New light on Nelson Mandela's autobiography

Stephen Ellis on the significance of the recent release of the late ANC leader's draft autobiography, smuggled out of Robben Island in 1977


A new light is now shining on Nelson Mandela's political biography and on the history of South Africa as the result of the release of an important document by the Mandela Centre of Memory. 

The document in question is a 627-page typescript that seems to have been placed online just a few days before Mandela's death in December 2013.  Why the Centre of Memory decided to place such an important and even explosive text online at that juncture is unclear.  The Centre made no attempt to publicize the move, for example by announcing the publication on its homepage (see the Centre's response here - Editor).

The document that can now be consulted by internet users here is a draft autobiography that was secretly handwritten by Mandela in Robben Island prison before being smuggled out, typed up, and handed to Yusuf Dadoo, chairman of the South African Communist Party, in August 1977.  This was the document that was re-worked in the years after Mandela's release from prison to form the basis for Long Walk to Freedom, the best-selling autobiography published in 1994. 

It is clear from even a quick read that the prison manuscript, on which Mandela started work in 1974, is the product of a collective effort since it is strewn with editorial notes.  To judge from information already in the public domain, the original editorial team that got to work on Robben Island included, in addition to Mandela himself, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu and Mac Maharaj.  The manuscript was originally intended as an inspiration to potential readers to join the fight against apartheid.

A still deeper mystery is why the document remained unpublished after being smuggled out of prison in 1977.  Who knew of its existence throughout the long years before its publication, other than Yusuf Dadoo and a handful of others who are known to have had sight of it or to have worked on it?  Why did they not publish it at once? 

Who made the crucial decision to bring in an experienced journalist, Richard Stengel from Time magazine, to give the manuscript the expert makeover that enabled it to sell over 15 million copies worldwide?  The book Long Walk to Freedom was far more than a publishing sensation in terms of the money it generated.  Appearing while the transition from apartheid was not yet complete, it was a powerful propaganda tool on behalf of the ANC.

Study of the untitled Robben Island typescript tells us about far more than the process of literary creation.  It reveals some of the dynamics concerning Nelson Mandela's relationship with the Communist Party in particular. 

For anyone interested in history and politics, the main differences between the 1970s manuscript and the 1994 book could perhaps be grouped in two.  First, there are key historical details.  The prison manuscript contains information that help us to fill in the chronology of some key moments in South African history, most obviously the turn to armed struggle in 1960-1961 and Mandela's historic tour of Africa in 1962 - his first-ever journey outside South Africa - when he had important second thoughts on the nature of the ANC's relationship with the South African Communist Party (SACP). 

The second key point of interest is the abundance of information in the prison memoir on Mandela's personal relationship with the SACP and his embrace of the main tenets of Marxism-Leninism.

The chronology of struggle

The 1970s manuscript makes plain that Mandela began thinking about the possibilities of armed struggle at an early period.  In one of the many drafted passages in the manuscript that were not taken up or were somewhat relegated in Long Walk to Freedom, on pages 141-42, Mandela informs us how, when he learned that his friend Walter Sisulu had been invited to Romania to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship in 1952, "I took advantage of this opportunity to put him [sic] my views on alternative methods of struggle and suggested that from the Festival he should visit the People's Republic of China and arrange for arms". 

Sisulu did exactly that. "The Chinese leaders received him warmly", the Mandela text continues, "and took pains to warn that an armed struggle was a very serious matter to undertake and questioned whether the conditions in South Africa had matured sufficiently to justify such an undertaking".  The Chinese were correct in thinking that an armed struggle in South Africa would be premature, as later events were to show.

While Mandela's thoughts were turning to the use of violence at this relatively early stage, in the same passage he mentions that "he defended the [ANC] policy of non-violence until the three Day Strike of May 1961".  Reflection on this apparent contradiction needs to be based on awareness of a crucial historical event, knowledge of which became public only quite recently. This was the convening of an SACP conference in Emmarentia in December 1960 at which the Party adopted a secret resolution instructing its Central Committee to prepare for armed struggle.  Mandela was a Party member at that time and one of just 25 or so people present at that crucial meeting.

Moreover, the decision to take up arms had been preceded by discreet soundings taken by SACP delegates visiting Moscow and Beijing, including a meeting between Party delegates Yusuf Dadoo and Vella Pillay with Mao Zedong in person on 3 November 1960. 

In effect, then, as from December 1960 the SACP was set on a course of armed struggle with guarantees of support from the Communist superpowers of the day.  Mandela was one of the few people aware of this fateful decision.  Since he was a member not only of the Central Committee of the SACP but also of senior organs of the ANC, he was crucially placed in both organizations.  Knowing this, how are we to understand Mandela's assurance, quoted in the previous paragraph, that he defended the policy of non-violence until May 1961, six months after he had backed a Communist Party resolution in favour of armed struggle? 

The reader needs to be attentive to the precise wording of the sentence, suggesting that Mandela was publicly defending the formal ANC policy of non-violence even while, as is known, he was in his capacity as a senior member of the SACP preparing for exactly the opposite.  This explanation also throws light on other passages, such as at page 411 where he recalls travelling to Port Elizabeth, apparently in April 1961, and spending a day with Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and others "discussing problems relating to the new structure of the ANC as an underground organisation". 

Given that Mbeki and Mhlaba were among the magic circle of ANC people who had also been present at the December 1960 SACP that had resolved to prepare for war, it is hard to imagine that these two and Mandela did not also discuss military affairs.  When Mandela moved on to Cape Town in the same trip, meeting Archie Sibeko, Oscar Mpeta, Reggie September, Alex La Guma, Brian Bunting, Fred Carneson and others, it is likely that the same was true. 

As the Robben Island manuscript puts it (page 417), "some of our dedicated men were becoming impatient with passive forms of action. I had realised that this was a trend that had come to stay and that in due course it would become irresistible".  Remarks and details such as this acquire new significance when we know that Mandela had effectively been mandated by the SACP six months earlier to canvass support for armed struggle within the ANC. 

In short, the release of the Robben Island manuscript gives us new material to make a detailed reconstruction of how South Africa embarked on its long armed struggle, via careful re-examination of the sequence of events from early 1960 until the formal unveiling of Umhonto we Sizwe in December 1961.

Mandela and the SACP

Certainly the Robben Island manuscript reveals the intensity of Mandela's attachment to Marxism by the late 1950s, if not earlier.  On page 100 he recalls, when mentioning his early reading on Marxism, that "[l]ater I was to embrace dialectical and historical materialism as my philosophy".  He goes on to describe the dialectical method as "a mighty weapon which puts me in a strong position to realise all my aspirations as a nationalist and as a member of the human race" (page 102). 

It is apparent that Mandela had moved very close to the Communist Party by the late 1950s.  The text stops short only of stating that he actually joined the SACP, as his friend Walter Sisulu had done in 1955.  Another prominent Communist, John Pule Motshabi, once recalled that the recruitment of both Mandela and Sisulu into the SACP had occurred "after the 1950 campaigns".  The South African Police was eventually to conclude that Mandela's recruitment was not until 1960.

Inherent in Mandela's philosophical and political embrace of Marxism was a series of positions on political matters consistent with an orthodox Marxist-Leninist view at that time.  Following on from the passage in which he made explicit his embrace of dialectical and historical materialism, there comes an extended passage-needless to say, not included in Long Walk to Freedom-in which Mandela praises Soviet foreign policy, which "fully supported the national struggles of the colonial people". 

Elsewhere, on page 194, when he casually names a string of imperialist countries, it is notable that all of them are in the Western camp of the Cold War, implying that Communist powers by their very nature cannot be imperialist.  This was in fact an argument that Mandela maintained in some of his public utterances during the late 1950s, such as his piece "A New Menace in Africa", published in the monthly journal Liberation in March 1958.  Page 180 of the Robben Island manuscript provides a justification of the two-stage theory of revolution, a key plank of SACP policy that was also to become popular within the ANC in course of time. 

In light of later events, perhaps the most interesting passage regarding policy matters is a discussion of the use of coercion-in this context, a synonym for violence-in politics.  The passage in question, on page 327, arises from a description of the ANC's organisation of a strike in 1958.  Mandela tells us that he and his colleagues in the ANC "have often discussed the question to what extend [sic] we should rely on coercive measures in organising political demonstrations" (page 327).  ANC policy was "against the use of coersive [sic] measures as a means of mobilising the support of the people", the text notes. 

However in debating the question Mandela comes to the striking conclusion that "the real issue is whether the use of force will advance or retard the struggle".  In the last resort, if the use of force will advance the struggle, "then it must be used whether or not the majority agrees with us" (page 328). 

While many governments may adopt the position that it is permissible to use force even though it has only minority support if it is deemed necessary by those in authority, such a statement in the context in which it occurs in the Robben Island memoir is tantamount to a ringing endorsement of one of the most outstanding features of Marxism-Leninism-that it is morally permissible to use violence provided only that it will help "the struggle". 

The means by which the true direction of the struggle may be discerned are not made explicit at this point, but given other statements in the manuscript we are forced to the conclusion that, in the thinking of Nelson Mandela at least until the mid-1970s, this was by correct application of the method of historical and dialectical materialism. 

Some other passages in the Robben Island text that touch on the subject of violence are also quite vehement.  At times, Mandela tells us, he was bitter against South African whites in general, feeling that they "need another Isandhlwana" (page 194)-a reference to the bloody defeat of British troops by a Zulu army in 1879.  "South African whites", Mandela continues in another passage, "have been bred on racialism for 3 centuries, and mere speeches alone....will never make them surrender and share political power and the natural wealth of the country with the blacks" (page 399). 

It is indeed hard to deny that the obduracy of the South African government for many years made it hard to imagine how apartheid could ever be overthrown without recourse to violence. But remarks this virulent had become somewhat off-message by the time Mandela's autobiography was eventually published in 1994.  No doubt Mandela's own thinking had evolved in the twenty years that had by then elapsed since he started work on his memoir. 

He once told US President Bill Clinton how angry he had been during his first 11 years of his imprisonment on Robben Island, which would mean until about 1975.  Among the experiences that appear to have mellowed him thereafter was the shock of seeing the 1976 cohort of young revolutionaries, veterans of the Soweto rising who began arriving on the Island and who shocked Mandela and many others of his generation by the depth of their anger. 

By publishing the Robben Island draft of Mandela's autobiography, the Nelson Mandela Foundation has performed a service to scholars intent on better understanding the nature of the anti-apartheid struggle and even its basic chronology.  Neither of these are well understood.  People always find it hard fully to understand the times they live in, leaving history to unfold its meanings only gradually.  But in this case something more is afoot, namely how the history of the struggle was so skilfully hidden for so long as the South African Communist Party and its allies deployed the strategic use of deception and propaganda. 

Thanks to the internet publication of the Robben Island manuscript, we can now see a little more.

Stephen Ellis is Professor of social sciences at the Free University, Amsterdam, and author of External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 (Jonathan Ball).

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