Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association


Nelson Mandela’s membership of the South African Communist Party  will be one of the main topics up for discussion in London on December 5 when the Institute of Commonwealth Studies hosts a one- day seminar on myths and realities surrounding the life and legacy of one Africa’s greatest sons.

Around 150 academics, journalists and members of the public will gather at The Senate at London University on the first anniversary of Mandela’s death to discuss some of the complexities of his ideology, political relationship with other liberation movements within South Africa and his record as the first black President of South Africa.

A conference spokesperson said: “December 5 marks the first anniversary of Mandela’s death. At his passing, an enormous amount of media material was produced, reflecting on multiple aspects of his life and work.  A considerable amount of this was relatively superficial and understandably hagiographic. Now more time has passed there is both opportunity and need for a more dispassionate assessment of the complexity of the Mandela phenomenon, the continuing importance of debates about the armed struggle and his relationship with the South African Communist Party.”

Mandela’s contribution to South Africa’s re-integration in the international system, after decades of ostracism, will once again go under the microscope and be examined by some of the people who played large and small roles in the liberation of South Africa.

Several of the Commonwealth’s most prominent UK-based figures will be there, including the director of ICWS, Professor Philip Murphy and Dr Sue Onslow.

Speakers include Professor Tom Lodge of the University of Limerick: Dr Moses Anafu, former head of the African Section, Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoka’s Special Envoy to South Africa 1991 -1994 and Dr Hugh Macmillan of the University of Cape Town and African Studies Centre at Oxford University, England. Others are Dr Funmi Olonisakin, Director of the African Leadership Centre at Kings College, London, Dr Desne Masie, Royal African Society and University of Edinburgh, Knox Chitiyo, Associate Fellow, Africa programme, Chatham House and formerly Nelson Mandela Fellow at RUSI, Paul Holden, co-author (with Martin Plaut) of “Who Rules South Africa “ and Dr Merle Lipton, Associate Fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Professor Winston Mano, University of Westminster will chair a session on “Mandela and the Media” with speakers including Peter Biles, former BBC Southern and East African correspondent and Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA member and Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society.

The conference is organised by ICWS in conjunction with two of its Senior Fellows, Keith Somerville, former BBC World news programme editor and present lecturer in Humanitarian Communications, Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent, and Martin Plaut, the former Africa Editor, BBC World Service. The film and documentary maker Khalo Matabane will show some of his work.
The audience will include by men and women who played their part in the struggle against apartheid. One of them will be Paul Trewhela, a former member of the SACP who was a political prisoner in South Africa from 1964-1967. He said that examining the role of Mandela from the time of Stalin to the end of the Cold War would be complex but added – “ there’s no point having a discussion at London University which doesn’t set itself such a difficult task.”

One of the key speakers will be Professor Stephen Ellis, a British professor and former editor of ‘Africa Confidential.’ Today he is based at Afrika-Studiecentrum (Leiden) and the Vrije Univeriteit. In a recent book “External Mission” he revealed that Mandela had been an active member of the SACP before his arrest in 1962. Ellis was the first serious academic to provide extensive evidence that Mandela had been a member of the Central Committee of the SACP and had helped form Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

Other authors who have widened our understanding of Nelson Mandela include Martin Meredith, Anthony Sampson, Tom Lodge, David Jones Smith and Kenneth S. Brown.

While Mandela’s membership of the SACP such a long time ago intrigues academics, politicians and some journalists, most young South Africans today shrug indifferent shoulders. They question its significance.

In an exchange of opinions aired in the “London Review of Books” in June 2013 between Paul Trewhela, the South African author Rian Malan and the former bureau chief of the ‘New York Times’ in Johannesburg Bill Keller, the American journalist said: ”Apartheid was pulled down by many hands, some of them Communist. As professor Ellis has said, Mandela’s brief expedient membership of SACP does not detract from his historic stature. Mandela, Mr Ellis told one interviewer, wasn’t a real convert. It was just an opportunistic thing.”

But the achievements and failures of Nelson Mandela won’t go away.

The British journalist Fred Bridgland is putting the finishing touches to a book he has written with Katiza Cebekhulu about Winnie Mandela’s alleged involvement in the death of Stompie Moeketsi in Soweto in 1989.

Cebekhulu and Bridgland claim that when Winnie Mandela was charged with kidnapping and assaulting Moeketsi, Nelson Mandela, his solicitor Ismael Ayob and others approached the International Defence and Aid Fund asking for funds for his wife’s defence.The European Union got wind of this and said that its contributions were for the defence of political prisoners only. Bridgland claims that Nelson Mandela then put pressure on the Swedish government so that the IDAF funds could be allocated for Mrs Mandela’s defence.

The outcome was that the EU dropped its annual grant of £485,000 and IDAF was immediately wound up after having helped tens of thousands of South Africans to the tune of £100 million who had faced political trials under apartheid laws.

Years later, Nelson Mandlela made not a single reference to one of the founders of the IDAF, Canon John Collins in his best-selling book “Long Walk to Freedom”.

Anthony Sampson’s biography of Mandela makes only three references to Collins, who is regarded by many in the anti-apartheid movement as one of its most important figures. Like Ellis and Trewhela, Malan and Keller, Fred Bridgland says that Nelson Mandela was a great man but one with serious flaws “like all of us”.