Why Mandela’s Communist Party membership is important

On the day of his death, the South African Communist Party finally revealed that Nelson Mandela was not just a member of the party but on the Party’s Central Committee.

The statement does not state how long he remained a member, saying only that: “At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party’s Central Committee…. After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days.”

This honesty comes after years of dissembling and lies. Scholars like Stephen Ellis were attacked and abused for attempting to get to the truth. So there must be relief that the matter has been cleared up.

The Communist Party’s service to South Africa

Having said this, it is important not to lose sight of just how vital it was that Mandela met and was a part of the circle of people who were at the heart of the Communist Party. I say this as someone who had bitter exchanges with the Party and I have no love for their Stalinism. There have been a series of predictable attacks of Mandela since the revelation, indicating perhaps why these facts were hidden for so long.

When Mandela first came to Johannesburg he was taken in by a law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman.  Mandel’s friend, Walter Sisulu had introduced him to the firm and one of the partners, Lazar Sidelsky agreed to take him on as a clerk while he studied to become a lawyer.  I am not suggesting that Sidelsky was a Communist, but others on the staff were.

In 1943 Mandela enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. He was the only black African in the law faculty, and it could have been a lonely existence. But he soon made friends with a group of young men and women of all races, including Joe Slovo, Ruth First, George Bizos, Ismail Meer, J. N. Singh and Bram Fisher.  All were active on the left, even if they were not party members.

It should not be forgotten that when Mandela helped found the ANC Youth League in 1944 he was strongly opposed to any political alliance with other races. Paul Joseph, a young Indian communist recalled being expelled from a Youth League meeting – being told, “Sorry, this meeting is only for Africans.”

Gradually this attitude changed. In the book I wrote with Paul Holden – “Who Rules South Africa” – we briefly recorded the shift within the ANC Youth League and in Mandela in particular.

“At first he, like others, was critical of the links with the Communist Party, despite the fact that there had been some overlapping membership of the ANC and the Party since the 1920s. When Ruth First wrote to the Youth League to invite them to join the Progressive Youth Council – a Communist Party front – the League wrote back saying: ‘We fear there is a yawning gap between your party or philosophic outlook and ours. We are devoting our energies to the preparation for the greatest national struggle of all time, the struggle for national liberation.’
This hostility did not last. In 1946 the mineworkers took industrial action, bringing the mines to a halt and 76, 000 workers out on strike for a week. Mandela visited the mines with the communist leader, JB Marks… This was also a period in which the Communist Party was one of the few organisations to genuinely embrace a non-racial culture. Multiracial dances organised by the party as a recruitment drive were an important meeting point for people of all races.”

Without people like Ruth First what polices might Nelson Mandela have adopted? Would he have followed the stony path of Robert Mugabe, rather than the philosophy of non-racialism that was central to the Communist Party? Would the ANC have adopted the Freedom Charter with its opening declaration: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white?”

We cannot know.

But as we mourn Mandela’s death we should not forget and acknowledge the role that communists played in befriending and influencing this great man.

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