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Historian offers comprehensive and up-to-date take on South Africa’s Communist Party

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PROFESSOR DIRK KOTZE|

THE Communist Party of South Africa was formed in July 1921. To mark its centenary last year, renowned South African historian Tom Lodge published Red Road to Freedom: A history of the South African Communist Party, 1921-2021.

It’s a welcome addition to the literature on the oldest communist party in Africa.

Most of the existing literature on the Party is about its early history until 1950. Some of the books were written by party members such as Eddie Roux, Jack and Ray Simons, and Brian Bunting.

In the last two decades, a number of publications on the Party or leading members appeared. Eddy Maloka wrote two publications, Alan Wieder concentrated on Joe Slovo and Ruth First, while Steven Friedman concentrated on Harold Wolpe. Some (auto)biographical publications or memoirs also appeared in this period on Joe Slovo, Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Mzala, Moe Shaik and Bram Fisher.

Most of the publications are chronologically organised and few take a thematic approach. Policy analysis and exegesis are in most instances largely absent. A good example is what the party meant by its notion of “colonialism of a special type”.

First formulated in 1950 and included in the party’s 1962 party programme, it remains a major ideological pillar of the party.

But its ideological and strategic implications aren’t explored.

This includes explaining how the approach enabled a merger between socialism and liberatory nationalism, how it underscored the two-stage revolutionary strategy of a national democratic revolution followed by a socialist revolution, and for justifying the Tripartite Alliance between the party, the African National Congress and the trade union federation (first Sactu and later Cosatu).

Also largely absent is a history of the more recent developments, as well as a political analysis of the party’s role between 1960-1990 and as part of government since 1994.

Lodge’s book fills some of these gaps. It is therefore academically and historically very important. Eddy Maloka, also an author on the party’s history, assessed its value as follows (on the book cover):

Tom Lodge takes us on a century-long tour of the history of the South African Communist Party, through the fractal coastline of this party’s ideological evolution, to the hinterland of its organisational dynamics and relations with other actors.

The Cold War

The Communist Party of South Africa was banned in 1950 by the new National Party (NP) government, which believed that the Soviet Union’s support for it would exploit South Africa’s domestic politics for its own purposes.

After the party reestablished itself underground as the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953, and after its ally, the African National Congress (ANC) was also banned by the apartheid regime in 1960, a close alliance between them developed.

After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, followed by the banning of the ANC and other liberation organisations, and when the NP government refused to convene a national convention in 1961, leaders in the party and a number of prominent ANC leaders (but not the ANC’s President Albert Luthuli) decided to establish an armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Its first sabotage acts were launched on 16 December 1961.

The resort to armed struggle and the party’s involvement in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, brought the two movements much closer together during their time in exile.

The members of Umkhonto we Sizwe’s High Command were arrested in 1962 in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb. They were busy with Operation Mayibuye as a blueprint to stage a revolutionary insurrection in South Africa.

They included Party members such as Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada and ANC leaders like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

They were charged with sabotage (and not treason) and therefore did not receive the death penalty but very long prison sentences.

If one looks at the Umkhonto we Sizwe accused in the Rivonia trial in 1963, most of them were also members of the Party.

During most of the Cold War, the South African Communist Party’s close alignment to the Soviet Union and to the ANC, pulled the liberation struggle in South Africa into the global ideological camps of the Cold War, in the same way as the movements in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other liberation wars.

In this respect, the South African Communist Party was often regarded as the power behind the ANC’s throne.

The 30 years in exile were divided between establishing bases in African countries, training Umkhonto we Sizwe mainly in Angola and establishing international relations with many continents.

The Party’s main base was in London but with close relations especially in the Eastern bloc. Peace processes in Southwestern Africa and the demise of the Soviet Union as its main sponsor, created new opportunities for dialogue and radical political changes.

After its unbanning in 1990 together with the ANC, the relationship continued but its nature changed dramatically. The liberatory strategy changed from targeting the National Party government, to being the government itself. Party leaders became members of that government.

What’s covered, and what’s not

Tom Lodge is a trained historian. Most of his early publications were good historiographies. He joined the University of the Witwatersrand’s Department of Political Studies and in the 1980s, and testified for the defence in several ANC trials. He published extensively on the ANC’s politics, and later also on elections.

This book is a return to his earlier works. In the more than 500 pages (excluding the end notes, index and bibliography) and in nine chapters, he presents the most extensive history of the South African Communist Party.

The first six chapters are focused on the period until 1950, and the last three chapters cover the last 70 years.

There are some areas and issues that could have done with more attention. For example, deeper political analysis of the latest 30 years after the Party was unbanned and decided to become a “mass party” as opposed to membership on invitation, as well as its role in the ANC governments. This would provide more insight into the party’s political approach.

In addition, the Party’s ideological evolution deserves special attention. For example, its 1962 party programme, “The Road to South African Freedom”, can be linked to the ANC’s Morogoro programme (1969), “The Strategy and Tactics of the South African Revolution”.

The two documents created a common approach to their revolutionary strategy, which is very important for understanding their longstanding alliance. But Lodge only briefly discusses this on pages 354-355.

Another omission in my view, concerns Joe Slovo’s paper “Has Socialism Failed?” (1990). It is mentioned on page 457 but its implications for the party’s reassessment of its ideological position after the fall of the Berlin Wall were not considered.

More recently, the Party has revised “The South African Road to Socialism” (2007, 2012) as its programme. It receives more attention than the other programmes on page 479 but it does not explain how a communist party in a multiparty democratic dispensation sets out a vision for itself.

Chapter 9 distinguishes itself from the others and presents a political analysis of the party dynamics, such as its choice to participate independently in elections. It includes brief references to the party’s milestones but a more in-depth discussion could have addressed the shortcomings of the older publications.

For readers who want a comprehensive, up-to-date and accessible publication on the South African Communist Party, this is without any doubt the best one.

As a Wits academic, Lodge, who now is associated with Limerick University in Ireland, had many personal experiences with people and events discussed in this book. It was therefore not merely a research or academic exercise for him.

Dirk Kotze is Professor in Political Science, University of South Africa.

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