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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Communist Party of South Africa 1921-971

Fifty Fighting Years

A Lerumo

Nineteen Seventy One marked the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party of South Africa. This document is based on a series of articles contributed to the Party organ, the African Communist. It traces the Party's origins as a leftwing movement within the predominantly white labour movement into a fighting vanguard of national liberation.

The Sixties and Armed Struggle

By the end of the fifties it was plain that a showdown was impending between the fascist rulers of South Africa and the oppressed people. The great series of militant nonviolent struggles, general strikes and boycotts had succeeded in arousing the people and mobilising them behind the Congress banner as never before. But neither these campaigns nor the evermounting world chorus of condemnation of apartheid had succeeded in wringing a single concession from the Nationalist Party government, which merely reacted by redoubling its methods and machinery of terror. It became increasingly clear to the masses and their leaders that new methods, a new approach, was needed in the fight against the colonialistfascist regime. The violent struggles of the rural people, especially in Pondoland, unarmed or illarmed as they were, had shown the way.

The new phase of the struggle was precipitated by an unexpected and tragic event the massacre at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960.

As in every developed country various splits and divisions existed within the ranks of the oppressed and exploited people. Various 'left' or 'right' factions split away from the main body of the liberation movements, arising from petitbourgeois confusion or outside intrigues. For example in the Cape, especially among Coloured intellectuals, a body styling itself the 'NonEuropean Unity Movement', largely under Trotskyite influence had a long and malodorous record of sabotaging, under ultrarevolutionary slogans, every struggle launched by the Congress movement or the Communist Party. Several rightwing splinter movements had begun in the ANC, invariably under the slogans of antiCommunism and alleged Indian or European influence in the ANC

In the late fifties a new group of this type made its appearance in the ANC Calling themselves 'Africanists' they launched a campaign of vicious calumny against the LutuliSisulu leadership and the Freedom Charter. At the end of 1959 the Africanists, having failed dismally to gain support within the ANC, broke away to form their own organisation, the 'PanAfricanist Congress'.

The Sharpeville Massacre, March 1960

Little more might have been heard of this body had it not been for the grim incidents of the following March. Learning that the ANC had decided to launch a fresh major offensive against the pass laws at the end of that month, the PAC adventurously called its own 'antipass campaign' a week earlier. Africans were summoned to go to local police stations on that day and deliver up their passes in 'a nonviolent way'. For the most part, the call fell on deaf ears, the African workers awaiting a call from their recognised and tested leaders. But in two areas, Sharpeville in the Transvaal and Langa in the Cape in both of which ANC organisation was weak crowds of Africans did peacefully assemble at the police stations. The reaction of the police shocked South Africa and the world, exposing the police state in all its naked brutality. They opened fire with sten guns mounted on trucks, shooting the fleeing crowds in their backs, killing and wounding people indiscriminately.

The reaction was angry and immediate. In answer to the call of President Lutuli, Africans throughout the country staged a highlyeffective oneday strike, and thousands followed his example by burning their passes. Africans in Cape Town came out on strike for more than two weeks.

War on the People

The government declared war on the people. A state of emergency was proclaimed. At least twenty thousand young Africans were indiscriminately arrested and a further two thousand 'politicals' men and women of all national groups known or thought to be active in the ANC and other democratic organisations arrested and detained for months without trial. The African National Congress (and for good measure the PAC as well) were declared illegal organisations.

It was this crisis, coming on top of all the previous acts of repression, which convinced both the masses of oppressed people and their leaders that the days when resistance could be confined to 'nonviolent' and 'legal' methods had gone forever. The ANC, despite the loss of so many of its leaders and cadres, functioned throughout the emergency. The Communist Party which had already illegally, in October 1959, produced the first issue of The African Communist, in Johannesburg came out with its first illegal leaflets for mass distribution in all the main industrial regions of the country.

The leaders of the liberation movement and the Communist Party both those in detention and those who had evaded the police net and were living in hiding came to the same conclusion. It was necessary to abandon 'nonviolence' as the sole means of struggle, and to begin preparations to meet state violence and terror with retaliatory violence.

The Maritzburg Conference

These conclusions were strengthened by the temper of the masses as the historic 'allin' African conference held in Maritzburg under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in March 1961 protested against the socalled 'referendum' of white voters under which South Africa was to be declared a 'Republic'. The conference called for a National Convention to decide on a new constitution for South Africa, failing which a general strike would be called to coincide with the declaration of the Republic on 31 May, 1961.

In the event, the Republican 'celebrations' were overshadowed by the placing of the country on a war basis to smash the strike. Despite all these repressive measures and the treacherous scabbing activities of such bodies as the PAC and the Trotskyites tens of thousands of workers responded to the strike call throughout the country. It was the last peaceful general strike call issued by the liberation movement. During the years 19511961 the working class of South Africa had, time and again, shown its magnificent solidarity and spirit in a whole series of political strikes without strike funds and facing grave risks of victimisation. These strikes had been of immense value and importance. But the time had come for new tactics and methods.

Umkhonto We Sizwe

The people's patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa.Manifesto of Umkhonto We Sizwe, 16 December 1961

At the end of 1961, backed by the African National Congress and the Communist Party, a new organisation made its appearance on South African soil: Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation. It announced its existence not only in words but also in deeds a series of sabotage explosions in all parts of the country.

The explosions were accompanied by a manifesto declaring that in the situation of terror existing in the country the masses could no longer rely on peaceful methods of struggle but would hit back with every means in their power.

Umkhonto we Sizwe's sabotage operations were never intended as an end in themselves but as a stage towards the building of a people's army of liberation in South Africa. They served notice of the end of an era of militant, but nonviolent struggles alone; the opening shots in what will undoubtedly prove a long and bitter, but certainly in the end victorious, war of liberation.

The path of armed resistance and struggle was one not lightly or easily taken by the South African people's liberation movements and their Communist Party. For many years they had striven by every possible means, with indomitable courage, patience and persistence to achieve a nonviolent transition to people's power. Civil war has been forced upon our country by the racial arrogance, greed and ruthlessness of the colonialist ruling class.

The 1962 Programme

The general line and direction of Party policy was fully confirmed by the membership at the fifth national conference held illegally in Johannesburg in 1962.

The Conference performed an enormous service to the working class and oppressed people of our country by adopting the new Party Programme The Road to South African Freedom, intensive discussion of a first draft in every unit and among nonParty circles of revolutionary workers. Hundreds of amendments were submitted, considered and in many cases incorporated.

The Programme reaffirmed the Party's adherence to the fundamental principles of MarxismLeninism, which were briefly described and summarised (an essential need in a country where the dissemination of Marxist ideas had been prohibited for over a decade.)

It proceeded to give a clear Marxist analysis of the character of South African society a special type of colonialism 'in which the oppressing White nation occupied the same territory as the oppressed people themselves and lived side by side with them'. Hence:

As its immediate and foremost task, the South African Communist Party works for a united front of national liberation. It strives to unite all sections and classes of oppressed and democratic people for a national democratic revolution to destroy White domination. The main content of this Revolution will be the national liberation of the African people. Carried to its fulfilment, this revolution will at the same time put an end to every sort of race discrimination and privilege. The revolution will restore the land and the wealth of the country to the people, and guarantee democracy, freedom and equality of rights, and opportunities to all The Communist Party has no interests separate from those of the working people. The Communists are sons and daughters of the people, and share with them the overriding necessity to put an end to the suffering and humiliation of apartheid. The destruction of colonialism and the winning of national freedom is the essential condition and the key for future advance to the supreme aim of the Communist Party: the establishment of a socialist South Africa, laying the foundation of a classless, communist society.

The 1962 Programme marked a major advance in the theoretical development of the South African Communist Party, and indeed as in its section on 'The African Revolution' made a significant contribution to the development of Marxist thought throughout the continent.

This was continued and greatly amplified by the party's journal, The African Communist, which for more than a decade now has helped to spread the enlightening ideas of MarxismLeninism in Africa and among Africans and other interested thinkers in every part of the world.

An important statement, The Revolutionary Way Out published early in 1963 applied the thinking of the Party programme to a detailed analysis of events taking place in the country.

Heavy Blows

A whole series of heavy blows was sustained by the Communist Part, and the entire liberation movement during the first half of the sixties, at the hands of the fascist government and its secret police, modelled on the Gestapo.

The government was determined to smash every vestige of the valiant resisters who had so skilfully utilised every possibility of legal protest in the previous decade. All the journalists who had produced The Guardian and its successors down the years, as well as Fighting Talk, Liberation and other democratic journals, were served with ministerial notices preventing them from engaging in any sort of journalistic activity.

Many leading cadres were placed under housearrest. Intensive efforts were made to infiltrate police spies and provocateurs into the ranks of the movement. A very substantial addition was made to the funds and activities of the special branch of the police.

Countermeasures were taken by the liberation movement. A number of leading members, including O. R. Tambo, M. M. Kotane, J. B. Marks and Y. M. Dadoo were sent out of the country to conduct various aspects of the work of the movement in exile. Numbers of young militants were recruited and sent abroad for combat training as guerillas of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Following the example of Nelson Mandela, a number of leaders of the Party and the Congress organisations were directed to leave their homes and assume new identities and disguises. Secret headquarters were set up at a farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg and elsewhere.

Due to inexperience and to some extent underestimation of the enemy, many of these measures proved inadequate. Following a successful tour of Africa and elsewhere on behalf of the ANC Mandela returned to his underground work, but he was captured by the police in Natal.

In July 1963 a serious reverse was suffered when police raided the Party headquarters at Rivonia. What followed is described in the resolution* adopted by the Central Committee of the Party on its fiftieth anniversary:

Following a raid on the underground Party headquarters at Rivonia a number of the most outstanding revolutionary leaders, both Communists and nonCommunists, were arrested and tried on charges of planning to overthrow the state by armed revolutionary struggle. Despite worldwide protests, including a 1061 vote at the United Nations General Assembly, 8 of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment: Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Mhlaba, Goldberg, Kathrada, Motsoaledi and Mlangeni.

Hundreds of Congressites and Communists were detained without trial, subjected to prolonged torture and some even murdered in the police cells. The great majority of those detained refused to testify against their comrades, even to the point of death. But a few were broken by the police, resulting in yet further trials, such as that of Mkwayi, Kitson and others, also resulting in life sentences, the execution of the trade unionists Mini, Khayinga and Mkaba in November 1964, and the rounding up of thousands of Party and Congress supporters, and trade unionists throughout the country. A further heavy blow was sustained by the Party in 1965 with the arrest and sentence to life imprisonment of Comrade Abram Fischer who had been living in hiding and leading the underground work of the Party at that time.

Looksmart Ngudle, Babla Saloojee, Caleb Mayekiso, Alpheus Maliba, are but a few of the many Congressites, trade unionists, Communists and other political prisoners who died in the cells under torture and were alleged by the police to have taken their own lives.

It is impossible here to enumerate all the brave sons and daughters of South Africa who have been killed, imprisoned, deported to remote areas, and otherwise victimised by the fascists for fighting for the freedom of their country and their people.

At home, the revolutionary workers have patiently rebuilt the machinery of the Party, learning from past mistakes and creatively devising new methods and strategies to meet the terrorism of the police state. A number of Party leaflets distributed in the country, especially in the later sixties, their widespread distribution, and the inability of the police to make any arrests, attesting to the courage and skill of the comrades responsible.

A further tribute to the resilience and growing vitality of the Party was the successful holding of an augmented meeting of the Central Committee in 1970.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.