Ideologists with cast-iron theories don't like unpleasant facts, writes Stephen Ellis.
The Mail & Guardian has been the site of a lively debate in response to my allegation three weeks ago that the ANC manipulates knowledge of South Africa's history. The ANC doesn't just spin the latest news – it suppresses key historical facts and invents others.
Contributions to the debate have focused on whether Nelson Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and its central committee.
I believe this has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt. The SACP and the ANC have separately stated that Mandela was a party member, as many former party members have confirmed over the years. Soviet records studied by Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson say the same.
Yet the issue of Mandela's party membership, denied for half a century, remains only a detail in my argument. This is that the ANC became wedded to a rigid ideology during the course of its struggle, the central tenets of which it retains to this day.
I refer to the Soviet brand of Marxism-Leninism imported into the ANC by the SACP, which aimed, with great success, to take strategic control of the struggle against apartheid. It was the time of the Cold War. The Soviet ideology was convincing to many people throughout the world in the 1960s but it proved unable to move with the times. It didn't really survive the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba and North Korea are mere relics of the old Soviet imperium, and China is ruled by a technocratic elite that ditched communism 35 years ago.
When ideologists equipped with a cast-iron theory meet unpleasant facts, they think it is the facts that need to change, not the theory. That's what happened to apartheid in its time. Old certainties couldn't survive the Soweto rising of 1976.
Here are some examples from today's South Africa of a government that has to wish away awkward facts.
The ANC believes that the armed struggle can't have been ineffective, and therefore it must pretend that the South African Defence Force was eventually smashed – by Cuban forces at the 1987-1988 battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola. In reality, the SADF withdrew in good order and with low casualties.
Because the ANC is deemed to have liberated South Africa, it leaves no room for talk of Black Consciousness or even the United Democratic Front. Yet these grassroots movements, plus the trade unions, did more to undermine apartheid from within than anyone else. The ANC regards the political transition of 1994 as a revolution, putting it squarely in a Marxist frame of analysis. In reality, it was a political compromise, which can work only if all parties remain committed to it.
The ruling ideology cannot contemplate the ANC being anywhere else than in the vanguard of progress. It cannot envisage serious mistakes.
Such is the bind the ANC – and South Africa – is in.
Stephen Ellis is the author of External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990, published by Jonathan Ball.