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.
Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa’s fifth post-apartheid president in February 2018. He was born close to the center of Johannesburg in 1952 and grew up in the dormitory township of Soweto. A Christian and black consciousness activist in his youth, he was detained and held in solitary confinement twice in the mid‑1970s. He founded the giant National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s and rose rapidly in the liberation movement after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Ramaphosa led the African National Congress (ANC) team in the negotiations that enabled a transition to constitutional democracy in 1994, before political marginalization forced him to divert his energies into business. The unionist-turned-tycoon returned to political prominence fifteen years later, rising to deputy president of the ANC in 2012, president of the movement in 2017, and then state president the following year. As president, he has wrestled with intractable problems, including a sclerotic economy and public institutions weakened during the tenure of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
Launched in 1961 by leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa and the South African Communist Party (SACP), Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was the military wing of the ANC until its disbandment in 1993. The initial stage of MK’s armed struggle involved sabotage against government installations and other symbols of the apartheid regime by a small group of operatives. Under increasing repression by the apartheid state, and thanks to the support received from African and socialist countries, MK adopted a strategy of guerrilla warfare as armed struggle assumed an increasingly central role in the liberation struggle, although the military was understood as an extension of political work, that is, linked to the reinvigoration of political struggle and organizations. Geopolitical constraints prevented MK from waging a conventional guerrilla war, and from the 1970s MK adjusted its strategy by turning to armed propaganda and people’s war. While debates on the role of MK in South Africa’s liberation are often reduced to the relative success or failure of military strategy and action, the history of MK remains a sensitive topic post-apartheid, carrying significant weight both symbolically and in the lives of thousands of people who served in its ranks, including women, who joined and participated in MK throughout the three decades of its existence.