Secret Party: South African Communists between 1950 and 1960

Tom Lodge. South African Historical Journal. Volume 67, Issue 4. December 2015.

Since 1990 a rich body of autobiographical writing and interview testimony together with freshly available archival materials can support an assessment of the role played by South African communists in anti-apartheid opposition during the 1950s. Numbering only a few hundred, communists were very influential in leadership positions in the Congress Alliance and shaped programmes and actions in accordance with their own strategy of a united front. This article explores the ways on which the party established its own organisational structures as well as considering the extent and impact of its wider concerns.


In 1953, South African communists attended the first conference of their clandestine party, three years after the dissolution and prohibition of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The establishment of the new South African Communist Party (SACP) was preceded by the spread of clandestine networks constituted by former CPSA activists. The new party would remain unannounced until 1960. Members remained visibly active in other organisations until their arrests or exile would lead to the final destruction of its organised structures inside South Africa in 1965.

For a long time, information about the SACP in the 1950s and early 1960s would remain very restricted. The party’s own disclosures about its development in the 1950s supplied a most abrupt narrative. An authorised history by Michael Harmel writing under a pseudonym, ‘A. Lerumo’, became the standard source. In its treatment of this period, Harmel’s history mainly recapitulated the mass-based campaigning of the African National Congress (ANC) and its public allies in which ‘the Communist Party and its members played a worthy role’.

A little more information became available subsequently from other party publications. A volume of documents noted that the evolution of the ‘party line’ could be tracked through statements by key individuals published openly through the press during the 1950s. In exile, approved biographies of veteran members would appear periodically and these could supply occasional insights into the party’s inner life in the 1950s. Otherwise, though, the other main source of information about the SACP’s development during the 1950s was from the trials of Communist Party activists between 1965 and 1966 in which former party members testified as state witnesses. The reliability of such testimony was obviously questionable.

After legal restrictions on the party were lifted in 1990 its members began to speak more freely in interviews and to publish their memoirs which have become progressively more candid. A pioneering essay by Raymond Suttner has reconstructed the way the SACP established its ‘underground’ from such sources. More recently, archival materials have become accessible in university libraries. Archival sources, memoirs, biographies and oral testimony now illuminate a rich picture of the party’s clandestine activities inside South Africa up to the end of 1960 and they help us to understand much better the complexities of its relationship with the Congress Alliance, the larger movement in which its members were so busy. In this article I will sketch out the key features of this hidden history as well as assessing its wider significance in the scholarly interpretation of anti-apartheid resistance in the 1950s.

Reassembly: 1950-1953

A consideration of the state of the Communist Party at the time of its banning is a useful starting point because the new party would initially recruit exclusively from CPSA veterans. The most up to date information about the CPSA’s following in 1950 is contained in the national conference report of 1949. At that time it had 2,482 members. Most of these, 1,673, were black. There were 269 white, 428 Coloured and 112 Indian communists. The largest concentration of party membership was around Cape Town, just over a thousand, with nearly another thousand in and around Johannesburg. The report refers to smaller clusters of party activists in Durban, Pretoria, East London and Port Elizabeth and a few more in ‘outside areas’. About half the membership was drawn from ‘industrial workers’, about 450 members were farmworkers, 200 were ‘intellectuals’ or professionals and the rest housewives and domestics.

This picture was shaped by the information available to the Cape Town-based leadership. In the 1949 report, Port Elizabeth appears as a minor centre of party activity. In fact, as the memoirs of one of the key local leaders, Raymond Mhlaba, suggest, here from 1947 overlapping membership between the party and the ANC, in which party officials assumed leadership roles, helped to extend its influence and to create a habit of local ANC militancy. The party also encouraged trade union members to join and radicalise the ANC branches in their vicinity. In contrast to other regions, here the normally anti-communist Congress Youth League was well before 1950 ‘leftist’ in orientation with Mhlaba himself serving as its propaganda officer and in this capacity conducting Marxist study classes. Also unnoticed in the Party’s reports at this time was the expansion of communist recruitment in Johannesburg’s migrant worker communities, especially in the Denver and Jeppe hostels. Here too, in response to party policy, hostel-based communists, as well as playing an animated role as trade unionists, also joined the ANC. In the words of one of the Johannesburg party leaders, they brought to each of these agencies—that is the party, the ANC and the unions—’a very particular style of work that wasn’t indigenous to these organisations’.

Despite the predominance of black membership and the movement of African party cadres into the ANC, the party was beset by disagreements over strategy. In January 1950, the Central Committee’s report, after noting the CPSA’s expanding influence amongst Africans, addressed the issue of how the Party should build its relationship with the ANC. The report was sharply critical of both the ANC and its Youth League, arguing that the leadership of both were ‘liberal capitalists’ seeking only ‘the freedom [ … ] of squeezing profit out of the people’. Even so, the party should engage more closely with the national movement, with the objective of changing it ‘into a revolutionary party [ … ] distinct from the Communist Party but working closely with it’. In such a transformed party, ideological struggle promoted by the communists would help to ensure that ‘class conscious workers and peasants would constitute the main leadership’.

Michael Harmel, one of the party’s key thinkers, disagreed with this view. In an unpublished set of notes on the party’s history that he wrote in 1960, Harmel maintained that the report ‘was strongly criticised’ because of its perceived departure ‘from the established united front position’ and was rejected by the conference. Harmel himself felt the report revealed a ‘liquidationist’ predisposition and attributed its authorship to Jack Simons, a member of the party’s Central Committee through the 1940s, who later refused to join the SACP. United fronts had been prescribed Comintern policy from 1935 and they implied that communist parties should seek the broadest range of alliances with even bourgeois-led groups in the struggle against fascism. In the international communist movement this strategic line had been supplanted in 1947 by Andrei Zhdanov’s two camp theory, in which the world was divided into mutually antagonistic capitalist and anti-capitalist forces, and from this perspective, communist parties were supposed to avoid alliances with any bourgeois-led groups even in colonies.

South African communists do not seem to have paid much attention to Zhdanov’s ideas, though. CPSA documentation from the late 1940s makes it quite clear that the CPSA was still trying to build a united front against what it perceived as ‘fascist’ Afrikaner nationalism, not just with black organisations but with white parliamentary parties as well and of course with white labour. As we shall see, within the SACP there would be differences over the degree to which communists should seek to change the ANC, with Michael Harmel amongst those who believed that the ANC should still retain an African ‘national’ bourgeois element in its leadership and should therefore eschew explicitly socialist politics.

So, on the eve of its dissolution, the CPSA represented a small but effective political organisation, with its African members in one centre at least, Port Elizabeth, beginning to reorganise the ANC as a mass-based militant movement. It leadership, though, was divided by three strategic orientations. First there was a group who saw the party’s main future as working in alliance with the ANC. Within this group, though, as we have noted, there were disagreements about the degree to which the party should seek to transform the ANC ideologically and socially. Second, there was a small minority, especially in the Cape, who maintained reservations about any alliance with African nationalism and who argued that the party itself should build a mass African following as well as concentrating on extending the party’s work in building African trade unions. Finally, there was a small number who still believed that the party’s main mission should be to retain influence within the officially recognised labour movement, that is the registered unions, white, Indian and Coloured, as well as still seeking to influence white politics.

Who took the initiative to reorganise a communist party is an issue over which even insider accounts are at odds with each other. Harmel referred to ‘a group of comrades gathered around [ … ] Moses Kotane [ … who] decided to build the Party up on new lines’ in late 1950. Raymond Mhlaba remembered Kotane at this time visiting Port Elizabeth to discuss the party’s re-establishment. Rusty Bernstein, though, referred to two small groups that ‘started embryo parties’ that subsequently merged; the more assertive of these, he believed, ‘was composed of Wits students headed by Joe Slovo, Ruth First and Harold Wolpe’. Fred Carneson when interviewed remembered a meeting in Cape Town of former Central Committee members in mid-1951 to address the possibility of reconstitution. On this occasion many of the old leaders opposed illegal activity. Jack Simons was among those who opposed the party’s re-establishment; in his case, as noted above, he had already argued the case for working to transform the ANC into a revolutionary organisation, a task that did not require a separate organisation. It was at this juncture that the initiative shifted to the Transvaal-based communists. However, independently of the Transvaal groups, in Cape Town would-be underground communists including Albie Sachs, Dennis Goldberg and Ben Turok assembled in the Modern Youth Society and attended Marxist study classes given by Jack Simons. A band of white Modern Youth Society adherents took part in the ANC-led Defiance Campaign, courting arrest by using the ‘non-white’ entrance in the main post office. Though the Johannesburg-based groups succeeded by late 1952 in bringing most of these networks together, the complexity of the process merits emphasis because it helps to explain the continuation within it of divergent ideological beliefs and strategic predispositions. The party established District Committees in 1952 before holding its first formal national conference in 1953, Michael Harmel’s notes record, after a national meeting around Easter 1952 definitively undertook to form a new clandestine organisation. The early formation of separate District groups also helped to build doctrinal diversity into the new party.

The 1953 founding conference adopted the party’s new name, endorsed a brief interim programme of aims and instituted two key rules: members should maintain ‘total silence’ about the party until any decision to announce its existence and any recruitment should be sanctioned by ‘unanimous [District] committee decision’. The conference, held on the premises of a Indian-owned trading store in in the Eastern Transvaal, was attended by 25 delegates elected through a procedure in which members of the new organisation’s base units, three- to four-member ‘groups’ would nominate one of themselves and one other person that they guessed might belong to the new party. The District Committee would eliminate wrong guesses and provide a final list, adjusted to ensure racial, geographical and gender balance: in the words of Bernstein, ‘not quite Western style democracy, but as far as we dared to go.’ Groups were linked to the Committee by only one member and had no lateral contact with each other. The Central Committee elected at the conference was entrusted to co-opt additional members. These principles ensured that lower echelon members, even when elected or co-opted onto District Committees, remained uncertain about the identities of party leaders as well as members in other districts.

Who joined the new party? Brian Bunting told Sylvia Neame that before its prohibition the party ‘was full of people who were totally unsuitable for illegal work’. Only a small minority of the old membership was recruited into the clandestine units. Several CPSA veterans refused when they were approached including Edwin Mofutsanyana, Sam Kahn, and, as we have noted, Jack Simons. Issy Heymann, who had joined the CPSA in the mid-1930s, was only invited to join the SACP in 1959 after being initially asked by Michael Harmel to allow his business address to be used for secret correspondence: he believed he was being tested ‘to see if I was scared or if I would be conscientious about it’. In a report he delivered at a meeting of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Moses Kotane claimed that by 1961, the SACP had a membership of between 400 and 500 and this was after a recent phase of expansion. Ben Turok suggested that at the end of the 1950s SACP membership was much smaller, around 130. We know that recruitment was selective and vetted by party leadership and at least one well known Indian CPSA member, Ismail Meer, who wanted to join, believed he had been deliberately ‘discarded’. Another person keen to join, whose recruitment was delayed for a long time, was Harry Gwala, a former full-time CPSA official, and an energetic trade unionist in his home town of Pietermaritzburg. In anticipation of the party’s re-formation, he established a Marxist study group while he continued to build his rubber workers’ union. He finally joined the SACP in 1962. In his case, he thought, the reluctance to invite him into the new party may have been due to his own history of disagreements about the ‘style of working’ in the labour movement. As he told Sylvia Neame in 1989, ‘I don’t like orders coming from above’.

In the process, certain key constituencies of the old party were either to fall away altogether or would weaken in the new organisation. SACP membership would become increasingly African. African recruitment efforts especially targeted individuals who held local leadership positions—organisers of residents’ associations, for example, as well as trade union officials. As Turok observed, in the 1950s the Party was now a vanguard organisation and ‘the people we selected were key people, and each one had to be a leader in his or her own right’. The hostel-based migrant grouping in Johannesburg remained within the party: these were manufacturing workers, though the other township-based African members were likely to be engaged in either literate occupations or as small businessmen. Moses Kotane and Walter Sisulu, two of the most important African communists in the 1950s, maintained livelihoods as a furniture dealer and an estate agent respectively, while Govan Mbeki supplemented his salary from New Age from the proceeds of his wife’s shop in Idutywa in the Transkei. The Guardian and its successor, New Age, employed several distributors in different centres, all of them African communists, and as Fred Carneson, their manager, noted much later: ‘these people were not just newspaper sellers; they were top class political organisers.’ Walter Sisulu joined the party in 1955 while serving as the ANC’s secretary general after attending Michael Harmel’s Marxist study group and one year later he was co-opted onto the Central Committee. Port Elizabeth’s communists were led by Raymond Mhlaba, a dry cleaning worker, though, with his secondary schooling, untypically well-educated. Through the 1950s, a new emphasis on African recruitment would bring university graduates into the fold, what the party perceived to be a prestigious new intelligentsia: the lawyers Joe Matthews and Duma Nokwe were early entrants in this group. Govan Mbeki was a key mentoring influence for several of the Fort Hare students who joined the party around 1960, including Chris Hani and Zola Skweyiya as well as a young mathematics lecturer, Andrew Masondo. This entry of this fresh cohort was a development that prompted some discomfort among the older African working-class membership in Johannesburg. In the late 1950s, African recruitment efforts also began to focus on high schools. Success in enrolling African ‘intellectuals’ may have encouraged certain recruiters to become additionally restrictive in their selection. Natoo Babenia, who joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1962, was discouraged from joining the party, being told, apparently, that he ‘was not sufficiently intellectually adept’. He joined the party later, in prison.

The CPSA’s old presence in the white labour movement was not reproduced in the new party: the most conspicuous white trade-unionist in the CPSA, Danie du Plessis, was among those who opposed reconstitution. From the SACP’s inception, the Johannesburg-based party leadership seems to have given up any ambition to retain serious influence in the white labour movement. This is clear from Arnold Selby’s recollections. Selby joined a unit of the underground party in 1952, before the SACP’s formal establishment. This was a unit constituted wholly by trade unionists—Selby himself was at that time National Secretary of the African Textile Workers’ Union. Other group members included Lesley Massina, organiser of the African Laundry Workers, Vic Syfret from the (white) Amalgamated Engineering Workers’ Union, and Eli Weinberg, the group leader, who worked for the mainly white National Union of Distributive Workers. The group was directed to ‘concentrate on the organisation of African workers’, especially those who were unorganised workers, particularly those employed in larger scale undertakings, rather than in small factories, and especially those workers in ‘key concerns’ such as transport and engineering, a shift away from the areas in which African unionism had made its main inroads. To this end, Vic Syfret ‘did good work’ with the Non-European Railway and Harbour Workers, Selby recalled. Directives about union work were communicated to group members at their weekly meetings through visits by Michael Harmel, and more occasionally, Joe Slovo. In 1954, unit members proposed that they should set up a Workers’ Council of Action, a group they hoped would build opposition within the Trades and Labour Council to oppose impending job reservation legislation. This initiative was vetoed by party leadership for, as Joe Slovo told them, ‘this work was among existing unions but we should concentrate on organising the unorganised into strong mass industrial unions [ … ] this was the general line’. After the formation of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in 1955, the trade unionists unit was dissolved and its members were reassigned to other groups. One effect of this was to reduce the chances that trade unionists could function as a collective caucus within the party.

More surprising than its withdrawal from the white labour movement was the cessation of party influence within Indian trade unions in Durban. Indian unions had been a major arena of CPSA activity but ‘during the 1950s’ according to one veteran of the SACP’s Durban base, Rowley Arenstein, ‘Indian workers were left in the cold’. This was partly because union officials engaged in this sector who were also CPSA members were among the group that felt that communists should retain a ‘class-based’ emphasis in organising and concentrate on factory-based labour organisation. It was also the case, though, that through the 1940s the party in Durban shifted its strategic focus among Indians away from workplace concerns in favour of defence of broader rights. Betty du Toit and Mike Muller, key textile worker organisers, were among those who remained at odds with the new party; Du Toit had been involved in disagreements with the Cape CPSA leadership over trade union strategy for much of the 1940s. Pauline Podbrey was another key Indian labour organiser who became disaffected with the party in the early 1950s. Indian workers in Durban were discouraged from undertaking politically-motivated strikes by the threat of their replacement with Africans as indeed happened after the dismissals of 300 Indian workers following a local ANC-led stay away in June 1953.

Whites and Indians were not the only workers left out. In 1955, when busy as an organiser for the Congress of the People, Ben Turok encountered a group of Coloured farmworkers in Kraaifontein who had once constituted a CPSA branch and who had never been contacted by any political activists since the party’s dissolution. However, the Western Cape-based mainly Coloured Food and Canning Workers’ Union, as well as its African counterpart, were important bases for SACP recruitment through the 1950s, though rather oddly, Ray Alexander, its original secretary, was not on the initial list of former CPSA members asked to join the new party. She was invited and became a member in 1954.

When interviewed in 1986, Arenstein maintained that in the early 1950s, the new party leadership was rather inclined to be contemptuous of trade unionism viewing it as economistic ‘reformism’ and that their over-riding preoccupation with alliance with the national liberation movement meant that a low priority was accorded to labour organisation for its own sake. This is quite likely. Moses Kotane, the dominant African communist, and the SACP’s general secretary, was by his own admission ‘not by nature a trade unionist [ … and] more inclined to political things’.

As in the past, active white communists were often drawn from Baltic Jewish immigrants or their children. Of the 33 white communists mentioned in this article who probably constitute the larger share of white South Africans active in the party during the 1950s, at least 19 were either Lithuanian or Latvian born, or the children of parents born in Jewish communities in these countries. However, they were more likely to include well-educated middle-class professionals than had been the case with the CPSA’s leadership: the white liberal universities supplied a steady stream of recruits through the 1950s. People from a British-descended working class background, a prominent group in the CPSA’s early history, were rarer in the SACP: Fred Carneson, who first became a communist while working in Pietermaritzberg’s post office, was unusual in this respect. Another son of working-class English immigrants was Jack Hodgson, an ex-mineworker in both South Africa and Northern Rhodesia where he helped Roy Welensky set up the mineworkers’ union.

Despite their mostly middle class status, white members in Johannesburg usually lived in the comparatively modest suburbs, just adjacent to the city centre, Hillbrow’s apartment blocks, and small cottages in Bellevue and Yeoville. The lawyers tended to live better and indeed the comparative affluence of Joe Slovo’s and Ruth First’s household in Roosevelt Park apparently elicited a degree of resentment ‘among the lesser mortals of the movement’. The key personalities in the new party’s white leadership group were comparatively young, in their late 20s or early 30s, and a significant number had served as soldiers in the Second World War. Several of these army veterans—including Brian Bunting, Joe Slovo, Wolfie Kodesh, Fred Carneson and Lionel Bernstein—had returned home deeply impressed by what they took to be insurrectionary takeovers of Italian towns by communist partisans.

Regional variations in the party’s sociology may help to explain the political differences between districts. In Cape Town, Ben Turok, who joined the SACP in 1954, found that in this centre the party ‘tended to be sectarian’ and ‘work in the national movement was hampered by the insistence on class perspectives’. Here too there was an especially ‘uncritical identification with Soviet positions’. In general, he thought, communists in Cape Town ‘had a more leftist perspective’ than elsewhere. This may have been a consequence of the presence in Cape Town of an alternative Marxist tradition, at that time represented by Trotskyites in the Non-European Unity Movement. Turok’s impression of the Cape’s ideological fervour was confirmed by Denis Goldberg who also described the local party as ‘sectarian’, this time referring to the constraints on members’ personal lives.

In Johannesburg, it is likely that ‘cross pollination between the Communist Party and the national movement’—Bunting’s phrase—was most developed, and Moses Kotane’s local influence kept in check any propensities for ‘seeing the party as a rival to the ANC’. As we shall see, both Kotane and Michael Harmel, the party’s key theorist and also resident in Johannesburg, remained wary of any ‘transformationist’ approaches to the ANC. In Johannesburg, incidentally, the spatial features of racial segregation ensured that most party base units, the groups, were uni-racial, whereas in Durban and Cape Town groups were more racially mixed. African members on the Witwatersrand were especially likely to be fully absorbed in ANC-related activity. In Durban, the SACP began with comparatively few African members, for locally they had been in a minority in the old CPSA, a residual consequence of concentrated police action against the party after the 1930 anti-pass campaign. The most assertive African communists were trade unionists and Durban would emerge in the late 1950s with the strongest group of affiliates in the ANC-allied SACTU. The dominant personality intellectually in the Durban SACP, Rowley Arenstein, would argue that the chief task for the party should be building factory based organisation. These differences would affect the ways in which SACP members in each centre would understand the overall purpose of their activities and it is to strategic and ideological concerns that I will now turn.

Towards National Democracy

At its formation, the SACP decided that its members should involve themselves in legal mass work, in effect working within the ANC or allied organisations. The doctrinal justification for such a move drew on two arguments. The first of these was that South Africa was a ‘colony of a special type’. The second proposition was that, given this characteristic, communists should embrace a programme of ‘national democratic’ aims as a stage that would precede the full development of a socialist society.

A version of colonialism of a special type was spelled out in the CPSA’s Central Committee report of 1950, in which South Africa was depicted as containing ‘the characteristics of both an imperialist state and a colony’. In this setting, the ‘determining’ economic sectors, mining and agriculture, depended upon a colonial exploitation of rightless black workers by a white ‘imperialist’ state, a racial form of exploitation that inhibited workers’ development of class consciousness. The local presence of settlers from the ‘dominant imperialist nationality’ resulted in the exclusion of black people from the commercial opportunities normally available to privileged groups within the indigenous groups in other colonies. As the Congress movement developed a mass orientation, workers would increasingly constitute its leadership.

As the party’s theorists argued, because the ANC’s leadership was not constituted by an aspirant black bourgeoisie, then the national liberation that it would seek would not be bourgeois democracy, but something different. For what that something would be, by the early 1950s fresh perspectives about the kinds of societies that might emerge from anti-colonial movements were beginning to be available from Soviet authorities. Contrary to Zdhanov’s two-camp theory, anti-colonial ‘national bourgeoisies’ did not necessarily defer to imperialist interests, Soviet theorists were concluding by 1956. In newly independent countries there might be a ‘non-capitalist road’ to socialism in which liberal democracy and nationalisation of foreign monopoly enterprises under state ownership would allow room for domestic private undertakings. In seeking to achieve this, workers and black property owners had convergent interests.

Analysts of the party’s intellectual trajectory disagree about the degree to which its leaders kept themselves informed about international communist theory. Working from Soviet sources, Irina Filatova maintains that the really decisive impact in South Africa of Soviet notions of national democracy followed the first formal contact between the SACP and the CPSU in 1960, when the Soviet Party formally adopted the idea of a non-capitalist road. In fact, though, there was plenty of informal contact between South African communists and Soviet and other eastern European countries through the 1950s. Indeed, Rowley Arenstein believed that, for party ideologues, countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia represented models of national democracy. South Africans who emigrated to London constituted a special branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1953 and indeed several South African communists joined the British party before their own, some of them retaining dual membership of both parties. The London group helped to facilitate communications with other communist parties. By the end of the 1950s, a London unit of the SACP was formally constituted. South African communists who had arrived in London to undertake studies or for other reasons before 1948 were dissuaded from going home by the advent of National Party rule and particularly the prohibition of mixed marriages. The Immorality Act affected Vella Pillay, a South African Indian student in the UK, and his English wife Patsy, who made London their permanent home while remaining active in the South African party. Leslie Massina, first general secretary of SACTU visited Czechoslovakia for a short training course on trade unionism in 1954. Lionel Forman joined the SACP after returning from Czechoslovakia where he had been working for the International Union of Students between 1951 and 1953. After his return to South Africa, Forman maintained a vigorous correspondence ‘on the national question’ with the Russian Africanist, I.I. Potekhin, posting his letters to Vella Pillay for forwarding from London. Moses Kotane spent nearly a year outside South Africa in 1955 during which time he was hosted by members of the British Communist Party and attended an international youth festival in Warsaw. He also visited East Germany in 1956, apparently. The SACP sponsored a visit by six South Africans, mostly its own members, to the Soviet Union in 1956. A report written by Moses Kotane in 1961 suggests that on several occasions, ‘in the past’, the party despatched several people ‘to the GDR for technical training’. Newspapers and journals edited by party members through the 1950s paid plenty of attention to international communist developments.

Contemporary evidence suggests that South African communists were well aware of the underpinning rationale for national democracy through the 1950s. For example, in 1956 the barrister and journalist Lionel Forman was making the case for non-revolutionary roads to socialism in an issue of Fighting Talk, the former journal of the Springbok Legion, now edited by Ruth First. Two years earlier, in an article in the party-controlled weekly newspaper, Advance, Forman had addressed what nationhood could be in South Africa, urging his readers to ‘get over this weird idea that all national liberatory groups are “bourgeois national”‘. At a subsequent public symposium prompted by his article, Forman proposed that the national liberation movement had the potential to become a true people’s movement, ‘one that will not allow a mere transfer from national oppression [ … ] but will push forward to people’s democracy’. And just what a people’s democracy might embody was spelled out in the same year by Moses Kotane, in a pamphlet, South Africa’s Way Forward. A people’s democracy, Kotane explained, would have all the civic freedoms conventionally associated with democracy but it would be more egalitarian. Land would be shared ‘among its rightful owners’, big mining and other monopoly concerns would become public property, there would be good wages, social security and housing for the homeless. Progression to national democracy was not taken as a predetermined given or an inevitable prospect, though, it would require conscious effort to bring it about.

With respect to their ‘legal’ activism, the SACP’s members’ engagement with national liberation between 1953 and 1960 had three particular emphases. First, and most obviously, there were the party’s efforts to shape the ANC’s ideological predisposition. In 1954, after the ANC leadership decided to collect popular demands for a Freedom Charter, a National Working Committee assembled composed of representatives from the ANC itself and its allies. Lionel Bernstein joined this committee whose other members included Walter Sisulu for the ANC and Piet Beyleveld from South SACTU, both of whom were shortly to join the Party after a recruiting process that probably preceded their invitations onto the committee. Bernstein drafted the preliminary ‘Call’ for demands to be submitted for consideration at a Congress of the People one year later and a nationwide process of canvassing steered by provincial committees started. In his autobiography Bernstein describes in some detail the process through which demands were elicited. The committee decided that distilling from these demands a draft Charter was ‘just a writing job’ and entrusted this task to Bernstein. Working his way through thousands of scraps of paper, Bernstein ‘cobbled together a synthesis’. In doing this, he recalled, he ‘had no more idea of where to start than anyone else’ and he read through the materials ‘to get the general flavour’ and to identify general thematic categories, doing his best to ‘read into’ their contents a coherent ‘compromise or a consensus’. As he admitted ‘[the] most difficult part of the exercise was to keep my own opinions from influencing the draft’ and he insisted that even those clauses he wrote that prompted most contention, on land reform, nationalisation, and non-racialism were ‘everyday stuff’ among Congress activists.

This was probably true, but even so Bernstein’s understanding of political common sense may well have been affected by the programmatic concepts that he had helped to develop within the SACP. Certainly the Charter conformed closely with Kotane’s notion of a people’s democracy that he had outlined in his pamphlet in May 1954. On nationalisation, Bernstein suggests that what he had drafted was not intended as ‘a gateway to socialism’ but simply a means through which racial inequality could be addressed. Writing in 1960, Michael Harmel observed that the Freedom Charter was ‘identical in all its main provisions to the demands set forth in the immediate programme of the SACP adopted in 1953’. Moses Kotane, writing one year later, noted that ‘all major policy decisions’ undertaken by the liberation movement ‘either emanate from or have the approval of our C[entral] C[ommittee]’. Bernstein’s insistence that he did not intend the Charter’s provisions to be socialist is quite reconcilable with the way the Johannesburg communists understood national democracy. At the time, Moses Kotane also argued that the nationalisation advocated by the Charter was not a socialist measure.

From the more ‘leftist’ ethos of Cape Town, Ben Turok perceived things differently. Cape Town-based communists were determined that the Charter should be a reflection of the Party’s minimum programme, whereas Transvaal communists believed ‘the Party should lead but not drive’. Turok was invited to attend the Congress as one of 10 keynote speakers with the brief of introducing the economic clause. While staying with the Harmels, on the night before the Congress, he was shown a draft of the charter. He claimed that he redrafted the clause, amending it to stress ‘that the commanding heights should be in public ownership’. At the Congress itself in his speech Turok supplied a much more radical interpretation of the nationalisation provisions than Bernstein intended, telling his audience that there would be ‘a committee of the workers to run the Gold Mines [ … and] wherever there is a factory and where there are workers to be exploited, we say that the workers will take over the factories’. ‘Let us have a people’s committee to run the banks’, he added.

Turok’s account is at odds with Bernstein’s memoir. Bernstein wrote that the draft that Congress Alliance Joint Executive leaders reviewed the day before the Congress had already been printed and there were no changes to his original. Ben Turok, though, has been very insistent he was ‘the author of the economic clause in the Freedom Charter’. In 1985 he told me that the original version did not refer to the question of industrial ownership but just used vague language about sharing of material resources. Bernstein himself and other senior communists could not attend this meeting because they were banned. When Turok told Harmel about his speech, his host was a ‘little appalled’, for in calling for a ‘people’s democracy’, ‘we’d gone some way beyond where the movement wanted to be’. Nelson Mandela’s gloss on the Charter’s provisions, published in Liberation, the journal edited by Michael Harmel, in 1956, was more likely to be in tune with party orthodoxy when he suggested the ‘breakup’ and ‘democratisation’ of monopolies would ‘open fresh fields for the development of a non-European bourgeois class’. After this, ‘private enterprise’ would ‘flourish as never before’. In 1959, the Party itself in an editorial (written by Harmel) in the first issue of its own journal, the African Communist, declared its maintained adherence to a ‘United Front of National Liberation’ composed of all classes, ‘workers, peasants, intellectuals and businessmen’ (my italics).

The second way in which the Party would shape the ANC during the 1950s was through its contributions to the ANC’s organisational structure. In an organisation in which after the Defiance Campaign membership would reach around 100,000, a few hundred communists would constitute a tiny minority. But they wielded significant influence. In Port Elizabeth, party activists supplied the model for the ANC’s ambitious scheme to establish a cell based local organisation, drawing upon their own experiences of establishing party groups in New Brighton, and it was they who explained and proposed the scheme to Mandela during a visit he made to the Eastern Cape in 1953. It was in Port Elizabeth, ‘like nowhere else’ that the M-Plan was implemented. During the preparations for the Congress of the People, in several regions, it was SACP members working within SACTU structures who, according to oral testimony collected in the 1980s, ‘performed the lions’ share of the work’, particularly in organising the house to house collection of demands. So communists played an important role in helping to mobilise and train the ANC’s base level activists through the 1950s, introducing to them, as Bernstein noted, their own particular style of work and, at least in Port Elizabeth, where the ANC maintained local ‘political study groups’ using a syllabus drafted by Govan Mbeki, their own view of the world. And in one area at least, organising independently they brought a key new following into the ANC, when the hostel-based communists in Johannesburg, with Flag Boshielo and John Nkadimeng, created a body of migrant workers from Sekhukhuneland, Sebatakgomo, which they decided to ‘locate within the ANC’. The communist-managed press also supplied a key organisational resource for the ANC. This included a weekly newspaper, New Age, as well as the more occasional journals, Liberation and Fighting Talk. Aside from their propaganda functions, the newspapers and journals, particularly New Age, through its network of street sellers and corresponding reporters, supplied a national system of communication, linking party leadership with key local organisers.

Finally, and most importantly, with respect to organisation, the party provided a group of leaders, disciplined and trained, and despite internal disagreements, united by their vision of overall purpose. Kotane asserted in 1961 that communists effectively led the national liberation movement. As he noted, from their inception, communists were in the majority in SACTU’s executive as well as in the top echelons of the (white) Congress of Democrats. Within the ANC, SACP members held key positions. In the leadership elected in 1958, a communist, Duma Nokwe, became secretary general, in place of then banned Walter Sisulu, also a party member, and of the 10 other executive members, at least four others (Alfred Nzo, Leslie Massina, Gladstone Tshume, and Caleb Mayekiso) belonged to the Party.

An especially decisive effect of the party’s committed embrace of the national movement was the extent to which it directed the African trade union movement into a supportive role as an auxiliary formation. This was in direct contrast to the situation in the 1940s when many communist trade unionists maintained ‘slender contact with the party itself’ and held back from wider political commitments. In contrast, in certain regions, according to the Natal trade unionist and SACP member Billy Nair, ‘SACTU cadres were actually politicised, educated, in fact trained to staff Congress branches in the first place’, though, in this respect, Natal might have been rather exceptional. Rowley Arenstein also suggested that SACTU’s role was crucial in ensuring the Party’s influence over the ANC in Durban: between the two there was ‘an easy relationship’, he thought, though this would change after 1960. Oddly enough, the party did not enjoy the same favour with the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in which there was through the 1950s, according to one Indian activist, ‘virulent antagonism towards Communists’.

In which respects did Party influence make a difference with respect to the ANC leadership’s decision-making? To what extent did the party determine the choice of campaigning and the tactics that were employed? Tellingly, Brian Bunting, when interviewed by Sylvia Neame in 1986 and at that time not speaking for quotation, maintained that

in the 50’s [ … ] practically every initiative came from the Party … practically all the drive came from the Party. I can’t think of one basic decision taken from 1950 until Rivonia or even beyond that didn’t derive its authority from the party.

Writing in the 1990s, Joe Slovo maintained that ‘long before any of the campaigns waned, the question of “what next” had already been the subject matter for many [central committee] agendas’. Moses Kotane’s assertions in Moscow in 1961 suggest that essentially the party was in a commanding position, but it would be a simplification from this to conclude that ANC mass actions followed a preconceived party agenda. After all, in the document cited here, Kotane was seeking help from fraternal parties and he obviously needed to emphasise the decisive character of the party’s role.

With respect to some of the major set pieces of the period, we can be fairly sure the party did not always make the initial campaigning decision. In the case of the Defiance Campaign, the SACP was still in the process of being constituted. In Cape Town a very similar programme to the Defiance Campaign was conceived by the ex-CPSA dominated Franchise Action Committee in January 1951, but subsequent divisions within the Committee forestalled whole-hearted local communist commitment to the Defiance Campaign. The Congress of the People was originally proposed by Z.K. Matthews, provincial president of the ANC in the Cape; Joe Matthews’ father it is true, but not a communist. When, in 1959, the ANC decided to plan an anti-pass campaign, according to Lionel Bernstein, he and other Johannesburg-based party members had strong reservations, as they doubted that large masses of people would be willing to risk the penalties that the state would inflict on campaigners. The ‘decision [was] not ours but that of the ANC’. Ben Turok noted that party members were ‘not allowed to form caucuses within committees of the mass movement’ and they were able to disagree with each other at any debates within the Congresses. However the Johannesburg District Committee ‘met at least monthly to discuss various campaigns of the movement’ and in any case party members including Turok and Sisulu predominated within the Congress Alliance secretariat, ‘a kind of steering committee for the movement’. And ‘on difficult questions, Chief Lutuli bypassed his officials and sent for Moses’ Kotane. The ANC’s choice of campaigning issues was often reactive and opportunist rather than carefully premeditated. What does seem to be the case is that once decided upon, communists both collectively and individually impacted tactically on the ways in which campaigns were conducted.

In particular, it is possible to trace a consistent adherence to united front politics in the kinds of influence that the party exerted over ANC campaigning. Two key examples help to underline this point. According to Bunting, Moses Kotane, himself a resident in Alexandra, played an influential behind-the-scenes role in the Alexandra Bus Boycott, advising the local ANC leadership to include standholders, that is the local landlords, in their committee, and even to back the standholders’ association’s leader, Mr Mahlangu, as chairman of the committee. It was a decision that helped the local ANC to lose control on the boycott in its final stages as the stand-holders favoured a an unpopular compromise settlement with the bus owners and ANC leaders in Alexandra, who included two new SACP recruits, Thomas Nkobi and Alfred Nzo, who earned a rare rebuke from Michael Harmel for their ‘failure [ … ] to give positive leadership’ in New Age. Another communist, Moroka (Soweto) resident John Pule Motshabi, was the main organiser of a series of solidarity boycotts across the Witwatersrand.

Moses Kotane may also have been decisive in urging the ANC to merge SACTU’s minimum wage campaigning with broader concerns. In a pamphlet published in 1957, shortly after the Congress Alliance organised a well-supported ‘stay at home’ for a £1 a day minimum wage, Kotane argued the case for drawing ‘into the movement’ the widest array of groups possible, including the parliamentary opposition. All the signals were present, Kotane maintained, ‘of an ever-widening repudiation by Europeans of the Government’s terror policy and Apartheid’. Accordingly, in 1958, the ANC called for a three-day stoppage which combined the objectives of discouraging whites from voting for the National Party as well as maintaining the pressure for a minimum wage. A weak response, a consequence of the neglect of any factory-based preparation, convinced ANC leaders to call off the protest at the end of the first day.

Contemporary left-wing critics of both the ANC and the party excoriated the ANC leadership for ‘transform[ing] an essentially working class campaign into a broad political front’ and for substituting ‘a false slogan [ … ] “The Nats must go”‘ for the original minimum wage demand. They were critical not only of ANC leaders but also of a ‘group inside Congress who professed to be Marxists’ for ‘surrender[ing] the working class to the mercy of a middle class leadership’. More recent recollections by party members do suggest that these criticisms had a degree of validity. When the tactic was first conceived within the Communist Party, it divided opinion, with those members whose main organisational experience was in the union movement particularly arguing ‘that strikes had to be organised at the place of work’, not in townships. Communists in Durban, who even in their ANC activities emphasised factory-based mobilisation, disliked the tactic; as Rowley Arenstein put it, it was ‘Johannesburg’s theory, not ours’.

From the vantage point of the party’s leadership, Ben Turok conceded that ‘SACTU was often dissatisfied with the way worker issues were handled by us’. Trade unionists often felt that workers’ interests were given insufficient recognition and that there was even a bias against trade unionists. Turok himself drafted one of the 1958 stay-away exhortations and he remembers ‘Sisulu standing over my shoulder, monitoring the choice of language used’. Even SACP members, Turok recalled, were ‘restrained in their choice of language [ … ] about the political role of workers and the special class interests of workers’. Turok thinks that in Johannesburg SACTU officials were ‘economistic and workerist’, and this may have been true. In 1958, Betty du Toit, an influential organiser among textile workers, was herself heavily critical of what she termed ‘irresponsible strike actions’ arguing that workers would be less vulnerable to sanctions as well as police action if they used ‘alternative tactics, such as a go slow campaign at the workbench’. On the whole, through the 1950s and early 1960s, the key decisions that resulted with regard to the mobilisation of organised labour for political purposes were made by party leaders such as Moses Kotane and Walter Sisulu, who themselves were fairly disengaged from the trade unions. There were indications of continuing divisions within even the Johannesburg-based African party membership on how and when organised workers should be mobilised but top leaders’ commitment to united front strategies did not waver.

Illegal Work Up to 1960

Running parallel to its Congress Alliance directed activities, the party maintained its own separate undertakings. These included ‘regular and formal meetings’ by its Central and District Committees and, between 1953 and 1962, six national delegate congresses. Indeed, as Turok wryly conceded in one interview, through the 1950s and up to 1960, the party ‘didn’t do anything in its own right apart from having meetings’. Congresses initially were attended by around 20 delegates but they became larger and more representative subsequently. Turok attended a Congress in 1954 in a deserted factory outside Johannesburg: it ‘came to life when Harmel, the undoubted brain of the movement, took over’. During the 1956-1961 Treason Trial proceedings, Moses Kotane was attending Central Committee meetings three times a week, apparently; those charged in the trial included a large proportion of the party’s leadership and their enforced assembly in court facilitated such meetings. Groups also maintained a regular schedule of at least monthly meetings, sometimes holding them in cars if they included African and white members.

Until 1959, aside from evaluating and planning the party’s contributions to Congress campaigning, the main purposes of these meetings were to exercise oversight over recruitment and to discuss internal documents generated by the Central Committee. As noted above, recruitment was initially very cautious. There was a special ‘D’ category of members of people who had not been CPSA members, who had not been jailed for political offences and who did not engage with Congress bodies but whose function was to perform ‘deep cover’ tasks, including, later, the purchase of property for the party. Training and education of new members was a priority assigned to the groups. Ben Turok ran a study class with new Alexandra members, and he recollected coaching Thomas Nkobi and Alfred Nzo in dialectical materialism in his car. Fundraising was another task. No communists themselves had easy access to private fortunes, though a few came from quite wealthy families. Those with incomes paid a tithe. In practice the main external source of party funding were contributions from sympathetic Indian traders. Yusuf Dadoo’s eminent social status within the Indian community as ‘Gandhi’s favourite son’, with his picture in every Indian home, was particularly helpful in eliciting these donations. Party members reciprocated this generosity as several of them for the first time became business proprietors, lending their names to serve as ‘fronts’ for Indian run businesses threatened with closure under the Group Areas Act. Indians in Natal also contributed most of the donations that helped to pay for printing New Age, a reward for the newspaper’s defence of rights threatened by Group Areas. In Johannesburg, the newspaper also supported its costs through a Christmas Hamper savings club, itself providing a modest livelihood for party activists.

No copies of the internal confidential documents circulated through the party’s clandestine organisation for this period are available yet in any archive except for those that eventually became public statements published through the legal newspapers and journals or by other organisations. These included Kotane’s South Africa’s Way Forward and Michael Harmel’s cautious assessment of Kruschev’s revelations at the Soviet Party’s twentieth congress. Apparently the Central Committee devoted ‘several meetings’ to a consideration of the congress’s proceedings, before concluding that despite the ‘great accomplishments and achievements of Stalin, whose place in history is secure’, communists needed to acknowledge ‘mistakes’, including ‘violations of collective leadership’, and the framing of innocent people. ‘Violations of socialist law’ were at least partly attributable to the ‘incorrect theory of the intensification of class struggle after the defeat of capitalism’. On the whole, this kind of rationalisation sufficed for most South African communists, though Hilda Bernstein much later told one researcher that ‘1956 was a key year for me [ … ] because of the revelations of Kruschev’. That year, the Soviet invasion of Hungary prompted ‘another crisis of belief’. In Johannesburg Monty and Myrtle Berman protested against the invasion and were expelled, though this was after a history of disaffection with the party line: they refused to join the Congress of Democrats, for example, because it was a whites-only organisation. More typical among Johannesburg-based communists was Bram Fischer’s reaction to Kruschev’s revelations. He once asked Bob Hepple if there was any authority that refuted the reports about Stalin’s crimes. Hepple told him the case against Stalin was unchallengeable. On hearing this Bram Fischer shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Well, we now know what to avoid when we establish communism here’.

In Cape Town, there was sufficient disquiet over the Hungarian events for Fred Carneson to summon a meeting of group leaders at which he explained that country had been a home of reaction for decades, an argument that was subsequently reproduced in New Age. Lionel Forman was ‘more or less a lone voice’ in maintaining his objections to the Soviet invasion. According to his wife, Lionel Forman was troubled by some of the developments in Czechoslovakia during his time there including the Slansky trial. Hilda Bernstein when interviewed in 1984 suggested that the invasion of Hungary did not really disturb the party’s composure, though ‘there were a few people [ … ] white intellectuals, who were very upset’. These intellectuals may have included Bernstein herself as well as Ruth First, whose political differences over Communist orthodoxy were a continual source of domestic tension with Joe Slovo.

Aside from such external sources of dissension, the issue that party members most frequently mention as a matter over which they disagreed was secrecy. Clandestine operational rules were not the problem and the use of false names, coded communications, discreet venues, and an organisational structure that kept the identity of party membership even internally hidden were accepted as common sense, even within families. But there were arguments at all the early congresses over whether the party should publicise its existence. At the end of 1955 there seems to have been an early decision to do so because Bob Hepple was given a party ‘manifesto’ to take with him on a trip to London for printing but then the operation was halted because Moses Kotane had received advice against it while visiting East Germany. Generally Moses Kotane and other party leaders who worked most closely with non-communist ANC principals in any case favoured silence fearing that an open announcement would alienate tacit allies as did trade unionists. In October 1959, after the fourth Congress held on the premises of a furniture factory owned by Julius First (Ruth First’s father), the launch of African Communist (though not initially identified as the party’s journal) was the consequence of a compromise suggested by Bernstein after a debate in which Joe Slovo had proposed the party’s ’emergence’. The first issue was cyclostyled in a thousand copies and from then onwards the distribution of party propaganda would become a main function of the groups. The CPGB arranged and paid for the printing of the next few editions of the journal after being asked to by South Africans living in London. Secrecy about the party’s existence was an issue connected to the way its leaders understood their relationship with the ANC, and there is at least one significant indication that this too remained contentious. John Pule Motshabi much later suggested that the admission into the party’s top leadership of African ‘intellectuals’ from the ANC’s leadership was opposed by African workers in the party including himself, David Bopape and J.B. Marks. As already noted, Ben Turok’s autobiography recalls from his own experience of working with J.B. Marks that he and other trade union leaders felt that, within the Congress Alliance, ‘working class interests were not given sufficient recognition’.

Emergency and After

After the ANC’s banning at the outset of the state of emergency on 31 March 1960, the distinction for party activists between ‘legal’ undertakings conducted within the Congress Alliance and illegal party work disappeared. In contrast to its development in the 1950s, this phase of the SACP’s history has been the focus of recent scholarship, centred particularly on its role in the decisions which led to the ANC’s embrace of armed struggle. In particular Stephen Ellis’s work has offered major revisions in what had been the general understanding of how this happened. Our narrative will take the Party’s development up to the end of 1960. Its public announcement of existence during this year and its tentative embrace of armed tactics represent the closure of this phase of its development. The decision to abandon complete secrecy was followed by an expansion in recruitment and other changes: 1960 does represent the final year in a distinct phase in the party’s history.

The party’s own historians and older scholarship projected the adoption of violence as a consequence of the banning of mass campaigning and a process in which during 1961 non-communist ANC leaders and Communist Party strategists simultaneously started questioning the utility of the tactics they had employed through the 1950s. South African researchers assembled in the SADET project and drawing upon oral testimonies from MK veterans they collected in the late 1990s and early 2000s were the first to encounter evidence that the Communist Party had made a collective decision to take up arms before the end of 1960, though individuals in both organisations had begun to consider the use of violence much earlier. Ellis’s research exploits fresh testimony and draws upon additional archival sources to confirm that both among Communist Party and ANC rank and file, well before 1960, some people had already been considering the use of use armed action, especially in the Eastern Cape. When it came to systematic organisation of urban guerrilla warfare, though, the party made the key decisions well before the ANC was able to and it was to predominate within MK’s command structure, particularly as a consequence of Nelson Mandela’s joining the party at some point in 1960. Claims about Mandela’s membership had already appeared in certain memoirs but for Stephen Ellis confirmation of this was offered by John Pule Motshabi’s assertions recorded in party documentation filed in the Simons’ papers. As will become clear, the records used in this research for this paper add both detail and complexity to Ellis’s narrative, qualifying some of his findings.

In the standard historiography about this period, the period between the Sharpeville massacre and the stay at home called in May 1961 in protest against South Africa’s declaration of a Republic, is presented as the time when it became clear to ‘the leaders of the Liberation movement and the Communist Party’, in Michael Harmel’s words, that ‘[i]t was necessary to abandon “non violence”‘ as impractical, a recognition that was ‘strengthened by the temper of the masses’. In reality, though, the party’s own expansion of organised activity during the emergency as well as the survival of ANC activist networks in certain areas suggests that there remained scope for non-violent kinds of militant opposition.

Johannesburg-based party leaders heard rumours that the police were about to arrest Congress supporters en masse just before the emergency came into force. Even so most of the party’s leadership in its main centres were detained and 150 or so communists were arrested altogether. Moses Kotane and Michael Harmel were among those who evaded arrest to live in nine ‘safe houses’, some of them supplied by ‘D category’ party adherents. Ben Turok shared various cramped quarters with them for several months and Turok claims that these refuges became hubs ‘of campaigning and planning’. On several occasions Kotane travelled around Johannesburg in a car driven by Wolfie Kodesh, making contact with any party and ANC networks whose members remained at liberty. Re-establishing the party’s networks was made more difficult apparently, because Michael Harmel had mislaid a secret list of contacts, one in a series of breaches of security procedures for which he would acquire a reputation.

Late in the emergency, Ben Turok was able to visit Port Elizabeth to discuss the ‘rebuilding’ of organisation with Raymond Mhlaba. In June, what Harmel termed an ‘enlarged Central Committee meeting’, and what Bernstein suggests was a ‘rump’ of the Central Committee, decided, despite objections from Kotane, that the party should announce its existence, a decision that was publicised by a leaflet. Bunting notes that ANC people in townships helped to distribute this leaflet and that by the end of the emergency ‘the party had a team of several hundred activists at its disposal in the Johannesburg townships’. Distributing and posting subsequent leaflet issues in the party’s name now became a key activity undertaken by its local units. In Cape Town, at least, mailing lists were compiled from telephone directories and hence were mainly of white people. A visitor from the CPGB brought £1000 in response to an appeal sent by the South Africans in April and this helped to pay for printing and costs of renting flats for hide-outs. Harmel’s memo, written at the end of 1960, suggested that the party became stronger during the emergency, and in Johannesburg at least, Bernstein thinks, the emergency made relations with the ANC easier. The party recruited more members from among the detainees, which helped to expand its reach amongst ANC followers who remained committed to activism. At the same time, because of the end of open Congress Alliance campaigning, it became possible ‘to allocate more cadres to purely party work’.

Such claims about organisational resilience need to be treated with circumspection. But it does seem quite plausible that a body that over the preceding decade had made a point of recruiting people who were already leaders of other groups might well have expanded its influence within the wider movement. And where non-banned Alliance partners had a well-organised local presence, activist campaigning remained possible. In Durban, the NIC supplied offices and networks through which it was still possible to mobilise mass protest during the emergency: Babenia, who worked as the NIC’s district organiser, supplies examples of such protests. He also shows how leaders and members of ANC branches were in certain areas able to regroup around the residents’ associations that in any case were often led by Congress activists: the Kwa Mashu residents’ association was a case in point led by Curnick Ndhlovu, a party member. Here, partly because of the survival of active ANC networks with a popular following, the party’s influence came under stronger challenge: Babenia identifies a group of vigorous ANC leaders who were to become increasing hostile to the party in Durban.

During the emergency, the party’s organisational structure became more elaborate. A sub-group of the Central Committee, a working committee, was assembling for weekly meetings by the end of the emergency. There are references in memoirs of this period to the functioning of party Area Committees which may have been a consequence of the growth in the number of groups, though it would have also helped to increase security as groups would cease having direct representation on the district bodies. Several sources indicate that the pace of recruitment increased and that it became less selective. Jean Middleton joined in late 1960 after becoming friends with Hilda Bernstein whom she knew from their shared activities on the Peace Council. She had ‘heard of only two potential recruits who refused to join, and both promised to keep the secret’. In the 1950s, the party would only recruit people after its leaders were quite certain about their motivations. Her all-white unit or group ‘focused on contact with young people’ concentrating on recent entrants to the Congress of Democrats, whom they mentored through a series of activities that tested commitment and courage, night-time spray-painting ANC slogans, for example. More than a decade later it was still possible to make out the text of one of their exhortations in a rundown park on Yeoville’s Rockey Street: ‘An attack on communism is an attack on you.’

In general, in the cases of Jean Middleton and her closest comrades, their work emphasised propaganda circulation and one of their tasks was the compilation of mailing lists for Hilda Bernstein. As the vetting and criteria for selection of new members loosened, the party became more vulnerable and one of Jean Middleton’s group’s recruits in late 1962 was Gerard Ludi, the first policeman to infiltrate the party. He would later complain that following his entry into the party, ‘in reality there was little action beyond manufacturing and distributing vast quantities of posters and leaflets’, some of them reproduced with a child’s toy printing set. In general, party leaders now favoured evidence of commitment over doctrinal preparedness: recruiters were encouraged to ‘discard the conservative approach[es]’ that had prevailed earlier. Jean Middleton later joined an Area Committee, also all white, and here she became more familiar with the party’s overall structure. Habitually, Area Committee members used code names in speaking with and about each other, as had been the case with the group with individuals using different names in the different organisational echelons.

The party’s decision to organise armed groups was probably influenced by the reports it was receiving of rural rebellion. Moses Kotane, writing in 1961, claimed the ‘Party could report successes of the peasants in Pondoland, Sekhukhuniland, Zululand and Western Transvaal’. Ben Turok visited the leaders of the Mpondo mountain committee in November 1960 on behalf of the ANC and was asked when Congress was going to supply them with weapons. There were earlier contacts, before the emergency between the Mpondos and the Port Elizabeth SACP/ANC principals after requests ‘for assistance against government troops’. The Port Elizabeth leaders were divided with Govan Mbeki favouring helping the Mpondos and Raymond Mhlaba against this because he was convinced the revolt would fail. Mhlaba himself had no objections to using violence; indeed, he recalls he had suggested that ‘we should fight the Boers’ several times at SACP meetings and discussed the issue in some depth with Rusty Bernstein in 1959. Certain narratives emphasise discussions among the emergency detainees as the main generator of the party’s policy turn on violence, though interestingly, Bernstein, who with Slovo was the last of the detainees to be released, tells that on the last few days of their detention ‘we [had] run out of things to talk about’. Ben Turok maintains that the key agency was supplied by Michael Harmel who wrote a strategic reassessment during the emergency that he presented to Kotane.

According to his biographer, Yusuf Dadoo when he left South Africa at the beginning of the emergency had become an advocate of ‘a radical departure in tactics and strategy [ … ] for a turn to armed struggle’. While visiting Peking in October 1960, Dadoo explained to Mao Tse Tung that ‘South Africa’s armed struggle could not follow China’s strategy of a long march’, an argument that implies that he too, as in the case of Raymond Mhlaba, had reservations about an initially peasant-based insurgency. Mao listened politely but was non-committal apparently, though the Chinese did provide military training the following year. For the Chinese, their priority in receiving their South African visitors was to lecture them about the pitfalls of Soviet revisionism. In the 1990s Joe Matthews told researchers that he and Michael Harmel discussed the proposed policy switch with Soviet officials in November 1960 as members of a delegation the SACP sent to attend an international conference of communist parties but Russian sources working with archival materials believe that this happened later, in 1961. This seems more likely as the documents that survive from 1960 in which party leaders are obviously describing their organisation to close ‘fraternal’ allies do not refer to violence. Soviet officials did agree to provide money, USD30,000, which probably explains how the Party was able to buy a farm in Rivonia, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in mid-1961 to serve as its headquarters as well as another rural property.

Formal acceptance of violent tactics was at a conference held on 16 December 1960. Before this meeting, a version of Harmel’s paper evocatively entitled ‘What is to be done’ was circulated to party groups as a ‘study document’. In Bernstein’s memoir the resolution on violence was ‘squeezed into the agenda at the tail end of the conference’ and was discussed cursorily. Over a three-day meeting most of the time was taken up by Michael Harmel’s report on the events at the international communist meeting he had recently returned from, which itself had been pre-occupied with the Sino-Soviet dispute. His description of this part of the proceedings was a revelation for his listeners because until then ‘we did not appreciate the depth of bitterness’. Indeed, the year before, a New Age report had quoted Chou en Lai reassuring the Soviet party that ‘Bonds between China and the USSR [were] unbreakable’. All accounts of the meeting concur that the discussion of the resolution was abrupt and there was no real disagreement. Turok has Bernstein reading the resolution and after its adoption burning the document but in fact a text has survived. The wording of the resolution is reproduced in a typed internal memorandum probably written in late 1962 or early 1963. The resolution first acknowledged that ‘the people’s movement could no longer’ maintain ‘exclusively non-violent forms of political struggle’ given ‘new government tactics’ and the risks of ‘disillusionment and spread of defeatism’. Therefore, it urged, activists should undertake ‘a campaign of education and explanation be carried out within the movement to prepare for forcible forms of struggle when these became necessary or desirable’. In the meantime:

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 character.

This wording stops short of an immediate and unequivocal commitment to armed action. Bernstein’s memory was that ‘we took what was no more than an interim decision. The Central Committee would consider the matter further’, though in the meantime small units would be established ‘to familiarise themselves with the practice and techniques of forms of armed struggle’.

Reporting in Moscow in November 1961, Moses Kotane told Soviet party officials that at the conference they had agreed that in future they would ’employ some elements of violence during our mass struggles, such as picketing and disruption of communications’, and a sub-committee of the Central Committee would consider any further steps ‘to be taken in anticipation of armed struggle’. This sub-committee would obtain small arms and organise training in the use of home-made explosives. Bob Hepple, who helped organise the conference and attended it as a member of the Johannesburg District Committee, has been emphatic that there was ‘no suggestion at this time of full-scale guerrilla war’. According to Turok, Kotane remained critical of the decision to use violence for the next couple of years at least, though he later told Bunting that he had thought ‘the resort to violence was unavoidable’. At the time, though, Hepple recalls Kotane as arguing that ‘there [was] still room for then old methods if we are imaginative and determined enough’. Perhaps reluctantly, Kotane nevertheless played a crucial intermediary role in persuading Chief Luthuli to accede in June 1961 to the establishment of MK, though Mandela’s voice was also very important in this. In fact, Luthuli remained apprehensive about the embrace of even limited violence and was explicitly critical of the ANC’s apparent abandonment of ‘the militant non violent techniques’ of its former mass campaigning. More widely within the Natal provincial ANC leadership there was unease about Umkhonto’s activities, if Bruno Mtolo’s account is to be trusted. While African communists remained deferential to the Chief, their comrades were less polite. When Mandela announced his intention to visit Luthuli after returning from Ethiopia, Joe Slovo’s reaction was derisive: ‘Why report to that old buffer?’ he was reported to have said.

The December 1960 decision was opposed in Durban by at least one locally-influential personality who had not attended the meeting. Rowley Arenstein felt that the move was premature and unnecessary and that the party should instead ’emphasise building organisation in the factories’. In Durban SACTU was still capable of maintaining robust industrial militancy, Arenstein believed. He was also critical of what he perceived to be ‘the undermining [of] the ANC leadership with [the] establishment of ad hoc committees that left out the leaders of the ANC’. Arenstein was also predisposed to side with China in the Sino-Soviet rift at a time when the party was still undecided on the issue and was called to a meeting in Johannesburg and reproved sharply by Kotane. Every time the party made a decision Arenstein was in opposition, Kotane scolded; ‘You are standing alone. Why is this?’ Arenstein recalled that after the December conference the Central Committee had circulated a statement condemning Mao’s position as un-Marxist, but no such attack appeared in African Communist during 1961 and, in October 1961, after receiving an unsolicited invitation from the Chinese, the party would send six of its members including Raymond Mhlaba to China for military training. However, how much influence Arenstein’s views had—even among SACP members who were close friends of his such as the trade unionists George and Vera Ponnen and Ronnie Kasrils, a cousin of his wife—is questionable. Kasrils joined the Party in 1961 and was inducted into Arenstein’s group; shortly afterwards he became a resourceful regional commander for Umkhonto in Durban.

No time was lost in recruiting ‘proto armed units’ in each of the party’s districts. Bernstein noted that by June 1961 these had ‘been running for some time’. The party’s small group of ex-servicemen were conspicuous in the leadership of the earliest units: Wolfie Kodesh remembered former soldiers were given area command roles. Bernstein also referred to a separate force into which Mandela was enrolling ANC volunteers, ‘outside ANC structures’. Hepple remembers that Mandela was present at the meeting on 16 December 1960 sitting next to Sisulu in a back seat and saying little: Joe Slovo told him then that Mandela was attending as an observer. Other people who were present that day have told researchers that Mandela had joined the party by then and John Pule Motshabi’s observations about Mandela’s recruitment into the party seem to have gone unchallenged when he made them in 1982. Brian Bunting told Sylvia Neame in 1986 that Mandela was at the meeting ‘as a member of the CC [ … ] the only time I met him in that capacity’. Interviewed in 1986, Piet Beyleveld remembered Mandela’s recruitment into the party, though he supplied no details and by his own admission in court he only joined the party’s leadership structures after the Rivonia arrests so it is unlikely that he had encountered Mandela at a party meeting. More recently, Russian researchers have found a reference to Mandela attending a conference in Cairo during his 1962 visit as a SACP member in a funding request made to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee.

Despite all these reports, given the secrecy even among members about who belonged to the party and its committees the evidence for Mandela’s membership is not quite definite. Motshabi’s testimony is the most detailed evidence available. It appears in two documents, preserved by Ray Simons from the meetings she attended of the SACP’s ‘Africa Group’ convened in Lusaka. In March 1982 Motshabi recalled that

in 1953 when people like Nelson and Walter were brought into the family without me and others knowing, and without having taken some of us in confidence, he [Moses Kotane] came to me and asked me to accept their presence within our midst and mentioned that they are in the higher echelons of the movement as members of the CC. I asked him why they do not begin [by] being ordinary members before they are elevated to such high positions’.

And then two months later, Motshabi spoke about his longstanding grievances with the party leadership that dated from when in around 1958 or 1959 the party started bringing in ‘new people’ with a ‘new look’. This caused ‘a wrangle in the family’ in which ‘some people were isolated’ and ‘[t]here was an accusation that we opposed allowing Nelson and Walter into the family, I, J.B. [Marks] and Bopape were opposed’. It is unclear from the document whether Motshabi felt that the accusation was true or not. Aside from the ambiguity over dates, Motshabi’s recollections do leave some room for questions about Mandela’s membership. If the normal quite lengthy procedures of candidature were short-circuited, it is conceivable that Mandela himself may not have considered himself to be a full member when attending party meetings even if other people present thought of him as ‘family’, the code term South African communists used to refer to their party. In 1967, in litigation to get his name removed from the liquidator’s list of party members, Mandela insisted he had never been a member of either the CPSA or ‘of its successor, the South African Communist Party’. Bram Fischer in his court statement at his trial in 1966 noted that sometimes non-members attended Central Committee meetings, senior people from the liberation movement whom ‘we wanted to consult’. The memorandum cited above containing the 1960 resolution and written probably at the end of 1962 refers to Umkhonto we Sizwe’s command as constituted by six men, five of whom were communists and one other a person ‘who we regard as a close party supporter on the verge of party membership’. By that stage Mandela was in prison but there is no record of Umkhonto’s command having been reconstituted at that time and it is possible that this sixth person might have been Mandela.

Whatever Mandela’s ideological political convictions may have been then, Hepple’s impression was that he was certainly one of the keener supporters of the policy shift, prepared to take violence much further towards a fully militarised conflict than is suggested in the qualified wording of the resolution on ‘forcible’ methods the party adopted in December 1960.

There is another way of thinking about Mandela’s SACP membership. If we accept that the larger proportion of evidence suggests that he was a member or at least looked upon by other party supporters as someone who was in the process of becoming a member, questions can still be asked about his loyalties and commitments. For white SACP members and, probably, the older African SACP members of Kotane’s generation, the party or ‘family’, as they called it, was their deepest political affiliation. For Mandela—and possibly Sisulu—joining the party may have been an engagement they welcomed but their first emotional and moral affiliation may have remained with the ANC, their ‘primary loyalty’, as Sisulu’s biographer puts it. And even after joining the party—and if he did, the most likely date for this was at some point in 1960—Mandela may have still been quite capable of undertaking actions independently of it, as in setting up under his own command a separate armed force, as Bernstein observed. Paul Landau’s very thorough exploration of Mandela’s thinking at this time does suggest that he had a very different view from his comrades of how the party’s long-term relationship with the national movement might evolve. He was ready, for example, in a reflective commentary he wrote at the time, to consider the possibility that the ‘working cooperation between a non-Marxist political organisation and the CP ceases because policy differences emerge’.


I will end this narrative with the party poised for its engagement with a new chapter in its history. As this article has shown, the sources that are now available enable a detailed reconstruction of a history that used to be particularly well hidden, when the party was in its most secretive phase. But why does this story matter? Through this period the Communist Party remained a very small organisation. Did it have a wider importance?

This question has divided historians and political scientists who have addressed the development of anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa. The most authoritative early treatments of the ANC during the 1950s and 1960s were by the team originally led by Gwendolen Carter and Thomas Karis. Their six-volume documentary survey of black resistance tended to discount Communist influence within African nationalist organisations. The omission of references to Communist Party activism was especially noticeable in their fourth volume, constituted by biographies. Writing in 1986, Thomas Karis conceded that the influence of communists within the wider movement in which they worked in the 1950s was ‘to an extent greater than their numbers’, but, he insisted, they were never in a position to dominate or control. More specifically he noted the absence of communists among the ANC’s top office holders during the 1950s. To an extent Karis’s 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.

To a degree, the localised and bottom-up analyses of township-based resistance in the 1950s that the Wits social history school published through the 1980s represented a revision of this view. For example, my own investigation of the local activist trajectories that helped to explain the level of participation in the Defiance Campaign in Port Elizabeth stressed the role CPSA branches played in the preceding decade in creating the networks that sustained the ANC’s following there in the 1950s. On the whole, though, because of the emphasis in this kind of work on local settings, it did not directly challenge the earlier contention that when it came to leadership, communists played a subsidiary role. Communist influence at leadership level during the 1950 did receive more attention from historians of trade unionism who were arguing 30 years later that the subordination of SACTU’s class preoccupations to the imperatives of national liberation was indeed a consequence of union leaders’ embrace of the SACP’s notion of a revolution in two stages. But the real challenge to the argument that communists were just one contending influence amongst many came much later. For Stephen Ellis, the ANC’s prohibition and its turn to armed struggle were the key developments through which the Communist Party arrived at the point at which it could exercise real authority over the ANC.

Ostensibly, the history surveyed in this article would appear to offer confirmation of Stephen Ellis’s depiction of communists as holding command positions in the ANC. If anything, the developments recounted above might suggest this development happened earlier than in Ellis’s account and that the movement’s organisational changes that accompanied the transition to guerrilla warfare were less decisive. After all, from the mid-1950s onwards, SACP members were already well established in the ANC’s top echelon, and indeed held several of the important offices. In certain locations, the party’s earlier activist traditions shaped the ANC transformation into a mass movement. During the 1950s, the party’s influence within the ANC was consolidated through a vanguardist recruitment strategy that emphasised in local settings the enlistment of community leaders and at the level of its national leadership the drawing into the party’s embrace members of the university-educated African ‘intelligentsia’. SACP ideologues succeeded in shaping the ANC’s programmatic orientation, especially in the central role they played in projecting their vision of a people’s democracy into the Freedom Charter, which was adopted by the ANC in the year after the Congress of the People. The party added critically useful techniques, resources and skills to the ANC’s organisational capacity.

Contemporary archival materials—documents written by party members at the time—indicate that they understood their role as much more than just influence. In describing the party’s relationship with the ANC, Moses Kotane and Michael Harmel used the language of direction and control, not merely prompting and persuasion. But this picture of the party in command is too simple. Firstly, the ANC’s organisational structure during the 1950s did not lend itself to centralised leadership and certain important campaigning developments happened autonomously. Opposition to women’s passes was a case in point and significantly the SACP’s influence over women’s organisations was limited. Moreover not all strong local centres of ANC activity were animated by communists. Second, the party was internally divided over strategic issues and even over the meaning of key ideological concepts. For instance there were wide differences over what a national democracy might look like. Party principals who were closest to the ANC favoured the establishment of the kind of post-apartheid social order which many non-communists within the ANC might also have welcomed and it is arguable that without the party the ANC might have adopted a very similar set of aims and objectives. Third, certainly the party’s progress towards embracing violent tactics was quicker than the ANC’s for after all it was a much smaller and more disciplined formation, but was it really so decisive? There was plenty of evidence of willingness to use violence within the ANC during the 1950s campaigns and this was not confined to ANC members who were also communists. As we have seen, within the party an important section of its leadership retained reservations about the strategic emphasis on guerrilla warfare and right until the SACP’s final suppression in 1965, communists remaining inside South Africa remained committed to building political, that is non-military, organisation. Even so, despite these qualifications, the secret history reviewed in this paper is not the story of a sideshow. It played a central role in the unfolding of popular opposition to apartheid between 1950 and 1960.