EVEN AFTER the tide of events had vindicated Nelson Mandela, beginning with his 1990 release from a twenty-seven-year imprisonment and culminating in his attainment of the South African presidency, some of his Cold War detractors maintained the charge against him of Communism. In fact, the influence of the Comintern, either upon himself or on the black struggle in general, was the only charge that Mandela repudiated outright in the April 1964 Rivonia trial speech which to this day provides our most detailed first-person account of his political convictions. To the charges against him, concerning acts of sabotage and of violence, Nelson Mandela provided a thoroughgoing and qualified admission: Yes, he conceded, his actions appeared revolutionary from the perspective of the majority white population — but since the white man both feared and repressed democracy in South Africa, how could the assertion of a black person’s democratic rights be conceived by him otherwise?
Although never claiming himself to be a Communist, Nelson Mandela by the 1950s acceded to the dialectical-materialist conception of history and was in that one respect, and that one respect only, a Marxist. It is fitting that this was so, the gradual political evolution of his long life not only arriving at the dialectic but illustrating it as well. Do remember that the Marxist conception of history views political struggle as a contest rooted in material interests, and that the rival, African nationalist theory (for a time held by Mandela himself) was that the African struggle was racial in character — that is, a battle in which whites were by definition the enemy. As the white, liberal and anti-apartheid South African novelist J.M. Coetzee noted, in a 1986 essay Waiting for Mandela, “if the South African regime had come to terms with the ANC in the 1950s, it would have been coming to terms with a fairly peaceable popular movement under petit-bourgeois, social democratic leadership. Instead it chose to brand the movement as subversive and its leaders as tools of international communism.”
One can quibble over Coetzee’s timeline, but he is nonetheless correct that it was the mounting violence and repression of successive Afrikaner governments, from the time of the South Africa Act onwards, which dialectically summoned the ever-escalating ANC antithesis. With each, more repressive cranking of the race supremacy wrench, Mandela responded in kind, a back-and-forth culminating in his co-creation, with ANC leaders, of the Rivonia-based paramilitary Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Between 1951 and 1961, Mandela had gone from being the well-educated product of a royalist morganatic marriage — furthering his political ideals through the bourgeois channel of Mandela and Tambo, South Africa’s only black law firm — to actively promoting revolutionary socialist democracy.
The Rivonia trial provided Mandela what no amount of revolutionary fervor on its own could purchase: an international audience and the moral authority to appeal forcefully to it. Imprisoned mid-way into his fourth decade, roughly the age at which political careers begin to blossom, Mandela was doubtless expected by the South African government to wither away. Within a decade, however, an internationally criticized and embarrassed regime was offering Mandela his release on the condition that he abandon his cause. This offer would be made over and again, each time Mandela declining. Within two decades, apartheid had brought to fulfilment the conditions for its own demise. In the 1980s the question most on the mind of Afrikaners was not whether white dominance could be indefinitely maintained — it was “What is going to happen to the whites when their rule succumbs?”
Coetzee is the author par excellence on this theme of colonialism’s self-made defeat. His 1980 novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” concerns a nameless magistrate on the outskirts of the empire and poses what was for white liberals an ever-present existential conundrum: “How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structures of the eyelid?” I have argued so far that Mandela was a creation of the South African government, that he was the indigenous antithesis to the white rule thesis. Until the 1950s, Mandela was in many respects the mirror image of the ruling class, opposed to the co-operation of the races in the struggle against the white oppressor and advocating a South Africa for blacks only. For years and even decades, the principal fear was of a South African race war, and it was chiefly this fear which precluded the relinquishing of white power long after it was apparent that the cause was lost. It was a great piece of good fortune to have had a man such as Nelson Mandela at the ready when international sanctions and civil disobedience brought the machinery of state sponsored racism to a halt.
Mandela’s character, in other words, was most evident in the patient and flexible pragmatism which kept going the cause of South African liberal democracy as against its many detractors, both on the left and right — among them Inkatha and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, as well as within Mandela’s immediate circles. Against the counsel of ANC colleagues, he forged important friendships with white opponents of apartheid, foremost among them the Jewish Communist Rusty Bernstein. He abjured ideological rigidity and accepted the role of private enterprise in the South African economy. Internationalist in outlook, he returned his country to the British Commonwealth, from which it had been expelled in the 1960s (a result of the 1961 Singapore Declaration, asserting that the principle of racial equality would apply to Commonwealth membership). Perhaps most important of all, he was a leader of the post-apartheid era who led the country away from the credible prospect of a vast race-grievance bloodbath and retributive government.
The nature of Mandela’s long political career, already decades on and amply mythologized and pop-culturized when he became once again a free man, was such that his occupation of political office constituted an anticlimax of a sort. To some he seemed almost too good for mere electoral politics, until his semi-effective grappling with South Africa’s enormous problems reminded us he was, after all, human.