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date: 25 April 2019

Communism in South Africa

Summary and Keywords

The history of communism in South Africa began with the formation in 1921 of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The party was entirely white, as was the majority of organized labor—its main constituency. The CPSA attempted to fight for equality of black and white workers, but white labor refused to desegregate, and the party’s support among Africans was practically nonexistent. In 1928, the Communist International (Comintern), of which the CPSA was a member, sent it an instruction to work for an “independent native republic.” This slogan helped the party to attract a black membership, but resulted in much infighting.

The CPSA’s position strengthened during World War II, but in 1950, after Afrikaner nationalists came to power, the party was banned. It re-emerged in 1953 as the underground South African Communist Party (SACP). Since then, the party has worked closely with the African National Congress (ANC). Many of its cadres were simultaneously ANC members. In 1955, communists helped to formulate the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s overarching program. In 1960, the SACP launched the armed struggle against apartheid. The ANC took the nascent liberation army under its wing in 1963. In the early 1960s, many party members, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested or forced into exile.

The party had a deep ideological influence on the ANC: from 1969, its ideas on South Africa as a colony of a special type and on the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) have become part of all ANC programs.

After the end of apartheid, communists occupied important positions in all ANC governments. Despite this, many in the SACP have been unhappy with the direction the ANC has taken. However, the party has not contested elections on its own, trying instead to influence ANC policies from inside. This has cost it its reputation as a militant revolutionary party.

Keywords: Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), South African Communist Party (SACP), African National Congress (ANC), National Democratic Revolution (NDR), Communist International (Comintern), the armed struggle

The Communist Party of South Africa Is Born

The Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) was born on July 30, 1921, at a meeting of fourteen delegates in Cape Town.1 This event was preceded by decades of debates among South Africa’s left on the issues of race and class and on the nature of the struggle for workers’ rights. The fact that the working class was racially polarized and ethnically divided made finding common ground more difficult.

The roots of the party can be traced to the divisions within the white South African Labour Party (SALP) on the issue of the color bar. In 1915, the Labour Party split on the question of support for the South African government’s war effort. Several Labour leaders called on the workers of the warring countries to unite for peace. In September 2015, Bill Andrews, David Ivon Jones, Sydney Percival Bunting, and Colin Wade left the SALP to form the International Socialist League of South Africa (ISL).2 The league was dominated by radical socialists. Its newspaper, the International, edited by Jones, explained that without full rights for the “native working class” internationalism could only be a scam. “We can hope to liberate the whites,” it continued, “only after we liberate the natives.”3

Yet the ISL did not implement its proclaimed principles. Thus it supported the strike of white municipal workers, even though they offered their assistance to the authorities against the “native menace”—a demonstration organized by the African National Congress (ANC) against the passes that Africans had to carry.4

The 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia deeply impressed South African socialists. The ISL published Lenin’s works and materials about the revolution and the Bolshevik party. In 1918, the print run of the International was at its highest—2,500 copies.5 Several other socialist and Marxist organizations were created in South Africa’s major urban centers. The majority of these wanted to join the Communist International (Comintern). Jones and another leaguer, Sam Barlin, attended the Comintern’s 3rd Congress, and Jones was co-opted to the Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI). However, the Comintern’s conditions of admission allowed only one united national communist party from each country to join, so none of South Africa’s socialist organizations was admitted.6

The 1st Party Congress took place in July and August 1921. The constituent organizations were the United Communist Party (Cape Town), the Marxian Club (Durban), the ISL, and the Jewish Socialist Society, or Poalei Zion (Johannesburg). The International became the official organ of the new party. Among its office bearers were Andrews, Bunting, and C.B. Tyler. The question that provoked the longest discussion was “how best to organise and do propaganda amongst the native and coloured workers,”7 yet all its leadership was white. The party denounced racism, but saw the white working class as the torch-bearer of the revolution.

The “Red Revolt” and the Turn to the “Black Masses”

This contradictory approach was soon to be tested. In 1921, Witwatersrand mining companies attempted to relax the color bar in order to employ cheaper black laborers instead of whites at some low-level jobs. In January 1922, thousands of white miners went on strike, which developed into an open uprising under the red flag and slogans of a socialist revolution. Communists were at the forefront, urging the strikers to take more radical action, but simultaneously trying to dissuade them from defending the color bar. This proved futile. The strikers demonstrated under the banner “Workers of the World Fight and Unite for a White South Africa.” There were attacks on black workers, which communists tried but failed to prevent. Despite this, they supported the uprising to the end.8

The strike brought the South African Labor Party (SALP) and the National Party closer, but even in 1923 the communist leadership still supported their alliance despite the opposition of the only non-white organization with any voting power, the African Peoples’ Association in the Cape. Only the Pact government, with its defense of poor whites against the “black peril,” rid communists of their illusions about the nature of South Africa’s white working class. In December 1924, the annual conference of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) adopted a resolution “to take the message of communism to the oppressed working class and establish the mass basis among the Africans.”9

Spreading the party’s word among the black masses took several forms. One was promoting non-whites to leadership positions (T.W. Thibedi, G. Makabeni, E.J. Khaile, J. Gomas, J. La Guma, and others). Communist education and propaganda featured prominently, as did work in and with black organizations.10

Reporting to the Communist International (Comintern) in March 1927, James La Guma said that the party had “125 members in the black organisation11 and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union [ICU].” “We have formulated a policy for these members,” he went on, “that they must push inside these organisations which they do to the best of their ability.”12 But in 1926, Clements Kadalie—the ICU’s general secretary, who had long called on members of his union to overthrow capitalism—changed tack and denounced communists as “puppets of the Party.” The council resolved that no office bearer of the ICU could be a member of the Communist Party, and three of them, La Guma, Khaile, and Gomas, were expelled.13 Two factors influenced this change. One was Kadalie’s defensive reaction to the increased government pressure on him as a result of the “political” nature of his activities; the other, the influence of the British social democratic movement, whose representative he met earlier that year.14

Relations with the African National Congress (ANC) were equally checkered. Josiah Gumede, secretary of the Natal Native Congress, had warned Africans against bolshevism. However, in 1927, addressing the Congress of the League Against Imperialism in Brussels, he said: “I am glad that in South Africa there are Communists … we find that the CPSA are the only people who are with us in spirit.” In June he was elected president-general of the ANC, and then visited Moscow to attend the World Congress of the Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU). After his return he advocated a closer alliance with the CPSA. The majority of the ANC leadership did not go along with this, and in April 1930 Gumede was replaced.15

The party in Cape Town organized a school for illiterate blacks, and there was another school in Ferreirastown in Johannesburg, which by 1928 had eighty regular students. Communists also helped to organize non-white trade unions and occupied key positions in them. La Guma estimated that in 1927 the party had 400 members, only 100 of whom were “Negroes,” though H.J. Simons and R. Simons claimed that in 1928 party membership stood at 1,750, 1,600 of whom were “African,” and that in 1929, it was nearly 3,000, the majority of them black.16

The Comintern, the CPSA, and the “Independent Native Republic”

Until 1928, the Communist International (Comintern) did not intervene in affairs of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Bunting and Andrews were delegates at the 4th Congress of the Comintern in 1922, at which Andrews was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). Bunting, his wife, Rebecca (also a founding member of the CPSA), and Edward Roux attended the 6th Congress in 1928. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, fourteen South Africans, black and white, studied in Comintern schools. Albert Nzula (the party’s first black secretary), Edwin Mofutsanyana, and Gomas served on the editorial board of the Negro Worker, one of the Comintern’s publications.17

The situation changed in late 1927, after the visit of La Guma, the first non-white party member to go to Moscow. On March 16, he presented a report on the South African situation to a meeting of ECCI’s presidium. In response, Nikolai Bukharin, head of the Comintern, proposed a new policy for the CPSA, based on the slogan of “a Negro republic independent of the British Empire” with “autonomy for national white minorities.” The slogan of “independent Native republic” was adopted by the ECCI, confirmed by the 6th Congress of the Comintern, and then imposed on the party.18 From then on, the ECCI took the CPSA under its direct and constant control.

The new policy did not go down well with South African communists. The majority, both black and white, wanted more clarity. If the native republic was to be a bourgeois state, there was no reason for the proletariat to fight for it. If it were to be socialist, it should be achieved through class, not race, action. Bunting took these doubts to the Comintern’s 6th Congress, but to no avail.19

The “Native republic” slogan was aimed at increasing the CPSA’s black membership—which it partly achieved. Boris Idelson, the first Comintern emissary to arrive in South Africa in 1929, rejoiced: “In Potchefstroom … over 1500 Negroes, almost all of them agricultural labourers, joined the Party at once.” Even he, however, had to admit that these new cadres were not “real Party members.”20 The party that emerged from this process was much darker in complexion, but also more dependent on the Comintern, more dogmatic, divided, and sectarian.

In 1930 the Comintern’s campaign of “bolshevization” reached South Africa. Its purpose was to purge older and more independent cadres and thus to assert the ECCI’s undisputed authority. Douglas Wolton, a British communist, was sent to South Africa for this purpose. He and his allies (Nzula, Roux, and Moses Kotane among them) succeeded in expelling Bunting and Andrews on accusations of “white chauvinism” and “Trotskyism.” Thibedi and Makabeni soon followed, accused of “Buntingism.” Both factions labeled one another as either “left sectarians” or “right deviationists.” In 1934 and 1935, both tried to expel one another from the party, while appealing to the Comintern for intervention. The party had only a few dozen members left and its day-to-day work ceased.21

The Comintern’s 7th Congress, held in 1935, called on communists to work with all anti-fascist forces. The slogan of an “independent Native republic” was scrapped, and the ECCI appointed a commission to look into the CPSA’s affairs. The commission worked for more than two years and collected thousands of documents. Its recommendations, however, were even further removed from South African reality, including the “confiscation without compensation” of the land of large farmers and the provision of full employment and “social insurance” for the whole population. On a more practical note, squabbling about theory was to stop and the party was to concentrate on trade union work.22

The commission was the Comintern’s swan song in South Africa. By the late 1930s, the majority of the Comintern’s leaders, including everybody who dealt with the CPSA, had perished in Stalin’s Gulag. At least six South African communists (L. Bach, M. Richter, P. Richter, J. Glazer, S.B. Davidov, and S.G. Davidov) died there too.23

The United Front, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the War Effort

The Comintern’s call for trade union work fell on fertile soil. The year 1938 saw the emergence of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions, in which several top positions were occupied by communists. In Cape Town, Andrews, Kotane, La Guma, Gomas, Ray Alexander, and other communists organized and radicalized both white and colored workers.24

But events in Europe divided the party along color lines again. African members were more interested in their daily needs than in developments on another continent, so, in search of united front allies, the party appealed to white labor. At the 1938 national conference of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), general secretary Mofutsanyana suggested dividing the party into African and non-African sections, but this motion was rejected. By then Cape Town had become the center of communist activities. Kotane, Roux, and Andrews (who rejoined the party in 1938) moved there; the Guardian, a radical weekly, was started there; and trade unions of both white and non-white workers flourished. On Kotane’s suggestion, party headquarters were moved to Cape Town. A new politburo was elected, consisting of Andrews, Alexander, Sam Kahn, Zainunnissa Gool, Kotane, and Jack Simons. The party center remained in Cape Town until 1950.25

Meanwhile, communists continued their work in non-white organizations. Mofutsanyana and Marks helped to revive the African National Congress (ANC) in the Transvaal, with Marks becoming its secretary. In 1935, communists participated in an All-African Convention against the disfranchisement of Africans in the Cape, convened by the ANC. In Cape Town, communists were part of the National Liberation League, formed by colored radicals. In 1939, communists, Trotskyists, and representatives of other left organizations convened a Non-European United Front Conference in Cape Town, which passed a resolution against segregation and for full equality.26

The CPSA saw the coming war in Europe as “imperialist” and denounced both sides. For communists, the safety of the U.S.S.R. was the highest priority, so the party defended not only the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but also the Soviet invasion of Finland and Poland, and its occupation of the Baltic states as steps to secure Soviet borders.27 Despite its deep distaste for Nazism, the CPSA found itself in the same camp as the Ossewabrandwag and Greyshirts, who also opposed the government’s war efforts. Party membership dwindled.

Hitler’s invasion of the U.S.S.R. changed the CPSA’s policy overnight. The party now called for the defense of “the home of socialism” and started to work closely with the government of Jan Smuts.28 This cooperation gave the CPSA an air of respectability in the eyes of a wider society and even of the South African elite. Its membership grew, and several communists were elected to municipal and provincial councils.

The CPSA’s activities during the war were centered on propaganda about Soviet achievements, Soviet way of life, and Soviet military victories. This work was mostly done by the Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU), an organization created by the CPSA in 1923 on a Comintern instruction.29 During the war, the FSU fundraising events collected funds, medicines, blood donations, clothes, and other gifts for the U.S.S.R. The 1944 FSU national conference was attended by 600 delegates from all South African provinces. It was patronized and supported by a wide section of South African society, from the elite to the trade unions. Communists were, however, the organizational backbone of the FSU’s activities. They maintained close relations with the Soviet consulates30 and got propaganda materials with their assistance. FSU events were never segregated, and in the late 1940s the organization started to push into black areas.31 After the war, this became its undoing.

The Post-War Realignment

In 1944, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) adopted a new program for “the establishment of a Socialist Republic, based on common ownership of the means of production and the rule of the working class and providing equal rights and opportunities for all racial and national groups.” National liberation was to be achieved within the framework of the equality of rights in a workers’ republic,32 a vision of a socialist but common society.

After the war, cooperation between the South African elite and the communists came to an end. The last years of the Smuts government were characterized by tightening segregationist and anti-liberal legislation. This affected, among other things, the trade union movement. Communists attempted to steer the South African Trades and Labour Council (SATLC) to non-racialism, but the upsurge of Afrikaner nationalism and the rigid racial legislation made this cause extremely difficult.33 Despite communists’ efforts to preserve unity, SATLC split into segregationist and non-segregationist factions. In the mid-1950s, segregated white, colored, and Indian unions organized their own Trade Union Council of South Africa, and non-racial unions, together with the Council of Non-European Trade Unions, formed the left-leaning South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). From then on, SACTU became the main communist base.

In 1945, the Council of Non-European Trade Unions claimed a membership of about 160,000. Communists were a major organizing force in African unions, often occupying leading positions. Marks was president of the African Mine Workers Union which, in August 1946, brought out 70,000 workers on strike. The government broke the strike by brute force. Many communists were arrested and charged with sedition.34 The case against them was later dropped.

The National Party came to power with a host of oppressive laws against non-European trade unions, communists and other troublemakers. In June 1950, the CPSA was banned. Just before the Suppression of Communism Act was enacted, the CPSA’s Central Committee (CC) resolved to dissolve the party.35 At the time, the CPSA had about 2,000 members, three-quarters of them African.36 The majority continued their work in trade unions and non-white political organizations as individuals, though this was made increasingly difficult by bans and arrests. “Listed” communists could not occupy leading positions in any organization.

In March 1950, the Transvaal branches of the CPSA, the African National Congress (ANC), the African People’s Organisation (APO),37 and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) convened a Freedom of Speech Convention, which protested against the forthcoming Suppression of Communism Act and drew a crowd of 10,000. The convention proposed a series of protest actions and, on the communists’ initiative, a national “stay at home” day on May 1. All of these were banned. After eighteen people were killed by the police, on June 26 the ANC and the CPSA led a national day of mourning for the dead and a strike in protest against the police brutality and the Suppression of Communism Act.38

The communists’ presence in the ANC ranks was nothing new, but in the 1950s this tendency became more pronounced. The two organizations were drawn closer together by government persecution and by the radicalization of the ANC cadres, particularly in the Transvaal. In 1950, Marks was elected chairman of the ANC’s Transvaal branch. Some within the ANC saw this as an attempt by alien ideologues to capture their organization, and later this resulted in the split by the breakaway Pan-Africanist Congress.

In 1951, the ANC, SAIC, and APO started planning the Defiance Campaign. The government ordered five of the campaign’s leaders, Kotane, Marks, D.W. Bopape, J.N. Ngwevela, and Yusuf Dadoo—all communists—to resign from their organizations and banned them from attending political gatherings. It also banned the Guardian and deprived Sam Kahn and Fred Carneson of their seats in Parliament and the Cape Provincial Council. The banned communists defied their bans and were arrested. This opened the Defiance Campaign.39 A.P. Mda, a staunch “Africanist,” observed that during the campaign white and Indian communists won the trust of African nationalists through close association with them, and that African communists, on the other hand, were influenced by African nationalism and relished the opportunities for African leadership provided by the campaign.40 The CPSA’s Brian Bunting called this process “cross-pollination.”41 It was to have a profound and long-lasting effect on both on the ANC and the party. From this point on, it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the actions of the party from those of the ANC.

Amazingly, communists could still stand as candidates in elections for representatives of Western Cape colored voters. In 1952 and 1954, Bunting and Alexander were, respectively, overwhelmingly elected, but Bunting was allowed to stay in Parliament for less than a year, and Alexander was physically prevented from entering Parliament.42 So this channel too was closed. New security laws passed after the Defiance Campaign made legal work by communists all but impossible. Many continued to work underground.

Underground, the Freedom Charter, and the Decision on the Armed Struggle

The majority of party members, including those who voted for the dissolution, thought that this was a tactical measure, and that the party would be reconstituted underground. It was extremely difficult to do this in the new circumstances, but some started to establish contacts with their like-minded comrades. Underground party cells were independently formed in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Port Elizabeth. Kotane played crucial role in re-establishing communication. The first conference of the South African Communist Party (SACP) was held in late 1953. Kotane was elected its general secretary. The majority of other office bearers were also black.43

White communists constituted the core of the South African Congress of Democrats, organized in 1953, according to Bunting, on the request of the African National Congress (ANC). The Congress became part of the congress alliance, which comprised at the time the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, and the South African Coloured People’s Organisation, later joined by the South African Congress of Trade Unions.44

In June 1955, the four congresses convened the Congress of the People, which met at Kliptown. Three thousand delegates adopted the Freedom Charter, a document that became the ANC’s overarching official program. It was based on contributions, solicited by well-briefed volunteers, and collated by a small drafting committee.45 Communists played an important role both in the organization of the congress and in drafting of the Charter. Several communists were credited with or claimed the authorship of the draft, Rusty Bernstein and Ben Turok among them.46 The text of the Charter itself was the best testimony to communist influence. It was a manifesto for a radical political and socio-economic transformation of South Africa by means of nationalization and redistribution of the main means of production and of establishing state control over other spheres of economy. It demanded full political, social, and economic equality for all racial groups, defined and managed by the state.47 In the Treason Trial that followed the congress, the state built its case on the assertion that the Charter was a communist document. Though the organizers insisted that it was not,48 many later publications both by the ANC and SACP insisted that the Charter exceeded the framework not only of “bourgeois democracy” but also of “national democracy,” and that it was, in fact, a program for “people’s democracy.”49 The contents of the Charter were closer to the Communist Party of South Africa 1944 program than to any other earlier or later document of the ANC. The main difference between the two programs was that the Charter did not mention socialism by name.

The trial of 156 organizers and activists of the Congress of the People, charged with treason, gave the accused an opportunity to meet and discuss the situation. During this trial, particularly after the Sharpeville massacre (March 21, 1960), the introduction of the state of emergency, and the banning of the ANC ten days later, some of the inmates came to the conclusion that the only way forward was armed resistance. Different sources mention the same short list of people who were at the center of these discussions: Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein, Duma Nokwe, Raymond Mhlaba, Kotane, Marks, and Joe Matthews.50 All were at some time members of the Central Committee (CC) of the underground party. At its 1958 conference, the party elected a fifteen-member CC: Kotane (general secretary), Dadoo (chairman), Bram Fischer, Bernstein, Slovo, Michael Harmel, Sisulu, Marks, Dan Tloome, Ruth First, Bunting, Alexander, Carneson, Mhlaba, and Mariemuthu (M.P.) Naicker. Four more members were co-opted in 1960: Joe Matthews, Nelson Mandela, Bartholomew Hlapane (who soon became a state witness at the Rivonia Trial), and Robert Hepple (who agreed to become one, was released on this basis, but was then helped to flee the country by Fischer). 51

According to the authoritative publication, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, it was this CC that in December 1960 took the fateful decision to embark on the armed struggle.52

The SACP and the U.S.S.R.

The Road to Democracy states that “the fact that the SACP was the first to take the decision about the armed struggle would have little long-term significance” because of the overlap between the membership of SACP’s Central Committee (CC) and the Johannesburg-based executive of the African National Congress (ANC).53 However, the fact that the armed struggle was started by the SACP, and that it was the SACP (and not the ANC, then unknown to Soviet officials) that applied for Soviet assistance and received it, had an enormous and long-lasting effect on the SACP itself, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and the ANC. Oliver Tambo’s first visit to the U.S.S.R. in 1963, after MK became the ANC’s military wing, was organized through party channels, and Tambo was accompanied by Kotane—a communist known to the Soviet party (CPSU) since the 1930s. It was Kotane who, as the ANC’s treasurer general, forwarded many ANC requests to the Soviet Union in the years to come. According to Vladimir Shubin, a former staff member of the International Department of the CPSU’s Central Committee, “the fact that they came from the SACP general secretary doubtless gave them added importance in the eyes of the Soviets.”54

The first two official SACP delegations arrived in Moscow in 1960. The second of these visits was particularly important, as two members of the delegation, Matthews and Harmel, participated at the International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties, convened to discuss the new Soviet theory of national liberation struggle. Its essence was that communists were to play a “vanguard” role in “national democratic revolutions” (NDR), which, with Soviet assistance and the correct policies, could lead to socialism.55

In October 1961, Dadoo and Kotane came the Soviet Union to request assistance for the SACP’s armed struggle. The request was granted on November 28.56 On December 16, the first MK bombs exploded. From 1960 until the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the Soviets provided massive support to both the SACP, and, from 1963, to the ANC. They trained and armed MK cadres both in the U.S.S.R. and later in Angola, and assisted with some of its operations. They accommodated SACP conferences and provided air tickets or transport for SACP and ANC cadres and helped to organize international anti-apartheid campaigns. SACP and ANC delegations regularly visited the U.S.S.R. Party cadres studied at the Lenin School. They also went to the Soviet Union for rest and treatment. In addition, the U.S.S.R. supplied the party with money—in the late 1980s U.S.$100,000 a year. The ANC was paid separately, and more,57 but while the ANC could get funding elsewhere, few were willing to support MK, and only “fraternal parties,” and particularly the CPSU, were prepared to finance the SACP.

“The Road to South African Freedom” and the Beginning of Exile

In 1962, at its 5th Congress, held underground, the party adopted a new program, The Road to South African Freedom. The program declared that South Africa was a colony of a “special type,” in which colonizers and colonized coexisted within one state. It stressed that Africans’ liberation struggle was the core of the unfolding National Democratic Revolution (NDR), which was proclaimed the immediate goal of the party. The post-revolutionary state would be “the state of national democracy,” commencing the second stage of the NDR, which would lead to full socialism. The Freedom Charter was described as a document “suitable as a general statement of the aims of a state of national democracy.” The armed struggle was part of the program, and non-violence was termed “harmful.”58 Many points of this program were directly borrowed from the declaration adopted by the International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties in Moscow that Harmel and Matthews attended. The NDR, the “state of national democracy” and its definition, for example, came directly from that declaration.

The next South African Communist Party (SACP) program, adopted twenty-seven years later, noted that “the 1962 programme has made an indelible contribution to the scientific analysis of the situation in South Africa and to the practical revolutionary work for national liberation. It has proved to be a major guiding light over more than a quarter of a century of struggle, inspiring the work of the party and non–party militants alike.”59 The main points of the 1962 program guide the party to this day.

Party activities inside the county soon ended. By the end of 1963, all Central Committee (CC) members were in prison or in exile. The SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) were dealt a deadly blow in July 1963 when ten leaders of MK, most of them communists, were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. Eight of those put on trial—Mandela (who was arrested earlier), Sisulu, Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, and Ahmed Kathrada—were sentenced to life imprisonment. The Rivonia Trial and the new ninety-day detention law made exile the only realistic option for MK, the party, and the African National Congress (ANC) leadership. Kotane, Marks, Nokwe, and other ANC leaders went to Dar es Salaam, the movement’s new headquarters. Slovo, Harmel, Dadoo, and other communists who were not ANC members moved to London, where they established the SACP’s headquarters. The internal work was left to Bram Fischer, but he was arrested, and in 1966 sentenced to life imprisonment.

The party’s members were now scattered on several continents. Communists continued their work as ANC members or as MK fighters, but the party as an organization was severely dislocated. Both the ANC and SACP were in dire straits financially and organizationally. The ANC received some assistance from Tanzania and Zambia, but the SACP, with non-Africans in its leadership and close ties with Moscow, was regarded with suspicion in independent African countries. Soviet assistance was the party’s lifeline. The London Aid Committee, a charity headed by Dadoo and Julius First, was created to help finance the party.

The first CC meeting in exile took place in 1965 in Prague. It set up its Central Executive Committee in London, tasked to rebuild the party, communicate with CC members in Dar es Salaam, and liaise with cadres still in South Africa.60 The next meeting was convened in Moscow in 1967. Kotane, Dadoo, Slovo, Marks, Mark Shope, Bunting, and Harmel were present to discuss relations between the ANC and the party. The ANC leadership, particularly Kotane, thought that the SACP should keep a low profile in Africa to avoid alienating the Zambian and Tanzanian governments. Kotane’s colleagues were concerned that this would lead to the party’s disintegration and its “capture” by the ANC. It was resolved that a party member should sit on the Consultative Congress Committee in Tanzania to coordinate the work of congress alliance partners. However, the problem persisted.61

The Morogoro Conference and the Party Role in the Liberation Movement

The African National Congress (ANC) Morogoro Consultative Conference, held in April and May 1969, was a milestone in the history of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). It opened ANC ranks to non-Africans, thus strengthening the role of communists within the organization. It restructured the congress alliance to comprise the ANC, the SACP, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions, thus recognizing the SACP as a separate organization from the ANC. It created a Revolutionary Council (headed by Tambo) to coordinate the armed struggle and the underground inside the country.62 Communists dominated both the council and the ANC national executive elected at the conference.

Most importantly, the conference adopted a Strategy and Tactics program. The program marked the ANC’s radical departure from the “common society” vision of the Freedom Charter and described the South African situation as colonialism of a special type. The program opened with the declaration that “the struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa is taking place within an international context of transition to the Socialist system.” It asserted that the existence of the socialist system enabled liberation from “foreign oppression” to extend beyond “mere formal political control” and to encompass economic emancipation. The document incorporated the armed struggle, the National Democratic Revolution, the two-stage revolution, and socialism as an ultimate goal of the liberation movement63—in other words, all the main elements of the SACP 1962 program. This Strategy and Tactics document laid the basis for the similar documents that have been passed at every ANC national conference since.

The Morogoro resolutions met strong opposition from some leading ANC members. They objected to what they saw as a capture of the ANC by the racial minorities, and particularly by the party. In 1975, this opposition was expelled from the ANC. But, despite denials, communist influence on the ANC, both in ideology and organization, was obvious. Even Tambo was concerned when, for example, the party members met separately before meetings of the Revolutionary Council, arguing that this might divide the ANC membership. He emphasized that the party should work in the tradition of Kotane—that is, act discreetly and not organize as an independent force.64

By the time of the conference, Kotane was in a hospital in Moscow (he would not to return). In his absence, Tambo, Alfred Nzo, Marks, Dadoo, and Slovo had a formal ANC-SACP meeting that resolved that both organizations would maintain regular non-public contact, and that a leading SACP member in the ANC would be appointed as a liaison between the Central Committee (CC) and Tambo (in effect, a substitute to Kotane).65 Yet the augmented meeting of the CC in Moscow, which met a year later, stated that the party had “failed to play a leading role within the national movement and its independent role as the vanguard Party.” The CC in exile, it was noted, did not work as a collective, “of which members in leading positions in the ANC were an integral and functioning part.” Even “leading members of the Party, however strategically placed in the national movement or Mkhonto, do not function as Party cadres.” The meeting decided that wherever there were two or more party members in the same area, they should create units that should be in direct communication with the CC or its nominees.66

The party struggled with the definition of its role in the liberation movement, of which it was a “vanguard”—yet simultaneously part of an alliance “led” or “headed” by the ANC. The meaning of these three notions and the correlation between them remained a point of contention and theoretical uncertainty. The 1970 meeting resolved that the SACP’s vanguard role would depend on the “correctness of our political line, on our ability to win non-Party comrades to supporting our line and on our cohesiveness as an organisation.”67

The suppression of the Soweto uprising swelled the ranks of the SACP and of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which by then had moved to the camps in Angola. By the late 1970s, the SACP had regional organizations or cells in London, Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, Moscow, Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, and Cape Town. In 1981, the party headquarters were moved from London to Luanda; in 1982, to Maputo; and in 1984, to Lusaka, where the ANC headquarters had been since 1977.

By the early 1980s, relations between the party and the ANC had become so close that ideological distinctions between the two organizations were blurred. In 1979, the Politico-Military Strategy Commission stated that “no member of this Commission had any doubts about the ultimate need to continue our revolution towards a socialist order.” It stressed that “the seizure of power by the people must be understood not only by us, but by the masses as the beginning of the process in which the instruments of state will be used to progressively destroy the heritage of all forms of national and social inequality … Care, however, must be exercised in the way we project ourselves publicly on this question.” The commission, though created by the ANC and headed by Tambo, had a communist majority.68 Increasingly, the SACP insisted that “already at this stage” the liberation movement should cooperate with it in “bringing to the fore the noble aspirations of labouring [sic] people in our country for socialism.”69

Yet the party behaved as a separate organization both within and outside the ANC. In 1981, the CC resolution Party Work in Fraternal Organisations stipulated that communists in the liberation movement should “discuss and decide collectively on their common approach to all matters which affect the basic direction and content of the revolutionary struggle, and to ensure that they advance and support such decision in any organ in which the matter arises.” Moreover, the resolution stated that communists working “at any level of a fraternal organisation are accountable to the Party collective.” In 1982, the party started to establish its own cells among MK cadres in Angola.70

The Changing Situation and the Party Policy

From the early 1970s, the party began sending its operatives inside the country in order to recreate its structures and re-establish its presence there. The most successful mission was that of Chris Hani, assistant general secretary of the party and a Umkhonto we Sizwe commander, in 1974. Neither the party nor the African National Congress (ANC) were responsible for the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, but those whom Hani and other operatives recruited used the revolutionary situation to establish a South African Communist Party (SACP) foothold inside the country. With the beginning of the People’s War, party cadres worked in United Democratic Front (UDF) structures, and the SACP had several formal meetings with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). 71

The 6th SACP Congress, which took place in November 1984 in Moscow, discussed the new situation: the People’s War, the emergence of the UDF, and the impending unification of anti-apartheid trade unions in COSATU. A key concern of the congress was security. In 1981, after a spy network was uncovered within the ANC, its security machine started to use torture. The party called on interrogators to desist from methods which “undermine revolutionary morality.” The 6th Congress, however, instructed the Central Committee to establish a three-person tribunal for “imposition of maximum sentence,” accountable only to the Politburo.72

The party’s 7th Congress, held in Havana in April 1989, adopted a new program, The Path to Power. The program repeated the SACP’s mantra on colonialism of a special type, the National Democratic Revolution, and the two-stage revolution. The party still believed that the world was in the process of transition from capitalism to socialism and that apartheid could be defeated only through the seizure of power by the liberation movement. The program stressed, however, the importance of mass political mobilization in combination with the armed struggle, and discussed, for the first time openly,73 the prospect of negotiations. Such negotiations were deemed possible only when the liberation movement was strong enough and ready for them.74 But preliminary talks were already being held, led by Thabo Mbeki, a Politburo member, with Tambo’s blessing. Not even the whole Politburo knew about them.

The Roots of Party Influence in Exile

Several factors explain the party’s significant influence on the African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners. As early as the 1930s, communists began to occupy important positions in the ANC. Throughout the 1950s and particularly in exile, this tendency grew ever more pronounced. For decades communists occupied strategic positions in ANC structures and in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). According to Mac Maharaj, not just the leadership, but also the majority of trained MK cadres were communists.75 But the main source of the party’s strength was its enormous ideological influence on the ANC, the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and beyond. In effect, by 1990 the ANC did not have any other ideology except that of the South African Communist Party (SACP). From 1969 on, every detail of the SACP theory of national liberation movement was incorporated into ANC official documents. There were debates, objections, and dissent, but the majority of non-communists in the movement still accepted SACP views.

One reason for this was a system of communist education. Throughout its history, the party taught Marxism to non-party people, usually workers. In exile, many ANC cadres were concentrated in a few centers, creating an ideal situation for political education. Party teaching embraced the Soviet theory of national liberation movement (the two-stage revolution, the party’s vanguard role, and the National Democratic Revolution) with South African additions (colonialism of a special type). All MK cadres in the camps went through such political courses, taught originally by Jack Simons, the party’s intellectual luminary, and by Mark Shope and Ronnie Kasrils. One of their tasks was to train political commissars, who became instructors themselves.

A remarkable 95 percent of all ANC members abroad went through military training.76 The most common basic course in all such training, Military Combat Work (MCW), originated in the U.S.S.R., where MK cadres were trained from 1962. Apart from the principles of organizing underground networks for the People’s War, the course explained such issues as “redistribution of wealth, of land and other means of production” and “Lenin’s principles of Party leadership in the MCW.” Different versions of cadres’ notes of the course circulated in the ANC at least from the early 1970s, and in 1988 a standardized version appeared in the SACP periodical Umsebenzi.77 The ANC Second National Conference (Kabwe, 1985) stated that MCW derived “from the experience of the Bolsheviks in three revolutions” and stressed its importance for the whole movement. The conference also recommended that the course in Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory be included into ANC’s political education syllabus.78

Party propaganda played a role too. The party periodicals, the African Communist and Inkululeko—Freedom (renamed Umsebenzi in 1985), and the ANC official organ, Sechaba, were obligatory reading among the cadres in exile and were increasingly distributed inside the country. There was no political or ideological difference between the ANC and SACP publications. If an unorthodox opinion appeared in any of them, it was quickly corrected. Communists often published in Sechaba, sometimes under their own names, though more often under pseudonyms. Naturally, Sechaba reflected the topics discussed in the African Communist and in the party generally. Radio Freedom and Radio Moscow maintained the same line.

The apartheid regime itself contributed to the popularity of the SACP by basing its propaganda on anti-communism and presenting itself as a bastion against the communist onslaught. Inside the country, communists took the brunt of repression. This inevitably attracted apartheid’s opponents to communist ideas. The prestige of the Soviet Union also added to the popularity of communism. The whole situation of anti-apartheid struggle within the context of the Cold War created conditions conducive to the popularity of communist ideology not only among ANC cadres in exile, but also among the UDF and COSATU inside the country.

The Unbanning and the Return Home

Party leaders expected that on February 2, 1990, F.W. de Klerk would unban the African National Congress (ANC) and other organizations—but not the South African Communist Party (SACP).79 De Klerk’s speech caught them unprepared. An immediate problem was whether all in the leadership should reveal their party membership. The politburo (PB) was divided. Mbeki let his membership lapse, as did his associates, Jacob Zuma and Aziz Pahad. Eventually, half the members of the Central Committee elected at the 7th Congress left the party.80 Slovo (by then general secretary) and Hani carried the party banner into the new era. The split spread to the ANC, and the distrust between the two factions was never healed.

The party had to create an interim transitional leadership and to decide what to do with its underground networks inside the country. An underground consultative conference was held in Tongaat in May 1990. In the early 1980s, the ANC had launched Operation Vula, aimed at establishing internal structures and communication between them and Lusaka, and at promoting the People’s War. Tambo and Slovo headed the operation. All key cadres inside the country (Maharaj, Kasrils, Siphiwe Nyanda, Pravin Gordhan, and others) were communists. Now the party used Vula networks and cadres to organize the conference. The party’s role, the participants thought, was to organize mass pressure on the government in order to ensure the advent of “people’s power” and to create organs of people’s power to be ready for a transition.81

The fate of underground structures remained unclear. The PB meeting in Lusaka on February 15 had decided that they should remain intact.82 Mandela also supported the idea of maintaining the underground. A few weeks later, the government security forces uncovered Vula, and several people, including Maharaj, were arrested. Maharaj felt that he and his comrades did not get enough direction and support from the leadership, first of all from Slovo. He ultimately resigned both from the SACP and the ANC. The cohesion of the party was clearly breaking down.83

The public launch of the legal SACP was held on July 29, 1990, attended by 45,000 people. A twenty-two-member interim leadership group, which included cadres from exile and from the United Democratic Front (UDF), was introduced, with Slovo as general secretary.84 The party enjoyed enormous prestige and popularity. By the time of its 8th Congress, it had swollen to 21,000 members and 300 branches.85 But many new branches were weak and inexperienced, and some new members who came from the UDF (which was dissolved in August 1991) were more radical and uncompromising than the party core. It was, nevertheless, a step toward a mass party.

In the early 1990s, the party struggled to find its identity after the collapse of the international communist movement and the U.S.S.R. The 7th Congress paid lip service to the new situation, but by the early 1990s this was no longer possible. In 1990, Joe Slovo offered his own view in a pamphlet titled Has Socialism Failed?86 Slovo rejected Stalinism and proposed a “democratic socialism” for South Africa. The pamphlet was attacked both from the left and the right of the party. The debate on the nature of socialism and the future socialist South Africa dominated the 8th Party Congress in December 1991. A Manifesto of the South African Communist Party: Building Workers’ Power for Democratic Change was adopted. The document noted the unfavorable international situation, but otherwise stuck to the old script, starting with SACP’s vanguard role in the struggles for socialism. Hani now became general secretary, and Slovo, chairman.87

The party’s created its own legal organization, separate from the ANC, but its image as an independent entity, acting separately from the ANC, failed to materialize. Communists were an important part of the ANC negotiating team and used their clout to achieve compromises that were not popular with their own party. In August 1990, Slovo proposed a unilateral suspension of the ANC’s armed struggle and, with Mandela’s help, was able to push it through, enabling negotiations to begin.88 In 1992, when negotiations collapsed, Slovo proposed an amnesty and the “sunset clauses” that allowed a period of post-election power-sharing.89 When Chris Hani was murdered in April 1993, the party leadership did everything to prevent violence and to keep negotiations going.

Radicals in the ANC and the party were not happy with such developments. After the Boipatong massacre, the alliance started “rolling mass action”—a series of mass protest rallies, meetings, and marches aimed at pressurizing and ultimately toppling the government. The SACP was a party to this decision, and its leading activist, Kasrils, led a march of 60,000 unarmed people on Bisho, capital of Ciskei, in order to topple its military dictator, Oupa Gqozo. Twenty-eight people were killed, and scores wounded as a result. This cooled hot heads for a while, but divisions remained.

Communists and the Mandela and Mbeki Governments

With the African National Congress (ANC) in power, the party leaders at all levels were deeply involved in government and the administrative structures of the new democratic state, and had much less time for party activities. Yet, government business did not involve the party as an organization, for it never contested elections. Whatever their convictions, communists in government acted on behalf of the ANC. They might influence government policy, but the party could not demand that they implement its policy. In any case, at that time the party did not have a program different from the ANC’s.

In April 1995, the 9th Congress of the South African Communist Party (SACP) adopted a new program, Socialism is the Future, Build it Now! SACP Strategic Perspectives. The program denounced World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF)–type reforms, in particular social-spending cuts and privatization. It expressed its support for the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) on condition that it would provide for the basic needs of the people through redistribution and industrialization, and not for a “one-sided drive for competitiveness and an unending attempt to woo foreign investors.” “Capital” was defined as “the main strategic opponent” of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). The authors explained that “the NDR is not a detour, but the most direct route to socialism,” thus the main slogan of the program. One novelty in the program was the substitute of “socialisation” for “nationalisation.”90

The SACP and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) saw RDP not just as a means to improve the socio-economic conditions of the black majority, but as the core of the “developmental” path to socialism. But in 1996, the government introduced a new macroeconomic program, Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), which aimed at macroeconomic stability, fiscal discipline, and economic growth through privatization, foreign investment, and trade liberalization. COSATU and the party denounced GEAR outright, despite the fact that many prominent SACP members, who were in the government, supported and implemented this policy. The ANC membership was equally divided about GEAR, as it smacked of IMF recipes and went against popular expectations.

Mbeki, the main author of GEAR and Mandela’s deputy in the ANC and in government, became the party’s main enemy. The 1997 ANC National Conference, which elected Mbeki to the presidency of the ANC, made things worse. The conference adopted a new Strategy and Tactics, inspired by Mbeki. It pledged to continue the NDR and stressed that “national oppression and its social consequences” could not be removed by “formal democracy underpinned by market forces.” But it mentioned neither the Freedom Charter nor nationalization. Moreover, the authors declared the development of an African bourgeoisie as one of NDR’s goals.91

It was at this point that the SACP started to acquire its own voice. The 10th SACP Congress (July 1998) passed a special resolution on GEAR. “The overall thrust of GEAR,” it ran, “is not the appropriate macro-economic framework for our society, and its overall thrust must be rejected.” But the party saw internal pressure as the only way to do this and offered “to engage the government on the contents of GEAR.”92 Neither the ANC nor the SACP critics of GEAR in government positions dared to challenge Mandela or Mbeki openly.

Under the Mbeki presidency, the objections of the party and COSATU were partially offset by Africanization and “Black Economic Empowerment,” from which many of their leaders benefited. GEAR too soon found itself in retreat. Under the pressure from the left, privatization was quickly dropped, and government control and regulation were greatly increased throughout the economy. But for the party this was not enough, for its socialist objective had disappeared from the government agenda.

The 11th SACP Congress (July 2002) voted “to raise the independent profile of the SACP,” “to engage in a struggle to promote a working class hegemony within the NDR,” and to ensure its socialist character. Moreover, the Central Committee (CC) had “to establish mechanisms to more effectively utilise the large number of SACP members, who are public representatives, to promote SACP policy.”93

The draft of the new version of the Strategy and Tactics to be adopted by the ANC in 2007 discarded the prospects of socialism altogether. The aim of the NDR was now a “national democratic society,” which was “social democratic” in nature. The “revolution”—an ongoing process—had not just the black bourgeoisie, but also some sections of the white population among its “motive forces.” The contents of the revolution also changed. “The liberation of Africans in particular and Blacks in general from political and socio-economic bondage” remained its main goal, but for the first time, the document mentioned “uplifting the quality of life of all South Africans.” The document pledged to encourage a common “national identity” and the use of the state “as an instrument of social cohesion.”94 Whatever the wording, the 2007 Strategy and Tactics was the death knell for the NDR as a route to socialism.

The campaign against GEAR, against the new interpretation of the NDR, and against Mbeki personally gained momentum before the 2007 ANC National Conference. The rallying cry of the Left was the return of the ANC to the ideals of the Freedom Charter and “the spirit of Morogoro.” The political resolution of the 9th COSATU Congress in September 2006 adopted “an official position that rejects the separation of the NDR from socialism and asserts that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the only guarantee that there will be a transition from NDR to socialism.”95 In November 2006, the party’s CC triumphantly announced a general “shift to the left” in society.96

The attack of the SACP and COSATU on the new Strategy and Tactics was particularly vehement. Their leaders denounced it in the media, and a popular SACP Communist University website called it “fascist.”97 Though the document was passed, almost unchanged, by the 2007 ANC’s National Conference in Polokwane, Mbeki and his followers suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the team headed by Mbeki’s deputy, Jacob Zuma. This could have been achieved only with the support of the SACP, COSATU, and some ANC structures. The wording of the document proved less important than the hope that the government, under Zuma, would implement the party’s policy.

The SACP in the Zuma Government

The party actively sought the removal of Mbeki from power and campaigned against Kgalema Motlanthe, Mbeki’s successor. In 2009, Zuma became president. Both of his governments (2009 and 2014) included the top South African Communist Party (SACP) leadership, including Blade Nzimande.

Yet the party’s new program, adopted at its 13th Congress in 2012, stated that “since 1994 SACP has been a ‘party of governance’, not a governing party as such,” despite the fact that “tens of thousands of communists have taken up the challenges and responsibilities of governance.” The program stated that the SACP “has every right to contest elections in its own right—should it so choose.” But, it declared, “the SACP is a vanguard party of socialism, not a narrowly electoratist formation.” The party denounced “neo-liberalism” and the “free market” and proposed the same road to socialism—the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and “working class hegemony over the state.”98

The African National Congress (ANC) also spoke the language of the party: the NDR was its official policy, and the latest version of its Strategy and Tactics announced the transition to the second stage of the revolution, which would lead to the “developmental” state and the national-democratic society. Socialism was not mentioned by name, but the contents of the second stage are defined by the principles of the Freedom Charter and their implementation—by the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).99

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) proclaimed exactly the same principles. Its policy was the working class–driven NDR, whose objectives were expressed in the Freedom Charter and the RDP. Its attitude to the SACP was more paternal than fraternal. Its program, adopted at its 8th National Congress (2003) called the SACP “the vanguard of the working class” and sought “to build it into a strong, mass-based organisation that can truly be the bedrock for workers.” It also pledged to “provide financial and material support to the SACP” and to encourage its members to join the SACP and promised “to jealously defend the progressive and working class bias of the ANC.”100 The SACP certainly needs the financial support of COSATU; it cannot not survive on membership fees, and has few other donors. Its head office is situated in COSATU House, and, according to media reports, on some occasions it could not even pay its bills.

Since 2009, the SACP leadership has been part and parcel of Zuma’s ruling elite, presiding over unprecedented corruption and patronage. The party in government lobbies for populist policies that hamper growth and finds itself unable to oppose unrealistic populist demands. SACP ministers were part of the government responsible for the Marikana massacre of striking workers in August and September 2012. None of them resigned, nor even protested, no doubt because of the party’s closeness to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a COSATU affiliate and the main rival of the striking workers’ organization, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Once again the party finds itself fully in the fold of the ANC, but now, unlike the situation in exile, it looks as if the ANC has “captured” the party, not the other way round. The SACP has started to distance itself from the most outrageous incidents of corruption in ANC ranks, though not from Zuma. But despite the cracks, the alliance marches on. The ANC needs the party as its revolutionary façade. It needs COSATU as testimony to its proletarian character and as voting fodder. Both the SACP and COSATU need the ANC, or rather the government, for patronage in the shape of jobs, contracts, and salary rises. If the ANC falls, its allies will fall too.

But the allure of communist ideals in South Africa continues. The populist expectations created by the SACP and ANC during the struggle have not gone away. Neither party did anything to dispel them—on the contrary, each new ANC government has come up with more unrealistic promises. In 2013 a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which calls itself “a revolutionary workers’ party,” emerged with familiar slogans: a National Democratic Revolution, the Freedom Charter, expropriation of land and nationalization of all mines, industries, and banks. In the 2014 elections, after just eight months of campaigning, the EFF won 6.35 percent of the vote and twenty-five parliamentary seats. Faced with such a dynamic rival on the left, it is probably now too late for the SACP to go it alone in elections.

Discussion of the Literature

A large volume of literature about “communism in South Africa” was created by apologists for the apartheid regime, for whom the South African Communist Party (SACP) was a Soviet stooge, controlling the ANC. Most of what they produced was crude propaganda. However, one book stands out: A History of Communism in South Africa by Rev. Henry R. Pike.101 Unlike most anti-communist literature, this book is based on a study of multiple primary sources, some of them unique, as the author had access to the security service files. This does not make Pike’s observations and conclusions any more convincing, as he is unapologetically biased and his hatred for the subject of his research is palpable. Nonetheless, there is some material in this book not easily found elsewhere.

The first studies of the history of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) were written by communists and people close to the party in the 1940s. The first to come out were two books by Edward Roux.102 Both were devoted to the early history of the party and based on the author’s own experience, documents from his private archive, and unpublished party materials. These have been a good source for later historians.

In 1965 Sheridan Johns submitted his thesis, Marxism-Leninism in a Multi-Racial Environment: The Origins and Early History of the Communist Party of South Africa, 1914–1932. This was the first academic study of the early history of the CPSA. Johns summarized and analyzed all the existing literature and the available archival material. This thesis was not published until much later, but it was important reading for those interested in the party’s early history.103

A semi-official history of the party, published by Michel Harmel for the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation, appeared in 1971.104 It was a short popular essay, based mostly on unreferenced party publications. However, the book contained an appendix of important party documents, some of which had not been published before.

Brian Bunting’s biography of Moses Kotane, the Party stalwart, appeared in 1975.105 It was based on Bunting’s conversations and correspondence with Kotane and on party materials, though poorly referenced. The book presented a sympathetic narrative of Kotane’s life and some new details of the party’s history.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the most significant work, covering the history of the CPSA, was Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850–1950, by two communists, Jack and Ray Simons.106 Published in 1969, the book detailed and analyzed the party’s history in the broader context of the black struggle against white hegemony. The book was based on an exhaustive study of literature and primary sources, such as parliamentary papers, newspapers, and texts of legal documents. The authors used their private archive, party and trade union materials, and drew from their own experience and interviews.

In 1972, Apollon Davidson published a voluminous early history of the party in Russian.107 Unlike all previous writers, he was able to use materials from the then closed archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), although they could not be either quoted or referenced. His other unique sources were the memories of some of the Russians who worked with the South Africans in the Comintern and survived Stalin’s purges. The author also used unpublished materials from Hoover Institution archives and interviewed South African communists who visited Moscow. The book was never translated, but several chapters have appeared in English as articles.

The 1970s saw the beginning of a massive publication of documents on South African protest movements, From Protest to Challenge, with the initial volumes edited by Thomas Karis and Gwendolen Carter.108 Some of these documents referred directly or indirectly to the party and its relations with the liberation movement.

One result of the unbanning of the SACP and the African National Congress (ANC) was a dramatic increase of publications on the history of both organizations. Party and ANC members felt freer to speak to researchers. The ANC opened most of its archives to researchers. The SACP did not do this, but many of its materials are found in ANC collections. After the end of the Cold War, the CPSU archives, which contain a great number of SACP and ANC documents, were also partially opened to researchers.

This new situation resulted in multiple publications of documents, such as a collection of South African documents from the Comintern archives, published by the team of researchers headed by Apollon Davidson 109, and later volumes of From Protest to Challenge, now edited by Karis and Gail Gerhart.110 These publications contain not only detailed commentary on documents, but also extensive surveys of relevant periods and topics.

Veterans of the SACP have published their autobiographies. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Ray Alexander-Simons’s All My Life and All My Strength, and Ronnie Kasrils’s Armed and Dangerous were among these.111 Several detailed biographies of leading communists appeared in the 1990s and 2000s. Among these are Allison Drew’s biography of Sidney Bunting, Stephen Clingman’s biography of Bram Fischer, Padraig O’Malley’s biography of Mac Maharaj, and Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki.112 Almost without exception, both biographies and autobiographies make little or no distinction between the activities of the SACP and the ANC from the 1950s on, and some barely mention the SACP.

New studies, directly or indirectly connected with the history of the party, have also appeared. The first volume of an important multivolume publication, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, which drew on hundreds of interviews with ANC and SACP activists, is a valuable addition to the history of relations between the ANC and SACP in the 1960s.113 Hugh Macmillan in The Lusaka Years: The ANC in Exile in Zambia, 1963–1994 and Stephen Ellis in External Mission analyzed the same period and the same subject, but their assessments of the SACP’s role and influence in the liberation movement differ dramatically. 114 Vladimir Shubin’s ANC: A View from Moscow and Irina Filatova’s and Apollon Davidson’s The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era115 cover the SACP’s relations with the CPSU and the ANC.

There are three books devoted to the history of the SACP per se. One is Simon Adams’s Comrade Minister: The South African Communist Party and the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy, based on published materials, South African newspapers, and some SACP official documents.116 Half the book is a concise sketch of SACP’s pre-1990 history, the other half, a more detailed story of the ANC and SACP in the early 1990s. Eddy Maloka’s The South African Communist Party: Exile and After Apartheid is a valuable contribution to the study of SACP’s history, as it contains quotations from otherwise unavailable SACP documents.117 Maloka had exclusive access to the SACP’s closed and unsorted archives from exile. Mia Roth’s The Communist Party in South Africa: Racism, Eurocentricity and Moscow, 1921–1950 is heavily biased.118 The author claims, falsely, that the book presents “the first account of the history of Communist Party of South Africa based on archival sources” and that previous accounts had “very little to do with reality” as they were “written by Party members.” In fact, even the works written by communists are far from uncritical of the party history (the Simons’ Class and Colour in South Africa is the best example), and since the early 1990s all serious publications have been based on archival sources, including the same material from Russian archives that Roth quotes.

The history of communism in South Africa is a highly politicized and contested subject. The main point of contention is the degree of communist influence on the ANC. As the apartheid regime propaganda claimed that the SACP controlled the ANC, authors who supported the anti-apartheid struggle deemed it appropriate to deny, diminish, or ignore such influence. The same applies to the Soviet influence. Even today, more than two decades after the end of apartheid, such issues as the Comintern’s domination of the CPSA’s policy in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, communist ideological influence on the ANC from the 1950s on, the role of the SACP in the armed struggle, and the importance of Soviet assistance are hotly debated. One example is the bitter polemic about Mandela’s membership in the SACP.119

The definitive history of the SACP as such, not as a part of the ANC, is yet to be written. Political sensitivities and the inaccessibility of crucial archives make such a study difficult.

Primary Sources

The most important category of sources on the topic is the documents created by the Communist Party. Official documents, some of which are available on the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) website, constitute only a small part of the Party documentation.120 The SACP did not open its archives to researchers, but many of its documents (such as minutes of the Central Committee meetings, internal party bulletins, the personal correspondence of party members, et cetera) are available in private collections of prominent party members that have been donated to archives in South Africa and abroad.

One such donation is the massive Simons collection at the Special Collections Library of the University of Cape Town.121 The private archives of Yusuf Dadoo, Ahmed Kathrada, Brian Bunting, Ruth First, and several others are housed in the Mayibuye Archive at the University of the Western Cape.122 The collections of Sidney Bunting, Ronnie Kasrils, and Sylvia Neame are part of the Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand.123 Some relevant papers are housed in the Archives and Special Collections at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ library in London.124

African National Congress (ANC) archival collections, containing both official and unofficial documents, are equally important for the study of communism in South Africa. They are housed in the same archival depositories. The Bodleian Library, Oxford, houses the Howard Barrell papers, which contain materials pertaining to the armed struggle.125

After the end of the Cold War, the archives of the Soviet Communist Party, which contain a great number of SACP and ANC documents, were partially opened to researchers—though not the files of the Central Committee’s International Department, where the most important documents are housed. The Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History contains the Comintern’s archives and some other documents up to 1950.126 The Russian State Archive of Contemporary History contains SACP documents and materials pertaining to the ANC and SACP relations with the U.S.S.R., but its collections are only partially open.127

Interviews of the veterans of the SACP and the ANC are another important primary source. There are interview texts in several archival collections, such as the Julie Frederikse collection at the South African History Archive.128 Several collections of SACP and ANC documents and interviews are available online, the largest of which are the O’Malley’s Archives, The Heart of Hope,129 and the South African History Archive.130

A useful addition to archival collections are publications of selections of archival and other rare documents. Two of these publications, From Protest to Challenge and South Africa and the Communist International, were mentioned earlier.131 Allison Drew published a selection of archival and other rare materials, many of which pertain to the history of the ANC and SACP.132 In 1981, the SACP published its own volume of selected documents, South African Communists Speak. It is an unreferenced publication, which does not contain any unknown documents. It is nevertheless useful for a general acquaintance with the party’s history.133

The memoirs of SACP and ANC veterans, many of which appeared in the last two decades, are another important source, as are the SACP’s own periodicals and other publications, particularly its journal, the African Communist, most issues of which are available on the party’s website.

Further Reading

Davidson, Apollon, Irina Filatova, Valenin Gorodnov, and Sheridan Johns, eds. South Africa and the Communist International: A Documentary History, Vol. I: Socialist Pilgrims to Bolshevik Footsoldiers, 1919–1930. London: Frank Cass, 2003.Find this resource:

Davidson, Apollon, Irina Filatova, Valenin Gorodnov, and Sheridan Johns, eds. South Africa and the Communist International: A Documentary History, Vol. II: Bolshevik Footsoldiers to Victims of Bolshevisation, 1931–1939. London: Frank Cass, 2003.Find this resource:

Drew, Allison. Between Empire and the Revolution: A Life of Sidney Bunting, 1873–1936. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007.Find this resource:

Ellis, Stephen, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960–1990. London: Hurst & Company, 2012.Find this resource:

Filatova, Irina and Apollon Davidson. The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2013, ch. 12–15.Find this resource:

Gevisser, Mark. The Dream Deferred: Thabo Mbeki. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007.Find this resource:

Macmillan, Hugh. The Lusaka Years: The ANC in Exile in Zambia, 1963–1994. Cape Town: Jacana Media, 2013.Find this resource:

Maloka, Eddy. The South African Communist Party: Exile and After Apartheid. Cape Town: Jacana Media, 2013.Find this resource:

Neame, Sylvia. The Congress Movement: The Unfolding of the Congress Alliance, 1912–1961, Vol. 1: 1917–April 1926. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Neame, Sylvia. The Congress Movement: The Unfolding of the Congress Alliance, 1912–1961, Vol. 2: April 1926–1928. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Neame, Sylvia. The Congress Movement: The Unfolding of the Congress Alliance, 1912–1961, Vol. 3: 1928–1961. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2015.Find this resource:

O’Malley, Padraig. Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa. New York: Viking, 2007.Find this resource:

Shubin, Vladimir. ANC: A View from Moscow. Belville, Cape Town: Mayibuye Books, UWC, 1999.Find this resource:

Simons, Harold Jack and Ray Simons. Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850–1950. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1969.Find this resource:

South African Communists Speak. Documents from the History of the South African Communist Party 1915–1980. London: Inkululeko Publications, 1981.Find this resource:


(1.) Apollon Davidson et al., eds., South Africa and the Communist International: A Documentary History, Vol. I: Socialist Pilgrims to Bolshevik Footsoldiers, 1919–1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 80; and Harold Jack Simons and Ray Simons, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850–1950 (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1969), 261.

(2.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 180, 184.

(3.) Apollon Davidson, Yuzhnaia Afrika: stanovleniie sil protesta (Moscow: Nauka, 1972), 346.

(4.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 222–223.

(5.) Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2013), 43–44.

(6.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 83.

(7.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 80–84.

(8.) Sheridan Johns, Rising the Red Flag: The International Socialist League and the Communist Party of South Africa (Belville, Cape Town: Mayibuye Books, UWC, 1995), 128–139; Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 271–299; and Davidson et al., South Africa, 94–99.

(9.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 311, 313–317, 325–327; and Davidson et al., South Africa, 101.

(10.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 139–142.

(11.) Obviously, the ANC.

(12.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 153–154.

(13.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 353–358.

(14.) Sylvia Neame, The Congress Movement: The Unfolding of the Congress Alliance, 1912–1961, Vol. 2, April 1926–1928 (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2015), 59–60.

(15.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 149–152; and Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 217, 403.

(16.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 153–154; and Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 376, 406.

(17.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 5–6.

(18.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 12.

(19.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 13, 177–180 et al.

(20.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 14–15, 214. Five such emissaries visited South Africa in the late 1920s and 1930s, and one worked in the country permanently in an official capacity, simultaneously doing underground work.

(21.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 13–15.

(22.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 16–17.

(23.) Davidson et al., South Africa, 18–20.

(24.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 511–512; and Ray Alexander-Simons, All My Life and All My Strength, ed. Raymond Suttner (Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2004), 63–99, 123–136 et al.

(25.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 483–485.

(26.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 492–504.

(27.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 175.

(28.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 536; and Alexander-Simons, All My Life, 126.

(29.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 142.

(30.) Consular relations between the U.S.S.R. and South Africa were established in 1942.

(31.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 178–189.

(32.) Constitution and Programme. Communist Party of South Africa (n.p., n.d. [1949]), 26–29.

(33.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, ch. 24.

(34.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour, 554, 575–578; and Alexander-Simons, All My Life, 179–180.

(35.) Alexander-Simons, All My Life, 196.

(36.) Thomas Karis and Gwendolen M. Carter, eds., From Protest to Challenge. A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882–1964, Vol. 2: Hope and Challenge (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1973), 408.

(37.) An organization of colored population.

(38.) Karis and Carter, From Protest, 406–407.

(39.) Karis and Carter, From Protest, 416–418.

(40.) Karis and Carter, From Protest, 424.

(41.) Brian Bunting, Moses Kotane: South African Revolutionary (Belville, Cape Town: Mayibuye Books, UWC, 1998), 199.

(42.) Alexander-Simons, All My Life, 271.

(43.) Bunting, Moses Kotane, 197–199.

(44.) Bunting, Moses Kotane, 202.

(45.) Rodney Davenport and Christopher Saunders, South Africa: A Modern History (London: Macmillan, 2000), 404.

(46.) For the debate on influences on the Charter, see Neame, The Congress Movement, Vol. 3, 1928–1961, 430–434, and Ben Turok, “Calm Down: The ANC Is Not About to Seize Mines,” Times, July 18, 2009; and Ben Turok, From the Freedom Charter to Polokwane: The Evolution of ANC Economic Policy (Johannesburg: Institute for African Alternatives and the Africa Institute), 2008.

(48.) For example, New Age, November 17, 1957.

(49.) For example, African Communist 110 (1987), 46. Within the framework of Soviet theory, the term “national democracy” referred to former colonies that strived to build a non-capitalist society; “people’s democracy” referred to the countries that based their policy on “scientific Marxism,” usually countries of the Soviet bloc.

(50.) Bernard Magubane et al., “The Turn to Armed Struggle,” in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Vol. 1: 1960–1970 (South African Democracy Education Trust, Cape Town: Zed Press, 2004), 71.

(51.) Michael Harmel, “Some Notes on the Communist Party in South Africa” (unpublished manuscript, 1960), 14–16, quoted in Vladimir Shubin, ANC: A View from Moscow (Belville, Cape Town: Mayibuye Books, UWC, 1999), 14–15; Irina Filatova, interview with Joe Matthews, November 4, 2004; Elinor Sisulu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (Cape Town: David Philip, 2002); Vladimir Shubin, “Tovarishch Nelson Mandela,” Azia i Afrika segodnia 4 (2014): 6–9;SACP Official Tribute to Madiba delivered by General Secretary Blade Nzimande, 13 December 2013,” accessed April 15, 2016; “Statement on the Passing of Cde Nelson Mandela. African National Congress. Secretary General’s Office. 6 December 2013,” accessed April 15, 2016; and “SACP Salutes Walter Sisulu. 13 May 2005,” accessed April 15, 2016.

(52.) Magubane et al, “The Turn,” 80–83. Brian Bunting confirmed that the decision on the transition to the armed struggle “was taken by the SACP’s Central Committee, and nobody else, in December 1960” (Irina Filatova, interview with B. Bunting, February 2, 2006. For confirmations from the Moscow archives, see Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 299, 306).

(53.) Magubane et al., “The Turn,” 83.

(54.) Shubin, ANC, 47–48.

(55.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 302–305.

(56.) Shubin, ANC, 39–44.

(57.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, ch. 12–15; Shubin, ANC; and Eddy Maloka, The South African Communist Party: Exile and After Apartheid (Cape Town: Jacana Media, 2013), 66–67.

(59.) “The Path to Power. Programme of the South African Communist Party Adopted at the 7th Congress, 1989,” African Communist 118 (1989): 73–74.

(60.) Maloka, The South African, 16–17.

(61.) Maloka, The South African, 21–22, 111.

(62.) Shubin, ANC, 88–92.

(64.) Shubin, ANC, 119–120; and Maloka, The South African, 36–37, 39.

(65.) Shubin, ANC, 112–117.

(66.) Shubin, ANC, 118–119; and Maloka, The South African, 35.

(67.) Shubin, ANC, 119.

(69.) Maloka, The South African, 46.

(70.) Maloka, The South African, 44–45.

(71.) Shubin, ANC, 101–103; and Maloka, The South African, 30–34, 61.

(72.) Maloka, The South African, 49–50.

(73.) The Politburo started to discuss this issue at least from 1985.

(75.) Padraig O’Malley, Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa (New York: Viking, 2007), 363.

(76.) Vladimir Shubin, Afrikanskii natsionalnyi congress v gody podpolia i vooruzhennoi borby (Moscow: Africa Institute, 1999), 401–402.

(77.) Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread, 335–337.

(78.) African National Congress. National Consultative Conference, June 1985. Commission on Cadre Policy, Political and Ideological Work. Internal Commission Report. Commission on Strategy and Tactics, Rhodes House Library, Oxford, MSS Afr s 2151, B3.

(79.) Irina Filatova, conversation with Joe Slovo, November 1989.

(80.) Mark Gevisser, The Dream Deferred: Thabo Mbeki (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007), 471–473.

(81.) O’Malley, Shades, 340–341, 357–359; and Maloka, The South African, 103.

(82.) Maloka, The South African, 116.

(83.) O’Malley, Shades, 353–357.

(84.) Maloka, The South African, 119.

(85.) Maloka, The South African, 122.

(87.) Maloka, The South African, 126.

(88.) Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Abacus, 1995), 701–702.

(89.) Joe Slovo, “Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?” accessed July 5, 2016.

(92.) “SACP 10th Congress Resolutions,” accessed July 1, 2016.

(93.) “SACP 11th Congress Resolutions,” accessed July 1, 2016.

(95.) Resolutions of the 9th COSATU National Congress. (n.p., n.d. [September 2006]), 1.4: The National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and Socialism.

(97.) DomzaNet, Communist University Blog, subscribers mailing list email, received June 4, 2007.

(101.) Henry R. Pike, A History of Communism in South Africa (Germiston: Christian Mission International of South Africa, 1985).

(102.) Edward Roux, S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography (Cape Town: African Bookman, 1944); Edward Roux, Time Longer Than Rope: A History of Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (London: Victor Gollancz, 1948).

(103.) Johns, Raising the Red Flag.

(104.) Lerumo, A. [Michael Harmel], Fifty Fighting Years (London: Inkululeko Publishers, 1971).

(105.) Bunting, Moses Kotane.

(106.) Simons and Simons, Class and Colour.

(107.) Davidson, Yuzhnaia Afrika.

(108.) Karis and Carter, From Protest.

(109.) Davidson et al., South Africa, Vol. 1 and II.

(110.) For example, Thomas G. Karis and Gail M. Gerhart, eds., From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882–1990, Vol. 5: Nadir and Resurgence, 1964–1979 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997).

(111.) Mandela, Long Walk; and Ray Alexander-Simons, All My Life; Ronnie Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom (Johannesburg: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1993).

(112.) Allison Drew, Between Empire and the Revolution: A Life of Sidney Bunting, 1873–1936 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007); Stephen Clingman, Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary (Cape Town: David Philip, 1998); and O’Malley and Gevisser, Dream Deferred.

(113.) The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Vol. 1 (1960–1970) (South African Democracy Education Trust, Cape Town: Zed Press, 2004).

(114.) Hugh Macmillan, The Lusaka Years: The ANC in Exile in Zambia, 1963–1994 (Cape Town: Jacana Media, 2013); and Stephen Ellis, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960–1990 (London: Hurst & Company, 2012).

(115.) Shubin, ANC; and Filatova and Davidson, The Hidden Thread.

(116.) Simon Adams, Comrade Minister: The South African Communist Party and the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy (New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2001).

(117.) Maloka, The South African.

(118.) Mia Roth, The Communist Party in South Africa: Racism, Eurocentricity and Moscow, 1921–1950 (n.p.: Partridge, 2016).

(119.) As presented, for example, in publication by Stephen Ellis and Hugh Macmillan.

(124.) Archives and Special Collections, SOAS Library, University of London.

(125.) Bodleian Library, Commonwealth and African Studies.

(128.) South African History Archive, accessed July 9, 2016.

(129.) O’Malley, Heart of Hope South African Transition from Apartheid to Democracy, O’Malley Archives, accessed July 9, 2016.

(130.) South African History Archive, accessed July 9, 2016.

(131.) See footnotes 112, 113.

(132.) Allison Drew, ed., South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History, Vol. 1: 1907–1950; and Vol. 2: 1943–1964 (Cape Town: UCT Press, 1996–1997).

(133.) South African Communists Speak. Documents from the History of the South African Communist Party, 1915–1980 (London: Inkululeko Publishers, 1981).