For close to fifty years the truth of Nelson Mandela’s membership of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s – and to a somewhat lesser extent Walter Sisulu’s - was attended by a “bodyguard of lies.”
Mandela denied his membership of the Communist Party in his Treason Trial testimony in 1960 and at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 (as did Sisulu). This denial was repeated in Mandela’s autobiography published in 1993 and perpetuated by Anthony Sampson in his authorised biography of Mandela published in 1999.
Shortly before he died Walter Sisulu told his biographer that he had indeed joined the SACP in 1955, after an initiation period in 1954, and been co-opted on the Central Committee in 1956.
In the two years before Mandela’s death books by Stephen Ellis and Irina Filatova established that Mandela too had been a member of the SACP’s Central Committee at the critical time of the turn to armed struggle in the early 1960s. This was confirmed by both the SACP and ANC in statements issued after Mandela’s death in December 2013.
It remains unclear when, and under what circumstances, Mandela joined the Party but the 1975 prison manuscript of his autobiography suggested an earlier and deeper conversion to Marxist-Leninism than previously assumed.
Ellis and Filatova’s uncovering of this secret history has certainly forced a revision in the standard accounts of the ANC’s turn to the armed struggle in the early 1960s. But its relevance for our understanding of post-apartheid politics remains unclear to many.
Once the evidence to the contrary became overwhelming the claim that ‘Mandela was never a member of the Communist Party’ switched over to the challenge, ‘So what if he was?’
The answer to this lies, partly at least, in how we interpret two of the most important historical documents of the liberation movement: Mandela’s statement from the dock at the Rivonia Trial in April 1964 (“the Statement”), and The Road to South African Freedom: The Programme of the SACP (“the Programme”) adopted some eighteen months before.
Mandela’s statement from the dock
The SACP’s decision to embark on the path of armed struggle was first taken by a conference of the Party in December 1960, having earlier received the green light to do so from the Soviet Union and Communist China, with Mandela and Sisulu in attendance.
Mandela had then played the central role in persuading the ANC’s National Executive Committee to agree to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe in mid-1961 as an organisation separate from the ANC. MK had launched its first sabotage operations, and released its manifesto, on 16 December 1961. Party members had monopolised positions in the MK High Command in its first years.
Mandela had, while operating underground, moved to Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia soon after its purchase by the SACP on 21 August 1961. On the 10th of January 1962 he had embarked on his Africa tour, returning briefly to Rivonia on the 24th of July that year. Two days later he travelled down to Durban. On the way back to Johannesburg on the 5th August he was arrested by the police just outside Howick after the police had been tipped off by CIA agent Donald Rickard about his whereabouts.
Although Mandela represented himself in the trial that began on 22nd October 1962 he was assisted by Advocate Bob Hepple, a member of the SACP Central Committee at this time. On 7th November he was sentenced to a five year jail term by the magistrate for incitement and leaving the country without a passport.
In July 1963 Lillieslief farm was raided by the police and a number of conspirators arrested. Among the documents seized were a series of draft lectures in Mandela’s handwriting titled “Part One (How to be a Good Communist)”, “Chapter Two (Dialectical Materialism)” and “Political economy”.
The following year Mandela and nine others were brought to trial on charges of sabotage and furthering the objects of Communism. The lead counsel was Advocate Bram Fischer QC, another member of the SACP Central Committee. He was assisted by Vernon Berrange, Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos.
The defence strategy, as Mandela later put it, involved admitting to what the state already knew from the copious documentation seized at Rivonia but denying what it didn’t or what was dangerous to the cause. The later clearly included the precise extent of Communist influence on the ANC and MK and, where possible, the Party membership of the accused. Instead, emphasis was placed upon the ANC leadership’s historic commitment to a non-racial democracy (which was certainly true of Albert Luthuli’s position.)
A document prepared by defence attorneys for the guidance of counsel in the case stated that, “Throughout the whole of its history the A.N.C. has stood for equal rights for all races in this country. It has clung to the principle that there should be no oppression of any race by another; and that there should be no discrimination against any human being on the ground of his race or colour.”
The argument to be made was that the obduracy of successive white governments to these reasonable demands had pushed the “patience and forbearance” of the African majority to breaking point, hence the formation of MK.
On 20 April 1964 Mandela made his famous statement from the dock. This was a speech drafted in consultation with various people including his lawyers and his co-accused. In his biography of the young Mandela David James Smith says that he was speaking “in a sense, not just for himself but for all the accused and indeed, for the entire liberation movement. He would take the chance of this platform, with the whole world listening, to make a thorough statement of their aims and their beliefs.” In his memoirs one of his co-accused, Ahmed Kathrada, commented: “Of course we had read the address beforehand, discussed and unanimously approved it.”
While admitting to be a socialist attracted to the idea of a classless society, in his speech, Mandela denied being a member of the Communist Party. He presented himself as an African Nationalist and an African Patriot and placed this ideology in contra-distinction with the ideas of his Communist allies. He commented that while Communists may regard “the parliamentary system of the West as undemocratic and reactionary” he was an “admirer of such a system.”
“The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights, are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world. I have great respect for British political institutions, and for the country's system of justice. I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world, and the independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration. The American Congress, that country's doctrine of separation of powers, as well as the independence of its judiciary arouse in me similar sentiments.”
He added that he had been influenced in his thinking by both West and East and sought to borrow the best of both in his search for a political formula (Sisulu said something very similar in his evidence). He then turned to how he had come to write the documents on ‘How to be a Good Communist’ and ‘Dialectical Materialism’ that had been presented as exhibits in the trial. He claimed that an old friend – whom he would name as Moses Kotane in his 1993 autobiography – had long been trying unsuccessfully to persuade him to join the SACP:
“In order to convince me that I should join the Communist Party he, from time to time, gave me Marxist literature to read, though I did not always find time to do this…. I saw him on several occasions at Lilliesleaf Farm, and on one of the last of these occasions he was busy writing with books around him. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that he was busy writing lectures for use in the Communist Party, and suggested that I should read them. There were several lectures in draft form.
After I had done so, I told him that they seemed far too complicated for the ordinary reader…. in that the language was obtuse and they were full of the usual Communistic clichés and jargon… He said it was impossible to simplify the language, without losing the effect of what the author was trying to stress. I disagreed with him, and then he asked me to see whether I could re- draft the lectures in the simplified form suggested by me. I agreed to help him, and set to work in an endeavour to do this, but I never finished the task as I later became occupied with other practical work which was more important. I never again saw the unfinished manuscript until it was produced at the trial.”
In response to the prosecution’s suggestion that “Umkhonto was the inspiration of the Communist Party” which had sought to exploit the “imaginary grievances” of the African population for its own nefarious ends Mandela spoke sincerely and movingly of the cruelties and injustices of white supremacy, and the severe disabilities that black Africans suffered from under this system. He then turned to what it was that the ANC and MK were fighting for:
“We [the African people] want a just share in the whole of South Africa; we want security and a stake in society. Above all, my lord, we want equal political rights - because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the Whites in this country, because of the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all.
It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial, and when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The A.N.C. has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs, as it certainly must, it will not change that policy.
This then is what the A.N.C. is fighting. Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against White domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons; live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In his authorised biography of Mandela Sampson wrote that these “words reverberated round the world, providing a manifesto for anti-apartheid campaigners everywhere”; David James Smith that “If it is not the greatest political speech of the last 100 years, it is certainly among the most significant.”
As Rian Malan has noted the words from this speech still echo today: “Type Mandela's name into Google, and you come upon millions of essays, articles and book-length hagiographies depicting Madiba in exactly the way he presented himself in that speech: a black liberal, driven to take up arms by a white supremacist state that seemed utterly impermeable to calls for dialogue.”
The SACP's Road to South African Freedom
Although far less well known in the West the Road to South African Freedom is, in its own way, as influential as Mandela’s statement. The background to it is as follows:
At the SACP’s conference in December 1960, at which the turn to violence was decided upon, two Central Committee members, Michael Harmel and Moses Kotane, had been appointed to prepare a draft statement of the policy and programme of the SACP for discussion.
In his prison manuscript Mandela states that fairly soon after moving to Lilieslief he was joined by Harmel who had been “given an important political assignment and he needed a quiet and safe place where he could work full time.” This assignment was probably the finalisation of the SACP’s draft programme.
A draft was completed and adopted by the Central Committee and was subsequently circulated to members in early 1962. Bob Hepple was brought on board to assist later in the year, and according to his account, a substantially revised version was produced by Harmel and Kotane in a three week period between August and September 1962. By this time Mandela was in prison. In his trial a few years later Fischer admitted in his statement to the court to drawing up a rough draft of the introduction.
The Road to South African Freedom: The Programme of the South African Communist Party was then adopted at a conference in Johannesburg in October 1962. According to former Central Committee member Bartholomew Hlapane’s testimony as a state witness in Fischer’s trial those in attendance included: Joe Slovo, Ruth Slovo, Michael Harmel, Rusty Bernstein, Hilda Bernstein, Bob Hepple, Fred Carneson, Moses Kotane, Duma Nokwe, Dan Tloome, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Billy Nair, M.P. Naicker, Stephen Dlamini, Joe Matthews, Mark Shope, and others whose names he did not know.
In his account Hepple says Kotane, Sisulu, JB Marks, MP Naicker, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo and Rusty Bernstein were elected to the Central Committee at this conference and they immediately co-opted Nokwe, Shope, Harmel, Fischer, First, and Carneson.
The Programme was subsequently distributed by the Party as a pamphlet, and published in the African Communist early the following year (see here – PDF). When the police raided Lilieslief farm in Rivonia on 11 July 1963 – arresting Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Bernstein, Hepple, Raymond Mhlaba and Dennis Goldberg on the spot – they also seized numerous copies of the Programme in draft and final form.
The 1962 Programme, which was primarily drafted by Harmel, applied Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism internally to South Africa through the thesis of Colonialism of a Special Type. In essence this said that the white minority in South Africa had acquired all its wealth, and advantages, through the brutal robbery and exploitation of the black majority over the previous 300 years.
While the Programme envisaged an eventual transition to socialism this was not seen as the priority in the present. It stated that “As its immediate and foremost task, the South African Communist Party works for a united front of national liberation. It strives to unite all sections and classes of oppressed and democratic people for a national democratic revolution to destroy White domination. The main content of this Revolution will be the national liberation of the African people.”
The expectation of the SACP theoreticians was that the overthrow of white rule in South Africa was imminent. As Harmel had put in an African Communist article earlier in 1962 “the doom of the White colonialists of South Africa and the victory of the oppressed people of this country” was becoming ever-nearer and more certain. The Programme itself stated: “the vicious type of colonialism embodied in the present Republic of South Africa cannot long endure. Its downfall and the victory of the South African democratic revolution are certain in the near future.”
Perhaps for this reason the Party was now willing to declare its real goals. It is as a result very clear from the Programme (in contrast to the more ambiguously phrased Freedom Charter) that this first revolution – which would both precede and make possible a later transition to socialism - involved not just the extension of political rights to the previously disenfranchised and the abolition of legislation that discriminated against the black majority, but a fundamental racial reordering of society.
The idea that white South Africans had acquired their wealth wrongly justified the seizure of their land, positions, and property, so that this could be returned to ‘the people’ from whom it had supposedly been taken. The “immediate tasks” of the National Democratic Revolution proposed by the Programme envisage the Africanisation of the state and private sector, the nationalisation of much of the economy, and the takeover of white-owned farmland.
The Programme also clearly planned for a fundamental assault on the institutions, principles and rights basic to Western liberal democracy, following the initial seizure of power. The existing state and governmental institutions would be ‘destroyed’, ‘disloyal’ officials would be purged from the state and judiciary, ‘counterrevolutionary propaganda’ would be forbidden, and the ‘utmost vigilance’ exercised against those trying to restore ‘white colonialism’. It contains the striking statement that in order to preserve and extend the gains of this revolution a “vigorous and vigilant dictatorship must be maintained by the people against the former dominating and exploiting classes.”
Much of the vicious political repression, so characteristic of communist seizures of power, is thus front-loaded into this initial national revolution. The difference here is that would have been directed not at the middle class as a whole (the ‘national bourgeoisie’ being a leading force of the revolution) but at the white minority who then made up most of that class.
The Road to South African Freedom is an incredibly powerful and brilliantly written manifesto less for socialism than revolutionary African nationalism. Though not quite complete at this point the conflation of race and class so characteristic of later ANC/SACP ideology – not to mention anti-colonial nationalism / Marxist-Leninism (including Chinese Communism) more generally - is evident throughout the document.
The oppressed classes are equated with the black African majority (‘the people’) and the ‘exploiting classes’ (more-or-less) with the white minority as a group. The commitment of the liberation movement to ‘non-racialism’ extended to those few whites who actively made common cause with the oppressed. Such ‘white democrats’ were regarded as being ‘part and parcel of the people’; the great bulk of the white population, including liberal opponents of apartheid, were not.
In the many memoirs and accounts dealing with the Rivonia trial that have been written it is difficult to find any reference to the Road to South African Freedom and its adoption. Bob Hepple’s book is one of the few exceptions, but even it elides what the Programme was actually proposing (as does Stephen Clingman in his biography of Bram Fischer).
This is odd for a number of reasons. Firstly, setting aside the question of Mandela’s membership of the Party, this was the actual policy and programme of the organisation to which almost all of the accused belonged. Several of them had attended the conference at which the Programme had been formally adopted. The accused’s lead counsel, Bram Fischer, had even drafted parts of it.
Secondly, the Programme represents not just the foundational document of SACP ideology but of later ANC ideology as well. The concepts of Colonialism of a Special Type and the National Democratic Revolution were incorporated in the ANC’s own programme in its 1969 Strategy & Tactics. In 1989 the SACP commented that “The 1962 programme has made an indelible contribution to the scientific analysis of the situation in South Africa, and to practical revolutionary work for national liberation. It has proved to be a major guiding light over more than a quarter of a century of struggle, inspiring the work of party and non-party militants alike.”
While the collapse of communism in 1989 pulled the rug from underneath any possible transition to socialism, ANC leaders remained wedded to the nationalist components of the Programme even as they may have left the SACP. Its enduring influence can be seen, for instance, in President Thabo Mbeki’s famous “I am an African” (1996) and “Two Nations” (1998) speeches.
In terms of ideology and programme the liberation movement remained openly committed after 1994 to the analysis of South African history and society contained in ‘Colonialism of a Special Type’ and the goals of the National Democratic Revolution. This is reflected in the innumerable laws passed by successive ANC governments enforcing escalating levels of racial discrimination against South Africa’s racial minorities, and particularly its white minority.
While these two documents contain extraordinarily powerful and eloquent denunciations of the injustices of white rule they represent two completely incompatible visions of what the accused as a whole were actually fighting for. For as long as Mandela and Sisulu’s membership of the Party in the early 1960s remained unknown or disputed they could be regarded as representing different strands of opinion in the liberation movement - liberal African nationalist and Communist.
We now know, thanks to the research of Ellis and Filatova, that much the same Party leadership that drafted and adopted the Road to South African Freedom also collectively decided upon the defence strategy in the Rivonia Trial expressed in Mandela’s Statement (and Sisulu’s testimony).
If one picks up the thread beginning with the falsehood that he had never been a member of the Communist Party the plausibility of much of what Mandela then says about his political beliefs in his Statement also unravels. His expressed admiration for the institutions of Western democracy seems designed to mislead, in the context, and are inconsistent with his own court testimony in the Treason Trial in 1960 (let alone the Party’s Programme).
His account of how he came to write his notes on “How to be a Good Communist” and “Dialectical Materialism” also come across as contrived, though no doubt the Party leaders did debate the best way of conveying Marxist-Leninist ideas in jargon free language.
Though he was in prison by the time it was formally adopted the final version of the party’s Programme does raise questions over the famous final paragraphs of Mandela’s speech. It is obviously not possible to support both the imposition of a “vigorous and vigilant dictatorship” on a country and the ideal of a “free and democratic society”. These are concepts which are simply irreconcilable.
While the Programme represented properly adopted SACP (and later ANC) policy – to which almost all the accused were committed as Party members - the Statement was clearly intended to designed to, on the one hand, appeal to and win over liberal Western public opinion to the ANC/SACP’s cause and, on the other, draw attention away from the actual declared intentions of the accused.
It did this extraordinarily successfully. To this day it remains the framework through which Western opinion (mis)understands the ideology and beliefs of both Mandela and the ANC. The Statement thus arguably represents one of the greatest feats of political misdirection of the Twentieth Century.
This was brought home to me during a recent trip to Washington DC where I spoke to a number of people with an interest in South Africa.
One informed observer I spoke to, noted that the ANC tended to be understood in the US purely through Nelson Mandela, or more accurately, Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela. The (liberal) Washington establishment had a very unrealistic view of South Africa (to the extent that it had one at all) and was unable to grasp basic concepts such as that the ANC viewed itself as a liberation movement. To bring up notions of the “National Democratic Revolution” and “Colonialism of the Special Type” in such circles was to invite blank and disbelieving stares.
There appeared to be some confusion in the Obama administration too over why the South African government kept on sticking them in the eye over matters such as AGOA and investment protections given the immense goodwill they felt towards the ANC.
For South Africa the legacy is somewhat different, though not unrelated. In the early to mid-1990s there was a huge lack of understanding in the media and civil society around the ANC’s actual ideology and aims, and its capacity for rhetorical dishonesty. I remember my own sense of confusion in 1997 as a parliamentary researcher for the DP trying to reconcile the Western ‘myth’ of Mandela and the ANC with the racial nationalist agenda of the ruling party as it surfaced.
One result of this naiveté and lack of realism over what the ANC actually stood for was that there was far less suspicion around the liberation movement’s bona fides when it came to liberal democracy and non-racialism than there should have been.
The Constitution that ended up being adopted between 1993 and 1996 was one designed to empower an ANC leadership (which regarded itself as a virtuous ‘elect’) to transform society, not to fetter it with meaningful restraints. The flaws in the original constitutional design –the weak checks and balances in the system, the lack of protections for racial minorities -- go a considerable distance to explain South Africa’s current predicament.
This article is based upon a paper presented to a roundtable on the life and work of the late Stephen Ellis at the African Studies Association’s annual conference, Washington DC on 13 December 2016.
Rusty Bernstein, Memory against Forgetting: Memoirs from a Life in South African Politics, 1938–1964 (New York: Viking, 1999)
Stephen Ellis External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960–1990, (Jonathan Ball: Johannesburg, 2012)
Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2013)
Bob Hepple, Young Man with a Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution, 1960–1963 (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2013)
Ahmed Kathrada, Memoirs, (Cape Town: Struik, 2005)
Elinor Sisulu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (Claremont: David Philip, 2002), 112; Nelson
Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Abacus, 1995
Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
David James Smith, Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years (New York: Little, Brown, 2010),
 Anthony Sampson, Nelson Mandela: The authorised biography, 1999. James Sanders, “How the CIA trapped Mandela”, Sunday Times (London) 15 May 2016
 In his memoir Rusty Bernstein says he was the one who had lent Mandela the Chinese booklet called 'How to be a Good Communist' written by Liu Shao Chi.