Knowledge 2.0.
17 August 2017 23:26 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Trewhela

Without the SACP, will the ANC once again be only for black South Africans?

  • Paul Trewhela
    Paul-Trewhela.jpg
    Paul Trewhela

    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.

At no time since 1960, or indeed since the Congress of the People in 1955, has the SACP previously taken a stand which called for the removal of the president. This is a fundamental break, with deep significance and far-reaching possible consequences.

The SACP press release on Saturday by its national spokesperson and head of communications, Alex Mohubetswane Mashilo, calling on the ANC to recall President Jacob Zuma if he does not resign, almost certainly marks the most important moment in ANC – and possibly South Africa’s – political history in the past 60 years. It has enormous potential significance.

The statement, issued on 5 August, reads:

The South African Communist Party has been inundated with calls from the media regarding the motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma. There is a persistent attempt suggesting that the SACP will be supporting President Zuma on Tuesday, 8 August. This unfortunate attempt debases the straightforward clarification given. It has generated a lot of fake news and unnecessary reactions to it. It has therefore necessitated that the SACP succinctly sets the record straight: The SACP reiterates its consistent call for President Zuma to resign. If the President does not resign, the ANC should recall him!”

But this is not a commitment on the part of the SACP that its party members in the National Assembly – all sitting as ANC MPs in terms of the ANC’s and SACP’s historic practice of “dual membership” – will vote on Tuesday with opposition parties for Zuma’s resignation as president of South Africa.


Another statement by Mashilo, also made on Saturday, gave a much more nuanced distinction between calling for Zuma to resign but denying that its members sitting as ANC MPs would vote for the opposition motion. “The SACP does not have a mandate to support the removal of the whole ANC-led government or executive,” he said. “Its mandate is specifically to pursue the resignation of President Zuma.

If the president does not resign after engagements between SACP and ANC, we will assess if a new course of action is needed to remove him.”

Despite facing both ways, and however SACP members sitting as ANC MPs do or do not vote on Tuesday, this statement nevertheless carries historic importance.


According to Elinor Sisulu, the daughter-in-law of Walter Sisulu – ANC Secretary-General between 1949 and 1954, founder leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe and political prisoner on Robben Island for 25 years following the Rivonia Trial – he “joined the SACP in 1955, just before the Congress of the People. In the same year, he attended the conference of the SACP in Johannesburg, and in 1956, he became a member of the Central Committee of the SACP.” (Walter and Albertina Sisulu in our Lifetime, David Philip, Claremont, 2002. p.181).

This was the immediate precedent for joining the SACP at Central Committee level by Nelson Mandela, as the SACP reported in December 2013, the day after his death, confirming factual research published the previous year by the late British scholar Stephen Ellis and early in 2013 by the Russian scholars Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, both with access to Soviet archives.

This research shows conclusively that the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) following the massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960 was begun initially by the SACP on its own, with high-level ANC leaders present in decision-making on the basis of dual membership, and with MK only later becoming “owned” as the military wing of the ANC. For the next three decades and beyond, the SACP was indispensable to the ANC.

All four presidents of South Africa since 1994 have been former members of the SACP at executive level, with Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma at very different times and places also members at senior command level of MK (with Zuma of its security police, Mbokodo, the master of its prison camp in Angola, Quatro).

The crucial importance of MK in the ANC during its three decades in exile was not so much military, however, as demographic and political. Founded by the SACP, MK was founded and always was non-racial. As the non-racial military wing of the racially founded ANC, which admitted only black Africans as members from its beginning in 1912 until 1969 in exile, it was essentially the SACP which through MK transformed the ANC into a non-racial political body, prior to its return from exile when the ANC in turn transformed the South African government and much (not all) of civil society on a non-racial basis. This fundamental change in South African polity happened in three stages – through the formation of MK in 1960/61 in the immediate wake of the Sharpeville massacre, through admission of non-black South Africans as members at the ANC’s Morogoro conference in 1969 (excluding membership of its National Executive Committee), and finally through access of all races to the NEC and senior executive positions in ANC, decided at its Kabwe conference in 1985.

These were the indispensable qualitative steps leading to the creation of South Africa's non-racial interim Constitution in 1993. At each step, it was the presence of SACP within ANC that was the decisive variable. This contribution by the SACP to modern South Africa, and to non-racial presence in government, has never been adequately recognised. This does not exclude its tremendous political complexity.

It is in this context that the position taken by the SACP against the current leadership of the ANC, set out in its press release of 5 August, needs to be assessed.

At no time since 1960, or indeed since the Congress of the People in 1955, has the SACP previously taken such a stand. This is a fundamental break, with deep significance and far-reaching possible consequences.

For one thing, the removal of SACP from the ANC, even if only as far as stated in the press release, means under present conditions the removal also to a high degree of the ANC’s non-racial character, since nearly all the high-profile non-black members of ANC government – such as the current trade and industry minister Rob Davies, or previously Jeremy Cronin and Mac Maharaj – have been or remain SACP members. It is significant in this context how many non-black members of the ANC stalwarts and veterans who are calling for Zuma’s removal are present or former members of the SACP, among them Mandela’s comrades in the Rivonia Trial, who like him served life imprisonment: the late Ahmed Kathrada and also Denis Goldberg (now seriously ill), while Mandela’s surviving fellow lifer on Robben Island, Andrew Mlangeni, pointedly walked out after Zuma’s poisonous “white monopoly capital” address at Nasrec in Soweto on 2 July.

There is no way of knowing how far and in what ways the ANC now begins to implode and retract within itself, retrogressing on its formative history.

Nor whether we are now seeing the emergence of two ANCs – a corruption ANC holding the coercive powers of state while subjecting itself to state capture, opposed by a still formless ANC asserting one or other variants of its more traditional values, and supported in various ways by the SACP, the two main trade union federations Cosatu and Saftu (headed by Zwelinzima Vavi) and by civil society bodies such as Save South Africa.

There, in the statement “Zuma must fall”, issued by Saftu on Saturday – asserting Zuma has “betrayed all the ANC’s principles of democracy and accountability” – we see the fiery accusation: “Traitor!”


This is a language Zuma knew very well during his years in Mbokodo, now directed against the man himself as head of state.

Especially given the independent stance taken against Zuma by the ANC in Eastern Cape, its second largest province in terms of membership, where the provincial SACP has condemned “reckless, parasitic networks within government and within the ANC” which apparently “enjoy the support, tacit or otherwise, of President Jacob Zuma himself”, South Africa is in fiery times. DM

  • Paul Trewhela
    Paul-Trewhela.jpg
    Paul Trewhela

    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.

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