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Stalinism Lives in South Africa: Was Nelson Mandela a Secret Communist?

Last week, a book review appeared in the Wall Street Journal by South African journalist Rian Malan, a man from the Afrikaner family who ran the apartheid regime but broke with them and became an opponent of apartheid. Still, he was a journalist of integrity who did not hesitate to report on and to write about the dark side of the African liberation movement.

His first book, My Traitor’s Heart, was an international bestseller in which Malan traced out his return from exile as he sought to learn the truth about his racist ancestors, as well as about the liberation movement that arose in response to the brutal apartheid regime. His new book, just out, is composed of a series of essays about South Africa today, including his investigation of the origins of the hit song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” made famous most recently by the hit play and film The Lion King.

In his book review, Malan reports on what to my knowledge is a little-known fact about Nelson Mandela, the first president of the post-apartheid South Africa and the titular leader of the African National Congress, which he became the symbol of during his many years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

Mr. Malan refers to the fact that all the contemporary black South African leaders, from Mandela on, have sung the praises of leftist dictators such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and among other things have been vigorous opponents of Israel. Led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they all depict Israel, as Tutu recently put it, as a state even worse than apartheid South Africa. Malan writes, commenting on how liberal journalists have dealt with this:

Mr. Foster finds it "strange" that the leader of a noble liberation movement should side with a nasty dictator. Well, yes. American liberals have always viewed the ANC as an army of hymn-singing moderates, striving for democracy in a Western sense. Readers of Foreign Affairs in the 1980s will recall Thomas Karis's campaigns against troglodytes who claimed that the ANC was communist-dominated. The New York Times's Joseph Lelyveld took a similar line in his reporting, then offered readers of "Move Your Shadow" (his Pulitzer-winning 1986 book about apartheid) several witty caricatures of seemingly demented anti-Communists who cast South Africa as a Cold War battlefield. At the time, it was fashionable to laugh at such people. But I am not laughing anymore.

Why is Malan at this late date looking at this issue again, years after the Cold War’s end? The answer comes from reading one of the books he reviews, Stephen Ellis’s External Mission. What he found is the following:

“External Mission" begins by annihilating conventional understandings of the circumstances surrounding the ANC's 1961 declaration of war on apartheid. According to Mr. Ellis, all critical decisions were actually taken by the South African Communist Party (SACP), which sought support from Moscow and Beijing and then "bounced" the ANC into following its lead. Since white and Indian Communists couldn't join the racially exclusive ANC, much of this bouncing was done by a charismatic black lawyer who was secretly a member of both organizations: Nelson Mandela. Indeed, Mr. Ellis goes so far as to report that Mr. Mandela was almost certainly a member, at least for a time, of the SACP's central committee. (emphasis added)

As Mr. Ellis tells it, Mr. Mandela and those around him were intoxicated by the ease of Fidel Castro's victory in Cuba and imagined a similar outcome for their own military venture. They sidelined ANC President Albert Luthuli, who was opposed to violence, and launched an amateurish bombing campaign. Within two years, they were all in prison or in exile.

Mr. Mandela's membership of a militantly pro-Soviet movement was unlikely to win friends in the free world. More could be gained by portraying him as a black liberal, and Mr. Mandela and his lawyers crafted a masterful speech for Mr. Mandela to deliver from the dock during his 1964 trial for treason.

"The ideological creed of the ANC is African nationalism," he said. "It is true that there has been close cooperation between the ANC and the Communist Party. But cooperation in this case is merely proof of a common goal -- the removal of white supremacy." Mr. Mandela went on to describe himself as a democrat in the classic Western sense, an admirer of the British and American systems of governance. "Africans just want a share in the whole of South Africa," he concluded. "Above all, we want equal political rights. ... It is an ideal I hope to live for. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

If Mr. Ellis is correct, Nelson Mandela was pulling wool over the eyes of the West. The SACP advocated not "equal political rights" but the establishment of what SACP theoretician Joe Slovo called a "vigorous dictatorship" in the Soviet style, with Slovo himself as Lenin. Comrade Slovo, a white man, dreamed of becoming black South Africa's supreme leader after the Marxist takeover. His day never came. The Boers rumbled his bomb plot, and Mr. Slovo fled to London. His followers, the ANC's rank and file, were consigned to military camps in Tanzania and later, Angola.

The bombshell, of course, is the news that Mandela himself was not only a Communist Party member, but a member of its central committee as well.