Stephen Ellis: Mandela, Communism, and South Africa

Roundup: Talking About History

Stephen Ellis is Desmond Tutu professor in the social sciences at the Free University Amsterdam, and a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre, University of Leiden. He is the author of Season of Rains: Africa in the World (C Hurst, 2011).

A recently discovered document shows that Nelson Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the early 1960s, when he became the first commander of the guerrilla organisation Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa (1994-99) after his release from twenty-seven years’ imprisonment, has always denied having been a communist.

The document is in a collection of private papers kept at the University of Cape Town. The vital paragraph is contained in the minutes of a SACP meeting held on 13 May 1982 at which a veteran former member of the party’s central committee, John Pule Motshabi, explained to those present the background to Mandela’s recruitment.   

At least six other senior members of the SACP have confirmed Mandela’s party membership.  “Mandela denies that he was ever a member of the party but I can tell you that he was a member of the party for a period”, another former central-committee member, Hilda Bernstein, told an interviewer in 2004. Yet another leading communist, the late Joe Matthews, has said that Mandela served on the SACP’s central committee at the same time as himself...

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