The heroic story of Mandel’s and the ANC’s struggle against apartheid is, Stephen Ellis thinks, mythological. In External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 , he sets out to dispel the myth.

Tom Lodge’s TLS review summarizes some of his findings: “ANC leaders were by no means reluctant warriors. Ellis finds plenty of evidence that key ANC strategists, including Nelson Mandela, were thinking about using violence almost a decade before they established Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, in 1961. Most people in the ANC’s leadership remained opposed to using violence, though, and the actual decision to launch a sabotage campaign as a prelude to more ambitious undertakings was taken by a small minority, all of them ANC officials who also belonged to the South African Communist Party. Indeed the Communist Party committed itself to a guerrilla war six months before the ANC, after obtaining Soviet and Chinese support. Really, Ellis maintains, armed struggle was a Party project, and a programme through which Communists consolidated their grip on the ANC’s leadership. After the ANC’s prohibition by the government in 1960, most of the key political decisions its members acted on were made by a tiny Communist Party elite. For a while, between 1960 and his arrest in 1962, even Mandela was a Party member.”

The results were harmful:

“Concentration on an impractical goal of insurrectionary liberation diverted the ANC from other possibilities. For example, at the time of Umkhonto’s formation the ANC still had a fairly extant underground that might have been deployed in political mobilization. In exile, Communist commanders would impose on the ANC’s refugee community an intolerant conformity. Reliance on imported East German internal security procedures accentuated a climate in which any complaints were perceived as symptoms of treachery and attracted brutal reprisals. In this climate venal leaders prospered. Parallel military, security and political command hierarchies helped to foster factional strife between different leaders, each of whom cultivated loyal ‘homeboy’ networks . . . . the movement itself became more and more entangled in criminal activity, just at a time when global conditions favoured a proliferation of international crime networks. The armed struggle itself was essentially theatrical: indispensable for the ANC to maintain its international and domestic credibility, but scarcely a challenge to the South African government. The forces that brought about apartheid’s demise were to do with the wider world and in particular a consequence of South Africa’s inability to secure foreign bank loans after 1985.”

Lodge, though, thinks Ellis misses some complications: He doesn’t deny Communist involvement with the ANC, but claims that “Ellis’s book probably overstates the extent of the Communist Party’s domination even within the ‘External Mission’ that he thinks it controlled between 1963 and 1990.” For one thing, “Communists were unable to stop ANC leaders from opening up negotiations with white South African leaders in 1985, despite their disapproval of them.” For another: “Despite joining the Party, Nelson Mandela remained a free agent.”

Lodge also argues that the violence was not as ineffective as Ellis claims: He admits that, like nearly all violent insurgencies, it had “unattractive features” and gave opportunities for “thuggery.” But he claims that it contributed to the cause: “In promoting disorder it certainly weakened the state’s authority.”

In any case, Ellis’s book appears to provide an essential dose of reality to the secular canonization of Mandela & Co.