Reading the obituaries last Friday, one was left with impression that Nelson Mandela’s only flaws were fastidiousness and a tendency to flirt with every pretty girl he met. Otherwise, he was exemplary in every respect, and of course a human right activist in the exactly the sense that Western liberals find winsome and cuddly. ‘Flawless,’ said Archbishop Tutu. ‘One of the true giants,’ said Blair.  Even the Tory Cameron could barely contain himself, describing Mandela as ‘the embodiment of grace.’  You had to have sharp ears to hear the discordant note struck by Johannesburg’s Business Day, which a ran a front-page story headlined, ‘South African Communist Party admits Mandela was a member’.

Better late than never, I suppose.  Mandela’s awkward secret has been doing the rounds since 2005, when veteran communist Hilda Bernstein let slip the bagged cat in conversation with Irish-American historian Padraig O’Malley.  ‘He denies it,’ said Mrs. Bernstein, ‘but I know for a fact that Nelson Mandela was in the party,’ by which she meant South Africa’s ultra-orthodox, Soviet-aligned Communist Party. This made sense to Russian historian Irina Filatova, who took it for granted that the Kremlin would never have financed Mandela’s insurrection unless he was under party discipline. Proof was lacking but Filatova dug it up, only to be beaten to publication by Anglo-Dutch academic Stephen Ellis, who broke the story in 2011. Now Filatova has come forth with a book of her own (The Hidden Thread, co-authored with Apollon Davidson) that features, among other clinchers, a conversation with a senior Soviet apparatchik who says Mandela’s name always appeared on the Kremlin’s lists of the SACP’s top leaders.

In short, the Communist Party’s admission on 6 December simply confirmed what was already known and forced the world’s great newspapers at last to pay attention to one of the biggest lies of the 20th Century – a painful exercise for commentators who saw Mandela as a civil rights leader in the Martin Luther King style. I would ordinarily be tempted to jeer at them, but I’ll refrain; a great man is dead and besides, last Friday’s revelation invites the telling of a story that is more interesting than any of us.

Let’s start this in Pretoria, in the closing days of the epic Treason Trial of l956-1961. Mandela and his fellow accused have spent nearly five years in the dock, dozing and yawning as prosecutors attempt to prove they’ve been plotting violent overthrow of the apartheid government. Presiding Judge Rumpff is a grumpy Afrikaner conservative, servant of a white supremacist state that Mandela is apt to describe as ‘facist’.  Most observers believe a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion, but they’re wrong: on March 30, 1961, Rumpff rules that the prosecution has failed to prove its case and that the accused are free to go.

This is a shocking outcome, given the enormous resources the apartheid state has devoted to this trial. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd loves telling foreigners that most blacks support his racial policy, and that only a handful of misguided trouble-makers are against it. Rumpff’s judgement annihilates the argument. It also shows that South Africa is still a land of law. Judges are willing to rule against authoritarian state. The press is relatively free, and even Mandela concedes that police torture is at this stage unheard-of.  All told, Judge Rumpff’s verdict seems to show that peaceful change is still possible in South Africa.

But not in Nelson Mandela’s estimation.  After the acquittal, he returns to his Soweto home. Winnie sees him standing at the gate, chatting to some political cronies. At last, she thinks. At last Nelson has returned to her and her two baby daughters. At last her marriage will achieve a semblance of normality. But then a comrade comes in and asks her to pack a suitcase for her husband, and by the time she goes outside, Nelson has gone – vanished into the underground without even saying goodbye.  I could never fathom this strange little story until Stephen Ellis revealed what was really on Mandela’s mind that day.

We’ve always been told that Mandela’s was still hoping for peace at this point, still begging Verwoerd to heed the ANC’s plea for a national convention. Now it seems that the decision to go to war had already been taken – not by the ANC, but by its saturnine ally, the Communist Party, which endorsed military action at a secret meeting six months earlier, shortly after the Sharpeville massacre.  The proposed turn to violence was strongly opposed by Chief Albert Luthuli, president of the ANC and a leading candidate for that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

It was at more or less this moment, says Ellis, that Mandela was secretly recruited into the Communist Party and then co-opted onto its innermost central committee. One of his allotted tasks, says Ellis, was to ‘bounce’ Luthuli into following the lead the Communists had taken.

Luthuli was not a pacifist per se, but he believed that non-violent options remained viable. Like many in the ANC and even the SACP, he also believed it would be folly to start a war at a point when the ANC was still struggling to organize effective protests. Luthuli and Mandela had it out in June 1961, at a tumultuous meeting of the ANC’s national executive in Tongaat, Natal. The debate raged through the night, but when the sun rose, Mandela was triumphant; the ANC had authorised him to launch a military wing, and to start making preparations for war against the apartheid state.

This is Mandela’s version – or more accurately, one of his versions. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he acknowledges that the outcome of his clash with Luthuli was actually very messy.  ‘The policy of the ANC would still be that of non-violence,’ he writes, and the new military organization, known as Mkhonto we Sizwe or MK, was required to be ‘entirely separate from the ANC’. This suggests that Mandela actually won just one concession: Luthuli would turn a blind eye to his military adventure provided it did not damage the mother organization. Even this was rejected out of hand by Communist lawyer Rowley Arenstein, who had a ringside seat for these events. ‘Luthuli was simply brushed aside,’ he said. ‘Adoption of armed struggle by the ANC was the act of a Johannesburg SACP clique, a hijacking’.

As for the moderate African democrats who populate the official MK creation myth, they appear to be entirely fictitious: according to Irina Filatova, every single member of MK’s High Command was secretly in the Communist Party. Their plans called for a two-stage assault on power – a National Democratic Revolution to sweep aside the white minority government, followed by a second revolution in which the Marxist-Leninist vanguard would take control and establish a ‘vigorous dictatorship’ over class enemies. As a new recruit, Mandela had a lot of catching up to do.  Ever the perfectionist, he borrowed seminal Red texts and made copies or summaries in his own hand.  One of these, found in his underground hideout two years later, was poignantly titled, ‘How to be a Good Communist’.

The first MK bombs went off on December 16, 1961, and Mandela moved on to the next phrase of his campaign, slipping across the border into British Bechuanaland. ‘My mission in Africa’, he writes in Long Walk to Freedom, ‘was to arrange political and economic support for our new military force and more important, military training for our men in as many places on the continent as possible.’

Towards this end, Mandela proceeded to newly-independent Tanzania, where he was received by President Julius Nyerere, a staunch anti-imperialist. Mandela looked upon Nyerere as a natural ally, but Nyerere’s affections were already spoken for: he believed that MK’s armed uprising should be postponed until Robert Sobukwe was released from prison. (Sobukwe was Mandela’s main rival, leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress or PAC, a group of militant African nationalists who’d broken away from the ANC because it was allegedly controlled by whites.)

From Dar es Salaam, Mandela flew to Ethiopia to attend an important conference of African leaders. There he met Kenneth Kaunda, who was about to become the president of an independent Zambia. In Long Walk, Mandela writes that Kaunda also had doubts ‘about our alliance with white Communists’. This was Mandela’s first inkling of something entirely unanticipated: ‘Communism was suspect not only in the West, but in Africa. This was something I was to hear over and over on my trip.’

When Mandela objected to Kaunda’s stance, he was referred to Kaunda’s deputy, Simon Kapepwe, whose view was even more sceptical. ‘We have heard disturbing reports from the PAC to the effect that MK is the brainchild of the Communist Party,’ said Kapepwe, ‘and that the idea of the organization is merely to use Africans as cannon-fodder.’ In Long Walk, Mandela claims to have been horrified by this ‘damnably false’ allegation, but in truth, Kaunda and Kapepwe were onto something: MK was indeed a creation of the Communist Party, and the Communist Party was indeed whitish in hue; according to Ellis, the SACP conference that resolved to take up arms took place in a posh white suburb, and only eight or nine of 25 delegates in attendance were black Africans.

Mandela appears to have been shaken by all this talk of stoogery. On arrival in London he rendezvoused with Yusuf Dadoo, presented in Long Walk as an exiled anti-apartheid activist, but in reality, a fellow senior member of the communist underground. ‘It was not a happy reunion,’ Mandela writes. ‘One African leader after another questioned us about our relations with white and Indian communists, sometimes suggesting that they controlled the ANC.’ Many had also expressed a preference for the Sobukwe’s PAC, a development that seriously dented Mandela’s hauteur. The solution proposed by Mandela and his former law partner Oliver Tambo, now living in London, caused Dadoo’s hair to stand on end.

At the time, the organizational structure of the ANC alliance mimicked the social divisions imposed by apartheid. The ANC was a blacks-only body. Indian supporters were required to join the South African Indian Congress; mixed-race people were steered into the Coloured People’s Congress, and whites into the Congress of Democrats.

Collectively, these four organizations formed the so-called Congress Alliance, an entity whose visibility often eclipsed that of the ANC. In other words, you often had whites and Indians who weren’t actually members of the ANC taking decisions and making statements on the ANC’s behalf.  Mandela and Tambo wanted to put an end to that, which meant the ANC taking a more independent, Africanist line.

Dadoo was appalled. ‘He believed that Oliver and I were changing ANC policy, that we were preparing to depart from the non-racialism that was the core of the Freedom Charter,’ writes Mandela. He assured Dadoo that the changes he envisaged were merely cosmetic, but still, he was moving in a direction that the SACP would have found threatening, and moving very fast indeed. His first act, on arriving back in Johannesburg, was to inform the ANC’s working committee ‘of the reservations I had encountered about cooperation with whites and Indians and particularly Communists.’ A day later, he left for Durban to convey his views to ANC president Luthuli. The chief’s response was not recorded, but the Rivonia Trial offered an intriguing glimpse of the great man’s last hours of freedom.

Wearing military uniform, Mandela met with MK’s regional commanders in a ‘beautiful new house’ overlooking the sea. According to Bruno Mtolo, an MK bomb-maker who later turned state witness, Mandela urged his troops to disguise their Communist affiliation if they were sent into Africa. ‘He warned us not to let African states know we were Communist,’ said Mtolo, adding that ‘they will not help us otherwise.’ In a 2007 memoir, Lord Joel Joffe, a member Mandela’s defence team, dismissed Mtolo’s claims as anti-Communist slander. Like thousands of others, Lord Joffe was a bit naïve.

When Mandela appeared in court to face charges of leaving the country illegally, he was at least outwardly a changed man. Prior to this point, Mandela had always been a cosmopolitan man-about-town, famous for his smart suits and upmarket style. Now he was dressed in Xhosa tribal finery – beads, a flowing robe, even a flywhisk of the sort traditionally sported by African chiefs. For Communists, these were the trappings of a backward and decidedly unscientific feudalism; the trappings, in fact, of the dreaded bourgeois African nationalist.  Mandela seemed to be signalling that he’d undergone some sort of conversion, the precise nature of which we can only guess at.

At one of his trials, Mandela was asked about his relationship with the Communist Party. He replied, ‘Well, I don’t know if I did become a Communist. If by Communist you mean a member of the Communist Party and a person who believes in the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and who adheres strictly to the discipline of the party, I did not become a Communist.’

This may be the most truthful lie ever told. Mandela never used Marxist jargon when speaking off the cuff. If anything, he sounded Churchillian.  Only when reading text foisted on him by committee did he sound Soviet, and then his whole demeanor would change, becoming wooden and stiff and possibly even resentful, as if he were thinking, what is this nonsense? As a rational man, Mandela cannot have failed to notice that the Communist underground was peopled largely by middle-class neurotics, constantly scanning one another’s syntax for signs of ideological deviance and gathering material for their memoirs. They were not the most promising revolutionaries, but they had access to things Mandela desperately needed –  money, cars, safe houses, the services of scores of dedicated volunteers and above all, the resources of two Communist superpowers. For one heady season, they seemed to be offering a short cut to the end he yearned for. He took it.

Did he regret it? Probably not. He wasn’t that sort of man.  All that is clear is that Mandela’s brief infatuation with the Red faith delivered the ANC into the hands of Communist hardliners who exercised almost total control over the organization for decades thereafter. This in turn caused the Boers in Pretoria to adopt a policy of merciless reaction.  The upshot was a bloody stalemate that endured until in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the collapse of the Soviet empire. Realizing that without Soviet backing the ANC would have to abandon its dream of military victory, SA president F.W. de Klerk unbanned the liberation movements and freed Mandela. Within weeks, South Africa had resumed its unsteady quest for a happy ending.

Rian Malan is the author of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and plays guitar for the gypsy jazz group Hot Club d’Afrique

Tags: Communism, Nelson Mandela, South Africa