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.

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