Was Madiba co-opted into communism?

In the age of postmodernism, or post-postmodernism, we no longer look for historical "truth" but many of the assertions in Stephen Ellis's opinion piece, "ANC suppresses real history to boost its claim to legitimacy" are tendentious.

The key word in his article is "admitted". The South African Communist Party has at last "admitted" that Nelson Mandela was "at the time of his arrest in 1962 a member not only of the party but also of its central committee".

We generally "admit" to crimes and other misdemeanours.

In Ellis's McCarthyite world view, membership of the SACP is a crime to be admitted. He should really have used the word "claimed".

The SACP and Ellis both claim that Mandela was a member but for different and contrasting reasons. The SACP does so in order to share in his posthumous glory. Ellis does so in order to strengthen the Cold War theses of his books – Comrades against Apartheid (1992) and The External Mission (2012) – that the ANC was a front for the SACP, which may have included Mandela, but was predominantly white and controlled from Moscow.

This was, of course, the excuse for the abject failure of the main investors in apartheid, Britain and the United States, to lift a finger against it until their profits were threatened by mass action in the late 1980s.

Was Mandela a communist? He denied on several occasions that he was ever a member of the SACP. Why should we not believe him?

Sir Bob Hepple, an eminent lawyer, says in his recent book, Young Man with a Red Tie, that he attended meetings of the central committee as a co-opted member until December 1960 but Mandela was not then a member of the committee.

He saw him at the SACP's Emma­rentia conference in that month but was told that he was there as an observer. He recalls taking him as an observer to a meeting of the Johannesburg district committee of the SACP in 1961.

Mandela may have been co-opted on to the central committee in his capacity as commander of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), which was set up as a joint venture of the ANC and the SACP in July 1961.

People are frequently co-opted on to the committee of one organisation to represent another but co-option does not necessarily imply membership. Mandela and the SACP may both be right – he was not a communist but he was a member of the central committee. But it is better to admit that we don't know – in conditions of illegality, the boundaries between the two banned organisations became momentarily blurred.

There were no party cards or party lists and few formal meetings. Mandela was out of the country for most of 1962 until his arrest in August. He attended one meeting of the ANC's national working committee on his return to South Africa in July 1962 and there made it clear that the ANC must distance itself from the SACP because of the anti-communism that was prevalent in its future host countries in Africa – Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

Ellis now calls upon the "SACP's chieftains" to "admit" that the Freedom Charter was "written by white communists". Nobody has ever denied, as far as I know, that Rusty Bernstein, a white communist, was the primary draftsman of the charter.

A draftsman is not the same as a writer – the Freedom Charter was based on the collation of suggestions from hundreds of ANC branches that had been collected during a two-year process. It reflected the views of the ANC as a whole. Not even the judge in the Treason Trial saw it as communist. It is a mildly social democratic document, which avoids the use of words such as socialism and nationalisation.

Ellis says that South Africans who say "so what?" when they learn that Mandela was an SACP member should also understand "that the armed struggle was originally the work of the SACP, decided at a conference in Emmarentia in December 1960 by just 25 people".

"Mandela was one of the few black people present … The ANC as an organisation in fact never voted in favour of armed struggle."

According to the accounts of Bernstein and Hepple, the conference, after a brief discussion, referred the question of the establishment of military units to the central committee for further action.

This decision had no implications for the ANC. It did not even bind Moses Kotane, the SACP's general secretary and most senior leader, and one of at least eight black and African people present.

When the ANC's national executive committee discussed Mandela's more radical proposals in June 1961, Kotane was one of his most outspoken opponents. Both the SACP and the ANC were split on the issue of armed struggle and that is why MK was set up as an independent body.

It seems to be churlish and paranoid to seize on the misguided removal by the ANC's archives department of some documents from the ANC archive at the University of the Western Cape's Mayibuye Centre as an example of the "suppression of knowledge" and not to recognise the ANC's contribution to the promotion of knowledge through its donation to the University of Fort Hare of most of its massive exile archive.

Many scholars, including Ellis and myself, have benefited from easy and unrestricted access to this archive, which was opened to the public in March 1996, within two years of the ANC's coming to power.

The creation and preservation of this archive through the vicissitudes of exile was little short of miraculous. Nowhere in Africa is there a comparable liberation movement archive.

No doubt the ANC has kept some papers back – we await the opening of the MK archive and the security archive – but plenty of embarrassing documents are in the public domain. It was an act of courage and generosity to make so many papers available so soon. Totalitarian parties and governments do not release internal documents two years after their creation as the ANC did.

By all means let us protest about the Protection of State Information Bill (the secrecy Bill). The ANC may wish to achieve an Orwellian control of information in the present but it has not shown much sign of wishing to achieve such control of the past.

Hugh Macmillan is a research associate at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University, and a research fellow at the University of the Western Cape. His most recent book is The Lusaka Years: The ANC in Exile in Zambia, 1963-94 (Jacana 2013).

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