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The transformation of South Africa's communists

12 February 1997

Raising the Red Flag: The International Socialist League and the Communist Party of South Africa 1914-1932
By Sheridan Johns
Mayibuye Books, Bellville, South Africa
1995, 309pp.

Review by Norm Dixon

Mayibuye Books specialise in publishing works relating to South Africa's liberation struggle, most by participants in the movement. Under apartheid many valuable works were suppressed. Now free to publish anything, it may seem strange that Mayibuye would decide to publish a book that began as an unpublished thesis by an obscure US academic 30 years ago. Strange or not, it is a decision to be welcomed.

Sheridan Johns, now a professor of political science at Duke University in South Carolina, has produced what is perhaps the best history of the early years of the South African communist movement written by a non-participant. Together with Class and Colour in South Africa: 1850-1950, by Jack and Ray Simons, and Time Longer than Rope, by Eddie Roux, Raising the Red Flag provides a comprehensive overview of the transformation of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) from a small sect of militant white workers to a large communist party organically linked to the black working class and central to developments in South African politics.

In 1910, the fledgling white labour and socialist groups united to form the South African Labour Party, (similar to the Australian variant). The party was split between right and left factions who could only agree on getting SALP candidates elected to parliament.

The right-wing leadership saw its role as protecting the privileges of white skilled workers. In 1913, SALP MPs raised no opposition to laws which confined the African majority's land rights to just 13% of the country.

A small section of the SALP leadership began to question the party's white-chauvinism and reformism, arguing that because the working-class was overwhelmingly black, a true working class party had to admit and organise them.

The impossible alliance between the reformist, white supremacist right and the radicalising left finally dissolved over the SALP's decision to support participation in World War One. Ten prominent members, almost all of the SALP's executive committee, broke away in 1915 and formed the 400-strong International Socialist League (ISL).

The ISL was the first South African party to openly oppose racial oppression, and allow blacks to join, but remained convinced that only the victory of the socialist revolution, led by the militant, white working class, would put an end to the inferior status of blacks. The ISL mainly emphasised work amongst white trade unionists, dismissing the struggle against racial oppression as a diversion from the class struggle.

In 1921, the ISL and several other socialist groups combined to form the CPSA and affiliated to the Communist International (CI). Less than a year later, its misguided belief in the revolutionary potential of the white working class was tested during the "Rand Revolt". Unable to reduce further the miserable pay of African miners, mine-owners moved to cut costs by transferring semi-skilled jobs to Africans at much lower pay-rates than whites.

The CPSA declared that the strike was "essentially -- a fight against the rule of the capitalist class" and unsuccessfully campaigned to convince white miners that it was a class, not a racial struggle. Armed strike commandos, organised to defend workers from the police and troops, also attacked black miners, killing 30.

The communists wrongly chose to defend the white miners' monopoly of skilled work rather than campaign for an increase of blacks' wages to the level of whites'. The strike lasted three months. The government declared martial law and eventually crushed the revolt with bomber aircraft, artillery and tanks.

In 1924, the SALP and the National Party formed a coalition and were swept to power by angry white workers. They legislated to institutionalise the colour bars that the 1922 strike had defended, thus beginning the long partnership between the white working class -- South Africa's labour aristocracy -- and the ruling class.

The CPSA was forced to reassess its political positions, most significantly under the leadership of Sidney Bunting, elected as chairperson in 1924. The party began to organise African workers, then flooding into industry from rural areas. Night schools were established to teach new members politics, literacy and arithmetic. Some of the CP's most able and important African leaders joined during this period -- Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Edwin Mofutsanyana, Johannes Nkosi and Gana Makabeni. By 1929, the party had 3000 black members (up from just 200 two year before) and at the party conference two-thirds of the delegates were black.

The CPSA took a less sectarian position towards the ANC, working closely with the radical ANC president-general Josiah Gumede after 1927. At a conference in Brussels, Gumede said openly of the CPSA "I am happy to say there are communists in South Africa. I myself am not one, but it is my experience that the Communist Party is the only party that stands behind us and from which we can expect something."

The most controversial debate in South African communism's history is thoroughly canvassed by Johns. In 1927, the executive of the CI endorsed the "Draft Resolution on the South African Question" (the Black Republic Thesis). The document argued that the CPSA should campaign for "an independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers' and peasants' republic with full, equal rights for all races".

The resolution also stated that: "the party should pay particular attention to the embryonic organisations among the natives, such as the African National Congress. The party, while retaining its full independence, should participate in these organisations. Our aim should be to transform the ANC into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organisation against the white bourgeoisie and the British imperialists."

The draft resolution was opposed by the majority of the CPSA leadership, having yet to shed their overestimation of the revolutionary potential of the white workers and underestimation of the significance of democratic, anti-racist demands.

The CI imposed the "Black Republic Thesis" on the party in 1928, forcing the leadership to complete the party's re-orientation to the mass struggles of the oppressed majority. The CPSA reluctantly accepted the decision, while the Bunting leadership modified it to be more in keeping with actual situation in South Africa. Thirty delegates at the 1929 conference, of whom 20 were Black, adopted a program that clearly stated that the Black Republic would be a workers' and peasants' republic.

The CPSA stated that the first stage -- the democratic stage -- of the revolution, while uniting all classes and strata within the racially oppressed majority, would be led by the workers and peasants and not some imaginary African bourgeoisie. While the initial tasks of the revolution would be democratic, the conditions for moving to the next stage -- socialism -- would be created as the new state power brought the interests of the black working class to the fore.

This promising evolution of the CPSA was cut short. No sooner had the party begun to implement the new line, than Moscow issued sectarian and ultra left directives against it.

In 1930, the CPSA formed the League of African Rights, the first successful combination of communists and black militants in the liberation movement to campaign for civil rights and against pass laws. It looked set to replace the then virtually defunct ANC. Demonstrations were held. Large numbers of Africans attended and joined the party. The CI ordered the immediate dissolution of the league, claiming the party had allowed bourgeois nationalist politics to dominate, despite the fact that communists were the overwhelming majority of its executive. The CI ruled against working with or within the main civil rights organisations. The ANC was reformist and bourgeois, it said. Democratic demands were again jettisoned in favour of crude "class" demands.

A CI-sponsored faction launched an attack on the Bunting leadership, accusing it of being right-wing and white-chauvinist. The party was devastated by a series of purges. The destruction of the revolutionary Bunting leadership, especially its acute understanding of the relationship between the struggle against racial oppression and the struggle against capitalism, has impaired the party's theory ever since.

By 1932, the party was a mere shell. By 1933, membership had plummeted to 200. Black members deserted in droves. This was the lowest point in the party's history and where Johns' account ends. Not until the 1940s did the CPSA regain its standing within the black population after the importance of raising democratic, anti-racist demands was again recognised by the party.


Brian Bunting: Another South African icon goes

Another South African icon goes

M.S. Prabhakara

Brian Bunting’s whole life, as that of his wife and comrade Sonia, was devoted to the elimination of the apartheid regime.

He was for many years the Editor of African Communist, the South African Communist Party’s official organ

Till about a year before his death, he remained a member of the SACP’s central committee

The life and career of Brian Bunting (1920-2008), a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress all his adult life, was marked by a careful reticence. This was a reticence cultivated as of necessity by most of those white South Africans, admittedly a minority, whose engagement in the liberation struggle was during the years of hard apartheid, and as active members of the Communist Party of South Africa and, later, of the South Afric an Communist Party. (The CPSA was dissolved in June 1950 after it was outlawed under the Suppression of Communism Act, but was revived clandestinely as the South African Communist Party in 1953.) Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), a contemporary of Brian, recalls in his memoirs, Memory against Forgetting (Viking, London, 1989) that during those hard years of struggle and exile, lives depended on silence and forgetting. “Survival has required that memory be deliberately suppressed, and every written record burnt, shredded, flushed away or even swallowed.”

I was fortunate to have Brian as a friend and share food, wine and conversation at his table with other political friends, during my years in South Africa as this newspaper’s correspondent from 1994 to 2001. However, the acquaintance with his ideas began much earlier. For, apart from stray political pamphlets one read during an earlier sojourn abroad, the first systematic treatment of the political economy of apartheid South Africa was Brian Bunting’s The Rise of the South African Reich (Penguin, 1964) that I read in July 1970. That work clarified many inchoate and incoherent ideas teeming at the back of one’s mind as the reality of South African fascism was driven home following the Sharpeville massacres.

Brian’s parents were Communists. His father Sidney Percival Bunting (1873-1936) was a founding member of the CPSA. Brian has written, with characteristic lack of sentimentality, of the sad story of Sidney’s expulsion from the CPSA in 1931 and his political rehabilitation over half a century later, in his introduction to a new edition of his father’s political biography by Edward Roux. Roux himself was another extraordinary white South African, who was dismissed as Professor and Head of the Department of Botany, University of the Witwatersrand, for his political beliefs.

Brian’s whole life, as that of his wife and comrade Sonia (1922-2001), was devoted to the elimination of the apartheid regime. What his friend and comrade, Joe Slovo (1926-95) said in retrospect in December 1994, after the end of the apartheid regime, and less than a month before he died, was applicable to all these liberation fighters: “I decided long ago in my life that there is only one target, and that target is to remove the racist regime and obtain power for the people.” The arenas of struggle were different, but the objective never varied.

This was the case with Brian, too. On his return from the Second World War, he became a journalist and writer: it was his chosen field to continue the battle against South African fascism. He was the Editor, in succession as each of the journals was banned and revived under another name, of The Guardian, Advance, New Age and Spark — the last simply killed off by a notification of the Publications Control Board created under the Publications and Entertainment Act of 1963.

He was detained without trial after the Sharpeville massacres, banned from attending meetings, placed under a 13-hour house arrest and confined to Cape Town. Finally he left the country and made a home with Sonia and their three children in London where he continued his political work. He was for many years the Editor of African Communist, the SACP’s official organ, published from London, till its return to South Africa in the late 1990.

He was elected to Parliament in South Africa’s first democratic elections. Till about a year before his death, he remained a member of the SACP’s central committee. One recalls the fortitude and even his sense of humour during the funeral service of his wife Sonia which was as much an occasion to grieve as for celebrating her life.

What drove people like Brian or his parents and so many other white South African radicals, Afrikaner and Engelse, to choose a path of militant opposition to racial oppression and apartheid? Rusty recalls in his memoirs being asked a similar question in 1989, when he was in Moscow conducting on behalf of the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, a series of seminars on the history of South Africa’s liberation struggles to students. These students were mostly of the ‘Soweto generation’, young persons fresh from street battles with the police and training to be guerrilla fighters.

Later, in an interview for a TV documentary, the director who knew little about Rusty, or for that matter about South Africa, wanted to know why some people made political choices that ran counter to their ‘class interests’. He wondered if their choices and actions were like those of the Decembrists, aristocrats and officers under the Tsar who staged a revolt against him in the late 19th century challenging the very feudal order that sustained them in their privileged positions and were mostly executed. So, the question: Why do some privileged white South Africans like Rusty strive to end white rule, and in the process endanger their own privileged positions?

Unable to give an explanation that would satisfy his interlocutor (the year, 1989, perhaps explains the kind of vulgarisation of Marxism that was implicit in the question), Rusty suggests that perhaps the life of Bram Fischer, Afrikaner and South African revolutionary, who too like Rusty, Brian, Joe Slovo (and their spouses) and so many others like them was a Communist, indeed an active member of the CPSA and the SACP, might provide an answer.

Bram was from a most privileged background, part of the Afrikaner aristocracy, who made common cause for the liberation of all the people of South Africa, black and white. He was the lead defence counsel for Nelson Mandela and his comrades who were facing capital charges in the Rivonia Trial (1963-64). Soon after that trial, Bram himself was arrested on charges filed under the Suppression of Communism Act, and sentenced to life imprisonment, essentially for his political beliefs. He died in prison, though technically it was at his brother’s home to whose care he was released when it was clear that he was dying. The house was declared a prison for the few remaining days of Bram’s life.

If one were to be asked about the legacy of these freedom fighters, black and white and all the colours in between, one can do no better than to recall the words inscribed in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral under the bust of Christopher Wren, its architect: “If you seek his monument, look around.” The legacy of all the freedom fighters who spent their whole lives in the struggle against apartheid, many facing death bravely, is quite simply the democratic and constitutional state of South Africa that, despite all its problems, is an infinitely better place to live than the apartheid state for all its citizens.

(Brian Bunting died at his home in Cape Town on June 18.)

South Africa: 'Hell no, we won't go!' 20 years on

'Hell no, we won't go!'
JONATHAN ANCER - Aug 25 2008 06:00

It is 20 years to the week since the End Conscription Campaign was banned. Jonathan Ancer celebrates the remarkable movement of white activists.

I was 18 and my main ambition in life was to grow my hair. I tore open the brown envelope and out slid a piece of paper my "call-up" for two years of military service.

It was time for me to protect our women and children from the terries. I'd be a man; a soldier. I'd be doing my bit for my country. So, why did I want to hurl? I joined the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) instead.

"The ECC took anyone opposed to the South African Defence Force, even troops," says Brett Myrdal, one of the campaign's founders. "Conscription was the only way whites felt the pain of apartheid and this made it an ideal mobilising tool - apartheid wasn't worth dying for."

Support for the ECC grew to such an extent that it became a bayonet in the belly of the apartheid beast. Defence minister Magnus Malan declared the country's top three enemies to be the South African Communist party, the ANC and, in third place, the ECC. It was 20 years ago, on August 22 1988, that the government banned the ECC.

"A resolution at a Black Sash conference in 1983 called for an end to conscription," says Myrdell. "That night a few of us chatting in a graveyard realised that this resolution was the way to bypass the Defence Act, which prescribed a 10-year jail sentence for anyone who encouraged people to disobey their call-up.

"We could call on the state not to conscript, as we were not calling on individuals to refuse to serve." The ECC was made up of pacifists, old liberals, young commies, liberation theologians, just war advocates, bunny huggers, trendoids, Christians and tie-dyed hippies, but Christian pacifists and student lefties predominated. "It was not without tensions, but it was held together by a clever leadership," says former ECC activist Roddie Payne.

Adele Kirsten, one of the ECC's founding mothers, is proud of the organisation's achievements. "It was a scary time to be a young activist. People did much braver things than us, but we were breaking very deliberately with our group. Those days were awful. We lived in fear of being detained, an experience not shared by the rest of the white population."

Many whites went to the army reluctantly, while some became professional students, did alternative service (a punitive six years), dodged the draft or skipped the country. But 14 men gave the army the most dramatic middle finger of all ­­­- they went to jail. The first man who put up his hand was Anton Eberhard. In 1970 he did his national service; but seven years later, when he was called up to a camp, his life had changed dramatically.

"I befriended Vusi Khanyile [now chair of the investment company Thebe] and got a taste of what life was like for black South Africans. When I received my call up in 1977 Vusi was detained. I knew I couldn't put on an SADF uniform."

Eberhard wrote to his commanding officer saying he refused to defend a system he didn't believe in. "My boss was furious with me. 'So, who will stop our daughters being raped on the border?' he asked."

Six months later military police knocked on his door. Eberhard served two months in detention barracks. "I was put in solitary confinement and - amazingly - left with my books. I got to read Wittgenstein and all the books I always wanted to read but didn't have the time."

Eberhard says he didn't feel "particularly evangelical" about his stand. "I don't know if it did anything directly; for me it was an issue of conscience."

Peter Moll and Richard Steele set out to raise consciousness. "I was trying to get people to think; to question authority," says Steele.

"There was an expectation that whites would collaborate with the apartheid government, but the fact that there were people prepared to make a sacrifice sent a powerful message."

Steele was willing to do community service, but objected to military service. "Any violence was contrary to the spirit of love, peace and healing, the path I'd chosen to follow. This was my country and I wanted to make a contribution." In jail Steele refused to wear a uniform, salute or eat meat. "There were lots of threats, but I stood my ground. Every time I refused an order I felt stronger.'"

An Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Steele received thousands of letters of support. The censors read every one. "Now I've no reason to feel guilty. I can look black people in the eyes because I was a freedom fighter too." Charles Yeats, dodging the draft in London, was so inspired by Steele's stand that he returned home and refused to serve.

He passed the baton to Mike Viveiros, who had watched Casspirs roll down the streets of Hanover Park where he taught Sunday school. "I saw soldiers shooting at children. I thought: 'How could I teach these people the love of God when later I would be expected to shoot at them?'" Viveiros was jailed for 12 months. "I had an amazing opportunity to have Breyten Breytenbach in the next cell. I benefited from apartheid, but I did my small part in trying to fight it."

Viveiros handed the objector baton to Neil Mitchell who, in 1998, 15 years after his release, found himself sitting next to army chief Siphiwe Nyanda at a Soweto school's anniversary celebration. "I told him I hoped he would be out of a job soon because I wanted to live in a world without armies. He just laughed."

The Conscientious Objector Support Group was formed to support jailed refuseniks; they were becoming martyrs and the government was worried. In September 1983, three days before Myrdal's trial started, the state increased prison sentences for objectors from two years to a mandatory six years.

He joined Umkhonto weSizwe and went into exile. That seemed to solve the question of what to do with objectors: no one would go to jail for six years. The state hadn't counted on David Bruce.

After he was sentenced The Star carried a photo of him with the headline: "Bruce gets six years". "Commuters to Soweto stuck the page on their buses," recalls Kirsten. "I had goosebumps." The ECC plastered images of Bruce's brooding gaze around the country.

Then Charles Bester, an earnest, articulate, fresh-faced Christian of just 18, told a court that his beliefs taught him apartheid was evil.

"We desperately need reconciliation to come together and find out more about each other," he testified. Bam! The gavel came down. Six years.

For the government it was a public relations disaster. It accused the ECC of aiding the "communist onslaught" and detained its leaders, banned its publications, raided its offices and conducted smear campaigns against its members.

Two weeks before the ECC was banned, 143 men publicly refused to serve in the army. Steele says the government realised it could no longer rely on conscripts to enforce its rule. "This helped the push to democracy. We disempowered the South African government. We were a major threat because we were coming from within." The banning didn't stop the momentum. Nine months later 771 men said: "Hell no, we won't go!" During the talks after Nelson Mandela's release conscription fell away.

"Thanks to the ECC the conscription issue was settled very quickly," says Kirsten. "I like saying to my nephews -- and I do boast a bit -- that it's because of me that you don't have to go into the military."

Jailed objectors: where are they now?
Anton Eberhard Sentenced to 12 months, 10 of which were suspended, in 1977 for refusing to do a camp. Now a research professor at the University of Cape Town's business school.
Peter Moll Sentenced to 18 months in 1979; served a year. Now a senior economist at the World Bank. Richard Steele Served a year in jail in 1980; now a homeopath.
Charles Yeats Served a year in detention barracks in 1981, then sentenced to a year in civilian prison for refusing to wear a uniform. He teaches at Durham University and advises corporations on their social, environmental and moral responsibilities. He wrote a book about his experiences.
Mike Viveiros Sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment in 1982, served a year in Pretoria Central. Has been living in Taiwan since 2001 where he teaches English.
Neil Mitchell Served a year in 1982. A teacher, he works for the Catholics School Office.
Billy Paddock Served a year in 1982. Died in a road accident in the early 1990s.
Etienne Essery Served four months in 1983. Is writing a feature film script looking at South Africa in the Seventies and Eighties.
Pete Hathorn sentenced to two years in 1983, served a year in Pollsmoor Prison. He is now an advocate. Paul Dodson sentenced to a year's imprisonment in 1983. He died in a motorbike accident in the late 1980s. David Bruce sentenced to six years in 1988, Bruce was released in 1990 after an appeal arguing for a review of maximum jail penalties for objectors. Now a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Saul Batzofin served nine months of a 21-month sentence. Now an IT programme manager at Imperial College, London.
Ivan Toms served nine months of a 21-month sentence imposed in 1988. In 2002 became Cape Town's director of health, where he led the battle against TB and HIV/Aids. Was awarded the Order of the Baobab in 2006 in recognition of his "outstanding contribution to the struggle against apartheid and sexual discrimination". He died from meningitis in April.
Charles Bester The last objector to be jailed, Bester served 20 months of a six-year sentence. He now runs a guesthouse in Plettenberg Bay.

Source: Mail & Guardian Online
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