South Africa’s Left

Martin Plaut

It was a hot day. The fluffy clouds overhead did nothing to shade the crowd. They paid little heed to the heat – intent on the task before them. They were burying their dead, probably victims of a Government hit-squad. This was Cradock, a small Eastern Cape town, on 19 July 1985.

Some of the mourners carried placards bearing the green, black and gold of the African National Congress. Although illegal, ANC symbols had become commonplace at rallies and demonstrations during the Eighties. Then it happened. From among the crowd the scarlet banner of the Communist Party, complete with hammer and sickle, was suddenly aloft. Having been banned for 35 years, the symbol of the South African Communist Party was once more on public display. It has been supposed that the red flag at Cradock that day was the last straw for President Botha. Three days later he declared a State of Emergency.

The emergency has lasted, on and off, to this day. The repression has been intense: it is estimated that between 1985 and 1988 fifty thousand people were detained. A host of organisations were so restricted that almost all their activities were effectively outlawed. Yet despite the best efforts of the country’s elaborate security forces, the opposition was not broken. Defending his decision to unban all political parties, including the Communists, President de Klerk admitted to Parliament on 9 February: ‘Previous methods of fighting Communism and the politics of violence ... had begun to be counter-productive. The continuing prohibition on organisations had the effect of drawing attention away from their faults and their indefensible policies.’

So it is that the South African Left finds itself legal once more, much to its own amazement. ‘I am completely dumbstruck,’ said Joe Slovo, the SACP’s general secretary, when the news was broken to him in the VIP lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. The Left is in remarkably good shape for a movement that has been hounded for decades. The red flag is now an indispensable part of every major gathering. The slogans of socialism are shouted at every rally. Marxist theories that went out of fashion in Europe at the start of the Eighties are still taught at some English-speaking universities.

A left press has sprung up and flourished. For a country that is regularly attacked for its censorship, South Africa has a wide range of remarkably vigorous socialist publications. The oldest journal to circulate legally, before President de Klerk’s lifting of restrictions, was the South African Labour Bulletin. Its first issue appeared in 1974, a year after the Durban strikes which rekindled the black trade-union movement. Since then, it has regularly charted and supported the growth of the unions, appearing eight times a year. More recently it has been joined by another publication, Transformation, a version of the New Left Review. The Left even has its own publishing-houses in Ravan Press and Skotaville. The flagship of the left press is the Weekly Mail, born out of the collapse of the liberal Johannesburg paper, the Daily Mail. Its incisive articles have become the most accurate means of following developments in a changing South Africa. Then there is the New Nation, funded by the Catholic Church but openly dedicated to the aims of the ANC. South magazine fulfils a similar role, as do dozens of small regional or community-based publications.

Finding the Left is one thing, defining it is another. Consider the ANC. It has always been at pains to retain its status as a broad church, with members whose views range from Christianity through African Nationalism to Marxist Leninism. It has never adopted socialism, leaving that role to its ally, the Communist Party. The ANC has gone out of its way to discourage those internal organisations that look to it for leadership, such as the United Democratic Front or the Mass Democratic Movement, from openly espousing socialism. The ANC fears that socialism might alienate potential friends in the black middle classes, thought to be essential in its strategy of building a broad front against apartheid.

Its ancient rival for black political support, the Pan Africanist Congress, uses socialist slogans from time to time. So do those movements in the Africanist tradition that have grown up in South Africa in the years since the PAC was banned in 1960 – AZAPO and the recently formed Pan Africanist Movement. They tend to be of the same political mould as the ANC, but more fervently African nationalist. At their recent rallies, the chant has been heard: ‘One settler, one bullet.’

The Left really begins with the Communists. Formed in 1921 out of a merger of Marxist groups, the Party has been the unflagging standard-bearer for socialism. It made a disastrous start during the Rand Revolt of 1922, when it declared: ‘Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.’ The Communists soon saw there was no mileage in building their party on the white working class, and turned to the blacks. The Communists are currently enjoying greater prestige and popular support than at any time in their history. Indeed, they are probably the only Communist Party anywhere in the world which at present enjoys genuine popular support. This is largely attributable to the SACP’s unswerving loyalty to the ANC. Since they were banned in 1950, the Communist Party has recognised the leadership of the ANC in the fight against apartheid, insisting that it will only begin pursuing its own programme once a democratic South Africa has been achieved. More controversial has been its role within the ANC itself. Its members have held leading positions, and through their links with international Communism were able to secure guaranteed supplies of arms and funds. They acted as the strategists of the movement, and as providers of ideological rigour. Events in Eastern Europe have therefore been of double significance to South Africa.

On the one hand, President de Klerk could rightly argue that the ANC’s allies were moving away from support for the ANC’s military strategy. One Soviet analyst, asked what he thought of the ANC’s armed struggle, replied: ‘What armed struggle?’ On the other hand, the winds of reform now eroding Communist orthodoxy have had a profound effect on the SACP and, through it, on the ANC.

Last month Joe Slovo issued a discussion pamphlet entitled ‘Has socialism failed?’ It begins: ‘Socialism is undoubtedly in the throes of a crisis greater than at any time since [the Russian Revolution of] 1917.’ It continues by admitting, for the first time, that the events in Eastern Europe were what it calls ‘popular revolts against unpopular regimes’, and warns that ‘if socialists are unable to come to terms with this reality, the future of socialism is indeed bleak.’ These are stunning admissions for a party which was for decades unfailingly Stalinist, and which supported unreservedly Soviet actions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as well as the invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pamphlet goes on to re-affirm the Party’s faith in the tenets of Marxism, saying that it is the way socialism has been implemented and not socialism itself that is at fault. But it also says that real democracy is incompatible with a one-party state. ‘We have had sufficient experience of one-party rule in various parts of the world to perhaps conclude that the “mission” to promote real democracy under a one-party system is not just difficult but, in the long run, impossible.’

Slovo’s support for a genuine multi-party system is probably the most hopeful indication yet of the shape of a future South Africa. For until their conversion there was plenty of evidence that their blueprint for the future differed little from the fossilised repression that passed for Communism in Eastern Europe.

But the South African Left does not end with the SACP. Since the Thirties, Trotskyism has had a consistent, if small following. The Unity Movement and the Cape Action League come from this tradition and draw their support from the Malay and Coloured communities of the Western Cape. Both are strongly rejectionist, having for decades based their political strategy on having nothing to do with any government institution. There are also groups that have links with Far Left movements in Britain. Inqaba ya Basebenzi was formed in 1979 after some members of the ANC were expelled, accused of ultra-leftism. They have the backing of Britain’s Militant Tendency, and their claim to be the ‘Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC’ has a familiar ring to British ears. They now have a certain following among black youths in the townships, who are attracted by their fiercely partisan propaganda, which calls for the ANC to arm the masses and for unremitting struggle aganist “government stooges” like Inkatha’s Chief Buthelezi. The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Organiser also have some support, but their following can probably be counted in tens rather than hundreds.

The bedrock of the South African Left is the black trade-union movement. Today the unions boast a membership in excess of one million – a considerable achievement for a movement that was sixteen thousand strong in 1969. They are divided into two federations, Cosatu and Nactu, broadly reflecting the political differences between the ANC and PAC. Whatever their differences, the majority of their members are almost by definition socialist in orientation, capitalism having become irrevocably associated with apartheid.

It is in this environment that the Communist Party has been able to make substantial gains. Its literature was already widely read among trade-union activists even before the lifting of the ban on its activities. Its tactics and slogans have been heard at every major meeting held by Cosatu since its formation in 1985.

Yet the Communists have not had things all their own way in the unions. Their hegemony has been consistently challenged by trade-unionists, sometimes referred to as ‘workerists’, who insist that the unions should retain a degree of autonomy from the ANC and its allies, and that their members should not be drawn into political conflict without clear consultation with their members. In recent years these differences have been largely overcome, with the Communists now supporting a charter of workers’ rights, guaranteeing the independence of the trade-union movement.

The question that now starkly faces the South African Left is whether to enter into negotiations with President de Klerk. Clearly the ANC and the Communists are moving in this direction. This has already earned them denunciations. An outburst from a group calling itself the Azanian National Youth Unity is a foretaste of things to come. They denounced Slovo for accepting multi-party democracy in South Africa. In their view, the SACP are ‘shamelessly guilty of social betrayal of the toiling masses and their actions confirm our long-held belief that they were never socialist but petty-bourgeois liberal quacks which have mastered the art of abusing neo-Marxist phraseology.’

Such demagogy holds little terror for the Communist Party at present. But if the ANC and its allies begin to talk to President de Klerk, it will be increasingly difficult for them to walk away from the negotiations. The talks could drag on for months, if not years. Some on the left are already scornful of any negotiations. If it becomes clear that there is little to be got from the exercise, support for the ANC could gradually diminish. The Far Left critique of the ANC might then gain currency.

There have long been violent disagreements within the black community. Around two thousand eight hundred people have died in conflicts between ANC supporters and Inkatha in Natal over the last three years. In 1985 there were clashes between those close to the PAC and the UDF in the Eastern Cape. These conflicts were renewed in Uitenhage this year. The possibility of bloody battles taking place in townships around the country haunts Nelson Mandela, who has gone out of his way to preach unity and reconciliation since his release from jail. At the same time, almost everyone respects him today. Some of the UDF’s bitterest opponents in AZAPO went to visit Mandela in Soweto after his release, and their spokesman left saying: ‘We have always been united in our aim and that is the liberation of the oppressed people in South Africa, but we have differed on strategy and tactics ... Mr Mandela, because he symbolises all the liberation movements’ aspirations, is able to act as a catalyst in this new phase of a united thrust.’ Much rests on Nelson Mandela’s shoulders. If he fails, South Africa could be plunged into strife: not only black against white, and ANC against Inkatha, but also within the fractious and fragmented Left.