Nelson Mandela and the revolutionaries
The ANC and Nelson Mandela’s turn to violent anticolonial struggle in the early 1960s, is the subject of a new book by historian of South Africa, Paul Landau.
- Paul S. Landau (PSL)
- Hlonipha Mokoena (HM)
The book, SPEAR: Mandela and the Revolutionaries (Jacana Press and Ohio University Press, 2022), by Paul Landau, is a recreation of the political scene from 1960 through 1963, enmeshing Nelson Mandela and others around him. It is about the effort, nearly forgotten about today, to challenge the state from a liberationist position.
Spear focuses on human relationships in the context of the advent of violence, debates about ideas, and the mechanics of action. It is a history of the early 1960’s revolutionary challenge to the apartheid state, involving the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), the Communist Party, and others. Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK—Spear of the Nation), Mandela’s assembled military wing, is at the center of the account. This is an edited transcript of a book launch of SPEAR: Mandela and the Revolutionaries held at Love Books in Johannesburg on May 26, 2022. The conversation below is lightly edited by Landau from a recording.
That is a hard question. I think maybe that is because Nelson Mandela became Nelson Mandela II in prison. That’s probably the best answer. Think of it as different Nelson Mandelas, the second stage, the third, and the fourth as president, etcetera, and perhaps the latter middle stages were more amenable to impersonation with a double, as he was prohibited from being seen also meaning photographed.
Helpfully, because your book is partly about how the different Nelson Mandelas were formed. How did he become a revolutionary? I mean. you tackle a lot of very very controversial questions, and no one will be satisfied with a final answer. You tackle the question of did he join the Communist Party [of South Africa], and which, as the SACP [the South African Communist Party], was banned at the time …
Well the fact of his joining the [Communist] Party is established, and we would not be discussing it anymore had there not been an agreed-upon line to conceal it. But where the Communist Party was important is in this: MK was organized via the Party as a network (with allied union offices). Not through the African National Congress. There was only one network to use, and the ANC was not to be that network, he was told by the senior ANC Executive.
There is an oscillation between being a Communist and being a Black Marxist. Was Mandela a Communist or Black Marxist?
Both. There was no contradiction there, as both ideas were being created by what people were doing at the time. (They overlapped.) Still if Communist means Party member, both.
As you note, as Moses Kotane also said, I am a Communist to serve Black people, not vice versa. Referencing a remark by Aimé Cesaire (made in 1956 in resigning from the French Communist Party, by the way) … That area of thinking … You bring African debates and Marxist debates into view. What were you trying to do there?
I am trying to restore Nelson Mandela to the firmament of thinking, among Black Marxist rebels at midcentury, in the colonial and postcolonial world, with Harry Haywood, Malcolm X, Cyril Briggs, Frantz Fanon and others. In South Africa people read, everyone discussed texts, and they influenced one another.
Spear is a story of a movement that got off the ground, but was then cut off. Thirty years of apartheid followed. So it is necessarily structured as a tragic narrative.
The PAC and [Robert] Sobukwe [its founding president], objected to White Communists’ inclusion in a coalition …
Sobukwe and the PAC were very important. It is forgotten that the PAC impacted Mandela’s thinking directly. Even more, there are many institutional histories of the PAC and the ANC, but in 1959 all these people were in the big-tent ANC, and in the same meetings, and they knew one another. It is impossible to view them separately.
With Chief Lutuli (ANC president at that time), Mandela wanted to push things to the furthest point of their mutual agreement, but then he went beyond that and advocated for a “new stage.” The agreement Mandela sought was based on their shared approval for the use of coercive violence in enforcing political (and so labor) actions. That was the basis for MK, that was submitted to Moscow for approval, and it was a misrepresentation. When Chief Lutuli wanted a vote to limit MK to actions in support of ongoing labor and other actions, he was outvoted (this according to Walter Sisulu). But Mandela wanted to keep Lutuli close, not to alienate him.
You know it is true Sobukwe did not particularly like Mandela. That’s fine, not everyone likes everyone. But again, Mandela moved toward a strictly African nationalist framework (he always favored Black African leadership) in part by interacting with PAC colleagues, Gaur Radebe, Peter Raboroko, and even Sobukwe. Mandela understood that a simple change to a “Black Republic,” to use the 1920s term (indicating the plausibility of a nonracial electorate as a Communist goal), without subsequent serious social change, was not good enough. That much is clear, from his valedictions, and from everything he did. He was a disappointed revolutionary in prison (and I think it is clear he supported “Operation Mayibuye,” a grand plan to stimulate an insurgency in 1963).
You write about the great game played between China and the Soviet Union, and you show that there is a debate about the nature of the revolution, whether based in a national coalition or based in a working-class mobilization. All over the African continent, African leaders were playing that game.
Not so much playing off, I think there was disappointment that there was a Chinese-Soviet split. The goal was to keep everyone together. But I do think what is interesting is that Mandela moved toward Moses Kotane [a top leader in the Communist Party] and toward the idea of a peasant insurrection (following the Chinese model of political mobilization). Even though there was little chance of that because the ANC did not have deep roots in the countryside. It would be necessary to have a base in the countryside but just how, was not worked out. That is part of the story.
A controversial point: I raise the possibility that the White government had already captured the countryside. That preempted the revolution by taking control of the appointment of chiefs …
Yes, but there was an ANC “House of Chiefs” until, like, 1942, and “Bantu Authorities” as an enforced system was resisted immediately in various parts of this country [i.e. in its enforcement in 1959-1960]. Perhaps most of all, and most well known, in Eastern Mpondoland. The suppression of that rebellion was damaging (for the ANC), because at the time, if Mandela was arguing that a peasant insurgency was possible, why wasn’t it possible in Mpondoland (from their rural headquarters called The Hill)? We support peasant revolution, but we can’t support this ongoing one? So that was hard. In fact, recruiting the key soldiery who would push the revolution, both the ANC and PAC understood (the pool to be the) younger men coming from the countryside into the cities, especially those without land or prospects. (Regarding the historian Peter Delius’s remark: and, too, more established seasonal mining “migrant laborers,” sometimes, but mostly not those on contracts.) In Cape Town, the (relatively landless) young men were seen as recruitable and Mick Harmel, the theorist of the Party and MK, pointed to them there. Especially for the PAC’s Poqo, also, we are talking about 14 to 17 year olds in many cases.
You mention amateurism as a feature of MK. People were so eager to fight, that there is a sense of amateurism: they need to learn how to fight, what is what, how to organize, what were the strategic targets to hit, and I guess this is controversial in South Africa, many young people think MK was formed to kill White people. But that is not why it was formed. It comes out of this plural history of radicalism in South Africa.
First of all, for me, [my use of] amateur is praise. But if you are talking about bombs that don’t go off or missed rendezvous, okay it does have a different connotation. But I chose to use the word for two reasons. Umkhonto we Sizwe was a civilian force; it had some expertise, it borrowed expertise from some military vets. But it was mostly unionists—what does a man organizing domestic workers have in common with (someone trained in) artillery? Not much, so that makes it amateur. Secondly, they messed up a lot, and that is important. That kind of human error was (inscribed) into what MK was. So in a sense, with duds and explosions, they were saying, this is your people doing this. We are not some military force, we are your people. There is one more aspect to this, (the flip side). Because they were civilians and amateurs, many people in MK looked to trained professionals conversely as saviors. The idea in Operation Mayibuye was to put in people with technical skills, who would then quickly lead. I think it was probably (not going to work and it certainly served different agendas), but I do not like to make those kinds of judgments.
Thinking about wider comparisons, what about on your side of the Atlantic, where you have the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers?
The Panthers survived long enough to suffer some internal contradictions in their purpose and actions, let us say. A colleague, Art Eckstein, wrote a study of the Weather Underground recently. They were a small group, mostly students and the like, and in contrast to South Africa they held … an implausible idea. Whereas, in South Africa, educating (through leading action and night-school teaching) the majority, Africans, so they would not participate in ordinary life until apartheid ended, was plausible …
On Mandela’s trip northward [on the African continent], how was it significant?
Hugely so. In that Mandela was recognized and recognized himself as the leader of South Africa, in a way, even if that was impossible yet (in South Africa) …
When Mandela spoke at the big anti-colonial “Pan African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa,” (in Addis), he also, on [Oliver] Tambo’s advice, did not criticize the PAC but praised Ethiopia’s training of Freedom Fighters (which did not yet include MK). Mandela meant others, including PAC fighters. Ethiopia was itself a focus of Israel’s “outreach,” but it was also the “Africa” of the Bible, an uncolonized Africa, it was said, and so trainees were redirected there in 1962 on, (to convey:) We are African nationalists.
You say irony is avoided in your book.
I would say: paradox, not irony: or, deferred irony, first, experience without irony … For irony, in narration, you need to know what comes next. I do not like to reveal what comes next (near the moment of action). I would say, even: go straight to the first chapter. Avoid the introductions to the chapters, the first paragraphs, even. (Or maybe not. But the point is, it is a sequential story first of all).
In reading it as a fresh story, if one thinks “everyone knows when Mandela was arrested,” you would expect it coming up on it, I would say, Really? Ask around: Was it in early 1962 or late? or was it 1963? See what kind of answers you get. So the idea is not to know anything in advance and to come upon it. (Thus to skip the Preface of the book.)
[With reference to Paul saying he is happy to have been able to write the book.] I think it is important that you mention joy—when we pore over a recording trying to hear a single word, as I am involved in digitization at Wits [University], to have the joy of finally putting things together, we do feel joy.
True. This also leads me to bring up one last point, which is pain. The pain and loss suffered by so many of the people in this book coming out of the early 1960s. All of these founding fathers and mothers were made to suffer, some were hanged, some imprisoned for short or long terms, and some exiled. Being separated from your own children was a grievous punishment that many revolutionaries complained about. Pain and anguish were baked into that generation: I think that is something to think about also. Sorry to end on a bleak note.
Thank you, Hlonipha. I appreciate this. And the rest of you: I am happy to sign any book lavishly.
So, I am going to start with a story. I was a student at the University of Cape Town, and I was sitting in a minibus. And a man who was sitting next to the driver starts talking about how South Africa should go back to the British Pound (Sterling), for this and that (economic reason, etc.) “And then another thing. The guy who is running our country is not the real Nelson Mandela. The real Nelson Mandela died on Robben Island in prison … The man who is running our country is a body double” he says. So my first question for you is, “Why does Nelson Mandela have so many body doubles?” [Laughter]