In Nelson Mandela’s speech in Cape Town immediately after his release from prison in February was the key statement, “I am a disciplined member of the ANC.” His constant use of the imperial “we” in the public addresses and statements that he made during his recent US tour did not mean that he has an inflated sense of himself but that he was speaking for the African National Congress. Some American commentators and interviewers did not seem to understand this. Their questions and comments seemed to assume that he could have, or should have, deviated from well-established ANC positions on such matters as the use of force, sanctions, support of the PLO, and friendship for Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddhafi.

There is no reason to believe that his own thinking differs in any significant way from that of the organization he represents, but it is helpful to remember that he lacks the maneuverability of a constituted head of state. He cannot negotiate with the freedom of George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, or F. W. de Klerk; for, in his view, everything he does and says must be cleared with the collective leadership of an organization that he has never formally headed and over which he had only limited influence during his twenty-seven years in prison. Mandela’s personal attitudes and qualities are likely to prove important in the long run, but for the moment those who wish to understand the direction of black politics in South Africa would be well-advised to learn as much as possible about the nature and objectives of the ANC. Mandela’s recent utterances are more useful for what they tell us about the movement than for what they reveal about the man.

The African National Congress is the oldest liberation movement in black Africa. Founded in 1912, only three years after the founding of the NAACP signaled the birth of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, it has changed much over the years but it has also retained some of its original characteristics.

One can gain considerable insight into the origins and evolution of the ANC from Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa—an admirable synthesis that makes the black experience central to South African history. Thompson begins at the very beginning, with the precolonial African societies of what is now South Africa. Drawing on the work of anthropologists and archeologists, he provides a subtle and nuanced view of “traditional” African life which undermines any impression that it was simple or static. He then recounts the struggle for the possession of South Africa between the white settlers who first landed at Cape Town in 1652 and the various indigenous peoples—a contest that lasted nearly 250 years, or almost as long as it took to subjugate all of the Indian tribes of the United States.

Unlike the native Americans, however, the most important segment of the preconquest South African population—the Bantu-speaking farmers—did not suffer a disastrous loss of population and even held on to some of their original territory. Although whites gained control of most of the country, the current “homelands,” as well as the independent nations of Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana, are places where blacks were too numerous or too strongly entrenched to be swept aside by white settlers. (To complete the contrast with the United States, one might also consider the relative paucity of white immigrants to South Africa and the part that the British government sometimes played in “reserving” areas where Africans could be ruled indirectly by the crown rather than directly by white settlers.)

Thompson suggests, however, that the long history of resistance against white expansion was a difficult legacy for those Africans who persisted in struggling against white racial domination after the defeat of the last independent African societies near the end of the nineteenth century. For one thing, the military resistance against white conquest had been piecemeal. Africans had fought not as one people but as a variety of distinct chiefdoms or ethnic groups. In virtually every “native war;” some black groups sided with the whites, either because they had already come under what they took to be irreversible European rule or because they were traditional enemies of the resisters. (The parallel with American Indian resistance is obvious here.)

Since the white conquest was completed, there have been a few revolts by tribal groups against local white domination, most recently in Pondoland in 1960, but the main challenge facing African protest leaders was not so much to revive the tradition of resistance by specific ethnic groups as to unify all Africans or even all blacks (including Indians and the people of mixed race known as Coloureds) in pursuit of a united front against white domination.1 The ANC became the embodiment of that unifying tendency, and its current bloody quarrel with the Zulu-based Inkatha movement is only the latest of a series of efforts by the ANC leadership to subordinate ethnic particularism to its policies calling for black solidarity.


Thompson devotes relatively little attention to the ANC before about 1950. His apparent justification for not describing in detail the early history of the organization is that it was relatively powerless before the modern apartheid era and had no strong claim to speak for the masses of Africans. What he does say about the founding and early years of the movement is nevertheless important and incisive because of what it reveals about a special ethos that has persisted in spite of the ANC’s transformation from an elite reform movement to a mass-based struggle for liberation.

The organizers and most of the members of the early ANC (which was actually called the South African Native National Congress before the 1920s) came from “a small, relatively prosperous educated elite,” composed of “Western-oriented middle-class people, the products of the best schools available.” The actual founders were “mission-educated Christians who had qualified as lawyers in England.” Here Thompson touches briefly on an interesting American connection that he might have elucidated more fully. Several of the founders and early leaders had received part of their education in the United States, either at unsegregated northern colleges and universities like Oberlin and Columbia or at all-black institutions like Lincoln and Wilberforce. Some of them were great admirers of Booker T. Washington, especially the educator John L. Dube, the ANC’s first president, who consciously modeled himself on the head of Tuskegee.

In Washington’s spirit, the ANC constitution stressed “loyalty to all constituted authorities” and committed its members to working for “the educational, social, economic, and political elevation of the native people of South Africa.” “Down to 1939 and beyond.” Thompson concludes, “the ANC remained under the control of lawyers, clergy, and journalists, who tried to elicit white support to redress African grievances ‘by constitutional means.”‘ He might have added physicians to his list of favored professions; by the 1930s and 1940s a tiny cadre of African doctors was playing a very influential role in the organization. Dr. A. B. Xuma, an American-educated physician with an African-American wife, was president of the ANC from 1941 to 1949; when he was deposed for being too conservative, his replacement was another well-to-do and prominent medical man. For a long time, status and prestige in the African middle class and in the ANC were derived principally from educational attainments, especially the advanced degrees that had to be earned abroad until fairly recently, and from membership in a learned profession.

Despite its elite, Western-educated leadership, the early ANC professed to speak for the entire African population. It envisioned itself as a vanguard and viewed the liberation of the masses as a gradual process that would gather force as Africans acquired a modern education, accumulated property, and thus qualified themselves for citizenship in a nonracial state. It was an organization combining civil rights and self-help more than a movement for national liberation. Not until the 1940s did it come out for one-person-one-vote; before then it was content to agitate for a suffrage limited to the minority of Africans who had enough education and property to show they had met European standards of “civilization.”

The transformation of the ANC from a moderate association of highly educated Africans into a mass movement with more radical goals can be attributed in large part to the failure of its reformist constitutional strategy. Instead of appealing successfully to a white conscience and sense of justice, its members found that the limited rights they possessed as educated, property-owning Africans were gradually being stripped away. This process began within a year of the ANC’s founding, when the Natives Land Act of 1913 prohibited Africans from buying or even renting land in more than 90 percent of South Africa. In 1936 the elite Africans in the Cape Province were removed from the common roll of voters, thus destroying the original ANC dream of having such limited political rights extended to the other provinces. Finally, in 1948 the Nationalist party came to power on the platform of apartheid—the systematic extension and entrenchment of discriminatory racial segregation until it became comprehensive and apparently irreversible.

When calls for peaceful and gradual constitutional reform not only failed to influence the white government’s policies but were met by a greater and greater denial of African rights, the ANC had the choice of changing its tactics or being reduced to irrelevancy. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo (the ailing current president of the ANC) were among the militant young leaders of the ANC Youth League of the late 1940s who changed the organization’s direction toward mass protest and the demand for black majority rule. After the Youth Leaguers displaced the old guard in 1949, they embarked on an unsuccessful campaign of nonviolent protest against the ever-expanding system of apartheid. In the face of heavy repression that came to include the banning of the ANC in 1960, the organization was forced underground and its leaders felt impelled to abandon its longstanding commitment to peaceful agitation. Mandela has said over and over again that the ANC prefers nonviolent methods and only turned to armed struggle when it was denied any other avenues for resisting apartheid.


Thompson concisely but authoritatively describes these more recent phases of the South African freedom struggle. But several questions concerning Nelson Mandela and the ANC deserve closer attention than he is able to give them in a short survey of South African history. One question of more than purely historical interest concerns the legacy of the early ANC. Did the decision to turn to more radical means of resistance in the 1950s and 1960s also mean that the organization had abandoned the essentially liberal aspirations of its founders—their vision of a non-racial democracy based on equal rights, including the classic “bourgeois” right to acquire and possess private property? Is the ANC, in other words, still committed to Western-style liberal democracy or does its half century of cooperation with the South African Communist Party signify its conversion to some form of authoritarian socialism? ANC pronouncements on its preferred economic system or the proper relationship between government and private economic activity remain somewhat ambiguous, reflecting serious disagreements within the movement about how much nationalization and central planning will be required in order to rectify the economic disadvantages imposed on blacks by a long history of discrimination.

Another difficult question concerns the cultural and ethnic character of the ANC’s nationalism. How, in other words, does it conceive of the new South African nation that it hopes to bring into being? Here its official doctrine seems clear enough. The Freedom Charter of 1955, which remains the touchstone for ANC allegiance, affirms that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” In the 1950s, the ANC proclaimed its dedication to “multi-racialism” and seemed to acknowledge the need of formal protections for the equal rights of all racial or ethnic groups. More recently, the favored term has been “nonracialism,” a concept that has been interpreted as opposition to any kind of corporate or group rights based on race or ethnicity. The ANC officially denies that African majority rule means that a liberated South Africa will embody a black African cultural nationalism.

This commitment to a cosmopolitan or nonracial view of South African nationality, which has characterized the ANC since its founding, has been the source of much black nationalist opposition to the organization over the years. It helped to inspire the secession that led to the establishment of the rival Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959, and it is a major complaint of the contemporary South African Black Consciousness groups that oppose the Freedom Charter and reject the cooperation with white liberals and radicals that the ANC and the like-minded United Democratic Front have encouraged. Black critics at home and abroad have sometimes attributed the refusal of the ANC to speak in the usual idiom of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism to white Communist influence over the organization.2

Odd as it may seem, there has been relatively little appeal to a generalized Africanness or “Africanity” in ANC literature, much less than in the current discourse of black activists and intellectuals in the United States. Many South African whites, on the other hand, including some who are genuinely opposed to apartheid, distrust the ANC on this point, believing that its insistent “nonracialism” is a ploy to attract white support and that racial and cultural intolerance of whites, and especially of Afrikaners, will quickly manifest itself once blacks are in power. They worry that an insistence on black majority rule through an English parliamentary system, with no special protection for minority cultural prerogatives beyond what an American-type bill of rights can provide, will not prevent an intolerant Africanization of education, communications, and the arts which will deny to whites the advantage of cultural pluralism and full recognition of their South African nationality.

Three recent books on the history of the ANC may help to answer or at least clarify these and other questions about the movement, despite the fact that all were completed well before the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of the current negotiations between the government and the ANC. Comparing their differing interpretations can serve to sharpen our image of the organization and enable us to make better predictions about where it is heading.

Heidi Holland’s The Struggle is a popular history of the ANC written from the perspective of a white liberal supporter. Strong on narrative and anecdote but not especially incisive in its analysis, it has the virtue of providing readers with basic information about major events in the ANC’s development. Like Thompson, Holland stresses the conservative and relatively ineffectual character of the ANC before the 1940s. She notes, for example, that “when Congress met at the end of 1939 and proposed a resolution that blacks support the war effort only on condition they bore arms, it was defeated by conservatives who continued to dominate the movement.”

Like most other historians, she attributes the rise of a more militant spirit to the founding of the ANC Youth League in 1944. Initially the Youth League was attracted to an ethnocentric Africanism, “a philosophy of racial exclusivity,” that was promulgated by its founder, Anton Lembede, a leading black intellectual and political philosopher. But Lembede died in 1947, and the following year the Youth League rejected the concept of “Africa for the Africans” as “extreme and ultra-revolutionary” in favor of a “moderate” version of nationalism based on the realization that in South Africa, unlike the situation elsewhere in the continent, “the different racial groups have come to stay.” Henceforth the emphasis would fall on “the abandonment of white domination” more than on the African right to self-determination. (Holland, however, does not discuss the call for African “independence” in the Programme of Action that was adopted by the ANC as a whole when the Youth Leaguers took over in 1949.)

Initially the Youth League was strongly anti-Communist, believing that Marxism was a Western ideology alien to the African spirit. But by the early 1950s, former Youth Leaguers who had become leaders in the parent organization—especially the triumvirate of Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu—had come to regard Communists as useful and respected allies in the struggle against white domination. Some of their former Youth League associates did not agree and later opposed the presence of white Communists in the multiracial Congress Alliance and the calling of the Assembly of the People, which endorsed the anti-Africanist Freedom Charter in 1955. After failing in their efforts to take control of the ANC, these black nationalists seceded to form the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1959.

Holland’s account of the nonviolent struggles and treason trials of the 1950s and of the repression and turn to armed struggle that followed the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 is vivid but thoroughly conventional in its adherence to the standard pro-ANC version of these developments.3 When she comes to the Soweto students’ rebellion of 1976, she notes that the Black Consciousness ideology that influenced the protesters was closer to the viewpoint of the PAC than the ANC, but because the Pan-Africanists in exile had no cohesive organization most of the young refugees who fled the country joined the ANC. When the ANC reemerged as the dominant force in black resistance within South Africa in the 1980s, it was clear that once again an upsurge of militancy inspired by race consciousness had been for the most part absorbed into the “nonracial” ANC crusade against apartheid.

Holland’s distinctly liberal preoccupations emerge toward the end of the book, when she notes with approval that the constitutional proposals that the ANC promulgated in the late 1980s

stopped well short of the socialist reconstruction white businessmen in South Africa had long feared as an inevitability under black rule. Unlike the Freedom Charter, the proposals did not include a specific commitment to nationalize mines, banks and monopoly industries.

But she continues to worry about the propensity of “young blacks” within the movement to favor socialism over the mixed economy that she considers essential for future South African prosperity. This is a valid concern; according to recent surveys most South African blacks show little respect for capitalism and free markets. The leadership of the ANC may believe that only a policy of limited nationalization and a mixed economy based primarily on private initiative can attract the Western aid and investment that a postapartheid South Africa will need if it is to improve the lot of Africans in the long run. But it is not at all certain that its followers, and the mass of impoverished black people in general, will be willing to wait for such a policy to come to fruition. If the economic condition of Africans fails to change substantially in the immediate aftermath of black majority rule, as is likely to be the case, demands for a more rapid and radical redistribution of wealth are certain to grow in intensity.

Francis Meli’s South Africa Belongs to Us is the first history of the ANC written by a member of the organization. Meli is the editor of the ANC’s official paper, Sechaba; although his book is not quite an official history, its viewpoint clearly reflects the predominant ANC view of its own past. It says something about the spirit of the movement that the book is written in a sober, matter-of-fact style with a minimum of invective and rhetoric. Packed with quotations and thoroughly annotated, it appeals to reason more than the emotions and deserves to be taken seriously as history rather than dismissed as propaganda or myth making. Nevertheless, it differs in its point of view from the work of sympathetic outsiders like Thompson and Holland.

Instead of arguing that a radical transformation of the ANC took place in the 1940s, it claims that there has been an essential continuity in aims and aspirations, if not in methods of protest and struggle, from the founding to the present day. Indeed, it traces the ANC spirit back to a “militant tradition of protest of the nineteenth century.” But it denies that the nineteenth-century resistance was a defense of traditional culture and society. The aim of Africans who fought European domination in the nineteenth century was not “‘a return to the past’ and ‘preservation’ of their social system”; their “noble cause” was “that education, Christianity, and technical superiority should not be misused for the exploitation and destruction of people, but should be used for progress.”

It is clear that Meli identifies with the mission-educated African “progressives” who fought for equal rights in a modernized society rather than with those who rejected Western civilization in the name of traditional forms of African autonomy. He does not mention the chiefs and kings who fought wars against European expansion—the litany of heroes commonly invoked by Africanists. If, as Meli’s history suggests, the ANC still believes in Western standards of progress and civilization, opposing only the denial of modern advantages to people of color, then there is indeed a remarkable continuity between the Western-educated elite that founded the ANC and its current leadership. It is ironic in this disillusioned post-modern age to find unabashed believers in universalist standards of progress and enlightenment among the victims of those who originally promulgated such values but who were prevented by their own greed and racism from applying them to their relations with people of color.

Meli’s principal theme is that the leadership of the ANC has always represented the masses of Africans in South Africa. To Marxist critics who charge that the early ANC was “petty bourgeois” and neglected the deeds and aspirations of the black working class, Meli responds that there was no black industrial working class to speak of when the ANC was founded and that the organization responded adequately to the formation of an African proletariat when it eventually took place. He has an elaborate answer to the common accusation that the ANC was naively or selfishly reformist before the 1950s; that answer is essentially a plea to look at the specific historical circumstances that earlier leaders faced rather than to simply view them from the perspective of our own times.

As might be expected in a partisan history, Meli has little use for other than ANC initiatives. He attacks the Industrial and Commercial Union of the 1920s, an early attempt to organize black workers on a class basis, for its messsianism and corruption. He criticizes the Communist party (before it agreed in the 1940s to support the ANC on the latter’s own terms) for offending the Christian sensibilities of most Africans with its insistent atheism, and he attacks the Pan-Africanist Congress for its racial chauvinism and rejection of whites.

Meli’s account of the beginnings of armed struggle in the 1960s deserves special attention. He points out, first of all, that the ANC as an organization did not formally adopt a policy of violence. Sabotage and preparations for guerrilla warfare were undertaken by a separate organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“The Spear of the Nation”), led by Nelson Mandela. Although Umkhonto was closely allied to the ANC, its existence did not require ANC members to support violent struggle. (Chief Albert Luthuli, who was then president of the ANC, was a conspicuous advocate of nonviolent resistance.)

What was the thinking behind the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe? The leaders of the liberation movement believed that as a result of the racist regime’s policy of violence, a recriprocal “violence” by the black people had become inevitable and that unless there was responsible leadership to channel the feelings of the people into organized resistance, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce intense bitterness and hostility between the various national groups in South Africa. The racist regime had closed all channels and lawful means of expressing opposition to its policies. There was no way without violence open to the black people to succeed against white supremacy. The Movement was placed in a position in which it had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority or to defy the Government.

This is clearly the official ANC view of the decision to engage in violent activity; Nelson Mandela said much the same thing in testimony at his sabotage trial in 1962. It is difficult to imagine a more reluctant-sounding argument for embracing violence, or a farther cry from Frantz Fanon’s concept of a psychologically liberating black revolution.4 Furthermore, the concern Meh expresses for the effect of terrorism on future race relations exemplifies what Walter Sisulu called “the broad nonracial humanism of the ANC.” Whites in South Africa should be thankful that their dominance is being challenged by a more moderate and magnanimous black liberation movement than their record of oppression would give them any right to expect. Whether the ANC will be able to control the violence of young Africans in the townships is another matter.

Meli’s discussion of the post-apartheid economy is somewhat more likely to disturb whites, for he sticks to the Freedom Charter’s call for the redistribution of land and the nationalization of mineral wealth, banks, and monopoly industries. He argues, however, that this is not socialism but an “antimonopoly” program that leaves considerable scope for private ownership and enterprise. One might say, more accurately, that it is democratic socialism as defined by the British Labour Party in its more militant and overtly socialist days, rather than state socialism on the failed Eastern European model.

Meli makes a fairly strong case for continuities in the almost eighty-year history of the ANC. What he does not say is that its adherence to “a broad nonracial humanism” and a progressive view of the human condition reflects the fact that, in class origins or affinities, the ANC today has much the same kind of leadership as it did in 1912. Highly educated professionals, most conspicuously lawyers like Mandela and Tambo, still predominate in the top positions.5 The rank and file may be more broadly based than in the past but less-educated Africans from a working class or peasant background do not occupy many high offices. Meli himself has a doctorate in history from the University of Leipzig. (Indeed his book has some of the qualities of a Germanic dissertation.)

Like the NAACP during the era of W.E.B. Du Bois, the ANC is still dominated by a “talented tenth” of the African population, an elite determined primarily by their education. Partly because apartheid has failed to reward the talents and accomplishments of highly educated Africans, this group has identified with the struggles of the masses for liberation from racial oppression and served as a vehicle for popular aspirations. A question for the future, however, is whether or not the African intelligentsia that has up to now provided the ANC leadership can continue to exercise control over the kind of grass-roots assertions of popular grievance and emotion which will undoubtedly give rise to movements and leaders with a different style and more radical policies.

‘For four or five years, young ANC adherents in the townships have been fighting gang wars against supporters of rival political factions. In his recent and disturbing book about crime and violence in South Africa, My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan has charged that in 1985 or 1986 word went out from the ANC in exile to eliminate the “third force” in South African politics, which some in the townships took to mean not merely collaborators with the regime, but also the heirs of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, who belonged to Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO). A reign of terror resulted against those on the right or the left of the ANC who refused to accept its leadership.6 If Malan is correct in his assessment of the capacity of grass-roots sectarianism to breed violence, moderate ANC leaders will have a difficult time leading militant young “comrades” into the paths of democratic pluralism. (The recent spread of the blood feud betwen Inkatha and ANC supporters from rural Natal to the townships near Johannesburg shows how divisions among blacks can lead to behavior that is, to put it mildly, not a very good preparation for democratic politics.)

Stephen M. Davis’s Apartheid’s Rebels is an independent journalist’s account of how the ANC rose from near oblivion in the early 1970s to its current position of predominance in the black freedom struggle. Although published in 1987, this informative and incisive work does not seem out of date; in fact it anticipates much that has occurred since then, and its conclusion raises questions about the possible effects of Mandela’s release and the beginnings of negotiations which could have been written yesterday.

More interested in tactics than in ideology, Davis gives the ANC considerable credit for the efficiency and astuteness of its campaign against apartheid. Decimated in the early Sixties by its banning, the dismal failure of its sabotage campaign, and the jailing of many of its top leaders, the ANC was forced to work mainly from exile for about twenty years. It was not wholly without a presence within the country; Davis argues that Nelson Mandela’s “M Plan”—an effort to organize Congress members into clandestine local cells that was devised in the 1950s to counter government surveillance and repression—was more successful than was generally believed and that some functioning ANC cadres remained in place in the late Sixties and Seventies. But the decision to start guerrilla warfare within the country could not be carried out because of the government’s formidable and effective security apparatus, and attempts to mount incursions from outside had little chance of success so long as South Africa was surrounded by Portuguese and British colonial regimes. The independence of the last southern African colonies in the 1970s allowed the exiled ANC to get closer to the borders of South Africa, but Pretoria’s ability to intimidate and coerce the weak and vulnerable “frontline states” prevented them from giving the ANC the kind of secure bases it needed.

Within South Africa, the most conspicuous opposition to apartheid in the 1970s took the form of the Black Consciousness movement, which Davis describes as a “pragmatic Africanism.” Its emphasis on black pride and self-help deviated from the ANC’s persistent non-racialism, although its extension of the term black to cover Coloureds and Indians went beyond the PAC’s original appeal to black Africans. By the mid-Seventies, it was hard to find any tangible evidence of an ANC presence or influence within the country. But the Soweto uprising of 1976 gave the ANC an unexpected shot in the arm. Athough the student rebels were influenced more by Black Consciousness than by the principles of the Freedom Charter, the tens of thousands of them who fled the country to join the external struggle found the ideologically more congenial Pan-Africanist Congress too disorganized to sponsor a program, as has been said, and for the most part they were recruited into the ANC as potential guerrilla fighters.

Why did the ANC sustain itself in exile more successfully than the PAC? The PAC was less successful in controlling its factional conflicts, but the ANC’s greater ability to obtain international support may have been more important. The ANC received military aid from the Soviet bloc and humanitarian assistance from the international anti-apartheid movement. The PAC was favored at this time by many members of the Organization of African Unity, but the relatively impoverished and struggling black African states had little to offer in the form of tangible assistance. Davis’s interpretation of the ANC’s ties to the South African Communist Party emphasizes, quite correctly I think, the access to Soviet financial aid that this alliance provided; it was less a matter of ideological affinity than of practical need. As Oliver Tambo has often pointed out, the Western allies cooperated with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler, yet they criticized the ANC for cooperating with Communists in the struggle against apartheid.

Davis might also have considered the special character of the South African Communist Party and its white members. For a long time, almost the only way that a white-person could take an unequivocal stand against white supremacy was to join the Party or cooperate with it. Unlike the United States, South Africa lacks a long tradition of white liberal antiracism; not until the 1950s did a small group of liberals, led by Alan Paton, move beyond a benevolent paternalism that presumed black inferiority. Many of the whites who joined the Communist party seem to have done so more because they hoped to prevent race war and to achieve a racially integrated and egalitarian South Africa than out of support for the Soviet Union or even for a proletarian revolution.

This was clearly true in the case of Bram Fischer, the lawyer and scion of a notable Afrikaner family who defended Mandela in his 1964 trial, was arrested shortly thereafter, and died while a political prisoner in 1975. The South African Communist Party, unlike its ultraleft rivals, has long been committed to a two-stage revolution—national liberation first and then socialism, and it has not insisted that the two aims must be achieved simultaneously. The handful of courageous whites who sacrificed their lives and fortunes to fight apartheid and subordinated their own Marxist concerns to the cause of black liberation helped to give credence to the ANC’s commitment to nonracialism by showing that not all whites were enemies of black freedom.7


Another element in the resurgence of the ANC after 1978, according to Davis, was the cult of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Through “a vigorous public relations effort,” the ANC “promoted Mandela from partisan prophet to national saint.” (It is easy to forget that Mandela’s imprisonment did not fully emerge as an international cause célèbre until the late 1970s.) This campaign was effective internationally as a way of personifying an anti-apartheid struggle under ANC leadership and within South Africa as a “way of rallying nearly all sectors of black opinion.”

At the end of the Seventies and the beginning of the Eighties, the ANC rebuilt its underground movement within South Africa and was able to undertake a series of successful acts of sabotage, such as the spectacular bombing of the Sasol refineries in 1980. Davis believes that many more such incidents occurred than were reported. If the ANC lacked the power to mount a guerrilla war, it at least had the ability to make its presence known and survive the kind of repression that had defeated the sabotage campaign of the early Sixties. The official position of the ANC in the Eighties was against “terrorism” or actions against “soft”—i.e., innocent—civilian targets. But the leaders in Zambia had limited control over some of their cadres in South Africa, and at least two or three terrorist bombings were probably the work of ANC members. “Necklace” killings were also among the unauthorized actions in which people who were identified with the ANC took part. These gruesome and morally repugnant executions, Davis writes, provided the ANC with greater freedom to carry on its activities in the townships by vastly increasing the hazards of informing on black resisters. But violent habits die hard, as the recent reappearances of such practices suggests. By not throwing its full weight against necklacing and other brutal acts of violence, the ANC leaders may have unleashed forces that they will be wholly unable to control.

Davis also contends that the ANC was directly responsible for the creation of the United Democratic Front as an umbrella organization of community groups and anti-apartheid organizations in 1983. This is a controversial claim, and firm evidence to support it is lacking. It can be argued that the UDF emerged out of a variety of local struggles against specific grievances as well as out of a general black revulsion to P. W. Botha’s constitutional reforms. The UDF’s support of the Freedom Charter, which is what led many people to think that the ANC was pulling the strings, may have derived from the impetus to “nonracialism” that came from efforts to get Coloureds, Indians, and even whites to boycott elections for the new multiracial parliament that conspicuously excluded Africans. But one does not have to adopt Davis’s quasi-conspiracy approach to the emergence of the UDF to realize that a grass-roots movement that promoted defiance of apartheid and inspired the township rebellions of the mid-Eighties was a natural ally of the ANC, especially since it shared the ANC’s basic outlook and was prepared to acknowledge its leadership of the anti-apartheid cause. The display of ANC flags and the public singing of the ANC anthem were clear evidence by the mid-Eighties that the ANC had returned to South Africa in some strength, if not as a disciplined movement, at least as a source of inspiration.

The ANC’s ultranationalist opponents were still around, however. The National Forum brought together a variety of Black Consciousness groups—most significantly the Azanian People’s Organization—to oppose the idea of cooperating or negotiating with whites. Since its emergence in the early 1970s, Black Consciousness had evolved from an effort to overcome a black sense of inferiority through independent, nonviolent action into an explosive combination of race and class revolutionism. The enemy was defined not simply as apartheid but as “racial capitalism,” which meant that racism could only be overthrown through a revolution of the black working class against those who were both its economic and racial oppressors. Despite the potential attractiveness of such an ideology to people whose poverty and skin color seemed inseparably linked, the ANC’s view that questions of racial and economic justice could be dealt with separately—and its implied assumption that capitalism was not necessarily, or under all circumstances, racist—was clearly predominant among politically conscious black Africans in the late 1980s.

Despite its hard-won leadership of black resistance and its growing effectiveness, the ANC, Davis concludes, has no hope in the foreseeable future of overthrowing the apartheid regime by force. He guesses that the ANC speaks for only about half of the black population and lacks the numbers and resources to mount a successful revolution. (The other half presumably includes followers of Inkatha and the Black Consciousness groups, as well as several million members of independent Zionist churches, which preach obedience to authority and noninvolvement in politics.)

The government cannot defeat the ANC, and the ANC, though it forces Pretoria to absorb ever greater costs in maintaining white rule, cannot defeat the government. The only way out must eventually lie in a peace conference.

Davis then presents, as a plausible “scenario,” the government’s release of Mandela as well as the beginnings of a difficult period of negotiation in which the ANC in the face of government maneuvering will find it hard to maintain the sense of unity that it had built up while Mandela was in prison and unable to alienate anyone by siding with one faction or another in the organization.

Turning to the reality that Davis prophetically imagined, one sees that Mandela and the ANC leaders are walking a tightrope. If they sacrifice any longstanding ANC objectives in the pursuit of accomodation with de Klerk and his government, they will estrange their more militant black supporters and strengthen the hand of those in the ANC and in the rival Black Consciousness groups who believe that liberation can only come through the barrel of a gun. But if they do not give any ground, no compromise on a new constitution will be possible. In the unlikely event that de Klerk agrees to move directly to one-person-one-vote, it is almost certain that he will lose the support of most whites and that the right-wing Conservative party will come to power and attempt to reestablish full-fledged apartheid, thus making a racial civil war virtually inevitable. (This might happen even if he concedes less than that.)

In these circumstances, Mandela’s personal charisma and the possibility that he could be a “national saint” for whites as well as blacks will become central to hopes for a settlement. Although they have not yet made any formal concessions beyond the suspension of armed struggle, Mandela and the ANC must realize that negotiation requires compromise. If they can strike a deal that meets their minimum objectives, they would then face the twofold task of persuading most blacks that they did not give away too much and convincing most whites that they had conceded enough. Without the powers of persuasion that Mandela possesses in his commanding presence, eloquence, and heroic record of principled action and sacrifice on behalf of a non-racial South Africa, such a balancing act would be impossible—there is simply no one else who could conceivably do it.

Fatima Meer’s Higher than Hope is an authorized biography based partially on interviews with Mandela and members of his family. It is a somewhat rambling compendium of material, much of it relating to the personal life of the Mandela family; with its emphasis on the Mandela marriage and on the ordeals of Winnie Mandela as well as that of her husband during the long separation, it might seem at first glance to be nothing more than another example of the politics of celebrity that the ANC has practiced so successfully in recent years. But such a judgment would be unfair; Meer also manages to provide much information on Mandela the politician and resistance leader that is useful for a preliminary estimate of whether the man is likely to prove equal to the challenge that history has thrust upon him.

Mandela was born in Tembuland in the Transkei in 1918, a little more than thirty years after his people had lost their independence. He spent his childhood in a traditional African setting; his father, a deposed chief and the great grandson of a famous Thembu king, had four wives and never converted to Christianity. Mandela’s mother, the third-ranking wife of the rural patriarch, was a devout Christian convert who had her son baptized as a Methodist and sent to mission schools. When Mandela was nine, his father died, and the boy was sent to be raised and educated in the household of his father’s kinsman, the acting paramount chief of the Thembus. Mandela was apparently a somewhat difficult and rebellious youth and a trial for his benefactor. Sent to Fort Hare, the famous “native college” that was the alma mater of most members of the educated elite, he became acquainted with several future ANC colleagues, but before he had obtained his degree he was expelled for leading a militant protest against the dining hall food. He then defied his guardian by running off to Johannesburg on the proceeds of the unauthorized sale of two of the chief’s oxen. He obtained a job as a policeman in a gold mine on the strength of his family connections but was fired when his angry guardian found out about it. Refusing orders to return home to Tembuland, he obtained his BA through correspondence and then enrolled as a law student at the University of the Witwatersrand. At this “open” university, he came in contact with white liberals and Communists, as well as with some other members of an emerging generation of African intellectuals and activists.

These facts about Mandela’s early life suggest a complex relationship with his rural African heritage. Although he was drawn to the somewhat romantic Africanism of the early Youth League, which he helped to found in 1944, his subsequent evolution was toward the more, cosmopolitan or universalistic perspectives of liberal and Marxist thought, with the latter having at the time a somewhat greater attraction. Although he never became a Communist because of a commitment to Western-style political democracy, he did, Meer reveals, have a large picture of Lenin in his study during the 1950s. Mandela’s writings of that era also contain bitter denunciations of “American imperialism” and defenses of Soviet foreign policy. In his speech at his trial in 1962, he gave an Africanist twist to his eclectic ideology. Describing how his sense of how “early African societies” had “influenced the evolution of [his] political outlook,” he pointed especially to the consensual, democratic nature of decision making by tribal councils and the communal control of property:

There was much in such a society that was primitive and insecure and it certainly could never measure up to the demands of the present epoch. But, in such a society are contained the seeds of evolutionary democracy in which none will be held in slavery or servitude, and in which poverty, want and insecurity shall be no more. This is an inspiration which, even today, inspires me and my colleagues in our political struggle.

One should not therefore interpret Mandela’s rejection of the Pan-Africanist vision of an all-black movement and a future nation in which African ethnicity will be privileged over that of other groups as a repudiation of his preconquest African roots. Like the founders of the ANC and their successors up to the present, he is a “progressive” in the sense that he admires and embraces much of the Western tradition of political and consitutional thought and technological development. But he believes that the conception, popular in the West, of a distinction between political freedom and economic security, between liberal and socialist conceptions of democracy, is alien to African ways of thinking and that the task facing leaders of the liberation movement is to find a modern and practical way of reconciling the two. Mandela’s brand of Africanism, while not much in evidence when he speaks to Western audiences, is a vital asset in putting across his positions to fellow blacks.

Meer’s biography recounts in detail Mandela’s subsequent career as a resistance leader but adds little to the information that can be found in general accounts of the ANC. But the sections on Mandela in prison provide a deeper insight into his character, charisma, and potential as a leader of a free South Africa. We see the imprisoned Mandela maintaining his dignity and optimism, furthering his education, writing to his children to stay in school and pursue advanced degrees, engaging in free and open-ended political discussions with prisoners of differing ideological persuasions, and even impressing his captors with his commanding presence. Meer herself visited Mandela during his last year in prison and was struck by “the deference shown to him by the guards.”

It dawned on me that it was not only South Africa’s disfranchised that saw their hopes reflected in him but that the government too was hoping to resolve its problems through him.

An authorized biography is bound to present a flattering portrait, but this one reveals a credible human being and not a flawless paragon. Winnie Mandela is also presented credibly; the episode last year in which she was accused of conniving at her bodyguard’s murder of a disturbed boy under her care is not left out; it is treated somewhat defensively, but not in a way that appears to contradict the facts that were then known about this tangled and murky set of events.

The account of Nelson Mandela’s early life owns up to youthful indiscretions, such as his shabby treatment of the chief who was his guardian and the womanizing that helped to wreck his first marriage. It contains many personal letters that suggest what Mandela was like when he was not in the public eye. The portrait that generally emerges is of a man of integrity, magnanimity, courage, and political astuteness. He is neither a fanatic nor an opportunist; his sense of patriotism, duty, and the call of destiny might put one in mind of Charles de Gaulle. So far Mandela has served merely as an eloquent spokesman for the ANC. Despite its claims to the contrary, the ANC is not the entire South African nation, although it more fully represents the aspiration for a multiracial democracy than any other movement or party. The test for Mandela will be whether or not he can be for South Africa what De Gaulle was for France, an embodiment of the nation that transcends ideology, party, or group. Meer’s biography, along with the other books under review, leads me to believe that Mandela has at least a fighting chance to be the unifying, reconciling leader that South Africa must have if it is to survive.

This Issue

September 27, 1990