The Past and Future of the South African Communist party

R.W. Johnson

Hearing mention of an old friend who is a long-time stalwart of the South African Communist Party, I enquired how he was. ‘Oh, the same as the rest of them,’ our mutual acquaintance replied. ‘You know – clinging onto his collapsing world view as best he can.’ The man in question holds a powerful position within the ANC and is spoken of by some as a possible future cabinet minister: in that sense his world is hardly collapsing. But his case exemplifies the strange paradox of the SACP, a paradox which has become all the sharper in the wake of recent events in the USSR.

On the one hand, the Party is a relic, displaying the same attachment to Stalinist habits of mind and organisation that one sees in the French Communist Party. Only two years ago, the SACP was speaking admiringly of East European Communism as a model for South Africa and choosing to hold its Party Congress in Havana. Many of the Party’s cadres show a distinct nostalgia for the good old days of Brezhnev and not a few displayed an open sympathy for the 19 August coup in Moscow. Harry Gwala’s powerful Natal Midlands branch of the SACP welcomed Gorbachev’s removal because ‘his government could have become obstructive to the socialist objective,’ and Gwala himself has publicly reiterated his defence of Stalin. To be fair, Joe Slovo, the SACP General Secretary, issued a statement in which he described events in the USSR as ‘very disturbing’ and expressed the hope that ‘the fresh winds of reformed socialism, which President Gorbachev so courageously unleashed ... will not now be allowed to die down.’ Even this statement – released after several days’ pregnant silence on 21 August, the day the coup collapsed – stopped short of condemning the coup or demanding Gorbachev’s return. Perhaps a truer indication of how desperately the Party lags reality is to be glimpsed from the current (70th-birthday) issue of the Party journal, the African Communist, where the central position is held by an article on the USSR: ‘Strengthening the Party: The Key to Soviet Stability’.

On the other hand, the SACP is an extraordinary success. Thanks to the frequently heroic and genuinely non-racial activism of its cadres in the Fifties and Sixties, the Party won for itself a special place in the hearts of oppressed blacks in general and within the Congress movement in particular. Bolstered by Eastern bloc financial and political support, the SACP became the paymasters and organisers of the ANC in exile, effortlessly colonising anti-apartheid ‘support organisations’ in many countries, and dictating terms to non-Communist sympathisers such as the World Council of Churches, trade unions, student organisations, UN agencies and so forth. The Party achieved an easy intellectual dominance over the ANC and was able to ensure that the only whites and Indians allowed to join were those who had first joined the SACP. But even among ANC blacks it was widely accepted that the more disciplined, committed and militant you were, the clearer it was that your true home was within the SACP. The SACP applied strict Leninist tactics and for once they worked like a charm: the Party became the true and acknowledged vanguard of the ANC.

The Party’s success and its neanderthal quality are opposite sides of the same coin. From the era of the anti-fascist struggles of the Thirties onwards, young idealists were drawn to the Party by their hatred of racism and white supremacy. Their recruitment had little in common with that of the European Communist Parties. It was always the proud boast of the French Communists that they were un parti pas comme les autres, but even among Communist Parties, the SACP was pas comme les autres. Not only were working-class members something of a rarity, but among the Party’s (dominant) whites and Asians, membership was inversely related to class: the SACP had far more recruits among the professional classes and in the leafy suburbs than in the townships or mining towns of the Reef. And even the Party’s intelligentsia did not feel the intellectual attraction to Marxism which was a decisive factor for so many of their peers in Europe. Within the SACP a real interest in Marxism was the exception. Most were joining a thing called ‘what-the-government-most-hates-and-fears’; or were attracted by the courage, dedication and derring-do of Party militants; or were enthused by the Party’s genuine non-racialism. They didn’t become Communists because they were Marxists: they wanted to espouse Marxism because they had become Communists.

That is, SACP recruits made an existential choice to become Communists – and then enthusiastically accepted democratic centralism, Marxism and loyalty to the Soviet Union as so much necessary ritual baggage. The more the Party insisted on an unswerving hard line, on total dedication to the USSR and to often quite bizarre habits of clandestine behaviour and control (e.g. a Party veto on marriage partners), the more recruits felt reassured by the disciplined seriousness of their ‘masonic’ attachment.

In the context of the bitter struggles of the Fifties and Sixties, this strategy of all-out oppositionalism – of being the party most opposed to apartheid, most against the Government, most hated by the regime – meant that the Party rose like yeast to a commanding position within the Congress movement. But the same context also meant that the Party reached this dominant position with a leadership recruited in the years between (roughly) 1938 and 1955, the high period of Stalinism. That leadership dictated the Party’s organisational norms and ideological style, characteristics which were set almost in concrete by the isolated and clandestine conditions of the Party’s existence. In Europe the real-world pressures of mass electoral politics forced a retreat from Stalinism to Eurocommunism, but no such pressures existed for the SACP. The only competition it feared came from other varieties of extreme opposilionalism – the PAC, AZAPO, Black Consciousness – a fact which merely reinforced its hard line and bad habits.

In any case, the same old leadership group hung on and on and on in the approved gerontocratic fashion – Slovo, Goldberg and Wolpe were prominent names in the SACP of 1961 and still are in 1991 – and this extraordinary continuity was enhanced by the powerful kinship networks which knit the Party together. Take Gillian Slovo. Her mother, Ruth First, was the Party’s most impressive intellect. Her father was and is the Party boss. Her grandfather was the Party Treasurer. To a degree which is seldom recognised, the Party held together because its leading cadres belonged to an extended Jewish family, bound together by ties of marriage and descent. It was a world of heroism and charm as well as Stalinism; a world in which blinkered dogmatism was offset by wit and a certain warmth. Novelists have begun to discover it in droves.

The experience of exile, lasting a whole thirty years, consolidated the SACP’s position, and not only because the Party had privileged access to Eastern bloc funds, useful connections on the European Left and a greater metropolitan savoir-faire. The new conditions of struggle – lasting for a whole generation – placed a premium on clandestine operation, revolutionary theory and practice, and a toughly disciplined style, attributes of which the SACP was the assumed master. The resulting dominance of the SACP within the ANC was mirrored by the fact that, for the first time, Party membership became predominantly black. Among whites and Asians the SACP had long been able to control not merely upward mobility within the ANC but even entry to it. In exile the SACP’s influence became so pervasive, however, that even aspiring blacks found Party membership of critical assistance to their promotion within the ANC. In particular, the movement’s guerrilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, became virtually an SACP closed shop, But this increased black recruitment to the Party wasn’t an unambiguously good thing. In an unintended transformation that was as invisible to itself as it was to external observers, the Party became merely the radical wing of an African nationalist movement, rather than a Communist Party in the sense understood in Europe.

De Klerk’s epochal speech of 2 February 1990, opening the floodgates of political change, turned on an early and correct reading of events in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Perhaps his canniest stroke was simply that he unbanned the SACP as well as the ANC and PAC, thus flushing the SACP out into the open. In the 18 months since then the Party and the ANC have done so much embarrassed twisting and turning over the question of covert Party membership within the ANC that cadres have had to be formally instructed not to answer the media’s insistent inquiries on this score. But, of course, the question continues to be asked and the more stonewalling it meets, the more the impression grows that the Party is, in effect, a new Broederbond, a secret society dominating the inner core of the nationalist movement.

The Broederbond analogy is uncomfortably close, for the SACP remains very much a party of the élite, having failed thus far to acquire much of a mass following. Quite apart from the monolithic hostility of the media, lack of funds, and the fact that so many of its cadres are spending their time organising the ANC, the Party faces formidable obstacles at grass roots – apathy, Christianity, a failure to understand why one should want to belong to two parties, the ANC and SACP, and a lingering feeling that the Party is a whites-and-Indians affair. Even within the trade unions, where the Party launched an aggressive recruitment drive, it was far more successful in signing up the leaders, such as John Gonomo, the new president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and Moses Mayekiso, the metalworkers’ leader, than in acquiring real grass-roots strength. To be sure, young ‘comrades’ can always be found to wave the flag and shout ‘Viva SACP’ at ANC rallies, but this doesn’t necessarily mean much. In any case, the ANC’s own membership drive has faltered badly; campaigns of ‘mass action’ are now rather poorly supported; the ANC and SACP T-shirts, omnipresent a year ago, have vanished even from university campuses, and ANC rallies have themselves become rare events. Given that the SACP has always been a fish that swims with the ANC current, the present becalmed state of the nationalist movement has created a poor growth environment for the Party too.

The situation at the top is wholly different. Anywhere from a third to over a half of the ANC National Executive belongs to the SACP: no other faction comes within a mile of matching this. Within the 20-member ANC national working committee, or shadow cabinet, there are eight known SACP members and six others who are widely reputed to be SACP members. Joe Slovo has promised that the era of covert Party membership will come to an end at the Party’s Congress in December, but the habit and advantages of clandestinity are so great and so ingrained that this promise meets with widespread scepticism. Meanwhile, the pressure on the SACP is producing the new phenomenon of leading Party members who simply stop attending meetings, and stalwarts who deny that they have ever belonged to the Party at all. But the masonic network of the SACP within the ANC has deep roots, often forged through jail, torture and personal tragedy. It is too embedded in the mind of the movement, too entwined in a thousand bitter histories, to dissolve in a convenient trice, no matter how devoutly some would wish such an ending for it.

There is no doubt that the SACP stranglehold within the ANC’s upper ranks has become an increasing embarrassment to the ANC leadership. Publicly, from Mandela on down, the movement loyally asserts that it is entirely happy with the SACP alliance, but in practice this alliance is costing the ANC dear in the world at large on whose support it has come to rely. The US Congress has cut funding for the ANC because of the alliance, and discomfort at the Party’s hefty presence is evinced by foreign embassies, international agencies, church groups, foreign donors and potential investors – and the SACP can no longer provide any counterbalancing support. Indeed, the East European countries are hastening to open trade missions here and show little regard for ANC sensibilities over sanctions.

On the eve of his recent trip to Spain and Latin America Nelson Mandela showed signs for the first time that the relentless pressure on the ANC over its SACP alliance was beginning to tell. There were, he acknowledged, differences between the ANC and the SACP:

We will have to indicate what we believe in. That would be dangerous at the moment because it would split us from top to bottom. They will take their own line ... which we will not follow. We won’t follow socialism. We have our own programme.

In the subsequent burst of speculation, even Joe Slovo wondered aloud whether the SACP might end up running its own list of candidates against the ANC in a universal suffrage election – a tactic which, all the polls suggest, would cost the Party dear.

Mandela’s words must have been deeply threatening to the SACP which, as soon as Mandela had left the country, played a surprise card with the suggestion that Chris Hani, the charismatic leader of Umkhonto (MK) and hero of the township youth, would shortly succeed Slovo at the head of the SACP. Even Slovo admitted that this announcement came ‘as a bolt from the blue’ to the ANC, for in the generation which will soon succeed the Tambo-Mandela-Sisulu leadership, Hani is without doubt the most popular figure. He topped the poll in the elections to the ANC National Executive and later came second to Thabo Mbeki in the vote for the ANC shadow cabinet – though no one doubts that he has far greater appeal at grass roots than Mbeki, who seems more at home in diplomatic conferences and TV studios than before a township crowd.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Hani has built himself a formidable regional base in the Xhosa heartland of the Transkei, developing a close relationship with the Transkei’s leader, General Holomisa, and gathering about him a considerable clientele of SACP-MK cadres who seem in turn to have developed an almost symbiotic relationship with the Transkei’s pocket army, the Transkei Defence Force. This strange relationship – the ANC has for years attacked Bantustan armies like the TDF as puppet instruments of oppression – is clearly born of mutual need. On the one hand, ANC funds are in short supply and the emergent ANC apparatus in the Transkei, and Hani’s clientele in particular, needs to be sustained somehow: dependence on the Transkei ‘state’ would be by far the easiest way out of this dilemma. On the other, Hani soothes the anxieties of Transkei bureaucrats and soldiers, who have been given quite explicit promises that their jobs will not be at risk when their territory is re-incorporated into South Africa – promises signally not made to other Bantustan public servants such as those who work for Buthelezi’s Kwazulu government. Such promises are, of course, not unconnected with the fact that the Xhosas of the Transkei expect to be the favourite sons of a future ANC government – with Hani a powerful patron within such a government. Hani himself has not been wholly unwilling to play the Xhosa card, claiming that Xhosas provided MK with its best fighters.

Hani’s position in the Transkei is potentially crucial enough to be worth a mild digression, for it has been illuminated by two events in recent weeks. First, Holomisa launched a furious bid to get Pretoria to pay for a 500-man increase in TDF recruitment – a demand easily rejected by the Government on the grounds that there was no conceivable military need for it and that the (already bankrupt) Transkei faced far more urgent calls on its resources. The unspoken suspicion was that Holomisa was hoping thus to provide berths for 500 MK recruits within the TDF, while passing the bill on to Pretoria.

A second insight was provided by the little-noticed trial in southern Natal of three MK men, apprehended in possession of a large stock of ammunition, machine-guns, grenades and pistols. The Police insisted that when initially apprehended, the men (who were charged with car theft) had claimed to be officers of the TDF. This the men’s leader denied, saying that he was actually a full-time ANC employee involved in ‘building up’ the organisation. The three men asserted that they had been, or believed they had been, still in the Umzimkulu district of the Transkei when arrested and not in South Africa at all. And, they added, in the Transkei they had the TDF’s permission to go round thus armed. This last fact is almost as revealing as the apparent confusion of identity between MK, ANC and TDF. It is perhaps worth adding that the biggest ANC branch anywhere is not in Soweto or amongst the urban masses at all, but in the same Transkei district of Umzimkulu. Clearly, the building-up of the organisation is going pretty well down there, though why the organiser needs to go about his task with such an arsenal of weapons remains obscure.

The decision to advance Hani’s name as the future leader of the SACP thus threw a great deal into the balance: at the worst, the ANC could foresee a major split in its own ranks, divisions between its political and military wings, and perhaps even the peeling away of its most important regional base. For how would even an ANC list led by Mandela fare in the Transkei against a rival slate led by Hani? Even the idea of such a contest is a nightmare for the ANC; and it is possible that one motive for the sudden announcement of Hani as future Communist leader was to threaten the ANC at one remove: if you persevere with talk of ditching the SACP, this is what could lie in store. Slovo further sharpened the thrust by asserting that even when Hani assumed the SACP’s leadership, there would be no need for him to give up his position with MK or within the ANC shadow cabinet. The point might seem logical enough, for Slovo himself has occupied both positions while leading the SACP, but the huge and unmentionable difference was that Slovo, as a white man, could never be a contender for the ANC leadership. Sisulu saw the point instantly and ruled that if Hani became the SACP’s leader, he would have to give up his MK and shadow cabinet roles, with the whole decision to depend on the willingness of the ANC national executive to release him in the first place.

Although Joe Slovo admitted that the announcement of Hani’s impending move to the SACP leadership ‘did not receive universal acclaim’ within the ANC, the appointment was treated as a virtual fait accompli. No one discussed whether Hani would make the move: only why on earth he should want to make it. Slovo and others spoke of the Party’s dire need for reinforcement – it had only 25 full-time officials and most of their time was taken up with ANC work. The plan was for Hani to take over as Deputy General Secretary right away and for the SACP Congress in December to ratify his ascension to the general secretaryship announced by Slovo. Mac Maharaj, an other SACP hardliner, would replace Hani in the ANC shadow cabinet. The MK succession appeared to belong to the senior commander Joe Modise (with whom Hani has had differences in the past), but attention soon fastened on two younger men, Siphiwe Nyanda (alias ‘General Gebuza’) and Tokyo Sexwale – both presumptive SACP members with reputations as tough MK commanders. Nyanda, who had been the MK commander in the Transvaal and led the notorious Operation Vula, appeared to have the inside track and even gave a press interview to that effect.

All such planning failed to take into account the MK conference held in mid-August in the ‘independent’ homeland of Venda. MK cadres had long been agitating for a conference, for things are far from happy inside the Umkhonto liberation army. There have been major mutinies in MK camps elsewhere in Africa, producing a whole group of bitter MK dissidents with stories of imprisonment and torture to tell. In addition there are complaints about poor housing and living conditions, concern about what sort of future faces the often unemployable guerrillas on their return home, and anger that the decision to suspend the armed struggle was taken without their being consulted. Most of all, however, the guerrillas feel they are being marginalised and forgotten. Given their unnerving combination of weapons, military training and a multitude of grievances, it is no surprise that de Klerk is in no hurry to hasten the return of these men, but increasingly it looks as if the ANC leadership feels the same way. The irony of the situation is painful: the MK political leaders, regarded as heroes in the townships, are often dangerously unpopular with the MK rank and file. Several MK leaders evinced extreme nervousness in the run-up to the MK conference, with some even fearing for their lives. A large number of the ANC leadership (including Slovo, the one-time MK chief of staff) stayed away from the conference altogether.

Although the conference was held in closed session, it is clear that it was a pretty bruising experience, with bitter denunciations from the floor of the whole MK leadership. Joe Modise was repeatedly attacked from every side; there was unanimous condemnation of Military HQ; Joe Nhlanhla, the chief of MK security and an ANC executive member, was given such a hostile reception that he was unable to finish his speech, while Hani came in for considerable criticism too. By far the best reception was given to Venda’s military ruler. Brigadier Ramushwana, and his Transkei counterpart, General Holomisa – which suggests that the MK rank and file are, like their leaders, turning their gaze towards the armies of the once hated Bantustans. (Like Holomisa, Brigadier Ramushwana has learnt to court the liberation movement: not only was he paying for the conference but he housed the Mandelas in his royal residence for its duration and put a chauffeured Rolls-Royce at their disposal.) The news that Holomisa had quietly done a deal with de Klerk over the Transkei budget such that he will, after all, be able to recruit an extra 500 men into the TDF, hardly diminished Holomisa’s appeal to the MK cadres. Not surprisingly, there is increasing talk of Holomisa, not Hani, becoming the ANC’s first Minister of Defence.

The real sensation of the conference, however, was the furious refusal of delegates to hear of Hani’s departure from his post as chief of staff. Overwhelmingly the delegates felt that whatever their criticisms of Hani’s command in the past, they needed his clout within the top ranks of the ANC. For him to quit would be tantamount to desertion at a point when MK needed his championship more than ever: there were even hints of mutiny should Hani thus dump his men now. The MK men have got their eyes firmly fastened on the question of what social welfare and other benefits will be made available to ease their reintegration into South African life, and it could hardly escape their attention that Hani is the close friend and consort of the head of the ANC’s social welfare department, Winnie Mandela. As the black newspaper City Press, put it, ‘MK cadres drove home the point that Hani was perhaps the best-qualified person to oil the wheels of their proposed social welfare department.’ This left Hani in the difficult position of saying that his request to quit MK for the SACP still stood, despite his men’s pleas, but that he was willing to stay on with MK if that was what the ANC executive decided.

Hani’s embarrassments increased with the return to South Africa at the end of August of 32 MK dissidents, with grievous tales of imprisonment and torture in the MK camps. Hani made an ill-judged attempt to head off bad publicity, rushing off with Winnie Mandela to talk to the men: Hani tried to persuade them to remain silent while Winnie pushed R300 (£60) at each of them ‘for dinner’. Even the pro-ANC Weekly Mail protested strongly at this ‘transparent bribe’ and the ‘extremely bad taste ... given the detainees’ accusations’ against Hani and Winnie’s ‘recent conviction for kidnapping’. Inevitably, the ploy failed. Some of the dissidents spoke out furiously, with tales of kangaroo courts, of beatings with barbed wire and bicycle chains, of men having their heads thrust into sacks of starving rats. The International Red Cross complained bitterly that the ANC had for fifteen years refused access to their prison camps: another fifty dissidents were still missing and might, despite the ANC’s denials, still be imprisoned. (Nelson Mandela commented that he ‘just could not understand’ why the Red Cross persisted with its request to visit the camps.)

All of which left Hani back-pedalling desperately, denying dissidents’ allegations that he had tortured them. True, he had visited them, heard their allegations, had known that torture was going on, but ‘as an individual I’ve never tortured a single individual.’ It was hardly campaign biography stuff and one began to see why Hani had been so willing to quit MK, to leave this can of worms behind. It also left the SACP in a considerable mess. Its putative future leader had been somewhat tarnished – and if he did now quit MK, he would attract more bitter criticism from the guerrillas. But would he receive the permission of the ANC executive to make such a move? The oddity of the SACP-ANC alliance could hardly be better illustrated than by the fact that the executive of one party has to give permission for one of its number to assume the leadership of the other, potentially competing party.

Given the SACP’s strength within that executive, gaining a majority for such a move might seem a formality, but this is not so. There is throughout the ANC a deep dislike of over-ruling subordinate bodies – the preferred style is one of slow, elaborate consultation and consensus. Quite frequently the ANC appear to prefer to live with a state of paralysis rather than to be forced into taking decisions which might alienate any of the broad panoply of interest groups which make up its coalition. Many within the ANC executive would be bound to feel an extreme reluctance flatly to overrule the wishes of the MK cadres straight after their conference – and to overcome such resistance within the ANC executive by an open display of SACP voting power would be highly divisive and provocative. At which point Joe Slovo allowed it to be known that he was suffering front cancer of the bone marrow, a well-kept secret until then. This had, doubtless, been a major motive in Hani’s sudden promotion – but the effect of the pronouncement was to force the succession issue at a point when it seemed stuck.

This is where matters currently rest. Despite the dominant position the SACP has gained within the ANC, it is unclear whether the Party will get through the current ‘transition period’ intact. Its own cadres are known to be divided over whether they should change their name to the Social Democratic Party or dissolve altogether and reconcile themselves to becoming merely the radical wing of the ANC. Given such fundamental doubts, the Party’s leadership crisis, and the tendency of leading members to drift away when external pressure on the Party gets to be too much, there is a real possibility that the SACP could just implode. Of one thing there is no doubt: it cannot remain what it was. Its old resources are gone and so is its ideology. Neither Slovo nor Hani talks the language of Marxism in any recognisable way. Slovo tries to sound like a cuddly version of Neil Kinnock while Hani is clearly a radical African nationalist in the tradition of Oginga Odinga and Edgar Tekere. Above all, the Party is ill-adapted for a life of legality. As the phenomenon of covert membership drops away, many of its members blink uneasily in the light, like moles emerging in the noonday sun. Legality also means the Party has to justify its existence in new terms, developing a programme distinct from that of the ANC. And neither the Party’s ideology, its organisational practices or its history of subservience to Brezhnevism can stand up to too much scrutiny.

What remains? A network, a solidarity rooted in the struggles of the past, a set of berths within a powerful nationalist movement and its sister trade-union movement, and a set of personal ambitions to go with them. For now, this is enough for the Party to cohere and survive as a real power in South Africa, but more and more it is becoming an act of levitation.