The early collaboration of the A.N.C. with the Communists was a marriage of convenience for a movement that had few friends. The South African Communist Party and its patrons in Russia and China were a source of money and weapons for the largely feckless armed struggle, and for many, it meant solidarity with a cause larger than South Africa. 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.

But at important junctures — in negotiations to end white rule, then in the writing of a new constitution, and finally in governing — the faction of nationalizers and vengeance seekers lost out to the compromisers. In the talks that set the stage for democracy, Joe Slovo, the longtime leader of the South African Communists and a man fluent in revolutionary rhetoric, was the most ardent advocate of sharing power with the white regime. The prevailing doctrine was whatever worked to advance the cause of a South Africa governed by South Africans. This was true of Mandela and equally true of his successor, Thabo Mbeki. The current president, Jacob Zuma, seems to have no ideology at all except self-enrichment.

In one of his several trials, Mandela was asked if he was a Communist. “If by Communist you mean a member of the Communist Party and a person who believes in the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and who adheres strictly to the discipline of the party, I did not become a Communist,” he replied. The answer was both evasive and perfectly accurate.