Nelson Mandela was born into the Thembu faction of the Xhosa, the tribal equivalent of the royal family, which enabled him to receive a good education, although he was suspended from school for boycotting the food and became a lawyer only after failing three times to complete his law course at Witwatersrand. (He was the only black student, and may have been the victim of discrimination.) His noble lineage and upbringing conferred on him a stature and bearing and dignity that he never lost and that commanded the respect of all throughout his adult life.
Though the tremendous outpouring of admiration that has followed his death is certainly merited — for his generosity of spirit and immense courage throughout his imprisonment of 27 years, most of it in severe conditions — the great esteem in which he is held obscures and transcends some matters of legitimate controversy.
There is no doubt that, although Mandela was brought up a Methodist and was a somewhat enthusiastic Christian for a time (a Bible teacher, in fact), and that he and his image-makers have soft-pedaled his dalliance with the Communists, he certainly was one for many years.
He moved to expel Communists from the African National Congress in 1947, but when he joined the executive of the ANC in 1950, aged 32, he was soon cock-a-hoop for Marx and Engels, which is comprehensible for a black South African intellectual settling into the enchantments of apartheid; but his enthusiasm for Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, and especially Stalin is a little harder to understand. His enthusiasm for Mao probably cooled a little when the People’s Republic of China declined his request for arms in the mid Fifties, because it judged the ANC too “immature” to be trusted with real weapons.
He led the pro-violence faction of the ANC at the start of the Sixties, contrary to the wishes of the ANC leader, Albert Luthuli; in 1961, he founded the sabotage and murder arm of the movement, called Spear of the Nation. (It was rarely effective, was frequently infiltrated by the white government’s agents, and was routed by the fierce Zulus every time they clashed, which was countless times over the next 35 years.)
It seems that the collapse of the Soviet Union and of international Communism, just as Mandela was released from prison in 1990, helped him to consider alternatives to Communism, as did the antics of his wife, Winnie, whom he married in 1958, after his adultery broke up his first marriage and his wife decamped, taking the children and becoming a zealous Jehovah’s Witness. Adultery played a part in the problems of his marriage to Winnie also, but that must be fairly seen in the context of a society that was traditionally not monogamous, and also in the light of some of the derring-do of the Mandela United Football Club that Winnie, who was well to the left of her husband, led. It routinely tortured and killed people, sometimes with a device it invented: the necklace, a burning tire hung around the neck of the offender. It does not lie in the mouth of anyone who was not the victim of the evil and repulsive racist regime that oppressed the black majority of South Africa to criticize Nelson Mandela for being tempted by Communism, but there was a tactical aspect to his handling of the subject. He generally denied his association, and in his famous four-hour speech of 1964 at one of his many treason trials — a speech that was based on Fidel Castro’s speech “History Will Forgive Me” — he denied that he was a Communist, and said that he had relations with Communists only because theirs were the countries that chiefly assisted racial-equality and anti-colonial movements. He concluded by saying that he was “prepared to die,” and he doubtless was prepared to die, and generally did give his life, for the cause of racial equality. This is the basis of his greatness and his high place in world esteem.
He was sometimes acquitted in these trials, revealing that South Africa, like Gandhi’s colonial India and Martin Luther King’s southern states, could never really resort to massive repression without regard to human life, as the culture of the ruling minority, as Gandhi and King perceived, could not bear the moral implications of maximum violence (unlike totalitarian oppressors such as Hitler and Stalin). Of course the Boers, whose ancestors had trekked hundreds of miles to the north just to get out of so subversively liberal a place as the British Empire after it had abolished slavery, were much more attached to their position in South Africa than the comparative handful of British were to their status in India, or the relatively unthreatened white majority in the southern U.S. states were to segregation. Nonetheless, the Anglo-Afrikaner ruling establishment was not prepared to dispense altogether with the prestigious pretense to due process.
It was after his 1961 acquittal that Mandela set up the cell structure of the ANC, prepared for guerrilla war (at which it had little aptitude), and toured Africa, visiting Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Egypt’s Nasser, Tunisia’s Bourguiba, and Guinea’s neo-Communist Sékou Touré. He attended a guerrilla-war camp in Ethiopia, although he lasted only two months of a six-month course.