Singapore Revisited (III): National suicide, a case study

James Myburgh on the expulsion of the Dutch from Indonesia in 1957/8 and how this helped shape ANC ideology


This is the third article in a series on the lessons of Singapore for South Africa. The previous article, dealing with Indonesia’s first few years of independence can be read here. The first introductory article to the series can be read here.

“Chiliastically minded movements are ruthless not simply in order to safeguard or further specific interests but also – and above all – in an effort to clear the way for the Millenium.” Norman Cohn. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The previous article described the mismanagement of Indonesia by the triumphant nationalist movement in the first years of full independence from the Netherlands. This had brought the economy to a parlous state by the mid-1950s. While the economic situation was bad it was not incurable, and Indonesia still had the potential, many believed, to become one of the “richest countries in the world”. Dutch nationals and companies continued to play an outsized role in the economy and, indeed, were critical to the prospects for economic recovery.

It was not difficult however to rouse feelings of hate towards the Dutch in the country and given the failure of the nationalists to realise the “bright future” they had long promised to their supporters they had every motive to do so. As President Sukarno commented in 1953 “a nation always needs an enemy”, and that enemy was the Dutch.[1]

The key question facing the nationalist movement, at this point, was whether to learn from its initial errors and reform; or throw all caution to the wind and bring the national revolution to completion, regardless of the consequences. On the side of this divide were the “constructional revolutionaries” led by Vice President Mohammed Hatta. On the other were the “emotional revolutionaries” led by Sukarno, and goaded by the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI.

The following article describes the resolution of this question and how, contrary to what one might assume (from a utilitarian perspective), this was not taken as a cautionary tale, but quite the contrary. It became something of a template for national liberation movements across the world including, via the South African Communist Party, the African National Congress. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___


In the September 1955 national elections, the first held since independence, the Indonesian National Party had won 22,3% of the vote, followed by two moderate Muslim parties Masjumi (20,9%) and Nahdatul Ulama (18,4%), and then the Indonesian Communist Party with 16,4% (6,2 million votes).

In April 1956, after failed negotiations, the Indonesian government unilaterally abrogated the Hague Agreement of 1949 and abolished the special protections granted under this agreement to Dutch companies and nationals. It followed this up by repudiating the entirety of Indonesia’s remaining debt to the Netherlands.[2]

The 1955 elections had given Javanese parties an absolute majority in parliament. There was growing anger and frustration on the other islands at the fact that while their export products earned the bulk of Indonesia’s foreign exchange, of which there was a great shortage, little of it was returned to them by the central government in Java. There was also resentment, at a time when there were few openings for educated youth, that Javanese officials and teachers filled most government positions on their islands.

On 1st December 1956 Hatta resigned as Vice President of Indonesia ending his long political alliance with Sukarno. Several rebellions followed, beginning on Sumatra, against this perceived political domination and economic exploitation by the Javanese. The demands made were not for independence (or even federalism) but for a fairer and more balanced relationship with the centre. The Sumatra revolts led to the exit of the main non-Javanese party, the Masjumi, from cabinet. Then after another revolt on the Celebes in East Indonesia, cabinet resigned in March 1957.[3]

Sukarno now declared a state of war and siege across Indonesia, and appointed a new extra-parliamentary cabinet composed of Javanese-parties the PNI and the Nahdatul Ulama, with the Communist Party in support. He also asserted the need for “guided democracy” in Indonesia and a National Council was established in July 1957, made up of yes-men and extreme leftists. As Leslie Palmier noted “this now meant that the President stood at the head of government but was responsible to nobody”.

Sukarno remained indifferent to Indonesia’s growing economic woes. In an August 1957 dispatch the US ambassador to Indonesia John Moore Allison observed that in an almost hour long talk he had had with him “about the problems of the nation the President never once mentioned the critical economic situation or evidenced any interest in how foreign aid might help solve some of the serious economic difficulties facing the country”. The President had no taste for, or interest in, solving problems of food and shelter for the Indonesian population. “To him, in spite of occasional lip service to virtues of hard work and necessity of industrialization, real interest is in leading a never-ending revolution against colonialism and imperialism.”

Freed of the constraints imposed by parliamentary government and Hatta’s relative moderation, and enjoying the support of the Communists, Sukarno now sought to mobilise against Dutch interests based on the still unresolved West Irian question.

On 3rd October 1957 Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Subandrio issued a veiled threat at a plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly: “The only question is whether the United Nations is the place where its solution may be worked out,” he stated, “or whether we must embark upon another course, even at the risk of aggravating conditions in South-East Asia and perhaps inviting ‘cold war’ tensions to muddy further the waters of peace in that region of the world”.

Through the course of that month the regime set about whipping up nationalist feeling against the Dutch in what was described as a “Hate Holland” campaign. On 29th October 1957 Subandrio threatened war if Indonesia did not get its way at the UN and groups of “strong arm squads” roamed the streets of Jakarta vandalising and painting anti-Dutch slogans on Dutch (and other foreign) owned buildings, and vehicles.[4]

Sukarno himself now issued a series of threats. On 8th November he warned that if the UN failed Indonesia on the West Irian question “we will resort to methods which will startle the world”.[5] In a speech in Bali two days later he declared “We should continue our struggle to include West Irian into the territory of the Republic of Indonesia and one day honourably or dishonourably the Dutch will be thrown out from Indonesian soil”.

On 18th November 1957 Sukarno addressed a mass rally in Jakarta’s Banteng Square attended by 100 000 Indonesians, “many with faces painted black to resemble the Papuans”. He warned that if the resolution at the United Nations was defeated force would be used and called on the people to “unite for the common struggle to free Irian”. The rally adopted a resolution calling for retaliatory measures should the UN not support Indonesia’s demand for control over Western New Guinea. These included the nationalisation or “Indonesianisation” of major Dutch enterprises, the repatriation of unwanted Dutch nationals, a ban on Dutch entry into Indonesia, and a prohibition on Dutch subjects practising law, medicine, and other professions.[6]

In a discussion with Allison on 25 November, the day before the UN vote, Sukarno said that if Indonesian demands were not met the government would have to take some action. This would, he said, take the form of “moral violence perhaps economic violence but not physical violence.”. Indonesia’s Information Minister Sudibjo warned that if his government did not get its way the struggle would continue by “other means”. “Even if the other means are explosive in character, even if they might explode and worse into a dangerous war,”, he warned, “we will and can have no other choice than to resort to them”.[7]

At the UN, the resolution was opposed by the Australian and Dutch governments on the basis that the indigenous peoples of West Borneo needed to get to the position where they were able to determine their own future. In an editorial on the matter the Manchester Guardian noted that though the Indonesian claim to the territory was not completely without legal merit it was difficult to sympathise with their demands. “The inhabitants of the island are not related to the Indonesians in race, language, or even in their culture. The Dutch can be relied on to do more material good for the islanders than President Sukarno is likely to be able to; nor have they yet shown any yearning to join his commonwealth”.[8]


Indonesia’s resolution failed at the UN after it fell short of the required two-thirds majority. The Indonesians now had the pretext they wanted to act against the Dutch. The day after the vote Dr Joseph Luns, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, told the Americans that Sukarno had decided long before to proceed actively against Dutch interests. He noted that “Sukarno appeared determined to take these steps although they would result in greater injury to Indonesia than to the Netherlands… [T]he Netherlands at present derived about 3.1 percent of its national income (20 percent before the war) from its economic relations with Indonesia. Dutch investments in Indonesia amounted to approximately five billion guilders. In contrast to this, approximately 50 percent of the Indonesian budget was derived from Dutch economic interests in the islands.”

The long-threatened reprisals against the Dutch population began on 28th November 1957 with the announcement by “liberation committees” that in the major Javan cities of Surabaya and Malang all transportation workers, cinemas, shopkeepers and hotel servants and banks had been told not to serve the Dutch.[9] Further anti-Dutch measures were reported as being imminent. Then on 30th November there was an assassination attempt, using hand grenades, against Sukarno while he was visiting a school. Though he escaped unscathed two of his aides and five children were killed and a further 150 people were injured. Blame was placed on the Darul Islam movement.

On 3rd December 1957, the Straits Times in Singapore reported that Dutch nationals had been banned from entering Indonesia and KLM had had its landing rights revoked. The newspaper also stated that there was an Indonesia-wide strike against all Dutch-owned and Dutch-run companies, with Dutch employees prevented from going to work. Circulation of all Dutch language publications and films with Dutch subtitles was banned. Many Dutch residents reportedly had their gas and water supplies shut off and nearly all were being boycotted by taxis, cinemas, and shops. “An observer said it looked like an attempt to starve the Dutch out of the country.”[10] Dutch schools were also closed by decree.

In an editorial the following day the Manchester Guardian commented that “if they carry out President Sukarno’s threats to ‘cut the artery of the Netherlands in Indonesia’ the Indonesians are in danger of cutting their own throats”. The loss of Dutch capital and efficiency would, the newspaper noted, further exacerbate a parlous economic situation. This was no guarantee however that the worst would not happen. For the ultra-nationalists “the importance of the Dutch to Indonesian wellbeing will seem an additional reason why they should be dispossessed. Economic prudence has never yet quenched nationalist ardour… Countries can stagger on for a long time getting poorer and poorer, and nowadays nationalists can always hope that Russian aid will make their path smoother”.[11]

On 5th December 1957, the Indonesian government ordered the Dutch to close all their consulates outside of Jakarta. It was reported that the Communist unions and nationalists had seized control of the Dutch-owned companies including the Hotel de Indes, the KPM shipping line, the Banks (leading to a run on deposits), and other shipping and harbour industries. The New York Times reported that a government spokesperson had told its correspondent that the nationalisation of Dutch properties had been decided upon with the banks and KPM topping the list. This action did not enjoy unanimous support within the Indonesian government and the Governor of the Bank of Indonesia, Sjafruddin Prawirenegara, described the seizure of Dutch enterprises and the mistreatment of Dutch nationals as a violation of the constitution.

Nonetheless, despite some mixed messages from government, the policy was to take over all Dutch enterprises and drive Dutch nationals out of the country completely. A telegram from the Department of State to the US Embassy in Indonesia on the 5th December stated that “we have irrefutable evidence that despite official statements to the contrary responsible Indo authorities including highest military authority have ordered subordinate commands throughout Republic to assist West Irian Liberation Committee in taking over Dutch firms and facilities”.

That day the Indonesian Cabinet announced that it had decided to put the Dutch enterprises that had been taken over by workers “under government control and to assign their management to management board; in that way business goes on under government control”. Furthermore, KPM was also taken over by government as were Dutch-owned enterprises including their buildings and storehouses in harbour areas. “Government has further decided, effective Thursday, to close Dutch Consulates in Indonesia and send back to Holland their personnel and other Dutch nationals whose presence is not needed in Indonesia. All profit and social transfers by Dutch enterprises are blocked.”

On 7th December 1957, the Observer’s correspondent Dennis Bloodworth reported from Jakarta that “it is now evident from the stringent measures being taken, that President Sukarno, backed by his supporters among the Communists and those extremist Nationalists who believe Dutch influence should be ended at whatever sacrifice, has successfully imposed his will on the moderates and the anti-Communist opposition”.[12]

The property seizures continued with the Indonesian government taking over control of all plantations owned or partly owned by the Dutch. The Dutch management of KPM was able to prevent the seizure of most of their ships by moving them out of Indonesian waters, with many of them being docked in Singapore. The seizure of the Dutch owned enterprises by workers continued. In mid-December, the Dutch Chamber of Commerce estimated that more than 350 small Dutch businesses had closed in a 24-hour period. “Many Dutch-owned bakeries, general stores, gift shops, tailors and clothing stores are reported to be in the hands of their Indonesian employees.”[13]

On 6th December 1957, the Minister of Justice Guastaaf Maengkok announced that Indonesia would be expelling all Dutch nationals in three phases. In the first phase the “Dutch unemployed” would be expelled. This was understood to include rich plantation owners, retirees, as well the thousands of jobless of Dutch descent. Those Eurasians who had refused Indonesian citizenship and chosen to retain their Dutch nationality were also told to leave. In the second phase the “middle class” would go, this would include estate and mine managers, shopkeepers and office and bank staff. In the last phase the remainder of those holding Dutch passports would be expelled. Experts would be exempt.[14]

The Dutch government estimated that there were 46 000 Dutch nationals in Indonesia as of November 1957, of whom half were Indo-Europeans. Following the seizure of Dutch property, a stream of refugees started arriving in Singapore from Indonesia on ships and planes chartered by the Dutch government. Conditions in Indonesia made it impossible for many Dutch nationals to pay their own way.[15] Through December The Straits Times ran numerous reports, with pictures, of shiploads of refugees from Indonesia disembarking in the colony – many of whom were Eurasians. 10,000 Dutch nationals would flee Indonesia in December, with the exodus continuing through 1958.

The opposition within Indonesia to these seizures was nominal. Leslie Palmier noted that “some Indonesians did raise their voice against insanity, but they were few”. As Tillman Durdin observed in the New York Times in January 1958 following a month-long visit to Indonesia:

“Many moderate Indonesian political leaders privately think that the take-over of Dutch enterprises which was carried out during last month will, by disrupting the national economy and the interdependence of the Indonesian islands, do more harm than good. They feel that the actions that have been taken are not the right way to go about getting West New Guinea, but few dare say so publicly for fear of being smeared as weak and vacillating on a matter of passionate national conviction.”[16]

In contrast, the racial dispossession and expulsion of the Dutch of Indonesia was regarded as a triumph by the Communists. The PKI viewed the damaging economic effects of the property seizures as politically advantageous, as they helped to further discredit the existing (non-socialist) order. They also created a gap which the Soviet bloc could fill with economic aid and technical assistance, thereby drawing Indonesia further into the socialist orbit.

Initially, the Indonesian government had claimed that they had only taken “supervisory control” over Dutch-owned enterprises to ensure their continued operation in an emergency situation.[17] The businesses remained in this uncertain status – under Indonesian government control but nominally still Dutch – through the best part of 1958. In his report to the plenum of the Central Committee of the PKI held between 31st March and 3rd April 1958 Aidit said that the “Dutch imperialists” should be presented with two choices in this regard: “these enterprises will be nationalised if the Dutch are prepared to negotiate and agree to the handing over of West Irian to the Republic, but they will be confiscated if, on the other hand, the Dutch stubbornly refuse to negotiate for the return of West Irian.”

He also called on Indonesia to reject all foreign capital investment from the West and instead bind itself into the Socialist world market and “make use of the offers of economic and technical assistance from the Socialist countries.” “A policy of rejecting Dutch capital but accepting capital investments from America, West Germany, Japan or other countries would be very naive and harmful to the interests of the Indonesian people,” he noted. “This policy is the same as throwing the tiger out of the front-door but letting the lion in through the back-door.”[18]

The emergency repatriation programme, carried out by the Dutch, was brought to completion in September 1958 with the last ship arriving in Rotterdam harbour with 730 repatriates on 7th September 1958. The residual Dutch population of Indonesia, which had stood at 220 000 people in 1945, was now estimated at 5 000, with most of these missionaries or people in the employ of British or American companies.[19] Many of the latter individuals would be expelled when their contracts came to an end.

The Communists meanwhile continued their agitation for the nationalisation of seized Dutch assets. In October 1958, the Communist organ the Harian Rakjat stated: “We must forge ahead with our actions against Dutch enterprises in this country – that is, nationalisation, for which the settlement may be negotiated when sovereignty over West Irian has been conferred to Indonesia”.[20] This was realised the following month with the adoption of nationalisation bill adopted by cabinet on 1 November 1958, with the legislation being passed by parliament on 3rd December.

An amendment by opposition Roman Catholic and Muslim Masjumi parties to restrict nationalisation to enterprises classed as vital to the country’s economy was defeated by 136 votes to 37.[21] The government also took over all immovable assets of Dutch nationals who had fled the country.[22] The following year the government set in motion the process of nationalising hundreds of Dutch estates and enterprises.


The seizure of Dutch properties and enterprises had a catastrophic effect. As one observer noted in mid-December 1957 “the whole economic life stream of the country has been turned off like a tap. Estates have ceased production; ships lie idle in their harbours; and rice, due either to inadequate supplies or faulty distribution, continues to soar in price. Hundreds of thousands are out of work”.[23]

The failed effort to seize control of KPM had led to the cessation of shipping traffic between Java and the other islands, famine conditions developed in thirty areas of Java, and food ran short in parts of East Indonesia. In a more recent assessment Thee noted that “the nationalized Dutch enterprises were turned into state enterprises, mostly managed and run by military officers not familiar with running commercial enterprises efficiently. Not surprisingly, the performance of these nationalised enterprises declined rapidly”.[24] It was also a huge and fatal blow to residual (non-Dutch) investor confidence in the country. The economic development of Indonesia was set back by decades. 

A Chicago Daily News cartoon on the expulsion of the Dutch from Indonesia, republished in the New York Times, 14 December 1957

However economically irrational and self-destructive it may have been, the expulsion of the Dutch from Indonesia was an object lesson to the world in the overwhelming power of post-colonial racial nationalism. The moderate nationalists within Indonesia had felt unable to oppose it publicly. The American view, as expressed by Ambassador Allison, was that this was not a force that could be reasoned with or confronted directly. In his dispatch to Washington DC on 9th December 1957 he wrote that if Indonesia had decided to commit “national suicide” by persisting along the path of dispossessing the Dutch, there was not much that could be done about it. He quoted approvingly a “wise American observer” who had recently commented:

“The fanaticism of nationalism in the Asian-Arab-African world cannot be equated to the reasoned logical reactions of 19th-centurn European Foreign Office. It is a basic error of those who have not escaped from the pattern of the past to fail to take into account the irrationality of their adversaries. If your adversary does not regard national suicide as an unmitigated evil, there is no effectiveness in a logical demonstration that a certain course of conduct is suicidal.”[25]

The Soviets meanwhile sought to further inflame this fanatical form of nationalism and direct its power towards their own strategic ends. At the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Conference in Cairo in late December 1957 the Soviet Union’s representative Arzumanya A Agofonovich said that the Soviet bloc’s experience was that nationalisation of trade and industry was the “most rapid and effective policy for industrial expansion and the least painful for the population”. He commended Indonesia for following Egypt’s example – the Suez Canal having been nationalised by Nasser in 1956 – by “fighting to nationalise Dutch banks and other enterprises”. This was met with long and enthusiastic applause in the conference hall where the remarks were delivered to 400 delegates.

Agofonovich sought to reassure his audience that they need not worry about the loss of capital investment and technical expertise that would follow from such an action, as the Soviet Union was ready and willing to step in to help, no strings attached. “We are ready to help you as brother helps brother”. Tell us what you need, he said, and the Soviet bloc would provide it, to the best of its ability, whether this was money, in the forms of loans or aid, or education and training, buildings, or technical experts.[26]

In an analysis of the Cairo conference that appeared in the New York Times (7 January 1958) Harry Schwartz described Agofonovich’s remarks as an open declaration of war “against all Western private investment in the under-developed countries. By backing confiscation of existing investment, Moscow obviously hopes to block any substantial future private investment in these countries.”

The motives of the Soviet Union were, he suggested, largely cynical. A major expansion of the pattern witnessed in Egypt and Indonesia, he wrote, would “torpedo economic cooperation between the major Western nations and the non-Communist under-developed countries. In the resultant chaos and economic hardship, the Soviet Union is apparently confident it can make great gains and bring more countries under Communist rule.” Equally, the Soviet Union believed that if it could cut the Western countries off from their investments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America – and the sources of their raw materials – its victory in the Cold War would be assured.


As will be explained in subsequent articles in this series these (and later) developments in Indonesia had an important impact on neighbouring Singapore at the time. More counterintuitively they also had a significant ideological influence in South Africa, one that continues to be felt to this day.

Indonesia was one of the most important models that Soviet theoreticans had before them as they developed the concept of the “National Democratic Revolution” in the late 1950s.[27] The expulsion of the Dutch from Indonesia was a reminder (if any was needed) not just of the power of racial nationalism but also that the most acute economic tensions – especially in periods of stagnation or decline – can be intra-class rather than inter-class. Many of the most vicious conflicts of the twentieth century have been between an emerging-but-insecure and an established-but-ethnically-distinct middle class.

In this context the most revolutionary “class” in the post-imperial setting was not the peasantry or working class but rather a politically connected “national bourgeoisie” which was hungry for positions and felt itself perpetually humiliated by the continued presence of economically successful minorities in their midst. As Palmier noted, the demand that Dutch concerns be “Indonesianized” was bound to “receive support from the large numbers of young men who seek literate employment. It was not accidental that it was the Youth Rally of November 1957 which first voiced the demand that the Dutch concerns be seized and that Dutch nationals be expelled; and it was gangs of young men which led the way in making seizures”.

Writing on the post-colonial context in Africa a few years later Frantz Fanon observed the same dynamic. On the morrow of independence, he wrote, this national bourgeoisie “violently attacks colonial personalities: barristers, traders, landed proprietors, doctors and higher civil servants. It will fight to the bitter end against these people ‘who insult our dignity as a nation’. It waves aloft the notion of the nationalization and Africanization of the ruling classes. The fact is that such action will become more and more tinged by racism, until the bourgeoisie bluntly puts the problem to the government by saying ‘We must have these posts’. They will not stop their snarling until they have taken over by everyone.”

The declaration of the Moscow Conference of 81 Communist and Workers Parties in late November/early December 1960 – attended inter alia by representatives of the SACP, PKI and Malayan Communist Party (MCP) – was an attempt to adapt Marxist theory to such obvious post-imperial realities. The Communists therefore broadly accepted the legitimacy of the “nationalism” of the “oppressed nations” and the leading role of the “national bourgeoisie” within these regimes – except of course where it and they compromised in any way with the Western powers. Among the tasks such regimes were expected to pursue, if they were not to be labelled as reactionary, was “agrarian reform”, the “uprooting of imperialist economic domination” and the expulsion of foreign “monopolies”.

This was an open invitation to the nationalist elites in these countries to plunder their economies by seizing Western assets and dispossessing minorities of their wealth. The role of the Communists in such a situation was to ensure, as the PKI had done, that the national bourgeoisie did not waver from the implementation of what Western observers had earlier described as “national suicide”, but which Soviet theoreticians now relabelled “national democracy”.

The meeting thus commended what Sukarno had been doing to the Dutch in Indonesia: “The Indonesian people are doing away with the economic positions the imperialists still retain in that country, particularly the positions held by the Dutch colonialists.”[28] The Soviets then held out socialism and the world socialist system as the means by which the peoples of such states – having slit their own throats economically – could nonetheless go on to fulfil their highest aspirations; “national renascence”, “ending age-long backwardness and poverty”, and “economic independence”. [29]


It was shortly after the conclusion of the Moscow meeting that a meeting was held of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party in December 1960 in the suburb of Emmarentia in Johannesburg. Two seminal decisions were taken here. The one was to prepare for the launch of the armed struggle with Nelson Mandela – whose membership of the Party was one of its most closely guarded secrets – tasked with ensuring the ANC bought into this project. This was a decision informed in part by the statement of the Moscow meeting that “Leninism teaches, and experience confirms, that the ruling classes never relinquish power voluntarily.”

Moses Kotane and Michael Harmel, who had attended the Moscow conference in person, were at the same time tasked with preparing a draft statement of the policy and programme of the SACP. The programme that Harmel took the lead in drafting was eventually adopted by the Party at another meeting of the Central Committee in Johannesburg in October 1962 as the “Road to South African Freedom”. In this document Harmel sought to apply the theory of “national democracy” to the local South African context. This is evident both from the text of the Programme itself, which quotes the Moscow declaration, as well as the articles Harmel wrote under the pseudonym “A Lerumo” for the African Communist while he was in the process of drafting it.

In a January 1962 article Harmel restated Lenin’s theory of imperialism.[30] The imperialists, he wrote, had contributed nothing to the colonial countries; they had come “not to teach and uplift, but to rob and exploit”; they had destroyed the “institutions of self-government which they found”; arrested the colonies’ “natural course of development”; and “ruined and impoverished them”. A genuine state of national democracy, he wrote, was one where “every trace of colonialism and its heritage had been destroyed”.

Applying Lenin’s theory to the local context he wrote that in South Africa a “colonialism of a special type prevails, with a powerful monopoly finance-capitalist class of Whites, enjoying the support, by and large, of a privileged population of three million, has very much the relation to the non-White majority that Western imperialist countries have towards their colonies abroad.” The effect of this was to define white South Africans as “white colonialists”: an alien and exploitative element within the country, who had contributed nothing of value to its development over the centuries but had acquired their privileged position through unscrupulous machinations at the expense of the majority.

In his follow up article, published in the April/May 1962 edition of the African Communist, Harmel discussed how the aims of the “Democratic Revolution” would be achieved. He noted the formal launch of the armed struggle by Umkhonto we Sizwe on the 16th of December 1961 and suggested that if the “white colonialist” government continued to resist a peaceful surrender of power the likelihood was that “armed struggle will become the principal form of struggle in South Africa”. Either way, he concluded, the “doom of the White colonialists of South Africa and the victory of the oppressed people of this country comes nearer and more certain”.

The belief of the SACP in 1962 was that the armed seizure of power was imminent and assured. There was no need to disguise the Party’s ultimate ends, or its maximum programme, as there had been when the Party’s underground operatives had drafted the Freedom Charter in 1955, in alignment with the Party’s minimum programme. The Road to South African Freedom adopted the understanding of South African history and development contained in the thesis of Colonialism of a Special Type. It also set out the “immediate tasks” of the National Democratic Revolution which would, the Party believed, soon usher in a state of “national democracy” in the country.

These included a policy of systematically destroying all existing state and governmental institutions designed, as they were, to “maintain colonialism”. All state institutions, including the judiciary, would be purged of disloyal white elements and rapidly Africanised through special measures to “rapidly promote African and other non-White personnel” to ensure demographic representivity. “Drastic measures” would be taken to “restore the land to the people”. Vital sectors of the economy would be taken over by the national democratic state, and mining industry, banks, and main industrial establishments would be nationalised.

The expectation at the time was that once these immediate tasks had been implemented by a “vigorous and vigilant dictatorship of the people” South Africa would be able to proceed at once to full socialism. The SACP’s hopes for the early seizure of power were however scuppered by the arrest of most of the Umkhonto we Sizwe high command at the Party’s underground headquarters at Liliesleaf farm, Rivonia, on 11th July 1963.

The implications of the ANC/SACP’s embrace of the revolutionary nationalism of that era were recognised at the time by the historian of South Africa, CW de Kiewiet. De Kiewiet’s earlier book The Anatomy of South African Misery in 1956 is one of the most eloquent critiques of apartheid, segregation and white supremacy ever written from the liberal perspective. An article by De Kiewiet in the journal Foreign Affairs in April 1964 contains the sobering recognition that South Africa was caught between the old colonial-type of racialism (of apartheid) and the new revolutionary variant rapidly displacing it across the world.

The liberal’s search for change in this situation, he wrote, was within the “framework of an economic system which is greatly dependent upon the presence of the white population”:

“He cannot ignore the fact that the white population is responsible for the investment of capital, for scientific and technological skills, and for the organisation through which they can effectively be exercised. He must even consider the fact that the stable environment suitable to economic growth and development, the atmosphere favourable to capital formation and capital imports, in turn depend upon an efficient system of public safety, upon the preservation of domestic law and order.

In the modern world, it is totally unacceptable to argue that these economic prerequisites justify the claim to an exclusive white hegemony. It would be equally unrealistic not to recognise that abrupt and violent political change could disrupt the conditions needed for economic development. The South African liberal therefore is searching desperately to find a way between the two unacceptable alternatives of economic chaos and human despair.”


It would take another 30 years and the end of the Cold War that a settlement was finally reached in South Africa, along broadly liberal democratic lines. It is testimony to the independent and enduring power of the ANC’s revolutionary nationalist ideology, and the forces behind it, that it has endured long after the collapse of communism.

Through the negotiation process of the early 1990s, the ANC remained committed to the understanding of South Africa’s past contained in the theory of Colonialism of a Special Type and to the pursuit of the goals of the “National Democratic Revolution”. [31] This was even as it abandoned the armed seizure of power, nationalisation as an instrument of policy, and socialism as a further ideal. The “compromise” of the national liberation movement in the negotiation process was simply that implementation of the national revolution would now be pursued through stages over a 20-to-25-year period. The intention was (and still is) that it would culminate in a correction of the historical injustice through the dispossession of the white minority and the “return” of the land and the wealth of the country to the black majority from whom it had been originally “stolen”.

Given the hold that this ideology continues to exert on the liberation movement and much of our intelligentsia, 60 years after it was systematised by Harmel and the SACP, the puzzle from a South African perspective is how and why the People’s Action Party leadership in Singapore was both willing and able, in the early 1960s, to break from the dominant political, ideological, and economic forces of that era.

This is especially so given that the PAP originated in the mid-1950s as a radical left-wing nationalist party in informal coalition with - and heavily infiltrated by - a powerful communist underground. It bore a striking resemblance, in other words, to the ANC of that period.

This is the subject of the following article in this series.


[1] Legge, John D. Sukarno: A Political Biography (Kindle Location 4608). Editions Didier Millet. Kindle Edition.

[2] Leslie H. Palmier, Indonesia and the Dutch, (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), pg. 96

[3] Leslie H. Palmier, Indonesia and the Dutch,  pp. 160-162

[4] The Straits Times, 29 October 1957.

[5] The Straits Times, 8 November 1957. 

[6] Leslie H. Palmier, Indonesia and the Dutch, pg. 101

[7] Manchester Guardian, 28 November 1957.

[8] Manchester Guardian, 28 November 1957.

[9] The Straits Times, 29 November 1957.

[10] The Straits Times, 3rd December 1957.

[11] “Cutting an artery”, Manchester Guardian, 4 December 1957.

[12] Dennis Bloodworth, “Sukarno will press ant-Dutch drive: Moderates over-ruled”, The Observer, 8 December 1957.

[13] The Straits Times, 15 December 1957, Page 1 (see here)

[14] “Dutch told: ‘Get out!’” The Straits Times, page 1, 6 December 1957 (see here)

[15] “INDONESIA: Free fare offer to Jakarta refugees”, The Straits Times, 15 December 1957, Page 1 (see here)

[16] Tillman Durdin, “Communists gain in Indonesia”, New York Times, 5th January 1958.

[17] In reply to protests by the Netherlands the Indonesian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr Ali Sastroamidjojo circulated a letter to all member nations. “It is surely understandable that the people of my country could no longer stand supinely by while the Netherlands continued its unilateral and provocative actions of illegally occupying and annexing an integral part of Indonesian territory.

“No nationalisation of any enterprise has taken place. My Government has assumed supervisory control over Dutch-owned enterprises to assure their continued operation.” The Indonesian government was using ordinances passed by earlier Dutch administrations. “The fact is that nothing is more commonplace in the practice of all nations than the assumption of sweeping powers of control in time of emergency.” The Straits Times, 15 January 1958 (see here)

[18] “The New Phase and Bringing The Organisation Into Line With The Situation” General Report Delivered by D N. Aidit, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Indonesia, Documents of the Sixth Plenum of The Central Committee of The Communist Party of Indonesia, March 31st — April 3rd, 1958 Publisher: Yayasan “Pembaruan”, Jakarta, 1958 (see here)

[19] “5 000 Dutch still in Indonesia”, The Straits Times, 8 September 1958, Page 3 (see here)

[20] “Dutch property faces an uncertain future”. The Straits Times, 23 October 1958 (see here)

[21] New York Times, 4 December 1958

[22] Palmier, pg. 109

[23] Denis Warner, “Jakarta takes stock”, New Straits Times, 16 December 1957 Page 1 (see here)

[24] Kian Wie Thee, Indonesia's Economy Since Independence, (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore, 2012), pg. 20.

[25] 316. Telegram From the Embassy in Indonesia to the Department of State, Djakarta, December 9, 1957—11 a.m. FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES, 1955–1957, SOUTHEAST ASIA, VOLUME XXII

[26] New York Times, 28 December 1957

[27] Filatova, Irina. The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era. Jonathan Ball Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[28] Statement issued by representatives of 81 Workers and Communist parties in Moscow in November 1960 as provided in English by Tass, the Soviet press agency, and published in the New York Times, 7 December 1960.

[29] This wording is from the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1961 which ratified the concept.

[30] A Lerumo, “Forms and Methods of Struggle in the National Liberation Revolution”, The African Communist No. 8 1962. As Harmel put it, the wealthy classes of the European powers “grew even wealthier by looting African and Asian resources, and by exploiting cheap colonial labour at huge rates of profit. Out of this vast wealth they were able to satisfy some of the demands of their own working people for higher wages and for democratic rights.”

[31] The concepts were formally adopted by the ANC as an organisation in 1969.