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ANC and SACP – A history together (and apart)


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

There is a profound historical significance in the decision of the SACP at its national conference last week at Boksburg to contest the 2019 general election under its own banner, unlike in all elections of the previous 25 years.

When Ruth First asked me in March or April 1963 to write a leaflet setting out the military strategy of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, in contrast with that of their rival, the Pan Africanist Congress, effectively there was complete identity in the personnel leading the SACP, the ANC and MK, then based collectively in their joint underground headquarters at Liliesleaf Farm, in Rivonia, Johannesburg.

After the leaflet was printed and distributed in May 1963, the raid by the security police on Liliesleaf Farm two months later in July caused massive dislocation to all three organisations, leading to the Rivonia Trial (October 1963-June 1964), with Nelson Mandela – already in prison since 1962 – as number one accused. By the time of the raid, Ruth’s husband Joe Slovo had been required by MK and the SACP secretly to leave South Africa, setting up base in exile in London. Ruth was arrested in August 1963 and held under interrogation for 117 days, before being permitted by the government to go into exile with their three children.

Research by the late Professor Stephen Ellis and the South Africa-based Russian scholar, Professor Irina Filatova, established five years ago that at the time of Mandela’s illegal visit to London and to independent African countries prior to his arrest in South Africa in August 1962, he had himself been a member of the SACP at the level of the Central Committee, as well as a leader of the National Working Committee (NWC) of the illegal ANC, which had been banned in 1960 following the massacre at Sharpeville in March that year.

Based at Liliesleaf Farm before and after Mandela’s arrest, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba were similarly members of Central Committee of the SACP and of the NWC of the ANC, and like Mandela also members of the High Command of MK, prior to their being sentenced together to life imprisonment on Robben Island at the end of the Rivonia Trial.

Major documents confirming this intense, centralised political relationship – kept concealed for half a century, and prepared for submission to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s – were among personal papers which the SACP, MK and ANC veteran Ronnie Kasrils presented to the historical papers research archive of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 2013.

One document by Yusuf Dadoo and Vella Pillay on behalf of the SACP, dated 14 July 1960, stated bluntly:

All important positions and direction in the Congress and in other organisations are occupied by members of our Party. In the African National Congress, this is particularly the case. The Secretary-General is a member of the Party and party members hold positions in the National-Executive and in the Provincial organs of this Congress.

The policy of the African National Congress is therefore heavily influenced by our Party.”

Furthermore “all the propaganda organs” of the mass organisations and South African Congress of Trade Unions “are edited and managed by Party members”.

An SACP memorandum on MK of late 1962/early 1963 stated: “In all cases, the effective control is in the hands of members of the Party.”  It continued that overall strategy of MK and direction of policy “remains at all times in the hands of the leadership of the Party”. The national command of MK “consisting in the main of members of the Party, acts only in terms of the overall political policy, main lines of strategy and general direction of the Party leadership”.

As the earliest significant non-racial political organisation in South Africa from the mid-1920s, and the most important non-racial South African organisation by far during the Cold War decades of ANC exile, the SACP was progressively able to disclose the role of its members within the ANC following the decision of the ANC conference at Morogoro in Tanzania in 1969 to admit non-black Africans to ANC membership below the level of the National Executive Committee, followed by admission to the NEC agreed at the conference at Kabwe in Zambia in 1985. This enabled the ANC to return to South Africa following its unbanning in 1990 as a fully non-racial organisation, with white SACP and MK leaders such as Slovo and Kasrils, and Indian-origin members such as Mac Maharaj, as influential members of the NEC and later as ministers in government.

All four presidents of South Africa under the post-apartheid constitution have been former members of the SACP – Mandela as president 1994-99, Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), Kgalema Motlanthe (2008-09) and Jacob Zuma (2009- ), all as former members of the Central Committee.

This makes plain the profound historical significance of the decision of the SACP at its national conference last week at Boksburg that it will contest the 2019 general election under its own banner, and with its own programme, unlike in all elections of the previous 25 years in which SACP members stood as candidates and campaigned as ANC members, under the ANC practice of “dual membership”.

The reasons for this, and its possible consequences, need discussion separately. DM


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