South Africa’s Communists Were Crucial to the Fight Against Apartheid

From its foundation in the 1920s, the South African Communist Party took up the fight against racism as a central part of its political vision. The party’s heroic record in the anti-apartheid movement has now received the historical treatment it deserves.

South African Communist Party supporters marching in favor of a "Yes" for a referendum on ending apartheid on March 18, 1992 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (AFP via Getty Images)

Moses Kotane was the longest-serving leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and an iconic figure in South African politics who helped forge the party’s long-standing alliance with the African National Congress (ANC). In 1938, he explained what had drawn him toward communism: “I am first an African and then a Communist. I came to the Communist Party because I saw in it the way out and the salvation for the African people.”

The contested relationship between class, African nationhood, and the character of revolutionary politics in South Africa has been a defining theme throughout the SACP’s century-long history. Tom Lodge’s Red Road to Freedom, the first complete account of the SACP from its origins to the present, explores these themes in depth, expertly reconstructing the multigenerational political, social, and intellectual lives of South Africa’s Communists.

Writing Communist History

Lodge is a veteran historian of the South African left, and his book is the product of almost forty years of research. While composing his landmark study, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945 (1983), Lodge recalls that he had realized the importance of Communists in the history of “the great set pieces of anti-apartheid struggle of the 1950s.” In spite of this, they were virtually absent from the existing scholarship.

Resolving to write a history of the SACP, Lodge did not set himself an easy task. The “Secret Party” kept a tight lid on its internal life during the long war against apartheid, which had to be conducted under the weight of immense repression inside the country until the 1960s, and after that point from exile throughout Europe and Africa.

However, the tottering of the apartheid regime from the late 1980s, which led to the unbanning of the SACP alongside the ANC in 1990, expedited Lodge’s work. Memoirs and interviews from the party’s typically tight-lipped cadres could now be more forthcoming.

Unlike previous studies that have focused on particular periods or dimensions of SACP life, Lodge’s panorama encompasses over a century of political and organizational history. Biographies of leading cadres, strategic and theoretical debates, national and local Communist networks, and more are covered across its nine chapters.

Standing at almost five hundred pages with another 120 pages of endnotes, Lodge’s study is distinct among other notable histories of national Communist parties. Lucio Magri chiefly framed his retrospective on the Italian Communist Party to cover the period between Palmiro Togliatti’s “Salerno Turn” and the 1990s, while the Lost World of British Communism that Raphael Samuel reconstructed was specifically that of the 1940s. Red Road to Freedom, on the other hand, attempts a full, detailed account of its subject’s entire chronology, and arguably succeeds. This is a massive accomplishment.

Throughout this comprehensive progression through the party’s history, several key red threads appear. One of the most prominent is the party’s protracted transformation from a modest and almost exclusively white vanguardist formation into a genuinely sizable and predominantly black mass party.


The SACP is probably best known today for its activities during apartheid’s terminal years. Under the leadership of Joe Slovo and Chris Hani, the party began to acquire rank-and-file support inside South Africa once again, and its regalia appeared at anti-apartheid demonstrations.

This was a moment captured in a well-known photo, taken at a 1990 rally, of Nelson Mandela (once briefly a party member) standing alongside Slovo and Winnie Mandela before a massive hammer-and-sickle banner. Red Road to Freedom opens its narrative eight decades before this climactic tableau with the prehistory of the small, white party that was to be founded in 1921.

Lodge begins with the various diasporic currents which fed into a small socialist culture within the settler colony, including anglophone white laborism, syndicalism, and Bundism, the Jewish socialist tendency with origins in the tsarist empire. Lodge attributes an especially important role to Eastern European Jewish migrants in “the evolution of South Africa’s revolutionary socialism.”

On this account, the inclination of Bundists to “oppose racial discrimination in general” following their own experience with tsarist antisemitism was a key agent in “reinforcing predispositions” on the radical left of South Africa’s then exclusively white labor movement to “extend organization beyond white workers.” The outsized contribution of Jewish South Africans to the fight against white minority-rule is clear throughout the book: one need only think of Ray Alexander, Denis Goldberg, or Ruth First.

Before outlining the Communist Party’s early years, Lodge explores its chief predecessor, the International Socialist League (ISL). This was an anti-militarist grouping that had split from the South African Labour Party in 1915, associating itself with the Zimmerwald left in Europe.

The ISL counted among its leaders W. H. Andrews — known as “the [Karl] Liebknecht of South Africa” — and prominent advocates of organizing with African workers, like Sidney Bunting and David Ivon Jones. It celebrated the Russian Revolution, which bolstered the significance for these white socialists of what they referred to as “the solidarity of labour irrespective of race or colour.”

The ISL’s first African members, such as T. W. Thibedi and Hamilton Kraai, came into its orbit in part through its involvement in founding the Industrial Workers of Africa, South Africa’s first black trade union. Lodge argues that these early recruits played a decisive part in the adaptation of the “foreign lexicon” of Marxism to South African conditions, and ultimately in “indigenising a South African socialist lineage.”

In 1921, the ISL, in conjunction with other small socialist entities like the Durban-based Marxian Club, agreed to the twenty-one conditions laid down for affiliation to the Communist International and founded the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The party would operate under this name for the next three decades, before its 1950 banning and clandestine reformation three years later saw it rechristened as the SACP.

Crossing the Color Line

Lodge illustrates the serious challenges that faced the young Communist Party when its ostensible commitment to mass, interracial proletarian unity came up against South Africa’s segregationist social order. These challenges were dramatically exemplified in the 1922 Rand Revolt, the white mine workers’ strike-turned-insurrection that is depicted on the book’s cover.

The white strikers occupied a relatively privileged position within a racially hierarchized labor market, and they dreaded being supplanted by lower-paid African labor. They articulated their opposition to real capitalist threats to their livelihoods in the language of anti-black racism, exemplified by the jarring banner they unfurled with the message “Workers of the World Unite and Fight for a White South Africa.”

As Lodge explains, the still overwhelmingly white Communists generally gave the Rand Revolt their (critical) support, with many party members rationalizing the white-identitarian fervor as a form of “transient consciousness” on the path to a more revolutionary perspective based on interracial solidarity. This was an optimistic outlook that the alarming, subsequent outbreak of pogromist violence would disabuse.

The book’s treatment of the 1920s looks in particular at the party’s more concerted efforts under Sidney Bunting’s chairmanship to recruit black cadres. It redirected its efforts from “winning over white workers” toward African struggles and rights — leading one official to quit the party with the complaint that Africans “could not possibly appreciate the noble ideals of communism.”

Lodge extensively details the initiatives through which the CPSA strove to attract black workers. These included engagement with African trade unions and nationalist organizations, help establishing new unions, and the production of isiXhosa-language publications. There were also community initiatives like the night schools teaching literacy and Marxist theory with Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky’s ABC of Communism.

African cadre Joseph Phalane had the following message for a 1926 meeting of black trade unionists:

I am a Communist not because there are white people in the Communist Party, but because that is the Party that will make us free. We want a black Communist Party.

Moses Kotane was another African recruit from this period and went on to serve as the party’s general secretary from 1939 until his death in 1978. The process of Africanisation, to borrow a phrase that Kotane favored, was in Lodge’s words a “transformative experience” for the SACP’s place in twentieth-century history.

Communism and National Liberation

The best account of the CPSA’s day-to-day immersion within black communal life comes in the chapter on the 1940s. Lodge impressively reconstructs the local lives and networks of the party across different African townships by exploring its wartime and postwar involvement within the “bread and butter” struggles of the expanding black peri-urban proletariat. He depicts an aspirant mass black party “of varying effectiveness and social character.”

By 1950, Lodge argues, Kotane’s party had come a long way from its white-laborist origins. Voices that had been “advocating a primarily cross-racial class struggle–based approach” to revolutionary politics — separated from African nationalist currents — had now become a minority.

The relationship of South African Communists to African nationalist politics is another consistent theme across Lodge’s account. Bunting’s attitude toward the early ANC was derisive: he saw it as “an admirable buffer enabling the ruling class to stave off the real emancipation of the natives.” As the Congress adopted a more combative stance toward white supremacy, Kotane’s SACP formed a long-term alliance with the ANC in the struggle against apartheid that has endured since liberation.

Lodge has to evaluate conflicting claims about the extent of the SACP’s influence within the Congress Alliance during the 1950s, the so-called Decade of Defiance. He concludes that Communists, who were “already well established in the ANC’s top echelon,” substantially “succeeded in shaping the ANC’s programmatic orientation” from the mid-1950s. According to Lodge, SACP theorists — notably Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein — played a “central role” in the formulation of the 1955 Freedom Charter, with its references to “people’s democracy” and an economic clause that favored nationalization of industry.

Responding to the State of Emergency that followed the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, Lodge writes, “communist and national liberation leaders” jointly formed “a new armed formation” after a proposal by the Marxist-Leninist intellectual Michael Harmel, “evocatively entitled ‘What Is To Be Done?’.” Over the next thirty years, the military operations of this new group, uMkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), would symbolize the formal practical-programmatic unity between the Communist Party and the mainstream African national liberation movement.

Theoretical Debates

Along with this practical convergence between SACP and ANC politics, Red Road to Freedom depicts a succession of intra-Marxist debates over the relationships between class and race, capitalism and colonialism, and proletarian revolution and national liberation. In the course of these discussions, the party worked out a “theoretical justification” for its alignment with ostensibly bourgeois African nationalism.

Lodge devotes a lot of space to the controversy over the “Native Republic” concept. This was a 1927–28 Comintern thesis of contested origins which stipulated that the CPSA should advance “as its immediate political slogan an independent black South African Republic as a stage toward a Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic.” It divided the party, with Marxist cadres, black and white, either defending or denouncing “the notion of a staged progress toward socialism” in South Africa, which implied that proletarian revolution should be delayed to some future point while Communists dedicated their present efforts to the achievement of a (noncommunist) Native Republic.

Similarly, the SACP’s later alliance with the ANC received a “doctrinal justification” in the classification of apartheid South Africa as a “colony of a special type,” where the party should pursue “intermediate ‘national democratic’ aims.” This would mean working to overthrow white minority rule as part of a preliminary stage before “the full development of a socialist society.”

Lodge’s discussion of these revisions to orthodox Marxist thinking on nationalist politics — which would continue to dominate the party’s thinking throughout its period in exile — is one of the book’s strongest elements. He weaves together a clear and coherent account of the SACP’s intellectual trajectory from an often (conceptually and archivally) byzantine historical record.

International Relations

One of the book’s most memorable sections explores the SACP’s global reach after police repression had forced those of its cadres who had not yet been imprisoned to flee the country. Lodge follows the odyssey of party leaders and operatives all over the world, from Britain and the Eastern Bloc to supportive African states like Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, and Zambia. A particular highlight is the coverage of Ronnie Kasrils and his activity in London, where he worked with the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the broad left while recruiting young people to carry out dangerous missions inside South Africa itself.

Red Road to Freedom is a true international history, and not only in its treatment of the party’s quarter-century of exile. While the SACP certainly had its own idiosyncratic features, some of the key moments in global communist history left their imprint on the party. Those moments ranged from the Third Period and Popular Front phases of the Comintern’s development to Stalin’s Terror, wartime anti-fascism, the establishment of communist states in Eastern Europe (where a number of SACP cadres had roots), the Sino-Soviet split, and the ultimate demise of the Soviet-led bloc in 1989–91.

The SACP’s relationship with the Soviet Union and other communist states such as Czechoslovakia and East Germany features heavily throughout. In some respects, this connection appears to have been beneficial. As Lodge points out, the ANC’s military wing uMkhonto received “considerable” financial aid and “generous” military support from Eastern Bloc countries, whose “exceptional” amiability toward the ANC owed much to its links with the SACP.

On the other hand, Lodge doesn’t shy away from some of the SACP’s most retrospectively unflattering moments in this context. The 1930s were the apogee of the CPSA’s subordination to Comintern policy. This was a time in which an intolerant leadership purged Bunting and others for insufficient fealty to Moscow’s capricious dictates. One member of that leadership, Latvian-born Lazar Bach, later fell victim himself to the runaway train of Stalinist paranoia, dying in a gulag.

Lodge describes the deleterious effects of “a political culture nurtured by Comintern injunctions in which disagreement was perceived as treachery.” An enduring habituation to this style of authoritarianism was visible later in the century, when SACP cadres offered general (though not unanimous) justification for Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Red Road to Freedom captures well the ambiguities and contradictions in the twentieth-century Marxist-Leninist relationship to the politics of democracy and liberation internationally. However, Lodge justifiably places the overall emphasis on what he calls the “central” (and often genuinely heroic) part played by Communists in the overcoming of racist oppression in South Africa, and in the “evolution of organised political activities that have sought to engage all South Africans as citizens.”

After Apartheid

Lodge brings the themes of his book together in its final chapter, looking at the place of the SACP in South Africa’s postapartheid political landscape. Unlike many classical Communist parties, the SACP survived the short twentieth century and today constitutes South Africa’s second-largest party by membership. Communists, Lodge asserts, “still belong to South Africa’s political mainstream.”

The party has maintained a close, though progressively more complicated, relationship with the ANC “party-state.” Every ANC government since 1994 has included some of its leading cadres in ministerial roles, while as Lodge notes, all of South Africa’s postapartheid presidents — with the exception of the current leader Cyril Ramaphosa — “at one time or another belonged to the party.”

However, the ANC’s move away from the socialist economic vision of the Freedom Charter toward neoliberalism while in office has unquestionably strained the historical alliance. Communist ministers and local officials have been far from blameless in the ANC’s economic liberalization policies (not to mention political “rent-seeking” controversies). Yet the SACP has nevertheless begun to articulate a critique of the ANC’s economic model, which it understands as being partially the result of the proximity of ANC leaders to South Africa’s new “black bourgeoisie.”

The process of developing this critique, as Lodge details, has been protracted and contested. Party leaders stood by the government in many instances — including, shamefully, over the 2012 Marikana massacre of striking miners. Prominent cadres have been disciplined for their outspoken criticism of the ANC alliance, with Mazibuko Jara and Vishwas Satgar expelled for questioning the SACP’s support for Jacob Zuma, while others such as Ronnie Kasrils have “disengaged” from the party.

At the same time, Lodge explains, the SACP’s most recent program has brought into question the time-honored stagist thinking behind its attachment to the ANC. It now asserts that the task of “achieving national democracy” will “require an increasingly decisive advance toward socialism.”

Lodge breaks off his study with the challenge facing the present-day SACP, as he sees it: how to “reassert an independent identity” as a specifically socialist formation without breaking entirely from its seven-decade association with the “wider nationalist movement,” which it still believes to occupy “the main sites of struggle” and “chief centres of power” for the pursuit of its “Red Road.”

Red Road to Freedom

Tom Lodge’s sweeping portrait of the SACP is properly definitive. Dealing with all facets of the party’s life across each phase of its evolution, and marshaling an expert’s command of the archive, Red Road to Freedom offers readers a hitherto unavailable perspective on SACP history in its totality. For its authoritative and fair-minded meditation on the fiercest inner-party controversies, and expert reconstruction of once-secret and still disputed chapters of history, Red Road to Freedom is unsurpassed.

No study this ambitious can be perfect. By opting for an evaluative rather than a strictly chronological approach, Lodge can sometimes pass too quickly over the narrative details of significant events to which he refers. Indeed, the book may be challenging for readers not already familiar with the course of twentieth-century South African political history. However, these limitations are probably inherent to the thematic, rather than narrative, style of history-writing that allows the book’s assessment of its main object to be so comprehensive.

Red Road to Freedom, although a new book, can be confident of its deserved standing among the best histories of revolutionary socialist organizations. Our understanding of the twentieth-century Communist experience would be immeasurably improved if more national Communist parties were to receive a biography of the caliber Tom Lodge has given the SACP. He has set a new standard for writing Communist history.