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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

London Review of Books

Letters

From Vol. 21 No. 23 Cover date: 25 November 1999

Unreliable Friends

From Iain Edwards

In his review of Anthony Sampson's Mandela (LRB, 19 August), R.W. Johnson maintains that Indian Communists spread stories about the active role of whites in the 1949 Indian-African riots in Durban. Despite Johnson's denials, whites were looters, gave active support and viewed the events with satisfaction. Unproven stories of whites initiating the riots did surface immediately afterwards. I have not heard that Indian Communists put these about. Does Johnson have contrary evidence?

Johnson also claims that MK, the ANC's military wing, was a South African Communist Party initiative and that Sampson naively follows Slovo's 'whopper of huge proportions' clouding tight Communist control of MK from beginning to end. Johnson should look at the primary material, including SACP documents, released over the last five years. Much supports Slovo's memory. Further, despite Johnson's claims, Slovo was never MK's supreme commander.

Many of Johnson's apparent revelations have long been accepted as accurate historical interpretation. For example, it is acknowledged that the Freedom Charter did not simply spring from 'thousands of scraps of paper' sent in by distant ANC branches and communities, as some 'Struggle' legends once suggested. But accepting this does not mean subscribing to Johnson's approach to history. His claim that Lionel Bernstein drafted the Freedom Charter is interesting, too: Bernstein does not admit to this in his autobiography. Johnson should reveal his sources.

Johnson's political analysis is sometimes wanting. He criticises the United Democratic Front for lying about its links with the ANC, but leaving aside complications in the relationship, does he seriously expect the UDF to have announced itself as the public face of the outlawed, exiled, underground and hunted ANC?

Johnson claims that the ANC is turning its own distorted history into an official orthodoxy. He is wrong. The South African landscape is littered with white triumphalist monuments. Further, as documents from the pre-1994 National Monuments Council reveal, many monuments commemorating 19th and early 20th-century events were erected only during the late Seventies and Eighties: when white power in South Africa was facing its ultimate challenge.

In dealing with the conflicts which climaxed at the banks of the Ncome River in 1838, later renamed Blood River as part of modern Afrikaner (nationalist) mythology, Johnson appears to believe that any interpretation which fails to view the trekkers as victims amounts to a 'classic' (black) 'nationalist rewrite'. Could Johnson please tell us exactly what the trekkers were doing in the Zulu Kingdom?

The 16 December 1838 battle between Zulu warriors and land-hungry white trekkers is central to African, Afrikaner and Zulu nationalist and South African histories. MK was founded on 16 December 1961; its final parades were held on the same day in 1993. On 16 December last year the Minister for Arts and Culture unveiled a monument to Zulu warriors killed defending the Kingdom 160 years before. Alongside it is the monument to trekker victory in that same conflict, which is to remain. The day has long been a public holiday: in Nationalist times, the 'Day of the Vow'; since 1994, the 'Day of Reconciliation'.

Iain Edwards

Columbia University

New York

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.