Skip to main content

Comrade Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela -1918-2013

Mandela was a revolutionary, committed to the liberation of South Africa from colonialism and imperialism

It will be difficult this weekend to find a political commentator to speak ill of Nelson Mandela, but it was not always so.

The man dubbed a communist terrorist by Margaret Thatcher is now portrayed as everyone's grandfather, a loveable old man with a twinkle in his eye and a kind word for everyone.

We owe it to history to step beyond this one-sided picture and to proclaim the reality that Mandela was a revolutionary, committed to the liberation of South Africa from colonialism and imperialism.

He was firm in his views but flexible enough to discuss disagreements and to admit he was wrong when convinced of a case.

This applied to his initial anti-communism after he joined the African National Congress Youth League in 1944, working with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, Peter Mda and others to radicalise the ANC, moving from petitions and delegations to civil disobedience, stayaways and other forms of mass action.

Mandela supported a motion to the ANC national conference seeking the expulsion of communists from the organisation on the grounds that the Communist Party's goal of socialism could detract from the concept of African nationalism.

This attempt to restrict membership of the ANC was trounced, with even conservative sections of the organisation defending the need to unite all Africans in South Africa without political bans or prescriptions.

"I was eventually won over to this point of view and I have upheld it ever since," Mandela told the court that sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1964 for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.

While the liberation movement provided lawyers for the defendants, Mandela represented himself to ensure a political defence and enlightenment as to why the ANC and its allies had opted for armed struggle.

Knowing that it was possible, indeed likely, that he would be given the rope if found guilty, Mandela won admiration for the quiet dignity and firm principle he displayed in dealing with prosecutor Percy Yutar and Judge Quartus de Wet.

He explained, in line with the manifesto of the ANC armed wing uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), that a time comes in the life of any nation when only two choices remain - submit or fight.

"That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom."

Mandela told the apartheid court that he had never been a member of the Communist Party but had been charged under the provisions of the Suppression of the Communism Act.

For the ANC it was normal to have joint campaigns with the party, prior to its banning, because of a community of interests, just as Britain and the US had worked with the Soviet Union to defeat nazi Germany.

He pointed out that, "for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals, who were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us and work with us.

"They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society.

"Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism. They are supported in this belief by a legislature which brands all exponents of democratic government and African freedom as communists and bans many of them - who are not communists - under the Suppression of Communism Act."


When Mandela was incarcerated, a life imprisonment term meant precisely that.

As long as the apartheid system felt secure in its brutal dictatorship, aided and abetted by the transnational corporations and governments of the western world, there was no reason to foresee the doors of the cells on Robben Island being flung open.

It was illegal even to mention the ANC, SACP, Mandela or any of his co-defendants on the island or, for the sole white prisoner Denis Goldberg, Pretoria Central prison.

But this situation was changed as a result of the explosive 1976 uprising in the African township of Soweto, encouraging an upsurge in MK activity and a tightening of international sanctions against the apartheid regime.

Mandela set his face against being released conditionally, rejecting demands that he distance himself from either the SACP or the armed struggle.

Apartheid president FW de Klerk, who had accepted the need to negotiate a transition to democracy, was forced to revoke banning orders against not only the ANC and SACP but every other political group as Mandela was finally released in 1990 after 27 years behind bars.

It is impossible to exaggerate the global effect then of the TV pictures beamed around the world of the liberation leader strolling hand in hand with his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, smiling and waving to the cameras, as they left Victor Verster Prison.

But difficult times still lay ahead for Mandela, not only in his personal life but also in the double game played by de Klerk and his cohorts.

As it became clear that the Mandelas had grown too far apart during their enforced separation to remain together, de Klerk's government dragged out the negotiations process, while a supposed "third force" launched an extermination drive against ANC supporters, massacring dozens at Boipatong, Sebokeng and elsewhere.

A massive 80,000 protest to Bisho, the capital of the Ciskei bantustan, in response to Brigadier Oupa Gqozo's refusal to allow ANC political activity, came under fire from his South African Defence Force-officered troops in September 1992, with 28 marchers shot dead and over 200 wounded.

De Klerk accused prominent communist Ronnie Kasrils of treating the marchers as "cannon fodder," ignoring the reality that the march's heavy police escort and its commanding officer had disappeared shortly before the firing started, returning only after the bloodshed.

The SACP suggested that, "while the triggers were pulled in Bisho, the plot was hatched in Pretoria."

One of the 80,000 marchers in Bisho was ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa who was lead negotiator in the talks with the government.

However, it was Mandela who asserted his authority and showed his steel in the wake of the April 1993 murder of SACP general secretary and MK chief of staff Chris Hani by Polish migrant Janusz Walus with the assistance of Conservative Party politician Clive Darby-Lewis.

He told de Klerk, whom he had already labelled the "head of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime" that the time for pussy-footing was over and that his choice was between setting a date for elections and intensified revolutionary struggle.

Addressing the nation on TV, Mandela was grim, authoritative and determined, calling for calm resolution rather than angry acts of violence.

Urging opposition to the "men who worship war," he warned against a response that could plunge the country into another Angola, paying tribute to Hani, who until his death had been seen as a possible presidential successor.

"Chris Hani was a soldier. He believed in iron discipline. He carried out instructions to the letter. He practised what he preached.

"Any lack of discipline is trampling on the values that Chris Hani stood for."

Mandela urged the youth, who had "lost a great hero," to act with wisdom and to achieve what Hani had fought for, to pay tribute to the communist leader's life's work by ensuring "freedom for all our people."

He pointed out that, while "a white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster," in contrast, "a white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin."

The ANC leader, who was justifying his sobriquet as the Father of the Nation, reached out to the white South Africans sending in messages of condolence to take part in the memorial services to Hani.

April 27 1994 was duly set as the date for South Africa's first democratic elections in which Mandela was returned as president, the ANC secured 62 per cent of the popular vote and took control of seven out of the country's nine provinces.

The ANC victory was achieved in unfavourable international conditions, just three years after the Russian counter-revolution had ushered in gangster capitalism and deprived South Africa of the strategic support of a country that had consistently backed its liberation struggle.


Mandela was insistent on expressing his gratitude to countries such as Libya and Cuba that had assisted the fight for freedom even if this upset new-found friends in Washington and London.

He flew to Havana, declaring that Cuban internationalists had "done so much for African independence, freedom and justice.

"We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist campaign designed to destroy the advances of the Cuban revolution ... The Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people."

However, following discussions with Chinese and Vietnamese representatives at the 1992 World Economic Forum in Geneva, he opposed calls for public ownership of foreign transnationals, backing privatisation of state assets.

This debate continues unabated in South Africa in response to an ongoing obscene gap in wealth that remains racially based.

Mandela's term as president was spent largely on diplomatic duties, at home and abroad, attempting to heal the scars of the past, meeting previous inveterate enemies such as Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, and his former prosecutor Yutar.

He attended the 1995 rugby world cup, which was held in South Africa, presenting the trophy to successful Springbok captain Francois Pienaar dressed in a replica shirt emblazoned with the skipper's number six.

Rugby, for white South Africans, especially Afrikaners, was akin to religion and this gesture was symptomatic of Mandela's determination to bring people together in what became known as the rainbow nation.

He stepped down as president, handing over to his deputy Thabo Mbeki who had handled day-to-day government duties during Mandela's presidency, prepared to live out his remaining days in his rural home with wife Graça Machel, whom he had married after divorcing Madikizela-Mandela.

However, his opinions were constantly sought, especially when disagreements within the ruling party led to the ANC instructing Mbeki to stand down as president to be replaced by Jacob Zuma, who had served 10 years on Robben Island for MK activities.

Mandela made clear that it was for the organisation to make its own decisions, which he would support rather than identify himself with any internal or external opposition.


So it was that, despite having retired from public life in 2004, he attended, aged 90, an ANC political rally in February 2009 in the Eastern Cape during the presidential election campaign won by Zuma.

He didn't speak, but his grandson Mandla Mandela addressed the crowd, telling them that they were present "to confirm their ANC membership and support for the party."

In doing so, the former president was reaffirming the allegiance that he had taken on 65 years earlier and to which he was unshakably loyal.

Sadness at his death will be felt across the world, not solely in his native land, but it is tempered by awareness of a life well spent, of genuine achievements, spearheading the defeat of apartheid and beginning construction of a unified South African nation.

New generations have the task of continuing his revolutionary work, inspired by his example.

In common with millions of South Africans, countless admirers across the globe will say their own goodbyes to this marvellous man.

In many languages they will echo the traditional Zulu farewell adopted by the ANC. "Hamba kahle (Go well), comrade Madiba."

John Haylett


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 10,087
We need:£ 7,931
9 Days remaining
Donate today