Celebrating ‘The African Communist' (AC): 50 years of mobilisation, communist analysis and propaganda
A browse through the very first edition of the African Communist not only gives an insight into the time and context during which it was launched but also the courageous and defiant character of those who breathed life into our historic journal.
"This magazine, the African Communist, has been started by a group of Marxist-Leninists in Africa, to defend and spread the inspiring and liberating ideas of Communism in our great Continent, and to apply the brilliant scientific method of Marxism to the solution of its problems.
It is being produced in conditions of great difficulty and danger. Nevertheless we mean to go on publishing it, because we know that Africa needs Communist thought, as dry and thirsty soil needs rain."
These conditions of "great difficulty and danger" developed as a result of the banning of the Communist Party of South Africa in 1950 and its underground reconstitution as the South African Communist Party in 1953.
Born of struggle: The political origins of ‘The African Communist' (AC)
Veteran comrades tell of the fierce behind the scenes debate at the time about whether the reconstitution of the Party should have been publicly announced. Those who argued against the public declaration worried that it would jeopardise and raise suspicions about the motives of known communists in the trade union movement, in the ANC and the congress alliance. It is ironic that even now, fifty years later, the tendency to ring alarm bells about the motives of communists has not dissipated; albeit now this view reinforced by a creeping and dangerous intersection between holding of public office and business interests. All this proves is that our Alliance has stood the test of time.
Those who wanted the reconstituted Party to be publicly announced, argued that this would be a necessary act of defiance and would give confidence to existing communists that they still had a political home. It would also allow for ease in the recruitment of new members into the underground.
True to the robust character of the Party, the debate raged for many years until in 1959 the publication of the African Communist symbolised a compromise. It was decided that a journal would be published as a forum for Marxist-Leninist thought in Africa, but not as an official publication of the now reconstituted SACP, as it indeed was.
Although it was launched in trying conditions and faced severe restrictions, the AC, which was produced in London, was from the outset bold and forthright. Under the heading "Why they hate communism", an editorial in that historic first issue in part read as follows:
"It is no accident that the first thing the Nationalist Government did, when it took power in 1948, was to outlaw Communism. They banned the Communist Party, which for thirty years had led the people in struggles for freedom and equality. Hundreds of Communists have been banned and banished, driven out of their jobs, forbidden on pain of jail to go to meetings or take any part in political and trade union movements.
Yet, belief in Communism lives on in South Africa. It is spreading throughout the Continent, although every day it is denounced and attacked by agents of United States, British, French, Portuguese, and Belgian imperialism.
They hate Communism because they know that the Communists are the bravest, most clear-headed and incorruptible leaders in the people's struggle against imperialism, for freedom and equality. They know that once the African workers and peasants have mastered the great ideas of Communism, nothing will stop them in their onward march to freedom, independence and socialism."
The African Revolution and not ‘Renaissance'
That first edition of the AC pioneered the idea of an African revolution saying the peoples of the continent needed the "liberating spirit of Communism" in order to be free of the forces of imperialism. It is a point worth noting that the founders spoke of an African "revolution" not an African "Renaissance". They wanted an uprising which was rooted in African realities not a conversion which copied the European Renaissance.
The heroic contribution of SACP freedom fighters to the liberation struggle will perhaps never be completely documented and understood, particularly by future generations. One of their greatest achievements was to enrich political discourse through published material and to lead and develop public debate in the movement. While the struggle against racial discrimination defined the liberation struggle, a succession of SACP leaders promoted an understanding of the class struggle, and the intersection between racial and class divides and struggles in South African society. The AC was one of the mediums which reflected and supported years of fearless political activism and thinking through examining topical issues of the time from a communist perspective.
The pioneering role of communists on progressive media in South Africa
The SACP is proud of its role promoting and cultivating progressive media in South Africa. Umsebenzi (The Worker) played a pioneering role in the late 20's and early 30's as a platform for internal and external communication for the working class.
The apartheid machinery did its damnest to restrict, ban or close publications, and in so doing constrain the flow of information and political knowledge in South Africa. Lobbies for censorship can be traced back to at least 1898 in the Cape but the rise to power of the Nationalist Party government in 1948 ushered in unprecedented degrees of censorship. Over the next 37 years, over one hundred laws restricting the flow of information wiped away all semblance of press freedom.
But an array of brave and heroic journalists kept the spirit alive through publications such as New Nation, Weekly Mail, Vrye Weekblad, South, New African, Injula and Speak. Despite having limited resources and in the face of constant harassment by the apartheid regime, they displayed tenacity, courage and resourcefulness. These publications played an invaluable role in exposing the horrors of the regime and telling "the other side of the story". It is one of the tragedies of our past that not one of these publications still exists to tell the story of this phase of our history. In their place are, at best, poor cousins of those valiant publications, pandering to special, narrow and commercial interests.
During the liberation struggle, there was recognition within the movement that an integral part of defiance and mobilisation against apartheid was through the promotion and sustenance of media publications. Work in Progress, for instance, was a progressive publication, produced from 1977 to 1994 and founded by University of Witwatersrand postgraduate students. Under trying conditions, the AC was also kept alive as an internal theoretical journal of the SACP and in 1990, moved to South Africa where it took on a new role during the transition phase and democratic era.
It is also important that at this stage that we must note the fact that for the entire existence of both the ANC and the SACP, (white owned) colonial and bourgeois media, which has been the mainstream media for over a century, has always been against the national liberation movement. Prior to 1994 it acted as the mouthpiece of the white bourgeoisie and the apartheid state, and since 1994 has generally acted as part of the array of forces in opposition to the national liberation movement.
In the course of its vehement opposition to the national liberation movement, the colonial and bourgeois mainstream media has consistently supported and praised all the factions that have sought to undermine the national liberation movement and its alliance components and formations. For example, when the PAC broke away from the ANC in 1958, it was praised by the media as the more genuine representative of the oppressed majority, in the same way as the Group of 8, the UDM and now Cope have been championed as better organizations than the ANC and the Alliance. Similarly, the enthusiastic manner in which a publication like the Mail and Guardian has prominently published sinister and opportunistic attacks on the SACP and COSATU by essentially what are elements of the emerging black sections of the bourgeoisie and other compradorial elements on the 9 October 2009, are nothing but a reflection of this continuous attacks of bourgeois media on progressive policies of our movement.
As has always been the case, colonial and bourgeois media have always found useful idiots to advance their agenda, even within the ranks of our own movement. It was also these tendencies that the very first edition of the AC referred to; highlighting the fact that imperialism often succeeds under conditions where it also fosters its own local compradorial elites, by also projecting them favourably in their own media. It is precisely for these reasons that publications like the AC are important in exposing this agenda whilst simultaneously being a platform for deepening a working class led national democratic revolution.
The AC as a platform for debates on the national democratic revolution and the struggle for socialism
Since its launch, the AC became a leading platform for debate on current and controversial issues. The July/August edition of 1962 talks of its reception around the world and how the first special edition in French made a favourable impression in French-speaking parts of Africa. An editorial on the success of the AC read as follows:
Since its first publication, at the end of 1959, The African Communist has met with, and continues to find, a warm, indeed a glowing reception, not only in all parts of Africa, but in many other parts of the world. Articles from our magazine have been reprinted in British, Canadian and United States publications; they have been translated and published in Arabic, Russian, Chinese and other languages. The British monthly, Marxism Today, in its issue of April, 1962, says, "We would like warmly to greet and pay tribute to our colleague The African Communist," and proceeds to give its readers a detailed survey of the contents of our issue No. 8. In the same month, the French journal De'mocratie Nouvelle, reprinting the article on South African racialism by Toussaint from our French language special edition, lists the contents of this edition and offers to make copies available to its readers on request.
For this continuing success we who, under severe difficulties, produce this journal owe most of all to you, our readers, who continue to write in from every part of Africa and many other parts of the world, encouraging and inspiring us in our work.
The recognition of our journal in the communist world as a formidable medium for Marxist/Leninist thought and debate was also illustrated through the extension of an invitation by the editor of the distinguished Soviet publication Pravda, for a representative of the AC to attend its 50th anniversary celebrations.
All this coincided with the programme of the SACP in 1962 "The Road to South African Freedom" which first introduced the concept of "colonialism of a special type" as the most appropriate characterisation of South Africa, a colony where both the coloniser and colonised shared the same territory.
The 1962 programme will perhaps go down in history as one of the SACP's most significant programmes in shaping and defining both the character and tasks of the South African revolution. This programme firmly emphasised the need to unite all the oppressed whilst simultaneously defining the leading role of the working class in the national liberation struggle.
The imprisonment of many of our freedom fighters in the 60's including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Bram Fischer, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi and many others, and the harassment of those who operated in the underground, led to a challenging and dark period in the struggle for liberation with a visible stagnation in the revolution. In 1970, an Augmented CC of the SACP issued a call to the South African People that reignited the spirit of defiance and mass struggle. "Freedom Can Be Won" was circulated illegally inside the country and reproduced in the AC. The call to action then included the following:
"Today at this critical time, the Communist Party calls on you. It calls on all South Africans who love their country and who love freedom. We call upon the workers and the people in the countryside. We call upon the African people, the Coloured people, the Indians and the democratic elements among the whites.
Let us build up our people's organisations, in town and country, in factories, mines and villages.
Let us unite for the fight to end the shame and suffering of white minority rule: headed by the Nazi Nationalist Party.
Let us resolve that the beginning of the seventies will put an end to white South Africa and mark the beginning of People's South Africa advancing towards socialism.
The armed groups of Umkhonto we Sizwe are ready to enter the fight. But they cannot fight alone.
The people must act!
They must build and support their illegal organisations. The ANC: the trade unions and the Communist Party.
They must act militantly for higher wages, land and freedom.
They must arouse the spirit of resistance and defiance.
They must arm themselves.
The war of national liberation is on and we must fight it to the finish.
Victory or death!"
The people of South Africa responded and with the working class in the lead, three years later South Africa was rocked by the 1973 Durban strikes that laid the foundation for the internal rebuilding of a progressive trade union movement. Six years later, the Soweto students' uprisings, spreading into many parts of our country, indeed changed the course of history. The AC was able to analyse the uprising and provide an understanding of the mood and circumstances of the time.
The AC was also central in debates around the formation of COSATU, particularly the two strands of thinking at the time about its nature and character. It was able to examine the thinking within FOSATU which was at its formation dominated by a workerist tendency, as well as the push for a revolutionary trade union movement aligned to the Congress movement. In this way, the AC guided debates and analysis as COSATU took shape and deepened working class struggles in the workplace.
Over the years, the AC became the only published platform of major Alliance discussions, among the most notable was the debate on the "sunset clauses" during the transition period in the early 1990s.
Post 1994, it remained a major carrier of Central Committee discussion documents and political reports of the SACP. It led the debates and analyses on amongst other things, the dangers associated with access to state power without a mobilised working class, undertook the most thorough critiques of the ill-advised GEAR policy and attempts on wholesale privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and properly grasped the weakness and what is to be done on what we now refer to as the 1996 class project.
The following ten years after the adoption of GEAR our Alliance relations turned for the worst perhaps in its entire existence. But what our detractors, both inside and outside our movement, do not fully appreciate has been the role of our publications, especially Umsebenzi and the AC in keeping us focused, deepened the SACP's and broader working class ideological coherence, and clearly defined the revolutionary line of march for our country. Due to resource and other constraints, we did not publish all editions in each year as planned, but the AC continues to be an important weapon in the struggle to deepen, advance and consolidate the national democratic revolution.
Then, in November 2007, the African Communist published an open letter from the SACP to the ANC membership titled: "We can't go on like this...together, let's make sure things change".
The concluding paragraph read: "The SACP calls on fellow ANC members - together, let us rise to the challenge of the ANC 52nd National Conference. Together, let us re-build an ANC and an alliance of which cdes Albert Luthuli, Moses Kotane, OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani could be truly proud. That historic responsibility is now in our collective hands."
As with the call to action in 1970, the spirit of this letter resonated and indeed we are pleased that the ANC delegates to the Polokwane conference grasped the moment and reclaimed the ANC, and indeed our alliance, back to the control of their organisation from the clutches of the 1996 Class Project. We will forever be proud of the contribution of the SACP, together with others, in effecting this turnaround. True to our historic role, we will continue to stand as the vanguard of the working class and not be cowed by attacks by those who seek to reinvent the Class Project in our ranks, mainly guided by narrow class interests. The AC will continue to re-affirm the truism that there is no contradiction between the multi-class character of our movement and the working class bias of the ANC.
One of the greatest achievements of our 50-year-old journal, the African Communist was that it developed and encouraged writing and analytical talent over the decades of its existence. In so doing, it has become a major resource for analysis of the challenges we have overcome and continue to face. In keeping the AC alive, we need to promote writing particularly among young communist cadres and provide a platform for new ideas and debates.
As we celebrate the remarkable milestone of our journal, we need to ensure the sustenance and development of publications which counter the proliferation and influence of bourgeois media. South Africa has been ideologically suffocated by a mainstream media which remains out of touch with the masses of our people.
Therefore publications such as the AC, Umsebenzi, Umrabulo, the Shopsteward and others remain important platforms to provide information, knowledge and timely analysis of political developments and working class struggles in our country and in the world.
In advancing some of our recent perspectives and analyses, and enriching Marxism-Leninism in Africa, especially when we talk about the ‘1996 class project', a ‘compradorial BEE', etc, some of our detractors claim that the AC, if not the SACP, has substituted labels for analysis. Nothing can be further from the truth, as such concepts are not labels but actually capture the evolving class struggles and tendencies in South African society.
We owe to generations of communists, and indeed revolutionaries and combatants in our broader liberation movement, to continue to publish the AC and other progressive journals.
We also need to take this opportunity to salute the founders of the AC, and the thousands of leaders and cadres who participated in its production and debates over the last fifty years.
Issue by the SACP, October 26 2009
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