EXTRACT | Tom Lodge's 'Red road to freedom: A history of the South African Communist Party'

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Cover of 'Red road to freedom' (Supplied)
Cover of 'Red road to freedom' (Supplied)

Renowned historian Tom Lodge spent ten years writing 'Red road to freedom: A history of the South African Communist Party'. The book examines the SACP, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month, in all its intricacies. Lodge provides a richly detailed history of the party’s vicissitudes and victories; individuals – their ideas, attitudes and activities – are sensitively located within their context; the text provides a fascinating sociology of the South African left over time. In this extract, Lodge looks at the challenges members dealt with during exile as well how they managed commitments that arose from belonging to both the ANC and the SACP. 

One reason why the party’s presence within South Africa was so limited and scattered was because its own corporate existence outside South Africa was so intermittent and perfunctory.

Barry Gilder recalls that ‘it was impossible to tell much difference in the content of discussions between a party committee meeting and that of the ANC’s regional politico-military committee or any other ANC collective’.  His contention is supported by available archival evidence.

The Simonses’ papers contain minutes of a sequence of meetings for unit seven, the party cell that Ray Alexander belonged to in Lusaka. As was noted on 14 November 1980, ‘A problem that most comrades seem to have is to find time to do their Communist Party work as well as their ANC work.’ But time wasn’t the only problem, the minutes acknowledged: ‘The unit is of the opinion that there is a strong wish among Party members to make its presence felt and to act openly as members of the Party. However, this feeling is frustrated by the failure of the Party to take the plunge and create the necessary conditions for the Party’s emergence.’

An earlier meeting listened to a report of a visit to the Botswana ‘forward area’. Here, apparently the ‘party’s presence’ was ‘not felt’, and political education among freshly arrived exiles was neglected. On a more upbeat note, the visitors returned to Lusaka with a list of five members of SACTU who might prove to be ‘likely recruits’. Several of the other meetings evidently focused on movement-wide shortcomings of morale and indiscipline rather than on specifically party concerns, though one meeting on 23 January 1980 referred to worrying lapses of conduct by party members who had become involved in the smuggling of stolen cars for use by ANC leaders.

More widely, secrecy about membership inhibited the development of a strong consciousness of community among party members. Ron Press’s autobiography describes the practical difficulties South African communists in London encountered in nominating and electing a district committee in a secretive setting in which they could only guess who was likely to be a communist.  Even outside South Africa, the party remained a small organisation, its recruitment very selective. Maloka’s history refers to the party’s own statistics in April 1989: 340 members in eight regions, not counting South Africa.

Of these, 67 members lived and worked in Lusaka, constituting a total of ten units. In addition, at that time probationers numbered 66, signalling an upsurge in recruitment, a development which worried the Politburo, which was concerned about too rapid an expansion.  As well as the army units, by 1989 transferred from their Angolan bases to Tanzania and Uganda, there was a small group at Mazimbu, the ANC’s educational centre where a unit was established in 1980 by Rica Hodgson; a larger community in London; and about 20 party members who at any one time were attending the Lenin School or other European training schemes.

By 1980 there was a generally shared perception expressed in a Central Committee discussion document that in ‘holding its face’, the party had been ‘too timid’. There needed to be more open recognition that ‘ANC leaders are also party leaders’. In effect, the party’s restraint was ‘a form of liquidationism’, which had allowed ‘a position to develop in which work in party structures and collectives is completely neglected.’  The following year, the Central Committee in a statement about ‘accountability’ needed to remind members that ‘every Party cadre who is active at any level of a fraternal organization is accountable to the Party executive’ and that it was the ‘duty of each Party comrade to seek guidance from his or her collective on all new policy decisions’.  Obviously this was not happening, not least because it was also party policy that its members should not act as a clique or a caucus when working within allied formations. Central Committee meetings themselves were in fact rather occasional during the early 1980s. Between 1979 and 1983 the committee convened itself just three times.

Organisationally for the party, it was an ‘untenable situation’, the Central Committee agreed, when after a two-year interval it assembled in late 1983. There were still no full-time party officials. There was no programme or plan ‘for the building of the Party inside the country’. Internal propaganda work was limited to the dispatch and circulation of the illegal miniaturised edition of African Communist, itself written mainly by people living outside Africa. It was still the case apparently that the London District Committee was chiefly responsible for ‘internal work’, and even in forward areas ‘our units ... depend upon spasmodic contact to receive directions and give reports’. In Lusaka and elsewhere, party members working in the wider liberation movement tended ‘to do so as individuals’, rather than in any way that was shaped by awareness of obligations to the party. The 1981 resolution on accountability was ‘more honoured in the breach’. For example, no party group or ‘collective’ had discussed the recent reorganisation within the ANC of ‘its apparatus responsible for internal military and political work’. It was quite wrong that there should be more members outside South Africa than inside. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the rule that ‘only the Politburo’ had ‘the power to admit new members’, and all too often Politburo members were fully preoccupied with non-party responsibilities.

A party congress held in Moscow in early 1984, and ‘attended by tens of delegates’, acknowledged these shortcomings. This was the first such meeting for more than three decades and, in future, delegates decided, congresses would be held every four years, and in-between congresses party bodies should meet more regularly and frequently. The Politburo would in fact meet 76 times before the next congress in 1989.  A new system of recruitment and probation was adopted. Delegates reviewed a new constitution, though the party would retain its adherence to democratic centralism and other features of Leninism, ‘despite the fact that the term is somewhat out of fashion in large parts of western Europe’.  Once again, the distinction between vanguardism and leadership was spelled out: communists should act as the ‘leading political force of the SA working class’, though remaining loyal members of a ‘liberation front headed by the ANC’.  The carefully balanced position on caucusing and accountability with respect to work in the ANC was reiterated. It apparently needed to be, for, as Moses Mabhida pointed out, ‘Members working in other organisations are no longer being given tasks by the Party and hence meetings of party units have become nothing more than discussion clubs.’  Part of the purpose of the meeting – originally conceived of as an extended Central Committee assembly – was to prepare for the ANC conference to be held in Kabwe; in a discussion on ‘people’s war’, one delegate suggested recruitment of gangsters. As we have seen, communist delegates at the Kabwe meeting would disagree over whether the ANC should open up its leadership to non-Africans.

Despite more frequent leadership gatherings, the internal documentation indicates that for many members, ANC commitments left little time for party work. ‘We need our members, even in senior ANC positions, to attend more to Party work’, a Central Committee meeting minuted in January 1986.  It was a ‘problem which continue[d] to plague us’, that is, the ‘small number of party members who devote their time to direct party work’. Two years later, it was still the case that ‘Party members have failed to attend or to participate in the work of units for long periods’, and indeed ‘some of the units are not functioning regularly’.  And while it was true that ‘our party’s prestige at home is growing visibly’, the party itself remained too self-effacing; ‘we face the risk of being regarded more as an adjunct of the liberation alliance than as an independent force’. There was, however, by 1986 ‘a noticeable improvement in our political work in the army’. But, ‘especially inside the country’, the party’s organised presence was ‘weak’. 

By 1988, internal members actually attended a Central Committee ‘plenary’. Even so, ‘much more’ was needed ‘to strengthen our organisational presence inside our country’, notwithstanding ‘encouraging evidence of Party leadership work by internally based structures’. One of the South African-based delegates confirmed that in the mass organisation in which he held a leadership position, there were plenty of signals of party influence, not least because so much party literature was in circulation.  Since 1985, the party had begun to direct its propaganda at a wider internal readership, with quarterly issues of Umsebenzi (a name change from Inkululeko) and a pamphlet, Conversations with a Communist, in both English and isiZulu versions.  Its text, ostensibly addressed to the mother of a young party recruit now on Robben Island, projected the life of a rank-and-file Umkhonto soldier, and its specifically communist message was limited to underlining the solidarity role undertaken by socialist countries: ‘Your first born ... he uses a Soviet made gun. He is fed while he trains on food made in the GDR. He is clothed in trousers from Czechoslovakia, shoes from Hungary, shirts from Cuba. He lives in Angola. These are the countries that help the ANC. It is because these countries are Communist that they help oppressed peoples all over the world.’

Towards the end of the decade South African communists were beginning to enjoy a political revival inside South Africa, with increasing recognition at least among trade unionists of their role as an ‘independent force’, not just an ‘adjunct’ to the liberation movement. In the South African political diaspora, though, their influence remained more subject than ever to the limits of working as an entryist formation in a much larger organisation that itself was discovering new partners and engaging in a major strategic redirection. In an international setting in which the ANC was increasingly attracting sympathetic consideration in Western Europe and North America, the SACP was just one ally among many.

An open meeting in London to celebrate the party’s 65th anniversary on 30 July 1986 reflected this shifting perspective. Alfred Nzo was on the platform wearing his ANC hat. His address was friendly enough, but, to one observer at least, its chief effect was to ‘squeeze the SACP on to the sidelines’. To be sure, in a democratic South Africa, Nzo told his audience, the ANC would ‘continue to defend the right of any South African who so chooses to belong to the SACP’, just as it would ‘respect the right of any of our compatriots to belong to any party of their choice’. The ANC was also keen to ‘ensure that the capitalist, as well, acts against the apartheid regime’. Of course, the ANC was ‘happy’ that ‘communists in our country are to be found amongst these millions’ mobilising against the apartheid regime, ‘side by side with the religious people, with people of other religious persuasions’. The socialist bloc received a brief mention for its support for the liberation struggle together with careful acknowledgement of the aid the ANC had received from the ‘non-aligned’ states of Western Europe.

Joe Slovo was present in his new capacity as general secretary; he had just succeeded Moses Mabhida, who had died in Maputo in March. His speech was ‘muted, theoretical and cautious’ rather than celebratory, seemingly calculated to call off ‘the hot heads’. It clearly had in mind a different audience from the party faithful assembled that evening, with its references to a post-apartheid future in which there would be partial measures to redistribute wealth ... [that] do not in themselves point in a socialist direction’, and in which a mixed economy would provide plenty of room ‘for managers and businessmen and people of good will who have or are prepared to end racism’. An edited version would subsequently appear in the London Guardian newspaper.

 - That was an extract from Tom Lodge's 'Red road to freedom: A history of the South African Communist Party', published by Jacana.

* All frontline workers get 30% off all Jacana books for 2021. Please use the code: FRONTLINE30

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