The political, economic and social structure of South Africa rests on the foundation of the colonial dispossession and enslavement of the African people. To maintain and perpetuate that structure is the cardinal policy of all sections of the white ruling classes. Differences between them are and have ever been related only to the question of how best to achieve this policy. They are quick to sink their differences and join forces if the colonialist structure itself is at stake.
The dominant British imperialist and Witwatersrand finance capitalist interests, represented traditionally by Smuts and his South African Party, strove to cover the brutal reality of the state behind a facade of respectability and humanitarian benevolence. There was much talk of 'Christian trusteeship' and vague democratic principle. The Cape franchise system (whereby a few Coloured and African men, a small fraction of the electorate in that Province, were entitled to vote for white men to represent them in Parliament and the Provincial Council) was upheld as a model towards which the remaining three provinces would advance in a more 'enlightened' but unspecified future. Much emphasis was placed on the cultivation of African, Coloured and Indian 'elites' and making minimal and illusory 'concessions' to them, as an insurance against revolution.
By contrast the Afrikaner rural (and, increasingly urban) bourgeoisie, represented by Hertzog's Nationalist Party, had no time for such compromises. They had come to office in the twenties by a mixture of 'anti-imperialist' demagogy and by inflaming the white chauvinism of the electorate. Unable seriously to challenge the positions of monopoly capitalism in the economic and political life of the country, the Nationalist government sought still further to entrench white privilege and solve economic difficulties at the expense of the oppressed African and other dark-skinned people.
Two measures in particular (the 'Hertzog Bills') were proposed for this purpose. The first was intended to complete and perpetuate the alienation of Africans from the land, as envisaged under the 1913 Land Act. The second was to remove the remaining African voters in the Cape from the common electoral roll. This required the support of the Smuts Party, for it required a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament. This the SAP-men refused, vowing that they would fight to the death in defence of the democratic principle.
This shadow-boxing was abruptly ended by the intrusion of reality. Economic crisis spread through the capitalist world in the early thirties, following the spectacular crash of the US Stock Exchange. Financial instability, mass unemployment and depression, rocked the capitalist system. Britain left the gold standard, and following a brief show of independence, under heavy pressure from the mining magnates and the Bank of England, South Africa did the same. Smuts and his followers entered Hertzog's Cabinet as junior partners; hymns were sung to unity. In due course, the 'Saps' and the 'Nats' (with the exception of a few .'bitter-enders' headed by Dr. Malan), merged into a single Party, the 'United Party'.
The price of this politicians' honeymoon was paid by the working people, as unemployment and depression spread through the country. As part of the deal, Smuts and the 'liberals' dropped their opposition to the Hertzog Bills.
Abandoned by their self-proclaimed friends the African people found themselves faced with a major onslaught on their remaining land and rights by the united forces of white South Africa.
It was a time calling for sound leadership, united organisation and effective class action. Unfortunately at the beginning of the thirties these were the qualities most lacking among the organisations of the oppressed people.
The African National Congress was perhaps at its lowest ebb. Following the removal of the militant Gumede leadership, a period of inactivity and lack of initiative, accompanied by provincialism and internal quarrels had set in, recalling the fate of the ICU after the anti-Communist 'purge' of 1926.
It was also an unhappy period for the Communist Party of South Africa.
A dogmatic, sectarian tendency had developed within the international Communist movement and this was transmitted to South Africa by D. G. Wolton, who visited Moscow before his return to South Africa at the end of 1930, armed with the status of a 'CI. representative'. Wolton had convinced the ECCI that S. P. Bunting was the chief representative of a 'serious right-wing danger'. A campaign was then in progress against right-wingers who were considered the main danger within the international movement, and the ECCI apparently accepted Wolton's version implicitly.
Bunting was acting secretary of the CPSA at that time since Albert Nzula had left for the Soviet Union, where he studied and took part m the work of the International, playing an effective role as a writer and organiser of the organ The Negro Worker before he contracted pneumonia and died in Moscow in 1933. Bunting was replaced by Wolton, who was elected as general secretary at the 1931 Party conference. He was joined in the Party leadership by Lazar Bach, a young Latvian immigrant, who joined the Party in the same year, and whose undoubted abilities secured his rapid promotion to the Political Bureau.
A harshly intolerant, ultra-left period ensued in the leadership, which cost the Party untold damage in membership and influence. A purge of 'right-wing opportunists' extended to the summary expulsion of W. H. Andrews and a number of other members who were trade union officials, as well as of S. P. Bunting.
The proceedings adopted were arbitrary m the extreme. The members concerned were not faced with charges or given a chance to reply. Many of them learnt of their expulsion for the first time in the Party journal. There was no possibility of any appeal. When S. P. Bunting tried to make an appeal to the membership, he was vilified publicly and scurrilously in a manner which was a disgrace to the communist movement, especially directed against one who had devoted most of his life and nearly all his resources to the Party.
A virulent campaign was conducted against 'Buntingism' within the Party and in its press, although no clear idea was conveyed as to what this might be or why it was wrong. As the victim himself ruefully commented: 'There is no such thing as "Buntingism." I have no theoretical differences with the present Political Bureau. I am indeed not a profound reader or theoretician . . .'
Attempts have been made, particularly by E. Roux, to place the entire blame for this period on the shoulders of the Comintern. ne considered the South African delegation, of which he was a member, to have been 'brusquely' treated at the 1928 world congress, and later developed an 'anti-Comintern' and anti-Soviet obsession which disfigured his historical writings in Time Longer Than Rope and his biography of Bunting. Yet Roux, like other senior leaders at the time, such as Marks and Mofutsanyana, participated in the expulsions and the errors of the period in the belief that the policy advanced by Wolton, Bach and the ECCI was correct. In 1930 he told the national Party conference:
The Buntings and I went to Moscow to the Sixth Congress. There we showed quite plainly that we were almost completely ignorant of the fundamental principles of Communist propaganda in a country like South Africa. The fact that the CI was brusque with us is no excuse for our ignorance and misunderstanding of the theory they put forward.
Whatever the apportionment of blame, the fact is that under the leadership of Wolton and, following his final departure for Britain in 1933, that of Bach, the Party's membership and influence dwindled sadly. After the removal of M. Kotane from the editorship of Umsebenzi, its once-lively columns became filled with articles of a theoretical nature in the high-flown language identical to international theoretical organs of the time. Its circulation fell lower and lower.
Bach interpreted the 'independent Native republic' slogan not as a call for a national democratic revolution but as one for a socialist revolution. Criticising a formulation in Umsebenzi (9 June 1933) that the Party 'leads the fight against the slave laws for a free, democratic government, for a Black Republic,' he wrote, citing the theses of the thirteenth plenum of the ECCI, 'the CP leads the fight for an Independent Native Republic, for the democratic dictatorship and Soviet Power, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the building of socialism'. 'According to Kotane, the proletariat ii more national conscious than class conscious,' he commented disapprovingly.
Kotane and other comrades vigorously challenged the views and the style of work that prevailed. In a letter to the Central Committee (See Appendix VI) he contended that 'Bolshevising' the Party meant not wholesale expulsions, but rooting the Party among the masses, studying and expressing their demands in language they understood. The application of Marxist-Leninist theory to the concrete realities of South Africa, as distinct from Europe, was the crux of the argument and the point of the C.I. Thesis.
A lengthy and acrimonious discussion ensued within the Party. Regrettably the debate was conducted against a background and atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue which repelled many members and supporters and failed to stimulate creative thinking. Kotane and others who demanded a united front policy were denounced as being under the influence of 'the native bourgeoisie', whose extent and influence were greatly exaggerated by the sectarians, though some weight was lent to their arguments by the reformist and opportunist middle-class leadership then prevalent in the ANC.
The majority of the membership supported Kotane's view and his proposal that Bach be excluded from the Political Bureau. The latter insisted on his right to appeal to the Comintern, confident that his views would be upheld, and he left for Moscow to place his case before the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in 1935. In this he was unsuccessful, and he never returned to South Africa.
The keynote speech at the Seventh World Congress was delivered by George Dimitrov, Bulgarian Communist leader and world-famous hero of the Reichstag Fire trial. It included a scathing denunciation of the sectarianism which had facilitated the isolation of the Communists and the weakening of the working class, and a passionate appeal for a united front everywhere of workers and other democratic sections against the menace of fascism and war. The Congress marked a crushing defeat for dogmatic, ultra-left tendencies in the Communist movement.
It ended, too, the sectarian period in the Party in South Africa. When S. P. Bunting died on 25 May 1936, Umsebenzi, the Party organ published a tribute to his memory, recalling his honesty and devotion, and his great contribution as the first to recognise the importance of the Africans. 'Thousands of exploited and oppressed South Africans,' it concluded, 'will remember Comrade Bunting as a staunch fighter'.
W. H. Andrews was readmitted to the Party and served for a number of years as Chairman. He remained a member of the Central Committee to the last year of his life, 1950. J. La Guma, another victim of the 'purge' likewise was one of those who returned to the Party.
But many others drifted out of the movement altogether. The disputes left deep scars and a legacy of personal antagonisms which lingered on for many years after the original issues had been settled and forgotten .
Rallying against the version of the 'Hertzog Bills', which now enjoyed the support of Smuts and his supporters, the All-African Convention gathered at Bloemfontein on 15-18 December 1935. It was an impressively broad assembly. Presided over by Professor D. D. T. Jabavu and attended by representatives of almost every shade of democratic opinion, including the Communist Party, it vigorously opposed the land and franchise laws and campaigned against them.
High hopes were placed on the All-African Convention by the oppressed people. Mass protest demonstrations were held throughout the country and Hertzog agreed to meet a deputation elected by the A-AC But there was little underlying unity of policy or tactics.
Conflicting versions were circulated of what had happened when the A-AC deputation met the Prime Minister. Hertzog claimed that the Africans had accepted the 'concessions' he offered. In return for the removal of qualified Africans from the common roll in the Cape Province, there would be a separate voters' roll for Africans in the Cape who would be allowed to elect three white MPs. Africans in the northern province would be permitted to elect four 'Native Representatives', also white, to the Senate. Finally there would be a 'Natives'
Representative Council' with purely advisory powers, a dummy 'parliament'. Both Senators and NRC members would be chosen by 'indirect election' through Chiefs and 'electoral colleges.'
The members of the Africans' delegation vehemently denied that they had accepted this miserable compromise, though there were acrimonious disagreements as to what exactly had happened in the discussions. The legislation was duly adopted by the white parliament. A proposal for a boycott of the ensuing elections, held in 1937, was not agreed upon, and a number of African leaders stood as candidates. The Communist Party also entered two candidates in the Transvaal and Orange Free State: E. T. Mofutsanyana, then general secretary, for the NRC, and H. M. Basner, a lawyer who quit the Party the following year, for the Senate. Both were unsuccessful.
All over the world the working people faced acute problems and dangers in the thirties. The victory of Hitler's Nazi party in Germany, representing the most racialistic and aggressive sections of finance capitalism, encouraged reaction everywhere and threatened to precipitate a new world war.
The nature of the fascist threat was brought home brutally to Africa by Mussolini's unprovoked aggression against the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia, the last remaining area of African independence. A wave of solidarity with the Ethiopians spread through the continent, expressed in our country by the refusal of black harbour workers to handle Italian armaments and war supplies.
On the other hand, Hitler's herrenvolk ideology found fertile soil among sections of the white racialist of South Africa. Organisations like the Greyshirts and the Blackshirts sprang up in imitation of the Nazi Party. Hitlerite ideas and influences were widespread in Malan's rump Nationalist Party; even within the ruling circles strident pro-Nazi voices were heard, notably that of the Defence Minister, Pirow. The Prime Minister himself, Hertzog, showed increasing susceptibility to German fascist influence.
This was by no means true to the same extent of the major centres of finance-capitalism, closely aligned with British imperialism. They welcomed Hitler's ruthless attacks on the working class, on Communism and the Soviet Union, but observed with anxiety the threat of revived German imperialism to the status quo.
Among broad sections of the middle class and working class strong expressions of anti-fascist unity and action developed, in sympathy with and support of the Spanish, Czechoslovaks and other victims of aggression and against the spread of fascism in South Africa. The organised labour movement fought back against the fascist drive to infiltrate, undermine and capture the trade unions.
The Communist Party of South Africa, like its brother Parties in other countries, was foremost in alerting the working class and democratic sections of the public to the true nature of the fascist threat and the need to mobilise against it. Party members took the initiative in forming the Anti-Fascist League which enjoyed broad support from the labour movement and among progressive sections of the population, and conducted widespread educational activities in the towns and in the countryside.
In Cape Town, Communists joined with other anti-fascists in 1937 to launch a weekly newspaper, The Guardian under the editorship of Betty Radford, an able journalist who at one period joined the Communist Party and was elected as its candidate to the City Council. The Guardian, which was to constitute a vital and irreplaceable part of the entire democratic movement for many years, spoke out forcefully and effectively against poverty and injustice at home; fascism and aggression abroad. Its exposures of western collusion with Hitler and Mussolini, its campaigns of solidarity with the Spanish Republic, Czechoslovakia and other victims of Axis aggression, helped to educate an entire generation of revolutionaries, at a time when the English language press, controlled by big mining and finance houses, and under pressure from the Hertzog government were virtually silent about the Nazi's crimes, and the Afrikaans newspapers under editors like Verwoerd, increasingly sympathetic towards them.
In the field of the national liberation movement, fresh stirs were making themselves felt. The 1937 celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the African National Congress encouraged a new wave of interest in and enthusiasm for the premier organisation of the majority of the people.
Progressives and patriots within each of the oppressed population groups were seeking for more militant policies and for unity of action in a common front against racial discrimination and white domination. At a time when the old-established organisations were under reformist and inactive leadership, these strives took the form of new movements. The nationalist blocs of the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses strove to change the policy and middle-class leadership of the Indian national movement. The National Liberation League, centred in Cape Town, and the Non-European United Front fought hard against the government's reactionary policies and hammered home the lesson of unity. Undoubtedly this hard propaganda work of the late thirties and early forties paved the way for the emergence of the united front of national liberation - the Congress Alliance - and the change in the outlook of the senior, established movements which enabled that alliance to be established.
Much of the drive behind both the anti-fascist movement and the revival of militancy in the liberation movement came from members of the Communist Party. Names of its leaders such as Kotane in Cape Town, H. A. Naidoo in Natal, Maliba and Mofutsanyana in the Transvaal were prominent in the annals of the militant liberation movements. Sterling organisational work in the trade union movement too was being carried on among the African, Indian and Coloured workers; no account of the unions in that period could fail to pay tribute to the labours of such Communists as Ray Alexander and John Gomas in the Cape, Naidoo and George Ponen in Natal, or Willy Kalk and Issy Wolfson in the Transvaal.
Despite all this excellent work by its members, the Communist Party itself failed to make its presence felt as an organisation. Its journal, Umsebenzi, ran into financial difficulties and was compelled to cease publication after continuous publication since the foundation of The International in 1915. Membership had fallen away.
As Mofutsanyana told a special Party Conference convened in Johannesburg at the end of 1938. to consider this situation: 'Our independent work as a Party has suffered a considerable setback in the last few years.'
Much of the trouble stemmed from the lack of comradeship, the personal antagonisms and bitterness, which had remained as the legacy of the internal struggles, especially at the Party headquarters in Johannesburg.
A better spirit prevailed at Cape Town, at that time the country's second largest city and site of the legislative capital, where leading and experienced members such as W. H. Andrews and M. M. Kotane had taken up residence.
Accordingly, Kotane as head of the Cape Town delegation, proposed the transfer of headquarters there, 'as a temporary measure'. Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa's economy and industry was 'the natural centre', but it needed 'a breathing space'. This proposal was accepted, and with W. H. Andrews as Chairman, and M. M. Kotane as General Secretary a new executive(1) was elected, sited at Cape Town.
In fact, although the question was regularly debated at national conferences, the seat of the executive remained at the Cape until the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950.
The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 precipitated a breach within the South African ruling classes, and split the Cabinet and the 'fused' United Party into their component parts. Headed by Smuts, the pro-British faction demanded the country enter the war; the pro-German Prime Minister, Hertzog, resisted. Following a showdown in Parliament. South Africa found herself once again involved in a European war, with Smuts as Prime Minister and Hertzog joining Malan in opposition. The 'non-European' majority of the population had never been consulted.
The leadership of the Communist Party assessed the character of the war from the viewpoint of the class interests of the workers, of working class intemationalism. A report adopted by the national conference of the Party held in March 1940, traced the development of the intemational situation, since the Seventh Comintern Congress.
It cited Togilatti's prophetic words in 1935, when he pointed out that, trying to direct the fascist drive of German and Japanese imperialism into an anti-Soviet channel, the British bourgeoisie 'by the concessions and support which it gives to the instigators of war . . . accelerated the onslaught of a new world war into which the British Empire will inevitably be drawn'. The attempt to build a peace front had failed, and war had become inevitable. It was being fought by British imperialism not to defeat fascism but 'to maintain British dominance in Europe, to defend British colonies and retain British trade and investments overseas against a rival imperialism.'
However the white opposition to the war was being conducted by the Nationalist Party, deeply penetrated by fascist ideas, whose proposed 'neutrality' would have led to support for German imperialism and the imposition of a fascist regime internally. It was the Party's duty both to oppose the war and to resist the Nationalists. To fight imperialism required the independent struggle of the African, Coloured and Indian people. 'They will be able to fight such a struggle only if they develop organisations, leadership and political clarity. To assist them in this is the task of the Party.'
The Party's policy won wide support among the oppressed people. An appeal issued by the Non-European United Front (Transvaal) in 1940 demanded 'the right to live as human beings, the right to work in skilled trades, recognition of African trade unions, the abolition of white labour policy, the abolition of all anti-colour legislation, full rights of citizenship.' It concluded: 'Don't support this war where the rich get richer and the poor get killed.' The leader of the Transvaal NEUF, Dr. Dadoo, was charged for issuing this leaflet and making speeches in similar vein and sentenced to four months' imprisonment. A similar jail sentence was imposed on the Natal Indian leader D. A. Seedat. A number of leftists, including Max and Louis Joffe and Arnold Latti, were interned by the Smuts government while open pro-Nazis went unscathed.
In spite of such attacks and continuous police harassment, under the 'war emergency measures' adopted by the government, the Communist Party made substantial progress. A new spirit of unity and enthusiasm was developed under the leadership of Kotane and Andrews and the Cape Town executive. High standards of efficiency and activity were set, to which the membership willingly responded.
A marked improvement also took place in Johannesburg following the election in 1940 of a new district committee consisting in the main of young people who had not been involved in the internal disputes of the previous period, which succeeded in rallying and uniting the membership behind a political and organisational plan of activity. Inkululeko (Freedom) under the editorship of Michael Diphuko and subsequently of Edwin Mofutsanyana was established as a Party newspaper with articles in the Sotho, Zulu, Tswana, Xhosa, Venda and Shangaan languages, and a steadily rising circulation throughout the country. A radical Afrikaans monthly, Die Ware Republikein, (The True Republican) was also started, under the Party's influence. Constant public meetings, in halls and in the open air, and a stream of Party publications, succeeded in 'putting the CP on the political map.' By the 1941 national conference the general secretary Kotane was able to point to Johannesburg as an example and a pace-setter for the Party.
A profound change in the international situation, and in the character and direction of the war, resulted from the all-out Nazi aggression against the Soviet Union In June 1941.
The Communist Party considered that the decisive front of the entire war was that of Soviet-Nazi combat, whose outcome would determine the future of humanity. The oppressed people of our country, declared the Party, could not be indifferent while the socialist Soviet Union, fortress of workers' power and national liberation everywhere was locked in a titanic struggle for survival.
Accordingly, the Party launched a series of dynamic campaigns to transform South Africa's contribution to the Allied war effort in accordance with the potentialities, by mobilising all sections of the population and all resources of the country.
The country's armed forces were restricted to the white minority; African soldiers were not armed and were restricted to non-combatant duties at vastly inferior rates of pay and conditions.
The enthusiasm of the masses could never be mobilised while they were subjected to pass laws and a host of discriminatory, colour-bar measures; their wages held down at starvation level while inflation caused soaring prices and profiteering was rife.
While the. Smuts government purported to be fighting fascism abroad, it allowed openly pro-Nazi organisations to flourish in the country. The 'Ossewa Brandwag' (oxwagon guard) conducted sabotage operations designed to help the Hitlerites, and though some of its leaders (like Vorster, the present Prime Minister) were interned, the organisation as such was not outlawed. Nationalist Party leaders like Malan and Verwoerd were permitted to conduct public propaganda for the Nazis, and enter into private negotiations with them for the conversion of South Africa into a German satellite 'after the war'.
The Party demanded that African soldiers be armed and recruited on a basis equal to that of whites; that the pass system and political and industrial colour bars be scrapped; that the oppressed masses should enjoy democratic and citizenship rights in the country which they were called upon to defend.
A dynamic 'Defend South Africa' campaign was launched in 1942 with Party leaders addressing packed meetings in all parts of the country. Tens of thousands of copies of a series of pamphlets such as Arm the People! (reprinted in Appendix Vll) were printed and sold.
The rousing campaigns of the Party, as well as the inspiring defence of their socialist country by the Soviet people, brought the Party a greater measure of support among all sections of the people than ever before. The circulation of The Guardian and Inkululeko rose to record levels; party membership increased rapidly; Communists were elected to City Councils in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and East London. The growth of the Party's influence, and the leftward trend of the people, were reflected in such diverse phenomena as the growth in size and militancy of the trade union movement, notably of the African Mine Workers' Union, the development of the pioneer peasant movement, A. Maliba's Zoutpansberg Balemi (Ploughmen's) Association, the popularity of the servicemen's association the Springbok Legion in which members of the Party like Jack Hodgson and Cecil Williams held leading positions.
A new spirit of militancy and unity among the people was reflected in the leadership of the national liberation movements. Progressives grouped around Dr. Naicker in Natal and Dr. Dadoo in the Transvaal successfully challenged the entrenched compromising groups, based on the wealthy merchant class, which had long dominated the Indian Congress.
Between 1941 and 1943 the membership of the Communist Party grew fourfold, and active District Committees existed in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, East London, Pretoria, the East Rand and Kimberley.
The Cape Town district demonstrated its strength in 1943 when Sam Kahn and Betty Radford, then editor of The Guardian were elected on the Party platform to the City Council, and Ray Alexander, John Gomas and others were rewarded for many years of slogging effort by a steady rise in the strength and militancy of the trade union movement.
ln the 1942 elections for the 'Natives' Representative Council' in the Transvaal and Orange Free State the Party secured a large measure of support for its three candidates, E. T. Mofutsanyana, Alpheus Maliba, and J. Lekhota. Though the elections were especially designed to preclude the return of revolutionaries, they won hundreds of thousands of votes.
In the general election of 1943 the party nominated nine candidates,(2) and though none were successful in being elected by the white voters (only in the Cape did some Coloured men have the vote) they used the campaign to bring home to soldiers and civilians alike the Party's militant policy of unity against fascism and democracy for victory. The following year saw, for the first and only time, a Communist, Hilda Watts (Hilda Bernstein), returned by an all-white electorate when she won the Hillbrow seat for the Johannesburg City Council.
The Party led and participated in a wide variety of imaginative mass activities during the war years. To combat profiteering and lack of government control over scarce commodities, the Party, especially in Natal and the Transvaal, conducted a series of spectacular "food raids" against shopkeepers who were hoarding scarce foodstuffs like sugar and rice and selling them - with police connivance - at far beyond their legally stipulated prices.
Another mass activity which demonstrated the mounting militancy of the workers, though not initiated by the Party, was the 'Shanty town' movement on the Witwatersrand. The housing position among Africans had become desperate. The number of African workers in industry rose from 156,000 in 1939 to 245,500 in 1945. ln Johannesburg the African population increased by 57 per cent between 1936 and 1946. But no additional housing was provided for them, resulting in atrocious overcrowding. In 1944 thousands of families seized unoccupied land and erected their own dwellings from corrugated iron, packing cases and whatever makeshift building material they could lay their hands on. In the words of a Party pamphlet of the time, 'the people overflowed'. These 'shanty-towns' controlled and administered by the Africans themselves without white 'superintendents' or police, were anathema to the authorities. The Johannesburg City Council threatened to tear down the dwellings and evict the squatters by force. These attacks were vigorously opposed by the Communist Party, which mobilised public support through communal kitchens and other activities for the squatters.
The African workers fought back against inflationary wartime price rises. Although war measures had seriously increased the penalties for strikes by Africans, an official record of 304 strikes between 1939 and 1945 - the actual total was far greater - indicated the rising tide of working class militancy becoming clear that the colonialists could no longer maintain their open rule.
The shadow of these impending events could not bul evoke a chill of foreboding in the minds of the white racists of South Africa. No official celebrations were called for VE day, May 1945.
For the common people it was different. Perhaps the greatest demonstration the city had ever seen surged through the streets of Johannesburg, convened jointly by the African National Congress, the Council of Non-European Trade Unions and the Communist Party, and headed by the black-green-gold banner of the ANC and the colourful flags of the United Nations. 'Finish the job - smash fascism in South Africa!' was the slogan of the day. Hardly a policeman was to be seen. For once the people felt themselves masters of the streets.
The year 1946 opened with a fresh attack on the Indian Community. ln 1943 the Smuts government had introduced a measure (the 'Pegging Act') restricting the right of Indians to acquire property. In 1946 an even more vicious law the 'Ghetto Act' was introduced whereby all land transfers were prohibited between Indians and non-Indians. This law, anticipating the 'Group Areas' laws of the Nationalist Party, was vigorously resisted by the Indian community.
The SA Indian Congress conference at Cape Town in February 1946 unanimously resolved to oppose the new law with 'concerted and prolonged resistance', and Passive Resistance Councils were appointed in Natal and the Transvaal.
On 2 June 1946 the Ghetto Bill became law, and the thirteenth of that month was proclaimed 'Resistance Day' in which a complete 'Hartal' (strike and closing of businesses) was observed by Indians throughout the country. A mass meeting of 15,000 in Durban, the main centre of Indian population, hailed the first batch of volunteers, headed by Dr. Naicker and M. D. Naidoo, who pitched tents on land reserved for whites. White hooligans attacked the 'Resistance Camp' but the defiers continued.
The first group to be jailed, on 27 June, included Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naicker. Within the next two years over 2,000 resisters (including 300 women) were sentenced. Dadoo and Naicker were sentenced a second time to six months' hard labour and not released until July 1948.
Neither the leadership nor the rank and file of the resisters was committed to the non-violent philosophy of Gandhi. Though many shared this philosophy, the movement included Communists and other revolutionaries. The Communist Party had never been dogmatic or inflexible concerning methods and techniques of struggle. Passive resistance in South Africa at that time was a method of action, going beyond verbal protests, traditional to South Africa and particularly to the- Indian community, understood and accepted by the masses. The Party gave unstinted support to the campaign and many members followed Dadoo's lead by participating in it as volunteers. The campaign aroused the Indian people to a high level of political consciousness and militancy. It gained generous admiration and support from the African and Coloured people and from democratically minded whites. It certainly stimulated and inspired the Defiance Campaign of 1953.
Bad food, wretched living conditions in the compounds, and miserably inadequate pay were the main grievances of the biggest concentration of African workers in South Africa, the Witwatersrand miners. Their grievances, reflected by frequent disturbances on the mines, found organisational expression in the growth of the African Mine Workers' Union, whose 1944 conference was attended by 700 delegates representing over 25,000 members from every mine along the Reef.
In an attempt to stave off the workers' discontent the government appointed a Witwatersrand Mine Natives' Wage Commission (the Lansdowne Commission). In reply to the overwhelmingly strong case for better wages put before it by the Union, the Commission's report bluntly stated that its recommendations were made within the framework of preserving the cheap labour system. What was paid to African miners said the report, was not intended to be a living wage, but merely a 'supplement' to the workers' 'basic income' allegedly earned from the land.
Evidence of acute starvation in the Transkei and other rural areas was ignored.
The Commission also attacked 'the Communists' and stated its opinion that the African miners 'had not yet reached the stage of development which would enable them safely and usefully to employ trade unionism. ' This was a signal for the employers and the government to launch an all-out attack on the AMWU War Measure 1425 banning meetings on the goldfields was a crippling blow at the union's organisers, who had relied mainly on shaft-head meetings to collect subscriptions and recruit members. Company and police spies were sent to every compound, and the Chamber of Mines instructed its office staff not even to acknowledge correspondence from the Union.
The miners received the report of the Lansdowne Commission with bitter disappointment, which rose to boiling point when even the miserly 3d. a day cost of living allowance that had been recommended was refused by the employers. The AMWU, headed by J. B. Marks as chairman and J. J. Majoro as secretary continued to grow in numbers and militancy. Its May 1946 Conference was its biggest ever, representing a majority of the African miners. It demanded a minimum
wage of 10s. a day, the withdrawal of War Measure 1425, and improved rations. The executive was instructed to make one more attempt IO negotiate with the Chamber, failing which strike action should be taken. From May to July the Union sent letter after letter to the Chamber, without receiving even the courtesy of a reply.
On Sunday August 4 many thousands of delegates from all over the Witwatersrand flocked to an open-air Union conference at the Newtown Market Square, Johannesburg. From all sections of the Witwatersrand, speakers mounted the platform demanding strike action. One worker proposed that it begin the following week. He said:
When I think how we left our homes in the reserves, our children naked and starving, we have nothing more to say. Every man must agree to strike on August 12. It is better to die here than to go back with empty hands.
The strike motion was carried unanimously. A letter to the Chamber, conveying this decision and appealing for last-minute negotiations, was as usual ignored. The daily newspapers, themselves controlled by the mining millionaires, suppressed the news of the impending strike. The first that most readers of the Rand Daily Mail heard about it was on Monday morning 12 August, when it reported that the strike call had been 'a complete failure'.
The Star, the same afternoon, told a very different story. Tens of thousands of African miners were on strike from the East to the West Rand.
In fact the week that followed, August 12-19, saw at least 100,000, a third of the African working force, involved in a stoppage that brought a large proportion of the mining industry to a standstill.
From beginning to end the Chamber of Mines and its agency, the government, 'dealt with' this situation by means of force and terror. A special Cabinet sub-Committee was set up to implement this policy. Two thousand armed police were drafted to the Witwatersrand and placed at the disposal of the Chamber and its compound managers with one clear objective: to break the strike and get the miners back to work. When intimidation by armed police failed, they charged with bayonets or opened fire to force the workers down the shafts. When workers forced down started sit-down strikes underground they were followed by police who beat them up, drove them 'stope by stope, level by level' to the surface and there charged them with batons until, according to The Star they 'volunteered to go back to work'. Hundreds of workers were killed and wounded (no official figures were ever released) in such police attacks.
J. B. Marks and other union leaders were arrested in the opening days of the strike. When the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions called for a general strike in solidarity with the miners, a mass rally for this purpose was dispersed by armed police, and James Philips, leader of the Coloured garment workers and chairman of the general strike committee was arrested together with other committee members.
The African mine workers' strike of 1946 aroused widespread support among the ranks of the working class and national liberation movements.
The Johannesburg District Committee of the Communist Party, of which J. B. Marks was a member, had kept the situation under constant review and reported it to the Central Executive in Cape Town. Immediately after the beginning of the strike, on August 12, it resolved unanimously on 'full support for the action of the African mine workers in striking for a minimum wage of ten shillings a day and decent working conditions'. It called on all sections of the labour movement for solidarity with the miners, and demanded that the Chamber of Mines and the Government 'meet the AMWU leaders to effect a settlement'. Members and supporters of the Party responded magnificently. Many spent the week with little or no sleep, going from their jobs at factories or offices to report to the AMWU offices to volunteer assistance; helping to roneo Union leaflets - the only contact with the miners during the reign of terror - distributing them at dawn to compounds from Randfontein to Springs.
The Natives' Representative Council, meeting during the strike vigorously protested against the brutality used against the miners, and when the government-appointed Chairman refused to allow a discussion on the strike the Council resolved to adjourn indefinitely.
'The miners' strike', as an article in Fighting Talk correctly commented in 1954, eight years later, 'was one of those great historic incidents that, in a flash of illumination, educates a nation, reveals what has been hidden, destroys lies and illusions'.
The 1946 strike was broken by lawless and ruthless violence by the state. It was followed by a wave of repression against the miners and their union. Massive victimisation was followed by even more intensive methods of regimentation, terror and espionage that ended open union activity among African miners for a generation. The repression was followed by an unprecedented drive against those who had stood with the miners, and in the first place against the Communist Party.
The week after the strike police raided the offices of the Communist Party and The Guardian, and the homes of their officials and staff, in all the- main towns of the country. Hundreds of documents and files were seized, as well as lists of Party members and supporters.
The leaders of the AMWU, M. Kotane, the general secretary of the CPSA, and the members of the Johannesburg District Party Committee(3) were among 52 accused in a mass trial in Johannesburg of a 'conspiracy' to bring about the strike.
The charge of conspiracy was later dropped but nearly all those accused were found guilty of assisting the African miners in their illegal strike, a charge which they did not deny.
But the Smuts government and its 'special branch' of the police were determined to prove the existence of a 'Communist conspiracy' and to fasten the blame for the miners' strike upon it. In November 1946 the members of the Central Executive Committee in Cape Town(4) were arrested in connection with the strike and faced with a number of serious charges, including 'sedition'. The charges were flimsy, and the 'evidence' even more so. The indictment was quashed; the accused re-arrested while a new charge and indictment were framed. These proceedings dragged on for over two years, by which time Smuts and his United Party had given way to the yet more ferociously anti-Communist Nationalist Party under Dr. Malan.
Hardly was the second world war over than international imperialism launched the new 'cold war' of which the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the opening shots.
Imperialism's anti-communist cold war was a godsend to the Nationalist Party. It had been quick to recover from the shock and setback of Hitler's defeat. With hopes of a military coup arising out of a Nazi victory gone, Afrikaner nationalism was striving hard to present a new picture of itself to the public. The Greyshirt and Blackshirt organisations were swallowed by Malan's Nationalist Party; the Ossewa Brandwag merged with, and virtually took over, Hertzog's Afrikaner Party. Malan and Hertzog formed a working agreement with their sights on a Parliamentary victory in the 1948 general election.
The Nationalist Party as it emerged in the post-war years was deeply influenced by Nazi ideas and techniques of organisation and demagogy, and dominated by the rising and aggressive class of Afrikaner capitalists, financiers and industrialists, rather than the conservative farmers who had once been the backbone of Afrikaner nationalism. The Afrikaner Broederbond (Brotherhood) an elitist secret society had vastly extended its influence and control over the Nationalist Party, the Dutch Reformed Churches and the powerful Afrikaner economic institutions to which they had consciously directed their main efforts. These in turn financed the highly organised and professional election machine of the Nationalist Party.
The Nationalist Party won a Parliamentary victory in the 1948 election after an unbridled campaign of white chauvinism and anti-Communist raving among the white electorate.(5) Its main slogan was 'apartheid' (separateness) - a word which has become known in every part of the world as a synonym for race-hatred and oppression.
'Shocked and bewildered. That just about sums up the feeling of most South Africans on learning the result of the General Election . . .' Thus read a pamphlet, Malanazi Menace, issued by the Communist Party in Johannesburg shortly after the elections. It proceeded to deliver a grim warning of what the Malan government had in store for the country.
'What is the much publicised "policy" of apartheid? . . . It is not a new policy . . . All they propose is to make the Non-European more of a slave, an outcast and a third class citizen in the land of his birth'.
The Party called for unity and resistance. United the people of South Africa could bar the road to fascism, if they were alerted to the menace and if they would 'reject the apostles of panic and despair and take the part of resistance and confidence in themselves'.
'We South African Communists are not afraid of the threats of the Nationalists. They may persecute individuals, but history has shown that the Communist movement is unconquerable . . . To all who oppose the Nationalist Party government . . . we say: Unite in resistance to any and every act of suppression, to every infringement of rights . . . Build up and strengthen your democratic organisations, your trade unions, your national organisations. Down with fascism! Forward to freedom!'
This militant policy of resistance and unity was vigorously propagated. Until June 1950 it was, in the first place, the Communist Party, through intensive meetings in the open air and in halls, through its publications and its members in the trade unions and mass organisations, which fought 'the apostles of panic and despair' and truly rallied the people's resistance.
The fighting stand of the Communist Party was warmly appreciated by the masses, in particular by the African people. In the 1948 Parliamentary election for the African representative from the Western Cape constituency, Sam Kahn was returned as the CP candidate. He proved an outstanding Parliamentarian whose speeches in the House aroused the spirits of the people as much as they infuriated the government. Another Communist candidate, Fred Carneson, was elected to the Cape Provincial Council from the same constituency.
Renewed militancy was manifested in the African National Congress. Under the presidency of Dr. A. B. Xuma important steps had been taken towards unity. The signing of the Dadoo-Xuma agreement in the Transvaal and subsequently the Xuma-Naicker-Dadoo agreement (March 1947) on behalf of the African National Congress and the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses, laid the firm foundations for the subsequent development of the fighting Congress Alliance, the national liberation front of our country.
The Programme of Action adopted by the 1949 ANC conference called for mass action - strikes, boycotts and resistance - as opposed to passive protests and deputations on which much reliance had been placed in the past. A new leadership with Dr. J. Moroka as president and W. Sisulu as secretary was elected to implement this plan.
The way forward was shown by the workers of Transvaal, in the May 1st strike of 1950. The Nationalist government had begun its drive against the people's rights in real earnest, imposing arbitrary bans on Yusuf Dadoo and Sam Kahn and proposing pass laws be extended to African women.
In response a massive 'Defend Free Speech' Convention was called in Johannesburg in March by the ANC (Transvaal) the Transvaal Indian Congress, the African People's Organisation and the Johannesburg District of the Communist Party. Under the chairmanship of Dr. Moroka the conference adopted a militant series of demands for freedom of speech, movement and organisation, for land and the ending of colour bars. It issued a call for a general strike on the first of May.
This united call was followed up by a highly effective campaign of mass propaganda to which the workers responded enthusiastically, even though the ANC Youth League mistakenly stood aside. That mistake was understood and not repeated, for the strike was an outstanding success. Virtually all industry on the Witwatersrand came to a stop; hardly a dark-skinned face was to be seen in the streets of Johannesburg, Springs, Randfontein and other Reef towns.
The police had banned all meetings and gatherings on the day; and for the most part the non-white public remained quietly in their homes, following the call of the leadership to do so. But in the evening the trigger-happy police opened fire on small groups of young Africans in Alexandra Township and elsewhere. Eighteen were killed and over thirty wounded. A wave of anger and indignation spread throughout the country.
It was against this background of rising mass struggle that the Malan Government announced the terms of its first major measure on the road to transforming South Africa into a fascist police state, the Unlawful Organisations Bill (later passed and renamed as the Suppression of Communism Act).
In terms of this law the Communist Party of South Africa was declared an unlawful organisation. It was made a punishable offence to defend or advocate 'the doctrine of Marxian socialism' 'or any related doctrine'. 'Communism' was defined so broadly as to include 'any doctrine or scheme which aimed at . . . bringing about social change' by means of 'unlawful acts'.
All the names of former members or supporters of the Communist Party were to be compiled into a list by a person designated 'the liquidator', and the presence of one's name on this list made the 'listed' person liable to a number of administrative actions without recourse to law. If the Minister of Justice 'deemed' that any such person's activities were 'liable to lead to Communism' he could, without giving reasons or allowing the victim a chance to reply, remove him from his position or membership of a trade union or any other organisation, restrict him to a given area (even to his own house) and preclude him from taking part in any gathering.
Previous South African legislation had contained provisions for arbitrary and despotic Ministerial power: for example Pirow's Riotous Assemblies Act of 1929, had given Ministerial powers of 'deportation' from one area to another, and the Native Administration Act of 1927 had given the Minister of Native Affairs (in his capacity of paramount chief') authority to remove individuals or even entire communities from one place to another. But never before had such sweeping and drastic powers, without remedy in any court, been placed in the hands of the Minister of Justice (in fact of the Special Branch of the police).
The Bill had been considered by a 'Select Committee' of the South African Parliament including members of the United and Labour Parties and Mrs. Ballinger representing the African voters of the Eastern Cape - she and John Christie (Labour) voted against it; the United Party members, while opposing some of the sections, proposed that 'Communism' be made tantamount to treason and punishable by the death sentence.
The Executive Committee of the Communist Party protested that it was never given a hearing:
'Threatened with forcible disbandment, facing the prospect of endless persecution of our members, we have every right to expect from the instigators of this measure a precise statement of the charges levelled against us, the evidence on which they are based, and an opportunity to make our reply before an impartial tribunal. Instead, we have received nothing but abusive and uncorroborated statements and a fait accompli in the form of a Bill'.
A more militant note was struck by the veteran founder of the Party, Bill Andrews, in a message to the membership on his eightieth birthday. 'Remembering the path which has been blazed by our members for over thirty years and inspired by the example of such fighters for freedom as Nkosi and many others who died for their opinions, let us face boldly the renewed and perhaps more ruthless attacks which are threatened,' he wrote.
In the event he was one of only two Central Committee members to oppose the motion put forward by the Executive, that the Party be dissolved, when the CC met to consider the Bill on the 6th and 7th of May.(6)
Faced with this draconic measure, the Party revealed certain weaknesses which had developed in its ranks, as well as its indestructible virtues. A certain tendency towards legalistic illusions had penetrated the Party and sections of its leadership. Despite the open threats of the Nationalist Party to ban the CP, no effective steps had been taken to prepare for underground existence and illegal work. A hastily convened Central Committee meeting held in May 1950, when the terms of the new law became known, decided by majority vote and without consulting the membership to dissolve the Party. It was suggested, among other things, that the rank and file would not be prepared or able to face dangers and difficulties of underground work.
The fallacy of this argument was proved in the ensuing period, when the great majority of the Marxist-Leninists, including most of the leaders who had earlier voted for dissolution, showed their courage and devotion to their principles by successfully rebuilding the South African Communist Party in conditions of illegality.
Subsequent events made clear the distinction between those among the former leadership who had regarded the dissolution as a temporary and tactical expedient and those who had come to doubt the need for the very existence of the independent Marxist-Leninist Party of the working class.
The workers of South Africa will study and learn from the errors which culminated in the dissolution of the Party; but above all they will honour and treasure the Party's heroic efforts and achievements.
During the course of its legal and semi-legal existence the Communist Party of South Africa made an indelible impression on the history of our country. Its revolutionary work and outlook brought about profound changes in the thinking, political outlook, demands, forms of organisation and methods of struggle of the oppressed and exploited people. Its members, mostly workers and peasants with little formal education, had set standards of political application and clear-headedness, of personal devotion, courage and selfless sacrifice which set an example for the entire liberation and trade union movement.
In addition to those comrades who have been mentioned in the preceding pages of this outline, the Party had produced scores and hundreds of steeled revolutionaries of the calibre of Raymond Mhlaba, Gladstone Tshume, Eli and Violet Weinberg, Ivan Schermbrucker, Dan Tloome, Ahmed Kathrada. Flag Boshielo, Elias Motsoaledi, M. P. Naicker, T. H. Gwala, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Ben Mnisi, Billy Nair, Lionel Forman, Johnson Ngwavela and others far too many to enumerate.
It was comrades like these, together with brave non-Communist revolutionaries, who set the pace and bore the brunt of enemy attack in the epic struggles of the fifties and sixties. Many of them took part in the building, in the taxing and dangerous conditions of illegality and terror, the underground South African Communist Party, which embodied all the best traditions of the CPSA and raised the banner of Communism to yet higher levels in the 'fifties and the 'sixties.
1. The other members of the executive were Ray Alexander, Mrs Z. Gool, Sam Kahn and H.J. Simons
2. They were, on the Witwatersrand: Franz Boshoff, D. du Plessis, R. Fleet and 1. Wolfson; in Cape Town, Miss J. Fourie, George Sacks, and H. Snitcher; in Durban E. Shanley and in East London, M. Muller.
3. They were: H. Bernstein, L Bernstein, B. Bunting, Y. M. Dadoo, D. du Plessis, A. Fischer, R. Fleet, M. Harmel, J. B. Marks, E. Mofutsanyana, W. Roberts and J. N. Singh.
4. They were W. H. Andrews (Chairman), M. M. Kotane (Secretary), F. Carneson, I. Horvitch, L. Philips, B. Radford, H. J. Simons and H. Snitcher.
5. In fact the Nationalists received only 89.85 per cent of the votes cast and owed their Parliamentary majority (79 seats to 74 for their opponents) to the 'weighting' system which favours rural as against urban constituencies. The three Communist candidates, F. Carneson, D. du Plessis and M. Harmel were defeated
6. The Executive consisted of I. O. Horvitch (chairman), M. M. Kotane (secretary) B. P. Bunting, F. Carneson, S. Kahn, J. La Guma and H. J. Simons. The remaining members were W. H. Andrews, Y. M. Dadoo, D. du Plessis, A. Fischer, M. Harmel 1. B. Marks. E. T. Mofutsanyana, G. Ponen and I. Wolfson.