Dirk Kotze | 'Rooi Gevaar': 100 years of the South African Communist Party

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SACP general-secretary Blade Nzimande (Photo: SACP via Twitter)
SACP general-secretary Blade Nzimande (Photo: SACP via Twitter)

Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the South African Communist Party. Dirk Kotze analyses the changes it has undergone since its start on 30 July, 1921 until now and whether it still holds a truly socialist stance.

On 30 July, precisely a hundred years ago, the birth of South Africa's Communist Party was announced in Cape Town.

It united a number of socialist and leftist organisations formed in the early part of the century in response to the First World War and the new proliferation of mining. An influx of mineworkers from Europe, many of them steeped in the labour and socialist traditions there, provided an impetus for the socialist movements in South Africa. The first leaders of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) therefore, were mainly Europeans. The South African party immediately affiliated with the third Communist International (Comintern) organisation, with the Soviet Union as its leading light. 

The CPSA and its successor in 1953, the South African Communist Party (SACP), have played a much more influential role in the politics of South Africa than most other communist parties on the African continent.

The most crucial explanation for it was the party's successful integration of its intellectual and ideological perspectives into the African National Congress's (ANC) liberation strategy. Also noteworthy was the party's capacity to liaise with the Eastern bloc in providing logistics and training to the ANC's military and political personnel. That was formalised in the Tripartite Alliance between them and the trade union movement, first the SA Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and later the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Rooi gevaar

The centenary celebrations are an opportune moment for the party itself, for South Africans in general, for leftist intellectuals and trade unionists, and for political scientists to make a genuine assessment of the party.

Before 1990 the SACP personified the Eastern bloc in the domestic Cold War in South Africa. For the one side, it was the "Rooi gevaar" (Red peril); for others, they were the liberators.

In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and at the same time of the SACP's unbanning in South Africa, Joe Slovo, as its leaders, wrote the essay, "Has Socialism Failed?".

Today, thirty years later, the party might have to ask: "What did we do to secure the socialist voice in South Africa?" Conditions existed in these years which would be the envy for any socialist politician: several global economic crises in the last three decades and severely unequal socio-economic conditions in South Africa, plus ideal circumstances for assertive labour movements. How did the party use these opportunities?

Arguably, the most significant success of the party during all the years was its ability to merge its socialism with the liberatory nationalism of the ANC and other organisations. Ideologically, it was not easy, because the first generation of CPSA leaders believed in the classical Marxism-Leninism of working-class politics, influenced by the political developments in Germany, the USSR, and the tussle between Stalin and Trotsky. Except for the 1922 strike on the Rand, it was far removed from the South African issues.

Native Republic resolution

The first step of bringing it closer to the South African conditions was a resolution adopted by the Comintern in 1928, the "Native Republic" resolution. On the Comintern's insistence, it was resolved that the party's objective should be "a South African Native Republic as a stage towards a workers' and peasants' government with full protection and equal rights for all national minorities".

Significant is the fact that it was not a proposal by the party and that internal resistance against it had to be overcome. This could be seen as a very early version of the two-phase revolutionary strategy of national liberation, which was more explicitly formulated in the early 1960s. First, a class-neutral democratisation process had to commence, which in a second phase could be transformed into a socialist (workers' and peasant's) dispensation. 

Another milestone in bringing the party closer to the South African conditions was the letter from Cradock written by Moses Kotane to the party's committee in Johannesburg in 1934. (Kotane was elected five years later as the party's General Secretary, and he continued in this position until 1978. He was later also the ANC's Treasurer-General, and was arguably the best personification of the ANC-SACP alliance during this period.) In the letter, Kotane bemoaned the fact that the party continued to be more concerned about the issues of Europe and not focused on the South African conditions. Therefore, he recommended: 

"My first suggestion is that the Party become more Africanised or Afrikanised, that the CPSA must pay special attention to S Africa … the Party must be Bolshevised, become South African not only theoretically, but in reality".

The Kotane strategy laid the foundation for a convergence of the party's and ANC's political strategies.

While the ANC maintained throughout all the years that it was not a socialist movement but a national liberation movement and that the party recognised the ANC's leadership role in this process, its own role was to be the leading socialist movement. It coincided with the two-phase strategy of a national democratic revolution (directed by the ANC) and a socialist revolution (directed by the SACP). This conceptualisation was a product of the Native Republic resolution, the Cradock letter and decisions by an international meeting of 81 communist and workers parties in Moscow in 1960. 

The other successful element of the party's strategy was the launch of the armed struggle in 1961.

Umhkonto we Sizwe was, arguably, more a product of the SACP than the ANC.

Albert Luthuli, the ANC's President, was against the move to an armed struggle, while MK's National High Command consisted of several prominent party members, including Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Lionel Bernstein, Dennis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni. Other known party members who were also implicated included JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Joe Slovo, Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe.

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MK was from the beginning a non-racial entity, similar to the party, while the ANC's membership was confined to Africans. The armed struggle became an integral part of ANC's liberation strategy, and party leaders like Chris Hani (MK chief of staff), Jack Simons (political education) and Ronnie Kasrils (MK intelligence head) personified the synergy between MK, the party and the ANC. 

The communist party's obvious prominence and influence, but low public profile has created serious debates about what is the actual nature of the relationship between the SACP and the ANC. That question was the obsession of the National Party in the 1980s as well as the conservative governments in the UK and USA. 

Tripartite Alliance 

A brief look at the two parties' relationship in the Tripartite Alliance is therefore required.

Regular contact between the ANC and SACP became apparent in the late 1940s. Problematic for them in the beginning was the fact that the radical ANC Youth League, including Nelson Mandela, was strongly anti-communist, while Kotane and JB Marks mediated the relationship with the mother body.

The Defiance Campaign in the 1950s which solidified the Congress Movement, consisting of the ANC, SACTU, SA Congress of Democrats, and the Indian and Coloured People's Congresses, prepared for the Congress of the People where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955.

The Treason Trial of 156 Congress members in Pretoria, which followed in response to it, was premised on the assumption that the Freedom Charter was a communist blueprint for an overthrow of the government.

The trial failed, but speculation continued about who were the authors of the charter.

Slovo, Bernstein and others were regarded as strong possibilities. Only in 1960 did the party announce its new existence after it was banned in 1950, when its new party magazine, The African Communist, was launched. It is still published today and became the main public forum for theoretical articles and debates by party members.

MK's role was already mentioned and how it concretised the Tripartite Alliance during the 1960s and played that unifying role until the early 1980s, when the United Democratic Front (UDF) and COSATU changed the liberation dynamics dramatically.  

After the SACP and ANC's unbanning in 1990, the nature of the Tripartite Alliance also changed.

The party changed from a small cadre party based on membership by invitation to a mass party. MK for all intents and purposes, disappeared, and only veterans' bodies remained.

The ANC converted into a government after the 1994 election. The SACP did not participate in the election but became a partner in the ANC government. In this process, the party converted from an underground, revolutionary organisation into an "Eurocommunist" party that uses elections to achieve its goals. 

Sunset clause 

Very significant in this conversion process of both the ANC and SACP, was Joe Slovo's notion of a "sunset clause".

Late in 1992, he published an article in The African Communist in which he suggested that the constitutional transition should be led by an interim government of national unity consisting of all the main parties, that amnesty should be available to persons who have committed serious human rights abuses and who are willing to make a full disclosure about it, and that career assurances should be given to officials of the apartheid government for a five-year period.

Coming from the SACP and the left, the idea of a government of national unity received more legitimacy and provided a confidence-building mechanism for the transition period. At the same time, it pulled the SACP entirely into the transition process, from which they could not distance themselves anymore.

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Most assessments of the SACP focus on their relationship with the ANC, their role in MK, their relationship with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, and since 1994, their role in government and government policies. Not much attention is given to the conceptual development of their ideological and strategic approaches. It might be argued that it remained stagnant and dogmatic for most of the time and therefore does not deserve much attention.

In my view, changes have happened, and they should be analysed in a historical context. The main milestones, in my view, are party programmes like "The Road to South African Freedom" (1962), "The Path to Power" (1989), "Strategic Perspectives" (1995) and "The South African Road to Socialism" (2007). Slovo's "South Africa – No middle road" (1976) and "Has socialism failed?" (1990) should also be added to them. Most of the important party documents and Central Committee statements can be found in the book, South African Communists Speak 1915-1980, edited by Brian Bunting.

Each of these programmes deserves a detailed analysis, but it cannot be done here.

The 1962 programme was the first public articulation of the party as an underground organisation just before the Rivonia arrests. Its primary significance was the philosophical construction of apartheid as "colonialism of a special type" (CST). Its Central Committee articulated already most of it in 1950, but its implications were more fully explained in this statement. Its point of departure was that South Africa was not a colony but an independent state. But it consisted of two societal levels: "On one level, that of "White South Africa", there are all the features of an advanced capitalist state in its final stage of imperialism. … But on another level, that of "Non-White South Africa", there are all the features of a colony. The indigenous population is subjected to extreme national oppression, poverty and exploitation, lack of democratic rights and political domination". What made this a special situation, was that the "colonial power" and the "colonialised" were in the same state, and therefore the conventional decolonisation process could not happen.

CST construction 

The CST construction occupies the central space in the party's notion of the "national question". It was neither a class nor a national analysis of South African society, but a hybrid of both. It provided the philosophical foundation for the two-phase revolutionary theory and, therefore, the alliance between the party and the ANC. Even today, and in its 2007 party programme, the CST construction is still used.

"The Path to Power" was adopted at the party's last congress in exile in Havana in 1989. It was at a time of crisis in South Africa under a state of emergency, growing international isolation, and revolt in the townships, led by the UDF. At the same time, confidential talks between ANC leaders and intelligence and senior government officials were happening but the SACP was not aware of them. In addition to its conventional analysis of the global situation, this programme focused explicitly on strategic aspects. It saw "prospects for a revolutionary breakthrough in South Africa". Therefore, its strategic objective was a "seizure of power" driven primarily by the popular upheaval in the townships and security stalemate and the other means used by the ANC alliance. The programme referred specifically to a popular insurrection as the means to take power. Reference was made to negotiations as an option but dismissed as diversion of attention, despite Thabo Mbeki's involvement in both the party's thinking and as a critical participant in the confidential talks.

Slovo's publication of "Has socialism failed?" in January 1990 represented his own views but could hardly be separated from the party. Hardliners like Harry Gwala were indeed opposed to his distancing from Stalinism, but they were the minority. Others criticised him for not being open-minded about the crisis of socialism after the fall of the Berlin Wall and its implications for the SACP. He conceded that the events of late 1989 were popular revolts against unpopular regimes, but he accused these regimes of practising "existing socialism" which was undemocratic. Still, he believed in the future of socialism with a democratic face and the theory of Marxism. He, therefore, wanted to distance himself from Stalinism as the cause of most of the problems in socialist practice but warned that it cannot be allowed to mean that all forms of criticism of capitalism and imperialism should also be abandoned. The implications of his analysis for the SACP were his call that that party abandons any Stalinist influences and "democratise" the party in its relations with fraternal organisations (including trade unions and national organisations). Their independence should be respected. In a post-apartheid state, he proposed, basic rights and freedoms should be guaranteed. Slovo also distanced him from a one-party system in future and preferred a multiparty democracy in both phases of the revolution, including the socialist one. 

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Since 1994, the party's focus in ideological terms has been almost exclusively on the first phase of the national democratic revolution.

The socialist phase received little attention, even in its 2007 party programme. The party's integration into government activities has made it challenging to take up an independent socialist stance and has regularly caused tensions between the ANC and the independents in the party. It even resulted in calls for the party to participate independently in elections. That once happened in the 2017 by-elections in Metsimaholo in the northern Free State, where they stood against the ANC and other parties. 

So far, the SACP's centenary celebrations have not been very prominent. A series of webinars is planned for discussions by South African and international researchers on the party. It will include a book launch of Tom Lodge's latest book on the party's history entitled 'Red Road to Freedom: A history of the South Africa Communist Party' which follows on Eddy Maloka's book 'The South African Communist Party: Exile and after apartheid,' a few years ago.

- Prof Dirk Kotzé is with the Department of Political Sciences at Unisa.

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