Invisible Resurrection: The Recreation of a Communist Party in South Africa in the 1950's

By Johns, Sheridan | African Studies Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Invisible Resurrection: The Recreation of a Communist Party in South Africa in the 1950's


Johns, Sheridan, African Studies Quarterly


Abstract: Gwendolen Carter frequently mentioned communism in her seminal 1958 book, The Politics of Inequality: South Africa Since 1948. This paper will analyze South African communism in the opening decade and a half of apartheid. It will consider the characterization of communism in opposition as presented in Carter's book, in light of recently published autobiographies and biographies of communists and African nationalists who were active in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act forced the formerly legal Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) to transform itself into the underground South African Communist Party (SACP). The paper delineates the important features of organized communism underground up to its near collapse as a result of the arrests at its Rivonia headquarters in 1963. It then briefly examines its deepening collaboration with the African National Congress over the next 30 years and concludes with observations on the significance of this early apartheid era history for the SACP's position in post-apartheid South Africa.

"The Government thus made it impossible for a Communist to be chosen a Native representative by the Cape Africans. It is less sure that its victory was more than a surface one."[1]

"Detention without trial, isolation in police cells, physical and psychological torture--[were] practices which in my experience in the 50's and 40's were never engaged in by the security services."[2]

INTRODUCTION

In her 1957 assessment of efforts by the National Party government to block white communists elected to represent Africans in the lower house of South Africa's parliament, Gwendolen Carter suggested that the government's 'success' was limited. Neither she, nor apparently anyone outside communist ranks, were then aware that South African communists in 1953 had founded the South African Communist Party (SACP), a successor to the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) that had been dissolved by its central committee in June, 1950.

Only recently, following the publication of autobiographies and memoirs of longtime communists, in tandem with biographies of deceased communist leaders, has sufficient new information come to light that permits a more detailed examination of the fashion in which the SACP came into existence and the dynamics of its clandestine activities in the 1950s. Drawing from these sources, the analysis that follows delineates the important features of organized communism in South Africa during the first years of its underground existence. [3] In a brief conclusion, observations are offered on the significance of this period for the SACP in the post-apartheid years since 1994.

In the decade that followed the dissolution of the CPSA, communists and other radical opponents of apartheid, most notably the African National Congress (ANC), were actively engaged in organizing challenges to the National Party government. They operated in a political environment in which the government both repressed and tolerated its radical opponents. Repression was intensified through the passage of new legislation and the utilization of existing police power and practices to control and harass its opponents. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 symbolized the primacy that the government gave to expanding its arsenal to counter the 'threat' of communism. The broad powers of this legislation empowered the government to prosecute and ban organizations and individuals deemed 'communist' under a loose and encompassing definition. These powers, combined with those already in the hands of the government under the Riotous Assemblies Act, and augmented by those of the Public Safety Act of 1953 and the Criminal Laws Amendment Act of 1953, allowed the government to regulate and ban organizations and individuals that acted to protest the deepening of segregation and discrimination that was apartheid. Toleration of anti-apartheid opposition by the government was unwilling and grudging, particularly as ANC-led opposition grew through the 1950's, but legal rights were generally respected and police practices continued largely as they had been in the pre-1948 period.

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