This document supplements the material we published in Revolutionary History Vol.4 No.4 on the history of Trotskyism in South Africa. It fills gaps in our knowledge of one of the important movements in South Africa, and also it illustrates vividly the importance of collecting systematically the recollections and experiences of participants in struggles and making them available to future generations of workers and scholars. In the near future we will be adding a further collection of documents from the history of Trotskyism in South Africa to this site, which space did not permit us to publish in the journal.
There have been various tracts dealing with the role of the Non European Unity Movement (the NEUM) in the Liberation struggle. Authors such as Jack and Ray Simons, The Readers’ Digest’s Illustrated History of South Africa, Tom Lodge, Colin Bundy, Ferida Khan, Ciraj Rassool, and others, have endeavoured to give their interpretations of the significance of the NEUM but, excepting I.B. Tabata’s The Awakening”, and TLSA (Teachers League of South Africa – jjp) Journal articles, hardly anything has come from its founders or active participants. Except, that is, for Signposts of the History of the Unity Movement by Hosea Jaffe, published by the New Unity Movement and presented as two lectures delivered at the University of Cape Town (Sept-Oct 1992). Having carefully read the publication, I concluded that Jaffe’s version of the events was more an attempt to glorify the past than to give an accurate and objective account of it. In response to this and as one who had been directly and actively involved in the organisation from 1950 to 1970, I hope to shed some light on the movement which I believe made a significant imprint on the liberation struggle. This article will attempt to trace its origins within the context of both national and international developments at the time and assess the parts played by some of those active in it.
I take as my starting point the year 1943 with Nazi Germany on the retreat following the decisive battle of Stalingrad. The Smuts regime now felt confident enough to abandon the placatory stance towards the non-Whites that it was driven to earlier: “the days of segregation being dead”, and “new deals” for the blacks. In its place it set in motion the machinery to do to the ‘Coloured’ community, i.e., those of ‘mixed’ descent, what had been done to the Africans, namely to strip them of the last vestiges of the few remaining rights they had, and place them under the aegis of a separate department of state, which also would control their lives from the cradle to the grave. That intention was “categorically” denied by Harry Lawrence, the Minister of the Interior in charge of the operation. The Coloured Advisory Council, it was stated, was to be merely what its name implied namely to advise the government of the legitimate needs of the Coloured people.
But the era of collaboration had passed. No longer were the people prepared to have their destinies decided by the government stooges who were appointed to serve on the council. The New Era Fellowship, a cultural organisation that was formed in 1937 to discuss “everything under the sun” called a conference of all existing non-white organisations to weigh and consider the implications of the proposed Council. From that meeting was born the Anti-Coloured Affairs Council, which later became the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department or Anti-CAD, when the diagnosis advanced by the sponsors of the conference could no longer be denied by the government.
From the Anti-CAD, and the All African Convention in 1943 was born the Non-European Unity Movement, which totally transformed the political terrain. Probably for the first time it gave the continent of Africa an organisation with a clear political programme. The ten-point programme encapsulated the minimum demands for participation in a democratic society. It included among others: The full franchise, free education to the age of 16, freedom of speech, press, movement, the right to own land (with a new division of the land as a first requisite of a new democratic parliament), penal reform and the rights of workers to organise themselves. All those who accepted those minimum demands without reservation could become part of the NEUM. Non-collaboration – the refusal to participate in or work the instruments of their own oppression, became a cardinal feature of the movement. This principle of non-collaboration distinguished it from what had gone before: the deputations, the round-table conferences, the back-door deals, the membership of and participation in segregationist bodies. Coupled with this there was the weapon of the boycott.
The tacit belief of the leadership of the NEUM was that the way towards Socialism lay via the national movement. The task was conceived as a struggle for “Bourgeois Democracy”, (which the Ten Point programme encapsulated) transmuting into Socialism.
What infuriated a voluble section of those who regarded themselves as Trotskyists, was that the NEUM leadership never publicly articulated these views. It drew forth fierce denunciations from members of the Forum Club, a Trotskyist political forum in Cape Town. The leadership of the NEUM were convinced that in their organisational structure they had found the secret weapon that would unite the oppressed and in time draw into it support from the Whites, thus creating the foundations of a decent democratic society for all regardless of so-called race, colour and creed. The structure was considered to be invulnerable to the attacks of the state machine. This was spelt out in a pamphlet called The Building and Basis of Unity by B.M. Kies and I.B. Tabata. In brief the pamphlet put forward a novel view of setting about the task of organising the masses. The Building of Unity propounded the view that the mass of the people was already organised in a multitude of organisations. These were churches, civics, rate-payers, cultural societies, sports clubs, sewing circles, mothers’ unions, charities, etc. All that needed to be done, therefore, was for those organisations to be politicised, accept the ten-point programme and become part of the movement. Membership lay only through joining one of the affiliated organisations. Membership on an individual basis was disallowed since it was regarded as an attempt to by-pass involvement in the politicisation of the rank and file. Thus it was believed that it would be impossible for the state to ban the movement because of its diverse composition. The reasoning was almost poetic in its conception.
The inescapable stumbling block to unity lay in the divisions among the non-White communities. This had been achieved over the generations by a policy of divide and rule through which the rulers had created almost unbridgeable schisms among the population groups. The major section, the Africans, was still subject to tribal separateness, and ancient hates were kept alive despite the efforts of the Congress movement, established in 1912 and the All African Convention, established in the mid-thirties, to strive to break down the barriers. “Purity of race” was another effective tactic used in order to prevent any linking with the Coloureds, the ‘mixed race’ group. The Coloureds were also bought off by allowing them limited voting rights, and freedom from the kind of legislation that bound the Africans such as the pass laws, and the right to buy and sell property as well as giving the Coloured pupil more than double the amount of money in the educational system as compared with the African child. To keep the Coloureds in the White kitchen they were reminded that they had white blood that flowed in their veins. The Indians on the other hand were enjoined not to associate with the other two groups as they, the Indians, came from a civilisation stretching back for a thousand years, etc.
To combat these divisions among the population groups the NEUM instituted the federal structure consisting of Three Pillars aimed at eventually uniting the three groups: the All African Convention for the Africans; the Anti-CAD for the Coloureds; and the Indian Congress for the Indians (The leadership of the Indian congress because of its involvement with the merchant class, withdrew from the Unity Movement declaring that they were unable to accept the principle of non-collaboration). The hope was that when the ideas of unity became generally accepted, the Three Pillars would wither away and there would be only the Unity movement.
This was the situation when I formally entered the movement in 1949. The all-White elections saw the coming to power of the Nationalist Party of Dr Malan. It had ousted the softly, softly approach to social control issues of The United Party of General Smuts. The clarion call of Apartheid by the Malanites found the majority of the White population rapturously responsive. The stage was set for a direct and systematic assault on the last remaining rights of the non-Whites. The NEUM responded with the weapon of the boycott.
(a) It urged the people not to participate in the elections in which some had the right to vote but could not to be candidates.
(b) It called for the boycott of separate elections for White representatives for Africans in the Senate and the House of Assembly.
(c) It called on the people to reject the multitude of separate councils created to control the Africans such as the Native Representative Council or Bunga as it was known in the vernacular, and the Coloured Affairs Council.
The New Era Fellowship was the organisation where we began to learn our politics - learnt the nature of Capitalist Imperialism; how the media misrepresented the socialist world by labelling it as Russian Imperialism; why the ruling class – (henceforth called the Herrenvolk) – used Apartheid as a form of social control; why it was that sometimes it was possible to succeed when one challenged the government through the legal system, showing how the rule of law operated in South Africa. An attempt was even made to run study groups to teach the basics of Marxism, but which was discontinued for fear of possible infiltration by the security police.
The early fifties was a period of enormous intellectual ferment. I.B. Tabata wrote The Awakening of a People; Dora Taylor under the pen-name of Nosipho Majeke, wrote The Role of the Missionaries; Jaffe under the pen-name of Mnguni wrote Three Hundred Years – a History of South Africa; Ben Kies wrote The Contributions of the Non-Europeans to World Civilization; W.P. van Schoor wrote The Origins and Development of Segregation; Edgar Maurice wrote The Colour Bar in Education and Jaffe, Wessels and C. Pieterse co-wrote about the French Revolution.
The intellectual quality of the ideas drew some of the best brains from the universities to the NEUM, among whom were Seymour Papert, Sydney Brenner, P.V.Tobias and Norman Traub, from Witwatersrand University and Dr J.G. & Dora Taylor, Chaim Beimel, Marion Tobias, Leah Morgenstern and Benita Teper of Cape Town. To us if the best brains among the Whites accepted the ideas of the NEUM, a substantial number of the White group would indubitably follow and a South African nation would emerge purged of the evils of race, colour and creed.
The first split in the movement began to show as early as 1951, when I.B. Tabata let it be known at a general meeting of the NEF that The Society of Young Africa (SOYA) had been formed. We were told that the NEF was too advanced for young Africans. Its establishment was done secretively without the participation or knowledge of the rest of the movement. Goolam Gool and his sister Jane supported Tabata. [Alarm bells began to ring. Wessels, Beimel, and I – the enfants terrible –K were summoned by Dr Gool to a meeting with Mr Tabata and Jane Gool and we were requested to accept the situation because the NEF, it was said, was too advanced for young Africans. They needed a more elementary grounding in the ideas of the movement. We could hardly refuse the request despite a suspicion that Tabata wished to create his own power base.] The rift in the movement grew steadily worse and came to a climax at a special general meeting held after a NEUM conference in 1952. Mr Tabata had criticised the views expressed by Ben Kies on the international situation at the conference of the NEUM, 1952. Kies had spoken of two opposing camps, The Western Bloc and The Eastern Bloc. Mr Tabata declared the analysis static and undialectical. The two foremost ideologues in the movement were locking horns. Mr Kies’s appeal that personal differences should be set aside in the interest of co-operation was met by a vitriolic rebuttal: “Don’t insult me. My differences are not personal, they are political!”
The words sent a chill through all those present at the meeting. Things in the movement would never be the same again. The rift soon became a chasm and people who before had been friends now became enemies; meetings were disrupted, once leading to the shameful situation where the police were summoned to eject SOYANS from a meeting called by the Local Co-ordinating Unity Committee at the Banqueting Hall in Cape Town (1960) for fear that there might be physical violence.
This background of the situation is important so that one can get a clearer understanding of the role of the person whom the Tabata faction regarded as the arch-villain namely Hosea Jaffe. Jaffeism was the choice invective hurled by the disciples of Mr Tabata. Hosea Jaffe began to play a more dominant role in the NEF after Ben Kies decided to refrain from coming to NEF meetings about 1953/54 believing that his presence had an inhibiting effect on the youth. Jaffe declined to follow suit and made the NEF his kindergarten. His views were definitive on all questions; his pronouncements became part of Movement lore. I recall some of the more striking ones to reveal their nature and range. Not all have stood the test of time.
(1) Historical progress was irreversible. As evidence he cited the fact that during the Nazi invasion of the USSR they were obliged to make use of the collective farm organisation, which was historically irreversible.
(2) Stages of political change could be telescoped. One could skip the bourgeois stage and go straight to socialism.
(3) Unless we solved the problem of political organisation, that is, drew the majority of the oppressed into the NEUM, freedom would come only on the back of a Stalinist Russian tank.
(4) It was impossible to achieve liberation without drawing a substantial proportion of the White population into the movement.
(5) The term Non-European did not mean Coloured, Indian or African, when referring to the NEUM, but meant anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist; anti-exploitative; etc.
(6) There is only one race the human race. It was fallacious to speak of multi-racialism, which was a contradiction in terms.
(7) There are no Africans, no Coloured, no Indians. All these categories are artificial. From the time Jaffe expressed this in 1958 it became customary to speak of so-called Coloureds, so-called Africans, etc. in the movement. Very soon it became the established form in the broad liberation movement, and reached its apotheosis in the late eighties when even De Klerk was compelled to accept non-racialism as the prescription for a future South Africa.
(8) Language was merely a tool of communication – therefore in the new South Africa there need be no other choice than English, it being a world language, superior to all the other languages.
(9) In a series in the Torch, the newspaper that was identified with the movement, Jaffe wrote a Marxian analysis of world culture. It was classic economic reductionism. Thus for example the reason for the Spanish dancing in a very small space was attributed to the restricted land area of the Iberian peninsula. Even staunch Jaffeists found this hard to swallow, but no-one openly contested this notion.
(10) The principle of self-determination applied only to oppressed communities, not to oppressors.
(11) All principles are related to the laws of nature, such as gravity, the indestructibility of matter, etc. Human society was part of nature. Society consisted of social classes between which there were irreconcilable differences. Collaboration thus was a breach of natural law. Non-collaboration, thus was an irrefutable principle. But attitudes of kindness, fair play, loyalty, honesty, etc could not by definition be principles, and were simply sentimental notions.
(12) Being a member of The Teachers’ League of South Africa ipso facto made one indisputably a superior classroom teacher regardless of ill-prepared lessons, irregular attendance, etc.
Tabata now held sway in the All African Convention. In 1958 the Anti-CAD delegates were refused entrance to the Conference in Bloemfontein.
Point seven in the ten point programme became a major source of conflict. It stood for the right to buy and sell land with the added rider that a new division of the land should be the first task of a Democratic parliament. This was interpreted by Tabata as meaning that any redivision of the land could take place only after the achievement of democratic rights. This we interpreted as a pro-middle class step. Jaffe cited the French revolution where the peasants had seized the manorial estates, during the uprising and thereafter were granted title deeds.
Jaffe monitored the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It was characterised as anti-Socialist. The Movement gave the Soviet intervention its complete support. Jaffe became the undisputed ideologist of the movement. There were seminars on philosophy, Imperialism and Culture to which he made significant contributions. Kies murmured occasionally but ineffectually, especially after his banning and expulsion from the teaching profession in 1956. The split with Tabata deepened. The followers of Tabata captured the leadership of the NEUM soon afterwards and renamed it the Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA). They also established a new organisation, the African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa (APDUSA), a unitary organisation. But the screws of oppression were being tightened by the Herrenvolk so that it became almost impossible to recruit new cadres into the movement. In 1960 the Torch ceased to be published. The NEF closed shop soon afterwards.
In 1957, Jaffe felt the time had come to attack the 3 pillar federal structure of the NEUM. Prior to the banning of Ben Kies in 1956 Jaffe had kept his views on the three pillar federal structure of the movement relatively low-key. His first tactic was linguistic: he began to refer to the three pillars as the triangular structure, a small but significant difference. The task of the Anti-CAD was to ‘de-Colouredise’ the Coloured people; the All-African Convention was to ‘de-Africanise’ the Africans. There was, however, still no third pillar to ‘de-Indianise’. (The South African Indian Congress was affiliated to the Congress movement). Jaffe thus propounded something quite unique for a mathematician, a two sided triangle! Up to this time Kies kept his silence, but when Jaffe expressed the view that the time had come to abandon the basic 3 pillar structure, Kies rose to defend the organisational form he regarded as an article of faith. He was at daggers drawn with Jaffe. In the December 1959 at a special meeting of the NEF convened to deal with this proposition, the membership gathered to debate whether the 3 Pillar structure should be scrapped. I cast my vote against Jaffe, and his motion was lost by one vote.
When the new school term opened in 1960, it was discovered that Jaffe had left the country. He left a letter for Ben Kies which attempted to explain the reasons for his departure. Suffice to say that his explanation was peremptorily dismissed and he was regarded as another “casualty” of the struggle. which was how all those who had left the country were designated.
When in the U.K. he strove vainly to have Tabata expelled from the Secretariat of the Fourth International. He drew up a statement detailing Tabata’s political ‘crimes’, signed by three in 1971. I used the nom-de-guerre “Sol Plaatjes”.
Jaffe also published a number of works among which were the following:
Colonialism Today (1962);
Africa – From Tribalism to Socialism (1971);
Marx on Colonialism (1976);
The History of South Africa, 1652-1980;
A Pyramid of Nations (1981).
In the last mentioned work Jaffe propounded one of his most controversial theories, namely that the European worker produced a negative surplus value. He presented tables and diagrams referring to the period 1973-1975 in support of his contention. He also wrote tracts on the situation in Ethiopia; the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the creation of Bangladesh.
On the 21st March 1960, the massacre of Sharpeville occurred. It found the NEUM totally marginalised and ineffectual to respond to the uprising. Sharpeville rocked the Herrenvolk state as never before. Paul Sauer, a Nationalist cabinet Minister echoed Smuts’s “the days of segregation are dead”, when the flight of capital threatened to bankrupt the country. The government responded with ‘kragdadigheid’: banned the ANC, PAC and declared a state of emergency. Somehow Apartheid South Africa survived its worst crisis. But the NEUM and the Anti-CAD collapsed like a pack of cards.
There were painful attempts to come to terms with the changed situation. I suggested that perhaps the organisational aims were flawed: that it was incorrect to believe that one could build a movement on the basis of politicising social, sports, and church clubs. This was not countenanced. Thereafter, especially in Cape Town a malaise befell the organisations. The NEF ceased to meet; the Torch closed down; membership of the TLSA steeply declined probably because recruitment was suspended owing to fears of penetration by the security police. In the country town of Worcester, membership held steady and even rose due to successful canvassing among new teachers, prompting the TLSA central executive to summon us to enquire why this was so!
The TLSA was the only organisation in the Movement that continued to function and publish the Educational Journal. It held successful regional conferences in the country districts and continued to work in the PTA’s to prepare parents for the planned take over of Coloured Education by the Coloured Affairs Department. It forced the authorities to delay the transfer until April 1964. The CAD invited teachers to attend inaugural meetings before the actual transfer, and most TLSA members refused the invitation. Most but not all.
The decision regarding the annual conference aroused bitter argumentation. Wessels led the group insisting that we meet the challenge head-on. Others, including myself maintained that we would be presenting the League stalwarts on a tray to the authorities, to be proscribed or dealt with as they deemed fit. The pro-Conference motion was lost, and the rump TLSA somehow survived holding its first conference since 1963 in May 1992.
The attempt to build a Federal Council of Teachers, uniting The Cape African Teachers’ Organisation and the TLSA, which began with such high hopes in the fifties also failed to survive the whips and scorns of time.
The movement lost some of its foremost thinkers in the seventies, Victor Wessels (1978) and Ben Kies (1979). Their passing at a critical time when the political log-jam was beginning to crack was a grievous blow. The new situation required a radical rethink of the aims and objectives of the organisation that seemed becalmed in the ideology of the past. There appeared to be none of their stature able to take their place. However in 1989 after two preliminary meetings, the New Unity Movement arose from the ashes of the defunct NEUM. The situation seemed apposite for a return of Jaffe to a – if not the – leading role in the movement.
With his periodic return visits to South Africa Jaffe’s influence soon became evident. In the Journal of the Teachers’ League of South Africa, June 1992, there appeared a brief article in Notes in School regarding the developing conflict in Yugoslavia. “the strong motivating force of Serbian Nationalism is in fact (sic) the desire to prevent the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation …” (my emphasis – no comment needed) The article also eulogised the Yugoslav state of Marshal Tito as: “… the most promising socialist experiment …” etc. Yet when Tito broke with the Soviet Union in the fifties he was denounced in vitriolic terms by the NEUM.
The support for the Serbian Fascism of Milosovic and Arkan, the war criminal, which paraded as Socialism was continued in the Bulletin of The New Unity Movement, Volume 6 No.2 (Sept 1992). The views expressed have been dealt with in more detail in Searchlight South Africa (No. 10), and I shall therefore not repeat them. But Jaffe outdoes himself regarding the Muslims of Bosnia.
“Muslims … are descendants not of the Turks who dominated the Balkans from the 15th to the 19th century, but of Christian Bosnians who found it convenient to embrace Islam.” Whether Jaffe possesses verifiable evidence for this is a moot point but certainly it couldn’t justify the horrendous brutality of Serbian ethnic cleansing! His conclusions are refuted by research into the period. What on the other hand has been researched is the fact that Turkish rule did not force Christians to become Muslims. Tax records show that conversions were slow. But to support his pro-Serbian stand, Jaffe had no difficulty in finding the necessary corroboration.
In 1993 Jaffe published Sign Posts of the History of the NEUM under the aegis of the New Unity Movement. Although the rubric indicated there were two lectures given at the University of Cape Town, this was denied by the Head of History who complained that Jaffe had not obtained the required permission to use the University’s name on the publication. There had only been one lecture, and the more pointed criticism, that the oral delivery differed substantially from the published one. The critique below, ipso facto, refers only to the written version. The signposts Jaffe has pointed out in my opinion do not reflect the situation as it really existed during the period 1950-1970.
A CRITIQUE OF H. JAFFE’S SIGNPOSTS OF THE HISTORY OF THE NON-EUROPEAN UNITY MOVEMENT
Jaffe first deals with the labelling of the movement as Trotskyist. Jaffe argued that the movement was “not Trotskyist in the classical sense”. He quotes an extract from a “famous letter” written by Trotsky in 1935 to the members of The Workers’ Party:.
“the South African Republic will emerge first as a ‘Black Republic’: this does not exclude, of course, either full equality or brotherly relations between the two races … We must accept with all decisiveness … the complete and unconditional right of the Blacks to independence … It is possible that the Blacks … will find it unnecessary to form a separate Black state in South Africa; certainly we will not force them to establish a separate state … The proletarian revolutionaries must never forget the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination, including full separation.”
Jaffe’s comment is that “the Unity Movement at no time would subscribe to one word of this paragraph in Trotsky’s letter”. What is baffling is that at no time was the letter ever discussed in the period when I was in the movement. [It was occasionally referred to in hushed tones, but generally to underscore the fact that “The Old Man himself” had practically given his personal endorsement to the Movement before his assassination.]
Jaffe next attacks the reference to “races” in the letter above stating that “pioneer thinkers in the movement” had more and more distanced themselves from this concept. This is such a blatant deception that the mind boggles. In 1935, when the letter was written the existence of races was not seriously contested. The pioneer thinkers in the movement like Kies and Tabata accepted the term. It featured in all their writings and even P.V. Tobias, the anthropologist and member of the Movement, declared that race was a biological fact. Remarkably it was only in 1958 in a seminal address at a meeting of the NEUM in the Drill Hall, Cape Town that the view was expressed that there was only one race, the human race. That radical statement was by none other than Mr Jaffe himself. Ever since then it became politically correct to use the term in inverted commas. Veracity is again called into question, when Jaffe asserts:
“UM writers have publicly criticised this weakness of Trotsky”
By doing a post hoc attack on Trotsky, Jaffe endeavours to dismiss the Trotskyist label. In light of the above I find Jaffe’s fulminations against the epithet manifestly hollow.
Jaffe proceeds next to extol the excellence of The New Era Fellowship. He likened it to Milner’s Kindergarten of post Boer War fame. This is probably because the NEF became his territory as I indicated earlier. From this base Jaffe attacked the federal structure of the movement and proposed a unitary structure, which was narrowly rejected in 1959 before he departed from the country. Yet he slips into his lecture a seemingly innocent aside
“The NEUM later enabled individual membership in … local branches where local committees were not feasible”.
Not once does Jaffe reveal his role in the split in the movement that set in as early as 1951, but pretends that the schism was only a 1958 event. For someone who was so integrally involved in the split, he certainly is economical with the truth.
What Jaffe does do well is list the numerous activities in which the NEUM was involved. There certainly was no lack of enthusiasm in “taking a nation to school”. The movement did what none of the other organisations thought important or even necessary, which was to explain the nature of their oppression to ordinary working people.
Teachers came to the homes of the poor and a spirit of camaraderie was fostered. The Parent-Teacher Movement that grew in the period from 1952 to 1970 was a particularly glorious stage in the work of the NEUM, in which all members including Jaffe played sterling roles.
What I endeavoured to do is to give an account as objectively as possible of the movement indicating its strengths, hopes, problems and failures. Most of the previous historiographers were outside of the Movement or, having leanings towards the Congress movement, gave a biased account. Jaffe, to my knowledge, is the first to write from the point of view of a participant. My article attempts to give a more objective account of the NEUM and point out some of his errors and omissions.
The “Lee Affair” is among the more unattractive aspects of the history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. The affair is described in some detail by Richardson & Bornstein in their work on the history of Trotskyism in Britain. In brief, Ralph (“Raff”) Lee, together with other Trotskyists previously active in South Africa, travelled to London and established contact with Trotskyists there. After a little time, rumours were circulated to the effect that Lee had been guilty of misappropriating strike funds. The leadership of the Militant Group does not appear to have acted decisively on these rumours and they were allowed to play a part in factional differences that eventually damaged the group. When the matter was, belatedly, brought into the open, Lee’s former comrades in South Africa rallied to his defence. The letters below were sent from the South African section to London. They were made available to Revolutionary History by Baruch Hirson in connection with his work on Vol.4 No.4, Spring 1993, Colour & Class: The Origins of South African Trotskyism, where more information on Lee’s work in South Africa can be found.
A few minor typographical errors have been amended here but no attempt has been made to ̶ correct” the individual style of the writers.
Two letters from the South African Trotskyists on the “ Lee Affair”
1. Sapira (for the WPSA) to Militant Group
W.P.S.A. Johannesburg Section
I have been deputed by the W.P.S.A. (Johannesburg Section) as secretary of this organisation to communicate with you in connection with the recent events which took place in your group, in which a former member of our party, comrade RL figured prominently. As the W.P. is a section affiliated to the IS of the IV International, we have no doubt that this letter will receive due consideration by you.
The facts of the trouble first came to our knowledge via hearsay rumours and garbled partially concealed reports, and only recently did we become acquainted with the more important details. Should we make any factual misstatements as to things said and done in your group, we will readily accept your correction. But as to factual events which took place here our remarks will be confined within the realm of absolute authenticity and scrupulous exactness.
The background of the trouble appears to be a certain communication received by a member of your EC, CVG, from his brother in Capetown, HVG, in which the latter stated that someone in Johannesburg charged com RL with stealing trade union funds and absconding while the strike was in progress. Although comrade RL was at a later date absolved of these crimes, among the worst a revolutionary can commit, nevertheless these accusations laid the basis for subsequent action on the part of your group, which action is to be utterly condemned. In mitigation we can only surmise that your action was due to ignorance of the political character of the various South African groups and organisations, particularly those of Johannesburg. We have discovered that your group made contact with one, F. Klenerman here in Johannesburg, and asked her for a statement as to com. RL’s past political record. We are astonished at such a step. Since com. RL was a member of our party and the founder of the African Metal Trades Union, which facts if you did not know you could have ascertained from the IS, why were we not approached as to his former record, since unquestionably we are in the best position to provide an accurate account of his past activity?
It is impossible for us to conceal our disgust at this action on your part. You approach F.Klenerman who refused to collect money for the strikers of the trade union during the strike last year, who is not a Trotskyist, and who, while claiming adherence to the IV International in words violates some of its fundamental principles in deeds, as to the past record of a comrade who has always openly declared himself to be a Trotskyist, and who in all his activity has endeavoured rigidly to conform to Marxist-Leninist principle and practice!
We will proceed to substantiate our statements, firstly as regards F. Klenerman. When the International Workers Club was formed here in Johannesburg a proposal was mooted that the constitution should include a clause stating that the club based itself on the revolutionary principles of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. An amendment was moved that the name Trotsky be omitted. This was supported by F. Klenerman but strongly opposed by com. RL and others. The amendment was carried and the germ of the split was born there and then. In addition F. Klenerman for a considerable period occupied an official position in the League Against Fascism and War, a typical Stalinist anti-fascist organisation, forerunner of the Comintern’s Peoples Front policy. And this is the type of political upstart to whom you wrote for information regarding revolutionaries?
For an understanding of com. RL’s political behaviour, it is only necessary to recount the strike of our trade union in February and March last year. I will refer to other activity but the strike is our primary concern. The African Metal Trades Union came into being on 15th January 1937. I am not quoting from memory – I drafted a detailed report of the strike immediately after its conclusion to which I am concerning. A number of native steel workers from the Skaw works requested the W.P. to form a union, and the party instructed com.RL to attend to the task. The union was formed com. RL was appointed secretary by the members and in an inaugural address he stressed the importance of getting all the steel workers on the Rand to join the Union. He also outlined generally the nature of trade union activity, the demands which would be made to the factory owners, and how these demands would be forced from them should peaceful negotiations fail. Within two weeks 150 African workers from the Scaw works joined the union.
That the workers were in an angry and impetuous mood was clear. On the 12th Feb com. RL was instructed by the union to place demands for higher wages, one and a quarter pay for overtime, recognition of the trade union and others before their bosses. This he immediately did but the employers refused to concede a single demand, and retaliated by dismissing a number of workers a few days later. Thoroughly aroused the workers called a general meeting on the 21st February to discuss strike measures. Com.RL addressed the meeting at great length stressing the inadvisability of a strike at this juncture for many reasons, as for example the strike would be isolated and would get no support from other steel works, all the members of the trade union belonging to the Scaw works. The workers however disregarded his exhortations and voted unanimously by a secret ballot for a strike. This placed the strike upon the order of the day. How far from the truth was the disgusting accusation by the Stalinist epigones to the effect that com. RL and the Trotskyists generally engineered the strike knowing full well that it would be defeated, in pursuance of the usual Trotskyist course in sabotaging workers struggle! We were gainst the strike but once the workers voted for it our task was to join them openly and to strive energetically to force the hands of the employers.
On the morning of February 23rd the workers came out led by com. RL, they marched to strike headquarters, and elected a strike committee. The committee instructed him to approach other working class organisations for help, and to ask the Amalgamated Engineering Union to call out the European workers in sympathy with the African workers. The following day we received the unpleasant news that the strikers had been replaced by scabs and that the European workers were training these scabs. We demanded of the AEU that they instruct their members to cease this, but they did nothing, thereby dealing us a severe blow. There was still however a chance of the bosses giving in as they were suffering severe financial losses.
Funds were very low. The union had £12 in hand and from sympathisers we collected about £13. Yet in wages, rent and for food and defence of arrested comrades, the W.P. paid out to the strikers nearly £150! Most of this came from the wages and salaries of our handful of members. We state categorically that the accusation of stealing trade union funds made against com. RL is a deliberate fabrication. I was the union treasurer at the time and have a compete record of all income and expenditure of the strike and could have supplied you with same had you written to the trade union when you first heard of this slander.
Within a week it began to dawn on the strikers that this strike had no hope of success. The employers retaliated by calling in the aid of the police and 16 strikers were arrested, but 14 were released. The WP engaged a competent advocate to defend the other two and paid the fine of the one found guilty. Some ten days after the strike commenced the committee officially announced its defeat. About half the strikers were taken back at Scaw works, and the WP, principally com. RL, helped the majority of the others to obtain employment. By the end of March the strike was almost forgotten by all except the participants. Yet it was well known that com. RL only left Johannesburg three months later in June! We hope that this disposes of the other slanderous charges levelled against him.
Com. RL worked tirelessly during the strike, performing a score of tasks, approaching other organisations, collecting funds and even selling his few possessions to do so. These facts are easily ascertainable every member of the trade union having been acquainted with them.
As to other past activity of his, he has for many years revealed himself to be a marxist of extraordinary theoretical ability – his antagonists grudgingly concede this – and he proved in the strike that his ability was not confined to the realm of theory.
He helped to organise the Bantu Laundry Workers Union, which came out on strike in 1934, The strike was defeated and he has been blamed for the defeat. those who resort to falsification should however possess better memories. When the strike broke out he was in Durban, some 500 miles away from here, although he returned when he heard the news. The strike was led by one, M. Purdy, who was at that time Secretary of the Laundry Workers Union. The fact that Purdy was arrested during the strike and charged with inciting public violence, is ample evidence for this point.
When the Johannesburg section of the Workers Party owing to internal differences disbanded in 1935, while the others folded their arms, com. RL and HK set about immediately forming the organisation anew. Slowly it grew and with its growth its activity increased until in January 12937 it undertook the organisation of the African Hotel Trades Union. The strike had a deleterious effect on the party, reducing our numbers and straining our financial resources to the limit.
Comrade RL had many enemies in this country – as have all genuine revolutionaries in all countries. It is only to be expected. And that these enemies should seize every opportunity to besmirch the past record of a revolutionary by lies, deceit and falsifications innumerable should also occasion no surprise. The disastrous blunder committed by your organisation by allowing itself to be tricked and sidetracked by falsehood and intrigue is utterly indefensible.
The negligent manner in which this whole matter has been handled by responsible members of your group is thoroughly unbecoming a revolutionary organisation and we trust that you will give this communication the widest publicity in an endeavour to clear com. RL’s name of the slanders cast upon him. We also hope that you yourself will regard this communication in a very serious and sober light and will thereby avoid repetition of such catastrophic errors in the future.
For the Fourth International
H. Sapira. Secretary
2. Molefe and other strikers to Militant Group
I am writing to you about the things which is said about com RL, which is absolutely lies. Towards the beginning of January last year, we workers of the Steel Coilings and Aluminium Works Ltd. formed our African Metal Trade Union which so far appointed com RL to be our secretary. Now as our fellow workers were so hasty we were bound to come out on strike. Com RL advised us several times that the best way is to organise more workers as many as possible from other metal works, we found that will be a hard task that will take years, while we were suffering on account of low wages.
So – the committee instructed our secretary, com RL to write our letter of demands to the Manager of the Scaw works.
1. Increase of 25% in wages
2. two weeks paid holidays a year
3. A week notice in dismissal etc
All were rejected.
We all signed for strike and on the 23rd February 1937 we gave “one hour” notice to the bosses, and we left the premises patiently at 8.15am. We marched through the town to the hall, and counting the group found that about four workers missing. We put our pickets we found that three left in the premises and one is arrested Comrade RL tried with means to trace which police station our member in, but all in vain, until he was released on NO bail after a week before the magistrate.
Through the strike I was with com RL to see the Trade Labour Council, who took no steps to our requests.
I – with four others go to Scaw works to fetch our parcels others were given and I was handcuffed and driven to the police station. Com RL and Sapire came to bail me out. The sergeant refused. The following morning I was released, as there was no charge laid on me. Two days later arrested six of our strikers but also acquitted in the same way. Afterwards arrested one man said to be pulling out workers on the day of the strike, com RL and com Sapire took him out also £10 bail. Now two of them appeared in court, one was found guilty £2.10.0 fine, which was paid by com RL and com Sapire “One not guilty” .
During the strike we has enough food cooked by our cooks in the AMT union hall. Each one got an sufficient pay every saturday.
We have collected in January and February of about £16 before the strike starts. The money that did not carry us even a week. All friends both white and black … tried to give us money for food, more especially white comrades collected … of money for strikers including our treasurer comrade Sapire, and coms Hosson, Frieslich, Kahn etc. … Before the end of March the strike continued most of our workers returned back to Scaw works and others got other jobs in different places here in town. During the strike com RL and comrade Sapire worked their duties satisfactorily. Our secretary RL shall never be forgotten in our minds. Even today members our wished him back. Com RL left for England in June when the strike was three months over. Now comrades only lies you have been told there.
Member of the Committee African Metal Trades Union
Here is some of the comrades who were on strike last and who are quite astonished that comrade RL is in trouble over there. They sign their names that you should not accept such lies there is no such thing here com RL left us in peace. They wished him back again.
1. Mr Cecil.
3. Mr Isaac.
8. J, Hatchaya.
9. Eleijah Dani.
10. Comrade Saucepan.
We are giving nothing away when we say that the Socialist League of Africa is a revolutionary socialist organization orientated on class struggle. It publishes Spark, the first underground newspaper in South Africa.
There can be little doubt that the stay-at-home, called for May 29, 30 and 31 failed. Even objective observers who supported the strike call have stated unequivocally that the stay-at-home failed.
Of course it was not as bad as the South African Broadcasting Corporation reports would like us to believe – they claimed at one stage that 91 percent of Johannesburg’s labour force was at work; nor can we accept the reports of the daily newspapers who grossly underestimated or were ignorant of the responses in some areas. It took several days before we were able to gauge the response from all areas, and Nelson Mandela, spokesman for the committee that called the strike stated at the end of the first day that the strike had failed.
As far as we can estimate about 40 percent of the Johannesburg labour force stayed at home (there is no way of determining the number of domestic servants or occasional workers involved). And Johannesburg, contrary to expectations, had the biggest response. Some industries (eg Laundries) that have a long tradition of militant workers action, closed down completely. On the other hand it is hard to gauge the full response of the workers, as many industries, fearing a successful strike closed of their own accord and are now working overtime to make up for those days. This complicates our attempt at arriving at a satisfactory picture.
The next most significant figure is that of the Coloured peoples of the Cape. Between 30 and 40 percent stayed away in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. And there is of course the important complete stay-away from lectures by the students of Fort Hare.
But we must be honest ... There was very little response in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Equally little in Pretoria or on the Witwatersrand. Africans of the Eastern and Western Cape went to work, and even where there was some response on Monday, the response declined radically by Tuesday, and where industry worked on Wednesday most of the workers had returned. As for the rural areas there has been no indication of stoppages.
A large number of Indian businesses closed, but as this is usually taken as being an indication of sympathy, rather than as being of primary importance we will not investigate this factor further.
Why then this failure?
There are many reasons that go to explain this affair, and we will tabulate the most important below. But it must be stated at the outset that this campaign could never have succeeded.
In 1958, the Congress Alliance called a stay-at-home for 3 days which was to reach its climax on the day of the general election. Some said at the time, much to the annoyance of the Congress of Democrats leadership and others that the strike could not succeed, that the African could not be called upon to intervene in parliamentary affairs that did not affect him appreciably. The African is far too wary to enter battle, when victory can only lead to a United Party victory. Verwoerd must go – but not in order to be replaced by Graaf. After the events we were assured by T. Makawane in a review article that the strike failed ... because we had not realised that many of the Africans desired a UP victory. Certainly conditions are not identical in 1961, but it is in general true that the African population will not respond to situations which do not directly concern their interests as they see them. S. Uys, in a review in the Sunday Times maintains that the concept was too sophisticated. We don’t like his choice of the word sophisticated – because we believe that far more sophisticated ideas are understood by the African peoples. However he has made the point we think that the Africanists put far more bluntly and crudely – namely that they are not interested in ‘white politics’. It is not that the African will only respond to bread and butter politics, but that he can see little reason for intervening in events where little or nothing can be achieved, and where the methods proposed are suspect as we will see below.
When this particular campaign was called, there was little or no organization in the townships. The banning of the African National Congress and Pan African Congress (PAC) had not yet been overcome. Whatever underground there might be is understandably weak, poorly organized and without close contact with any effective leadership. One area in Johannesburg that once claimed several hundred active members can now count only 15-20 members. And so, although there were 25 or more full-time organizers in the field. they could not hope to do more than make the most superficial contact in the few weeks before the campaign. The necessary follow ups, the daily contacts, the deep penetration to every house was not possible. A handful of organizers plus all the leaflets in the world is no substitute in this kind of campaign for a large active branch in every area. For that matter of course we have to doubt the effectiveness of the much praised M-plan activity in Port Elizabeth because the response there was lower than in Johannesburg. As for country districts, we do not know whether there were any organizers who met the areas though we do know that since the banning little or no attempt has been made to restart groups. At any rate there was no response.
We must add to this the fact that the ex-ANC decided to go it alone. Offers of help from some sources were either spurned or handled with contempt. The leadership had an exaggerated idea of their following, and an inflated concept of their strength. It is true that the PAC walked out of the committee that called the Maritzburg conference, and also true that members of the Liberal Party did the same. We are not convinced that actions of the remaining members that precipitated some of these walkouts can be condoned, but whatever the truth behind these events, this initial weakening meant only one thing – that allies had to be won for the organizing that was needed. As we indicated this was not done, and some offers of help were bureaucratically spurned.
In examining the failure one of the major reasons advanced refers to police terror and intimidation. We are frankly tired of this excuse. It has been used now for the past few failures, and is always produced after the event. Surely we have to be political simpletons not to take this into account in planning campaigns? We would have thought after this theory of intimidation was offered to account (in part) for the ’58 failure that we could preplan with this knowledge, And even more now, with the growing efficiency of the police and army, this factor must be accounted for before the events and not produced as an excuse on the aftermath of a failure.
Also let it be said that this campaign received remarkable press publicity that will not necessarily be repeated. In planning for the future we dare not lose sight of the weapons the state is preparing. We can not afford to repeat our experience of this year, in which 10,000 people were arrested, untold numbers disillusioned, hundreds rendered unemployed by victimization, students sent home etc., etc., besides trials to follow – all to be told with hindsight that we now need new tactics.
But of course that is precisely the point. New tactics must be employed. In a discussion article issued after Sharpeville (Ten Years of The Stay-at-Horne – issued by the Socialist League of Africa), it was pointed out that the efficacy of the tactic was grossly exaggerated, and that its value was far lower than claimed by the liberatory movement. We don’t wish to repeat here the arguments of that document, for it must be obvious that the General Strike can only succeed when it is the stepping stone to further action that will challenge the state directly. It is indeed a powerful organizing weapon and if handled correctly it can be very valuable. But this method can not be used if the state is prepared to bring out the entire armed forces every time it is proposed – especially when none of the armed forces can be won over to our side at this stage of events. We live in a police state and cannot use tactics prepared in other countries under totally different conditions. We believe that many workers have realised this far in advance of their leaders.
More than one worker has said ‘tell us what to do, but do not ask us to stay at home.’ This is probably the main factor behind the failure. The worker is prepared to struggle. If organized he can be an effective force. He will be prepared to take strike action under appropriate conditions but the present call to strike was for demands that were unreal to the situation. It offered only sacrifice, and sacrifice with no returns. The worker was placed in the position where pay would be lost, jobs were in jeopardy, shooting was possible – and against this there were no possible returns. At the end of the strike, there might well be a moral victory, but in actuality there would be nothing concrete to show for all the heroism the worker could produce. ‘Tell us what to do, but do not ask us to stay at home’
We have stressed the negative side because we do riot want to cover up on events that must be described as a major defeat. Most particularly as there is now a call for non-cooperation. Surely we can not call on people to undertake another fight so soon after defeat. Organization must if anything be even worse now than before May 29. Disillusionment has spread and time is needed for recovery. For that reason we must not gloss over the defeat, or else we will embark on new adventurisrn that will only sap the people.
And yet of course there was a positive side to the campaign. The entire country seethed with excitement (though not as after Sharpeville). The panic of the State, with Bills rushed through parliament with indecent haste, mobilization; bans on meetings; capital fall in dramatic fashion; panic selling of houses; collapse in share markets. All this because of a threat, that could not be backed up. How much more will happen when threats are translated into reality?
The pressing issue now is to translate talk of new tactics into reality. This demands entirely new organizational structures as well as new ideas. The effectiveness of working this out will determine our future political development and must be vigorously pursued now. The entire problem now, is what forces there are available for this new direction.
The following documents were not published in the issue of Revolutionary History which dealt in depth with the origins of Trotskyism in South Africa (Vol.4, No.4, Spring 1993), mainly because of the fact that they did not provide new information of importance on the themes we were dealing with there. They are presented here in order to complete publication of the material provided to us by Baruch Hirson, who holds the originals, and also to document the continuing relationship between the emerging South African party and Trotsky. They should be read in conjunction with the South Africa issue.
Cde Hirson’s article in Vol.4 No.4 Profiles of some South African Trotskyistsprovides some information on Goodlatte, and a little on Koston (about whom little seems to be available at present). A longer article on Goodlatte appeared in Searchlight South Africa No 2.
Any readers with access to archive material on the Trotskyists in South Africa becoming available since 1993 are warmly invited to contact Revolutionary History. There are still many areas where our knowledge of these revolutionaries needs to be developed.
We record again our thanks to Cde Hirson for his work and scholarship in the preparation of Vol.4 No.4. We warmly commend to our readers Cde Hirson’s other works, especially his magazine Searchlight South Africa and his memoirs of his own revolutionary work in South Africa. In the near future we will add a feature to this website providing more information on these invaluable publications.
Two letters to Trotsky from the South African Trotskyists
1. Koston to Trotsky
12 Church Street
10th January 1939
Dear Comrade Curtiss,
Your letter of the 2nd December addressed to Comrade Goodlatte has been handed over to me: Comrade Goodlatte has retired, because of age and ill-health, from all active work.
As your letter gives no address except Coyoacan, I am sending this letter through Comrade Abern. Please send me the address to which you want things sent.
As I am a bookseller it is very easy for me to keep you posted with material on South Africa. To begin with, as soon as I hear from you, I shall enter a subscription to the Cape Times, one of the leading local daily newspapers, to be sent to you either daily or weekly, whichever you prefer.
With reference to books, little is published in South Africa in the English language: local publications tend to be in Afrikaans. Most of the books which appear in English about South Africa or by South Africans are published in England.
I would consider it an honour if you would permit me to present you with any books on Africa which come out in future or which have already been published that you may need. Never mind the expense but please let me know what kind of things you require. To begin with I am instructing my London Agents to post to you care of Abern copies of Hailey’s An African Survey and Frankel’s Capital Investment in Africa, and I am asking Comrade Abern to forward these to you.
Should anything of importance occur in the interval between today and the time I hear from you (ordinarily it takes a month for a letter to reach New York from Cape Town) I shall send it on to Comrade Abern.
General Secretary WPSA
2. Goodlatte to Trotsky
The Workers Party of South Africa (Cape Branch)
PO Box 1940
4th Jan 1938
To Comrade Trotsky
We are most grateful for your Preface to the Afrikaans versions of the Communist Manifesto. It is exactly what was needed to bring Afrikaner readers into close touch with the great work of Marx and Engels. We have hope of the revolutionary movement developing among the factory workers, of whom the Afrikaans speaking are the most numerous. As yet we are too few to make much progress; but, if the movement can once gain a footing in the factories, even this land of oppression and repression will yet produce a worthy section of the Fourth International under your tried and trusted leadership.
The following two articles published in International Socialism no.5 in the Summer issue 1961 and no.6 Autumn issue, were, for obvious reasons attributed to the Socialist League of Africa at the time. In fact they were by Baruch Hirson. It has been OCRed and corrected by Ted Crawford to whom the blame of any errors of transcription may be attributed. It is republished here with the kind permission of the present editor of the IS second series. There are many very stimulating articles from this magazine whose early issues are now extremely difficult to get hold of and it would be a service to the movement if a great many more of them were available on-line.
For obvious reasons we can say nothing about the Socialist League of Africa other than that it is a militant organization orientated on class struggle. The SLA publishes Spark, the first underground newspaper in South Africa.
‘The general strike is only a means of organising the working class and calling them to struggle against their enemy, the state. But a strike itself cannot solve the problem, because it fires the worker sooner than it does the enemy, and this sooner or later forces the worker to return to the factories.
‘The general strike has its greatest importance only when it is the beginning of the fight between the workers and the capitalists:– that is, only when it is the opening move in the revolutionary rising of the worker. Only when such action wins over part of the army to the worker can the worker think of winning his struggle. And it is this winning of the struggle that is the problem of every working class movement.
‘The general strike leads to the organisation of both sides, and shows how prepared the ruling class is to break the organisation of the workers. It shows what force will have to be used in order for victory to be won in the struggle. It shows how much blood the state is prepared to shed in order to keep its power ...’.
(Taken from the German Socialist paper Neue Zeit)
‘Our movement knows that when we withdraw our labour the whole structure (in South Africa) will come falling down’.
(Mr Malotsi of PAC quoted in Contact 18 June, 1960.)
In March and April 1960, the African population staged a series of demonstrations, marches and stay-at-homes in all the large towns of South Africa. In the month of action that followed the shootings at Langa and Sharpeville, the African working class emerged as the only force capable of leading the fight against oppression in this country, and showed that it was capable of paralysing the economy of South Africa by withdrawing its labour.
The one dominant feature that emerges from these happenings is that it was the worker who stood at the head of events; also a specific working class method (the withdrawal of labour) was used, and the action was confined to the large industrial centres of South Africa.
And yet the events centred around an anti-pass campaign, and drew in the entire African township population, so that it would appear that this was a national fight rather than a working class struggle.
Because of this there has been endless confusion in the ranks of the liberation movement. To some the fight has appeared to be simply that of African versus White. To others who have tried to examine events more deeply, the events seem to show that the fight is a broad liberation struggle of the whole African people. Because the pass laws are the symbol of colour oppression, it has been argued that the people as a whole are fighting a nationalist cause.
And of course there is truth in this argument. The entire African population – every single African man and woman feels the burden of the pass laws above every other colour bar law. It is no accident that every major fight since 1919 has been against the pass laws. This piece of paper has stood as the greatest single barrier against the advancement of the whole people-and it has been the greatest source of bitterness throughout the country.
Nevertheless we want to say that the nature of our struggle goes even deeper. In our fight for democracy and for full equality, in our demand that the people shall govern, we believe that the basic clash is between the working class and the governing capitalist class. At the present stage, the specific working class aspect of the struggle is hidden by the apparent clash of colour. The dominant note in all our struggles seems to be that of an oppressed people against a white minority. But we must beware of so simple an explanation. The first stages of political struggle in any country are always based on the broadest democratic demands and give no indication of the way events will move. To examine the course that events will take in a political struggle we must show clearly what class forces exist and examine their strength, for only then will we understand their direction. The nature of any struggle depends on the relative class strengths in society and in South Africa the major force is the working class of the towns and the farms. This group, when it draws closer to the people of the reserves, will act as the natural leaders of the struggle for liberation.
Already in South Africa the methods used in the struggle are those of the working class and as the struggle develops it will become clearer to all that it is only the worker that can give the lead to our fight for democracy.
We also believe that, as it will be predominantly a working class struggle, the aims of this struggle must be for the realisation of working class demands. This must be socialism, and at no time can we allow this aim to be obscured
Are we not being over simple, as some of our critics suggest? Is the final fight not going to be between the African, oppressed as a people, and the white ruler? Is there not going to be a growing nationalism which must sweep away all other ideologies? This is a grave possibility. The growing frustration; the never-ending suppression on racial grounds, can lead in this direction. But there is only one way to direct the course of South African history along a different path. And that can only come from the construction of a strong militant working class movement that will provide the only possible alternative to African chauvinism.
But before we can even discuss the problem seriously, it is necessary to look back into the past period of South African history and show why we maintain that this is a workers’ struggle; why working class methods must be used, and then return to our opening quotation and discuss the nature of the methods that can be used to secure our aims.
The first beginnings
The struggle in South Africa has a long history, but there can be little doubt that an entirely new phase opened up as a result of the second world war.
The war of 1939-45 led to a remarkable change in the economy of the Union of South Africa, and in the process there was an equally remarkable development of the African urban working class. The restrictions on entering the towns were partially lifted by Smuts in order to supply the labour force that was needed to man the ever-growing industries. The main industrial centres grew at a greatly accelerated pace and thousands of workers were needed to man the machines. The townships and locations grew at a fantastic rate, as more and more workers came into the towns. Semi-skilled jobs were opened to Africans and the black proletariat became a force in the economy.
The overcrowding of the townships (and the complete lack of new houses) erupted into the shanty towns movement started by Sofosonko Mpanza; the problems of transport led to the first great bus boycott in Alexandra; the new Political awareness was expressed by the formation of the African National Congress Youth League under Lembedi, the starvation wages led to the series of illegal strikes among the VFP (power) workers, the milling workers, the coal distributive workers, the timber workers, and the building of the Powerful Non-European council of Trade Unions under Makabeni, Tlooma, Marks and others. These wage struggles culminated in the great Mineworkers’ strike in 1946 and tentative plans for a general strike in sympathy.
The workers of the post-war period were building a new tradition of industrial action, and although they obviously drew strength from the earlier struggles in the 1930’s, an entirely new generation of workers were being drawn into Trade Union action.
The overall inexperience and the rootlessness of the young working class was not able to sustain this rapid growth of Trade Unionism; and weakened as they were by the anti-strike laws of Smuts, the movement went into decline after 1946. This partial decline can only be explained if we take into account the fact that the worker was preoccupied with the sheer problem of living, which was so overwhelming. He lacked transport, houses and food. His daily struggle to exist in the squalor of the war-time locations exhausted him, and his immediate needs led him to embark on struggles over rent, houses, bus fares, etc. in the process, the trade union struggle was overshadowed and tended to decline in relative importance.
During this period there was a growing political awareness, that was accelerated by the news from overseas of the anti-imperialist struggles in Asia; by the resounding charter of human rights that came from the United Nations, and from the slogans of democracy that had come out of the war. Hadn’t Smuts himself, when faced with a possible invasion from Japan, declared that ‘segregation had fallen on evil days’?
In this climate the young students of Fort Hare gathered around the radical solutions offered by the Youth League: many of the town workers were attracted not only by the Trade Unions, but also by the radical program of the Communist Party. There was also general discontent with the backwardness of the ANC leaders like Dr Xuma, Thema, Vundla, and several splinter movements arose as an expression of the radical mood.
It was the 1946 mine workers’ strike that led to a radical change in the political scene. The brutal violence of the Smuts government led to the permanent adjournment of the Native Representative Council; led to the first of the series of political trials (when the Transvaal executive of the Communist Party was arrested); and led to the growth of a new spirit inside the ANC – most particularly inside the young Youth League.
At the 1949 conference of the ANC this new spirit came to the fore. Led by the Youth Leaguers, the movement adopted a program of action aimed at non-collaboration, a disobedience campaign and a general withdrawal of labour. The old leadership was replaced; Dr Moroka took the place of Dr Xuma; a plan was proposed for revitalizing congress after years of inactivity; and Congress said boldly, that it ’demanded control of the government by Africans themselves’.
In this document a new spirit was discernible, but there were also strong signs of racialism, and the Pan African Congress (PAC) can claim to be the heirs of much of the sentiment that governed that Conference.
The new spirit and the Nationalist government
The 1949 Conference makes a distinctive break with the earlier phase of Congress. Reasons for this development have been partially listed above. Briefly restated this new direction was the result of:
- The economic and industrial development of South Africa with the subsequent growth of the African population;
- The development of the Trade Union movement and the subsequent strike action – the most important being the 1946 mine workers’ strike;
- The influence of the post-war national struggle in Asia that fired the young students at Fort Hare and elsewhere, and finally (for we must add a fourth factor);
- The 1948 victory of the Nationalist party and the formation of the Nationalist government.
The new government came to power on a loaded vote that favoured the white rural population. In many ways the Nationalists merely continued the old path of the United Party. The policy of segregation with its pass laws, poll taxes, beer raids etc. was now called apartheid with the same passes, taxes, and raids. The old land and labour laws were taken over and plans made to extend all the colour bar legislation. The old residential system of locations and bazaars; the old pegging act that tied the Indians down, were all consolidated and extended into the Group Areas Act. The previous bars on inter-racial marriage between Whites and Africans were extended to forbid all inter-racial sexual contact. The list is never-ending. The tradition was not new, but the severity of the Nationalist Government’s laws surpassed anything known before.
The reason for this increasing severity stems from the class composition of the new ruling group. Their broader popular base came from the Afrikaans-speaking section of the white community. Their nationalism incorporated the worker, the farmer, and the young Afrikaner financier. But there must be no mistake about this group. They had the approval of a section of the English-speaking whites. This has grown over the years, because they promised the complete suppression of the non-white population, and many capitalists, seeking to protect their interests, accepted these Nationalists as the only safeguard of the profits system.
But the fundamental basis of this government came from men who had not yet made full inroads into the economy of South Africa. They were as yet not represented in the mining houses. They control less than 10 percent of commerce and industry in the country. Their banking and finance were still young and represented a small percentage of the total economy. It was because they were so largely outside the mainstream of commerce and industry and the mines that they could turn against the African working class without fear of upsetting their own labour needs. This disregard of the urban labour force was to play a big part in the events of the coming decade.
On 26 June 1949, the ANC called a day of prayer against the Nationalist government, and in December adopted the program of action. The oppressive legislation then and later was to intensify the hatred of the people against the government. It is questionable whether the Nationalists accelerated the growth of the liberation movement, or whether the growth of the movement led the white population to return the Nationalists to power. But there can be little doubt that the natural growth of the movement for freedom would have led the United Party to be as vicious in its police actions as the Nationalists have been. South Africa has always been ruled by violence no matter which government ruled!
Then in 1950 the Nationalist government banned the public appearance of two men who played a prominent part in the non-white struggle of the time. Using the provisions of the Riotous Assemblies Act they banned Dr Y. Dadoo (President of the South African Indian Congress) and Sam Kahn (Native Representative in Parliament) from addressing meetings on the Witwatersrand. Both were members of the Communist Party of South Africa – and both were closely connected with the African National Congress.
The ANC, now under new, even if vacillating, leadership, called on the people of Johannesburg to observe 1 May 1950 as a day of protest and stay-at-home. The response was immediate-the new urban proletariat was ready for a call to action and the result was overwhelming. Many areas (Sophiatown in particular) stayed at home in large numbers and the day appeared to pass peacefully. In the evening crowds collected at street corners in Sophiatown and the police appeared and started firing. 18 people were killed, and many more injured. The government followed with drastic action and declared a ban on all meetings in order to clamp down on the anger that resulted. A pattern was. established that was to be enacted on a larger scale ten years later.
The ANC called for a new protest and 26 June 1950 was set aside as a day of mourning for the dead. Once again the people of the Witwatersrand responded, and on the day there was a large-scale stoppage of work. However, the response was uneven and demonstrated that Congress was organized only in isolated towns. There was certainly no possibility of moving all the urban centres, and the vast rural hinterland was unaffected by the emerging struggle.
There could be little doubt that in the stay-at-home the Congress movement had forged a new and powerful weapon. It was easy to organize such a campaign in the compact, crowded townships where thousands of workers were concentrated. By closing a few entrances (or stationing pickets appropriately) an entire town’s working population could be organized into mass defiance. The working force of a town could be withheld by stopping, labour at its, very source.
The compactness of the townships made contact easy; organizational work which was primitive (and unfortunately still is primitive) was overcome by the solidarity of these vast working class slums. A new-found strength was discovered, and an effective stoppage of industrial and commercial work had become possible.
Even more particularly, as Trade Unions were weak (and often non-existent) and as industrial strikes were illegal under the old war measure 1425, this new industrial action in the residential areas seemed to offer a solution to the problem of effective working class action.
This was the second successive use of 26 June as a day of protest, and it now became established as a national day of struggle (later to be called Freedom Day). It also established the tradition of the stay-at-home as a weapon of the struggle. Since 1950 the African worker has come to look upon the stay-at-home as the possible answer to government oppression.
Whereas previous strike action had been brutally suppressed (Mine workers and VFP), or had failed through mass arrests, this new method seemed to provide the answer. That it was indeed a powerful weapon is beyond question and it was to be used more and more in the years to come. However, we will come back to the question of this tactic below, and discuss its use more fully.
The Defiance campaign
For the past ten years two main methods of struggle have been used in South Africa. The first is the stay-at-home (or political strike), and the second is the method of passive resistance (or defiance campaign). The first passive resistance campaign took place against the United Party pegging act. Indians in Natal opposed the UP legislation which denied them land outside certain areas, and organized a campaign of defiance. They occupied land illegally and offered themselves for arrest. The campaign failed against a government that was arrogantly determined to force the legislation through. However this tradition of non-violent defiance was to be taken up again by the ANC, in co-operation with the Indian Congress in 1952.
Congress singled out for attack seven unjust laws that included the Group Areas Act and the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. The latter having defined communism in such a way as to effectively outlaw any movement that proposed change in the form of government in South Africa.
Passive resistance is open to criticism on many fronts, and particularly as it was to be used again in 1960 by the PAC, an understanding of this tactic is necessary. For the record it must be stated that there is no instance in the history of struggle where this tactic has succeeded. In India, where it was used on a large scale by Gandhi, it did not by itself win freedom. and in fact, as Palme Dutt points out in his India Today, it served as a means of tying down or restraining the mass movement of workers and peasants.
The philosophy of passive resistance is one that flows from a middle class leadership and which places no reliance on the masses and their ability to pursue militant tactics. It is a glorification of the leaders and elevates them as political martyrs. Its stress is on the leaders surrendering themselves to the police in protest against bad laws, without at the same time calling for mass action in support of the campaign, for in this way the tactic assumes that it can lead to a change of heart on the part of the ruling class.
Passive resistance stems from the religious philosophy that there can be a moral re-awakening of the rulers, and it calls in effect for negotiations and concessions that exclude the broad mass of the people. As such it is a class tool of a particular stratum of the oppressed – and we must clearly designate a class that thinks this way as being the aspiring bourgeoisie.
But not only do we think that the methods of Gandhi and Tolstoy are wrong; it is also doubtful whether the scope of the 1952 campaign itself was well thought out. To set itself the goal of removing seven unjust laws was far beyond the organizational strength of the ANC, and it was bound to fail. Nonetheless, reviewing this campaign today it is obvious that the African masses were ready to struggle against apartheid. Although there were only 8,000 arrests in the entire campaign, Congress won the support of many young people and many of their active members of today entered the political movement during this period.
The government’s answer to this campaign was to introduce the Criminal Laws Amendment Act and the Public Safety Act which made it a crime to propose disobedience of any law. This brought the defiance campaign to an abrupt end, for Congress had no answer to this new legislation with its savage clauses of lashes and five years imprisonment.
The campaign to end the seven unjust laws thus failed in its objective, and for several years there was a depressing quiet on the African political front. It was a time of retreat, while the people sought to regain their confidence and re-establish their organizational strength.
The Freedom Charter
In 1954 there was a call for a people’s convention to draw up a charter of rights. The declared aim was to elect representatives from every district who would come together as a true convention of the people. This was an excellent project, but it never came to fruition. As the day of the meeting drew close, the nature of the project was changed, and on 26 and 27 June several thousand Congress supporters met at Kliptown (Johannesburg). At this rally the Freedom Charter was presented and enthusiastically received.
The Freedom Charter is basically a program of democratic demands. It starts on the key note that ‘the people shall govern’, declares that ‘all national groups shall have equal rights’, that ‘all shall be equal before the law’ ‘ and ‘all shall enjoy equal human rights’, and lists a comprehensive set of civil and legal demands.
In the economic sphere the programme declares that ‘the people shall share in the country’s wealth’ and that ‘the land shall be shared among those who work it’.
This was the most radical program of change yet offered by the National Liberatory Movement in South Africa. Its terms call for a complete redivision of the land and the breaking of the reserve system. It called for the nationalization of the mines, the banks and the large industries. It offered social security to the workers and new hope for every man, woman and child in all the social services, in education and health services.
No wonder that the Freedom Charter was to earn the wrath of the ruling class. No wonder that the Rally was raided by the police on its second day, and that the Charter’s contents were to become the main basis of the charge of treason against 156 men and women in 1957.
But, radical as its contents were, and no matter how revolutionary some of its proposals were, this programme was not socialist, nor was it ever represented as such. Its demands could well fit into the framework of a capitalist democratic state, and this was how the leadership meant it to be interpreted. The program was a mixture of demands taken over from a large number of ideologies. The economic demands were a mixture of ‘welfare state’ concepts and very ordinary capitalist demands such as the ‘right to trade’. The political demands, on the whole, did not exceed those that are common to every western capitalist society.
This program presents the demands of a rising nationalism and its main aim was that of political change – a target common to most national movement throughout Africa. Because the proposals were of a radical nature, they could be readily accepted by socialists as representing the immediate demands that had to be pressed for. They were the short-term demands that could lead the people towards a deeper understanding of the tasks needed to transform the country into a true democracy – that is, an economic as well as a political democracy.
The Charter ends up with the words: ‘These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won the liberty’. Bold words these, but nowhere in the Charter is there any indication of how we are to fight. Nor perhaps is it to be expected that these methods will be given in the Charier itself.
However it was stated subsequently, after the ANC had accepted the Charter as its own program, that this replaced the Programme of Action of 1949. In many ways tactics must be elastic, and must be chosen to suit the needs and conditions of the time. But the Congress movement needs guidance in the methods of struggle. The 1949 program offered civil disobedience, boycotts and general strikes as the method of campaigning. There has been no word since 1952 to suggest that this remains the policy of the movement, and in fact we have indication that passive resistance is to become the main method and that the stay-at-home will be employed as a demonstration of protest.
The Congress movement has never yet analysed the nature of the South African state. It has never examined the force that this state controls, and because of this it has not yet suggested the methods to be employed to achieve this ‘freedom in our lifetime’.
The class composition of the leadership has led it to prefer methods of moderation at every stage of the liberatory struggle, reflecting, the mood of the most conservative elements of the middle class. They have kept away from mass action wherever possible and have preached a strictly pacifist ‘non-violence’ – as if violence has ever been our choice. Thus they proffer the methods of conciliation and negotiation. This was to be seen most clearly in the way the Congress leadership handled the Alexandra bus boycott in 1957.
The bus boycott
Since 1953, when the defiance campaign collapsed, there has been no struggle that captured the popular imagination as much as the bus boycotts.
The first took place in Evaton in 1956. The people of Evaton boycotted the buses for months, but unfortunately never received the support they needed from the rest of the country. That they won their demands is a tribute to their resolution, their courage and their discipline. However, their isolation and the failure of the national Congress movement to come to their aid are contributory factors that led this corner of the Transvaal (Vereeniging–v.d, Bijl Park–Evaton) to turn most readily to the PAC at a later date.
The people were now emerging from the lethargy that followed the previous defeats, and full emergence was to come from some bold campaign. The people of Alexandra were to provide the basis for the resurgence of confidence.
The issue of struggle in Alexandra itself was the attempt at the beginning of 1957 to raise the bus fare from Alexandra to Johannesburg central (a distance of nine miles) from four pence to five pence. A united front committee composed of representatives of every organization in the township called for a boycott of the buses and received a unanimous response. For the next three months the township population walked 18 miles a day to prevent this rise in fares. The issue was the penny fare, and the people stood determinedly together to fight this issue.
To understand this determination we would have to look at the mood in South Africa at this time. Wages had lagged severely behind the rising cost of living, and averaged £10 per month. Whole families depended on this paltry sum for survival. The penny rise was the bitter end for the worker who was unable to provide sufficient food for his family. There was one place where he knew, from his efforts in the earlier boycott, he could fight with some chance of success. Furthermore, there was the example of Evaton to support the worker in his determination. But perhaps more than this there was the obvious turbulence throughout the country that followed the stories of both Suez and Hungary. Also there was the arrest of 156 Congress men on charges of High Treason followed by the mass demonstrations in Johannesburg when the preparatory examination started.
There was a feeling of disturbance in Johannesburg and this mood must have affected the population of 80,000 in Alexandra as well as the rest of the country which came to the assistance of the marchers. Lady Selbourne residents in Pretoria joined the boycott marchers in a similar protest against an increase in their bus fares, and people as far away as Bloemfontein and Port Elisabeth staged sympathy boycotts.
The committee that led the Alexandra boycott was, as we said above, a united front of all political groups in the township. But the ANC had the largest single group of delegates and at first played the dominant role in policy formulation. Due to the treason arrests the ANC leadership was composed of relatively inexperienced men and women. They looked to the national leadership concentrated in Johannesburg at the trial, for guidance.
The national leadership showed itself to be out of contact with the new mood in Johannesburg. They failed to give any real guidance, and at a very early stage pressed for negotiations and an early end to the boycott. So eager were they to compromise that they supported the bus company’s phoney solution of paying the full fare and later refunding the extra penny.
This was indignantly rejected by a mass meeting in the township, and the leadership passed to a small group of militants who came from small political groupings inside the township.
The ANC leadership did not seem to grasp the significance of this development. They were unable to respond to the new militancy, to the new determination that defied the government (who had threatened to smash the boycott with all their power) and the police (who used every tactic of provocation).
In the end the people of Alexandra won their demand, but instead of concluding on the triumphant note of victory, there were overtones of defeat. Lady Selbourne residents were left out of the unilateral settlement, and to this day the people of Pretoria feel that they were deserted. The buses were boarded in Alexandra itself in a state of confusion instead of in a spirit of victory.
Nonetheless, here was a victory, and throughout the country the people were heartened. The mood in Johannesburg itself was high and when a stay-at-home was called for 26 June, as a day of freedom, there was an 80 percent response. The people were celebrating the opening of a new era. They were testing their new-found confidence. This was the beginning of a new rallying to struggle, and the people were using the only strength they knew – the township organization for the mass withdrawal of labour.
Over-enthusiastic leaders inside congress misinterpreted the signs however. They believed that the people were only too ready to stay at home, whenever they were called upon to do so, They failed to see that what could happen after a victory such as Alexandra could not be repeated at the whim of a call from Congress. This lesson was to be learnt only too soon, when the following year Congress men thought that a call for a stay-at-home to mark the general election would get a spontaneous response. To examine this we must look at the £1 a day campaign that was about to begin.
The £1 a day campaign
Despite the success of 26 June 1957, Congress as a whole made little organizational headway, and there was a complete lack in initiative in providing a lead to the discontent that was evident everywhere.
The Transvaal ANC was split internally, and the ANC Conference in the Transvaal ended in confusion with rival groups hurling abuse at each other. Strife had emerged internally for a number of reasons. On the one hand there was genuine resentment at the bureaucratic mismanagement (if the movement. On the other hand Africanism was emerging again to demand an African ANC free of all interracial co-operation. In the Western Cape the Africanist grouping was even able to take over the machinery of the Congress for a short time.
The Africanists had no clear program at the time, and their demands were largely negative, viz. an attack on the Freedom Charter and the leadership of Congress. Despite denials by some individuals. they were avowedly racialist. and only later were they to open their ranks to Coloureds and some Indians. They claimed to be the one link with the pan-Africanist movement that emerged from the Accra conference. They rejected any concept of class struggle and based their call on the unity of interest of the African people as a whole. They were out to reconquer Africa on the slogan ‘Africa for the Africans’.
The struggle between rival factions brought all Congress work to a standstill and the national leadership was unable to offer a solution and direction out of this factional bickering.
Yet the militancy in the country was high. and the people were in every respect way ahead of their leaders. This was borne out by the one Congress campaign of the time. The attempt of the government to force the women to take the pass was opposed vigorously by the militant women’s organization. In the course of a determined struggle 20,000 women converged on Pretoria in convoy to voice their protest.
And yet here too, when the women showed the greatest militancy and organized demonstrations in Johannesburg the campaign was suddenly called off by the national leadership. There is no document explaining this miserable ending to the heroic women’s struggle, and so we can only assume on the basis of the talk of the time that Congress was not prepared to embark on a militant struggle over this issue.
All this time the South African Congress of Trade Unions was organizing the workers, and definite progress was being recorded. At the end of 1959 SACTU launched a new organizing campaign under the slogan of £1 a day. This wage demand was modest enough and yet it was not even realisable at the time on a large scale. To achieve this wage would have meant a 50 percent or greater increase for many workers, but the growing militancy of the workers called for a bold imaginative slogan and ‘£1 a day’ caught on as an immediate demand.
SACTU was enthusiastic and at the December 1957 conference there was talk of strike action to achieve this demand. A mass national conference of workers was called for in Johannesburg in March 1958 to start a general campaign for this minimum wage demand.
However, what started out as a Trade Union matter was soon extended to become a united Congress campaign. And with this also came new slogans. At first £1 a day headed the demands, and to it were added demands against Group Areas. and the slogan ‘The Nats must go’. By April 1958, however ‘The Nats must go’ had become the major slogan and ‘£1 a day’ took second place.
The leadership of Congress had transformed an essentially working class campaign into a broad political front and placed at the fore a false slogan which related to the coming general election. And yet the ANC itself refused to put its name to the call for a stay-at-home. Confusion reigned throughout the preparation for 15 April. In Natal the Congress movement was completely divided over the decision and there was no united preparation for the campaign. Yet the national leadership did not intervene. In other provinces organization was half-hearted and, except for isolated areas, no directives were even given.
15 April was a complete fiasco. Except for Sophiatown and a few other areas the response was poor. Leading Congress officials in many Rand towns openly broke the call, and the workers were left in confusion. At the end of that day, however, an ANC top official called off the whole campaign which was scheduled for 3 days, thus raising the question -was it, or was it not a Congress campaign.
Why did this campaign fail after the obvious enthusiasm of the workers’ conference? The Congress never offered an analysis of those days, and the workers were to pay for this failure to learn the lesson just two years later.
We cannot say definitely that the campaign would have succeeded – that must remain unanswered because that would take us into the realm of speculation. But there could have been a greater response if the slogan had been confined to ‘£1 a day’ – a slogan which had the support of the entire urban working class. It could have been more successful if the trade union movement had been the centre of the campaign and if the appeal had been directed mainly to the industrial worker.
Whereas an economic struggle can get a response when the demand has the support of the workers, a political strike, directed at affecting an all-white election cannot get the response that was needed to keep the workers at home, And the workers said quite openly that they failed to see how a strike called for one day, or even three days, could win them their wage demands.
We cannot overlook the intense intimidation by the police and army during the week that preceded 15 April. This large-scale show of armed force by the state certainly played a part in influencing the people. But we cannot accept the Congress statements that ascribed most of the failure to this police action. However, as we will show below, this force is a factor we will have to come to grips with, and we dare not overlook the power of the state in preparing our fight.
The result of this defeat was to act as a check in the growth of the liberation movement, and SACTU suffered as well. This body made little effort to explain the reasons for failure to their workers, and the working class never learned the reasons.
We cannot leave this episode without placing a share of the blame for the confusion of these events on a group inside Congress who professed to be Marxists. They kept discreetly silent, stifled open criticism, and never explained the importance of independent working class action.
This group of people have concealed all their ideas behind the front of democratic demands. They have never played an independent role, and have opportunistically shielded their ideas behind talk of national unity, of broad democratic struggles etc. They have surrendered the working class to the mercy of a middle class leadership and abdicated the right of the worker to his own independent organization. The worker will still pay clearly for this class negation in the interests of a clique of careerists, who sully the name of Communism, unless a clear working class party comes forward and gives a lead for independent class action.
The rural struggle
Throughout the long history in South Africa, there have been two parallel sets of activity – in the rural areas and in the towns. To date they have remained largely separate. The fight has flared tip in the reserves over the rehabilitation scheme, the culling of cattle, the dipping tanks, and, more recently, over the Bantu Authorities and the issue of passes to women. It is not our purpose to investigate the specific campaigns here. The more recent, in Zeerust and Sekhukhuneland have been discussed fully in Fighting Talk, Africa South, and elsewhere.
We mention them here because the struggles of Zeerust and Sekhukhuneland took place while the urban areas were quiet, and helped restore confidence to the working class. But we must state explicitly that they have never been organized by Congress (or any other political group), and these events took the ANC by surprise. It will be essential, if our struggle is to succeed, to draw closer to the reserves, to organize these areas, to plan joint campaigns of town and country, and to direct the militancy of the reserve areas so that the struggle advances more uniformly in the future.
In many ways, the reserves offer us a base for activity that might become impossible in the towns. The solidarity of the people, their desire for fight, their obvious capacity for resourcefulness, together with their desperate need to break clown the reserve system and the restrictions on movement will make this section of the population fighters of the utmost importance.
It was not accidental that the fight in Harding (Natal) against the dipping tank tired the whole Congress movement in that province, and that the result of the militant women’s campaign led to a 16-fold increase of the ANC membership in the course of a few months. Unless we call get to this vast section of the population there will be no chance of our ultimate success in South Africa.
The ANC declared 1959 an anti-pass year. From the beginning this campaign can only be called phoney because there was no campaign. At first a scheme was produced that called for the boycott of beer-halls, the holding of several mass-meetings, the summoning of regional and national conferences etc. Either they were irrelevant or, as in the case of the national conference, they produced nothing. The only positive step – the calling of the potato boycott – emerged from a set of legal cases against enforced farm labour for pass offences. The credit for this was undoubtedly due to the zeal of a Johannesburg attorney not connected with Congress. The revelations which aroused such widespread publicity rallied the man-in-the-street as never before against this convict labour. Congress, sensing this, was able to offer the one and only positive lead in the whole year of so-called anti-pass campaigning.
When pressed, the ANC leadership said that this was a year of propaganda arid education. We must say with all honesty that there was little evidence of education, but propaganda did lead to a positive response. The people at all conferences grew impatient and demanded a lead. By December there were again calls from the rank and file for a general strike against the passes. This demand became pressing and at a workers’ conference early in 1960 there was again talk from the delegates of a national stay-at-home.
The Africanists – organised as the Pan-African Congress had till now concentrated on a campaign known as the ‘status campaign’, and had announced its intention of organizing economic boycotts against firms that discriminated against Africans. This was their answer to the ANC boycott of Nationalist products.
However, the status campaign never eventuated, arid early in 1960 they suddenly announced their own anti-pass campaign. The offered a strictly Gandhist campaign of voluntary invitation to arrest for non-possession of passes, and declared 21 March 1960 as the opening date.
By this new move the PAC scored a notable victory psychologically. As a movement they were unprepared for a national campaign of such magnitude, and in fact on a national scale they failed miserably. In Johannesburg a small handful of PAC members responded. Only in the Vereeniging complex did they get a response in the Transvaal. In Natal just less than 150 responded. But in Cape Town the two major African townships did rally to PAC organization arid these areas were to become for the corning weeks the centre of the new struggle.
Even then it was police provocation that produced the events which followed 21 March. At Sharpeville a trigger-happy police force, backed by Saracen armoured cars, shot down hundreds of peacefully demonstrating Africans. 87 were killed. In Langa (Cape Town) further shooting accounted for some 17 dead. The revulsion, both in South Africa and externally, is too well known to be discussed here. The ANC which had stood aside before 21 March, now called for a national day of mourning on the following Monday 28 March and the national stay at-home followed. In most large industrial areas the workers stayed at home and in most areas where this occurred there was a 90 percent response. In Sharpeville and Langa themselves the stay-at-home was not for a day, but over an extended period, and lasted for more than a week.
At first the government seemed to waver – the pass laws were even suspended – and ANC president Luthuli called for the burning of all passes.
On 30 March the police swooped arid detained hundreds of men and women. Events followed rapidly. A young PAC organizer in Cape Town led 30,000 men and women in a march into the centre of Cape Town. Durban followed and there were soon 1,700 detainees in jail and a total of 18,000 arrested in the countryside. At the same time the PAC and ANC were outlawed.
The army was mobilized; the active citizen force kept at the alert, all police leave was cancelled. The authorities moved to break the strike and were soon able to do so. They regained their old arrogant confidence and the struggle gradually died down. Once again the authorities had shown their obvious superiority – but not before admitting to indecision and a marked nervousness.
However, the overall result of this campaign was a failure despite the great lifting of morale in the earlier stages. It is to this failure that we must direct our attention.
Why did we fail?
There must be no illusion about the outcome of the March and April days. We must admit failure or we will deceive ourselves grievously. We must also say that we could not have hoped to succeed in a campaign to remove the passes at this stage. Let us look at some of the main causes.
Firstly, no organization was prepared for a full-scale attack on the government – not on the pass issue or any other of the apartheid laws. The way in which the organizations collapsed when the government swooped is an indication of the lack of preparation. Only in Cape Town did the townships stand firm and then only for a short time, and without the necessary support from the surrounding districts. When an important bastion of the colour bar like the passes is at stake, the government will always bring out its entire forces – and, unless we can meet their attack we cannot expect success. The fight against the pass laws is something which must continue; we must never stop until they are gone, but we must choose, our timing and methods more carefully in the future.
Secondly we face a strong, arrogant and confident ruling class. It is fortified by a state machine on which it can rely. Above all else it has an army, a police force and auxiliaries like the skiet kommandos upon which it can rely at all times. The present government and its supporters are also not immediately hit by the withdrawal of labour, because they are not the direct owners of the mines, or the factories, or the large commercial houses. As the Nationalist party’s financial bases are the farms and the finance houses, they do not look upon the labour force in the same way as the Chamber Mines, Commerce and Industries. They are intent on controlling the labour force, but the effects of strike action act as a secondary factor in their own profit structure. This is another reason for urging that farm labour be organized so that the Nationalists feel more directly any action of ours in the future.
Both ANC and PAC call for methods of non-violence and passive resistance. But the way they make this claim can only lead to confusion. The people as a whole never urge violence. For the most part they are peaceful. They are aware of the dangers of violence and do not wish to initiate it. They do not have arms, and do not think in these terms. However the police and the army are ever ready to use violence in order to protect the government. Once violence is introduced by the authorities – and it invariably is – the workers can not sit by passively. They have to move in some way to protect themselves. And when they do so non-violence ceases to have meaning.
Nor can there be passive resistance in the Gandhi-ist form. When the people of Sharpeville offered themselves up for arrest the answer was spelt out in bullets. But even if this could be avoided we have no confidence in this limited kind of action. Sooner or later the masses must be called on to demonstrate their demands, and this means that they must come into action. This is alien to Gandhi’s methods.
The national movement thought it had the reply to the problem by calling on the people to stay peacefully at home. But this cannot work and the events of April amply demonstrate this. Firstly, the people of the townships cannot stay home indefinitely. To do so is to starve. Even if food is stored in advance the families cannot hold out for long because of the presence of the children, the sick and the aged. The townships can be scaled off and starved out only too effectively by small detachments of the army and the police. But, far worse, the army and police showed in Langa and Nyanga that they could go from house to house, drag the inhabitants out, beat them up and force them to work. Our basic weaknesses, which have led to our present tactics, cannot be turned into strength merely by a movement claiming that it is strong.
Secondly, by staying in the townships, the worker surrenders all initiative. He cuts himself off from his fellow-workers in other townships. He divides himself from his allies in the rural areas, and lie surrenders the entire economic centre to his enemies. It was this realisation, whether consciously stated or not, that led to the mass protest marches in Cape Town and Durban. Once we leave the townships, then there must be clearly stated objectives, or else the demonstrations are empty of meaning, and once we march out of the townships, talk of peacefully remaining at home ceases to have meaning!
By using the stay-at-home and by claiming as they do that we can bring the country to a halt by withdrawing our labour both the ANC and the PAC have called for the use of the traditional workers’ weapon. This follows from the general recognition that the largest and most capable force ready for struggle in the country is the working class.
But there is no analysis of the consequences of this recognition. It is vital that we accept once and for all the fact that future of the struggle rests on the organization of the worker as a class; that it will be this body of men and women in alliance with the rural worker that will lead to eventual victory.
In that case it is urgent that the workers be organized into their own party, with their own aims, and with their own methods of struggle. The Trade Unions must organize the industrial worker, and the strike weapon must be used to secure higher wages and better living conditions. Industrial action must be centred on the factories rather than on the townships – as distinct from the National Liberatory movement itself which has its base in the townships.
A close co-ordination of the two movements can lead the township organization into support of any future industrial action either by picketing or by introducing subsidiary campaigns, such as boycott action against factory produce etc.
The strike is one of our most powerful weapons. Its first use is in the field of economic struggle. Its use as a political weapon is very much more difficult and must be reserved for special periods. We must stop believing that the workers can he called out for each and every political occasion. And when we do in the future wish to employ the general strike, it must be supplemented by other methods of struggle or else we will find that a trigger-happy police force will be able to break it up far too easily. We are at a stage in our struggle where we have to face a ruthless ruling class. We cannot possibly win over to our side the police or the army – in fact we cannot even neutralize them. No matter how peaceful we may be they are ready to shoot. We repeat – no matter how peaceful Sophiatown was on 1 May 1950 the police shot. No matter how well the people of Langa stayed indoors in 1960 they were brutally beaten up. In fact the police walked through the streets of Cape Town beating up any man with a dark skin irrespective of what he was doing!
Once the worker is organized as an independent force, he will be in the forefront of the struggle for freedom, and there will be no clash of interests between his first loyalty to the socialist movement and his work inside the national movement. By knowing his own strength, he will be able to lead the whole population through to democracy and be able to show that socialization of the means of production provides the answer to a new economic order.
But in order to reach this organizational stage the worker must clearly understand both the strength and the limitations of the general strike. He must know that this is a constant testing ground – against the employers first and at a later stage against the entire state machinery.
If the worker is prepared for this struggle and if there is a of clear understanding of the nature of the weapons open to us, we shall truly achieve freedom in our lifetime!
Memorandum of ANC Congress, December 1949.
Nationalists, the Afrikaner-based governing party.
The above document was issued as a discussion article in order to record the history of the past ten years-and in order to discuss the tactics of the Stay-at-home. It is as far as we know the only such record and original documents are not available. This is due to the destruction or concealment of all papers and files as a protection against police raids. Because of this there are some errors in our account. It is only by recording the history now that these errors will be corrected, and it is the duty of every participant to get the record straight.
Soon after the document appeared the newly announced South African Communist Party (SACP) produced a pamphlet attacking our document. The SACP came to the defence of the ANC leadership and claimed that we were intent on destructive criticism. While they admitted that some criticisms of past events would be justified (though they have not mentioned what these might be) we were condemned for inaccuracy, falsity and confusion. We were linked with all the opposition groups that ever emerged in the USSR, and a host of other apparent dissidents in Europe and South Africa.
The authors of this attack seem to believe that all political arguments are won by those who can conjure up the greatest store of political slander, character assassinations and vituperations. Let us get the record straight. We have appeared as defenders of the ANC against the government. We are nearly all inside the Congress Alliance. We produced the only pro-ANC paper during the entire emergency. But that does not mean that we will stay silent when we believe that Congress has made a mistake. As socialists we reserve the right to independent activity if we see fit, and we will certainly criticise anybody if and when we deem it necessary. This does not make us less loyal members than those who might see mistakes but deliberately keep silent.
We offer no excuse for some of the inaccuracies. We regret that many documents that are ten or so years old are not available. Because of this we readily admit that it was a combined executive meeting of ANC, of the SA Indian Congress, of the African Peoples Organisation and the CP that jointly called the protest in June 1950, and that the protest was called in conjunction with the campaign against the Anti-Red Bill. There are other cases where we erred in detail.. but we have left our original text in this reprint in order that the reader can decide whether our ‘errors’ are of such a nature as to invalidate our general theme. Other corrections are of a lesser calibre.
But nowhere in the sustained attack on our article have we found any serious discussion on our analysis of the stay-at-home. We would have welcomed this as we believe it to be urgent that we examine our overall strategy in this country. We must re-assert that we believe the stay-at-home to be a powerful weapon. It can and will be used to test the response of the people to calls from the liberation movement. It will continue to be a very sensitive thermometer of the political temperature of the people’s struggle. We also believe that when such calls are answered the government can be shaken, and important concessions can be won. But by itself a general strike can not bring freedom. It is even doubtful whether it can break down any major bit of apartheid legislation. Only when it is possible to make a call for a general withdrawal of labour, coupled with an intent to further action can this method of struggle topple white supremacy.
It was in this sense that we claim above that past campaigns have failed in their ostensible objectives-namely the removal of some unjust laws, or the ending of the pass laws. We never said (as implied by the SACP) that the campaigns had no effect, nor have we said that no such campaign should take place. The SACP has not helped us in trying to clarify our ideas. And so it will be left to future events to test out our ideas. If we are proved wrong, and if there are easy ways to the freedom we all want, we will be the first to recognise our mistakes. But if our analysis is correct, and if we have to find new ways to bring down this iniquitous system, then at least let us learn from historical events. Without renouncing the general strike – on the contrary – we will learn to supplement it. and if necessary to replace it with superior methods. To quote from other sources: History alone will absolve us.
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