The SACP's secret Moscow papers

James Myburgh on the striking new information that has emerged about the Party's influence on the ANC in the early 1960s

The nature of the relationship between the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress, at the time of the turn to the armed struggle in the early 1960s, was (for decades) at the centre of an intense propaganda war in the West between sympathisers and critics of the national liberation movement.

At the Rivonia trial the State had charged that the ANC and SACP had not only “worked in close union” in the conspirators’ efforts to violently overthrow the existing order, but also that the “former was completely dominated by the latter. In fact, the aims and objects of the ANC were the aims and objects of the SACP.”

The state further charged that, according to some of the documents found, “Moscow had promised and assured every sort and manner of assistance in their campaign, but its co-operation and involvement was not be to revealed or made public property because of possible international repercussions.”

In his statement from the dock Nelson Mandela had responded by stating that “the suggestion made by the State in its opening that the struggle in South Africa is under the influence of foreigners or communists is wholly incorrect.” He denied having been a member of the SACP (as did Walter Sisulu in his testimony) and claimed to be a great admirer of the institutions of Western democracy.

This ‘line’ was one followed by many liberal Western sympathisers of the ANC over the following four decades. One of the most influential of these was Thomas G. Karis who, together with Gwendolen Carter, wrote an early and authoritative treatment of the liberation movement in the 1950s and 1960s.[1] In a 1986 article Karis stated:

“African, Indian and white Communists have influenced the course of the ANC to an extent greater than their numbers, but they have not dominated or controlled the movement.” This would require believing inter aliathat young African nationalists such as Mandela, Tambo or Walter Sisulu had come to accept the discipline of a minor and doctrinaire party or were manipulated by it.”[2]

Over the past decade however much information, contrary to this naïve Western view, started filtering out as old comrades – their battle long won (and lost) – started speaking more frankly about the role they and others (such as Mandela) had played in the Party in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[3]

A further breakthrough in our understanding of this critical period in South African history has come with the surfacing in the archives of four documents which senior SACP leaders prepared for meetings in Moscow in the early 1960s. These are reported on in two academic journal articles published in late 2015 by Tom Lodge and the late Stephen Ellis, in the South African Historical Journal and Cold War History respectively.

The documents

The documents concerned were contained in the personal papers which SACP, MK and ANC veteran Ronnie Kasrils turned over to the Wits historical papers research archive in 2013. Limited references to the same documents can be found in the book ANC: A view from Moscow by the Russian academic and former Soviet official, Vladimir Shubin, who seems to also have had copies in his personal possession.

These documents are the following:

1.) “The Political Situation in the Union of South Africa / The Situation in the South African Communist Party”, document(s) presented on behalf of the SACP Central Committee to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by Yusuf Dadoo, Chairman, and Veli Pillay, Representative in Europe, Moscow 14 July 1960

2.) “Some notes on the Communist Party of South Africa”, document prepared by the SACP’s leading theoretician and CC member, Michael Harmel, while part of the SACP delegation attending the International Meeting of the Communist and Workers’ Parties in Moscow in November / early December 1960

3.) “Notes on Some Aspect of the Political Situation in the Republic of South Africa”, by Moses Kotane, General Secretary of the SACP, Moscow, 9th November 1961

4.) An untitled memorandum which Ellis says was written by Michael Harmel and which post-dates October 1962. It appears to be the same document which Shubin says Arthur Goldreich and Vella Pillay presented to a Soviet delegation ahead of a meeting in Moscow in January 1963. It will be referred to as “the memorandum” in this article.

Together this material describes in considerable detail, and from its own perspective, the role the Party had played in the Congress Alliance in the 1950s and in the turn to the armed struggle in the early 1960s.

Origins of the SACP and influence over the Freedom Charter

The (until then legal) Communist Party of South Africa had been dissolved in 1950 ahead of the Suppression of Communism Act of June 1950 finally passing into law. In his November 1960 paper Harmel says that towards the end of 1950 a group of “leading comrades gathered around Comrade Kotane in Johannesburg” had decided to build the Party up again on new lines, “lines which would enable it to work and survive in the new conditions” of illegality.

A meeting held in Easter 1952 (?) in Johannesburg decided to form a new Communist Party underground. Brian Bunting, one Ngwavela, Moses Kotane, Bram Fischer, Yusuf Dadoo, Rusty Bernstein, Vernon Berrangé, and Michael Harmel were all in favour of the proposal with Sam Kahn the only attendee against, after which he left the meeting. This meeting decided to form district committees in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Durban and to prepare a programme and rules for a national conference, which was duly held in early 1953. The name of the party was changed to the South African Communist Party to distinguish it from the old entity.

Harmel described the mode of operation of the Party as follows:

“The membership is organised in groups of three or four. In the small districts each group is in direct contact with the district committee, through a member who attends the group meetings. In Johannesburg each group are in contact with a branch committee, and the branch committees in turn are represented on the district committees.

Members are obliged to pay subs, attend group meetings and study classes in Marxism-Leninism, support Party policy and carry out practical work under Party guidance. Strict principles of democratic centralism are observed.

It is a cardinal rule that no member may divulge his own or anyone else’s membership of the Party, or any other information about the Party, to any person, without the express decision of the district Committee.

At national conference only part of the Central Committee is elected. Those elected co-opt the others. Thus, Conference members are not aware of the composition of the full C.C.”

The main work of the party following its re-establishment was directed towards building a “united front of national liberation” – the alliance of democratic and trade union organisations known as the Congress Alliance. This had proved remarkably successful with the mass movement growing greatly in “strength, unity and political understanding.”

The Freedom Charter unreservedly adopted at the Congress of the People at Kliptown in 1955 by every section of the Congress movement, Harmel noted, “is identical in all its main provisions to the demands set forth in the immediate programme of the SACP adopted in 1953.” The “main draftsman” of the Charter, he wrote elsewhere in the document, was Central Committee member Rusty Bernstein who had served “as the delegate of the Congress of Democrats on the Drafting Commission.”

The subsequent Treason Trial involved “nearly all” members of the Central Committee. A majority were among the 156 leaders arrested, while the few not arrested were actively involved in legal defence and the organisation of protests. In 1959 the first step towards the “emergence” of the Party was taken with the issuing of the first edition of the “African Communist.”

Between the national conference in 1958 and the declaration of the State of Emergency on 30 March 1960 the Central Committee consisted of 15 members. The executive, which met once a week, consisted of seven people: Kotane (General Secretary), Dadoo (Chairman), Walter Sisulu, Fischer, Rusty Bernstein, Joe Slovo and Harmel. The other members were JB Marks, Dan Tloome, Ruth First, Brian Bunting, Fred Carneson, Ray Alexander, Raymond Mhlaba and MP Naicker. Between meetings the practical work was carried on by a Secretariat of three members composed of Kotane, Harmel and Sisulu.

The police raids following the declaration of a state of emergency after the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 – in which thousands were arrested - targeted every single member of the Central Committee, with the exception of Bram Fischer. However, Kotane, Dadoo, Ruth First, Harmel and Fred Carneson were able to evade capture, with Dadoo then leaving the country. The entire Johannesburg district committee of the Party was arrested, as well as about half the membership, and in Port Elizabeth the whole membership was in prison throughout the five months of the state of emergency. During the emergency Ben Turok, Bartholomew Hlapane, Bob Hepple and Joe Matthews (who was Basutoland based) were co-opted onto the CC.

Although heavy casualties were suffered during this period, with 150 Communists arrested and kept in prison for five months without charge or trial, the Party “came out of the crisis period “a great deal stronger than it entered it”, according to Harmel.

The emergency period saw important steps taken to correct weaknesses that had been exposed, “brought forward outstanding new cadres, and above all the implementation of the decision to emerge in our own name” (a decision taken at an extending Central Committee meeting in June 1960).

Influence of the SACP over the Congress Alliance

In its submissions to the CPSU in the early 1960s the SACP emphasised the “considerable” influence it had exercised over the Congress Alliance, which was comprised of five organisations: the ANC, the (white) Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Congress and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). This was despite the Party’s small membership, which Kotane put at between 450 and 500 people.

According to Kotane, following its re-establishment the Party had focused on recruiting “brave and reliable fighters” from four fields: former CPSA members, the trade union movement, national liberation organisations and the peace movement.

This drive had yielded extraordinary results. As Dadoo and Pillay put it:

“All important positions and direction in the Congress and in other organisations are occupied by members of our Party. In the African National Congress, this is particularly the case. The Secretary-General is a member of the Party and party members hold positions in the National-Executive and in the Provincial organs of this Congress.

The policy of the African National Congress is therefore heavily influenced by our Party. This general position is equally true of most of the other mass democratic organisations in the country. The Party is strong in the SA Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, the Youth Congress and so on. Indeed it is true to say that the leading positions in these mass organisations are occupied by our party members.”

Although the government had banned a number of party members from “occupying any position in the mass organisations, these comrades are nonetheless active in policy making work in these mass organisations.” The Emergency Committee appointed by the ANC NEC in preparation for the 1960 anti-pass campaign, in anticipation of government arrests, “is wholly comprised of comrades (some of whom have since been imprisoned.)”

Furthermore “all the propaganda organs” of the mass organisations and SACTU “are edited and managed by Party members. The Party managed a weekly newspaper, New Age, which has been an influential and widely read propaganda organ in the mass organisations and among the non-white peoples. The journals Fighting Talk and Liberation too have been a great success. All these propaganda organs have now been declared illegal by the Government.”

Kotane re-emphasised the extent of the Party’s influence in his report of November the following year:

“Though illegal and functioning underground, the Party – through its members who in each particular case are formed into fraction or caucus – leads the non-white trade unions and the national liberatory and progressive movement in South Africa. All major policy decisions taken and campaigns conducted by these organisations either emanate from or have the approval of the Central Committee of our Party…. We have Party members in the leadership of all the five organisations which constitute the Congress Alliance. In three of these, as well as in the Federation of South African Women, Party members are in the majority in the top leadership.”

In Dadoo and Pillay’s submission they had complained that the Party was operating under severe financial constraints following the imposition of the state of emergency. There had been declining donations from the Indian community and the Party’s funds had been stretched by the support provided to the families of detainees and by assistance to the ANC Emergency Committee. Shubin writes that the CPSU agreed to assist and $30 000 was then “allocated to the SACP in 1960 from the socalled ‘International Trade Union Fund for assistance to left workers’ organisations’.” In his paper Lodge says that it was this funding which probably enabled the SACP to purchase Lilieslief farm in Rivonia the following year. It was seemingly initially intended to be a hideout / meeting place for serving members of the SACP’s Central Committee only.[4]

The turn to the armed struggle

In his report Kotane said that the “violent measures employed by the Government and its new methods and tactics of dealing with our demonstrations and strikes” had brought into question the wisdom and political correctness of persisting with the policy of non-violence. The Central Committee of the Party and the leadership of the Congress Alliance had decided to re-assess the slogan in the light of the political situation in the country and the “prevailing mood of the people.”

Quoting an SACP document (date and authorship not provided) Kotane said that the Party had then decided that while not neglecting our public activities we should “rely more and more on our underground activities and to intensify preparations for such underground activities; and in future employ some elements of violence during our mass struggles, such as picketing and disruption of communications.”

This document further expressed doubt over whether the Party could achieve its goals through non-violence, given the hostile attitude of the whole white population (including workers): “is it reasonable to expect that any fundamental political and social changes could come about peacefully in South Africa, in other words, cant the ruling class surrender power and wealth without a violent struggle?”

The conclusion the Party reached, Kotane wrote, was that unless they got help from outside “the non-whites have no reason to believe that they can achieve their national liberation without a bitter and grim struggle and much sacrifice.”

In December 1960 the Party held its national conference in a house rented for the purpose in Emmarentia, Johannesburg. According to Bob Hepple among the 25 people in attendance were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Piet Beyleveld, Govan Mbeki, John Nkadimeng, Ben-Turok, MP Naicker, Fred Carneson, Moses Kotane, Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo, Michael Harmel, Ben Turok, Rusty Bernstein, Dan Tloome and Raymond Mhlaba. (It would appear that Mandela was co-opted onto the Central Committee immediately after the conference.)

In the late 1962 / early 1963 memorandum the SACP said that at this meeting the Party had reviewed the experience and significance of the events during the State of Emergency earlier that year. These had revealed that the government “had passed from the stage where it was attempting to control and combat the people’s movement by parliamentary means; and had entered a period where resort would be had to open military-style rule whenever the government felt itself powerfully challenged.” Conference had thus concluded:

“a. That the peoples’ movement could no longer hope to continue along the road of exclusively non-violent forms of political struggle, and to do so would lead to the paralysis of the movement in the face of new government tactics, and to the disillusionment and spread of defeatism among the people.

b. That therefore steps should be taken to ensure that the whole people’s movement reconsidered its tactics of exclusive reliance on non-violent methods, and that a campaign of education and explanation be carried out throughout the movement to prepare for forcible forms of struggle when those became necessary or desirable.

c. That the Party CC should take steps to initiate the training and equipping of selected personnel in new methods of struggle, and thus prepare the nucleus of an adequate apparatus to lead struggles of a more forcible and violent struggle.”

Kotane’s report says that at some point – no date is given, but probably shortly after this conference decision – a sub-committee of the Central Committee was then charged with the task of:

“- acquiring few pieces of small arms with which to train personnel;

- finding a place where such training could be carried out; and

- training people in the making and use of ‘home-made’ explosives.”

Kotane says that at this early stage the Communist Party of China had offered military training to cadres selected by the SACP, and this offer had now been taken up. “We have decided to send five or six comrades for training in China, one is already there, two I left in Dar-es-Salaam and two or three were still in South Africa.” (The cadres who ended up being sent to China were Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Joe Gqabi, Wilton Mkwayi, Steven Naidoo and Patrick Abel Mthembu).

In December 1960 – the same month that the SACP had decided to turn away from non-violence and persuade the “people’s movement” to do the same – a group of black African leaders had met at a meeting in Orlando, Johannesburg, and decided upon holding an ‘All-In African Conference’ which would call for a national consultative conference of all the races. Anthony Sampson (1999) says that Mandela and Sisulu then went around the country making preparations for the conference, which was eventually held in Pietermaritzburg in March 1961, and which was addressed by Mandela (his banning order having expired shortly before.) Mandela had even approached Harry Oppenheimer in an (unsuccessful) effort to raise funds the conference from Anglo American.

Sampson describes this campaign as an “attempt at peaceful organisation with other parties” but Stephen Ellis (2012) notes that a close analysis of this campaign “concludes that this initiative was actually intended to provide opponents of armed struggle with a paper trail that would justify their change of policy.” Kotane’s report provides support for the latter interpretation. It states that “The African leaders’ conference held on the 16th December, 1960, which called the Pieter Maritzburg conference was one of the efforts at combining the illegal and the legal work. The conference was suggested by our Party and, the resolution adopted unanimously by that Conference was drafted by our Central Committee.”

The memorandum says that the correctness of the Party’s December 1960 decision was proved by the government’s aggressive response to the April 1961 strike against the proclamation of a Republic. “Despite the clearly peaceable intentions of the campaign and the repeated attempts made by the leaders of it to seek negotiation and discussion with the government, the government resorted openly to illegal and military-style methods to smash the campaign.”

In these conditions, the memorandum states, the “old methods of non-violent struggle and non-violent action proved themselves to be ineffective and were seen by the masses to be incapable of meeting their needs. Government resort to open force remained unanswered and unrestrained by the people’s movement; terror and confusion spread amongst the people; and the strike call, though supported by thousands of the most advanced of the urban workers, failed to achieve the nation-wide support which – in a different situation – would undoubtedly have followed. It was in the light of this graphic experience that the Party and the ANC pressed ahead with preparations to prepare their supporters and members of new methods of struggle.”

The formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe

The 1962/63 memorandum stated that following the adoption of the SACP’s December 1960 conference resolution (and in giving effect to "b.") “educational and propaganda work undertaken by our cadres in many fields has brought almost all politically active elements in the peoples’ movement to a single point of view – namely, that the former exclusive concentration on non-violent methods only no longer services the requirements of the movement, and that various forms of violent political struggle are necessary and desirable as a complement to the normal forms of political activity which are still being undertaken.”

The lead role in persuading first the ANC and then the other Congresses to abandon the principle of non-violence was taken by Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. In his 1976 prison manuscript Mandela writes that in June 1961 “the Working Committee of the ANC felt that resort to violence was inevitable and put the whole matter on the agenda of its National Executive which met in Durban that same month.” Despite “sharp differences” on the matter the NEC eventually “unanimously endorsed” the decision. This was then taken to a joint meeting of the Congresses the next evening which “lasted the whole night and in spite of disagreements we were able to reach a unanimous decision in the end.”

He was then asked by the ANC to “take the initiative in the formation of the organisation that would wage acts of violence and in due course units were formed in various centres. In the meantime the Communist Party had formed its own units and in October the same year they cut telephone and electricity cables in Johannesburg and on the Witwatersrand. Later when MK was formed the CP dissolved its units and the members joined MK. I was chairman of the National High Command of the Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) and on the 16th December 1961 MK announced its existence amidst a spate of bomb explosions in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban.”

The memorandum states that in 1961 the decision was taken by both the SACP and ANC “independently to set up a separate organisation as the beginning of a people’s fighting force, whose activities would be under the general direction and control of the established leading organisations of the people, but whose membership and apparatus would be entirely separated from those organisations.”

Among the considerations influencing this decision was that the SACP was not “and under present conditions does not in the immediate future expect to be of a mass character. Any exclusively Party fighting forces, therefore, could not possible have the mass popular character which a peoples force of national liberation should rightly have.”

The Party and the ANC had thus jointly assumed full responsibility for the formation of “a separate fighting organisation of a mass character” and that the “desirability of such a force being brought into being should be accepted by the legal partners to the United Front even though they themselves would not share in its control. Both the Party and the ANC, separately, therefore took decisions necessary to bring about such a state of affairs. By their two decisions, Umkonto We Sizwe (UWS) was established as a separate, fighting force of the peoples’ national liberation movement.”

The memorandum states however that SACP members had dominated the leadership of MK following its inception:

“The national leadership of UWS was composed of an equal number of men nominated by each of the two founding organisations. By virtue of the close fraternal links that exist between these organisations, and also by virtue of the positions and influence and leadership which individual Party members have won for themselves in the ANC, the national leadership thus constituted consisted of five members of the Party, together with one completely reliable and trustworthy non-party man who we regard as a close Party supporter on the verge of Party membership.”

According to Howard Barrell’s 1993 dissertation the initial high command was made up of five members: Nelson Mandela (commander in chief), Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and Joe Slovo. In an article in Dawn magazine in 1986 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the formation of MK Slovo also put Andrew Mlangeni on the initial High Command (though he was one of the SACP cadres sent to China for training in late 1961).

All six individuals were senior SACP members at the time, and the first five had attended the December 1960 SACP conference where the decision to turn to violence had been taken. Mlangeni had been nominated by the Party’s Johannesburg District Committee to attend as well, according to Hepple, but had been blocked by the Central Committee “because of what a commission appointed by the JDC later found to be wholly unfounded suspicions that he was a police informer (he was one of the Rivonia trialists in 1963).” Ellis and Lodge both suggest that the “sixth man” referred to in the memorandum was probably Joe Modise who had been co-opted onto the High Command by this time (after Mandela’s arrest) and who never ended up joining the Party.

The control exerted by SACP members over the top leadership of MK extended down through the organisation. “This national leadership”, the memorandum stated, “has, in turn, nominated regional command groups in several main regions, again on the same basis of full agreement between the two founding organisations. In all cases, the effective control is in the hands of members of the Party. Regional commands have recruited selected personnel from the ranks of the Party, the ANC and other tried political activists who have the special characters and abilities necessary for this specialised work. They have been formed into small, disciplined and highly secret groups under the direct control of regional commands, and are subject to a strict code of military discipline.” (My emphasis)

The Party seems to have kept a close eye on recruitment. Although members of MK were prohibited from disclosing their membership to any other person, “since recruiting is carried out only by decision of regional commands, Party District Committees are however aware of the facts as to which party members are to be approached to join UWS and are able to instruct them whether or not it is in the Party interests for them to do so.”

According to the memorandum the low level operations by MK had already transformed the political climate of the country. As it put it:

“Units of UWS have carried out a number of small scale operations, all of a sabotage nature, and with a gradually growing measure of success. These operations are becoming more numerous and more successful as the members acquire the skills and techniques which, generally speaking, were not available to them at the start. These operations have had a profound effect upon the political climate of the country. They have dissipated much of the gloom, despondency and defeatism which developed amongst the people after the crushing of the May 1961 Strike.”

On the influence exerted by the SACP over MK the memorandum was unequivocal:

“The overall strategy and direction of policy of UWS remains at all times in the hands of the leadership of the Party. The national command of UWS, consisting in the main of members of the Party, acts only in terms of the overall political policy, main lines of strategy and general direction of the Party leadership.”

The policy lines, under which MK operated, were contained in a resolution adopted at the Party’s national conference held in October 1962 (the same conference at which the Party’s programme the Road to South African Freedom had been adopted). This stated:

a. In the light of the unyielding determination of the ruling minority to make no concessions to the national movement and to use the utmost state force to suppress the national aspirations of the majority, Conference believes that the national democratic struggle is likely to be driven to increasing reliance on violent struggle, leading towards a mass insurrection of the people against the ruling class. In this situation, the national democratic movement must prepare an army of freedom fighters dedicated to the completion of the national democratic revolution.

b. Places on record its belief that at the present time, military and paramilitary forms of struggle do not constitute the main formers of struggle, but are still subsidiary and secondary to the traditional forms…

c. Recognises the fact that the nature of the revolutionary struggle on which we are engaged is such that aims will best be achieved by the building of a firm united front of all groups and classes whose interests lie in the ending of white domination. And that therefore any military or paramilitary activities which are conducted as part of the political struggle must at all times be conducted in such a manner as to preserve the united front.

“From this resolution”, the memorandum stated, “it will be clear that the general aim of the Party in this field of work is to develop a full-time peoples military force operating on guerrilla lines throughout the country, while at the same time developing and intensifying auxiliary activity of a sabotage character. UWS has already arranged the training in friendly territory abroad of a number of selected personnel from this country for both these purposes, and is embarked on a plan to expand their numbers considerably.”

For the moment however, the memorandum noted, sabotage remained the main form of activity which MK was capable of conducting. “Its targets have, thus far, been installations of the government itself and in particular its repressive organs, thus clearly establishing in the people’s minds the political orientation of UWS.”

The plan was however to soon target businesses and industrial concerns as well: “These operations are also to be extended against government-sponsored industrial establishments, and also against such foreign imperialist industrial establishments and local capitalist enterprises as are clearly important supporting props of the government itself and of the system of white supremacy generally.”

Although the memorandum suggested that the prospect of a non-violent transition had not disappeared completely – especially if foreign capitalist support for the regime collapsed – the government had committed itself to an all-out military campaign to beat back the opposition. “As time goes on, the prospects of peaceful transition in South Africa recede, and the prospects of a violent outcome become ever more likely. It is in the light of this developing situation that we are now anxious to make speedy improvements in our own preparations, and effect rapid improvements in the activities and scale of UWS.”

The SACP’s request for help from the Soviets appears to have received a sympathetic hearing. Following their meeting in Moscow Vella Pillay and Arthur Goldreich met officials of the Czechoslovakian communist party in London in February 1963. According to Ellis’ paper (2015), which cites a 2007 Czech academic article, they submitted a request for “three tons of plastic explosives, 10,000 detonators, 500 machine guns, 300 pistols, 2,000 automatic rifles and military training for MK recruits”.

The still evolving plans for the launching of guerilla warfare across the country were however thrown into disarray with the police raids on Liliesleaf farm and the capture of many of the conspirators in July 1963. 


It is clear that the view of the relationship between the African National Congress and South African Communist Party in the early 1960s constructed by the defence team in the Rivonia trial, and propagated by the liberation movement’s Western supporters subsequently, is no longer tenable.

As argued in a recent article Mandela’s Statement from the Dock was an extraordinary feat of political misdirection. For decades it has diverted the attention of Western academics, journalists and authors away from the SACP’s hugely influential October 1962 programme The Road to South African Freedom to which all the conspirators, as well as their lead counsel, had actually been committed.

On the turn to the armed struggle too, it is clear from the above SACP documents that, contrary to Mandela’s denials, the Party exercised an absolutely dominant initial role. Very little of what Mandela said about this period – either in his 1964 Statement or 1993 autobiography - should be taken as fact until it has been independently corroborated.

As Ellis drily notes: “Mandela’s insistence that he was not only the first chairman of Umkhonto we Sizwe’s national command but also the organisation’s real founder, and that the SACP played only a minor role, has to be reconciled with the fact that the armed force that came to be known as [MK] was originally conceived by a resolution of the Communist Party at its National Conference and that Party chieftains were adamant that they controlled it.”

The debunking of all the old pretences and denials probably comes as something of a relief to all strands of political opinion in South Africa. Afrikaner nationalist and liberal concerns over the extent of communist penetration of the ANC were, in hindsight, certainly not hallucinogenic.

Equally, the SACP can now finally claim full credit within the liberation movement for its role in launching the armed struggle, and shaping the ANC’s revolutionary nationalist ideology, without having to continually throw bones of disinformation to the movement’s (non-communist) supporters in the West. Indeed, it has been the openness of old comrades – in interviews, memoirs, and in turning over documents to the archives – which has been key in clearing up the fog of misinformation that had settled over our understanding of the ANC and SACP in the early 1960s.

If anyone is left looking gullible and ridiculous by these revelations it is the ANC’s Western liberal supporters and apologists.


Tom Lodge, “Secret Party: South African Communists between 1950 and 1960”, South African Historical Journal Vol. 67 , Iss. 4, 2015

Stephen Ellis, “Nelson Mandela, the South African Communist Party and the origins of Umkhonto we Sizwe”, Cold War History Vol. 16 , Iss. 1,2016

Vladimir Shubin, “ANC: A view from Moscow” (Second Revised Edition), (Jacan: Johannesburg, 2008)

Stephen Ellis External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960–1990, (Jonathan Ball: Johannesburg, 2012)

Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2013)

Bob Hepple, Young Man with a Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution, 1960–1963 (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2013)

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Abacus, 1995

Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)


[1] Tom Lodge, “Secret Party: South African Communists between 1950 and 1960”, South African Historical Journal Vol. 67 , Iss. 4, 2015. Lodge notes in his conclusion: “To an extent Karis’ observations were guided by the limitations of reliable information available at the time, but they also reflected the predispositions of liberal sympathisers of the ANC who maintained that the ‘independently minded African patriots’ who led the ANC were more than capable of prevailing in any collaboration they might undertake with communists.”

[2] Thomas G. Karis, “South African Liberation: The Communist Factor”, Foreign Policy magazine Volume 65 • Number 2 1986

[3] See Stephen Ellis External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960–1990, (Jonathan Ball: Johannesburg, 2012) and Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2013)

[4] Hepple says that only serving members of the SACP Central Committee were meant to know of this hideout. He was told by Joe Slovo, who took him there in 1961 despite this proscription (he was not a member of the CC at the time), “that the Party had got a substantial sum of money from abroad (he was not specific) and had to pay R24,000 for the house and farm. The Party had also bought a ship and a van.”