The very notion of communism conjures up images of the Siberian tundra, the Berlin Wall, the Moscow skyline, perhaps, against the background of the Soviet flag; images of interpretations in Europe and Asia. Obviously, smaller states existed in the memory of society, probably helped by events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War, but there is one area of the world easy to miss: Africa.
What you may not realise is that, whilst as a continent, post-colonial Africa was not allied with any power-block in the way that eastern or western Europe was, it was nonetheless home to multiple communists and communist regimes, from Ethiopia to Angola. Stories that tend to accompany communist history, of heroes, of struggle, yet also of terror and coercion, all exist within the continent, yet in the grand scheme of things, the African reds seem to have been largely ignored.
This may be due to the fact that communism was perhaps not a truly established movement in Africa, rather a reaction to colonialism, and a manner of political thought that resulted from an alliance with the Eastern Block in the need to take a side during the Cold War. Additionally, the fact that comparatively few communist states existed in the world’s second-largest continent has undoubtedly contributed, alongside the actuality that none of them have made a significant appearance on the international stage in the way that Cuba or Vietnam have.
Nonetheless, we certainly can’t ignore the millions of lives changed by the regimes established in the region, nor can we forget the dedicated Marxists among the African nationalists and anti-colonialists, who fought for the sake of proletarian justice from the start. This is the reason why I’ve decided to write about the movement, but mainly the people who comprised this movement, of proletarian struggle across the continent.
Here is a brief insight into the lives and achievements of three African revolutionaries, each of whom, for better or for worse, transformed their country dramatically.
Leader of the Burkina Faso from 1983 – 1987, Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a dedicated Marxist and an advocate of Pan-Africanism. Sankara rose to the position of president on the 4th August, 1983, after a successful coup d’état, and led the country until his assassination after a counter-revolutionary insurgency. Whilst only in power for the duration of four years, he installed many virtues in the country through his policies, combatting pressing economic, but also social issues which still stand today.
Though Sankara’s family wanted him to become a catholic priest, he embarked on a career in the military from the age of nineteen, before fighting in a border war between Mali and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso). Shortly after, he rose to the position of commander, at which point in time he met Blaise Compaoré in Morrocco. Together, along with several other officers, Sankara and Compaoré formed the secret organisation known as the ‘Communist Officers Group’. It could be argued that his communist associations could be as a result of the uprisings and populist movement he had witnessed while training for service in Madagascar.
Sankara first served as Secretary of State for Information in the country’s military government, and later Prime Minister, under new leadership brought to power by an insurgency. He was later dismissed, however, and lived under house arrest after what ‘THOMAS SANKARA WEBSITE’ states was a ‘visit by the French president’s son and African affairs adviser Jean-Christophe Mitterrand’. His arrest, along with the arrest of other officials, sparked a popular revolt. It is thus understandable why the insurgency that brought him to power that August was conducted.
As president, Sankara did much for the benefit of the country, waging a determined struggle against corruption (he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, the translation of ‘Land of Incorruptible People’), promoting women’s rights and prioritising health and education. Influenced by Fidel Castro, he viewed himself as a true revolutionary, and clear associations can be drawn between his policies and that of other Marxist leaders, such as his establishment of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. Thomas Sankara was assassinated in 1987 in the aftermath of the coup which robbed him of his power, but nonetheless remains an iconic figure in the country’s history, and the history of Marxism as a whole.
Mengistu Haile Mariam
Like Sankara, Mengistu served as an officer before taking power, participating in a military junta against Ethiopia emperor Haile Selassie. He was, apparently, relatively obscure when he and his fellow comrades seized power in the nation, forming the Dergue regime, one of military rule orientated towards communism.
Three years later, after a power struggle, Mengistu not only rose to significance but took control of the Dergue. From that moment on, his true mercilessness was unveiled in his policies, which showed no compromise to those who opposed him. He once had an officer shot simply because they expressed a desire to make peace with the small, independence-seeking province of Eritrea. Mengistu also embarked on a programme known as the Red Terror, which, according to the leader’s profile on BBC News: Africa, ‘killed thousands of intellectuals, professionals, and other perceived opponents of socialism’.
Maintaining an ambition to transform the country into a communist state orientated towards Stalinism, he developed an alliance with the USSR. In Ethiopia’s war with Somalia, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East Germany each assisted the country, leading to its military victory. Military support aside, however, Mengistu apparently relied on the Soviet Union to drive Ethiopia’s economy for some time, and it is certainly questionable how long his regime would have survived without the support of others.
In the year of 1991 (also the year in which the USSR collapsed) an oppositional military advancement was made on his government in the capital, Addis Ababa, and Mengistu fled the country alongside other officials and family members, finding asylum in Zimbabwe. Though being charged by the Ethiopian government of killing almost 2,000 individuals, he still lives in what are believed to be luxurious cirumstances today. Ethopia demands his extradition, though Zimbabwe, under Robert Mugabe (a similar character), won’t cooperate.
Is it surprising to see Mandela’s name on this list? I was certainly surprised when I first heard of his communist associations. I question-marked his name as I wasn’t quite sure (it’s very difficult to be ‘quite sure’), but there is certainly sufficient evidence pointing towards the notion that Mandela was not just a freedom fighter against the Apartheid regime, but also an advocate of a socialist South Africa.
As a member of the ANC, Mandela, like the rest of the movement, allied themselves with the communists in the country during the Apartheid regime. Though this, in itself, doesn’t necessarily expose any tendencies within the ANC, there seems to be greater evidence at hand suggesting the organisation actually contained communist elements, and thus that such alliance may, at times, have been more than simply a desire from both sides to unite against a common enemy. An article by Bill Keller in the Sunday Review explains this:
‘Communist ideology undoubtedly seeped into the A.N.C., where it became part of a uniquely South African cocktail with African nationalism, black consciousness, religious liberalism and other, inchoate angers and resentments and yearnings.’
In relation to Mandela himself, it is worth noting that he himself was a member of the South African Communist Party. Alex Newman’s article in the World News section of the New American states that the party admitted the freedom fighter’s role, referring to him as ‘Comrade’ Mandela. This may not necessarily point to a conclusion (Bill Keller explained in the previous article that his membership in the party and affiliation with radical communists ‘say less about his ideology than about his pragmatism.’), but it does suggest that there is more to the man, who is regarded as a hero throughout the capitalist west, than meets the eye.
“I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”
- Nelson Mandela
The first image and cover photo, depicting Thomas Sankara, was provided by Régis Vianney BONI from Wikimedia Commons, and was licenced under the following: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en
The second image, depicting Mengistu Haile Mariam, was provided by אדעולם from Wikimedia Commons, and was licenced under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en
The final image, depicting Nelson Mandela, was provided by South Africa The Good News from Wikimedia Commons and was licenced under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en