Africa’s Long Road and Current Developments

By Keith Somerville, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

Buhari and the Bulldozer gets to grips with graft – combatting corruption in Nigeria and Tanzania. A demonstration of the diversity but also shared problems of structure and agency in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa definition UN

Sub-Saharan Africa definition UN

This month my book on Africa’s post-independence histories is published by Hurst and Co, entitled Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent. It deals with the great diversity of post-independence political, economic, social and cultural development in sub-Saharan Africa, tracing elements of continuity and change from pre-colonial and colonial periods and how the evolution of the many and varied histories of African states demonstrate varying levels of conflict between structural factors and human agency and how amid their great diversity may also be found common structural challenges and forms of the exercise of agency. These seemingly contradictory aspects of the continent’s history are part of the rich mix of difference and shared experience, especially in relation to the widespread dependence on exports to fund formal economic activity and government spending and to the functioning of informal networks of power and patronage alongside weak formal state institutions. These facets of development are exemplified in recent elections in a number of states and post-electoral policies in two states – Nigeria and Tanzania.

Thirteen elections took place in Africa in 2015. The one in Burundi sparked violence as the incumbent sought an unpopular and arguably unconstitutional third term. Others saw the retention of power, often amid accusations of electoral fraud from defeated opponents, by sitting presidents and little change or no change in policies, empowerment of citizens or any shred of accountability of governments dominated by powerful patron/client networks. Nigeria and Tanzania were exceptions. In the former, the opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari defeated the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, in the first ever victory by a challenger in Nigeria’s history; in the latter, President Jakawaya Kikwete stood down after two terms and John “Bulldozer” Magfuli became the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) candidate and defeated a strong challenge from the opposition candidate, Edward Lowassa.

Muhammadu Buhari 2015

Muhammadu Buhari 2015

Nigeria and Tanzania have very different political systems whose post-independence development have been a demonstration of the divergent histories of sub-Saharan African states. But despite the bloody, divisive and fractious nature of Nigeria’s experience since the end of British colonial rule in comparison with the relative peace, tolerance and unity of Tanzania, and despite the massive squandered oil wealth of Nigeria measured against the meagre natural resources of Tanzania, they have important similarities. Both are highly dependent on export earnings, foreign loans or aid to fund government budgets, both have seen the development of networks of patronage as means for politicians to develop and maintain support bases, and both have seen these networks rely on corruption, rent-seeking from export income and impunity in the face of weak state institutions to retain their clout, politically and economically.

Although their electoral experiences in 2015 were different, with Nigeria seeing the first ever electoral defeat of an incumbent president and Tanzania seeing yet another election in which the ruling CCM retained power, the elections brought about substantial changes in direction for the two countries. Former Nigerian military leader Muhammadu Buhari campaigned on the issues of the Jonathan government’s failure to defeat the Boko Haram insurgents, its glaring incompetence in economic management and its corruption and cronyism. In Tanzania, Magfuli had stressed his past record as a minister in fighting corruption, and being the Bulldozer that cleared away obstacles to good and honest management.

John Magfuli "Bulldozer"

John Magfuli “Bulldozer”

In Nigeria, one serious and long-running source of corruption, patronage and power has been what is known as the security vote – the huge budget assigned from oil revenues to run Nigeria’s bloated military machine.  Conflicts from the Biafran War through the Niger Delta insurgencies to Boko Haram’s campaign in the north-east have enabled the armed forces and their political allies to devote huge sums to the military with little or no auditing of how the money has been spent or why, after decades of massive funding, the army remains poorly equipped and ineffective action against security threats.  Dozens of soldiers have been charged with cowardice or mutiny for failing to stop Boko Haram’s occupation of large swathes of the north-east.  Those accused defended themselves saying that they lacked modern equipment and even ammunition.

Now it is becoming evident why such a well-funded army may not have been able to arm its soldiers properly.  Buhari pledged to root out corruption and within months of being sworn in found huge levels of graft involving defence funds.  Charges of corruption and misuse of billions of naira allocated to paying imports arms have been levelled against some of the top officials of the last government.  They include President Jonathan’s National Security Adviser (NSA), Sambo Dasuki; a former director of finance at the office of the NSA, Shuaibu Salisu; an aide to former President Goodluck Jonathan, Waripamowei Dudafa; a former general manager at the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Aminu BabaKusa; a former governor of Sokoto State, Attahiru Bafarawa, and his son, Sagir Bafarawa.  Some of the funds, withdrawn in foreign currency, were said to have been used to fund the electoral campaign by Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party, while other tranches of money were used to buy expensive houses in Abuja for relatives of the accused. Nigerians await the trial with keen interest to see if the wall of impunity for senior politicians and officials is being broken down.

In Tanzania, the Bulldozer got to work fast after his October election victory.  Instead of celebrating in State House, the day after his inauguration he paid an unscheduled visit to a major state-run hospital.  Finding it in a dreadful state with total inadequate care for the patients, he fired the board and acting director there and then.  Soon after, he sent his new Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, to the notoriously mismanaged and corrupt port in Dar es Salaam.  The premier found that taxes amounting totalling US$40million hadn’t been paid and the port authority and customs authorities were mired in corruption. Magfuli immediately suspended and arrested the Tanzania Revenue Authority’s Commissioner General and five top officials. He also sacked the head of the port authority and several  senior officials in the transport ministry.  In recent years, Dar es Salaam has become one of the major transit points for ivory, precious metals, gems and other illicit goods leaving East Africa for China and other Asian destinations, and the entry point for drugs.  Magfuli also suspended expensive independence day celebrations and instituted a day of work to clean up the streets, in which he took an active and highly publicised part.

These two developments in two very different states demonstrate both the vast differences in African states’ political and economic structures, but also areas of similarity in dependence on exports and the way that this can lead to the development of patronage networks, corruption and the exercise of power beyond the control of weak state institutions and legal systems.  Impunity may not be over for these informal patron/client systems, but in two countries a promising new start has been made.


Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; and teaches at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent.  His book, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent. Is published by Hurst and Co in January 2016; and he has just finished writing his next book on the history of the ivory trade in Africa.

Kenya’s Marsh Pride: What future for lions, people and development?

By Keith Somerville, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

In early December 2015, it was reported that eight lions from the Marsh Pride in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Game Reserve had been poisoned by Maasai herders illegally grazing their cattle there. The Mara reserve is a protected area from which herders and livestock are banned.  The deaths were widely reported by international broadcasters, newspapers and the Kenyan press.  Not only was the poisoning a blow to the country’s already vulnerable lion population, but the lions had appeared on the BBC’s popular Big Cat Diary TV series and in the book The Marsh Lions. The Story of and African Pride, written in 1982 by Brian Jackman and Jonathan Scott.  Scott, a leading wildlife artist, writer and photographer, has followed the generations of the pride since 1978, and was one of the main presenters of Big Cat DiaryThe poisonings were a huge blow to the pride itself, to the Mara’s lions and were indicative of the huge and unresolved problems of aligning wildlife conservation, habitat protection with the ways of life, livelihoods and urgent need to raise the incomes and living standards or rural communities across lion range states in Africa. Had it not coincided with major global stories such as the Paris climate conference, the controversy over bombing Syria and the continuing refugee crisis, the killings of the lions had all the ingredients for a re-run of the media-fest that followed the shooting of the lion known as Cecil in Zimbabwe in the summer. Here were lions that had been seen and followed by millions on TV or the internet, that had been named (and to an extent anthropomorphised) and had been killed illegally in a protected area.

Copyright – Jonathan and Angela Scott

Copyright – Jonathan and Angela Scott

Jonathan Scott attempted to publicise the killings, not as a sensationalist story like Cecil’s, but to raise serious issues.  He got in touch with me and other journalists and wrote on his blog that this tragedy for the lion pride had to be turned into something that brought about real change – change that would be in the interests of people and lions. Scott wrote on his blog, “Now we have to honour the lives of those extraordinary big cats by putting things right. The only way to do that is by ensuring that we speak our truth. We must ask those difficult questions and confront the very complex issues that make up the political environment surrounding the Masai Mara. We must do that on behalf of all Kenyans. This is a national issue as well as a local one.” And it is.  And it is an issue that affects all communities that live around national parks and game reserves across Africa, the wildlife in and around those protected areas, the conservationists and researchers working to preserve species and habitats, and governments which have to make the decisions that affect the balance between human needs and those of conservation. Too often, it is one or the other, rather than a serious attempt to empower local people, benefit them and so provide real incentives for struggling, impoverished rural communities to see wildlife as a benefit rather than an obstacle.

To understand the complexity, one needs to look at the case of the Maasai Mara and the Maasai pastoralists and then broaden the picture out to consider the future of conservation and community development across the continent, where the same problems are often replicated to the detriment of people, wildlife and protected areas.  The Maasai living around the reserve are traditionally cattle herders, measuring wealth largely through the size of their herds. Under colonialism and under the governments of independent they have been moved off land set aside for parks or reserves and restricted in their access to land and water.  Changing land ownership and utilization practices and regulations have affected their freedom of movement.  Moves by successive governments to establish individual rather than community ownership and to sub-divide land previously owned communally has led to the fencing of rangeland, restriction of cattle and wildlife movement to follow seasonal grazing, increasing conflict within the community between rich and poor, the powerless and the politically powerful, and ever greater human-wildlife conflict. The process of change has involved considerable corruption and land-grabbing by senior politicians and public officials in league with local clients in the Maasai community. Maasai pastoralists deprived of traditional migration routes or hemmed in by fenced-off land owned or claimed by political grandees and the local recipients of their patronage, have forced communities to look for grazing elsewhere and made them even more angry overo the economic costs of loss of livestock to predators.

Copyright – Jonathan and Angela Scott

Copyright – Jonathan and Angela Scott

The herders accused of killing the Marsh Pride lions, Simindei Naurori and Kulangash Toposat, have been charged with the poisoning and could be handed life sentences or fined Sh20 million each – a sum poor herders would be incapable of raising.  If they are found guilty, justice of a sort will have been seen to have been done. But they are victims as much as the lions and other wildlife (probably vultures and hyenas) which will have died from eating poisoned remains of three cows killed by the lions.  If they entered the reserve to graze their animals and then poisoned carcasses of cattle killed by lions then they will have broken the law, but broken it not to poach for substantial gain but to survive in an increasingly harsh habitat and economic environment in which their options as pastoralists are forever narrowing.  Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Kenya’s Wild Direct NGO, is a fervent supporter of wildlife conservation but she sums up the situation well when she says that local communities must be provided with a role and incentive to coexist with wildlife and become part of conservation but that “Currently there are only costs for living with lions. No rewards”.  Local communities have to have income, they have to feed, clothe and educate their children.  For many, cattle are the only realistic source of income. But sub-division of land, land grabs, loss of land for building houses, for arable farming, reduce the opportunities for local people to survive, let alone improve incomes and living standards.  In such as situation, they will break the law if they feel they have no other option and will break it regularly if they can do so with impunity because of a lack of serious attention to the wider issue by government (local and national) and corruption, mismanagement and under-funding of the Kenya Wild life Service, which means that regulations aren’t enforced.

The Mara reserve is not a national park run by central government. It is owned and run by Narok County and its governor and council.  Park fees and other earnings from the massive tourist industry are routed through the Narok authorities and very little goes to local people, who bear the burden of living next to a reserve rich in predators and other wildlife that can damage their livelihoods. Of the reserve fees charged to tourists 55% goes to Narok County Council and 36% to the Mara Conservancy (a private conservation area bordering the reserve). Of the Council’s share, 19% goes to the group ranches bordering the Mara reserve; nine per cent of earnings go to the KAPS company that administers tourist fees.  Little trickles down to rural communities.  The situation is made worse by corruption, with repeated accusations by conservationists and communities over the years that Narok Council is illegally taking money from tourist fees and other income and using it corruptly.

Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

In January this year, local communities – supported by some local and national politicians – protested that the Narok Governor and Council were misappropriating the reserve income. Thousands of Maasai marched on the governor’s office in Narok to protest and were met with the use of live ammunition and tear gas by the police. One person was killed and several injured when Kenyan police clashed with Maasai protesting against a local governor they accuse of misappropriating tourism funds from the Maasai Mara game reserve. The Governor,Samuel Tunai,  and his administration were said to be misusing the $80 a day collected from each tourist entering the Mara and income from lodges. A Senator, Stephen ole Ntutu, said Tunai “cannot account for billions of shillings from all financial sources including the Mara. He should be held to account”.  The Kenyan Auditor-General and the Anti-Corruption Commission are investigating use of the funds, but no details of their findings have yet been released.

What the events show, is that local people are angry that they get no benefit, only costs from wildlife conservation and related tourism.  They feel they are in a no-win situation and so break the law, to the detriment of the Mara conservation efforts, the wildlife and ultimately local and national income from wildlife tourism – and the Mara produces in come of around £13m a year. But to them that is a price they will pay to try to survive because the distant and egregiously corrupt system of government is neither responsive to their needs nor prepared to look at ways of empowering them that will enable a workable system of coexistence with conservation and income from wildlife.

This situation is replicated in many conservation or protected area across East and Southern Africa, where local communities suffer loss of land and depredations of lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo or hippos and have little recourse other than to break the law or turn the resources to their advantage by poaching or helping poaching syndicates. Some, like the Maasai in this case, just kill in order, as they see it, to protect their wildlife.  I witnessed the problem in Botswana in July 2015 around the Chobe National Park.  The banning of commercial or subsistence hunting by local people has resulted not in preservation of species but in greater assistance by locals to outside poaching syndicates and to the poisoning of lions to protect stock, provide bones to sell for use in Chinese medicine and to prevent the discovery of the carcasses of poached elephants. A poorly-thought out conservation measure has had the opposite effect to that intended.

Kenya must address the real issues of protecting the Mara and its lions and not opt for quick, cosmetic solutions that do not dig down and get to the roots of the problem. Jonathan Scott, not surprisingly, wants measures to stop all grazing in the Mara’s protected areas. But he says, “There are no easy solutions to please everyone.” And the government and wildlife authorities must recognise that this “is a failure on the part of the administration at both local and national level. Kenya needs tourism – it pays the bill for protecting our wilderness and provides employment…and generates millions of dollars each year for Narok County”. He goes on, in his blog response to the deaths of the lions, to call for it to be a catalyst for change in “addressing the complex issues that need to be resolved if wildlife and local communities are to prosper side by side”.

He is right, but the problem is finding formulas (and they will differ from country to country, from locality to locality) that will empower people, provide income and incentivise them to actively aid conservation.  Kenya already has some examples that are making progress – the Northern Rangelands Trust in the Samburu-Laikipia area, the Tsavo Trust , the Mara Conservancy and Calvin Cottar’s concept of Payment for Environmental Services (PES), the latter involving the leasing of land from communities for wildlife conservation.  But they are small-scale, rely on donations or benefactors to pay for the projects that provide income and fund conservation and anti-poaching. They are also constantly subject to the vagaries of a political system riddled with corruption, patronage and a failure to join up development and conservation in rural areas. A glimmer of light, perhaps, and one that needs to be nurtured in a hostile environment.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; he teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent; his book Africa’s Long Road Sine Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent is published on 14 January 2016 by Hurst and Co, and he has just completed the manuscript of a work on the history and political economy of the ivory trade in Africa.

Human Rights are Never Domestic

By Henning Melber, ICWS Senior Fellow

ONCE upon a time, anti-colonial movements were fighting for human rights against oppression and injustice. Representatives of these agencies claimed a moral high ground.

As the “Wretched of the Earth” they expected and demanded international support for their legitimate goals and appealed to a global consciousness, which translated into international solidarity.

Many of the transitions toward self-determination were supported by such acts of solidarity. Considered as a “trust betrayed”, Namibia was a special case.



The United Nations General Assembly declared Swapo the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people”. Numerous campaigns exercised practical support, collected money, offered humanitarian assistance, took care of needs. Namibian independence was a triumph of collective responsibility based on moral principles.

International solidarity in our and many other cases was based on intervention. How else was apartheid declared a crime against humanity and those fighting the system supported it [through many forms], including sanctions?

Some forms of such solidarity have survived. The position of the Namibian government as regards the people of the Western Sahara and Palestine are prominent cases in point. Morocco and Israel surely consider this as an undue intervention into what they claim to be domestic affairs.

They are, of course, wrong. It is indeed a matter of international solidarity, siding with the oppressed, advocating their rights and thereby also promoting fundamental human rights universally.


ICC- International Criminal Court

So how about the announcement that Namibia withdraws from the International Criminal Court (ICC) because it has become, according to President Geingob, an “abomination”? Namibia was – like more than 30 other African states – a signatory to the Rome Treaty and ratified early this century the ICC with its jurisdiction. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), the most powerful countries did not do so.

The ICC subsequently implemented its mandate (with numerous Africans holding crucial positions as prosecutors and judges) with regard to investigating cases of mass violence, war crimes and crimes against humanity bordering on genocide. These cases were mainly (but not exclusively) in Africa, where most states had actively supported and signed the international treaties.

Most interventions of the ICC were initiated upon direct request from African states. In two cases (Kenya and Sudan), however, sitting presidents were implicated in acts of mass violence, which required ICC investigations.

Let us recall what we can more or less safely establish as facts in both cases: in Sudan at least an estimated 300 000 people died as a direct result of what can be qualified as state terror and war against minorities. In Kenya, investigations wanted to establish who was responsible and accountable for the deaths of several thousand people as part of election campaigns turning abhorrently violent. Notably, this was an initiative confined to a hearing.

If there is anything abominable, that is surely what happened in both countries, [against weak and most vulnerable fellow Africans]. And if there is something like international solidarity, then one could assume it demands from others not to be bystanders, which amounts to tolerating and thus endorsing state terror.

Is this what Namibia identifies with? Are we proud of abandoning an obligation to jealously guard human rights? And our only defence is that these were not committed by “imperialists” but “friends” or that powerful countries have not signed up to support the ICC?

Indeed, the ICC has no mandate to prosecute citizens of countries that have not signed up to or ratified the treaty (for example the United States, China, Russia, North Korea, India and Iran). But would that not be reason to embark on a worldwide campaign to name and shame and increase the pressure on these states? Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are so-called all-weather friends of Namibia. What about our principled respect for international human rights standards?

We should take a stance in favour of international solidarity with the oppressed, with the tortured and the maimed as others did in our own case. It would indeed share the understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

It would give practical meaning to what the Legal Assistance Centre rightly so responded in a press release to the allegation that the ICC would interfere into domestic affairs: “Human rights abuses are never a domestic affair. The words say it all – human rights belong to all humans – whatever their nationality and geographical location.”

We claimed that much, that apartheid could not be reduced to a domestic affair. It was a matter of international law and solidarity. Similarly, we should fight for anyone subjected to state terror and violence everywhere, instead of abandoning the moral high ground because a few friends have no moral compass. One cannot protect injustices by protecting and promoting other injustices. Two wrongs do not make a right.

A true abomination is being in the cosy company of rogue states and leaders, who have all reason to avoid being taken to task for atrocities they commit.

-Henning Melber joined Swapo in 1974.

Originally published by The Namibian


Rhodesian UDI: 50 years on

by Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Lecturer in Commonwealth Studies

There is a remarkable public amnesia in the UK that 50 years ago on 11th November, Southern Rhodesia defiantly declared its independence from Britain. In a highly theatrical performance, and under the gaze of a large photograph of the Queen, Ian Smith, the prime minister, and his cabinet signed Rhodesia’s declaration of independence, consciously modeled on the American declaration of independence of 1776. Whilst announcing Southern Rhodesia’s break with the Labour Government, Smith stressed his country’s enduring loyalty to the Crown – yet another example of contradictory thinking in the Rhodesian settler community. The break with Britain had been a long time brewing, and the British public was aware of this – notwithstanding Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s press statement that it was ‘a shock’.

Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, in 1975

Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, in 1975

Smith and his Cabinet colleagues had planned this rupture carefully, removing dissident elements within the Rhodesian Army and civil service; privately sounding out senior officers in the RAF via their High Commissioner in London, to calculate whether Britain would use force against the rebellious Rhodesia Front government; ensuring this announcement was after sales of the Rhodesian tobacco crop, the country’s primary export earnings; seeking Portugal’s solidarity and support, to ensure trade sanctions would fail; identifying South African finance and credit; smuggling Rhodesian gold out of the country in airline food trays, via Johannesburg, to Switzerland (using South African contacts with key members of the Swiss banking system). The British government only belatedly realized what was going on and certainly their intelligence on South African attitudes and activities was remarkably poor. And the Rhodesian choice of 11th November itself was highly deliberate – Remembrance Day, underlining the Rhodesian white community’s contribution to the British war effort in WWII – and because it was a Friday. Smith confidently believed that this declaration of independence would be a 9-day wonder: that the City of London would rapidly adjust, and the reverberations of Salisbury’s actions would start to settle over the weekend.

Instead of this 9-day wonder, Rhodesia’s illegal declaration of independence developed into a crisis of international dimensions, fracturing Britain’s relations with the modern Commonwealth. Rhodesian UDI starkly demonstrated the limitations of British power – London had used American power to achieve British diplomatic goals of decolonization, and was to try to do so again in the Rhodesia case, particularly in 1977-1978. Interestingly, it was a British led show in 1979 that led to eventual settlement. This 14-year period highlighted the problems of using economic sanctions as effective political leverage; it also witnessed the radicalization and violence of rival African nationalist movements in their shift to armed struggle, from external bases; how winning the propaganda war in the international media acts as a force multiplier for a political movement; and the importance of civil society activity – the Anti Apartheid Movement regarded Rhodesia’s transition to black majority rule as the earlier victory before South Africa in 1994.

Attempts at settlement of this crisis in a small, landlocked country in Southern Africa drew in a multiplicity of international actors, from the region, from unlikely ideological sympathizers and financiers, and from both sides of the Cold War divide – interestingly, unlike many of his political opponents, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not underestimate Ian Smith, whom he described as acting with ‘dignity and courage’. (In contrast, Lord Carrington was highly critical, describing Smith as a bigoted and stupid man, ‘who could see every tree in the wood, but not the wood.’ As a number of these interviews underline, the Commonwealth became a significant actor in this story of Rhodesia’s decolonization into Zimbabwe, and the country’s achievement of internationally recognized majority rule in April 1980.

Is this 50th anniversary important today? Certainly, for contemporary Zimbabwe, which had again caused considerable headaches for the Commonwealth before President Mugabe’s abrupt departure in 2003. Particular paths taken, in contrast to others deliberately not selected, are always significant in a country’s history, and its current politics, given the particular legacies of its political economy, and this inheritance of the new elites. Access to land is probably the most toxic of all colonial legacies. Smith had been pressed to liberalise land ownership and access before 1965 – in the hope that a compromise could be reached, and a modified form of white-led independence achieved. The RF resolutely refused to do this. The land settlement of the Lancaster House agreement at the end of the UDI era was problematic in that it was a highly conscious political arrangement, which stored up problems for the future. Furthermore, history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe has been progressively politicized since the election of ZANU-PF in 1980, particularly so since 2000 and the emergence of ‘patriotic history’ as a key way to legitimize ZANU-PF and to present political opponents as counter-revolutionary and de-legitimate.

The Commonwealth is also guilty of amnesia on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe: its repeated public emphasis on the success of its role at the Lusaka heads meeting in 1979 contrasts dramatically with the Commonwealth’s silence – and this includes the Commonwealth Secretariat’s silence – about the violence and killings in Matabeleland between 1982-1985 post-independence. There is public acknowledgement of the sad irony of the Harare Declaration of 1991 as the second key foundational document for the modern Commonwealth, set against growing political authoritarianism and turmoil in the country by the late 90s/early 2000. Like Smith in 1965, Mugabe’s abrupt withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 2003 was in defiance of Commonwealth opinion and confirmed the country’s increasingly pariah status. Given the significance of the 11th November, one is tempted to reflect, ‘plus ca change…’ in terms of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe public gesture political behaviour. Yet, President Mugabe and ZANU-PF as a dominant one-party state might reflect on the eventual fate of Ian Smith and the Rhodesia Front rule. A country cannot stand indefinitely against the forces of the international political economy, regional and international opinion. Cue the Commonwealth as a mediating conduit again, to help ZANU-PF find its way out of its current political/economic cul-de-sac?

A historic trial and justice denied

by Henning Melber, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

The principle in dubio pro reo (“in doubt for the accused”) is that one is innocent until proven guilty are fundamental principles of justice.

But another motto suggests that justice delayed is justice denied. The long-awaited conclusion of the Caprivi high treason trial is a painful reminder of this.

Let us remember: over 140 people were arrested after the failed secessionist attempt on 2 August 1999 in and around Katima Mulilo. The murderous attack on the territorial integrity of the Republic of Namibia killed eight innocent people. Those arrested were accused and detained for up to 278 charges related to the act.

Map of the Caprivi Strip, via Wikipedia

Map of the Caprivi Strip, via Wikipedia

In the course of identifying suspects, the security organs of the state violated laws too. When a lawyer of the Legal Assistance Centre disclosed the torture of prisoners to enforce confessions, these human rights violations were defended.

In early September 1999 Prime Minister Hage Geingob complained in the National Assembly that the brute force against suspects became the main issue.

He argued: “Because of provocation by the separatists, some unfortunate excesses had resulted in the effort of our security forces to zealously protect their motherland.” And he claimed: “We value upholding our Constitution.”

President Hage Geinob via Wikimedia Commons

President Hage Geingob via Wikimedia Commons

Article 12 (“Fair Trial”) of this Constitution stipulates under section 1(b) that a trial “shall take place within a reasonable time, failing which the accused shall be released.” And 1(d) confirms that all accused “shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law.” Articles 24 (“Derogation”) and 25 (“Enforcement of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms”) offer additional food for thought. They illustrate the disparities between the codified rule of law and the failures to live up to its defined minimum standards.

In early August 2003, Amnesty International (AI) – erstwhile respected as a relevant and credible supporter of the liberation struggle through publicly condemning the human rights violations under apartheid, the illegal South African occupation of the country and the treatment of political prisoners – published a critical report.

AI expressed deep concern about the violation of pre-trial rights of the accused, which might undermine their right to a fair hearing based on international standards as defined in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). It criticised the failure of the authorities to investigate and prosecute allegations of torture.

AI also cast doubt over the official versions concerning the deaths of 12 defendants in detention and suggested that unsanitary prison conditions and medical neglect were contributing factors.


In a press release AI finally called on the Namibian authorities “to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience and ensure that the remaining defendants are tried in a fair manner.”

This resulted in accusations that AI is unduly interfering in domestic affairs. Since then, the number of those who died in custody without being found guilty exceeded more than 20. How many among these would have now been released as innocent?

In February 2013 the first 43 of the accused were released for lack of evidence. Now, with Judge Elton Hoff presenting his final judgement, another 35 of the accused were found not guilty during the last few days. From the more than 140 initially arrested, only 30 have been found guilty.

While Judge Hoff’s findings underline once again the relative autonomy of the judiciary, the justice system in general has failed. Despite numerous appeals by concerned members of civil society and human rights advocates, the authorities maintained an iron fist resembling features of the inhuman apartheid system, which also locked away and tortured people for political reasons.

A constitutional democracy or state under the rule of law (in German aptly called Rechtsstaat) should act differently. Policy makers, including the head of state, who delivered his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, have no reason to be proud.

Namibia has, not for the first time, failed its national and international obligations. The so-called ex-detainees, as much as those who mourn the loss of Frieda Ndatipo, should find it not difficult to relate to the plight of those detained innocently for 16 years and the harm also done to their families.

Injustice cannot be reversed. But an apology and related signs of regret and remorse might be a humble way to document insights into failures. Such abandonment of self-righteousness would underline the claim that the much-used metaphor of the Namibian house is indeed to be understood as a house, which is built for all.

Henning Melber joined Swapo in 1974. He is director emeritus of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala/Sweden, Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies/University of London. His book Understanding Namibia. The trials of Independence was published 2014 with Jacana.

A version of this article was originally published in The Namibian.

Cosmetic trade bans and Western paternalism will not end poaching in Africa – community-based conservation will

by Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies*

One of the major announcements by President Obama during his brief but highly symbolic visit to Kenya this weekend was that he would implement “urgently needed steps” to restrict the sale of ivory from African elephants. He used his high-profile trip to jump once more on the ivory ban bandwagon with a measure that will get headlines, the keen approbation of Western animal welfare and conservation NGOs, but have little real effect and, like many of the well-intention but ill-conceived and patronising policies pushed on African elephant range state by the West and its NGOs, have practically no effect on the conservation of elephants and combating of the scourge of poaching.

Confiscated ivory carvings. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Confiscated ivory carvings. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Obama’s lofty aim of eliminating the illegal market for ivory in America is based on restricting the domestic commercial trade, still legal in many states and legal for antique or pre-ban ivory or trophy ivory brought back by American hunters, and stopping inter-state trade in most forms of ivory.  But this is a very small proportion of the global trade and where it involves illegal, smuggled ivory it just targets what is already illegal and so is nothing startlingly new. It is also worth noting that the extra restrictions on the legal trade may well be struck down by a Republican congress viscerally opposed to almost anything Obama proposes – but it is the effect of the headline announcement rather than the final effect that often really matters in the  ivory PR struggle.

But whatever the chances of becoming law or the localised effects on the ivory trade, this represents another example of Western paternalism towards the issues of ivory trading, poaching and conservation in Africa. This paternalism developed under colonialism when British game department officials declared all Africans to be potential poachers and hunting by Kenyan communities was banned, but trophy and commercial hunting by whites was encouraged. The conservation movement developed a new form of environmental colonialism with communities moved from land to make way for national parks and reserves. The very game wardens who launched militarised anti-poaching campaigns against African communities banned from traditional hunting for subsistence themselves benefited materially from the system as they could buy elephant hunting licences and then sell the ivory at a profit. Some, like the venerable George Adamson, David Sheldrick and Bill Woodley, were avid elephant hunters when it suited their pockets – yet they fiercely pursued hunters among traditional hunting communities like the Waliangulu and Dorobo.

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No longer at ease – clouds on the horizon for Botswana’s conservation success story

by Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies*

Without belabouring the Chinua Achebe motif, Botswana’s conservation community is less at ease than it is used to being but the country is still far from seeing things fall apart. Botswana has long prided itself on its advances in conserving key habitats, species and implementing a tough but generally workable anti-poaching strategy. But clouds are gathering on the horizon, partly due to regional failures in controlling poaching and the trade in wildlife products, and partly as a result of the domestic reaction to the government’s own policies.

The clouds forming along Botswana’s borders result from incursions into areas like Chobe and Linyanti (home to Africa’s largest and most healthily expanding elephant populations) by poachers from Zambia. These have increased over the last few years. The domestic concerns centre around creasing numbers of cases of poisoning of predators and vultures in the Chobe Enclave, indications that local communities may be helping ivory poachers entering the country’s safari areas and national parks, and an increase in the last year or so in poaching by local communities for bushmeat. The poisoning is thought by Michael Flyman, of the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), to be linked to elephant poaching and, in a small number of cases, to livestock protection. Animal carcasses, whether elephants or antelope, are poisoned, killing predators like lion and hyena but also jackals and vultures. The large-scale wiping out of vultures means that there are no flights of birds circling above kills to alert the wildlife authorities and Botswana Defence Force (BDF) anti-poaching patrols.

In four days tracking around the Chobe Enclave at the end of June, I saw no lions, hyenas, jackals or vultures, in an area that should be replete with them. Steve Johnson of the Southern African Regional Environment Program (SAREP) told me that increasing numbers of vultures and predators have been poisoned by those working with the poachers. He said this was going on along with the growth in the illegal bushmeat trade the region. What I did see was the clear sign of elephant poaching and the removal of tusks across the Linyanti river by boat into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. Driving along the edge of the Linyanti marsh my guide and I found the tracks of at least a couple of men dragging two round objects the same diameter as medium-sized elephant tusks.

Tusk drag marks leading down to Linyanti Swamp. Photograph courtesy of Keith Somerville

Tusk drag marks leading down to Linyanti Swamp. Photograph courtesy of Keith Somerville

The guide was convinced an elephant had been killed in the last 24 hours and the tusks dragged down to the swamp to be taken by mokoro to the Namibian bank. This was reported to the nearby BDF anti-poaching team, who operate in Linyanti with a harsh shoot-to kill policy for poachers. We failed to find the carcass of the elephant, with and no circling vultures to help us.

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Exploring the ‘Hidden Histories’ of Decolonization at the ICWS

by Chris Moffat, ICWS Early Career Researcher in Commonwealth Studies

 The Hidden History of Decolonization: What do the ‘migrated archives’ reveal about British withdrawal from Empire?

Last Friday, 20 February 2015, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies convened an afternoon conference on the ‘Hidden Histories of Decolonization’, the latest in its Decolonization Workshop series. Organised in conjunction with King’s College London, the event focused on the question of ‘migrated archives’ (FCO 141) – the collection of British colonial administrative documents released in 2012-13 by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – and the implications these new sources might have for our understanding of the end of the British Empire.

A primary concern throughout the day was, concordantly, the nature and form of the archive itself. The opening session brought together ICWS Senior Research Fellow Dr Mandy Banton and VICE News journalist Katie Engelhart to discuss their shared interest in the various trails of misinformation and ‘sleights of hand’ that have kept this collection from the public eye for so many decades. Dr Banton traced the British government’s evolving policy toward migrated archives, noting the obstacles scholars face in establishing for certain the ‘complete’ contents of a collection – that is, the difficulty in ruling out the possibility that some files remain hidden, that some have been destroyed, or that the process of naming and archiving has functioned to obfuscate certain materials. Engelhart, meanwhile, suggested that the case of FCO 141 is provocative for the questions it raises about government transparency in the public record system. She also suggested that, in addition to possible historical value, the new documents have potential legal value – referring to the ongoing attempt by some 41,000 Kenyan claimants to sue the British government for mistreatment during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion.

A lively discussion as to whether the delayed release of colonial archives amounted to a ‘conspiracy’ or a ‘cock-up’ followed, moderated by session chair and ICWS Director Professor Philip Murphy. Professor Murphy raised the question of institutional memory in the Foreign Office, asking if it could possibly be so poor as to explain entire ‘lost’ collections. Contributions from the audience explored the long-term campaigns led by former colonial territories like Kenya to demand the return of documents concerning their national histories, based on both a political and economic prerogatives. Comparisons were also drawn with the example of French archives and the uncertain fate of colonial collections from West and coastal Africa.

The next two sessions interrogated the specific content of the migrated archives, asking whether or not these documents really provided the ‘revelations’ or ‘game-changing’ material suggested by sustained media interest in their release. The consensus was – overwhelmingly – that no, the release of FCO 141 has not provided the occasion to rewrite the narrative of Britain’s withdrawal from Empire; indeed, if anything, it has simply affirmed what historians already knew. Dr Karl Hack of the Open University went so far as to suggest, in the final session, that the spectacle of FCO 141’s release has threatened to steal momentum from the general move away from colonial archives in the historiography of former British territories, distracting from robust efforts to privilege foreign and vernacular archives alongside grounded oral histories collected in the field. This point contrasted with a more general optimism expressed by the remaining panellists regarding the potential of FCO 141 to provide enhanced contextual detail – if not historical ‘revelation’ – and also to prompt scholars to ask new questions about the decolonization process.

The second session brought together Professor Dan Branch (University of Warwick), Professor John Lonsdale (University of Cambridge) and Dr Emma Hunter (University of Edinburgh) to discuss the migrated archives in the context of East Africa. Professor Branch emphasised the value of FCO 141 in underlining the global processes of decolonization, especially as they relate to the Cold War. Documents in the migrated archives, he noted, trace with great detail the ‘political traffic’ of young Kenyan students to Eastern Europe during the late colonial period. They dwell particularly on the experience of racism in this context for its utility to British anti-Soviet propaganda, but also provide a valuable pre-history for Kenyan trade-unionism and opposition politics in the post-colonial state. Professor Lonsdale outlined the standard historical narrative around decolonization in Kenya before conceding that FCO 141 does not necessitate any revision to this well-established story. The potential of the migrated archives rests, he argued, in the insight it provides to high-level thinking around British counter-insurgency efforts and the influence of racism in managing imperial exit from East Africa. The release is provocative, moreover, for illuminating the difficulty the British public continues to have in coming to terms with this dark episode of its history and the manner in which events around the Mau Mau rebellion clash with the country’s post-imperial national image. Dr Hunter, in contrast, suggested that the worth of FCO 141 lies in the local or ground-level detail it provides the African historian willing to explore archival documents in idiosyncratic ways. Referring to her own work on decolonization in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, Dr Hunter demonstrated how vernacular newspapers and anti-colonial pamphlets – amassed by colonial intelligence due to concerns about their seditious nature – provide rare insight into the East African colony’s public sphere and efforts to shape political debate. During the Q&A period, Professor Branch agreed that the contents of FCO 141 may, perhaps, be more promising for the work of the Africanist in particular rather than historians of Empire more generally.

The third and final session included contributions from Professor David French (UCL), Professor Philip Murphy (ICWS) and Dr Karl Hack (Open University), and was concerned with the implications of FCO 141 for the histories of Cyprus, Singapore and Malaysia. Professor French affirmed that his forthcoming book on British counter-insurgency campaigns in Cyprus during the 1950s would have made the same argument with or without the migrated archives, but that it would have been less detailed – unable to outline in such depth, for instance, the brutality of British forces and the Greek Cypriot group EOKA, nor equipped to map the high-level thinking among British officials about the mistreatment of convicts or EOKA’s persecution of the civilian population. Professor Murphy’s presentation emphasised the potential for FCO 141 to ground new, connected histories of counter-insurgency in the British empire and beyond, focusing on the mention of the Cyprus ‘Special Investigation Group’ (SIG) in a 1959 Colonial Office document circulated to Kenya, Uganda, Northern Rhodesia and other African colonial territories. The SIG, which had been established in Cyprus less to enquire into allegations of abuse by British authorities than to ‘manage’ such allegations – working to provide the ‘first narrative’ around a violent or contentious event – was recommended as a useful precedent for ‘campaigns of representation’ in the African context, leading Professor Murphy to ask what implications initiatives like SIG may have had for the British security forces at large. Dr Hack concluded the session by discussing the ‘public life’ of newly-released documents in Malaysia and Singapore, noting that – while the documents have not provided anything new for historians of British Malaya – the release of personal files and Special Branch documents has sparked interest in revealing those Malays who collaborated with the British during the Second World War and also those Singapore residents who were falsely persecuted as ‘communists’ during the late colonial period.

The afternoon’s discussions concluded with the observation that the ‘smoking gun’ connecting violence and brutality to the history of British decolonization had already been located in documents available since the 1980s. If the migrated archives remain useful for historians, it is in the rich, contextual detail their contents provide, as well as the encouragement they may give to scholars asking new questions about – in Dr Hunter’s words – the ‘messy and entangled’ global history of decolonization, especially as it falls under the shadow of the Cold War. Beyond the academic discipline of history, the case of the migrated archives remains of general interest for the questions in raises about government transparency, the relationship of colonial archives to the politics of post-colonial states, and the still-unfolding legacies of relationships forged by Empire.

Mandela: Myth and Reality – a chance for considered reflection

Originally posted on the School of Advanced Study blog. 

Keith Somerville, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), who was able to observe at first-hand, developments in South Africa, helped to organise the recent Mandela: Myth and Reality conference. Coming a year after the death of the country’s first black president, it brought together a remarkable group of experts to analyse his contribution to the creation of the new, free South Africa.

By Keith Somerville

South Africa The Good News /

South Africa The Good News /

On 5 December, the anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies held a conference which examined in detail the complexities of his legacy as a nationalist leader, his relationship with the South African Communist Party, his management of the transition from apartheid, his record as president and the construction of his powerful media image. The well-attended, day-long event was marked by contending views, informed argument but also mature debate with papers presented by leading African and British academics, people who knew and worked with him, and prominent journalists.

The day started with an artistically powerful and stunning new documentary on Mandela by the South Africa film-maker Khalo Matabane. Utilising archive film and interviews with South African activists, leaders and commentators who knew Mandela, world statesman and, most importantly, young South Africans who grew up in the Mandela era, it shone a bright light on Nelson Mandela the man and the leader, and on the South Africa he left behind.

No punches were pulled in describing the problems and massive inequalities that still mark the country, 20 years after the ANC took power. Young black South Africans talked about the problems of unemployment and the poor living conditions of the majority of black people. Khalo, in his film and answers to the audience’s questions, said that while everyone praised Mandela for his policy of reconciliation, he felt forgiveness had perhaps gone too far and people hadn’t been held to account. Mandela took time to pursue reconciliation when he should have given more attention to raising the living standards of the poor and marginalised.

The day proceeded with a panel on Mandela as a nationalist leader focusing particularly on his relationship with the South African Communist Party and the effects that had on Mandela’s outlook and the development of the ANC. Contending views were put forward by Professors Stephen Ellis, author of External Mission: The ANC in Exile,  Tom Lodge, a biographer of Mandela, and Hugh Macmillan, who has written widely on the ANC and its relations with Zambia and other Africa states, and Moses Anafu, who worked with Mandela during the transition period as Commonwealth head Emeka Anyaoku’s special representative.

Stephen Ellis was clear that Mandela was a member of the SACP Central Committee and felt that the communists had been the dynamic force behind the move towards armed struggle in South Africa. Tom Lodge took a different view and gave a fascinating account of the construction of Mandela’s image. He was less concerned about party membership, while Hugh Macmillan said this concentration on communism was a hangover from the Cold War and that the ANC pushed for armed struggle to compete with the break-away and radical Pan-Africanist Congress. Moses Anafu was clear that in terms of policy and the role of Mandela in the transitional period, his relationship with the party was effectively irrelevant.

While no final agreement was reached on the nature and importance of the communist link, the session was ably summed up by Professor Saul Dubow, who made the point that whether or not Mandela was formally a member of the communist party, what mattered was the effect on policy and ANC actions. His conclusions and the answers to question from the audience, established a good base from which to proceed to the next panel dealing with post-apartheid leadership.

In a wide-ranging session, Dr Desne Maisie, Dr Funmi Olonisakin, Knox Chitiyo and Paul Holden looked at key aspects of Mandela’s presidency and legacy as a government leader, with detailed examinations of the economy and continuing inequality, the problems of corruption in South Africa, Mandela as a leader in southern Africa and his overall style of leadership. Dr Merle Lipton summarised the wealth of material and presented an acute critique of governance and economic management under the Mandela government.

The final session dealt with Mandela’s media image and his relationship with the press. Chaired by Professor Winston Mano, this examination was carried out by former BBC correspondent Peter Biles and Richard Dowden, the Director of the Royal African Society.  Both knew Mandela and covered his period in power, and his retirement.

They stressed how Mandela used charm and his immense personal presence to woo and dazzle the media in a way that often protected him and his government from criticism.

Each session was marked by lively debate and participation from the audience, itself reflecting a wealth of political activism, academic knowledge and journalistic experience. The day offered an excellent opportunity, which was seized eagerly by speakers and audience alike, to open a thorough and, I’m sure, continuing debate on Mandela the man, leader and legend.

The discussions established the parameters for this debate and was valuable in reaffirming the influence, personal prestige and immense political influence that Mandela brought to bear on South Africa, Africa and the last two decades of the 20th century. The reality of what he achieved and the areas where reconciliation took precedence over reconstruction and redistribution of wealth was examined and debated, while the construction of the media image and mythical status was also brought to the fore.

The conference was organised by Keith Somerville and Martin Plaut (both senior research rellows at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies), Dr Sue Onslow and Olga Jimenez. The organisers are grateful to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation for paying the expenses of Khalo Matabane.  A podcast of the day is available here.

Was the world’s best- known secular saint a Communist after all?

 Trevor Grundy is a British based journalist who lived and worked as a reporter and broadcaster in Central, Eastern and Sothern Africa from 1966-1996. Today he is an author and researcher based in Kent, Southern England.

It’s 20 years since the ANC came to power in South Africa, 24 since the world’s best known secular saint was released from prison and a full year since he died from natural causes at the age of 95 on December 5, 2013. At an historic seminar at the University of London (Senate House) organized by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) to mark the first anniversary of the great man’s death, a question that won’t go away was aired once again – Was Nelson Mandela a senior member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the early 1960s, or was he not?  TREVOR GRUNDY was there.

We’re now well into the post-Mandela age but still can’t get enough of a man so often described as the world’s best known secular saint. Those who love him, love him so fiercely that debate is often out of the question. But as George Orwell said in an essay he wrote about Gandhi (Reflections on Gandhi): “Saints should always be judged guilty until proved innocent.”

So, even if you’ve read Stephen Ellis’s External Mission –The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, eagerly page-turned The Hidden Thread – Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era by Irina Filatova and Appolon Davidson, devoured Mandela –The Authorised Biography by Anthony Sampson, absorbed The Lusaka Years – The ANC in Exile by Hugh Macmillan and flicked your way through a dozen or so other books about South Africa’s first black president, two important but unanswered questions stay with us: what was his legacy, and was he, or was he not, a member of the South African Communist Party’s central committee in the early 1960s?

The conference at the University of London (Senate House) on December 5 (2014) was called Nelson Mandela: Myth and Reality and was described by the former Trotskyite activist and author Paul Trewhela, as “historic.”

One of its main organisers, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Keith Somerville, said that a year on from  Nelson Mandela’s death, the one-day conference gave academics, politicians, journalists, historians and members of the public a chance to step back from the emotion and the building up of the image of a saint, a saint who – in a way – couldn’t be emulated elsewhere because he is almost too lofty. “We have, at last, managed to open up a lot of issues that nobody wanted to talk about at the time of his death,“ he said. “Nobody wanted to be seen as spitting on his grave. Now people aren’t seen as doing that. They’re seen as people who are looking at someone who is a much revered, much admired, but far from perfect character. And I think he would never have described himself as a perfect character. And so, we have been able to look at him –if not totally in the round –  from a whole new different series of perspective, with different views being presented and discussed that now will help to open the way for a really in-depth look over the next few years at the real Mandela and his lasting legacy.”

Over 100 people were there – almost all of them Europeans with African credentials; but also men and women who left the so-called “Dark Continent” for new and much safer lives in Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and different parts of Europe.

For many of them, Mandela’s alleged membership of the SACP in the late 1950s/early 1960s remains a burning issue.

At a time when South Africa is riddled with corruption, plagued by rampant crime and mounting public concern that the African Nationalist Congress (ANC)-led government of Jacob Zuma plans to curtail the freedom of the press in 2015, one wonders why this is such an obsession.

Of what possible importance, of what possible relevance was this to South Africa in the second decade of the 21st century, asked Dr Moses Anafu, former head of the Africa section at the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat. “I don’t understand why it is so important whether he was a Communist or not. Maybe – and only maybe – Mandela was a Communist, well and good. If he wasn’t, that’s his own business.”

Anafu was reacting to earlier speeches by two European academics, Professor Stephen Ellis of the University of Leiden (Netherlands) and Dr Hugh Macmillan of the University of Cape Town and Africa Studies Centre, Oxford University (England).

Ellis is the former editor of Africa Confidential which is seen in some British and African Left-wing/socialist circles as a publication with a remarkable ability to anticipate what the British Government is thinking about Africa.

In his  widely read book External Mission –The ANC in Exile 1960-1990 (Hurst& Company, London, 2012) Ellis insists that Mandela was not only a member of the Communist Party in 1961 but that he had also been co-opted onto the membership of the SACP’s Central Committee. Ellis said it is important to know this and to understand the way the SACP gave birth to and then structured the armed wing of the ANC, Spear of the Nation (Umkhonto we Sizwe).

But not once did Mandela admit to being a member of the SACP. He made no mention of it in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, neither does Sampson in the official biography.

So far, only Ellis and the Russian writers Filatova and Davidson have highlighted this possibility.

I asked Ellis if what he says and writes is true, had the Mandela Myth been based on a lie?

He replied: “Mandela, for various reasons, denied at his trial that he was a member of the SACP. He was on trial for so many serious offences and he was going to minimize the seriousness of what he had done.  And he carried on denying it all through his life. I think it’s a pity in many ways that after he’d become president and a world figure and the Cold War was over that he didn’t actually tell us more about his exact relationship with the Communist Party in his early days. But he chose not to.”

Ellis told the seminar that it is most important to know the truth about Mandela’s membership of the SACP – partly because it validates the language it uses today – language familiar to readers of George Orwell’s 1984.

He said: “It’s one indication of the degree to which, after Mandela was sent to prison in 1962, the SACP came to exert a very strong influence indeed. I would say control over the ANC. South Africa is still one of the few countries in the world where people talk this Marxist jargon. I mean, political actors from the mid-20th century talk about the patriotic bourgeoisie, the national democratic revolution, the proletariat, the two-stage revolution. This vocabulary is simply not adequate to discuss the problems of South Africa in the 21st century. So, I think, that if you’re interested to know how it (South Africa) got stuck with this vocabulary, you need to look at the nature of the relationship quite clearly. Until you appreciate history and how the ANC came to adopt some key Marxist concepts, above all a Marxist/Leninist vocabulary, you can’t understand why the South African public is so ill-equipped to discuss the real problems in their country today.”

He said that had Mandela’s membership of the SACP (which served Moscow so well, so obediently and for such a long time) been widely known overseas, the ANC would never have received the support that it did – both financially and morally – from Europe and America.

He said: “Since the end of the Cold War, non-one has wanted to come to terms with South Africa’s history. Part of the reason is that Mandela denied his membership of the Communist Party, right up to the time of his death.” And Ellis said that “a cold response” from the ANC meets anyone attempting to unravel the ‘truth’ about Mandela’s membership of the SACP.

He said his book had been greeted with “a very eloquent silence” by the ANC, adding: “Anyone who starts to inquire seriously into their history . . . well, they sooner or later direct a volley of abuse at you and the aim, of course, is to discredit you and prevent any discussion. If you looked objectively at what the SACP in the 1960s and 1970s was up [to], you could find that it manipulated the ANC. That’s what they are afraid of people finding out about them.”

He said that several members of the SACP claimed Nelson  Mandela became a member of the SACP in 1960. “It is,” he said, “entirely credible that Nelson Mandela was co-opted onto the Central Committee of the SACP to work closely with Joe Slovo and Walter Sisulu [two of the SACPs best known leaders, one white, the other black] and others in establishing Umkhonto we Sizwe after the SACPs 1960 National Conference.

In response, Hugh Macmillan (author of The Lusaka years –The ANC in exile in Zambia published by Jacana, South Africa in 2013) said that all this reminded him of what the South African government said about Mandela at the time of his trial in 1962 which led to his incarceration for 27 years.

Said Macmillan: “This claim is linked with what I see as a revival of the apartheid government’s legend that the SACP, acting on the instructions of Moscow and/or Peking decided to launch the armed struggle and – to again quote Stephen Ellis – bounced the ANC into this. And the implication is that the ANC was pushed into armed struggle against its will, or better judgment, by the SACP. And I don’t think there’s any reason to believe this. There was a lot of pressure towards sabotage and armed struggle coming from below and, more importantly, the ANC was in intense competition with the Pan Africanist Congress and the PAC made a move towards armed struggle before the ANC and leaders of the ANC were well aware that they were in a competition for radicalism.”

It was the PAC that alerted the world to life under apartheid by organizing the burning of passes (needed by all Africans to move anywhere in their own country) in March 1960. It led to the Sharpeville Massacre (where 69 black people were shot dead). Macmillan said:”I am alarmed that a new kind of orthodoxy is gaining ground and it is based largely on an article by Stephen Ellis and on the book he recently published. In the article he claimed that he had proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mandela was a member of the SACP. It is being accepted – if there is such a thing – as a historic fact. And I simply don’t think that it is.”

The conference started at 9 am and finished shortly before 7 pm with a break for lunch.

Whether or not Mandela had ever been a Communist was the day’s number one topic, thought two journalists Peter Biles (ex-BBC in South Africa) and Richard Dowden (ex- ‘Independent’ newspaper journalist in South Africa) provided light relief with amusing stories and some anecdotes about Mandela and his meetings with the Press.

But after I’d left the room where a million words had bounced around like tennis balls in a Grand Slam and went out to enjoy several glasses of white wine with men who only a few hours earlier looked as if they were ready to slaughter one another, I realised how it was not the words of either Ellis or Macmillan that rattled around in my brain but those of a young South African called Khalo Matabane who makes documentaries and lives in Cape Town. His film Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me had kicked off the day’s proceedings.

“Perhaps we’ll never understand you,” we heard him almost whisper as the young Mandela – who strongly resembled Joe Louis in his prime– waved to his followers outside a courtroom. ”You are our imagination and the truth about you lies in your contradictions.”

And on the train back home I listened to what I’d recorded.

What Ellis and Macmillan said seemed rather remote. What Matabane said was explosive.

While admiring Mandela for his courage, for the long years he spent in prison and his refusal to compromise his principles, Matabane had this to say about the great man’s legacy –

“For me, I think there were tactical errors where he focused too much on trying to understand the enemy and sort of humanise the enemy and show the enemy the light and all those kind of things, which were amazing gestures. But actually his mandate should have been on the majority of Africans who are poor and marginalised. That’s where he should have spent his time. That’s my criticism. I feel that he spent so much time trying to say ‘You can find your humanity inside yourself’ and I’ m not sure that has worked for South Africa.”

He repeated it several times.

Mandela should have spent much more time listening to ordinary people, hearing their stories and how they had suffered under apartheid. Mandela, who should have listened to the poor and the wretched and said to them – “Your story matters.” Mandela had surrounded himself with so many “dubious characters” and today South Africa is sitting on a ‘time bomb’ because of high unemployment, corruption and the emergence of men and women ready to take advantage of mass dis-satisfaction and lack of belief in the ANC – the political system in general.

And on racial reconciliation in the once massively acclaimed ‘rainbow nation’?

“There’s a number of  white South Africans who do not feel that something wrong happened to South Africa who today tell you  to move on. Some of them saw my documentary and said – ‘Oh, you’re stuck in the past.’ They have no sense of responsibility like –‘Oh, we did wrong and our grand-children have benefitted and are who they are today because we benefitted because of apartheid. They fail to see that their house in Cape Town costing £1 million pounds or £10 million is because of apartheid, There is no sense of acknowledgment. The danger in South Africa today is that the guys on the Left with the right kind of rhetoric are playing on sentiments that the ANC didn’t transform enough. The present frustration is opening up a door and all sorts of people will come in and say –’We’ll make sure there is economic justice for you’.”

I listened again – “. .. the guys on the Left with the right kind of rhetoric.” I remembered what Professor Ellis had said.

The debate, like the African revolution, continues.