and goes to enormous lengths to exonerate his hero from this charge. This is ridiculous. The Secretary-General of the ANC, Duma Nokwe, was an SACP man. The second – perhaps the first – most important figure in the ANC, Walter Sisulu, was Party – he’d been handpicked to go to Bucharest as early as 1953. Mandela was Sisulu’s protégé – as Sampson puts it, it was Sisulu who ‘made and moulded him’. Mandela was also groomed by Slovo and Ruth First, both top Party people. It is inconceivable that he could have been promoted to the ANC leadership by this group unless they were confident beyond all doubt that he was one of them. Sampson ignores all manner of glaring indications that this was the case. Why did Peter Mda, one of Mandela’s closest friends, regard him as a secret Communist? Why did Mandela refuse to condemn Stalin even after Khrushchev had? Listen to Slovo on Mandela: ‘ideologically he has taken giant strides ... on die role of the Party in the struggle. His keen intelligence taught him to grasp the class basis of national oppression.’ The proud patron lavishing praise on a star pupil.

Ludicrously, Sampson quotes Mandela’s denial, at the Rivonia trial, that he was ‘a member of the CPSA’. He doesn’t realise the trick of this. The CPSA had been wound up in 1952; when the Party re-emerged it was as the SACP. Under questioning you could safely say you weren’t a member of the CPSA. He also doesn’t realise the significance of the fact that the SACP had (with Soviet money) bought the farm at Rivonia on which the MK leadership lived, a fact which tells you all you need to know about the Party’s dominance: the ANC, after all, couldn’t have afforded a flat, let alone a farm. Similarly, Slovo in his famous ‘Mayibuye’ document, which nearly had the Rivonia accused hanged for treason, envisaged MK’s insurrection being aided by foreign troops and submarines. He was clearly hoping for a full-scale Soviet incursion and a People’s Republic brought to power with Red Army help, as had happened in Eastern Europe.

There is no need for any religious horror about Mandela having, doubtless, been in the Party: this was simply par for the course. No one gets excited about the fact that Thabo Mbeki has been a Party member for most of his life. Mandela’s trip around Africa in 1962, and the angry response he met with everywhere to the question of non-African SACP domination of the ANC, seems to have caused him to quit the Party. Slovo was greatly distressed. Mandela then begged Slovo to destroy any evidence which might incriminate him but Slovo didn’t. His notes provided the basis of Mandela’s conviction and included such gems as his handwritten copies of Stalin’s writings and of Liu Shao-chi’s ‘How to be a Good Communist’, with Mandela’s comment that ‘Under a CP government South Africa will become a land of milk and honey ... There will be no unemployment, starvation and disease.’ In a word, Slovo had recruited Mandela, launched him as a guerrilla leader, then – appalled by Mandela’s defection – had hopped the country himself, against orders, leaving behind the evidence which put Mandela in jail. The later decision of the ANC in exile not to ‘personalise’ things by campaigning for Mandela’s release has to be considered in this context. But Slovo was supremely good at the blarney. He clearly blarneyed Sampson, who quotes him approvingly as saying, ‘I’ve never believed it’s the job of a revolutionary to make a revolution; only to lead it’. Given Slovo’s role in setting up MK, and his invocation of submarines and foreign troops, this takes the cake.

There are hundreds of similar flaws in Sampson’s book. He relies heavily on the Report of the Truth Commission without, apparently, realising how riddled with error it is. His account of the dealings between Buthelezi and the ANC is a travesty: he doesn’t, for a start, seem to realise that when Buthelezi was made a chief, then a Chief Minister, then head of a bantustan – he came at every stage to the ANC, to which he belonged, and they insisted he go ahead and accept all of these posts. Later, when it was convenient, that bit of history had to be revised; Sampson has happily accepted the revised version. But then, throughout this book, he has accepted whatever the current ANC revisions of history happen to be.

The book’s greatest problem is the Mandela Presidency. As Van Zyl Slabbert puts it, the country went through this period in a state of ‘charismatic bewilderment’. It is impossible not to like, even to love Mandela, but at the end of his term South Africa is a mess. The Presidential review commission he set up reported that there was ‘a vacuum at the centre of the Government’ – a polite way of saying that Mandela seemed not to grasp what the President’s job was, let alone to do it. Instead, he toured abroad and, when at home, wore colourful shirts, did soap opera turns with Winnie and Graca and blessed the people. The Government’s policies were not coordinated, or, often, even implemented, and in the face of major challenges the country drifted.

The result? In five years a huge escalation of crime and unemployment, a halving of the value of the Rand, the collapse of many services, a steep decline in per capita incomes, particularly for the really poor, and an exodus of skilled people. If South Africa were to experience another five years like those it has just had under Mandela it would descend into more or less permanent ungovernability. No one, myself included, feels like blaming Mandela for this, but it is difficult to say who else is to blame.

One comes back to the fact of living here and how different it feels from the distant perspective of Europe or the US. Currently, I am staring at an ANC document which talks about the need to deploy the Party’s cadres with a view to ‘political and administrative control’ over ‘the civil service, all parastatals and statutory bodies’ and to ‘strengthen our leadership’ over ‘the economy, education, science and technology, sports, recreation, arts and culture, mass popular organisation and mass communications’. The objective is to ‘win hegemony’ and to carry forward ‘the National Democratic Revolution’. In the past, we are told, there was no proper plan to deploy the cadres to centres of power and ‘this has led to a situation where individuals deploy themselves, thus undermining the collective mandate.’ There is a strong SACP majority on the Deployment Committee, which is to remedy all this by introducing a giant nomenklatura along classic Soviet lines. Party members will have the duty of reporting back to the Party on whatever goes on in any institution where they are employed. According to Sampson, the SACP doesn’t matter much here. It doesn’t feel that way. But the key moments for me came when he placed Port Shepstone in the eastern Cape – it’s like placing Barnsley in Sussex – and translated the Zulu ‘hamba kahle’ as ‘go slowly’. This is the one bit of Zulu everyone here knows. It means ‘go well’; just possibly ‘go safely’, never ‘go slowly’. It’s another country.

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Vol. 21 No. 18 · 16 September 1999

R.W. Johnson’s attack on my authorised biography of Mandela (LRB, 19 August) is largely based on his own conviction that Mandela was a secret member of the Communist Party. But he provides no documentary evidence, and consistently misrepresents both me and Mandela. He says I was determined ‘to find no Communist influence in the ANC’ and that I didn’t realise that its Congress of the People in 1955 was a CP front: in fact, I specifically say that the Central Committee of the CP ‘threw itself into organising the Congress of the People’. He even claims I ‘quote approvingly’ Mandela’s attack on the British Government for burning children alive in Kenya. In fact, I quote it as an example of how Mandela was ‘becoming more attached to the rhetoric of Marxist anti-colonialism’. He says I ‘ludicrously’ quote Mandela’s denial at the Rivonia trial that he was a member of the CPSA, and that I didn’t ‘realise the trick’ – that the Party had been renamed the SACP. But Mandela didn’t say that at the trial: he simply stated that, while influenced by Marxism, ‘I have denied that I am a Communist.’ And no South African Government was able to show that he belonged to the Party: the official liquidator of the Party stated in 1970 that he was not a member or even active supporter of the CP.

Johnson says that Mandela made handwritten copies of Stalin’s writings, which helped to convict him at the Rivonia trial. But I could find no such transcriptions from Stalin in the official records. Can Johnson produce them? As a South African ex-Communist, he is convinced that he and his former comrades successfully dominated the ANC, which was a ‘shambles’, and used Mandela and others for their own ends. But as Mandela writes, ‘who is to say that we were not using them?’

Johnson’s other facts are equally unreliable: he even gets the date of the banning of his own former party wrong – it was 1950, not 1952.

Anthony Sampson
Tisbury, Wiltshire

Vol. 21 No. 19 · 30 September 1999

In his savage review of Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: The Authorised Biography, R.W. Johnson displayed a contempt for the present Government of South Africa and a hatred of the African National Congress that may have surprised some readers (LRB, 19 August). It was not surprising to those familiar with Mr Johnson’s writings.

As an example, the Times published in December 1996 a supposed news report by Mr Johnson. He wrote that the Constitutional Court of South Africa, in finding that the country’s new Constitution met the legal tests laid down for it, had ‘bent the knee to the ANC leadership’. Mr Johnson added that the ANC ‘has an overwhelming majority’ in the Court. A week later the Times published a letter from Sydney Kentridge (now Sir Sydney), a great South African lawyer who has more recently become a leading figure at the English Bar. Of Mr Johnson’s statement that the ANC had ‘an overwhelming majority’ in the Court, Mr Kentridge wrote: ‘This is simply false.’ He pointed out, among other things, that six of the 11 members of the Court had been judges of the Supreme Court of South Africa appointed by the previous, National Party Government. As for bending the knee, Mr Kentridge said: ‘a less subservient court … would be hard to find.’

That Mr Johnson would write falsely about matters so easily checkable says all that needs to be said.

Anthony Lewis
Boston, Massachusetts

R.W. Johnson writes: I began my review of Sampson’s Mandela by pointing out that one is always being ‘put right’ about South Africa by people who have chosen not to live here and that if you puncture their distant moral certainties you get a roar of rage. This turns out to have been exactly right. I choose to live here, just as Messrs Sampson and Kentridge chose to leave. Can no one else see the absurdity of sitting in London or Wiltshire and always knowing better about this place than those of us who face its daily realities?

Anthony Lewis is quite wrong in all respects. I don’t hate the Government here – I said in my review how it was impossible not to sympathise with Mbeki and what a lovable figure Mandela is – nor the ANC: indeed, I am on my way, as I write, to give them a briefing at their headquarters, a place I have visited on a number of occasions to provide free help and advice just as I do for the Pan Africanist Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party, Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement and so on. Political parties are not hateful things. What I do very much dislike is party hegemony and the Orwellian rewriting of history it involves.

Lewis is also wrong about the Constitutional Court. Sydney Kentridge (now Sir Sydney) was, I’m afraid, quite misleading on the subject. Of the 11 members of the Court, ten were appointed by President Mandela and one by President Mbeki. To make these appointments, both men had, perforce, to choose from among a judiciary mainly appointed by their predecessors, but it was not difficult to find ANC supporters among their ranks, partly because the bench – though the Nationalists tried to stuff it with their lackeys – was never homogeneous and partly because some judges, noticing which way the wind was blowing, had worked hard to ingratiate themselves in advance with the new regime. As for the current balance on the Court, I think it is held to be quite uncontroversially true among lawyers here that the Government can count on the sympathies of a large majority of its members and it is certainly keen to keep things that way. This is not surprising: it’s what every American President from FDR to Reagan has done with appointments to the Supreme Court. The same thing happens around the world, though judges everywhere hate to admit it. I would have expected Anthony Lewis to know that.

Anthony Sampson says he did not quote Mandela approvingly on the subject of the British roasting babies in Kenya, but only to show how Mandela was ‘becoming more attached to the rhetoric of Marxist anti-colonialism’ (Letters, 16 September). Yet the passage about roasting babies is introduced with the remark – which I take to be applauding – that Mandela’s first major speech as President of the Transvaal ANC managed to ‘link the South African struggle to others in Africa’. But in any case, Marxist anti-colonialism was no bad thing and certainly didn’t oblige one to invent nonsense.

Sampson also says that he could not find any trace of Mandela having made handwritten copies of Stalin’s writings. He should have looked at page 190 of his own book: ‘the most apparently incriminating notes were 62 pages on a writing pad about Communism, in Mandela’s handwriting. They were in four parts, including one on Stalin’s The Foundations of Leninism.’ Mandela accepted authorship in court.

Sampson believes that my review was really all about whether Mandela was ever in the Party. If he’d read it properly he would have seen both that I don’t really think it such a big deal whether anyone was once in the Party or not, and also that I agree that by the time Mandela stood up in the Rivonia trial in 1963 he could tell the perfect truth about not being a Party member. Actually this was not the nub of my review at all. What I found disappointing about Sampson’s book was that a great deal of research had been thoroughly spoilt by his accepting and parroting the ANC/SACP party line on hundreds of issues. This is, of course, the new orthodoxy here but that doesn’t make it true. What I find particularly perplexing is the fact that when I lived in England Sampson was somewhat to the right of me – SDP (when that was flavour of the month) to my Labour – whereas when he comes out here he takes the ANC/SACP line. it’s as if he wants to be on the side of the fashionable, conventional wisdom wherever he is. My own beliefs do not change with geography.

R.W. Johnson

Vol. 36 No. 1 · 9 January 2014

In my review of Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: The Authorised Biography in the LRB of 19 August 1999, I criticised the book on the basis that it was perfectly obvious to those of us who knew the struggle in South Africa that Mandela had been a member of the Communist Party. Not that that means one should regard him through some sort of anti-communist lens: there were many things in apartheid South Africa which were far worse than being a communist. And of course, this question had no bearing on Mandela’s great human qualities, his courage, humour and generosity.

I was, however, shocked that someone who had written a 600-page biography about a major public figure should fail to register this fundamental point, which casts a different light on many events in Mandela’s life. Sampson wrote back angrily, pointing out that Mandela had, at his trial, denied being a communist, just as he later denied it in his autobiography. To me this was absurd. Members of the Communist Party were under discipline to deny their membership. Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s closest friend, only revealed his own party membership in the 1990s, having steadfastly denied it throughout his trial and imprisonment, indeed, through his almost fifty years of membership. Sampson died in 2004. One question which has to be faced is whether Mandela lied to Sampson about his party membership or whether Sampson knew the truth but concealed it.

Straight after his death the South African Communist Party proudly announced that Mandela had been a member of its Central Committee at the time he went to jail. Indeed, he never formally resigned from this position, though he clearly drifted away from the party while on Robben Island.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Vol. 36 No. 3 · 6 February 2014

R.W. Johnson may be congratulated for having worked out, long before it was finally admitted by the South African Communist Party (SACP) late last year, that Nelson Mandela was a party member at the time of his arrest in 1962 (Letters, 9 January). This is far more than a mere historical detail. The history of the anti-apartheid struggle is widely misunderstood as a result of the consistent manipulation of historical information by or at the behest of the SACP over the last fifty years.

The armed struggle in South Africa was initiated in the form of a resolution passed at an SACP conference in December 1960. Mandela was one of the 25 people present, most of whom were white. The account of a debate within the ANC on armed struggle in mid-1961, made famous by Mandela’s speech from the dock at his trial in 1964, takes on a different meaning when it is known that the party had mandated Mandela to win over the ANC. In fact, the ANC itself never voted in favour of armed struggle. It agreed only that it wouldn’t expel those members who joined the new guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

The effect of all the lies and half-truths has been to represent apartheid as having been overthrown mainly by the ANC’s armed struggle. This provides the ANC today with one of the main planks of its legitimacy. Black Consciousness, Steve Biko, the United Democratic Front, are all being written out of history. Yet these were the grassroots movements that did more than anything else to loosen the grip of apartheid on South African society.

Stephen Ellis

There was some controversy over Gerry Adams’s presence in a guard of honour at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. That there were links between the IRA and the ANC military wing has always been known, but for obvious reasons their precise nature has been unclear. Adams, meanwhile, has been dogged by claims that he was a member of the IRA, something he has always denied, though no one believes him. So why does he persist? A plausible answer lies in R.W. Johnson’s explanation of Mandela’s consistent refusal to admit that he was a member of the South African Communist Party: he was under orders from the party to deny it at all times. Similarly, Adams is under discipline to deny his membership of the IRA.

Eoin Dillon

Vol. 21 No. 21 · 28 October 1999

R.W. Johnson originally claimed that the African National Congress had ‘an overwhelming majority’ on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Now (LRB, 19 August) he says ‘it is held to be quite uncontroversially true among lawyers here that the Government can count on the sympathies of a large majority’ of the Court’s members. That statement is equally false. It would be treated with derision by South African lawyers. In the few years of its existence the Constitutional Court has decided major cases against the wishes of the Government and the ANC.

For example: 1. In 1995 the Court held unconstitutional a decree by President Mandela providing for local elections in the Western Cape Province. The Court held that only Parliament had power to do so. President Mandela called Parliament back into session to pass the needed legislation.

2. In 1996 the Court considered whether the proposed final South African Constitution met, as required, principles set out in the interim charter. Most political parties urged the Court not to certify the draft; the ANC indicated that it favoured certification. The Court held that nine provisions did not comply with the principles, and the text had to be redrafted and adopted anew.

3. In 1998 the ANC challenged a KwaZulu-Natal provincial statute establishing local councils. The Court unanimously dismissed the challenge.

Johnson sought to explain away the fact that a number of judges on the Constitutional Court had originally been appointed to other courts during the apartheid years and hence could not have been supporters of the ANC. ‘Some judges,’ he wrote, ‘noticing which way the wind was blowing, had worked hard to ingratiate themselves in advance with the new regime.’ That is a contemptible defamation of those few judges who had the courage to try to breathe some humanity into the application of cruel racist laws.

Anthony Lewis
Boston, Massachusetts

R.W. Johnson attacks Anthony Sampson for being inaccurate about South Africa because he lives elsewhere. Yet Johnson, a South African resident, states that during apartheid Indians didn’t ‘have to worry about pass laws or curfews or learning English or the thousand and one other handicaps that beset Africans’. They did. They could not cross a provincial border without obtaining a permit in advance. They were subject to educational, residential and business segregation. They had indeed to learn English, which was not the mother tongue of many of them. Unlike Africans, they were not even allowed in the Orange Free State.

V.M. Hunt
Parktown, South Africa

R.W. Johnson claims that the fact that he lives in South Africa puts him in a superior position to those who live outside the country. This is a very dubious proposition. In 1957, the then President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, invited F.M. Bourret as a special guest to the Independence celebrations. She had written, according to Nkrumah, ‘the best history of Ghana’ (The Gold Coast: A Survey of the Gold Coast and British Togoland, 1919-51). Mother Bourret was then living in an enclosed convent in California, and her excellent book was the result of an outstanding mind combined with the resources of the Hoover Library. It is not necessary to live in a country in order to understand it; it may even be a handicap.

David Brokensha
Fish Hoek, South Africa

R.W. Johnson is right in saying that the Nuremberg Trials were a flawed exercise. They were better than nothing, however: after all, Germany became fully denazified. But after the collapse of Communism there were no Nuremberg Trials of those evil regimes. As a result, we have contemporary Russia, that post-totalitarian mutant.

I also agree with Johnson’s statement that some ANC leaders in the past ‘had multiple paymasters’. I personally have had encounters with a few of them. Western intelligence services made great efforts to know ‘what was going on inside the ANC’, but the KGB had all the information on a direct line from the CPSA. The KGB cultivated contacts in the national liberation movements mainly in order to have agents in the future Governments of South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique.

Oleg Gordievsky
London WC2

Vol. 21 No. 22 · 11 November 1999

In the debate as to whether Nelson Mandela was at any time a member of the South African Communist Party, I’m inclined to side with R.W. Johnson’s surmise (that he was) rather than Anthony Sampson’s (and Mandela’s own) assertion that he wasn’t.

From 1963 to 1967 I was a member of the SACP and worked closely in the SACP/ANC underground with Ruth First in Johannesburg, writing propaganda for the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. A leaflet written by me for First, distributed in May 1963, appeared in evidence against Mandela and his colleagues in the Rivonia Trial later that year. After First had left the country, I edited the underground journal of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Freedom Fighter, and during the Rivonia Trial, passed copy for typesetting to my Party contact, Hilda Bernstein, whose husband Lionel (‘Rusty’) was on trial alongside Mandela. Later I was on trial, and in prison, with the SACP chairman, Bram Fischer, and central committee members Ivan Schermbrucker and Eli Weinberg. The understanding I had from them was that Nelson Mandela was ‘one of us’.

His transcription in 1962, in longhand, of a classic text of Stalinist Marxism (‘How to Be a Good Communist’, by the President of China, Liu Shao Chi) makes no other sense to me. Mandela’s explanation for this in his autobiography – that he wrote it to prove a point to a black SACP leader, Moses Kotane – is unconvincing.

In a sense, however, the issue is irrelevant. The SACP and the ANC leadership were so closely identified with each other over this period and subsequently as to be virtually indistinguishable. Leading figures in the exile who were unable to stomach the relationship were expelled in the Gang of Eight episode in 1975. Lesser critics later disappeared into ANC prison camps in Central Africa, where some were killed.

I find it probable that Mandela was a member of the SACP at the time of the setting up of Umkhonto in 1961 and that he found it politic to resign formal membership after his return in secret to South Africa from his undercover support-raising trip in Africa and Britain in 1962. In practice, whether he was ‘in’ or ‘out’ by then did not make an iota of difference. Given the ‘Africanist’ concerns of newly independent African leaders impressed on him during this trip – in particular, by Kaunda in Zambia – it was to the advantage of the SACP as well as the ANC that by the time of his arrest in August 1962 he was ‘out’. As he writes in his autobiography, his principal conclusion from his trip abroad was that the ANC ‘had to appear more independent’ of the SACP, and that resulting organisational changes were ‘essentially cosmetic’, in order to make the ANC more ‘palatable’ to allies in Africa. Certainly, in this period Mandela had no substantial strategic or programmatic differences with the SACP, or with the Soviet Union. Of course, this is not to gainsay his substantial independence of judgment, especially as a prison ‘statesman’, with a unique capacity for harmonising differences.

Paul Trewhela
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

David Brokensha (Letters, 28 October) is quite right that living in a country doesn’t automatically mean you know more about it than those who don’t (though it helps). My point was rather that some choose to leave South Africa and some, like me, love the place and choose to come back here – and that this should count for something. V.M. Hunt, in the same issue, is equally right to point out that Indians were heavily disadvantaged by apartheid – though less so than Africans. The only thing about which I’d disagree is their difficulty in learning English. Growing up in Durban, where around half of all South Africa’s Indians live, I never met an Indian who wasn’t fluent in English. The educational achievements of the Indian community – their pupils, with fewer advantages than whites, frequently top the exam lists in every subject – are quite remarkable.

Finally, I agree with Anthony Lewis that there have been a few occasions on which the Constitutional Court has not upheld the Government view. What he misses is that to date there have been only two major Constitutional issues on which the Court has had to rule. The first was the stipulation in the interim Constitution that the final draft should not in any way reduce the powers of the provinces to the advantage of central government. However, the list of areas of legislative competence reserved to the provinces was very much reduced in the final version of the Constitution, and a whole new doctrine of ‘co-operative governance’ was introduced, enjoining the provincial and central governments to work together – with the central government view prevailing where there was a conflict. Without any doubt this meant that the promise of no reduction in the power of the provinces was broken – yet the Court allowed it to go through.

The second concerned the law that registration to vote in the 1999 election should depend on having a bar-coded ID book. Because the bulk of Africans only got their ID books after 1990 most of them had the new kind, whereas most whites, Coloureds, Indians and Africans who had lived in the ‘independent homelands’ all tended to have old-fashioned IDs. The latter groups – who also tended to be Opposition voters – were effectively disenfranchised by this law: up to four million were unable to vote, as securing a new ID was no easy matter and in any case the old ID remained a perfectly valid legal document.

The remarkable thing about this law was that it made the exercise of a fundamental right (the franchise) dependent on the possession of a discretionary document: it was like making a driving licence essential to the vote. There were widespread protests and initially even the ANC caucus was dismayed, but the law was rammed through on a three-line whip. Given the centrality of the struggle for the franchise in South African history – the Afrikaner Nationalists had begun their rule by disqualifying black voters – this was a case where the Court absolutely had to stand up. It didn’t.

I can only ask Anthony Lewis to imagine what would have happened in the US had a Federal promise not to reduce the powers of the states been broken – or millions of Opposition voters been disqualified from the exercise of the franchise. It was, after all, a proud and crucial part of the civil rights struggle that the US Supreme Court rejected all literacy tests and other artificial barriers to the exercise of the franchise. That said, these are early days for the Court here and even those limited and timorous assertions of judicial independence that we have seen are to be welcomed.

R.W. Johnson

Vol. 21 No. 23 · 25 November 1999

In his review of Anthony Sampson’s Mandela (LRB, 19 August), R.W. Johnson maintains that Indian Communists spread stories about the active role of whites in the 1949 Indian-African riots in Durban. Despite Johnson’s denials, whites were looters, gave active support and viewed the events with satisfaction. Unproven stories of whites initiating the riots did surface immediately afterwards. I have not heard that Indian Communists put these about. Does Johnson have contrary evidence?

Johnson also claims that MK, the ANC’s military wing, was a South African Communist Party initiative and that Sampson naively follows Slovo’s ‘whopper of huge proportions’ clouding tight Communist control of MK from beginning to end. Johnson should look at the primary material, including SACP documents, released over the last five years. Much supports Slovo’s memory. Further, despite Johnson’s claims, Slovo was never MK’s supreme commander.

Many of Johnson’s apparent revelations have long been accepted as accurate historical interpretation. For example, it is acknowledged that the Freedom Charter did not simply spring from ‘thousands of scraps of paper’ sent in by distant ANC branches and communities, as some ‘Struggle’ legends once suggested. But accepting this does not mean subscribing to Johnson’s approach to history. His claim that Lionel Bernstein drafted the Freedom Charter is interesting, too: Bernstein does not admit to this in his autobiography. Johnson should reveal his sources.

Johnson’s political analysis is sometimes wanting. He criticises the United Democratic Front for lying about its links with the ANC, but leaving aside complications in the relationship, does he seriously expect the UDF to have announced itself as the public face of the outlawed, exiled, underground and hunted ANC?

Johnson claims that the ANC is turning its own distorted history into an official orthodoxy. He is wrong. The South African landscape is littered with white triumphalist monuments. Further, as documents from the pre-1994 National Monuments Council reveal, many monuments commemorating 19th and early 20th-century events were erected only during the late Seventies and Eighties: when white power in South Africa was facing its ultimate challenge.

In dealing with the conflicts which climaxed at the banks of the Ncome River in 1838, later renamed Blood River as part of modern Afrikaner (nationalist) mythology, Johnson appears to believe that any interpretation which fails to view the trekkers as victims amounts to a ‘classic’ (black) ‘nationalist rewrite’. Could Johnson please tell us exactly what the trekkers were doing in the Zulu Kingdom?

The 16 December 1838 battle between Zulu warriors and land-hungry white trekkers is central to African, Afrikaner and Zulu nationalist and South African histories. MK was founded on 16 December 1961; its final parades were held on the same day in 1993. On 16 December last year the Minister for Arts and Culture unveiled a monument to Zulu warriors killed defending the Kingdom 160 years before. Alongside it is the monument to trekker victory in that same conflict, which is to remain. The day has long been a public holiday: in Nationalist times, the ‘Day of the Vow’; since 1994, the ‘Day of Reconciliation’.

Iain Edwards
Columbia University
New York

R.W. Johnson seeks to discredit the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission through his laudatory review of a book by Anthea Jeffery (LRB, 19 August). He mentions the hostile reaction within South Africa to her earlier book on the conflict between the ANC and Inkatha. But since, in his view, she is an impressive and impartial scholar, he attributes that reaction, as well as the equally hostile reaction to her present book, to political correctness. In an essay which accuses the Commissioners of dishonesty and partiality, it might have been fair to mention that in South Africa Jeffrey's earlier book was mostly criticised for clear bias in favour of Inkatha and poor research. Her book on the TRC is being dismissed within South Africa for similar reasons. It is important to stress that this has been the view inside the country because Johnson has sought to pre-empt debate by claiming that people outside South Africa are ill placed to contradict his view of events. The LRB is lucky to have a reviewer with unique access to the truth.

David Dyzenhaus
University of Toronto

Vol. 21 No. 24 · 9 December 1999

The belief of ex-Communists, like R.W. Johnson and Paul Trewhela (Letters, 11 November), that Mandela was a Party member, is not surprising: many other white Communists thought he was, as I explained in my authorised biography. And in the early Sixties, like many socialist leaders in opposition, Mandela needed to appear more left-wing than he was.

But your correspondents provide no documentary evidence. The fact that Mandela transcribed a pamphlet by the Chinese President Liu Shao-chi is hardly conclusive, since he also copied out bits from many other leaders, including Afrikaner generals, Field Marshal Montgomery and Harry Truman. The South African Government tried desperately to find evidence that Mandela joined the Party and failed. Wasn't Mandela, as both he and I have suggested, using the Communists as much as they were using him?

Anthony Sampson
London NW8

Iain Edwards appropriately questions several of the facts and opinions in R.W. Johnson’s review of Anthony Sampson’s biography of Mandela (Letters, 25 November). In doing so, however, he makes minor errors of his own. He claims, for example, that ‘it is acknowledged that the Freedom Charter did not simply spring from “thousands of scraps of paper" sent in by distant ANC branches and communities.’ Acknowledged by whom? Surely the facts can only be acknowledged by those who know them at first hand. Others might assume, allege, claim or imagine. But those involved know. Edwards apparently doubts Johnson’s claim that ‘Lionel Bernstein drafted the Freedom Charter,’ and adds that ‘Bernstein does not admit to this in his autobiography.’ Not so. I have not written an autobiography, and assume Edwards is referring to my political memoirs recently published as Memory against Forgetting. There I explain in some detail how I sorted and classified the ‘thousands of scraps of paper’ and reduced them to the best consensual form of words I could find, thus drafting the Freedom Charter – not ‘written’ but rather fashioned by me with its content provided by thousands of men and women of all races.

Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein
Kidlington, Oxfordshire

Vol. 22 No. 2 · 20 January 2000

Has David Dyzenhaus (Letters, 25 November 1999) actually read Anthea Jeffery’s book on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Has he read the TRC Report itself? I note that he lives in nice, safe, and overwhelmingly white and wealthy Canada, a country with one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world. I quote from Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s book Millennium.

Most of the really successful and enduring colonies which Europeans founded outside Europe to be, like South Africa, new “home countries" of their own – in what became North America, Siberia, Australia, and the South American cone – succeeded by extruding or exterminating, massacring or marginalising the indigenous peoples. South Africa’s history of mastering and exploiting native and neighbouring sources of labour looks positively benevolent by comparison. There are and can be no Native American or Aboriginal or Samoyed equivalents of the ANC.

Perhaps as David Dyzenhaus tucks into his morning bowl of Wheaties, he would care to reflect on Hitler’s comment on the plan to resettle the Ukraine with 100 million Volksdeutsche farmers: ‘When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.’

Neil Wilson
Cape Town

The real problem with Anthony Sampson’s ‘authorised biography’ of Nelson Mandela is that the discussion which has been taking place in the letters pages of the LRB should have taken place in his book. Sampson records that when Mandela’s notes were seized by the police in 1963, they were found to contain, in addition to ‘titbits’ about war from Field Marshal Montgomery and about political leadership from Harry Truman, 62 pages of Stalinist Marxism, including a passage from Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism. Sampson quotes Mandela’s own comment: ‘Under a CP government, South Africa will become a land of milk and honey … There will be no unemployment, starvation and disease.’ What Sampson does not do is discuss this. There is no serious effort to get into Mandela’s mind, or his life, at the time he wrote these words. Whether or not Mandela had actually joined the South African Communist Party, or was contemplating doing so, or was trying to gain a deeper understanding of his political allies, or had some other motive – these were questions for a biographer to explore.

Sampson does Mandela, and Southern Africa, and his readers a substantial disservice with this hands-off approach. There is no reference in his book to the prison camps set up in exile by the ANC and the SACP to house their own dissident members although there were a substantial number of them, especially after the mutiny in the ANC army in Angola in 1984, another subject not raised by Sampson. Yet after his release from prison in February 1990, Mandela had a largely honourable role in this matter. When I visited Johannesburg a few weeks later, I was told by Eddie Koch of the Weekly Mail that Mandela had in his presence defended the right of the magazine to publish details of abuses in prison camps run in exile by the Namibian nationalist party, Swapo, despite angry recriminations against Koch and the Weekly Mail from young ANC militants who were meeting Mandela. Two months later, in April, the first publicly verifiable report of torture and executions in ANC camps, particularly at Quatro camp in Angola, appeared in the now defunct Sunday Correspondent. Shortly afterwards, Mandela made the first public acknowledgment by an ANC leader that torture had indeed taken place in exile. In September 1991 Mandela, on behalf of the ANC, appointed a three-person commission of inquiry, headed by a barrister, Thembile Louis Skweyiya, into abuses that had taken place within the organisation in exile. As I reported in the exile magazine Searchlight South Africa in April 1993, Mandela’s action was the outcome of a ‘very sharp conflict’ within the National Executive Committee of the ANC between ‘internal’ leaders who wanted to know what had happened in exile in order to avoid scandal in the coming election campaign, and exile leaders who wanted to keep this secret. Decisively, Mandela ‘gave his support to those in favour of holding the inquiry and, later, of publishing its report; and this grouping prevailed’. Nothing on this topic appears in Sampson’s book, despite the report of the Skweyiya Commission (August 1992), a report by Amnesty International in December 1992 and the report of a further ANC inquiry headed by Dr Sam Motsuenyane (August 1993), and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which Mandela’s successor, President Mbeki, one of the leaders in exile, tried to suppress.

Paul Trewhela

Vol. 22 No. 6 · 16 March 2000

David Dyzenhaus’s attack on Anthea Jeffery for her book, The Truth about the Truth Commission, and its predecessor, The Natal Story: Sixteen Years of Conflict, abounds in distortions and misrepresentations (Letters, 25 November 1999). His allegations about The Natal Story have zero foundation in fact. The book’s objectivity was widely acknowledged by reviewers. Mondli Makhanya, writing in the Star, described it as an ‘unbiased account’. Z.B. Molefe wrote in City Press: ‘The book’s strongest feature … is providing both the ANC and Inkatha equal platforms to state their positions.’ Graham Linscott, in the Mercury, described the book as a ‘meticulous and scrupulously objective catalogue of horror’. Mokgadi Pela, writing in the Sowetan, said Jeffery had ‘used her skills to unravel this complex low-intensity war in a strictly non-partisan way’.

As for her analysis of the TRC’s report, all manner of invective has been levelled at her by various critics. They have not, however, defended the charges made by Jeffery, which still stand uncontroverted.

John Kane-Berman
South African Institute of Race Relations

Neil Wilson (Letters, 20 January) implies that Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people means that Canadians have no right to comment on the injustices of South Africa. Apartheid looks pretty good, apparently, in contrast to the genocide of indigenous populations elsewhere in the New World, as though we should applaud South Africa for not having eliminated the black population altogether. The letter accuses David Dyzenhaus – a resident of ‘nice, safe and overwhelmingly white and wealthy Canada’ – of not knowing what he is talking about. But Dyzenhaus is also a South African whose writings on the South African justice system prompted the TRC to ask him to appear as an expert witness. Last year he published a book on the TRC and the role of judges in South Africa.

Inaccuracies also abound in the claims about Canada: far from being overwhelmingly white, it is in fact one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world and, far from restricting immigration, has an immigration policy so ambitious that 16 per cent of its population is foreign-born.

Christine Sypnowich
Kingston, Canada

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