New light on Mandela’s autobiography

2014-01-15 00:00

A NEW light is now shining on Nelson Mandela’s political biography and on the history of South Africa as the result of the release of an important document by the Mandela Centre of Memory.

The document in question is a 627-page typescript of a draft autobiography that was secretly handwritten by Mandela in Robben Island prison before being smuggled out, typed up, and handed to Yusuf Dadoo, chairman of the South African Communist Party, in August 1977.

This was the document that was re-worked in the years after Mandela’s release from prison to form the basis for Long Walk to Freedom, the best-selling autobiography published in 1994. It is clear from even a quick read that the prison manuscript, on which Mandela started work in 1974, that it is the product of a collective effort since it is strewn with editorial notes.

To judge from information already in the public domain, the original editorial team that got to work on Robben Island included, in addition to Mandela himself, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu and Mac Maharaj. The manuscript was originally intended as an inspiration to potential readers to join the fight against apartheid.

A still deeper mystery is why the document remained unpublished after being smuggled out of prison in 1977. Who knew of its existence throughout the long years before its publication, other than Yusuf Dadoo and a handful of others who are known to have had sight of it or to have worked on it? Why did they not publish it at once?

Who made the crucial decision to bring in an experienced journalist, Richard Stengel from Time magazine, to give the manuscript the expert makeover that enabled it to sell over 15 million copies worldwide? The book Long Walk to Freedom was far more than a publishing sensation in terms of the money it generated. Appearing while the transition from apartheid was not yet complete, it was a powerful propaganda tool on behalf of the ANC.

Study of the untitled Robben Island typescript tells us about far more than the process of literary creation. It reveals some of the dynamics concerning Nelson Mandela’s relationship with the Communist Party in particular.

For anyone interested in history and politics, the main differences between the 1970s manuscript and the 1994 book could perhaps be grouped in two. First, there are key historical details.

The prison manuscript contains information that help us to fill in the chronology of some key moments in South African history, most obviously the turn to armed struggle in 1960-1961. The second key point of interest is the abundance of information in the prison memoir on Mandela’s personal relationship with the SACP and his embrace of the main tenets of Marxism-Leninism.

The 1970s manuscript makes plain that Mandela began thinking about the possibilities of armed struggle at an early period. In one of the many drafted passages in the manuscript that were not taken up in Long Walk to Freedom, on pages 141-42, Mandela informs us how, when he learned that his friend Walter Sisulu had been invited to Romania to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship in 1952, “I took advantage of this opportunity to put him [sic] my views on alternative methods of struggle and suggested that from the Festival he should visit the People’s Republic of China and arrange for arms”.

Sisulu did exactly that. “The Chinese leaders received him warmly”, the Mandela text continues, “and took pains to warn that an armed struggle was a very serious matter to undertake and questioned whether the conditions in South Africa had matured sufficiently to justify such an undertaking”. The Chinese were correct in thinking that an armed struggle in South Africa would be premature, as later events were to show.

While Mandela’s thoughts were turning to the use of violence at this relatively early stage, in the same passage he mentions that “he defended the [ANC] policy of non-violence until the three Day Strike of May 1961”. Reflection on this apparent contradiction needs to be based on awareness of a crucial historical event, knowledge of which became public only quite recently.

This was the convening of an SACP conference in Emmarentia in December 1960 at which the party adopted a secret resolution instructing its central committee to prepare for armed struggle. Mandela was a party member at that time and one of just 25 or so people present at that crucial meeting.

Moreover, the decision to take up arms had been preceded by discreet soundings taken by SACP delegates visiting Moscow and Beijing, including a meeting between party delegates Yusuf Dadoo and Vella Pillay with Mao Zedong in person on November 3, 1960.

In effect, then, as from December 1960 the SACP was set on a course of armed struggle with guarantees of support from the communist superpowers of the day. Mandela was one of the few people aware of this fateful decision. Since he was a member not only of the central committee of the SACP, but also of senior organs of the ANC, he was crucially placed in both organisations.

In short, the release of the Robben Island manuscript gives us new material to make a detailed reconstruction of how South Africa embarked on its long armed struggle, via careful re-examination of the sequence of events from early 1960 until the formal unveiling of Mkhonto weSizwe in December 1961.

Certainly the Robben Island manuscript reveals the intensity of Mandela’s attachment to Marxism by the late 1950s, if not earlier. On page 100 he recalls, when mentioning his early reading on Marxism, that “[l]ater I was to embrace dialectical and historical materialism as my philosophy”.

It is apparent that Mandela had moved very close to the Communist Party by the late 1950s. The text stops short only of stating that he actually joined the SACP, as his friend Walter Sisulu had done in 1955. Another prominent communist, John Pule Motshabi, once recalled that the recruitment of both Mandela and Sisulu into the SACP had occurred “after the 1950 campaigns”. The South African police were eventually to conclude that Mandela’s recruitment was not until 1960.

Following on from the passage in which he made explicit his embrace of dialectical and historical materialism, there comes an extended passage — needless to say, not included in Long Walk to Freedom — in which Mandela praises Soviet foreign policy, which “fully supported the national struggles of the colonial people”.

In light of later events, perhaps the most interesting passage regarding policy matters is a discussion of the use of coercion — in this context, a synonym for violence — in politics. The passage in question, on page 327, arises from a description of the ANC’s organisation of a strike in 1958.

Mandela tells us that he and his colleagues in the ANC “have often discussed the question to what extend [sic] we should rely on coercive measures in organising political demonstrations” (page 327). ANC policy was “against the use of coersive [sic] measures as a means of mobilising the support of the people”, the text notes.

However in debating the question Mandela comes to the striking conclusion that “the real issue is whether the use of force will advance or retard the struggle”. In the last resort, if the use of force will advance the struggle, “then it must be used whether or not the majority agrees with us” (page 328).

While many governments may adopt the position that it is permissible to use force even though it has only minority support if it is deemed necessary by those in authority, such a statement in the context in which it occurs in the Robben Island memoir is tantamount to a ringing endorsement of one of the most outstanding features of Marxism-Leninism, that it is morally permissible to use violence provided only that it will help “the struggle”.

Some other passages in the Robben Island text that touch on the subject of violence are also quite vehement.

At times, Mandela tells us, he was bitter against South African whites in general, feeling that they “need another Isandhlwana” (page 194), a reference to the bloody defeat of British troops by a Zulu army in 1879. “South African whites”, Mandela continues in another passage, “have been bred on racialism for three centuries, and mere speeches alone … will never make them surrender and share political power and the natural wealth of the country with the blacks” (page 399).

It is indeed hard to deny that the obduracy of the South African government for many years made it hard to imagine how apartheid could ever be overthrown without recourse to violence. But remarks this virulent had become somewhat off-message by the time Mandela’s autobiography was eventually published in 1994. No doubt Mandela’s own thinking had evolved in the 20 years that had by then elapsed since he started work on his memoir. He once told former U.S. president Bill Clinton how angry he had been during his first 11 years of his imprisonment on Robben Island, which would mean until about 1975.

Among the experiences that appear to have mellowed him thereafter was the shock of seeing the 1976 cohort of young revolutionaries, veterans of the Soweto rising who began arriving on the Island and who shocked Mandela and many others of his generation by the depth of their anger.

People always find it hard fully to understand the times they live in, leaving history to unfold its meanings only gradually. But in this case something more is afoot, namely how the history of the struggle was so skilfully hidden for so long as the South African Communist Party and its allies deployed the strategic use of deception and propaganda.

Thanks to the Internet publication of the Robben Island manuscript, we can now see a little more.

• Stephen Ellis is Professor of Social Sciences at the Free University, Amsterdam, and author of External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 (Jonathan Ball).

• A longer version of this article can be found on

• The typescript released by the Mandela Centre of Memory can be found at

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