A friend and I were having drinks in one of the many bars in Melville in the midst of South African winter in 2012. We both write about South African history and politics, and so were debating the governing African National Congress.
We were confronted by a disheveled white guy. He came over and sat down and started talking with us. He discovered that we both were professors and seemed interested in us being American, but only long enough to allow him to start off on a tirade about liberal Americans not getting the realities of the role of Communism in the ANC. He was getting increasingly riled up and increasingly incoherent. But he was name-dropping Stephen Ellis, the veteran scholar of African history and politics, and insisted that Ellis’ book would rip the roof off of the cover up of Communism in the ANC, and especially Nelson Mandela’s Communism.
The man, I later realized, was Rian Malan, the scion of the Apartheid elite who rose to fame for his apostasies against the legacy of white supremacy to which he was the rightful inheritor. His book, My Traitor’s Heart, was a bestseller, and branded Malan as a courageous figure who turned his back on a world in which he could have risen rapidly.
Yet in recent years, Malan, for reasons I cannot divine, has become increasingly obsessed with the idea that Communists deeply pervaded the ANC, and in particular Nelson Mandela. This is a peculiar obsession in no small part because it is not particularly accurate, and whatever accuracy there might be to the case is not especially compelling.
It is worth pointing out briefly the historical salience of rabid anticommunism in South Africa. Throughout the entirety of the apartheid era, the ruling National Party attributed nearly all opposition to its rigidly racist policies to an encroaching Communist menace. The Nats used absurd rhetoric and draconian policies not only to keep black nationalist opposition (such as the ANC, but also the Pan African Congress and other organizations) at bay, but also to prevent the United States and Great Britain, themselves besotted with anticommunist furor, from taking a stand against their white South African Cold War allies. This gambit was born of both cynicism and self-preservation. And it worked.
Earlier in the year, I was reminded of my unpleasant encounter with an aggressive, bombastic, boorish Malan when, as celebrations of Mandela’s life were still pouring in after his death, a voice emerged out of the wilderness of the overheated right wing bunkers. In a January 2014 PJ Media article, Ron Radosh, who has made his own lucrative career at the nexus of scholarship and journalism by finding Commies under every bed and in every faculty club, played up the Mandela-as-Communist trope. And naturally he invokes Rian Malan. Who invokes Stephen Ellis (whom Radosh also invokes).
Reading the piece brought me back to the conversation with Malan, and in both cases my thoughts were: There is not much there there. Radosh and Malan have created an echo chamber that is deeply reliant on Ellis’ scholarly imprimatur. It pretends that it is somehow revelatory that Communists and the ANC worked together even though that was never a secret. And crucially, it makes all sorts of arguments based on a shockingly thin evidentiary base. I’ve linked to the article above and won’t do much to rehash what Radosh has to say – it is the usual strident Red Baiting coupled with more than a little race baiting.
But let’s go straight to Ellis, the alleged source for this new Red Scare. First, in some of his writing Ellis has shown himself to be a bit of a fellow traveler with Radosh and Malan, but he is also undoubtedly a far more serious and prolific scholar. Ellis’s book, which was supposed to provide the big reveal that Malan warned me about in Melville, External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, is presented as a trump card. However, it’s telling that Radosh and Malan don’t really cite the book. External Mission is a fine work of scholarship. But let’s just say that if it provides the foundation for the Mandela-as-Commie-radical meme, that foundation has a lot of cracks.
According to Radosh and Malan, Ellis purports to reveal that far from having dabbled in Communism, Mandela was instead a Party Member and a high-ranking one at that. His evidence is pretty shallow – a handful of interviews from people testifying to Mandela’s membership in the party decades after the fact are about the extent of it. Not a single document. Not a single testimony from the time. Not a whole lot at all. And he presents even less to indicate anything other than perfunctory involvement, even if, of course, Mandela had access to numerous higher-ups in the SACP hierarchy, given how much it was intertwined with the ANC’s leadership.
And yet, Radosh and Malan, so reliant upon Ellis to bolster their claims of Mandela as an untrustworthy Commie Radical, must not have read as far as pages 33 and 34, where Ellis writes, “Despite” [South African Communist Joe] “Slovo’s disappointment at the cooling of Mandela’s communist sympathies, it is evident that Mandela’s brief membership of the Party was motivated by pragmatism rather than ideological commitment, that his opinions on communism had a strongly Christian tint, and that his primary allegiance was to Africa.” In essence, it is tough to take seriously Radosh’s dismissal of the allegedly leftist claim that Mandela’s alliance with the SACP was brief, utilitarian, and subsumed to larger ideals in light of the fact that the man he cites as demolishing that allegedly leftist myth is pretty clear that Mandela’s alliance with the SACP was brief, utilitarian, and subsumed to larger ideals.
But if we even grant that there is a scintilla of an argument that Nelson Mandela was indeed more deeply involved than is commonly believed with Communism for a few months (at most) in the early 1960s, when a radical response to Apartheid seemed like just about the only sensible response– so o what? Why does it matter? What does it all mean now, and how does any of it have anything to do with who Mandela was and what he meant and what he accomplished?
Mandela had a brief alliance with Communism and clearly grew disenchanted; this is not only my interpretation, this is Stephen Ellis’ in the very book that Malan and Radosh use to try to build a Communist mountain out of a molehill of an alliance. However, this should not come as a surprise. Communists were, after all, right on the Apartheid question, which is to say the question that was at the heart of Mandela’s struggle, his existential struggle and his fight for freedom. And in South Africa, the various strands of Communism, even the most doctrinaire, yielded the class struggle to the struggle against white supremacy, though many hoped to see the two yoked together.
So many of those who opposed Mandela, the ANC, the anti-apartheid opposition especially in the fraught post-Soweto era, now want to point out Mandela’s communism. They were wrong then and now they are trying to validate where they stood as history played out by invoking the Communist bogeyman still lurking in the fever dreams and dark corners of a certain kind of conservative and neoconservative in the US, Great Britain, and even South Africa.
It is perhaps also worth noting that Mandela’s flirtation with Soviet Communism, with what amounted to an alliance of those who opposed National Party white supremacy, took place just a decade and a half after the United States, Great Britain and other allies – including, it must be noted, the white segregationist government of South Africa (an alliance that admittedly created divisions that sowed the seeds for the National Party takeover in 1948) – had allied with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. And the red baiters are usually the first to acknowledge Stalin as an apodictic form of evil. But why is it that FDR and Truman, Churchill and Atlee, and even Smuts were able to ally with Stalin to fight the “Good War,” but Mandela and Mbeki, Tambo and Sisulu, were not able to join with a particularly South African and decidedly non-Stalinist version of Communism for their own existential struggle in which they were on the side of right?
And it is not as if the pragmatic alliance with evil in World War II marks a particular exception in American history. The United States – Ron Radosh’s United States, the United States of Ronald Reagan – has forged myriad alliances that toss cold water on a whole lot of freedom-loving ideals, and oftentimes in the very name of combating the Communist evil they have allied with their own devils. One can imagine that justifying selling arms to Iranian jihadists in order to support nun-raping, child-murdering anti-Communists in Latin America, supporting the Mujahedeen in order to combat Soviet incursions into Afghanistan, supporting Saddam Hussein against that very same Iran, and support for Mobutu Sese Seku (just to name four) might give some Americans pause when it comes to condemning even the strangest bedfellows of others. Ron Radosh, alas, does not have a history of being particularly self-reflective as he plows forward with his moral verities.
Finally, if Mandela was a Communist, he was, in the words of the friend with whom I spent that evening in Melville, “The Worst Communist Ever.” It was Mandela’s government that set the New South Africa on the path of what some of its critics have loudly and often declared to be the path to neo-liberalism. Mandela’s South Africa has become many things. A Socialist paradise or Communist idyll is not among them.
Nelson Mandela may or may not have briefly been a Communist. But if he was, that membership was done long before he went to trial in 1964, spent 27 years in prison, negotiated with the National Party (alongside Joe Slovo, the Communist, who also was central in the CODESA negotiations), governed as a center-left pro-market neoliberal, and worked to reconcile a country torn apart because of an apartheid regime that the most ardently anti-Communist nations buttressed. That particular strain of anti-Communism was wrong and dangerous when it was applied to South Africa then. It is wrong, anachronistic, and frankly, just kind of sad now.