from Africa in Transition

Nelson Mandela: A Communist?

December 16, 2013

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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Bill Keller’s recent New York Times article entitled "Nelson Mandela, Communist" appeared on December 8. Based on research undertaken by the British historian Stephen Ellis in 2011, Keller accepts Ellis’ conclusions that Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party and a member of its Central Committee, despite repeated denials by Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC).

He asks the question, “should we care?”

If true, does Mandela’s South African Communist Party membership diminish him? Keller concludes that it does not. Instead, he suggests South African Communist Party membership was an aspect of Mandela’s pragmatism and flexibility. When it came to governance, Mandela’s pragmatic compromising–strongly supported by South African Communist Party icon Joe Slovo–won out over the “nationalizers and vengeance seekers.”

But, Keller suggests (persuasively, in my view) that the ANC association with communism helps explain its failure to evolve from a liberation movement “to a political party, let alone a government.” Further, “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, and to prize ends over means.” It is just these characteristics that South African democrats criticize in the administrations of former president Thabo Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma.

The close ties between the liberation movements, the Soviet Union, and China also help explain the hostility that the administrations of former president Ronald Reagan and former prime minister Margret Thatcher had toward the ANC and Mandela. During the Cold War, the “friend of my enemy was my enemy,” and the “enemy of my friend was also my enemy.” That way of thinking was part of the background to U.S. support for the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s President Laurent-Désiré Kabila and others who were simultaneously regarded as monsters.