The South African Communist Party
in the context of the collapse of
socialism in the Soviet Union
Summarised version of a paper
prepared for the Seventh World Socialism Forum
Beijing, People’s Republic of China – 21-22 October 2016
After more than twenty years since the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union, the South African Communist Party (SACP) is one of the few socialist parties in the world in an alliance with a ruling party (with similar parties in the same situation in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Nepal in recent years) or in power (e.g. the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of Cuba). A number of ruling parties such as the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FELIMO) officially changed their party ideologies in the 1990s from Marxism-Leninism to Social Democracy. This contrasts sharply with the 1970s and 1980s, when a significant number of socialist parties were in power in countries around the world. This evident retreat of socialism is widely recognised to be a consequence of the changing balance of forces internationally following the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
In this paper we provide an historical analysis of (1) the formation of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), (2) the historic relationship with the ruling African National Congress (ANC); (3) the liberation movement’s relationship with the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China (PRC); (4) the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and how it affected socialism in South Africa; and (5) the history of the SACP since 1994, including its growth in membership and relationship with left-wing organisations around the world.
Formation of the Communist Party of South Africa
Socialism has a long history in South Africa, and was introduced to the region by the white miners from Europe, North America and Australia who flocked to the Witwatersrand after the discovery of gold in 1886. The first twentieth-century socialist organisation in South Africa was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which was established in Cape Town in 1904. This was followed by the formation of a Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in Johannesburg in 1910. Meanwhile, in 1909 white workers established the South African Labour Party (SALP). In 1913, the SALP affiliated to the Second International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties from several countries which had been formed in Paris in 1889. In 1915, several leading members of the SALP broke away following disagreement among socialists about involvement in the First World War to form the International Socialist League (ISL), together with former members of the defunct Industrial Workers of the World and the SLP. In 1919, links were established between members of the ISL and a newly formed Cape Town-based Industrial Socialist League.
The latter organisation constituted itself as the Communist Party of South Africa in Cape Town and Johannesburg in October 1920. But it was only after several more months of discussions and breakaways that the CPSA, the precursor to the SACP and the oldest Communist party in Africa, was formed on the 30th July 1921. The new organisation was dominated by members of the ISL, and immediately declared its adherence to the Communist International and Marxist socialism. The ISL’s dominance in the new Party, constituted from a merger of the ISL, the Cape Town SDF, the Cape Town Communist Party, the Cape Town Jewish Socialist Society, Poalei Zion, and the Marxian Club of Durban, and its early identification with Soviet Russia shaped the course of the Communist Party’s subsequent history.
The historic relationship with the ANC
The historic alliance between the CPSA/SACP and the ANC has its roots in the ‘Native Republic thesis’ agreed upon at the 6th Congress of the Third Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow in 1928 and incorporated into the CPSA Programme in 1929. James la Guma represented the CPSA at the Comintern Congress, and returned to South Africa with the Comintern resolution. The thesis was that the central feature of South Africa as a British dominion of the colonial type was the dispossession of the indigenous people of their land. The main content of the revolution in South Africa therefore was the restoration of the land to the indigenous people. In the national liberation struggle the principal revolutionary agent would be an alliance of the African peasants and the proletariat. The immediate strategic task of Communists in South Africa was the development of an alliance between the Communist Party and the national liberation movement, the ANC.
However, Gumede’s shift to the left was to lead ultimately to his removal as President-General of the ANC, and to drive a wedge between the CPSA and ANC that was to last twenty years. In January 1930 the entire National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC resigned because of his radical policies, and, after he made a speech at the April 1930 national conference calling for closer ties with the Soviet Union, he was defeated by A.B. Seme in the elections for the President-General. The defeat of Gumede by Seme ushered in two decades, the entire 1930s and 1940s, during which there was significant hostility towards the CPSA from leading figures in the movement, ostensibly on the grounds of white domination in leading Party structures and hostility towards communism as a “foreign” ideology. The Party’s militancy during the decade was a major factor behind the decision of the Nationalist Party government to introduce the Suppression of Communism Bill and set the stage for the banning of the organisation after the passage of the Bill in 1950.
However, it was the threat of the banning of the CPSA that was to revive the relationship between the Party and the ANC. Among the first acts of support given to the Party by the ANC at the time was the joint planning, together with the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), of a “Freedom of Speech Convention” in Johannesburg in March 1950. The Convention was aimed at registering opposition to the Suppression of Communism Bill and the banning of various CPSA leaders. Prior to the passage of the Bill, however, the CPSA disbanded. It was replaced in 1953 by the Congress of Democrats (COD), a white organisation constituted by leading figures in the CPSA. It was at this time that the underground CPSA changed its name to the South African Communist Party. The alliance between the SACP and the ANC was cemented in subsequent joint campaigns such as the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and the Freedom Charter Campaign in 1954-55. This alliance was formalised after the adoption of the Freedom Charter by several organisations, including the Congress of Democrats, and the formation of the Congress Alliance by the ANC, COD, SAIC and Coloured People’s Congress.
The liberation movement’s relationship with the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China
In April 1960, the ANC was banned in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre of 23 March in which 69 people were killed by the apartheid police during a peaceful anti-pass campaign. The mass arrests and detentions that followed the declaration of a state of emergency during March 1960 led to the departure for exile of several of the leaders of the Congress Alliance, including many who had been leaders of the banned underground SACP. In the following year, several organisations took the decision to turn to armed struggle. The SACP was among the organisations of the Congress Alliance that permitted its members to join the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
From the time of its formation in 1912 up until 1961, the ANC had relatively very limited contacts with the Soviet Union. Only a few prominent members of the ANC were able to travel to the Soviet Union on short visits to the country. On the other hand, the SACP had a long-standing relationship with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and several of its prominent members spent long periods of time studying in the Soviet Union. This proved very useful following the decision to seek assistance from the Soviet Union. Moses Kotane and Yusuf Dadoo, the General Secretary and Chairman of the SACP, respectively, visited the Soviet Union in November 1961. In discussions with leading officials of the CPSU they discussed the possibility of an armed struggle in South Africa. The Soviets responded by indicating neither their support for, nor their rejection of armed struggle.
Kotane subsequently accompanied ANC Deputy President Oliver Tambo on a trip to Moscow in April 1963, which eventually led to the establishment of regular relations between Moscow and the ANC. Kotane, as ANC Treasurer-General, forwarded many requests to the Soviet Union. The fact that they came from the SACP general secretary without doubt gave them added importance in the eyes of the Soviets. Among the requests was the provision of specialised training in guerrilla warfare in the USSR for Umkhonto we Sizwe fighters and the higher levels of the ANC and SACP leadership, including Oliver Tambo, Moses Kotane, Joe Slovo, and Joe Modise, which began in 1964. This was followed by the provision of arms and ammunition to the liberation movement by the Soviet Union.
In the early years of this period, the ANC-led alliance had a close relationship with the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the PRC. Indeed, the first six cadres to be sent abroad for military training from South Africa were sent by the SACP to China in 1961. Andrew Mlangeni, Joe Gqabi, Steven Naidoo, Patrick Mthembu, Wilton Mkwayi and Raymond Mhlaba were provided with military training at a Military Academy in Nanjing, China, from October 1961. However, the relationship between the ANC-led alliance and the PRC changed in the early 1960s following a break in relations between the CPSU and CPC.
Several cracks in the relationship between China and the Soviet Union emerged in the late 1950s. The two socialist countries subsequently supported different liberation movements of the same country, where they existed. In Africa, this led to the division of national liberation movements into two camps. The ANC-led alliance-in-exile was subsequently supported by the Soviet Union. Increasingly thereafter, the PRC provided support to the other liberation movement, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania.
The impact of the collapse of socialism on the SACP
The eruption of popular uprisings in Eastern Europe in August and September 1989, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November that year were the key events that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. These events had dramatic repercussions throughout the communist world.
In South Africa, the SACP experienced a crisis soon after its re-launch inside the country in 1990 when half the Central Committee membership resigned quietly from the Party in 1990. There was a perception among the exile leadership and members of the SACP in particular that the “Party would not be able to survive much beyond the heroic struggle aura”, particularly under the circumstances of the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the Party continued to have a strong presence in the leadership of the ANC. For instance, communists did well in the elections for the National Executive Committee at the ANC’s national conference in July 1991, though proportionately they were less preponderant than they were before the conference.
Perhaps one of the most significant effects of the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union on the SACP was the ensuing crisis in confidence in the future of socialism internationally among communists. Above all else, revelations about ‘totalitarian or authoritarian tendencies’ in virtually all the Eastern European socialist countries under Soviet influence raised questions among communists about their very support for the socialist idea.
In addition, the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union boosted the morale of those opposed to socialism in South Africa and internationally. SACP General Secretary Chris Hani identified this sentiment in South Africa in early 1992 when he stated that: “Our enemies” morale was boosted by the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Despite these challenges, Chris Hani maintained that socialism was still relevant in South Africa and the world.
History of the SACP since 1994 and the future prospects for socialism
In the years that followed its unbanning in February 1990, the SACP experienced a surge in membership. At the time, “the SACP acquired the distinction of being the world’s only growing communist party”. By 2015, the SACP had 220,000 members. The SACP survived the Soviet Union’s collapse because of its long commitment to the ANC and its role in the armed struggle. However, schisms in the Tripartite Alliance emerged sharply during the Mandela era (1994-1999) when the ANC-led government adopted the market-friendly Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) framework. Criticism of the neo-liberal framework emerged in the SACP and COSATU, who were convinced that it would be a stumbling block to the implementation of the ideals in the Freedom Charter and the Reconstruction and Development Programme. The resulting strained relationship between the SACP and ANC led many to conclude that the Party subsequently played an increasingly subordinate role within the Tripartite Alliance since then.
Nevertheless, the Party still has several leading figures in the National Executive Committee of the ANC, while both its General Secretary and Deputy Secretary General serve in the Zuma cabinet. There are several other prominent communists in the cabinet, including Thulas Nxesi, while communists occupy important positions in the regional leadership of the ANC as well as the provincial governments.
In 2012, the SACP noted in its assessment of socialism internationally that communist parties in some countries have coalesced into broader formations or have all but disappeared in others. For the SACP, the “ongoing global structural capitalist crisis has deepened the reproduction of inequality on a world scale”. These developments, the SACP argues, “underline the critical importance of an internationalist, anti-imperialist solidarity”, among other things.
What has the SACP done in this regard?
In 2012, the Party asserted that it is working to forge fraternal links with a wide diversity of communist, workers’ and left political formations in the world, to share perspectives, and to co-ordinate struggles around key themes, among them – for climate and environmental justice in the face of a destructive capitalist accumulation process; for world peace against imperialist militarism; in solidarity with the Cuban revolution against the American blockade; and in solidarity with the Palestinian people against Zionist aggression. The SACP also saw its task, in the struggle against the barbarism of global imperialism, as building the unity of the international working class and the unity of workers with the great mass of the urban and rural poor. The SACP asserts strongly that: ‘An international struggle is required to build a socialist world, a world based on human needs and not private profits for a tiny minority.’
The SACP, Together with the Sudanese Communist Party, initiated the African Left Networking Forum (ALNEF), which was launched in Johannesburg in August 2008. The Forum was established to build a Marxist-Leninist network in Africa, and its first conference in Johannesburg in August 2010 attracted delegates from several left-wing political parties and organisations.
The African Left Networking Forum presented an opportunity to foster greater international links, as indicated by an invitation extended by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela to ALNEF member organisations attending the third meeting in 2011 to attend the 18th São Paulo Forum that was held in July 2012 in Caracas, Venezuela. The São Paulo Forum was created in 1990, when political parties from Latin America and the Caribbean came together by invitation of the Workers Party (PT Brazil) to debate the post-fall of the Berlin Wall international setting and the consequences of the neoliberal policies that had been adopted by a majority of the region’s governments.
One of the socialist parties the SACP identified as significant in building international socialism was the Communist Party of China (CPC). The CPC is the longest ruling communist party, having been in power since 1949. Added to this is China’s status as a global economic power, and its growing influence in Africa and elsewhere in the world. Relations with the Chinese Communist Party had been restored soon after the 65th Anniversary meeting of the SACP in London in 1986.
The SACP has a bilateral agreement with the Communist Party of China, in terms of which the two parties exchange and alternate senior delegations on an annual basis. In the period since the unbanning of the SACP in 1990, several delegations of the SACP visited China. Apart from official delegations, groups of experts are brought together to hold discussions on issues of common interest. Teams of party cadres are exchanged on study trips or fact-finding missions.
Socialism has had a presence in South Africa for more than a hundred years. It continues to flourish! This is so partially because of the SACP’s historical relationship with the ruling African National Congress, as well as the support for socialism held by many South Africans. This relationship has its roots in the SACP’s early commitment to non-racialism and its overwhelmingly black membership at an early stage in the history of the Party. The relationship was cemented with the adoption of the “Native Republic thesis”, joint campaigns, the establishment of the Congress Alliance, and the critical role the SACP played in the armed struggle and the exile history of the liberation movement.
However, in the early 1960s a split occurred in the international socialist movement that led to the SACP’s reliance on the Soviet Union for material and other support for the liberation struggle. Nevertheless, the Party is recognised as one of the small number of Communist parties in the world that continues to have a growing membership. Its alliance with the ANC also provides the Party with opportunities to influence both ANC and government policy. In addition, the SACP has been proactive in establishing international linkages – including with the Communist Party of China – that are necessary in order for the struggle for socialism to succeed.