John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Nelson Mandela: A Communist?

by John Campbell
December 16, 2013

People wait in a bus line to pay their respects to former South African president Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, December 13, 2013. (Kevin Coombs/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Chike

    I’m not buying this weak argument – nobody has shown any evidence to support the claim that Mandela would have had the support of the US or UK governments “if he had no ties to communists”.

    US never really had an independent foreign policy in Africa & for much of the Cold War, it embarked on an elusive search for “communist monsters” or simply deferred to the British.

    South Africa was within the “British sphere of influence” and after the aid granted to UK by the likes of Jan Christian Smuts or the depth of UK investment in DeBeers (Cecil Rhode’s company), there was NO WAY on EARTH the UK would have sided with Mandela over the Afrikaners – no matter what his political leanings were.

  • Posted by Hank Cohen

    After the US Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto of sanctions legislation against apartheid South Africa in 1986, Reagan changed his attitude. He sent a black American diplomat, Edward Perkins, as Ambassador to South Africa. He started receiving ANC celebrities in the Oval Office (Mama Sissulu). His earlier anti-ANC view was influenced by Pat Buchanan who saw apartheid South Africa as a “bulwark” against communism. When the sanctions veto was overridden, Secretary of State Shultz persuaded Reagan to take another look at apartheid as a doomed system.

  • Posted by Phillip Kuypers

    @Hank is right and wrong. The ANC was branded as a Terrorist Organization by the USA till the dawn of the Mandela’s inauguration as president of South Africa. And only then lifted the ‘terrorist’ brand against Mandela in 1994 but not all of the ANC leaders. Comrade Tokyo Sexwale ANC National Executive Member and former Minister in the South African Government was arrested in New York on 13 October 2013 (three months ago) in terms of the USA anti-terrorism agenda against the ANC.
    @Chike there is a tread of truth in your assessment, I think. Mandela was adamant that his life-long friends are the Communists, referring to the South African Communist Party, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Front) and Castro of Cuba.

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