Hearing mention of an old friend who is a long-time stalwart of the South African Communist Party, I enquired how he was. ‘Oh, the same as the rest of them,’ our mutual acquaintance replied. ‘You know – clinging onto his collapsing world view as best he can.’ The man in question holds a powerful position within the ANC and is spoken of by some as a possible future cabinet minister: in that sense his world is hardly collapsing. But his case exemplifies the strange paradox of the SACP, a paradox which has become all the sharper in the wake of recent events in the USSR.
On the one hand, the Party is a relic, displaying the same attachment to Stalinist habits of mind and organisation that one sees in the French Communist Party. Only two years ago, the SACP was speaking admiringly of East European Communism as a model for South Africa and choosing to hold its Party Congress in Havana. Many of the Party’s cadres show a distinct nostalgia for the good old days of Brezhnev and not a few displayed an open sympathy for the 19 August coup in Moscow. Harry Gwala’s powerful Natal Midlands branch of the SACP welcomed Gorbachev’s removal because ‘his government could have become obstructive to the socialist objective,’ and Gwala himself has publicly reiterated his defence of Stalin. To be fair, Joe Slovo, the SACP General Secretary, issued a statement in which he described events in the USSR as ‘very disturbing’ and expressed the hope that ‘the fresh winds of reformed socialism, which President Gorbachev so courageously unleashed ... will not now be allowed to die down.’ Even this statement – released after several days’ pregnant silence on 21 August, the day the coup collapsed – stopped short of condemning the coup or demanding Gorbachev’s return. Perhaps a truer indication of how desperately the Party lags reality is to be glimpsed from the current (70th-birthday) issue of the Party journal, the African Communist, where the central position is held by an article on the USSR: ‘Strengthening the Party: The Key to Soviet Stability’.
On the other hand, the SACP is an extraordinary success. Thanks to the frequently heroic and genuinely non-racial activism of its cadres in the Fifties and Sixties, the Party won for itself a special place in the hearts of oppressed blacks in general and within the Congress movement in particular. Bolstered by Eastern bloc financial and political support, the SACP became the paymasters and organisers of the ANC in exile, effortlessly colonising anti-apartheid ‘support organisations’ in many countries, and dictating terms to non-Communist sympathisers such as the World Council of Churches, trade unions, student organisations, UN agencies and so forth. The Party achieved an easy intellectual dominance over the ANC and was able to ensure that the only whites and Indians allowed to join were those who had first joined the SACP. But even among ANC blacks it was widely accepted that the more disciplined, committed and militant you were, the clearer it was that your true home was within the SACP. The SACP applied strict Leninist tactics and for once they worked like a charm: the Party became the true and acknowledged vanguard of the ANC.
The Party’s success and its neanderthal quality are opposite sides of the same coin. From the era of the anti-fascist struggles of the Thirties onwards, young idealists were drawn to the Party by their hatred of racism and white supremacy. Their recruitment had little in common with that of the European Communist Parties. It was always the proud boast of the French Communists that they were un parti pas comme les autres, but even among Communist Parties, the SACP was pas comme les autres. Not only were working-class members something of a rarity, but among the Party’s (dominant) whites and Asians, membership was inversely related to class: the SACP had far more recruits among the professional classes and in the leafy suburbs than in the townships or mining towns of the Reef. And even the Party’s intelligentsia did not feel the intellectual attraction to Marxism which was a decisive factor for so many of their peers in Europe. Within the SACP a real interest in Marxism was the exception. Most were joining a thing called ‘what-the-government-most-hates-and-fears’; or were attracted by the courage, dedication and derring-do of Party militants; or were enthused by the Party’s genuine non-racialism. They didn’t become Communists because they were Marxists: they wanted to espouse Marxism because they had become Communists.
That is, SACP recruits made an existential choice to become Communists – and then enthusiastically accepted democratic centralism, Marxism and loyalty to the Soviet Union as so much necessary ritual baggage. The more the Party insisted on an unswerving hard line, on total dedication to the USSR and to often quite bizarre habits of clandestine behaviour and control (e.g. a Party veto on marriage partners), the more recruits felt reassured by the disciplined seriousness of their ‘masonic’ attachment.
In the context of the bitter struggles of the Fifties and Sixties, this strategy of all-out oppositionalism – of being the party most opposed to apartheid, most against the Government, most hated by the regime – meant that the Party rose like yeast to a commanding position within the Congress movement. But the same context also meant that the Party reached this dominant position with a leadership recruited in the years between (roughly) 1938 and 1955, the high period of Stalinism. That leadership dictated the Party’s organisational norms and ideological style, characteristics which were set almost in concrete by the isolated and clandestine conditions of the Party’s existence. In Europe the real-world pressures of mass electoral politics forced a retreat from Stalinism to Eurocommunism, but no such pressures existed for the SACP. The only competition it feared came from other varieties of extreme opposilionalism – the PAC, AZAPO, Black Consciousness – a fact which merely reinforced its hard line and bad habits.
In any case, the same old leadership group hung on and on and on in the approved gerontocratic fashion – Slovo, Goldberg and Wolpe were prominent names in the SACP of 1961 and still are in 1991 – and this extraordinary continuity was enhanced by the powerful kinship networks which knit the Party together. Take Gillian Slovo. Her mother, Ruth First, was the Party’s most impressive intellect. Her father was and is the Party boss. Her grandfather was the Party Treasurer. To a degree which is seldom recognised, the Party held together because its leading cadres belonged to an extended Jewish family, bound together by ties of marriage and descent. It was a world of heroism and charm as well as Stalinism; a world in which blinkered dogmatism was offset by wit and a certain warmth. Novelists have begun to discover it in droves.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 13 No. 23 · 5 December 1991
Who, I ask, is really behaving in a ‘gerontocratic’ fashion? For in the middle of R.W. Johnson’s bilious attack on the South African Communist Party (LRB, 24 October), in which he writes of the party’s ‘extraordinary continuity … enhanced by … powerful kinship networks which knit the Party together’, I find my name. The implication is obvious: I am one of the SACP’s leading cadres. Very flattering – especially since I am not even a member. I do have tremendous respect for the SACP and the role it has played in the South African liberation struggle, but because of political differences have never chosen to join it. In R.W. Johnson’s world, that doesn’t seem to matter, for what a woman’s father and grandfather do must obviously determine who she is. In R.W.’s world innuendo, gossip and the ‘imaginative’ fusion of disparate events are all meshed together to convince us that his McCarthyite view of the South African liberation struggle is real.
Vol. 13 No. 24 · 19 December 1991
I am sorry to have upset Gillian Slovo (Letters, 5 December). In fact, she criticises me for things I didn’t say. I did not say she was a member of the SACP, let alone ‘a leading cadre’, and I certainly never argued that ‘what a woman’s father and grandfather do must obviously determine who she is.’ The point I did make – that the SACP is in part bound together by a dense set of kinship networks – I stand by. There is, by the by, nothing unusual about this – one can witness the same thing in many political parties. Similarly, I am happy to agree with her that there were many heroic and noble chapters in the SACP’s contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa – personally, I had a particular admiration for Ms Slovo’s mother, Ruth First.
The word I jib at is ‘McCarthyite’. I am happy that the SACP has been unbanned and, indeed, believe that it should never have been banned. It is all to the good that the Party should be able to operate legally and openly and I would oppose any attempt to suppress it. By the same token, however, the Party is not a protected species: it must put up – with a good grace – with being analysed, criticised and written about by writers far less friendly to it than I am. This is, after all, part of the culture of democracy for which the Party claims to have been fighting.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Vol. 14 No. 4 · 27 February 1992
R.W. Johnson claims (LRB, 24 October 1991) that ‘to a degree which is seldom recognised’, the South African Communist Party ‘held together because its leading cadres belonged to an extended Jewish family, bound together by ties of marriage and descent’ and that its ‘extraordinary continuity was enhanced by the powerful kinship networks which knit the party together’. ‘Take Gillian Slovo,’ he continues, citing the fact that her grandfather was the party treasurer, and her parents leading party members – a three-generation dynasty. Except for the fact that her grandfather was never party treasurer, and although a supporter, probably not even a member; and she is not a member. Nor are her two sisters members; nor any of the children in the Wolpe and Goldberg families (also mentioned); nor my own children, for that matter. Nor have I been able to find any evidence of that family continuity among the leading black families of that period – Kotane, Marks, Nokwe, Mofuntsanyana. I do not see any great significance in refuting the Jewish-dynasty theory, except that it does make the SACP sound like a mafia. And because R.W. Johnson still owes Gillian Slovo an apology for doing precisely what he subsequently tried to deny – determining who she is by her father and grandfather.
Gillian Slovo was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 15, 1952, to two leading members of the antiapartheid movement: Joe Slovo, leader of the banned South African Communist Party and chief of the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and Ruth First, a radical journalist and university lecturer. The family went into exile in London in 1964, and Slovo attended the University of Manchester, graduating in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in the history and philosophy of science. She later worked as a journalist and television producer in England.
In 1982 Slovo’s mother, then working in Mozambique, was murdered by agents of the South African government. Slovo later wrote that her novel Ties of Blood (1989), her first work set in South Africa, was inspired by thoughts she had while standing at her mother’s graveside. Nevertheless, Slovo’s first three novels, all in the Kate Baeier series, are set in London, though the initial entry, Morbid Symptoms (1984), does focus on characters involved in South African politics. Slovo’s attention began to shift more toward Africa in the 1990’s. She published The Betrayal, a thriller about an ANC member, in 1991, and in 1993 she wrote Façade, a novel about a London woman trying to discover the truth about her mother’s death, which also mentions Africa. Of the two Kate Baeier series novels published in the 1990’s, Close Call (1995) contains references to Africa.
In 1997, Slovo published Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, her best-selling memoir about her parents, their involvement in the antiapartheid movement, and her relationship with them, including the difficulty of having parents whose devotion to a cause reduced the amount of time they could spend with their children. In 2000, Slovo returned to fiction, producing Red Dust, a highly acclaimed courtroom drama set in postapartheid South Africa. It won the Radio France International Prize for Literature in 2001 and was made into a film starring Hilary Swank in 2004.
Saying that she might have written her last book about South Africa, Slovo in 2004 published a highly regarded historical epic, Ice Road, set in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Ice Road was short-listed for England’s prestigious Orange Prize in 2004. Also in 2005 Slovo collaborated with Victoria Brittain on Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, a play documenting human rights abuses at the American detention camp in Guantanamo Bay.