The ANC/SACP and the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring

Article by Leopold Scholtz with a comment by Paul Trewhela


Dr. Leopold Scholtz Die Burger (August 22 2008)

It was precisely 40 years ago this week that troops of the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact crossed the borders of Czechoslovakia and violently ended the short-lived experiment in "democratic communism" known as the Prague Spring.

It was the high point of Soviet power. In this way it effectively told the outside world: East of the Iron Curtain is my domain; I allow no meddling and no derogation from orthodox communism.

But at the same time it was the beginning of the end, since by this action the Soviet Union also demonstrated that communism could only survive by means of brute force. And that is an almost unthinkable ground on which any ideology or system may sustain itself.

It is also something that the previous government [in South Africa ] had to learn the hard way.

This history of 40 years ago is generally known.

What is less well known is an interesting South African resonance: the reaction of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC to these events.

Even before the Soviet invasion, the Central Committee of the SACP had described the Prague Spring as a "serious and growing threat" from "reactionary and anti-socialist forces".

It made a covert call to Moscow to intervene.

Four days after the invasion, the party described this step as a reaction to a request from the Czechoslovak Communist Party and government. Its purpose was "to defeat the threat of counter-revolution, of the restoration of capitalism and the opening up of Czechoslovakia to penetration by international imperialism".

If this step had not been taken, according to this statement, the international socialist community would "have failed in their duty to the Czechoslovak working people".

In a commentary, the SACP's theoretical quarterly, the African Communist, explained that the events in Czechoslovakia had to be seen against the background of the "central and overriding clash of our era - that between aggressive international imperialism on the one hand and the forces of socialism and human liberation on the other".

Not everyone in the SACP agreed with this. Joe Slovo's wife, Ruth First - known for her relatively independent thinking - sharply separated herself from her party's support for the invasion, but this thoroughly compromised her within the communist community. Only Slovo's influence saved her from being suspended.

People such as Hilda Bernstein, Paul Trewhela and Moeletsi Mbeki (Thabo's brother) were also sharply critical, and the last-named two resigned from the party. First and Bernstein were thoroughly marginalised.

Years later, Bernstein ascribed the SACP's uncritical approach in this matter to the Communist Party's belief that the Soviet Union "was the senior party, these were the people who knew everything... [At] that time this was the belief of the communists that these were the ones who held the truth".

The critical stance of First and others contributed possibly to the fact that the ANC reacted slowly to the invasion, by comparison with the SACP's immediate and enthusiastic support for it. Also, the process by which the SACP later took over the ANC had not yet been completed.

Initially, not a single word on the matter appeared in the ANC's most important journal, Sechaba. Only a month later did an official statement appear in Mayibuye under the name of Duma Nokwe, the movement's secretary general.

But at that point Nokwe was forthright. He pointed to the "dangerous situation" in Czechoslovakia "which was deliberately engineered by right-wing counter-revolutionaries with the support of imperialism". The Soviet invasion "will protect and consolidate the achievements" of the revolution and would place the two countries in a position "to march arm-in-arm to fulfil the objectives of international socialism".

The apartheid government (and its supporters) have reasons to be ashamed of certain aspects of their past.

But so too the SACP and the ANC.

[Leopold Scholtz is Die Burger's correspondent in Brussels. Translation from the original Afrikaans by Paul Trewhela.]


Paul Trewhela

I find this a helpful article, throwing important light on the totalitarian ideology of the SACP and the ANC in exile, with a bearing on the sacking of Thabo Mbeki as President of South Africa by the ruling political party, on the night of Friday 19 September.

Neither organisation has ever made a moral accounting for their oppressive stand at that time in support of the invasion of one country by another. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia continues to define the politics of the SACP and the ANC up to today, 40 years later, just as their support for this action led them to the setting up of their own apparatus of dictatorship over their own members in exile, as at Quatro prison camp in Angola, ten years later.

It was largely this arrogance of power on the part of the Mbeki administration that led to such widespread revulsion within the ANC itself that its leading members were swept out of the executive organs of the party at its national conference at Polokwane last December, and which has now led to Mbeki being swept from the Presidency of the country.

At Polokwane, all the artifices of political control at the disposal of Mbeki and his cabal could not save them from the wrath of ANC members. The slogan "Mugabeki" which appeared on banners at Polokwane expressed an understanding by ANC members of the despotic heritage summed up in Mbeki's administration, though not of the likely outcome of its successor.

Its leading members - Mbeki himself, his principal aide-de-camp, Essop Pahad, and his security chief, Ronnie Kasrils - were active and leading advocates in exile of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia . (Pahad was later for ten years installed in Prague as SACP representative on the board of the Soviet-funded World Marxist Review, upon the grave of Czechoslovak democracy).

In February 1984 they endorsed the same brute force against ANC members who were calling for a democratic conference during the non-violent "mutiny" at Viana camp outside Luanda, in Angola, and they used the same brute force once again to quash the results of a democratic election by all ANC members in Tanzania held in September 1989, just a few months before the release of Mandela and the return of the apparatus to South Africa. The first-hand history of these events can be studied here).

The SACP and the ANC returned to South Africa in 1990 as parties experienced in the practice as well as in the theory of dictatorship. This applies with equal force to both the Mbeki and the anti-Mbeki wings of the ANC, the difference being only that with Mbeki it was masked with more sophistication..

To the best of my knowledge, Dr Scholtz's article is accurate, except for some minor points.

I did not resign from the SACP after the Soviet invasion, having left the party more than a year previously, following discussions both with Bram Fischer (former chairman of the party) in Pretoria Local Prison early in 1967 and with Joe Slovo and Ruth First in London in June and July 1967.

I had worked in underground journalism for Umkhonto weSizwe in Johannesburg both with Ruth First (1962-63) and with Hilda Bernstein (1963-64), but had no contact with either of them in London either immediately before or immediately after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia . No discussions took place between us on the subject.

Moeletsi Mbeki, Dr Z Pallo Jordan (Minister of Arts and Culture) and I left the ANC together in London in late 1967, and we all opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia . However we had no political influence whatsoever. We confined ourselves mainly to study of revolutionary theory and to making individual political contacts. After the break-up of our study circle in London several years later, Moeletsi and Pallo each returned to the ANC. I did not.

I was not aware of Moeletsi ever having been a member of the SACP. He was critical of its politics long before the crushing of the Prague Spring. His political differences with his brother Thabo in London at that time are set out in Marx Gevisser's biography, Thabo Mbeki. The Dream Deferred (Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg , 2007) in chapter 16, "Old left, new left: Thabo and Moeletsi".

Pallo Jordan's very critical response to the Soviet invasion had its outcome 15 years later at ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, when he was detained without trial for six weeks by the ANC security department in 1983 under the accusation that "Leli intellectual laseMerika liijwayela kabi" (This American intellectual is messing us around). He had had the temerity to refer to its members as "amapholisa" (the loathed black police of the apartheid regime, which he believed they emulated).

More than a year prior to the Soviet invasion, Jordan had been deported to London from the United States, where he had been studying, on the grounds of his active involvement at university in Wisconsin in the movement against the war in Vietnam, the black power movement and the student movement. That was enough to damn him in the eyes of the ANC's Soviet clones as an "American intellectual". He is believed to have been rescued from a bad fate by the ANC president in exile, Oliver Tambo.

Jordan was never a member of the SACP. His and his parents' political roots lay in the anti-Stalinist politics of the Non-European Unity Movement. That too was enough to have damned him, in the eyes of the South African inheritors of the tradition of the KGB and the Stasi. It is a strange journey that has taken him from this semi-Trotskyist politics, through the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies and into the present National Executive of the ANC, which sacked Mbeki from the Presidency on Friday night.

The tradition of Soviet despotism remains alive and well in both the Zuma and the Mbeki wings of the ANC, let alone in the unregenerate SACP. As the former head of military intelligence within Umkhonto weSizwe and as a former member of the Central Committee of the SACP, Zuma is - in the words of Dr Vladimir Shubin, the principal controller of Soviet relations with the SACP and the ANC - a "Soviet graduate" who "understood Russian perfectly" (ANC: A View from Moscow, Mayibuye Books, Bellville, 1999. p.367).

A further clue to the direction of probable intended action by the SACP/ANC towards the judiciary and other civic institutions under the coming Zuma presidency was given last Friday - the day of the ANC executive's summary removal of Mbeki as President of South Africa - by a leading SACP member, ANC publicist and Zuma-supporter, Dominic Tweedie, of the Communist University of Johannesburg.

In a Comment (number ten) added to the end of James Myburgh's article, "A Trojan horse judgment? On Judge Nicholson's ruling in the Jacob Zuma case", which had been posted earlier the same day on Politicsweb, and writing under the pen-name "Domza", Tweedie provides a comment that deserves a careful study.

 Tweedie is a co-opted member of the executive committee of the Johannesburg branch of the SACP. (See here). Although it declares that it is "not a constitutional structure of the SACP", the Communist University habitually places formal statements and documents of the SACP on its website and seeks recruitment to the party. (See here).

There is no reason not to regard Tweedie as a reliable indicator of thinking and policy within the SACP, policy that now appears to be identical with that of the Zuma leadership of the ANC. Given the strict, top-down, centralised nature of the Communist Party under the Stalinist practice of "democratic centralism", it is improbable that Tweedie's writings can not be regarded as a clue to the probable politics of the coming Zuma presidency.

Tweedie's Comment on the judiciary, following Judge Nicholson's verdict, is available here). This is what Tweedie wrote:

"Nicholson, Msimang, Heath, Ngobeni for Con Court
The trouble, bequeathed by the Reverend Chaskalson and others and embraced by Pope Pius the Langa and the rest of the dik gang that sits around in robes in the shambles next to the half-finished megalomaniac parking garage between Braamfontein and Hillbrow, I say the trouble with the Con Court is that it has got things upside-down. It thinks it is higher than the people. Judges must have independence like all of us to do their jobs. There must be judge-made law that grows out of and contributes to precedent and through innovation. There must also be a sovereign parliament with the power to alter, strike out and codify any and all law at will, and not at the grace and pleasure of a group of arbitrary Supremes. The legal profession is divided in this country - divided along these lines. The current Con Hill mafia-of-the-mediocre must get off their high horses and say: Power to the People and Power to the People's Judges! And Mbeki must go quick before he starts interfering with the appointment of the next lot. by Domza on September 19 2008, 16:06."

It is easy to argue that these sentiments might be merely personal, and reflect merely the writer's own personal state. In my view that would be a mistake. Tweedie holds an executive position in the SACP, is an ardent exponent of its views and takes part in its actions. He is as good a first-hand witness as anyone else to the thinking of his fellow branch executive members in Johannesburg.

I will leave it to readers to work out for themselves the implications of this assault on the quality of jurisprudence of former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson - defender of the accused in the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64, a principal architect of South Africa's Constitution between 1990 and 1994, the former president of the Constitutional Court and current president of the International Commission of Jurists - as well that of Chief Justice Pius Langa and their colleagues. Readers may wish to consider the historical resonances in Tweedie's advocacy of "People's Judges", with its savour of the so-called "People's Courts" in other countries at other times.

In doing so, one may consider further the heritage bequeathed to South Africa by the SACP's advocacy and the ANC's endorsement of the invasion of Czechoslovakia forty years ago. The action of the ANC National Executive Committee on Friday night, illuminated by Domza's prose, has stripped away the last glimmers of the halo under which it assumed governmental power in 1994, and left us with the naked truth.

Note: Article amended September 21 2008