The ANC and SACP: In search of a new legend

Stephen Ellis on the significance of the shattering of the original myth of MK's founding

Nelson Mandela's death was the end of a legend in more senses than one. Within hours of the great man's passing, both the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) had published statements acknowledging for the first time that Mandela was at the time of his arrest in 1962 a member not only of the SACP, but even of its central committee. This and other newly available information has made untenable the legend of origin of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing.

A recent exchange of views in Business Day (on which more below) makes clear some of the sensitivities of the resulting situation.

For fifty years the template for ANC and SACP doctrine regarding the origins of Umkhonto we Sizwe was Mandela's inspiring "I am Prepared to Die" speech, delivered in a Pretoria courtroom on 20 April 1964. By this account, the ANC followed the path of non-violence until June 1961, when Mandela and some ANC colleagues, their organisation banned and all channels of peaceful protest blocked, decided to form the force later dubbed Umkhonto we Sizwe. Only after the new guerrilla army had been constituted, Mandela told the Supreme Court, did he learn that the SACP would support it.

Most South Africans today would surely accept the moral force behind the decision to launch an armed struggle against the apartheid state at its most obdurate. They may also understand that Mandela's speech to the Supreme Court was not an academic history lecture but the statement of a man under threat of execution. These, however, are not reasons to leave the historical record undisturbed.

It is now clearly established that "the starting point" of Umkhonto we Sizwe (in the words of Bob Hepple, who was present at the crucial meeting) was in December 1960, six months earlier than stated by Mandela. That was when a SACP national conference passed a "secret" resolution instructing its central committee to prepare for armed struggle-a "secret" resolution being one that was not made known to all Party members.

Mandela was among the 25 or so people present. It is not clear whether he was formally a member of the SACP at that time or whether he was appointed to the Party's central committee only later. The point is that Mandela was one of the handful of people who knew about the Party's decision on armed struggle from the outset.

Those informed of these preparations for war were all leading figures in the SACP's Johannesburg network. Ruth First was one of them: when she visited Durban to talk to her Party comrade Rowley Arenstein about armed struggle, apparently shortly before December 1960, Arenstein pointed out that non-violence was the official policy of both the ANC and the SACP, and that in any case they had no weapons. "She just laughed", Arenstein recalled, "and said: well that might be the policy now but maybe not for much longer. And don't worry, getting guns will be no problem."

Arenstein concluded that the Johannesburg comrades "must already have been in touch with the Russians over getting arms". Ruth First was presumably one of the small band of initiates who knew that, prior to the December 1960 national conference, SACP delegates had visited Moscow and Beijing to seek superpower support for the step their party was about to undertake.

If the traditional account of how Umkhonto we Sizwe started can no longer be taken at face value, nor can the ANC's customary version of how it adopted this new organism.  Most South Africans probably assume that a senior ANC committee formally decided to launch an armed struggle prior to launching Umkhonto we Sizwe, but this is not so.

Mandela was the key actor in this regard as, knowing that the SACP had decided to form a guerrilla army, and presumably aware that it had pledges of support from the USSR and China, he took the lead in urging the ANC to take up armed struggle. During a sequence of meetings in mid-1961 described by Mandela in his autobiography, ANC militants tried to persuade their National Executive Committee to adopt the policy of armed struggle.

They were not entirely successful, the most they could get being a recognition that some members of the ANC were intent on forming an organisation dedicated to armed struggle and that those who joined this new body should not be expelled or disciplined. The historian Scott Everett Couper has shown that the ANC's president, Chief Albert Luthuli, never accepted armed struggle as ANC policy. Moreover, such limited approval as the ANC's national executive did give was in regard to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, not for the actual launch of armed activity.

In the event, the leaders of the new organisation declared war on 16 December 1961. This was before the first cohort of trainees had returned from their military instruction in China and elsewhere and before Mandela himself had gone abroad for training. The leaders of MK seem to have acted thus hastily in order to steal a march on other organisations known to be planning or contemplating violence (such as the Pan-Africanist Congress and the networks behind the later African Resistance Movement) and partly in order to upstage those in the ANC who were opposed to violence, beginning with the movement's president, Chief Luthuli. Luthuli had received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo just six days earlier. "There are no responsible persons among us in the African National Congress who advocate violence as a means of furthering our cause", he told the crowd that welcomed him home on 12 December 1961.

In short, two key articles of ANC belief may now be seen to be historically unfounded. First, Umkhonto we Sizwe had its direct origin in the Communist Party rather than the ANC. Second, a substantial group within the ANC, including its president, Chief Luthuli, was opposed to the launch of an armed struggle and prevented it from becoming official ANC policy at the time of Umkhonto we Sizwe's foundation.  

These insights represent more than just a correction of the historical record. They weaken the ideological glue that binds the ANC and the SACP.

In search of a new legend

On 3 January 2014, I published an opinion piece in the Mail & Guardian reflecting on these matters. I wondered whether, following the acknowledgement of Mandela's SACP membership, denied for fifty years, the SACP would go on to recognise that the ANC's key statement of principles, the 1955 Freedom Charter, was written by white Communists. I listed ways in which the ANC and the SACP had hidden or even fabricated historical information over the years to suit their political intentions and their ideological stance.

This strategic manipulation of historical knowledge is something other than the cynical spinning of information that is standard practice among modern political parties. It is actually a residue of the old Stalinist technique of controlling historical knowledge as a means of strengthening the ruling party's grip on power. When taken to extremes this is sure to end badly, for "officially invented history always prepares its own destruction," in the words of Van Zyl Slabbert. "The burden of the lie becomes too great to bear".

Following publication of my Mail & Guardian article, senior ANC and SACP leaders and others launched a campaign of personal abuse against me. Z. Pallo Jordan, former Minister of Arts and Culture, set this in motion in his Business Day column of 23 January, which featured a truly bizarre attack in which he linked me with a list of villains (seemingly omitting only Adolf Hitler and Hendrik Verwoerd) and accused me of being a secret agent.

He was also indignant that anyone should ask questions about the Freedom Charter. A few days later another Business Day columnist, Adekeye Adebajo, charged me with being an Afro-phobe. Ben Turok MP (who, incidentally, is one of only three surviving veterans of the conference that was at the origin of Umkhonto we Sizwe) published in the same paper a reader's letter in which he accused me of having been a purveyor of secret intelligence when he was living in London in the early 1970s.... when I was in fact still a schoolboy!

Among readers who wrote to Business Day in protest at these personal attacks was Ken Owen, a former editor of the Sunday Times. He added some remarks of his own about the SACP's historical record, pointing out that Ben Turok's own memoirs are explicit in describing the conspiratorial nature of the SACP in the 1950s, when the Freedom Charter was written. In one of his contributions to the Business Day debate, Owen noted that the ad hominem attack is the SACP's standard response "to any attempt to pin down the party's history, to identify its members, and to discover its role in our history." In another letter, Owen stated his belief that the campaign to discredit me was a response to my book External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990, published in 2012.

Owen's remarks seem to have had an effect, as on 19 February Ben Turok again wrote to Business Day, this time expressing a rather pious wish to abstain from personal abuse and calling for "a spirit of inquiry rather than personal attacks". Turok proceeded to describe some aspects of the ANC/SACP alliance in the 1950s, concluding that these were of more than purely historical interest since "they also explain the nature of the battles in the ANC-led alliance at present".

Further reflections came from Keith Gottschalk, a retired academic and former anti-apartheid activist who also sent a series of reader's letters to Business Day. Noting that Walter Sisulu had appealed to the Chinese government to support an armed struggle when he visited Beijing in 1953[1], Gottschalk suggested that there was a substantial group of militants within the Congress Alliance who were lobbying the SACP to adopt armed struggle for the rest of that decade. In another letter on 7 March, Gottschalk maintained that, rather than seeking the roots of the armed struggle in this or that party, "it is more analytically useful...to focus on a group of leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki".

If Gottschalk's idea, aired in the letters page of Business Day, were to be taken up by ANC and SACP officials, it would amount to the outline of a new legend of the origins of the armed struggle. It would mean setting aside the notion that the armed struggle emerged only in the aftermath of the Sharpeville killings of March 1960. By suggesting a time-frame different from the one traditionally used, it would continue to imply that it was ANC members rather than the SACP that made the running on the question of armed struggle. Such a narrative would be able to incorporate the SACP's 1960 secret resolution and the November 1960 meeting with Mao Zedong, once known only to a handful of people but now described in history-books, by suggesting that these events were just way-stations on a longer journey. It has the potential to become the new doctrine of the ANC/SACP Alliance, established in the 1950s and still going.

At this point, it is instructive also to revisit the Freedom Charter, which in ANC folklore occupies a position only slightly less elevated than that of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Ever since Rusty Bernstein published his memoirs in 1999 it has been public knowledge that it was he who drafted this document and that his draft was accepted wholesale by the working committee preparing the 1955 meeting at which the Charter was to be presented, known as the Congress of the People. Ben Turok, in his own memoirs, has described how he personally inserted a clause concerning state control of leading sectors of the economy.

If it is already public knowledge that these two SACP members contributed so substantially to the Freedom Charter, why so much fuss if the matter is raised now? Ken Owen, in his contribution to the Business Day debate on 27 January hinted at the reason when he reflected how "the SACP remains oddly coy about its past, as though it were ashamed."

This is the crux of the matter. Both the ANC and the SACP are hypersensitive to any version of their history that does not conform to their official view. If they cannot detect any errors of fact, then they habitually attack the personal standing of the person presenting any historical information that they do not wish to be aired.

"If liberty means anything at all", George Orwell wrote, "it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

Why does it matter?

The ANC and the SACP like to present their sixty-year alliance as the story of two organisations, one dedicated to socialism, the other to the liberation of the African masses, collaborating for a common purpose. Until 1994, that purpose was to oppose the apartheid state and eventually to evict the National Party from power. However, the two organisations achieved this goal twenty years ago, and since then it has been unclear what binds them, exactly.

The SACP continues to exert influence through the ANC rather than offering candidates for election to public office under its own banner. Meanwhile, part of the ANC has split off to form a new party, Economic Freedom Fighters, whose leader, Julius Malema, likes to compare himself to the young Mandela of the 1940s, when the ANC Youth League was staunchly anti-communist, and who also cites the Freedom Charter as a basic text. Another party originating in a split from the ANC actually calls itself the Congress of the People, alluding to the 1955 assembly where the Freedom Charter was unveiled. Both these rather new political formations, EFF and COPE, assume the ANC's older history as their own.

None of this would make much sense if it emerged that many of the ANC's proudest achievements and most distinctive policies in the hallowed past were substantially the work of the SACP. If it were to appear that the SACP has not always been as respectful of the ANC's autonomy as it likes to claim, but that it has sometimes manipulated and bullied to get its way, then the official narrative of the sixty-year old SACP/ANC Alliance would look rather threadbare. The SACP would stand exposed in more senses than one. In fact, accusations of undue SACP influence have been made many times, including by the leaders of the Pan-Africanist Congress that split from the ANC in 1959 and by the dissidents known as the Gang of Eight who were expelled in 1975.

The SACP prides itself on being a vanguard party, pioneering many positions that were subsequently adopted by the ANC. The historical record suggests that some of the SACP's successes in this respect were achieved with something less than the deep respect that the SACP claims always to have shown towards the ANC, including the ANC's decision taken at its Morogoro conference in 1969 to open ANC membership to people of all racial groups and to adopt a programme reflecting the Party's own. The conference was a masterpiece of SACP politicking.

According to Paul Trewhela, a SACP member in the 1960s and a former political prisoner, it is imperative to consider the SACP of those days by reference to "the strict criteria by which Vladimir Lenin formed the Bolshevik Party in 1903, and of the subsequent Soviet model which was never once questioned by the SACP from the time of its formation as the Communist Party of South Africa in 1921 through to the downfall of the Soviet Union 70 years later."

Regarding the Freedom Charter, the evidence is rather unclear. In his memoirs, Rusty Bernstein maintained that he drafted this document in rather broad terms, expecting that it would be debated. "I believe that the Charter had drifted out of the Congresses' control", he wrote, "and for lack of foresight had taken on a free-floating life of its own". It was adopted under rather chaotic conditions, not least because of police harassment, and apparently without the draft being shown to Chief Luthuli.

The SACP of the last century was disciplined, dogmatic and dedicated to the violent overthrow of the South African state. It believed that this would take place in two phases, much as occurred in eastern Europe in the late 1940s. The first of these two phases would be a national democratic revolution during which power would be held by a broad coalition of groups representing a spread of class interests, including those of the national bourgeoisie, to be followed by a second phase in which the communist party would dispense with the coalition arrangement in order to hold power on its own.

This second phase would usher in socialism. Like all true Leninist parties, the SACP regarded its ideological positions as being scientifically sound. Correct historical knowledge was that which could be validated in terms of the Marxist quasi-science extant at that moment. Other historical information that tended to negate the Party's position was to be ignored, negated or even destroyed.

This is one of many aspects of Leninist thinking and organisation that were adopted by the ANC during the decades that the SACP/ANC alliance was in exile. Hence, President Jacob Zuma used the occasion of an Albert Luthuli Memorial Lecture in Durban in 2010 to pour scorn-although without naming any author-on historical work that shows beyond serious doubt that Chief Luthuli remained unconvinced by the policy of armed struggle even after the foundation of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

This historical detail is disturbing for an organisation that likes to present itself as having made a majestic progress through time, from the revival of the ANC in the late 1940s through to the present day, working through consensus. If it were to become widely known that the ANC never actually reached agreement on the policy of armed struggle that is so central to its self-image, then troubling questions would arise.

Above all it would bring into focus the true nature of the ANC's relations with the SACP. President Zuma, himself an early member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, is a former member of the SACP central committee. Any serious questioning of certain historical matters thus raises questions about his own political biography, too. Last but not least, evidence that the armed struggle came about through something resembling a coup inside the ANC, even a bloodless one, implies that factional manoeuvre of the sort that brought Jacob Zuma to power at the ANC's Polokwane conference in 2007 is actually more normal in ANC history than the organisation concedes.

Perhaps I might conclude by observing that the SACP's and the ANC's search for a new historical narrative that fits their present circumstances brings to mind another dictum by George Orwell: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."


 Gottschalk mistakenly wrote 1954.

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