Mandela and the Communist Connection: The SACP, the Armed Struggle, and the Fate of the National Revolution

Mandela and MK

The late 1950s saw the first hints of an armed struggle occurring in certain parts of South Africa. Various types of armed resistance spread to urban parts of the country when more organised political groupings gathered to perpetrate violence against the repressive apartheid state. Succeeding the Sharpeville incident, a meeting convened by the South African Communist Party (SACP) in December 1960 in Emmarentia, Johannesburg, aimed to discern the way forward in light of the African National Congress’ (ANC) ban and the imposition of a state of emergency. Among those who attended were Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Mhlaba, Kotane and a number of other ANC and SACP members. Those attending congruently agreed that the agenda of non-violence would have to be replaced by armed resistance in the form of the establishment of military units, with only a few attendees concerned that the liberation movement was not yet ready for a transition to military action. Presumably, it was taken for granted that the new military unit would be under the control of certain members of the SACP and ANC leadership. However, the condition for the establishment of an armed unit was that it was to be separate from and independent of the ANC. The drafted resolution, hailed as the starting point of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) was a secret one, and was not recorded nor reported, even to members of the SACP. 

At the time of MK’s formation, Nelson Mandela was a prominent ANC leader, and highly aware of the general unrest and wave of radicalism sweeping the country after the Sharpeville incident which had occurred in March of that year. While Mandela’s status as member of the SACP has been long-disputed and ambiguously answered by Mandela himself, testimonies by senior-level SACP members confirm that Mandela did in effect join the SACP, thereby cementing the alliance between the SACP and a number of militant ANC groups anxious to break free from the ANC’s previous policy of non-violence. Mandela was recruited straight to the SACP Central Committee, although his name never featured on the membership list. This is potentially due to the fact that, in order to avoid detection, membership to the Central Committee was known to a few. 

1961 hailed a public campaign spearheaded by Mandela, urging the National Party (NP) government to hold a national convention to engage in talks with extra-parliamentary opposition. This would be the final attempt at  negotiation prior to the undertaking of an armed struggle; as the government was not open to negotiations, supporters of the armed struggle won the internal debate. 

The initial phase of the armed struggle called for the establishment of a military wing in 1961. After a series of meetings held within the decision-making organs of the ANC and partner organisations, Mandela summoned a meeting of the ANC working committee in June of 1961, presenting the proposal of the formation of an armed wing. This proposal received some opposition – notably from Moses Kotane, concerned by the potential backlash the announcement of an armed struggle would unleash. ANC President-General, Albert Luthuli, accepted the formation of a military wing, provided that it was separate from and independent of the ANC, thus allowing the ANC to pursue its policy of non-violence despite several high-ranking members engaged in preparations for violent struggle. While MK was intended as an autonomous organisation, a document in a Ghanaian archive written by Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Robert Resha in 1962 suggests that MK was, in fact, ‘an armed organisation formed by the ANC to carry out planned attacks.’  In a public statement in London, Resha referred to MK as the ANC’s armed wing.  This considerably blurred the line between the ANC and MK, and soon the ANC’s commitment to nonviolence became a discarded policy.  Luthuli’s position of authority waned to an extent once other leading ANC members had committed themselves to the undertaking of an armed struggle. Decision-making then quickly passed to those members who went into exile. Mandela was appointed to MK’s High Command on behalf of the ANC, while the SACP was represented by Joe Slovo.     

The decision to launch an armed struggle paved the way for the recruitment of members and resources to be used in acts of sabotage. Both the SACP and the ANC had already established a number of sabotage units, which then merged to form the initial units of uMkhonto weSizwe. Mandela and Slovo worked to recruit members to the new organisation. Plans for training abroad in Moscow and Beijing were set into motion as the first batch of trainees were dispatched. The training in China was kept so highly secret, Tambo was not even aware of it. Those not sent to the Soviet Union or China  were deployed to other African countries. 

Militant groups which had previously relied on neighbourhood residents’ associations now reported to the MK High Command, chaired by Mandela.  December 16, 1961, celebrated by Afrikaners as Dingane’s Day or the 1838 Battle of Blood River, was meant to be the official launch of MK hostilities against the apartheid state. Mandela, Resha and Tambo claimed that initially the plan was to sabotage symbolic and economic targets without loss of human life, this did not go as planned. In 1962 a group of militant ANC volunteers in the Eastern Cape, under MK Regional Commander Washington Bongco, firebombed the house of a councillor to the Xhosa royal house of Phalo for supporting the apartheid policy of self-governing homelands. This constituted one of several attacks unveiled on the MK launch date. By 1966, 15 deaths had been recorded as having resulted from the armed campaign.

Front page of the New Age newspaper from 28 December, 1961, shortly after the first MK missions. Image source

The MK High Command required a place which could act as a headquarters; where they could store documents and convene meetings. Thus, on behalf of the SACP Central Committee, Arthur Goldreich bought the Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. It was here that the MK High Command, including Sisulu, Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mhlangeni and Raymond Mhlaba began working on a campaign known as Operation Mayibuye, aimed at using MK members trained abroad to expand the sabotage campaign into a guerrilla war. The MK High Command largely took its cues and inspiration from the experience of Cuba, wherein a small number of guerrilla soldiers had spread through the Cuban countryside to raise popular support. Following this example, the intention of MK leaders was to establish bases in rural Transkei, from which they would then branch out and launch attacks.

In 1962 Mandela travelled to Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, Tanganyika (Tanzania), Ethiopia and a number of other countries, including Britain, to solicit support for MK from the international community and learn more about other experiences of wars of liberation against colonial powers. During this period he underwent military training in several countries where MK soldiers would subsequently be sent for their own training. As he travelled, Mandela began sensing that the ANC’s alliance with the SACP was not a universally popular one, and that several  African countries were sceptical of the ANC’s ties with communists. Upon his return, Mandela’s communist sympathies had cooled considerably, and Slovo was quoted as saying that they had ‘sent Nelson off to Africa a Communist and he [had come] back an African nationalist.’ After his arrival, Mandela was arrested at a roadblock in Natal in August 1962; it was rumoured that the police had been tipped off by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who had been tracking Mandela’s movements. 

In October of 1962, a meeting held in Lobatse, Botswana, confirmed that as the head of the ANC’s mission in exile, Oliver Tambo had the additional responsibility of overseeing MK military camps and the welfare of MK cadres. The MK High Command continued to operate in Mandela’s absence, utilizing Liliesleaf Farm as a base. Security on the farm was reinforced with the first batch of MK soldiers which had returned from training in China. However, an unknown informant had led the police to Liliesleaf Farm where a 1963 police raid found the majority of the MK High Command as well as several documents including the plans for Operation Mayibuye and documented meetings with Chinese officials. Wilton Mkwayi, who had managed to escape the rain on Liliesleaf Farm, assumed command of MK. In 1964, however, a new wave of arrests saw Kitson, Maharaj and Mkwayi, the new MK leadership, taken into custody. In the meantime, the majority of MK cadres sent for training abroad were either scattered or stationed in Tanzania.      

Mandela’s Ideological Dispensation: Early Encounters

Despite having repeatedly denied his Communist Party membership, the SACP released a statement on the day of Nelson Mandela’s death which made the claim that “at the time of his arrest (in 1962), 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.” While this leaves little doubt that Mandela was at a point in the 1960s (between 1960 and 1962) an official member of the Party, it remains unclear as to whether the former state president resigned from membership and at which point he did so. A further statement by the SACP simply commented that “after his release from prison in 1990, (Comrade) Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days,” which appears to suggest that some time after his arrest, Mandela ceased to be a card-carrying member.

At Mandela’s 1964 defence case during the Rivonia Trial, Mandela announced that at the time of joining the ANC in 1944 his own ideology was that of ‘African patriotism,’ and he harboured the belief that the ANC’s close ties and cooperation with the SACP would lead to a ‘watering down’ of African Nationalism. The exclusivity with which he regarded the ANC clearly altered, and by the time of his inauguration Mandela had become an icon of racial unity and reconciliation. At which point, then, did Mandela’s perception towards both communism and the SACP begin to change?    

It was, perhaps, following Mandela’s enrollment at Fort Hare Unversity in 1943 when he found himself particularly close to communists, where his perceptions began to alter – if only incrementally. As the only Black African in the law faculty, Mandela soon found friendship in a multiracial group of leftist activists – among them was Joe Slovo, Ruth First, George Bizos, Ismail Meer, J.N. Singh and Bram Fisher, some of whom would become leading members of the SACP. 

During this period a number of prominent Black communists such as J.B. Marks, Moses Kotane and Dan Tloome played an increasingly prominent role in ANC leadership. Walter Sisulu became particularly enamoured with the benefits of cooperation between the ANC and the SACP, although his arguments advocating for joint action were (initially) resisted. As Secretary General, Sisulu arranged for Mandela’s appointment to the ANC’S National Executive Committee (NEC) in 1950 and, in 1951, Mandela argued against a united racial front at an ANC national conference. However, Mandela’s increased exposure to the rhetoric of dialectical materialism and the revolutionary capabilities of mass movements coupled with close friendships with communists such as Ismail Meer, Moses Kotane and Ruth First eventually guided Mandela to explore the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Zedong. In 1952, Mandela was arrested briefly under the Suppression of Communism Act and found guilty of statutory communism. He was again arrested for high treason in 1956 although the trial took years to come to a verdict. During this time Mandela organised an All-In Africa conference near Pietermaritzburg in Natal. Following a verdict of ‘not guilty,’ Mandela travelled the country to organise a mass stay-at-home strike. He, like many other supporters of the resistance, had come to believe that violence was the last resort left to the liberation movements – particularly in the aftermath of Sharpeville – although Albert Luthuli remained unconvinced. Mandela nevertheless went on to  help found MK prior to his arrest in 1962, utilising cell structures to undertake acts of sabotage on government infrastructure. 

Mandela the Pragmatist

While Mandela’s SACP membership is no longer in dispute, his ties to the Party were perhaps not necessarily ideological; during his trial, Mandela argued that he did not ascribe to the theories of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Engels and thus was not a communist in his beliefs – but that did not exclude him from Party membership for other purposes. Despite a lack of absolute clarity, Mandela’s ties to communism and the SACP offer a number of relevant insights into the realpolitik of Mandela’s career and the trajectory of the armed struggle. While perhaps not ideologically committed to communism, Mandela undoubtedly saw merit in sustaining a ‘close friendship’ with the party which shared in the ANC’s vision of a future free from oppression and exploitation.  

Mandela’s SACP membership presents us with new knowledge through which to assess not only Mandela the man, but also the way in which his SACP membership may have influenced the undertaking of the armed struggle and the decision to establish an armed wing. Both the ANC and the SACP have maintained that the organisations had arrived at the decision to launch an armed resistance simultaneously, having taken the official decision at the start of June 1961. Documents which have surfaced – including Mandela’s original autobiography written during his time in prison, minutes of meetings and statements from members of the SACP Central Committee – have, however,  have led cast doubt on the insistence of the former alliance partners that the decision to take up arms was arrived at simultaneously, and have argued that the decision to launch an armed struggle was primarily initiative of the SACP, inspired by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement during the Cuban Revolution. Steven Ellis, professor at the University of Amsterdam, has researched the formation of MK extensively and has concluded that the decision to establish the armed movement was taken by the SACP, decided at a small conference in Emmarentia in December 1960. Mandela was among the 25 people in attendance.  

The armed wing was thus co-founded by Mandela, Joe Slovo, and Walter Sisulu, semi-independent of the ANC, which preferred to play up its strategy of non-violence (the organisation’s president, Albert Luthuli, had won the Nobel peace prize in 1960 for his own commitment to non-violence). This undertaking required both international support as well as assistance in logistics and training for which the SACP, with its international connections, positioned to requisition. It was for this reason that in 1960 four members of the SACP travelled in secret to Beijing where they met with Mao Zedong, and to Moscow where they received, in both capitals, the assurance of support. However, the small membership of the SACP required a far wider support base within South Africa, rendering an ANC alliance crucial. Forging this alliance was a diplomatically and ideologically sensitive affair, which required Mandela to play an imperative role in pushing for a strategy of armed resistance –  particularly because of several high profile opponents to this strategy including ANC president Luthuli as well as Kotane - and securing the support of several ANC committees for the undertaking of an armed struggle. Luthuli was informed that MK was separate from the ANC, which should be seen to retain its doctrine of non-violence, although members of the ANC who wished to join the armed resistance were not to be expelled from the ANC. 

 After the Sharpeville incident, all major liberation movements including the ANC, the PAC and the SACP were banned. At this time, coinciding with the long talked-about armed resistance, it made pragmatic sense for the ANC to ally themselves with the SACP for a mutually beneficial relationship; while the ANC had a mass support base necessary for a revolution, the SACP had access to the international communist strongholds of Moscow and Beijing. However, there was a definite unease among some African leaders regarding the alliance between the ANC and the SACP. 

In 1962, Mandela embarked on travels across Africa to gain support for the movement and secure assistance for the liberation struggle as an ANC delegate to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa (PAFMECSA) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. During his travels Mandela encountered a widespread scepticism and anxiety surrounding the ANC’s alliance with the Communist Party. Presumably, Mandela realised that vocalising public connections with the Party would be potentially damaging to the ANC’s image; testifying against Mandela at his trial, former communist Bruno Mtolo had stated that it was Mandela who had urged the Durban Regional Command to caution ANC and MK members travelling to African countries not to reveal their communist sympathies or affiliations. Mandela returned from his travels with the idea that the ANC should assume a more decisive role in the struggle for independence and strengthen its image as an Africanist party.

Nelson Mandela (centre) in Algeria for military training from the Algerian FLN. He is flanked by Robert Resha (left) and an officer of the armed wing of the FLN, Mohamed Lamari (right) Image source Photographer: Robben Island/Mayibuye Archive

Relevance of the Communist Connection

The relevance of Mandela’s ties to the SACP remains open to dispute. Those that argue that the decision to form MK was made by the a small meeting of SACP members suggest that the issue of who really was in control during the murky exile landscape of the 1960s struggle when party lists were largely closed or non-existent and lines between party members was considerably blurred. Other historians disagree with this line and insist that the SACP merely won the strategic debate within the party, after the banning of the liberation movements after Sharpeville and the many failures of the non-violent strategy of the ANC during the 1950s.

A further influence of Mandela’s SACP connection could be seen in his commitment to non-racialism. In the 1950s ANC membership was restricted to Black Africans, and the Communist Party remained the only partner in the alliance with an open membership policy. Many ANC members (including Mandela, for a time) felt that an all-inclusive membership policy would dilute the Africanist sentiments. As Mandela’s suspicion and scepticism of the SACP waned, his alignment with the party certainly aided in the evolution of Mandela’s stance from unwavering Africanist to an advocate of non-racialism and inclusive party membership, and this commitment to non-racialism inevitably played a valuable role in post-apartheid racial reconciliation and peacebuilding.

Furthermore, the ideological influence of the SACP continues to manifest in the ANC, despite the decline of Communism after the fall of the Soviet Union. In particular, the Freedom Charter of 1955 – the ANC’s leading policy document to spearhead the strategy of the National Democratic Revolution – calls for the nationalisation of monopoly industries as well as the redistribution of land. The NDR, intended as an incremental, working-class-led, two-stage transition to socialism stemmed directly from the SACP’s programme for a democratic ‘bourgeois’ revolution to followed by a socialist one. This programme was eventually adopted by the ANC in 1969 in its Strategy and Tactics document during the party’s 50th National Conference in Morogoro, Tanzania. To this day the ideals of the NDR and the Freedom Charter are still inspire many impoverished, unemployed and dispossessed peoples in the post-1994 South Africa. These ideals have also most recently been taken up and championed by Julius Malema, former ANC Youth League president and current Commander in Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist left-wing political party formed in 2014 after the expulsion of Malema from the ANC. Malema has continuously called for an exact implementation of the Freedom Charter and has worked to expose corruption within the ranks of the ANC, hoping, perhaps, to incite a working-class mass action against the inequalities that persist even 20 years after the apartheid regime has collapsed. The freedom charter is also at the core of the metalworkers union NUMSA’s attempt to form a socialist alternative to the ANC after breaking with the tripartite alliance and calling for a united front against neoliberalism and the formation of a movement for socialism.

After the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the SACP’s influence the ANC began to wane - the socialist ideology in which ANC and SACP intellectuals had steeped themselves during the struggle for freedom all but collapsed and the newly-elected ANC government found themselves emerging in a world of global capitalism which it was reluctant to accept. This was reversed as the SACP played a key role in bringing Jacob Zuma to power as part of alliance which eventually pushed Thabo Mbeki from the presidency, with many leading SACP members continuing to occupy key cabinet positions and have a significant presence at the heights of South African politics. Yet, the extent to which Marxist or communist ideology influences policy in South Africa is debatable.

Nelson Mandela with Fidel Castro in Cuba, July 1991. Mandela traveled to Cuba shortly after his release from prison in 1990. Image source