Red Road is a history of the Communist Party in South Africa. It takes the story from the party’s origins in a cluster of radical groups within the white labour movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. I write quite sympathetically about the early Communists who in other treatments are dismissed as white racists. Certainly, they were affected by the dominant culture amongst white South Africans, but what I found interesting about them was not the ways in which they shared the racist common-sense that surrounded them, but the extent to which they sometimes challenged it, and why on occasions they were able to transcend it.
Over a hundred years, from the fringes of the political system the Party gradually moved into the mainstream of South African politics. Today the South African Communist Party (SACP) is an ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), its leaders serving as cabinet ministers. Parts of this story are quite well known, though archival evidence continues to supply fresh insights. Until 1950 from its foundation in 1921, the Party functioned openly. It contested elections, occasionally successfully, it published a newspaper, it led trade unions and it conducted a quarrelsome internal life quite publicly. By the 1940s, its main following was increasingly likely to be among black South Africans. Doctrinal and practical considerations had helped to prompt the Party’s leadership to align itself with African nationalist politics, though Party leaders often disagreed about the strategic implications of joining a struggle for national liberation. In particular, they argued over the issue of whether such a struggle could be simultaneously socialist.
My book explores less well-known territory when it starts tracking the Party’s development as a clandestine formation, first within South Africa from 1950 to 1965 when it’s networks were almost destroyed by police action and then through three decades of exile as a secret formation within the ANC’s African and European diaspora. By the late 1980s, the Party’s influence peaked despite the small size of its membership. In certain respects and among certain groups Communists achieved a near hegemonic dominance and yet they remained organisationally weak. My closing chapter considers the Party’s evolution since the fall of Apartheid. It now has a mass membership and an elaborate bureaucracy but its political and broader ideological influence has receded. Paradoxically, proximity to power has distanced Communists from their earlier source of strength: immersion in the politics of the poor.
Is there anything about the Party’s politics that is uniquely South African?
Two key features of the Party’s history make it stand out in the international Communist family, the way that its social make-up has altered and its lengthy proximity to a nationalist movement. It’s following was initially drawn chiefly from white working-class communities in the gold mining centres, mostly from England. Through the 1920s to the 1950s, leadership was shared by Baltic Jewish immigrants who brought into the Party their own political ideas. From the 1960s onwards, the Party became mainly black South African, both with respect to its members and its officials. Secondly from 1928 onwards the Party would embrace the immediate goal of achieving a “black republic”. This would lead it into a sustained engagement with African nationalism. The closest parallels to the Party’s development as an anti-colonial movement are with Indian Communism but what makes the South African Communist experience unique is the degree to which it was able to shape and transform a nationalist movement. Party leaders today suggest that their own organisation has been profoundly affected by its commitment to national liberation. I think this is true. It is most obviously evident in the Party’s programmatic vision of a future process of relatively orderly incremental change “from above” rather than insurrectionary struggle-based transformation.
How has the perception of the Party changed in South Africa and elsewhere across the years?
I first started writing about South African anti-apartheid politics in the late 1970s. At that time official South African propaganda suggested that the South African Communist Party was an agent of Soviet foreign policy and that it had succeeded in imposing Soviet as well as its own strategic aims on Black South African opposition to the government. At that time, though, most of the serious scholarship directed at black resistance to apartheid was fairly dismissive about the Party’s influence, very much seeing the ANC as a house of many mansions, in which Communists played a role, certainly, but alongside other groups with quite different long-term aims. Through the 1980s, popular admiration inside South Africa for the Party and its leaders became increasingly evident, and researchers began to pay it more attention. A new school of social history focused on the black working class explored the Party’s pioneering role in helping to build trade unions in the 1920s and 1930s as well as developing more critical perceptions of the Party’s willingness to cooperate with nationalists. Today the Party has become part of the political establishment. Since 1990 and especially in the last decade a new generation of left social movements have mobilised poor communities and their leaders are often very critical of Communists and their role in government.
How did the Party survive the fall of the Soviet Union?
Initially it’s presence at the helm of a triumphant national liberation movement ensured its prestige and popularity. In contrast to the experience of many Communist parties in other parts of the world, it helped to lead and shape a liberal democratic transition rather than being on the defensive against such a development. The South African Communist Party also enjoyed backing from what was Africa’s most formidable trade union movement. Party leaders played a key role in negotiating a new constitutional order. Resources and supporters were available to enable the Party to transform itself into a mass membership organisation, today counting its signed-up followers in hundreds of thousands. It has not contested elections, however, preferring instead to try to retain its presence and influence within the ANC and within the state’s senior management. In exile, the Party played a key role in training the ANC’s leadership echelons. To date every South African president since 1994 has at one time or another been an active party member.
Even so, the disappearance of the Eastern European Communist governments has helped to limit the Party’s impact on South African political life. The Party does not function as a disciplined left-wing caucus within government. To do so would make it politically vulnerable and in any case even top Communists disagree over key policy issues. There are deeper ideological disagreements, though, which reflect the absence of an authoritative model from actually-existing socialism. SACP members often find themselves at odds with trade unionists when defending government policies. In explaining their record in government SACP principals argue that the end of the Soviet Union severely curtailed the possibilities for radical social transformation in the developing world. They maintain that their presence within government helps to protect key basic reforms secured by national liberation.
In short, the South African Communists were better placed than most Communists elsewhere to survive the collapse of Soviet power but the fall of the Soviet Union raised difficult questions about the Party’s road-map towards socialism.
What role did they play in the liberation struggle of South Africa?
They contributed to this struggle in three major ways, in building networks, in shaping strategy and in fostering leadership.
Communists in the 1940s worked out a strategy of alliances drawing upon the experience of mobilising community protests to support strike movements. This coalition between labour leaders and community activists would persist through the next five decades, helping to enable national liberation in 1994. In fact, in the 1940s at a local level trade unionists often were community leaders, as well as belonging to the Communist Party. In the vicinities in which they were busiest, in New Brighton in the Eastern Cape, for example, or in the townships – exclusively black residential areas – dispersed along the East Rand, or in Cape Town’s Langa, these leaders and their activist communist following in the 1950s after the Party’s prohibition link continued to organise and mobilise. It was no coincidence that where the ANC had the most entrenched and systematic presence in the 1950s was in the localities in which communists were best organised in the 194Os. In short, the “Decade of Defiance”, the ten years or so of mass action against Apartheid in the 1950’s, was incubated in Party networks.
There are many other ways in which the Party stamped its historic imprint. If the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid minority rule was decisive, and it was certainly important in inspiring other kinds of political action during the 1980s, than communists supplied its strategic vision as well as providing most of the key members of its general staff and as well many field unit commanders.
Then from the 1920s onwards through its night-schools and other training facilities, the Party educated successive echelons of South Africa’s political leadership. That the ANC today in its internal discourses still uses the jargon and phraseology employed by the Party’s commissars in the Angolan training camps forty years ago is testimony to their enduring effectiveness as educators. Indeed, the concept of “national democracy” that the ANC uses to describe the kind of social order it is trying to build itself derives from an international Communist notion of a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism applied in Eastern Europe after the Second World War.
What sort of future do you think the Party would offer South Africans?
Suppose the Party was predominant within government, that it had won office through its own independently conducted electoral campaigning. Would its programme be very different from the present administration’s policies? Probably not. Communist experience in government over the last three decades has probably helped to shape among Party principals a general understanding of the practical limits to the kinds of changes they might want to implement. South Africa is a partly industrialised middle-income country heavily dependent upon external markets, investment and credit. It has massive unemployment and extreme degrees of social inequality. A succession of Communist ministers have struggled to secure better international trading arrangements. A wholly Communist administration might be expected to invest more in those areas of the economy that might supply more livelihoods: labour intensive agriculture, for example. Energetic and properly-funded land reform would surely be on the agenda. Communist policy makers often refer to the potential for more processing industry, in mineral “beneficiation” for example. But finding the public finance to support such projects would be difficult. There are limits to how much more the government can tax people: South Africans are relatively heavily taxed and company tax is quite high by international standards. South Africa already spends a huge proportion of state revenues on social security which has helped to check poverty despite rising unemployment. One might expect a Communist administration to be less tolerant of venality. To be fair, Communist ministers have not been implicated in the most serious corruption scandals, not directly anyway, though for a while they defended Jacob Zuma and of course supported his accession. A more left-wing administration would surely prioritise reforming government procurement, a major source of present inefficiencies. But in general, the kinds of policies that the ANC has offered probably tally with what the Party might adopt if they enjoyed political supremacy and they would also encounter the same kinds of bureaucratic obstacles in implementing them. Would Communists erode parliamentary democracy? Constitutional principles may be an awkward fit with the Leninist orthodoxies which still appear in the Party’s internal conversations, but it is worth remembering that SACP members were among the main architects of South Africa’s democracy. In short, a Party-led administration would probably not bring about a sudden rupture in South African political life.
What’s one especially compelling fact from your research that you would like to share?
When working on my final chapter, I was surprised by the absence of evidence for any serious Communist Party preparation for the prospect of the end of minority rule. To be sure, party intellectuals together with their comrades in the ANC had during the mid- 1980s put some effort into considering what a post-apartheid constitution might look like: for a long-time former and practising lawyers had a significant presence in the SACP’s top echelon. But even between 1990 and 1994 when the prospect of governing had more or less become a certainty, Communists did not invest much effort into the policy detail of what they do once in power, how they might undertake the sorts of social reforms and economic re-organisation that might install a trajectory towards socialism. The lack of any serious thinking about land reform would be a case in point. Part of the explanation was that older assumptions about what might be possible had been uprooted by the collapse of the socialist world. The party was also damaged by defections just at the moment when the struggle it had fought appeared to be over, when a number of key figures gave up their membership, including of course, Thabo Mbeki. But even during the transition, just had been the case during the insurgent phase of its history, a tiny group of cadres, the Party’s most creative strategic planners were wholly engaged in the practical day to exigencies of negotiating a path to majority rule.
What do you have planned next?
Fifteen years ago, I published a biography of Nelson Mandela. I’d like to return to Mandela’s life and work on a revised edition. Since my book appeared, a considerable body of fresh work on Mandela’s early life has emerged, offering pointers to revisions and new research tasks. I am especially interested in exploring more deeply than I was able to two decades ago Mandela’s time in power, when he led the ANC during the negotiations and when he was in office as president from 1994 to 1999. After more than twenty years since Mandela’s presidency we can probably obtain a better sense of the impact and legacy of his decisions and actions during the 1990s than was possible earlier. There is also more evidence available than I had access to in 2005, including documentation and a growing library of memoirs.
Entirely new and different projects? I’d love to research and write a history of the Nigerian Civil War. My first serious work as an African-focused researcher was on Nigeria, a country where I spent part of my childhood. The Nigerian war was an epochal event. Academic research has been hampered by archival restrictions: the government adheres to a policy of letting bygone be bygones and discourages any commemoration of the war. A conventional military analysis of the conflict has yet to appear. I am interested in the politics on both sides, now increasingly illuminated by a succession of autobiographies. How both the Nigerian government and the Biafrans mobilised the resources they needed to fight each other for so long needs more exploration. Did the famine relief directed at Biafra help to prolong the struggle? The degree to which General Gowon’s “no victors, no vanquished” approach succeeded in reconciling Nigerians also merits fresh attention.
Red Road to Freedom
A History of the South African Communist Party 1921 – 2021
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TOM LODGE is Emeritus Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick. He is the author of several books on African history including Mandela: A Critical Biography (2006) and Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences (2011). He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
This title is an import from Jacana, who hold rights in Africa and India.