Mandela the Radical Sell-out?

From his incarceration, to his release from prison, and his eventual death, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has occupied an almost saint-like position in pop-culture. With global recognition and an everlasting place in the history books, Mandela has often been placed in the same league as the likes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr with regards to the politics of “non-violence”. The mythos of the benevolent pacifist has largely overshadowed the realities of an individual with complex politics and views on the world. A fair assessment of an individual of Mandela’s stature requires clear thinking and good faith.

American Perceptions: Then and Now

To square up Mandela the man with Mandela the myth it is important to first assess how he has been viewed in the so-called “West”. The diverse range of world leaders that were present at his funeral is perhaps instructive in this regard, with leaders from both the UK and the US present despite those countries designating him as a terrorist and the ANC as a terrorist organisation not long before. Then-president of the United States Barack Obama commemorated his life by describing him as being “one of the most profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth”. At the centenary celebration of Mandela’s birth, Obama offered much of the same rhetoric. This overt salutation stands in direct contrast with Ronald Regan vetoing the “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act” lamenting that “the future lies with the [Apartheid] South African government” as opposed to the various anti-apartheid movements of which Mandela and the ANC were central figures. The fundamental question then, is what profound ideological changes, if any, did Mandela undertake in order to shift the West’s perception of him.


Mandela on Violence

Much of the American opposition to Mandela during his time in prison stemmed from the belief that he was a ruthless communist terrorist. Former US Vice President Dick Cheney once characterised his oppositions to sanctions against Apartheid South Africa by lamenting that “the ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organisation”. The claim of terrorism stemmed from Mandela’s central role in the formation of the ANC’s armed wing: uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Primarily focused on acts of sabotage, Mandela pointed out the necessity of violent resistance by highlighting that their peaceful demands had been met with violent resistance which could no longer continue. His decision to call for armed resistance can therefore not be seen as a steadfast belief that violent revolution was the only means to overthrow an oppressive state, or that all violence against the state is justifiable. Rather that when the state responds to peaceful means of resistance with violence and repression, continuing on the same path is a fool’s errand. His ideological position on violence can thus be summed as the view that violence is justifiable when other means of legitimate protest have been suppressed.

This view on the necessity of violence is that he continued to hold even after his release from prison, contrary to the common modern sanitised image of a reformed revolutionary. This was exemplified in his response to the Shell House Massacre during the transition to South Africa’s first democratic election. Mandela, upon finding out that the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) had planned a march where they would attack Shell House, gave an order to the ANC to defend themselves “even if they had to kill people”. He justified his actions under the broad umbrella of the common law right to self-defence. On the matter of violence it is the clear Mandela had no significant shift in his views. He considered violence justifiable if there were no other alternatives.

Mandela, Communism and the Economy


A common claim about Mandela, often seemingly to villainise him, is to allege that he was a communist. Yet is this claim a valid one?

The most prominent evidence for this claim was brought forth by the late Professor Stephen Ellis, in External Mission: the ANC in Exile 1960-1990 where he states that Mandela sat in the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) Central Committee from 1960-1962. This suggests Mandela’s direct role in the advancement of communist principles in apartheid South Africa.

This assertion is however directly contrasted with Mandela’s own testimony at the Treason Trial. When asked pointedly whether he was a communist his response was: “If by Communist you mean a member of the [South African] 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”. His response can be reasonably understood as a rejection of the notion that he was a Communist.

If we take Mandela’s statements at face-value and accept that he was not a Communist, did he nonetheless support the socialisation of the means of production?

The most direct evidence we have for that are Mandela’s own words. Less than a month before his release from prison he stated in a letter: “The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change of this regard is inconceivable. Black Economic Empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.” Mandela thus made the case that the state should have a central role in the economy through ownership of strategic sectors while allowing for free enterprise in others.

Whether Mandela was consistent in his views on the state nationalising key sectors of the economy is a different story. The Mandela presidency and the subsequent Mbeki presidency are infamous for their adherence to neoliberal principles of privatisation. During the Mandela presidency approximately R11 Billion (± R30 Billion when adjusted for inflation) worth of state owned assets were privatised. In the midst of this mass privatisation, the nationalisation of strategic and key sectors did not happen. Instead the Mandela administration undertook what can be broadly considered as neoliberal compromises on matters of the economy.


To describe Mandela as being either a terrorist or a pacifist would be wrong. Neither would it be accurate to describe him as being a communist or laissez-faire capitalist. Instead, like many other iconic individuals, Mandela was a complex person with multifaceted views on the world. Instead of strict ideological purity, he operated more on principles pragmatism. At times he supported the use of violence. During the transition, he compromised on his commitment to economic redistribution under pressure from both local and international sources. This compromise had to do with his calculations of what he considered to be politically feasible at the time.

Mandela was neither a saint, nor a sell-out. Our memory of Mandela is often distorted by much of the poorly-informed 280 character discourse that we are subjected to. To appreciate both the negatives and the positives of the man we should abandon both simplistic romanticising and the lazy caricatures that turn him into a feeble “sellout.”

By Rekang Jankie, managing editor.