“Under a Communist Party government, South Africa will become a land of milk and honey.” Nelson Mandela
“Communists everywhere fight to destroy capitalist society and replace it with socialism.” Nelson Mandela
“As we now know, Nelson Mandela was a Communist Party member and leader since the early 60s, though he and his allies denied it all his life.” Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., The Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2013, p. A 15
As we now know, Nelson Mandela was a Communist Party member and leader since the early 60s, though he and his allies denied it all his life. On his death, the South African Communist Party itself came clean, with deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila explaining that Mandela’s membership had been kept a fiercely-guarded secret for “political reasons.”
No kidding. The armed struggle, which Mandela had initiated in 1961, would prove a damp squib. It was Mandela’s international celebrity plus the collapse of the Berlin Wall that created the opening for fruitful change in South Africa.
The story is told how Mandela came out of jail spouting traditional Marxist rhetoric but was set straight by Western business leaders at Davos. Another version holds that he was simply reading a script placed in his hands by the Communist Party and promptly switched when word arrived from Moscow that no resources would be forthcoming to help with nationalization, so the incoming government had better play up to Western capital.
Yet another version holds that Mandela already knew which way the wind was blowing when he got out of jail and was just waiting for his comrades to catch up. This version is perhaps the most convincing.
To a visitor to South Africa in the months after Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, the most striking thing was the speed with which baggage was being shed. The end of the Cold War had transformed the country’s politics. White minority rule had been justified on grounds of South Africa’s alleged encirclement by Marxist states. Now a former military intelligence chief was telling me such scare talk had outlived its usefulness, adding with a shrug, “We got most of this from the States.”
The one place word hadn’t seemed to reach was headquarters of the newly unbanned African National Congress and its joined-at-the-hip ally, the Communist Party. Stacks of freshly printed pamphlets were emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. Walter Sisulu, the ANC elder statesman who had recruited Mandela and who would later acknowledge his own membership in the Communist Party, assured me that nationalization of the banks and industry remained the government-in-waiting’s top order of business.
I might have been tempted to take this threat more seriously if the ANC hadn’t been occupying a downtown Johannesburg office suite courtesy of a Munich insurance firm. As I would write, “Once the scourge of Johannesburg’s diamond-studded burghers, these men now ride the same elevators, simmer in the same traffic jams and rush about trailing identical briefcases.”
Two decades later Mandela’s ANC has indeed become a party of revolutionaries turned business owners and financiers.
In their well-researched 2012 book “Who Rules South Africa?” the journalists Martin Plaut and Paul Holden found that three-quarters of cabinet members had outside business or financial interests as did 60% the regime’s 400 members of parliament. They also report that, in 2011, South Africa’s auditor-general found that in the impoverished Eastern Cape, ancestral home of Mandela and many other top ANC leaders, 74% of government contracts went to companies owned by state officials and their families.
At the moment, South Africa’s likeliest next president is Cyril Ramaphosa, a former militant union leader and Mandela protégé who serves as ANC deputy president. According to Forbes, Mr. Ramaphosa is worth $625 million—three times Mitt Romney‘s wealth.
By some measures—education, public services, crime—South Africa has gone backward under the new regime. One indisputable ANC success has been creating a new black business elite with a stake in preserving South Africa’s advanced capitalist economy. The paradox is not lost on the still-influential Communists. Said Jeremy Cronin, a party stalwart and the government’s current deputy minister of public works: “Everything you have lived for appears to be failing. Everything you have fought for appears to be winning.”
Give Mandela credit for making this victory-in-defeat possible. He was the most adept baggage shedder of them all. His example apparently continues to inspire his former secret comrades. Nationalization has lately come back on the ANC agenda at the behest of certain black business leaders hoping to be bought out of bad investments at a profit. The most furious critics of the idea: the South African Communists.