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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

South African Communist Party (SACP)

In 1915 the leftist members of the union-based white Labour Party broke away because of the party's stand on World War One. They saw the conflict as one between capitalists and imperialists, and believed that workers should not become involved in the war. The renegades formed numerous small groups, one of which was the International Socialist League. (Other groups included the Social Democratic Federation, the Durban Marxist Club, the Cape Communist Party and the Jewish Socialist Society.) These groups were united with the launch of a new party, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in Cape Town in July 1921, and were affiliated to the Communist Movement (Comintern) under the leadership of Lenin. (In 1953 the name of the CPSA was changed to the South African Communist Party SACP.)

Initially the CPSA was dominated by white members and its actions were focused mainly on white working-class interests. The CPSA played a leading role during the 1922 strike on the Witwatersrand. One of the main reasons for the strike was the scrapping of one of the so-called Statutory Colour Bar Acts which favoured white workers in certain mining sectors, an aspect which the CPSA exploited. That racism was a factor in the strike was clear from the slogan which CPSA members used: "Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa".

By the mid-twenties serious differences had developed among the members of the CPSA. One group wanted to give preference to white working-class interests, while another wanted more non-white members to join the party. With the decision in 1924 to opt for the latter course, a mass exodus of white union members from the party followed. The CPSA launched its black mobilization pro-gramme by unsuccessfully trying to infiltrate the mainly black Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU).

The fact that the party became affiliated to the Moscow Comintern in 1921 meant that the Moscow leader-ship could prescribe to the CPSA. Accordingly the party was compelled by the Comintern to accept the so-called "Native Republic policy" in 1921. This policy was based on the notion that, before there could be any socialist take-over in South Africa, a black government would first have to be established. The implication was that right-wing members who did not support the policy had to be driven from the party. Prominent figures such as S P Bunting (the party leader), Solly Sachs, Bennie Weinbren and W H Andrews were suspended. The new ultra left-wing leadership under Douglas and Molly Wolton also resulted in a mass exodus of black members. Despite this, the member-ship was still predominantly black in 1928.

Membership continued to dwindle, from 1 750 in 1928 to 150 in 1935. By the mid-thirties it seemed as if the CPSA was a spent force. However, by the end of the thirties the leadership succeeded in focusing international attention on the party. The CPSA took the initiative by launching a campaign against fascism. During World War Two there was a dramatic growth in black trade union membership as well as in black resistance against conditions in South Africa. There was a parallel growth in black voters' support for the CPSA (white CPSA members were elected to the Senate, the House of Assembly and provincial councils blacks, coloureds and Indians had only indirect representation).

After the National Party came to power in 1948, black political aspirations were restricted. The government was suspicious of the CPSA's role in the political mobilization of blacks. As part of its attempt to limit black resistance, the government banned communism in general and the CPSA specifically. In 1950 the Suppression of Communism Act was promulgated. In terms of this act a "communist is any person who proposes to bring about any political, industrial, social or economic change in the country through illegal actions" a very broad definition indeed. In anticipation of its banning the CPSA decided to disband before the act was officially put into practice. Party members decided to launch a dual-phase revolution, ie cooperation with nationalist organisations to achieve a socialist state.

The banning of the party did not bring about its demise. It continued its activities underground, broadening its ties to include organisations opposed to the state. The CPSA was clandestinely reactivated in 1953 and renamed the South African Communist Party. During the late fifties and early sixties, following the example set by Moscow, the SACP sub-scribed to a dual-phase revolution. In the first phase, a broad alliance had to be established in cooperation with nationalist groups to achieve political liberation; this could be followed by the second phase, the establishment of a socialist state under the leader-ship of the SACP.

During the fifties the SACP worked closely with the ANC and other members of the Congress Alliance. This led to the party being accused of controlling the actions of the Congress Alliance. These suspicions were an important factor contributing to the resignation of many ultra-nationalist members from the ANC and the formation of the PAC in 1959.

After the widespread political violence in 196o which led to the banning of the ANC and PAC, the SACP also had to reassess its position. Accordingly the ANC as well as the SACP (which perceived the ANC, philosophically speaking, as a vehicle for its own aims) adopted a new stand on political change. State action against resistance organisations in the early sixties led to the arrest of a large percentage of the SACP's internal leadership. The most famous of the court cases during this period was the Rivonia trial in which numerous members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, were found guilty of high treason. Following the Rivonia trial nearly all SACP activities were conducted from outside the country. Joe Slovo, who with his wife, Ruth First, had played a leading role in reactivating the SACP in 1953, left the country in 1963 to organise the armed struggle from abroad. The South African government, as well as certain black nationalists who had been suspended from the ANC, alleged that the SACP functioned primarily through the ANC. (A group of ANC sympathizers who believe that the organisation should adopt a purer and more orthodox stand regarding a workers' revolution in South Africa is known as the Marxist Workerist Tendency.)

The SACP and ANC seem to share broadly the same views about policy and tactics. Both organisations, to the chagrin of the "workerists", supported a dual-phase revolution political liberation followed by economic transformation by propagating a class alliance during the first phase. They also agreed that the struggle should take the form of a guerrilla war. The SACP adopted the Freedom Charter as a point of departure, but gave it a slightly different interpretation. While the ANC accepted the Freedom Charter as a final aim that of revolution the SACP saw the aims of the Freedom Charter as a means to its end, ie a socialist state. The fact that Slovo with his strong SACP ties became the first white person to be appointed to the national executive committee of the ANC in 1985 was seen by some as a further indication of the close ties between the SACP and ANC. Slovo, who was appointed general secretary of the SACP in 1986, was also in command of Umkhonto we Sizwe until 1987.

Over the years the SACP has elaborated a unique analysis of the South African situation. This analysis forms the foundation of the organisation's action programme. Earlier shifts in the analysis are contained in the "Native Republic" notion of 1928, and the ideological justification of a "dual-phase revolution" in 1962. A further shift occurred in 1989 when the SACP accepted the notion of a negotiated settlement resulting in a multi-party democracy in South Africa.

The present policy retains elements of the former policy, however. One aspect of this is that South Africa embodies a very special case of colonialism which can be defined in terms of spatial development. This implies that groups living in a specific relatively prosperous area exploit other groups living in poorer peripheral areas. In the South African case it differs because white "colonialists" exploit other groups throughout the country.

In this "colonialism of a special type" white settlers with their capitalist value systems not only deliberately underdeveloped certain rural areas (as defined by the theory of internal colonialism), but continued exploiting all "non-whites" or subjugating them to underdevelopment, irrespective of the region in which they lived.

In 1985 at its sixth congress, the SACP put forward a policy programme which included the following elements:

That the party would devote itself to the ending of capitalist exploitation as well as the establishment of a socialist republic, based on the common ownership of the means of production.

That the party would devote itself to the organisation and education of the working class to achieve the above aim, and would be instrumental in the establishment of a national-democratic republic. In this context the party would also devote itself to the liberation of blacks, bringing to an end the racist ruling class's monopoly of economic and political power, and the establishment of a unitary state in which the working class would be the dominant power.

That the party would devote itself to strengthening the liberation alliance of all classes.

That the party would devote itself to the widest possible understanding of the Marxist-Leninist ideology, and would speed up its implementation in South Africa.

That the party would fight racism, tribal loyalties, sexual discrimination, regionalism, chauvinism and all other forms of rigid nationalism.

That the party would propagate the notion of proletarian inter-nationalism and the unity of workers in South Africa. It would also devote itself to the promotion of the world communist movement.

At the seventh party congress held in June 1989 in Havana, Cuba, three topics dominated the agenda. Firstly, the party's acceptance of the concept of a negotiated settlement in South Africa; secondly, the party's development of a secret safety net to limit leaks from the inner ranks of the party; and thirdly, Gorbachev's new internal and foreign policy with regard to South Africa. In particular, SACP members were concerned about the Soviet Union's apparent rejection of communism and the implications thereof for the South African revolution. Despite the rhetoric of support for perestroika, there is a strong Stalinist tradition in the SACP. During the congress a new party policy programme, "The Path to Power", a revised version of the older "Road to South African Freedom" (1962), was adopted. Despite changes in Eastern Europe, this policy document still took the inevitable collapse of capitalism and the universal victory of socialism as its central theme.

Joe Slovo, who was born in Lithuania in 1926, is not only the leader of the SACP but also its most important policy-maker. Slovo's writing and speeches not only gave direction to the SACP, but also influenced a whole generation of Umkhonto we Sizwe members and young people living in black neighbourhoods in South Africa. Although the official policy of the SACP is determined at its congresses, many new viewpoints were expressed in the party's official mouthpiece, the African Communist (circulation 18 coo), the other party mouthpiece, Umsebenzi, and Slovo's writings. An important document in this context was Slovo's paper entitled "Has Socialism Failed?" published early in 1990. Although Slovo admits the mistakes of Stalinism in this work and emphasizes the distorted implementation of Marxism-Leninism in Eastern Europe, he maintains the view that South Africa should eventually have a socialist-inspired government. Traditionally the SACP has been one of the Soviet Union's most loyal and uncritical supporters, but ideological shifts in the Soviet Union have had an impact on the party, especially after Slovo's conservative interpretation of communism elicited strong criticism from the new school of thought in Moscow. This resulted in a subtle shift in the more recent statements made by Slovo in which there is an acceptance of a "mixed economy" in South Africa.

After the unbanning of the SACP in February 1990, the spotlight again fell on the party's relationship with the ANC. Previously this had been described purely as an "alliance". For many years the debate concerning the relationship focused on the number of SACP members who also sat on the national executive commit-tee of the ANC. While it was speculated in 1982 that seven of the 22 NEC members were also communists, this figure was estimated to have risen to as much as 30 out of 38 by 1990. The official mouthpiece of the ANC, Sechaba, never contradicted these figures. After the internal re-structuring of the ANC in 1990, a number of prominent SACP members were appointed to key positions. The fact that dual membership of the SACP and ANC exists is an indication of the symbiotic relation-ship between these two organisations. After the July 1991 NEC elections of the ANC an estimated 25 members out of 50 hold dual membership (the NEC was expanded in 1988, 1990 and 1991).

In April 1990, 28 delegates of the SACP held talks with 30 Cosatu delegates in Harare a further indication of the interrelationship between the SACP and the ANC. It was decided on behalf of the ANC to disband Sactu, the trade union wing of the ANC/ SACP alliance, and to include Cosatu formally in the revolutionary alliance. The SACP, which has considerable organisational abilities, is trying to align itself with the labour movement in order to create a stronger alliance. Various top leaders in the trade union movement are also members of the SACP. By including Slovo in the delegation which attended the Groote Schuur meeting in May 1990, the ANC openly admitted an alliance between the two organisations.

The SACP was launched as an official political party in South Africa on 29 July 1990. Although only the names of Joe Slovo, the general secretary, and Dan Tloome, the chair-man, were officially known, the party announced 22 names in the interim leadership corps at its launching. It also announced that Raymond Mhlaba would be the internal leader of the party. The close ties between the ANC and the SACP are again emphasized by the overlapping leadership. Early in 1991, the SACP allegedly had approximately 10 000 paid-up members. There was concern in some circles that SACP members who were also members of the ANC would show greater loyalty to the former organisation and would perhaps use the ANC in order to place the SACP in a position of power. At the launch Slovo said that the SACP had no "hidden agenda" with regard to socialism. According to him, capitalism will still play an important role in the country, and the market will be permitted to fulfil its role.

As a political party which devotes itself to workers' interests, and which apparently holds an attraction for the black youth, the SACP may emerge as a political force if the ANC does not comply with the demands of its supporters in a democratic South Africa. It is possible that the economic problems of a post-apartheid South Africa could drive the inhabit-ants into the arms of the communist ideology. If this were the case, then ironically one of the oldest communist parties in the world could rise to greater prominence in a period when the glory of this ideology has already faded in most other countries of the world.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.