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South Africa: ‘The African Communist': 50 years of mobilisation, analysis

The African Communist, 1991.

By Blade Nzimande

October 26, 2009 -- A browse through the very first edition of the African Communist in 1959 not only gives an insight into the time and context during which it was launched but also the courageous and defiant character of those who breathed life into our historic journal.

This magazine, the African Communist, has been started by a group of Marxist-Leninists in Africa, to defend and spread the inspiring and liberating ideas of Communism in our great Continent, and to apply the brilliant scientific method of Marxism to the solution of its problems.

It is being produced in conditions of great difficulty and danger. Nevertheless we mean to go on publishing it, because we know that Africa needs Communist thought, as dry and thirsty soil needs rain.

These conditions of "great difficulty and danger" developed as a result of the banning of the Communist Party of South Africa in 1950 and its underground reconstitution as the South African Communist Party in 1953.

Born of struggle: The political origins of the African Communist

Veteran comrades tell of the fierce behind the scenes debate at the time about whether the reconstitution of the party should have been publicly announced. Those who argued against the public declaration worried that it would jeopardise and raise suspicions about the motives of known communists in the trade union movement, in the African National Congress (ANC) and the congress alliance. It is ironic that even now, 50 years later, the tendency to ring alarm bells about the motives of communists has not dissipated; albeit now this view reinforced by a creeping and dangerous intersection between holding of public office and business interests. All this proves is that our Alliance [between the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)] has stood the test of time.

Those who wanted the reconstituted party to be publicly announced, argued that this would be a necessary act of defiance and would give confidence to existing communists that they still had a political home. It would also allow for ease in the recruitment of new members into the underground.     

True to the robust character of the SACP, the debate raged for many years until in 1959 the publication of the African Communist symbolised a compromise. It was decided that a journal would be published as a forum for Marxist-Leninist thought in Africa, but not as an official publication of the now reconstituted SACP, as it indeed was.

Although it was launched in trying conditions and faced severe restrictions, the African Communist, which was produced in London, was from the outset bold and forthright. Under the heading "Why they hate communism", an editorial in that historic first issue in part read as follows:

It is no accident that the first thing the Nationalist Government did, when it took power in 1948, was to outlaw Communism. They banned the Communist Party, which for thirty years had led the people in struggles for freedom and equality. Hundreds of Communists have been banned and banished, driven out of their jobs, forbidden on pain of jail to go to meetings or take any part in political and trade union movements.

Yet, belief in Communism lives on in South Africa. It is spreading throughout the Continent, although every day it is denounced and attacked by agents of United States, British, French, Portuguese, and Belgian imperialism.

They hate Communism because they know that the Communists are the bravest, most clear-headed and incorruptible leaders in the people's struggle against imperialism, for freedom and equality. They know that once the African workers and peasants have mastered the great ideas of Communism, nothing will stop them in their onward march to freedom, independence and socialism.

African revolution not ‘renaissance'

That first edition of the African Communist pioneered the idea of an African revolution saying the peoples of the continent needed the "liberating spirit of Communism" in order to be free of the forces of imperialism. It is a point worth noting that the founders spoke of an African "revolution" not an African "Renaissance". They wanted an uprising which was rooted in African realities not a conversion which copied the European Renaissance.  

The heroic contribution of SACP freedom fighters to the liberation struggle will perhaps never be completely documented and understood, particularly by future generations. One of their greatest achievements was to enrich political discourse through published material and to lead and develop public debate in the movement. While the struggle against racial discrimination defined the liberation struggle, a succession of SACP leaders promoted an understanding of the class struggle, and the intersection between racial and class divides and struggles in South African society. The African Communist was one of the mediums which reflected and supported years of fearless political activism and thinking through examining topical issues of the time from a communist perspective.

The pioneering role of communists on progressive media in South Africa

The SACP is proud of its role promoting and cultivating progressive media in South Africa. Umsebenzi (The Worker) played a pioneering role in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a platform for internal and external communication for the working class.

The apartheid machinery did its damnest to restrict, ban or close publications, and in so doing constrain the flow of information and political knowledge in South Africa. Lobbies for censorship can be traced back to at least 1898 in the Cape but the rise to power of the Nationalist Party government in 1948 ushered in unprecedented degrees of censorship. Over the next 37 years, more than 100 laws restricting the flow of information wiped away all semblance of press freedom.   

But an array of brave and heroic journalists kept the spirit alive through publications such as New Nation, Weekly Mail, Vrye Weekblad, South, New African, Injula and Speak. Despite having limited resources and in the face of constant harassment by the apartheid regime, they displayed tenacity, courage and resourcefulness. These publications played an invaluable role in exposing the horrors of the regime and telling "the other side of the story". It is one of the tragedies of our past that not one of these publications still exists to tell the story of this phase of our history. In their place are, at best, poor cousins of those valiant publications, pandering to special, narrow and commercial interests.

During the liberation struggle, there was recognition within the movement that an integral part of defiance and mobilisation against apartheid was through the promotion and sustenance of media publications. Work in Progress, for instance, was a progressive publication, produced from 1977 to 1994 and founded by University of Witwatersrand postgraduate students. Under trying conditions, the African Communist was also kept alive as an internal theoretical journal of the SACP, and in 1990 moved to South Africa where it took on a new role during the transition phase and democratic era.

It is also important that at this stage we must note the fact that for the entire existence of both the ANC and the SACP, (white-owned) colonial and bourgeois media, which has been the mainstream media for more than a century, has always been against the national liberation movement. Prior to 1994 it acted as the mouthpiece of the white bourgeoisie and the apartheid state, and since 1994 has generally acted as part of the array of forces in opposition to the national liberation movement.

In the course of its vehement opposition to the national liberation movement, the colonial and bourgeois mainstream media has consistently supported and praised all the factions that have sought to undermine the national liberation movement and its alliance components and formations. For example, when the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) broke away from the ANC in 1958, it was praised by the media as the more genuine representative of the oppressed majority, in the same way as the Group of 8, the UDM and now COPE [Congress of the People] have been championed as better organisations than the ANC and the Alliance.

Similarly, the enthusiastic manner in which a publication like the Mail and Guardian has prominently published sinister and opportunistic attacks on the SACP and COSATU by essentially what are elements of the emerging black sections of the bourgeoisie and other compradorial elements on the October 9, 2009, are nothing but a reflection of this continuous attacks of bourgeois media on progressive policies of our movement.

As has always been the case, colonial and bourgeois media have always found useful idiots to advance their agenda, even within the ranks of our own movement. It was also these tendencies that the very first edition of the African Communist referred to; highlighting the fact that imperialism often succeeds under conditions where it also fosters its own local compradorial elites, by also projecting them favourably in their own media. It is precisely for these reasons that publications like the African Communist are important in exposing this agenda whilst simultaneously being a platform for deepening a working class led national democratic revolution.

The African Communist as a platform for debates on the national democratic revolution and the struggle for socialism

Since its launch, the African Communist became a leading platform for debate on current and controversial issues. The July/August edition of 1962 talks of its reception around the world and how the first special edition in French made a favourable impression in French-speaking parts of Africa. An editorial on the success of the AC read as follows:

Since its first publication, at the end of 1959, The African Communist has met with, and continues to find, a warm, indeed a glowing reception, not only in all parts of Africa, but in many other parts of the world. Articles from our magazine have been reprinted in British, Canadian and United States publications; they have been translated and published in Arabic, Russian, Chinese and other languages. The British monthly, Marxism Today, in its issue of April, 1962, says, "We would like warmly to greet and pay tribute to our colleague The African Communist," and proceeds to give its readers a detailed survey of the contents of our issue No. 8. In the same month, the French journal De'mocratie Nouvelle, reprinting the article on South African racialism by Toussaint from our French language special edition, lists the contents of this edition and offers to make copies available to its readers on request.

For this continuing success we who, under severe difficulties, produce this journal owe most of all to you, our readers, who continue to write in from every part of Africa and many other parts of the world, encouraging and inspiring us in our work.

The recognition of our journal in the communist world as a formidable medium for Marxist/Leninist thought and debate was also illustrated through the extension of an invitation by the editor of the distinguished Soviet publication Pravda, for a representative of the African Communist to attend its 50th anniversary celebrations.

All this coincided with the program of the SACP in 1962 The Road to South African Freedom which first introduced the concept of "colonialism of a special type" as the most appropriate characterisation of South Africa, a colony where both the coloniser and colonised shared the same territory.

The 1962 program will perhaps go down in history as one of the SACP's most significant programs in shaping and defining both the character and tasks of the South African revolution. This program firmly emphasised the need to unite all the oppressed whilst simultaneously defining the leading role of the working class in the national liberation struggle.

The imprisonment of many of our freedom fighters in the 1960s including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Bram Fischer, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi and many others, and the harassment of those who operated in the underground, led to a challenging and dark period in the struggle for liberation with a visible stagnation in the revolution. In 1970, an augmented central committee of the SACP issued a call to the South African people that reignited the spirit of defiance and mass struggle. "Freedom Can Be Won" was circulated illegally inside the country and reproduced in the African Communist. The call to action then included the following:

Today at this critical time, the Communist Party calls on you. It calls on all South Africans who love their country and who love freedom. We call upon the workers and the people in the countryside. We call upon the African people, the Coloured people, the Indians and the democratic elements among the whites.

Let us build up our people's organisations, in town and country, in factories, mines and villages.

Let us unite for the fight to end the shame and suffering of white minority rule: headed by the Nazi Nationalist Party.

Let us resolve that the beginning of the seventies will put an end to white South Africa and mark the beginning of People's South Africa advancing towards socialism.

The armed groups of Umkhonto we Sizwe are ready to enter the fight. But they cannot fight alone.

The people must act!

They must build and support their illegal organisations. The ANC: the trade unions and the Communist Party.

They must act militantly for higher wages, land and freedom.

They must arouse the spirit of resistance and defiance.

They must arm themselves.

The war of national liberation is on and we must fight it to the finish.

Victory or death!

The people of South Africa responded and with the working class in the lead, three years later South Africa was rocked by the 1973 Durban strikes that laid the foundation for the internal rebuilding of a progressive trade union movement. Six years later, the Soweto students' uprisings, spreading into many parts of our country, indeed changed the course of history. The African Communist was able to analyse the uprising and provide an understanding of the mood and circumstances of the time.

The African Communist was also central in debates around the formation of COSATU, particularly the two strands of thinking at the time about its nature and character. It was able to examine the thinking within FOSATU which was at its formation dominated by a workerist tendency, as well as the push for a revolutionary trade union movement aligned to the Congress movement. In this way, the African Communist guided debates and analysis as COSATU took shape and deepened working-class struggles in the workplace.

Over the years, the African Communist became the only published platform of major Alliance discussions, among the most notable was the debate on the "sunset clauses" during the transition period in the early 1990s.

Post 1994, it remained a major carrier of central committee discussion documents and political reports of the SACP. It led the debates and analyses on amongst other things, the dangers associated with access to state power without a mobilised working class, undertook the most thorough critiques of the ill-advised GEAR [the ANC's neoliberal econmic] policy and attempts on wholesale privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and properly grasped the weakness and what is to be done on what we now refer to as the 1996 class project.

The following 10 years after the adoption of GEAR our Alliance relations turned for the worst perhaps in its entire existence. But what our detractors, both inside and outside our movement, do not fully appreciate has been the role of our publications, especially Umsebenzi and the African Communist in keeping us focused, deepened the SACP's and broader working-class ideological coherence, and clearly defined the revolutionary line of march for our country. Due to resource and other constraints, we did not publish all editions in each year as planned, but the African Communist continues to be an important weapon in the struggle to deepen, advance and consolidate the national democratic revolution.

Then, in November 2007, the African Communist published an open letter from the SACP to the ANC membership titled: "We can't go on like this... together, let's make sure things change". The concluding paragraph read:

The SACP calls on fellow ANC members -- together, let us rise to the challenge of the ANC 52nd National Conference. Together, let us re-build an ANC and an alliance of which cdes Albert Luthuli, Moses Kotane, O.R. Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani could be truly proud. That historic responsibility is now in our collective hands.

As with the call to action in 1970, the spirit of this letter resonated and indeed we are pleased that the ANC delegates to the Polokwane [national] conference grasped the moment and reclaimed the ANC, and indeed our alliance, back to the control of their organisation from the clutches of the 1996 class project [the victory of Jacob Zuma's supporters over those of Thabo Mbeki]. We will forever be proud of the contribution of the SACP, together with others, in effecting this turnaround. True to our historic role, we will continue to stand as the vanguard of the working class and not be cowed by attacks by those who seek to reinvent the 1996 class project in our ranks, mainly guided by narrow class interests. The African Communist will continue to re-affirm the truism that there is no contradiction between the multi-class character of our movement and the working-class bias of the ANC.

One of the greatest achievements of our 50-year-old journal, the African Communist was that it developed and encouraged writing and analytical talent over the decades of its existence. In so doing, it has become a major resource for analysis of the challenges we have overcome and continue to face. In keeping the African Communist alive, we need to promote writing particularly among young communist cadres and provide a platform for new ideas and debates.

As we celebrate the remarkable milestone of our journal, we need to ensure the sustenance and development of publications which counter the proliferation and influence of bourgeois media. South Africa has been ideologically suffocated by a mainstream media which remains out of touch with the masses of our people.

Therefore publications such as the African Communist, Umsebenzi, Umrabulo, the Shopsteward and others remain important platforms to provide information, knowledge and timely analysis of political developments and working-class struggles in our country and in the world.

In advancing some of our recent perspectives and analyses, and enriching Marxism-Leninism in Africa, especially when we talk about the ``1996 class project'', a ``compradorial BEE [black empowerment program]', etc., some of our detractors claim that theAfrican Communist, if not the SACP, has substituted labels for analysis. Nothing can be further from the truth, as such concepts are not labels but actually capture the evolving class struggles and tendencies in South African society.

We owe to generations of communists, and indeed revolutionaries and combatants in our broader liberation movement, to continue to publish the African Communist and other progressive journals.

We also need to take this opportunity to salute the founders of the African Communist, and the thousands of leaders and cadres who participated in its production and debates over the last 50 years.

[Blade Nzimande is general secretary of the South African Communist Party. This article is the text of a speech given to mark the African Communist's 50th anniversary. A number of past issues of the African Communist can be downloaded HERE. See also the collection at Digital Innovation South Africa.]

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COSATU: The trade union movement and the African Communist

Speech by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU general secretary, on the occasion of
the African Communist's 50th anniversary, October 26, 2009.

On behalf of COSATU's two million members I bring birthday greetings to
the SACP leadership and cadreship. It is a great privilege to be invited
to address this historic 50th anniversary celebration of a publication,
which has quite literally changed the course of history.

There is not the slightest doubt that without the African Communist and
the generations of communists who produced it over half a century, we
would never have made the advances we have achieved over the last
fifteen years.

For fifty years, the African Communist provided a platform for debates
not only within the South African Communist Party but also across the
Alliance, the mass democratic movement and society as a whole. It
provided that much needed voice to the struggling and marginalised
majority.

The African Communist was a source of ideological grounding and
political training to hundreds and thousands of cadres. Because of this
it serves as both a training mechanism and effective mobiliser for
struggle for freedom, democracy and socialism.  

COSATU is the today revered as the militant, independent revolutionary
and transformative union - thanks to the contribution of the African
Communist
magazine. Friends and foes of COSATU agree have come to accept
and have a consensus that without COSATU our democracy will be much
weaker. More will agree with our international icon, comrade Nelson
Mandela, that COSATU is the conscience of our young democracy, a voice
of the most marginalised and the fearless spokesperson of the most
downtrodden in our society. The African Communist made an immense
contribution in building ideological foundation of COSATU to be what it
is today.

The SACP and the ANC are here to speak for themselves, but I can state
without any fear of contradiction that the SACP itself benefited greatly
from magazine, even though the African Communist is its own magazine and
the overwhelming number of the writers in the African Communist were its
own leader,.

The African Communist was a platform for debates to clarify the line of
march and resolve thorny theoretical issues that we do not always have
time to discuss exhaustively within our structures. Without it, the SACP
could have easily become an ordinary communist party. In many parts of
the world, in particular after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many
communist parties are became such tiny, discredited and irrelevant
formations that society has no time to engage with their ideas.

In South Africa we have a growing, militant, revolutionary communist
party with a coherent ideological and theoretical perspective about our
national democratic revolution and its relation with the struggle for
socialism. It is thanks to the African Communist that we have achieved
this.

Equally the ANC would never have succeeded to be the oldest liberation
movement in our continent that continues to grow from strength to
strength - a movement that is a home to all - a movement that is capable
of uniting all freedom fighters irrespective of their ideological makeup
and political background. The ANC could have easily become like many
others - a narrow nationalist movement that sees no other contradictions
in our society except the need to have a right to vote.

As we said at the recent COSATU National Congress, "The SACP is the
workers' vanguard, without which workers are weak and vulnerable
politically and ideologically. Just think what could have happened to
COSATU, if the SACP had not been strong and independent in the period of
the intense class battles over the direction of our revolution."

The delegates to the Workers' Parliament took the message to heart,
which resolved, "to strengthen the SACP to play its vanguard role and to
mobilise sympathetic individuals within and outside the movement for a
socialist course. This will include converting our members into staunch
socialists who are active in the SACP."

COSATU has a responsibility, and a mandate, to build a strong and
ideologically sound communist party, which can arm the class with
socialist policies for the struggle against the capitalist class enemy.

COSATU recognises that we are not a communist party, but a federation of
unions that has set itself the task of achieving socialism and seeks to
lead the organised working class. While we have hundreds of
revolutionary communists within our ranks, that does not make us a
vanguard party, because we have to grapple with the inherent
contradictions of a trade union movement operating within a capitalist
society which aims for socialism but has to make tactical compromises
from time to time.

We therefore still need a communist party, which is not constrained in
this way, to provide political leadership. That is why the federation is
committed to strengthen the SACP's capacity, including at this stage
when it has sent some of its finest leaders to serve the revolution in
government, parliament and the provincial legislatures. We have to
ensure that the party in general, and in particular the African
Communist
, has the resources to continue to play the same revolutionary
educational role in the next fifty years as it has so far.

The Alliance's two socialist formations - the SACP and COSATU - need a
united and coherent Marxist-Leninist leadership, so we can act
consciously to strengthen the current leadership of the ANC and the
Alliance as a whole and become the political engine room of our national
democratic revolution.

This is as vital now as at any time in our history. We face enormous
challenges, but also have unprecedented opportunities to advance our
revolution. The main challenges are:

*  The economic recession which threatens thousands more jobs in a
country which already has a totally unacceptable level of unemployment

*  The continuing casualisation of jobs, worse conditions of employment
and the scourge of labour broking

*  The threat to ban trade union rights in the armed forces

*  The cancer of corruption and the culture of crass materialism

The greatest opportunity on the other hand is that, as a consequence of
the ANC 2007 Polokwane Conference, we have a government and ruling party
that is broadly in agreement with the policies of the SACP and COSATU
and is prepared to listen, debate and engage on all policies, even in
the small number of areas where there are differences of opinion.

The Polokwane resolutions and the ANC Election manifesto raised the
expectations of millions of our people that their plight will change for
the better. These policies represent a major shift and we are already
seeing these changes being implemented. Government's economic policies
are now centred on employment creation and poverty alleviation and a
rejection of the discredited neoliberal, free-market policies. We thus
have the best ever chance of making real, tangible progress towards the
more equal and just society which we are all trying to build.

There has been a sharp move away from the pre-Polokwane environment,
which bred new alien cultures and traditions that provoked the grass
roots revolt by the delegates. These included:

1.   Adopting neoliberal economic policies, including privatisation,
that left the material base of the economy virtually unchanged.

2.   Subordinating the development programme of the RDP to the logic of
GEAR, tight macroeconomic policy, a lean state and trade liberalisation.

3.   Leaving economic power in the hands of the white-owned monopolies
that ran the economy during apartheid.

4.   Using the capitalist media and embedded journalists to pursue
factional battles within the movement, leaking damaging information and
character assassination against opponents, spreading lies and defamatory
allegations in the media and launching media trials.

5.   Using state institutions, the judiciary and SABC, to unfairly
target opponents, which did untold damage to the standing of the
judiciary.

6.   Using state power to distribute patronage and build a reward system
for loyal friends, which led to the appointment of people with no
capacity to lead important areas of transformation. This developed a
culture where mediocrity was tolerated and talented individuals
sidelined for factional reasons.

7.   Corruption and deepening of the culture of accumulation and
self-enrichment, with increasing blurring of lines between political and
business interests.

But now we are starting to see a democratisation of our society, state,
economy and communities. There is far more public consultation on policy
issues, for example the public hearings on labour broking and public
broadcasting. The Alliance is functioning better than for years and we
eagerly look forward to the Summit in November.

Non-performing councillors, and those who award tenders to their family
businesses, are quite rightly being recalled. Measures are being taken
to curb corruption, though far, far more has to be done in this are to
rid the country, and in particular the public service, of this culture
of self-enrichment. Even among some of our own cadres the view that
those in public office have the right to R1m cars and weeks in top
5-star hotels has become deeply ingrained, and it has to be fought with
every weapon at our disposal.

We have to rekindle the spirit of self-sacrifice and service to the
people who elected us, and reject the cynical view that public servants
have the right to the same sort of obscene perks and privileges as those
in business, which have made South Africa the most unequal society on
the planet. We will never curb the greed of the capitalists if our own
leaders follow the same path and adopt their greedy morality of "me
first".

The recent community protests are stoked by legitimate grievances about
the terrible levels of poverty and poor service in our poor communities.
But they are just as much a revolt against people they elected to serve
them as councillors and mayors but who move out of the community, live a
life of affluence at the people's expense and do little to help those
they have left behind. We equally recognise that many councillors and
mayors continue to do wonderful work in support of the goals of
revolution often under difficult conditions.

We must ensure that the elected officials and the state bureaucracy
continues to become more responsive and accountable to the masses, that
they listen to the concerns of our members and the working class as a
whole, and that our Alliance organisations are treated as the legitimate
voice of our communities, not as one more in a queue of special
interests.

The mass base of our movement remains our guarantee against the
entrenched power of capital and the privileged minority. All efforts
must therefore be directed at reinforcing and strengthening mass power
and leveraging that power to bring about changes at the top.  This
requires:

1.   A functioning Alliance that jointly determines strategy and
deployment, with an apparatus to manage its day-to-day affairs.

2.   A strong and vibrant SACP in the vanguard of our struggle

3.   A large and well-functioning ANC at branch, regional and provincial
levels

4.   Internal cohesion and unity in all Alliance formations at all
levels, with an organisational programme to build and unite the Alliance
on the ground.

5.   A clear programme to eradicate the pre-Polokwane ideology and
practices

Ours is a revolutionary struggle that seeks to radically change our
society. For some within the Alliance the NDR constitutes the ultimate
destination, and for others it is a means to an end - the creation of a
future socialist South Africa.

But we are all united in the belief in fundamental and thoroughgoing
social change. We all want to see a far more egalitarian and just
society. We all recognise that we are far from achieving the goals of
the NDR and that the struggle must be taken to new heights.

The movement was fragmented and to a large extent demobilised in the
first years of democracy. But our people always remained active in the
ANC, trade unions, the SACP and social movements and they are now coming
back together united and strong. There is a social base that is readily
available for the movement to mobilise at community, workplace and
national levels.

The Alliance-led campaigns against crime, on health and education and on
rural development must be used to revitalise our organisation at street
and workplace levels, linked to a programme of mass political education
programme to raise the level of consciousness of our people.

As this generation of activists we must reconnect with the mass base and
build a popular movement for transformation. The African Communist,
along with Umsebenzi, Umrabulo and ANC Today, the Shopsteward and COSATU
Today
, all have a crucial role to play in this revolutionary struggle.

Best wishes for the next 50 years of the African Communist!

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