Mandela: Red, black or both?

Jeremy Gordin writes on Paul S Landau's new book "Spear: Mandela and the Revolutionaries"

Spear: Mandela and the Revolutionaries by Paul S Landau. Jacana Media 2022.

Being an eagle-eyed sort of chap, I noticed on page 298 of this 300-page book [i] that author Paul S Landau, a professor of African history at the University of Maryland, had contributed an essay (“The M-Plan”[ii]) to a book titled Reassessing Mandela, edited in 2020 by eminent historians Colin Bundy and William Beinart.

The significance of this (for me anyway) is that I consider Reassessing Mandela to be a “very important” book [iii] – precisely because its aim was to “revise the reputation,” [iv] in a scholarly and balanced manner, of Nelson R Mandela; that is (in my words), to narrow the gap between reality, on the one hand, and the generally-accepted narrative and myths about Mandela on the other; perhaps even to show (politely, of course) that certain important parts of the narrative that we are generally fed were (to put it respectfully) somewhat inaccurate [v].

So, as I started reading this book, Spear, my assumption was that in the main it would be devoted to revising the reputation of Mandela, during the years 1960-64. Landau even says so in one part of his preface: “To revise the tale of an icon ... is guaranteed to provoke criticism. That is how it must be. [Mandela’s] espousal of violence and revolt may shock some readers [p. 14].” [vi]

But although Landau speaks (above) of a “revision [of an icon’s tale],” and though Tom Lodge, one of our previously resident Mandela experts [vii], shouts out on the cover that this book is “an astonishing breakthrough achievement,” suggesting some sort of revelation about something we didn’t previously know, and though Jacana Media recently advertised a (zoom) “conversation” about this book with the line “Mandela: Saint or Sell-out?” – my view is that trying to sell Spear as sort of a revelatory pony is (ironically?) to under-value it and to sell Landau short [viii]

This book seems to me to be the fruit of what was clearly a mammoth and painstaking research project (the cliché “Herculean task’ comes to mind) – and it is very fine as such.

Spear does “uncover” and stitch together into one (almost seamless) garment a great deal of material about 1961-4 – about, that is, Mandela, the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the role of the Communist party (SACP) and Communists, material that has obviously been “there” but hasn’t really been winkled out and pulled together (to the best of my knowledge) in such detail before, and that is moreover realistic about the reasons for the failed strategies and actions of MK.

Talking of which, if might digress for a moment, I was fascinated to read about the “role” played by “Israel” during this period. One of Mandela’s “guiding” texts, according to Landau (chapter 5 is titled “Mandela’s Bookcase” and is devoted to such texts), was Menachem Begin’s The Revolt and especially Begin’s description of the Irgun’s “internal structure” [116-18].

Then we learn [167-69] that when Mandela underwent part of his “military training” in Ethiopia, his “trainer” and men “had just returned from a full year of training with the Israeli Mossad in Tel-Aviv,” and that Mandela apparently did some physical training hard by the Israeli embassy where he “greeted the friendly, fit Jewish men [Mossadniks, apparently] ... saying ‘Shalom’.”

Fascinating about this is that it’s common cause that the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has in recent years seen fit, understandably, to remind the ANC and others about the Jewish role in the Struggle. Well, here, as far as I know, is a project that hasn’t been dealt with in detail. Maybe the Nelson Mandela Foundation could have a shot?

Returning to what I was writing, Landau does however find it necessary to “apologise” for or try to “rationalise” these failures of MK – “... it is too easy to forget that all command decisions were made under assault from the state, which used obscene methods to humiliate and coerce hundreds of persons it detained. Torture, trauma, the production of humiliation, of real and false memory, were decisive in unravelling MK ...” etc. [263]. But that’s okay with me and certainly doesn’t detract from Landau’s achievement.

This does not mean, however, that Spear is a carefree and joyous read; it is an “academic” book, a scholarly one, [ix] and took me a while to “get into”. Additionally, I do have some problems or – as a Dale Carnegie acolyte once told me to say – “challenges”.

Let me start with a small one [x]. Landau deals in chapter eight with Mandela’s arrest on the road from Durban on August 5, 1962 – a “betrayal” which Landau attributes to CIA substation chief, Don Rickard. Now, as the historical record has shown, Rickard on his death bed accepted responsibility for tipping off the Security Branch about Mandela’s movements. What is still unknown is who it was that tipped Rickard off. Why does Landau make no mention whatsoever of Prisoner 913: The Release of Nelson Mandela by Riaan de Villiers and Jan-Ad Stemmet (Tafelberg, 2020)?

This book more than suggests that Mandela himself believed that it was his then wife, Winnie, who gave away his whereabouts. Does Landau not “trust” De Villiers/Stemmet or their source (Kobie Coetsee)? Has their book been debunked by someone (but I missed the memo)?

There is another issue – which perhaps cannot be fairly called a fault or omission. And yet. Having recently worked my way through the horrors of Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor (2022), I couldn’t help wondering, as I read Landau’s first six chapters – which deal among other things with the endless debates, discussions and arguments of SACP and ANC leaders and activists (including Mandela) about the use of “violence” relative to Marxist-Leninist “philosophy” and experiences – I couldn’t help wondering how these people could be so hopelessly unaware of what took place during the Russian Civil War – and later Communist atrocities – and why Landau doesn’t touch on this.

Yes, I know Beevor’s book was published only this year, but during the last 100 years there have been a plethora of other books (starting with, to name just one that springs to mind, Arthur Koestler’s The God that Failed, 1949), as well as a fortune of other sources of information.

Did these people in SA, holding naïve debates, not realise what potential horror they might be fiddling with? To juxtapose what really happened in the early USSR, as in Beevor’s book, with SA’s nascent revolutionaries’ footling and apparently uninformed debates and plans, which one reads about in Spear, is truly mind-boggling.

But I suppose I have been digressing again.

My major difficulty with Spear takes me back to my opening paragraphs above. The main “new” issues that any author who deals with this topic has to grapple with are Mandela’s now confirmed membership of the Communist Party as well as the Party’s own self-proclaimed leading role in the formation of MK and the launch of the armed struggle.

For various obvious reasons (see endnote 5 below), Mandela, after his release, always fudged his answers to these questions. But just over a decade ago Stephen Ellis and Irina Filatova separately confirmed that Mandela had been a member of the Party in the early 1960s and served on the Central Committee at the time – something then publicly confirmed by the SACP on Mandela’s death in 2013.

Moreover, in 2015, Tom Lodge and Ellis, reported on newly revealed SACP documents, submitted to Moscow in the early 1960s, which had confirmed the dominant role Party members had played in the formation of MK and the launch of the armed struggle.

But what does Landau say?

He accepts in Appendix B that Mandela was a member of the Party and says he probably joined when Walter Sisulu did in 1955. Insofar as he does “comment” in the book, he seems to be trying to draw a distinction between, say, “black Marxists” (Mandela, Sisulu) and Communists per se. Landau writes: “Mandela was an African nationalist [and] Black Marxist” [295] – and this is all he writes.

Though he documents racial tensions between the black African Communists and the white and Indian ones following Mandela’s return from his African tour, it is not clear why he believes that revolutionary racial nationalism – which the SACP had enshrined in its 1962 programme – and Communism somehow stood in opposition to each other. In the anti-colonial ferment of the late 1950s and early 1960s there was not much real distinction between the two.

Also in appendix B, having quoted the work by Ellis and James Myburgh, Landau then says the two “[risked] making errors even as they reveal[ed] fascinating information”. It’s not my job to protect Myburgh, he’s more than capable of doing that; all I can say is that I have looked hard, but Landau fails to explain what errors Ellis and Myburgh have made.

Why is this so? All I can surmise is that Landau struggles in some way to reconcile his obvious “identification” with Mandela and the others with their by now well-documented Communist affiliations.

Anyway, the choices Mandela made from 1960-64 are the choices he made. He had to live with them – and go to jail for them (well sort of – at the Rivonia trial, he denied being a SACP member) – why can’t we accept them?

Bottom line then: a rather mixed bag of a book, but much of the research is fascinating.


[i] Excluding notes and bibliographical detail.

[ii] Based on the name of ANC activist and SACP member Raymond Mhlaba, btw, not on Mandela’s.

[iii] I presume Reassessing Mandela was not marketed “hard(er)” by Jacana because it came out at the start of the Covid lockdowns, is an “academic” book, not inexpensive, and not catchily titled like “Spear”.

[iv] As Bundy put it.

[v] The reason being, as we know, that the laundered version of reality (or parts of it) was structured by Mandela and close comrades after his release, in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR – was to shift Mandela away from being a “Communist” in the world’s eyes to being a “freedom fighter” or “African nationalist,” or to whatever would read better with “Western democracies” and particularly their money-people.

[vi] At this point, p 14, just by the way, Landau rather oddly veers off his usual manner of handling things and turns ad hominem (which he does not generally do in the rest of the book): “The figure in these pages [Mandela] was a recent divorcé, emotionally and materially unsettled, but increasingly connected to his fellow radicals, combative, wholly devoted to the cause ...” etc. etc. I’m not certain why Landau does this; but I guess it’s a discussion for another day.

[vii] Lodge has, I think, been living in Ireland for about 17 years; not that it matters.

[viii] But I guess marketing is marketing, baby.

[ix] E.g., “There is no natural correlation of human behaviour with race, although it is also true that no identity has ultimate grounds, pace Wittgenstein, outside of what human interactions offer” [11]. If anyone can explain the second half of that sentence to me, I’d appreciate it.

[x] One tiny one – once a subeditor, always a subeditor, I suppose – is that the first foot/endnote of the book calls Prof Milton Shain “Michael Shain”.