‘I am not a Marxist,’ Mandela said. Did he lie?

In an article published in the Mail & Guardian of January 3, Stephen Ellis expresses the view that there is now no doubt that Nelson Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

He also suggests that the Nelson Mandela Foundation, through the work of its Centre of Memory, has been actively suppressing public discussion on the issue. Without speculating on what Ellis means by "suppression", I would like to clarify the foundation's position in relation to this question.

Far from seeking to close down discussion, since 2011 we have actively engaged with academics, journalists and other public intellectuals on historical evidence relevant to the enquiry.

The key difference between Ellis and ourselves is that he reads the evidence as providing proof that Mandela was indeed a member of the SACP, whereas we read the evidence as failing to provide such proof. Ellis seems to have "closed the case". We remain open to enquiry.

The primary evidence relied on by Ellis is the testimony of certain SACP members to the effect that Mandela had become a party member.

Our reading of that testimony places it in the context of a particular moment in the liberation struggle, a moment when the ANC joined the SACP as a banned organisation, when the possibility of armed struggle was being debated within anti-apartheid structures, and when Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) was set up to undertake armed resistance.

This was a moment when ANC structures worked closely with SACP structures. The leadership of MK was drawn from both organisations. As the head of MK's National High Command, Mandela was in meetings of the SACP's central committee.

At this moment it would have been easy for a close observer to assume that Mandela had become a SACP member. Indeed, it could be argued that in practical terms he had "become" a member.

Our reading of the testimony used by Ellis is also mindful of the fact that recruitment and induction into the SACP at that time was a process that happened in stages over a period of time.

Is it possible that Mandela started such a process but then had second thoughts and never completed it? How do we explain the testimony of other SACP members to the effect that Mandela never became a party member?

And how do we explain the fact that Mandela himself repeatedly and consistently, over five decades, denied that he had become a member? He did this during the treason and Rivonia trials, in his prison correspondence, and in the work of collaboration he did for his autobiography and authorised biography.

Let me quote at some length from one document in the Centre of Memory. It is an original letter, addressed to the department of justice by Mandela, dated October 23 1967. Responding to a communication from the department giving him notice of its intention to list him as a communist, Mandela states: "I have never been a member or active supporter of the Communist Party of South Africa or of its successor, the South African Communist Party."

In relation to ideology, he says: "I have read Marxist literature and I am impressed by the idea of a classless society.

"I am firmly convinced that only socialism can do away with the poverty, disease and illiteracy that are prevalent amongst my people, and that maximum industrial development is the result of central planning and the nationalisation of the key industries of the country. But I am not a Marxist."

Mandela makes it clear that the ANC welcomed communists as members. He names communists he has worked with in the ANC, such as Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Moses Kotane, JB Marks and Dan Tloome. He stresses that the ANC "had often co-operated with the Communist Party on matters of common concern".

But he concludes: "All my efforts to help advance the struggle of people have been made through the African National Congress. If on occasions I served on other bodies it was because I considered that those bodies and their work helped to speed the liberation of the African people."

It is conceivable that in this letter, and in many other interventions before and after, Mandela might have indulged in legalistic casuistry around the issue of SACP membership.

But is it plausible that he would make an entirely false statement? We remain open to the possibility that Mandela was telling the truth.

Verne Harris is the director: research and archive at the Nelson Mandela Foundation 

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