/ 14 January 2014

Mandela the communist? Dispute over ‘buried’ history

South Africans pay tribute to Tata Mandela and tell us what his legacy means to them.
South Africans pay tribute to Tata Mandela and tell us what his legacy means to them.

A debate has begun over who exactly Nelson Mandela was, and the convenient suppression of information and debate around the facts of the ANC's past.

Historian and author Stephen Ellis wrote in the Mail & Guardian last week that the ANC had suppressed its real history, namely that Mandela was a committed member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), to boost its legitimacy. He also noted that the ANC's key statement of principles, the 1955 Freedom Charter, was written by white communists, another suppressed fact.

"The suppression of knowledge about South Africa's past goes far beyond these two examples," he said, describing how he and other historians have had the experience of finding empty historical archives, whisked away by ANC heavies, and accused the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory of also being active in suppressing public discussion.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation hit back on Tuesday, moved to correct another article by Ellis published on PoliticsWeb questioning why a manuscript written by Mandela was published just before his death.

On Monday, Ellis, a professor of social sciences at the Free University in Amsterdam, wrote the PoliticsWeb article saying the 627-page document seemed to have been placed online just a few days before Mandela's death on December 5.

"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 publicise the move, for example by announcing the publication on its homepage," he said.

The foundation denied this, saying the manuscript was first posted on its website on November 4 2011.

"In addition, Mr Mandela's book Conversations with Myself, which was published worldwide in October 2010, contains many extracts from his 'unpublished autobiographical manuscript written in prison', as does Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations, published in June 2011," the foundation said in a statement.

"We have also made it clear in our public communications that we have in our archive the recorded conversations between Mandela and Richard Stengel during the work they did together preparing the Long Walk to Freedom manuscript for publication."

Reworked document
The foundation said Mandela elaborated on what was written in the manuscript during these conversations, and audio extracts were used in documentaries, television and radio programmes in the past few years.

In his article, Ellis said the document was re-worked in the years after Mandela's release from prison to form the basis for Long Walk to Freedom. He said the document was strewn with editorial notes from Mandela himself, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu and Mac Maharaj.

Ellis said there were key differences between the 1970s manuscript and Mandela's 1994 book. He claimed the manuscript contained information that helped fill in the chronology of some key moments in South Africa's history, especially in the turn to armed struggle in 1960. But more specifically, it painted a picture of the iconic leader not previously seen. 

"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 foundation said it appeared that Ellis was concerned on how open it was to debate the life of Mandela.

"We welcome debate and encourage him and others to engage us directly on any lines of enquiry that relate to our continued work and core mandate on memory and dialogue," it said.

PoliticsWeb editor James Myburgh told the Mail & Guardian the document seemed historically important. "It is surprising that we've all only cottoned on to its existence [and] significance now," he said. "What would be interesting is to do a proper comparison with the final version of Long Walk to Freedom and see what was cut out." – Additional reporting by Sapa