NPR Hosts American Communist Insurgent Who Denounced Nelson Mandela

January 8th, 2009 4:31 PM

Bill Ayers isn’t the only communist insurgent who’s greeted warmly by the national media. Tuesday’s edition of National Public Radio’s black-oriented talk show News & Notes carried an interview with Frank Wilderson, a rare American accepted into the armed insurgent wing of the African National Congress. The show’s host, former Newsweek writer Farai Chideya, tried to assist Wilderson in explaining how Nelson Mandela looked like a sellout to the South African Communist Party. "We were insurgents for an ethical reorganization of civil society and political economy. And in this day and age it's too easy to mark that kind of activity as a pure terrorist activity," he complained.

Wilderson, now a professor at the University of California-Irvine, was welcomed to NPR because his memoir of his insurgent days in South Africa, titled IncogNegro, was one of several tomes recently honored with the American Book Award from the American Booksellers Association. In a December 23 interview with the left-wing Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Wilderson was explicit:

MSR: It’s generally unheard of to cast Nelson Mandela in anything but the glowing light of sainthood. And you caught hell when you first did. Do you still encounter knee-jerk hostility for calling him to account?

WILDERSON: Ah, yes, Saint Nelson! Here’s where the nonfiction genre holds me in good stead. I held elected office in the ANC and fought in its underground wing. I’m an insider, of sorts, and I’m calling Mandela a sellout not because he’s not saintly – I could give a rat’s ass about his character or spirituality -- but because he’s not a communist, with a lowercase "c." [That is] a blight on his political record.

Does this sound like an author we should promote with our taxpayer-funded media? Farai Chideya and NPR clearly thought so. The warm NPR dialogue was not as blunt about the small-c communist issues:

CHIDEYA: Let’s go into your book. You start out with a journalist calling and tracking you down and saying, ‘Oh, Nelson Mandela, by the way, thinks that you're a threat to national security in South Africa.’ What was that about and how, you know, explain to us the context for that.

WILDERSON: I can only hit the high points, because it's very long and complicated story. (Friendly laughter.) But, in point of fact, there -- close South Africa watchers will know this and others may not know this. When Mandela came out of prison in 1990, a rift that was already brewing began to actually manifest itself in the ANC. From -- simplistically put, those who want to push forth with the socialist revolution, in other words, wanted to take over the commanding heights of political economy, not just have the vote – personified in my book by Chris Hani [then the leader of the South African Communist Party], that's kind of a not a very complex way to do it but it allows me to get into some of the more complex issues. And those, more behind Mandela, who felt that political economy in terms of capitalism should remain as it is basically, except there should be more access to [facts] from it. And when you're having a political debate between people at a roundtable, that's one thing, but when you're having a political debate inside an armed wing (laughing) of a liberation struggle, things get pretty dicey.

CHIDEYA: And you didn't want that armed wing to sort of fade into the background of history.

WILDERSON: I did not.


WILDERSON: Because – We were insurgents for an ethical reorganization of civil society and political economy. And in this day and age, it’s too easy to mark that kind of activity as pure terrorist activity. And I needed to tell the story from the inside in a different way. A lot of people in MK or Umkhonto we Sizwe, which is the armed wing or the spirit of the nation, sided with Mandela and [eventual president Thabo] Mbeki and their -- those people, because they didn't feel like they could get a job outside of the army or the intelligence agency. They didn't have skills. And so, some went for practical reasons, and some stayed out, for political reasons like myself.

Chideya could only marvel at his patriotism for his adopted land: "You didn't just love South Africa as someone who politically was there, but you also built a life there. What was it like for you as an American to be, you know, in a place that was not your place of birth or your place of upbringing, but for which you clearly have so much love?"

Wilderson went on to explain the phenomenon where he would be treated with racism until people heard his American accent. He despised apartheid, but enjoyed being welcomed in by "righteous" whites and Indians as well as blacks. But when forced to look at today’s South Africa, Wilderson expressed something near nostalgia for the apartheid days, that economic realities were better before Mandela and Mbeki took over the country. Chideya displayed her sympathy for the guest by continuing to cloak the struggle for communist revolution in Wilderson’s euphemistic terms:

CHIDEYA: Do you feel that people really trusted you? People who were within -- the more critical side of the movement, end apartheid, and to build a new South Africa? People who didn't buy into, as you said...


CHIDEYA: ...South Africa -- they just perhaps let a few people into higher economic strata.

WILDERSON: Yes and no. And this is the part of the book that really moves back and forth between my sense of not having spent time with the four or five comrades who I am actually working very closer with someone on my - some of whom are my students in the day time, not having gone to the frontline states to train in insurgent camps with them, being brought in at a later point, and them having a history, me not having a history. And so, there's always -- I was always being deployed and never fully brought into the entire picture.

CHIDEYA: When you look at South Africa now and we were just talking about it earlier today on our Africa update, there's such a question about the fork in the road that faces the nation even at this point. And those questions you've raised about whether or not a post-apartheid era should bring people in -- many people into greater economic empowerment or whether it's enough to just sort of change the faces in the game at the top. How do you think South Africa is doing?

WILDERSON: Very poorly. And this isn't just my thinking. You know, a great scholar and activist and thinker, Andile Mkaba (ph) from South Africa who's written a lot, also believes this. Unfortunately, one doesn't want to say ‘I want apartheid South Africa back. I want a partition state.’ Yet, one has to also see that the sellout of the Mandela and Mbeki regime has brought about a worse economic condition than what people had before. And with rampant AIDS, there's been a complete kind of compromise formation to International Monetary Fund, GATT, and the World Bank. And what is most problematic is not just the policies, but the fact that mass mobilization has been demobilized. That's what I see is the biggest problem.

CHIDEYA: All right, well, we couldn't let you go without getting some full-on controversy on the air. And so, this is just a little teaser for a big book. Frank, thank you.

The IncogNegro image from Wilderson's UC-Irvine page, where it's said his work explores:

(1) the cinema of Red, White, and Black directors and (2) three traditions of epistemological reflection: Humanism (feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis); Indigenism (meditations on sovereignty and genocide); and Social Death (meditations on the accumulation and fungibility of Black bodies).