Misremembering Mandela

It is fair to say that Nelson Mandela’s death last December did not go unnoticed. The sheer quantity of coverage devoted to the event was certainly commensurate with his stature. Most media attention portrayed a kindly, statesmanlike figure of great grace and dignity, and accurately eulogised the strength and magnanimity of the departed leader. And yet, though the sheer quantity of words expended upon Mandela was enormous, the debate on his life was most remarkable for its poverty.

The tone struck by left-leaning commentators in discussing Mandela was not always constant, but generally centred around what might be summarised as ‘cautious triumphalism’. Commentators like the Guardian‘s Marina Hyde and the Independent‘s Peter Vallely set out to pay their respects to Mandela whilst also, reservedly, reminding the world of the ultimate vindication of the anti-Apartheid left. Meanwhile, however, the right showed signs of a schism in its approach to the news. Many right-of-centre figures moved to head off any discussion of the politics of Mandela’s life by engulfing the occasion in hyperbolic praise. The eulogies to the dead man’s character were so overblown as to obscure any mention of his political convictions. The tactic was to say a great deal, but to say nothing of consequence, and to craft a sanitised, sanctified Mandela devoid of radical anger. The Daily Telegraphs Timothy Stanley took the trend to its illogical conclusion when he declared Mandela to have been, in his own sickly-sweet phrasing, “[a] secular saint for the whole world”.[1]

While most commentators on the right preferred to avoid the topic of Mandela’s ideological convictions, a few conservative writers did attempt to tussle with the question of Mandela’s lifelong links to radical politics. Perhaps the best example of this was a trio of articles written for the Spectator and the Telegraph by the Afrikaner writer Rian Malan, culminating with a lengthy article for the former publication on January 18th. In this final article, Malan contended that new evidence (a draft manuscript of Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, written in the author’s own hand) had definitively debunked the mainstream depiction of Mandela: the late president was never, in fact, a heroic figure, but was rather a pro-communist radical who espoused “Stalinism” and saw himself as part of “the communist vanguard, imbued with the higher doctrine of dialectical materialism”.[2] The intervention was less fascinating for what Malan said than for what he did not feel the need to say – with very little discussion, the premise was assumed that Mandela’s alignment with militant leftism somehow serves to discredit the idea of his moral superiority. Both Malan’s protestations and the silence of other commentators are rooted in the same curious and significant misconception: even when discussing a famously good-hearted individual, it is still presumed out of hand that alliance with the militant left is necessarily a vice.

The nature of Mandela’s personal relationship with communism is still unclear – although it was revealed by the ANC in January that he was indeed a member of the South African Communist Party during the 1960s, the extent of his own embrace of Marxist ideology is difficult to gauge. What is clear, however, is that the African National Congress fitted, for the vast majority of its history, into a broader context of communist-backed independence movements across Africa and the colonial world. If anything, what is unique about the ANC is the fact that it achieved independence later, and in a somewhat less militant fashion, than other independence movements. Indeed, by isolating one largely peaceful transfer of power in the post-Cold War period, we succeed in ignoring the bloody, difficult, and inconclusive struggles which were fought by white regimes to suppress black freedom across much of the sub-Saharan landmass. Conflicts like the Portuguese Colonial War, which ravaged Angola and Mozambique in the 1960s and ’70s, and the 23-year armed guerrilla struggle for independence in Namibia, have been largely forgotten in comparison with South Africa’s isolated pocket of relative non-violence. My own uneasy suspicion is that the West’s disproportionate emphasis on South Africa is born less out of genuine respect for Nelson Mandela than out of a desire to endorse those colonised peoples that behaved the least aggressively, and the least impatiently, in their quest for freedom.

The issue which makes colonial independence truly problematic in capitalist collective memory is the fact that the alliance between modern capitalism and European colonialism was based on ideology as well as pragmatism. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, for example, that racist convictions informed the strategic decisions of the Western bloc in the early period of the Cold War. United States government memoranda on decolonisation throughout that period are filled with suggestions that, in the words of one 1958 report, “the African is still immature and unsophisticated with respect to his attitudes towards the issues which divide the world today”, and colonial powers evidently regarded their subjects as easily-manipulated stooges for white communist factions. [3] While the purity of the Soviet Union’s motives in backing anti-colonial rebels can certainly be impugned, it is not insignificant that the communist bloc consistently co-operated with non-white people in a way which would often have been anathema to capitalist powers. Mandela himself certainly understood that the ideological struggles convulsing Africa as colonialism fell were about more than just old-world, 19th-century imperialism. Indeed, he wrote, in a quote which Malan evidently believes to be a smoking gun, that: “To a nationalist fighting oppression, dialectical materialism is like a rifle, bomb or missile. Once I understood the principle of dialectical materialism, I embraced it without question.”[4] Liberal defenders of Mandela have often dismissed these sentiments as pardonable excesses of youthful passion. In the context of the racial ideologies of West and East during decolonisation, it might be better-founded to argue that the alignment of anti-colonial and anti-racist activism with the Soviet bloc was a considered decision, and one that was fully justified.

It is not my intention to sing the praises of 20th-century communism. When discussing colonialism generally, and Africa in particularly, it must be remembered that most communist-backed independence movements failed to rule successfully after gaining power. It is nevertheless important to highlight the Western world’s lack of awareness of the process by which it arrived at the ideology it now professes. We commonly conceive of the shedding of racial prejudice as a natural process of our progressive societies, but the truth is that that this process did not occur in a linear fashion, or indeed within a cultural vacuum. Ideas of racial interchangeability were not particularly compatible with capitalist conformism throughout much of the 19th and 20th century. Modern racism is often analysed as having originated as the ideological corollary of Victorian colonial capitalism, and the progression of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw a rapid growth, not a gradual decline, in ignorant, nationalistic conceptions of racial hierarchy. It was undeniably Marxism, and radical theory more generally, which positioned itself as the champion of racial equality from the mid-19th century well into the second half of the 20th. Internationalism, or at least the assumption of racial interchangeability which underpins it, was gradually appropriated from the radical left even whilst Western-style economic liberalism was absorbed by the East.

When the capitalist world remembers Mandela, it will largely praise his generosity, his compassion and his pragmatism. None of these were qualities which South Africa’s liberator lacked, but we must never cease to be aware of the agendas which shape this eulogy. Mandela was no saint, and it is a disservice to his very real human virtues to seek to pretend otherwise. Indeed, our very desire to focus on Mandela to the exclusion of all other African stories, as much as the foregrounding of his magnanimity over his other traits, reflects our desire as a society to ignore the more difficult legacies of our general past. When remembering the whole of Mandela’s life, certain nations must concede that we were wrong – that we lost certain battles of ideas, and that the world was highly fortunate that we did so. We must be careful to remember him properly; at present, I fear that we are remembering him in order to forget him.


Max Leak is a Spanish and Portuguese student at Wadham College, Oxford.



[1] Tim Stanley, ‘Nelson Mandela was a secular saint for the whole world’, 5th Dec 2013, The Telegraph

2 Rian Malan, ‘What a lost prison manuscript reveals about the real Nelson Mandela’, 18th Jan 2014, The Spectator

[3] National Security Council Report, ‘Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960 Volune XIV, Africa, Document 8’, available at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1958-60v14/d8

[4] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom manuscript, available at http://specc.ie/longwalkms

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