An Unreliable Friend

R.W. Johnson

  • Mandela: The Authorised Biography by Anthony Sampson
    HarperCollins, 500 pp, £24.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 00 255829 7

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.