The problem of Communism in southern Africa

Bram Fischer and Geoffrey Cox’s journey into the Soviet heart of darkness.

On 2nd April this year one of the greatest British journalists of the last century died in England, aged nearly 98: a man whose life throws the light of truth on a central problem of the political culture of southern Africa, the problem of Communism. This problem of Communism is in turn central to the dictatorship in Zimbabwe, the sordid farce of its electoral system, collusion with this dictatorship by the government of South Africa under President Thabo Mbeki and the humiliating spectacle of the leaders of the Southern African Development Community in a phalanx of agreement with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe: their old and young grey heads as fixed and corpse-like as the Politburo of Soviet Communist Party lined up on Lenin's tomb in Moscow in the days of yore.

This political culture was set in place in southern Africa primarily by white people, not by black people. It is one of the shining virtues of the life of Sir Geoffrey Cox that he provided clear and truthful witness to the Big Lie on which this culture was founded, tangled up as it is in a brave, heroic contribution to the ending of apartheid. Two lives are joined here, as if fused at the hip: Sir Geoffrey Cox (1910-2008), the founder of modern television news journalism in Britain (a beacon of integrity, by contrast with the permanently shameful role of the South African Broadcasting Corporation), and Bram Fischer QC (1908-1975), chairman of the illegal South African Communist Party and principal defence counsel in the Rivonia Trial in which Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, who died as a political prisoner nine years into a life sentence in South Africa, more than thirty years before Cox..

Fischer's courage is rightly celebrated in South Africa today at the Bram Fischer Library in the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg, and in its annual Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture, first delivered in June 1995 by then President Mandela, Fischer's colleague in the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the SACP and the African National Congress. As the writer of this article, I had a personal connection with Bram and the problem of Communism in southern Africa, since I was secretly the editor in Johannesburg of the underground journal of Umkhonto, Freedom Fighter, while Fischer led the defence of the Rivonia accused; I was then Bram's co-accused in a trial of white members of the SACP in 1964-65, from which Bram absconded in an attempt to hold together the shattered fragments of the ANC/SACP resistance to apartheid at a time of fierce repression; and I then shared a cell with him for some months in Local Prison in Pretoria, after his re-arrest, conviction and sentence for sabotage in 1966. Bram contracted cancer while in prison and died a hero of the resistance. His life and fate, like that of Ruth First, his SACP colleague who was assassinated by the security police in 1982, remains an emblem - one of many - of the non-racial political opposition to the racist state that culminated ultimately in the present government in South Africa.

The exemplary side of this contribution is widely recognised and celebrated. For 14 years it has not been difficult for South Africa to honour those who took the brave, often lonely and sometimes fatal path of people like Mandela, Fischer, Ruth First and Govan Mbeki, the father of President Mbeki. What is more difficult is for the problems of this heritage to be clarified. This is where the life of Geoffrey Cox provides a unique and invaluable guide. (For an obituary of Cox in the Independent, London, and for a subsequent supplementary obituary by myself, see here and here).

Bram and Geoffrey Cox (who was born, grew up and was educated in New Zealand ) arrived as Rhodes scholars at Oxford University in England in 1931.The following summer, in June and July 1932, they travelled together with three student colleagues on a four-week journey to the Soviet Union, organised by the state-run Soviet travel agency, Intourist. Their journey took them through the heartland of the famine in the Ukraine caused by Stalin's policy of forced collectivisation of agriculture, a catastrophe now replicated in Zimbabwe by the whim of President Mugabe, and endorsed and sanitised by Mbeki and the SADC. This state-enforced famine in the Soviet Union brought about the death of millions and gave a massive stimulus to the Gulag: the state-enforced system of slave labour and working to death, most horribly in the frozen goldfields at Kolyma in eastern Siberia, where millions of famine victims were deported under armed guard, to work and die. This was at a time when contract labour by black mineworkers was at the base of South Africa's position as the biggest gold producer in the world, while working to death at Kolyma brought the Soviet Union to second place: two despotic systems of labour in the production of gold, one by far the more absolute in its destructive result to the worker.

The journey of Cox and Fischer has been described by Cox himself in a volume of autobiography, Eyewitness: A Memoir of Europe in the Thirties (University of Otago Press, New Zealand, 1999) and by Fischer's biographer, Stephen Clingman, chair of the department of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the United States (Bram Fischer, Afrikaner Revolutionary, David Philip, Cape Town; Mayibuye Books, Belleville; University of Massachusetts Press, 1998). The journey took them along a fault-line of the 20th century, a moral fault-line in the witness to truth which notoriously divided the journalism of the young British writer Malcolm Muggeridge (who reported on his own experiences while travelling in the Ukraine in the Manchester Guardian on 25, 27 and 28 March 1933) from fellow-travellers such as Walter Duranty, correspondent of the New York Times in Moscow, and ‘Stalin's apologist' (as described in the title of his biography by SJ Taylor), who covered it up.

Cox and Fischer were similarly divided. Their common experience and polarised responses provide insight into the best qualities of British moral witness to the events of Europe of the last century, as well as to persisting long-term problems in the politics of southern Africa , where the governments of South Africa and Zimbabwe owe intellectual sources to the Stalin regime. The two books carry the same photograph of Cox and Fischer together in the Ukraine.

In his book, Cox recalls Bram as a "short, cheerful, self-possessed man, who had for me the additional virtue of having played scrum half for the Orange Free State against the All Blacks". What they witnessed on their journey through the Ukraine, part of it by paddle steamer down the Volga, was the "collapse of agricultural production as farming was collectivised, a process which was then under way, particularly in the Ukraine." It was a journey "which was to provide us with first-hand evidence of this profound event".

They found "peasant Russia on the move, in a massive, unexplained migration". At wharfs along the Volga were huge crowds of peasants carrying bundles on their backs, "ready to stampede for the gangplank. ...As stampede followed stampede, one of the Rhodesian Rhodes Scholars [their companions] said: ‘They are just like kaffirs'...We were witnessing - though we had no idea of it then - the shock waves of that process [of collectivisation], as dispossessed peasants and their families sought refuge in other parts of the country."

At Samara (later re-named Kuybyshev), they came across "a long column of peasants, old big-bearded men in patched clothes and straw gaiters, being marched towards the landing stage, guarded by Red Army soldiers wearing high-peaked cloth caps with a red star on the front and carrying rifles with long sword bayonets. ...Reluctantly the guides agreed that they were peasants being taken off to prison camps ‘for sabotaging the communal property of the new co-operatives in their village.' It was a rare glimpse of the realities of collectivisation."

Bram, Cox and the other Oxford students "filled the time by arguing about what we had seen, debating whether Soviet communism offered an answer. ...In that summer of 1932 the Great Depression reached its deepest point." While alert to major achievements (he remained a Labour voter in Britain until 1959), Cox was sensitive however to a "sense of constant strain, of wary uneasiness, indeed of fear. It was something I came to know later in Nazi Germany and in Fascist Italy" (where he worked later as a journalist). He noted the "constant awareness that only one point of view was allowed expression, and the wary, guarded manner in which the Russians with whom we came into contact dealt not with us, but with each other. ...Somehow the place did not feel right, and certainly did not feel happy. I was forced inescapably to the view that the Soviet system we had seen in those July days of 1932 did not offer an acceptable answer...."

Cox's understanding was confirmed in Oxford in 1935 when he came across a novel by Muggeridge, Winter in Moscow, which made clear to him that "we had glimpsed a huge and hideous reality." Above all he appreciated Muggeridge's depiction of the paranoia of the Soviet commissar of those days: in Muggeridge's words, "enemies at work everywhere; secret underground enemies corroding the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; enemies in the Party, perhaps even in the Polit Buro; enemies all around him night and day, intriguing, sabotaging" - enemies to be ruthlessly crushed. It is a portrait of a mindset now all too familiar in southern Africa.

As Fischer's very capable biographer notes, however, "Bram's views did not change when he read Malcolm Muggeridge as his friend Geoffrey Cox's did, but it was not just a question of relative credulity. In the Soviet Union, both then and as he looked back, he saw a way of dealing with South Africa's problems and issues..." (Clingman, p.86). After leaving the Soviet Union, having witnessed what Muggeridge later described as an "organised famine", Bram wrote a ten-page letter to his father in Afrikaans, in which, as Clingman says, "his spirit was still largely buoyant. ...Bram evidently agreed with much of what he had been hearing and reading. ...In that light, wrote Bram, there could be no doubt of the advantages of communism."

In the light of the organised famine and repression now taking place in Zimbabwe, Bram's response to his and Cox's Soviet experience makes chilling reading. As Clingman continues, Bram "knew that most of the harvest had failed. He was also aware of repression in other areas: the Communist Party, with its ‘famed Gay-Pay-Oo' (OGPU, predecessor to the KGB), exercised total control. But, said Bram, according to communist philosophy this was a necessary historical stage, and taking into account both the ideals and the difficulties of the system one could see that it was ‘the only method whereby a world communist existence could be brought into being'" (pp.82-83).

At that stage, the worst of Stalin's purges and the Gulag system still lay ahead. More chilling still, given the role of the SACP in the modern history of southern Africa, was Bram's stand in a subsequent episode of moral denialism, with direct relation to the opposed choices made by him and Cox. The story was recorded by Clingman in an interview with Joel Mervis, former editor of the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, and an old schoolfriend of Bram. At a dinner party held by Mervis at his house in Johannesburg, probably in 1940, in the period of the Stalin-Hitler Pact following the occupation of Poland, the "guest of honour was Malcolm Muggeridge, who had written with such effect on the horrors of collectivisation during the early 1930s (persuading Bram's friend Geoffrey Cox, but not Bram himself, of the excesses of Stalinism), and who was now visiting Johannesburg, staying at Mervis's house."

Bram and Muggeridge had a "three-hour stand-up debate on the question of Bram's commitment to Russia and his attitude to the war, while some thirty other guests looked on in silent and awed fascination. ...Bram's position was that, without giving any credit to Hitler, he was not prepared to fight in any capitalist war [which was how Stalinists then described Hitler's invasion of France and the Low Countries, and Germany's preparation for the invasion of Britain - Ed]. On the question of the show trials, he maintained that the accused had had a defence, that they had confessed, that all the rest was Western propaganda. ...Later, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Bram was all for fighting the war." (p.150)

Advocacy of terroristic state behaviour has a long history in southern Africa.