Unless you were paying very close attention, then, among the flood of saccharine commentary surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela, you probably missed the terse announcement by the South African Communist Party that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the Party, and indeed at the time of his arrest was a member of the National Executive Committee. The statement wasn’t very clear about how long he’d been a member or when, if ever, he left.
This is not a new story, in the sense firstly that the ANC and the SACP were always extremely close, and secondly that assertions that Mandela was a member have circulated for many years. The man himself always refused to confirm them.
It’s not actually very surprising, and in retrospect it was rather a good thing. Not surprising, because from the beginning the SACP was the only political party that actually supported the ANC and opposed apartheid. The liberal opposition, much beloved in the West as it was, largely wanted a kinder, gentler form of apartheid, rather like Rhodesia, where the servants could be paid more. Nor was the SACP especially radical: most of its members would have fitted comfortably into the British Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not particularly cutting-edge either as a friend close to the SACP remarked to me in the 1990s, “they’ve not long discovered Gramsci”. But most of all, its members were brave, disciplined and motivated. Most of the early military instructors were Communists who had fought as volunteers in North Africa and Italy. Not coincidentally, perhaps, many of them were Jewish. Some, like Ronnie Kasrils, and Joe Slovo, went on to hold senior positions in the military wing of the ANC, the MK.
A good thing, because the SACP was actually the only multi-racial political party of its time, and the only one which had a vision of a multi-racial South Africa, in which class mattered more than color of skin. Without this, it’s likely that the ANC would have embraced the fashionable Black Power thinking of the day, typified by Steve Biko, which saw blacks as the only true South Africans, and would have encouraged whites to leave. At it’s most extreme, this was the thinking of the ANC’s bitter rivals the Pan Africanist Congress, with their famous slogan “one settler one bullet”. That we never got to the stage is a great, if unrecorded, triumph for the SACP, and its an interesting question how many ethnic conflicts might have been avoided if Communist parties all over the world had not lost as much power and influence as they did.