Beyond the Gauzy Worship: What the Left Got Wrong on Mandela

by John Fund

For decades, the Left attacked conservatives for being “wrong” on South Africa’s rancid system of apartheid. And it’s true that too many conservatives used the excuse of the Cold War to not condemn apartheid vigorously enough. Many also didn’t believe he would guide his country into a peaceful transition of power, which he did brilliantly. 

It won’t happen, but it’s time for many on the left to acknowledge they too made errors regarding South Africa. We now have evidence that the late Nelson Mandela — prior to his release from prison in 1993 — was indeed a member of the central committee of the South African Communist Party, and his belief in rigid Marxist ideology wasn’t just part of an alliance of convenience for his African National Congress. A copy of the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography — written while he was in prison on Robben Island in the 1970s — surfaced just after his death last month and confirms that conservative fears about the ANC’s goals and methods were fully justified. The eye-opening article by South African journalist Rian Malan appeared in Britain’s Spectator magazine.

“The truth about Mandela has been obscured by decades of myth-mongering, most of it penned by white liberals intent on portraying him as a benign black moderate,” Malan wrote in an earlier article in the Daily Telegraph. Malan grew up in a pro-Afrikaner family, but he broke with them and became an exile in the U.S. and a staunch opponent of racialism. 

Malan says his research shows that in the 1960s “Mandela’s membership of a militantly pro-Soviet movement was unlikely to win friends in the free world. More could be gained by portraying him as a black liberal, and Mr. Mandela and his lawyers crafted a masterful speech for Mr. Mandela to deliver from the dock during his 1964 trial for treason.”

During that speech Mandela described himself as an admirer of the British and American systems of governance, when in reality at the time he was “pulling wool over the eyes of the West.”

As Malan notes in his Spectator article, the discovery of Mandela’s autobiography in an online archive dedicated to his work shows he “led a double life, at least for a time. By day, he was or pretended to be a moderate democrat, fighting to free his people in the name of values all humans held sacred. But by night he donned the cloak and dagger and became a leader of a fanatical sect known for its attachment to the totalitarian Soviet ideal.”

Here are some quotes from Mandela’s autobiography, which were removed from the version that was written with former Time magazine writer and current Obama State Department official Rick Stengel and was finally published in 1994: 

“I hate all forms of imperialism, and I consider the U.S. brand to be the most loathsome and contemptible.”

“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 hesitation.”

”Unquestionably, my sympathies lay with Cuba [during the 1962 missile crisis]. The ability of a small state to defend its independence demonstrates in no uncertain terms the superiority of socialism over capitalism.”

Driving around the country, Mandela constantly imagines rural landscapes as battlefields and cities as places where one day soon “the sweet air will smell of gunfire, elegant buildings will crash down and streets will be splashed with blood.” 

“If force will advance [the struggle], then it must be used whether or not the majority agrees with us.”

Malan says those quotes notwithstanding it is clear that Nelson Mandela did change in prison and did decide to lead his nation through reconciliation rather than retribution after he became president of a post-apartheid South Africa in 1994. But given Mandela’s stealth career as a Stalinist there was reason to be skeptical of him and the ANC back then. The collapse of the Soviet Union is what really ended apartheid, because it deprived the ANC of the support system they would have needed to truly cement a Communist-oriented government.

Despite all of the discoveries about Nelson Mandela since his death last December, Malan says there was good reason to celebrate his life and his miraculous decision to abandon violence and the extreme ideology of his youth: “We live in small and snide times, but there is something that must be said about this man: the deadliest weapon in his revolutionary arsenal was not the gun. In the end, it turned out to be love, and the ability to inspire love in others, even us.”

Amen.