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.