Africa and the post-imperial British media and academic class

Paul Trewhela examines the aversion to investigating too closely the Cold War drama in southern and central Africa

Mandela conference, and the blood of Sambizanga

It's a curious thing, the post-imperial British media and academic class.

One of its greatest phobias has been to investigate too closely into the Cold War drama in southern and central Africa, to which it was emotionally, intellectually and often professionally transfixed. Commitment and engagement, yes! Proper investigative research, well, no ... not the done thing, is it?

This strange beast will do its stuff again in London in a couple of days, at Senate House at the University of London - Bloomsbury, really - all day on Friday 5th December.

A year after his death, the subject of the day's conference is Nelson Mandela. The great and the good among Britain's friends of Africa will gather in memory and reflection. The formal title of the conference is "Mandela: Myth and Reality".

Trevor Grundy reported the event on Politicsweb on 19 November, with a headline and sub-head reading: "Mandela 'myths and realities' to come under scrutiny at London....the late ANC President's secret membership of the SACP among topics likely to be discussed."

Among those expected to take part in the event are one or two who attached their own names to the Mandela name on the covers of biographies, but neglected to uncover that "secret membership of the SACP". Biography, yes! "Secret membership of the SACP"...well, not really the done thing, actually.

The first historians to do the work of the scholar in seeking and finding substantive proof of this are - in order of publication date - the British professor teaching in Amsterdam, Stephen Ellis, in his study, External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990 (Jonathan Ball, 2012), and the Russian professor, resident in Cape Town and teaching in Moscow, Irina Filatova, with her study The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (Jonathan Ball, 2013).

Stephen Ellis will read a paper at the London conference, with the title "Mandela, the Communist Party and the origins of South Africa's armed struggle."

This will be the defining edge of "reality" in the day's proceedings.

The first secure piece of published proof of Mandela's membership of the SACP, however, came from the distinguished South African journalist now resident in Israel, Benjamin Pogrund, in an essay "Generosity of spirit" in a volume of photographs by the premier political photographer of the apartheid period, Peter Magubane, Man of the People: A Photographic Tribute to Nelson Mandela, published in 2008 by Pan Macmillan and Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust, Johannesburg.

In his essay, Pogrund reported an interview he had conducted in South Africa in the mid-1960s with a former member of the Central Committee of the SACP, the late Piet Beyleveld, who had given evidence for the prosecution in the SACP trial of 1964/65 (in which I was sentenced), and who went on to give evidence in 1966 in the trial of Bram Fischer, for which Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Pogrund reported that Beyleveld "spoke freely and described the last secret party conference he had attended, in a house in Johannesburg, early in the 1960s. He offered the information that Mandela had been there and, he believed, had even been elected to the central committee. He said the balloting was secret and the committee's names were not supposed to be known even in party circles." (p.22)

This confirms independent evidence published separately later by Stephen Ellis and Irina Filatova.

This volume of information on the subject of Mandela's membership of the SACP - hidden for more than 40 years - now sets the background relating to "Myth and Reality" in his life.

The biographers who did not do the necessary research on the matter, in order of publication date following the release of Mandela from prison in 1990, are:

Martin Meredith, Nelson Mandela: A Biography, Penguin, London, 1997. Revised edition, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010.

Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography, HarperCollins, London, 1999.

Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.

David James Smith, Young Mandela, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2010.

Kenneth S. Broun, Saving Nelson Mandela: The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012.

The issue here is the actual scope of influence of the SACP at the head of the ANC in the early 1960s and in subsequent decades, up to the present. To get an understanding of this very important thread in South African politics, it is crucial to turn to Angola, the country that was the main military base of the ANC and the SACP for 14 years before their return to South Africa from exile.

For this focus on Angola, the most important publishing event in 40 years, in my view, is the book by the former BBC journalist Lara Pawson, In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre, published this year by IB Tauris, London. I provided a brief appreciation of this book in a review on Politicsweb, "The Angolan massacre of May 27 1977: A grim portent for South Africa" (27 August 2014).

A further article followed, headed "Michael Wolfers: Hiding the truths about Africa", with a sub-title "...on the role played by the late British journalist in suppressing the truth about the 1977 Nitista massacre in Angola." was published on Politicsweb on 21 October 2014.

Angola - massacre. These words now cannot be separated.

What Lara Pawson revealed, but what a generation of top-level British academics and journalists kept hidden, was that in May 1977 the Marxist-Leninist government of the MPLA in Angola carried out a massacre of mainly poor, black, Angolan township dwellers on a scale between five hundred and one thousand times bigger than carried out by the white South African regime at Sharpeville in March 1960, or by the Zuma government at Marikana in August 2012.

Pawson establishes that the MPLA leadership - still ruling Angola to this day - massacred thousands of its own supporters with deliberate intent, with mass executions, mass graves, and with Cuban tanks driving over the fragile roofs of the musseques (ikuku, or chicken-shed in Soweto parlance) in Luanda's own Soweto township - Sambizanga.

Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, who will be taking part in the final session of Friday's conference, might have been suggesting the same point in a review of Lara Pawson's book on the website African Arguments, headed "New book reveals truth about Angola's forgotten massacre" (6 June 2014). Dowden wrote: "Before the end of apartheid in South Africa, Angola was the pivot on which the liberation of Southern Africa turned."

If Angola was the pivot, a subliminal sub-text underlying the London conference should be: "Angola: Myth and Reality".

The problem here is that a principal organiser of the London conference is a British journalist and academic, Keith Somerville, author of a book published in London and New York in 1986, Angola: Politics, Economics and Society, Frances Pinter, London. It appeared in a series with the title (on the front cover), "Marxist Regimes".

Throughout this book, Somerville dilates from cover to cover on Marxism-Leninism without one single word about the massacre.

The very first words in his Preface situate the "attempt by the MPLA to implement its undoubtedly Marxist policies in Angola", and continue: "It is my view that the MPLA-Workers' Party is sincere in its commitment to Marxism-Leninism and that its policies have reflected this. ...[This] book attempts to present as clear an account as possible of the MPLA as a Marxist-Leninist party... It should be noted from the start the author's sympathies are with the general aims and direction of the MPLA...". (pp..xiii, xiv)

Ideological dogma pervades the book all the way to its final chapter, which states that "the MPLA has been consistent in its adherence to and development of Marxism-Leninism and has implemented a concerted policy of ridding the party of non-Marxist elements and ensuring the adoption of democratic centralism and other vital components of Marxism-Leninist organizational and party work practice. ...". (p.194)

More specifically, as Somerville states in his Preface: "In the political sphere, the rectification campaign within the party has been the most significant move towards Marxism-Leninism". (p.xiv)

He even discusses as an "option" (which, thankfully, he rejects) that the MPLA might follow policies which "may have been applicable in Soviet Russia", when "it was possible for Stalin to purge the countryside, at great human, social, political and economic cost...." (p.193)

"Marxism-Leninism" here connects the subject of the Mandela conference to the horror in Angola, and to Somerville's own role as British journalist and academic.

Organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) based at the University of London, the programme for the Mandela conference describes Somerville as "currently Lecturer in Humanitarian Communications, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent.

His profile on the site of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University states:

"Keith Somerville is a visiting Specialist Associate Lecturer. He is a writer and lecturer on African affairs, journalism and the global media. His expertise is in finding and developing stories, writing, interview techniques, broadcast and online news reporting and production, media law and ethics, and international journalism.

"A career journalist with the BBC World Service and BBC News for three decades, Keith has an established track record as a trainer and training designer for the BBC, initially with BBC World Service training and latterly with the recently-established BBC College of Journalism. He was executive producer for the BBC's international award-winning Legal Online course; co-author and role-play developer for the BBC's post-Hutton Sources, Scoops and Stories course; he was in charge of and the scenario writer for the BBC's interactive journalism teaching tool, The Journalism Tutor. His knowledge of journalism theory and practice is based on nearly three decades of reporting, writing, presenting and editing World Service news programmes. He also has extensive online production experience and has written for specialist publications on African affairs.

"The major world events he has covered include running the World Service team in South Africa for the first post-apartheid elections in 1994; presenting live coverage of the attempted coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev; overseeing the first 10 hours of World Service coverage of the death of Princess Diana; running of live World Service radio coverage on 9/11; and producing and presenting radio documentaries from South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica and the wilds of deepest Cardiff and Norfolk."

And yet....

Together with Martin Plaut, his South African-born co-organiser of the Mandela conference and co-author (with Paul Holden) of the study, Who Rules South Africa? (Jonathan Ball, 2012), Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Plaut is the former Africa editor of the BBC World Service.

It is a weird and wonderful fact in the world of the BBC and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, that non-reporting of a massacre of between 20,000 and 30,000 people becomes in the course of time a matter of "Humanitarian Communications".

Repeated again and again in his book, Somerville's phrase "rectification campaign" (which he describes as the MPLA's "most significant move towards Marxism-Leninism"), together with his phrase about "ridding the party of non-Marxist elements", have at their heart the mass murders of 27 May 1977 and afterwards. The name of Nito Alves - the leading critic of the policies of the MPLA regime before the massacre - appears in more than 30 of the 200-odd pages of his book, but there is no word that Alves was executed.

[Keith Somerville's reply to these points can be found here - Editor]

As I explained in a paper, "Three episodes of moral choice in South Africa in the past 50 years", delivered at a conference on Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, in October 2012, one of Nelson Mandela's supreme moral achievements was that following a one-to-one private discussion in London in 1991 with a young survivor of Quatro prison camp, he championed the public disclosure of the ANC's and the SACP's human rights abuses against their own members in Angola and elsewhere, all the way through to publication of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998, even against the opposition of his Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki.

Yet the history of the ANC and the MPLA cannot easily be disentangled. Stephen Ellis reports that the ANC set up its first bases in Angola "early in 1976", and that in March 1977 "what for a couple of years would be its most important camp" was opened at Nova Catengue, in the west of Angola, south of Luanda. (Ellis, p.118)

This means that the military wing of the ANC and the SACP, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was already based in Angola at the time of the massacre. Major questions follow from this. Lara Pawson's chapter, "A death camp", makes it clear that the MPLA had already established its own concentration camp at Calunda as the model for what the ANC later set up as its own prison camp in Angola for dissenters, Quatro, and for the pits in the ground that Swapo dug for its imprisoned Namibian members at Lubango, in southern Angola.

A monstrous pall of repression was placed over the whole of southern Africa with the massacre of 27 May 1977, comparable in horror and deliberate intent with the Gukurahundi massacre carried out by the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. Journalists and academics such as Keith Somerville kept this hidden. There has been nothing in Angola to compare with the work of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in revealing the details of the massacre in Zimbabwe. This is an urgent international necessity.

First of all, though, there should be shame in the universities and media agencies in Britain for their own moral failure - even, complicity - over so many decades, a history of disgrace now overshadowing the Mandela conference in London.

Honour to Stephen Ellis, to Irina Filatova and to Lara Pawson!

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