Mandela and the SACP: Time to close the debate?

Irina Filatova says Vladimir Shubin has now acknowledged that the late former President had been a member of the Party

Nelson Mandela and the SACP – Yet Again

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, some in South Africa and abroad refuse to believe that Nelson Mandela was a member of the underground South African Communist Party (SACP). Hugh Macmillan (Mail&Guardian, 17-23 January 2014), amazingly, thought that even though Mandela could have been co-opted to its Central Committee, he was never a party member - as if such an aberration was possible.

In the most recent contribution to this debate Isaac Mpho Mogotsi emotionally pleaded with his readers not to call Mandela a communist (Politicsweb, 30 March 2015) and drew attention to his ‘anti-communist’ period – as if, somehow, it was OK for Mandela to be an anti–communist, but not a communist, as so many of his closest friends and comrades were.

There are two major reasons for such disbelief. One is that Mandela himself never said in as many words that he was a member of the party, either in court, or later. This argument assumes that Mandela, unlike, for example, Walter Sisulu (who too did not declare his membership in court and for many years afterwards), could not conceal any truth – even from the apartheid court – and that if he were, indeed, a communist, he would have honestly declared this to the apartheid judges.

This despite the fact that such an admission would have jeopardised not only his own life, but that of his comrades, and, even more importantly, their cause itself. Whether and when to declare such membership after the party was unbanned and dropped the rule of the secrecy of its membership, was for every individual member to decide.

The other reason is the lack of written documentary evidence: Mogotsi calls an archival document, quoted by Stephen Ellis (Mail&Guardian, 3-9 January 2014), ‘muddled’ and oral evidence, coming from many of Mandela’s comrades, unreliable, as there are other comrades, who testified to the contrary. Ronnie Kasrils agrees.

Even after both the ANC and SACP proudly announced Mandela’s membership of the party and of its Central Committee, he said: ‘Mandela never acknowledged it… There’s no documents to prove it actually conclusively.’

Mogotsi weighs heavily on the evidence of Vladimir Shubin, a former official of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) and a historian, who, in his three books and many articles on relations between the SACP and the USSR, never confirmed Mandela’s membership of the party – of which, it should be assumed, he would have been aware. In his latest publication on the topic, however, Shubin wrote: “Mandela’s death allowed to put an end to the rumours and arguments about his membership of the South African Communist Party.” Having quoted the SACP’s statement in this regard, he continued:

“True, in South Africa only interviews of some veterans are quoted. But there is documentary evidence, housed not somewhere [unknown], but at the State Archives of the Russian Federation. We Russian historians often complain (justly) about the fact that our archives are classified, but it should be noted that even declassified materials are often not studied.

In 2000, a few years after the records of the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee were partially de-classified, Maxim Sivograkov, a post-graduate student of Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, found (admittedly, prompted by me) a notice, sent from this committee to the CPSU’s CC, [1] which asked for permission to render assistance (a very modest one – 100 roubles, i.e. $111) to the ANC delegates to the Conference of African and Asian Writers which took place in February 1962 in Cairo.

Among these delegates was a member of the SACP – Nelson Mandela. Of course, neither Maxim, nor I disclosed this information until our South African friends publicised this fact themselves”. [2]

Shubin actually mentioned this very document with Mandela’s name in it in his book, published a year earlier, but not the fact that Mandela was described as a communist in it. [3] This was a perfect example of communist ethics: whatever the party decided was true, had to be true. If Mandela was a communist this would have been his ethics too.

Shubin’s recognition of Mandela’s membership of the party should put an end to the debate on this issue. For many years Shubin was, after all, the CPSU’s Central Committee official responsible for ties with the SACP and the ANC and the first port of call for the leadership of both organisations in the CPSU’s CC, many of whom he knew intimately.

There is no doubt that more documents confirming Mandela’s membership of the party will emerge. In a few years’ time this will cease to be an emotional political issue, though it will, of course, remain a field for further historians’ interest and research. As for politics, I would agree with Shubin, who wrote that it ‘was not so important, whether Mandela was a member of the SACP more than 50 year ago. More important is the fact that, after leaving the party for one reason or another, all four presidents of democratic South Africa (and all four of them were members of the party leadership at some time), did not become hostile to it’. [4]

Indeed, the SACP’s closeness to the top leadership of the country is of a much greater importance for the future of South Africa, than Mandela’s party membership.  


[1] Central Committee

[2] Azia i Afrika segodnia (Asia and Africa Today), 4 April, 2014.

[3] V.G. Shubin. Afrikanskii natsionalnyi congress v gody podpolia i vooruzhennoj borby (African National Congress in the Years of Underground and Armed Struggle). Moscow: Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 1999, p. 74.

[4] Azia i Afrika segodnia…

Professor Vladimir Shubin pictured at an economic conference hosted by the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs in London in 2006 (Picture: Trevor Grundy)