The South African Communist Party was formed in July 1921. To mark its centenary last year, renowned South African historian Tom Lodge published Red Road to Freedom: A History of the South African Communist Party, 1921-2021.
It is a welcome addition to the literature on Africa’s oldest communist party.
In the last two decades, several publications about the Party or its leaders have appeared. Eddy Maloka wrote two posts alan again focused on Joe Slovo and Ruth First, while Steve Friedman concentrated on Harold Wolpe. Some (auto)biographical publications or memoirs also appeared in this period about joe slovo, Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Cousin, moe shaik Y bram fisherman.
Most of the publications are organized chronologically and few take a thematic approach. Policy analysis and exegesis are largely absent in most cases. A good example is what the party meant by its notion of “colonialism of a special kind”. First formulated in 1950 and included in the 1962 party program, it remains an important ideological pillar of the party.
But its ideological and strategic implications are not explored. This includes explaining how the approach enabled a fusion between socialism and liberating nationalism, how it underscored the two-stage revolutionary strategy of a national democratic revolution followed by a socialist revolution, and for justifying the Tripartite Alliance between the party, the African National Congress and the trade union center (first Sactu and then Cosatu).
Also largely missing is a history of more recent developments, as well as a political analysis of the party’s role between 1960 and 1990 and as part of the government since 1994.
Lodge’s book fills in some of these gaps. Therefore, it is academically and historically very important. Eddy Maloka, also an author on the history of the match, assessed its value as follows (on the book cover):
Tom Lodge takes us on a century-long journey through the history of the South African Communist Party, through the fractal coastline of the party’s ideological evolution, into its organizational dynamics and its relationships with other actors.
The Cold War
The South African Communist Party was banned in 1950 by the new National Party (NP) government, which believed that support from the Soviet Union would exploit internal South African politics for its own ends. After the party was clandestinely re-established as the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953, and after its ally the African National Congress (ANC) was also banned by the apartheid regime in 1960, a close alliance developed among them.
After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, followed by the banning of the ANC and other liberation organizations, and when the NP government refused to convene a national convention in 1961, party leaders and several prominent ANC leaders (but not ANC president Albert Luthuli) decided to establish an armed wing, The spear of the nation. His first acts of sabotage were released on December 16, 1961.
The resort to armed struggle and the party’s involvement in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe brought the two movements much closer during their time in exile.
Members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe High Command were arrested in 1962 in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. They were busy with Operation Mayibuye as a model for organizing a revolutionary insurrection in South Africa. They included Party members such as Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, and ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. They were accused of sabotage (and not treason) and therefore received not the death penalty but very long prison sentences.
If one looks at the Umkhonto we Sizwe accused in the Rivonia trial in 1963, most of them were also Party members.
For most of the Cold War, the close alignment of the South African Communist Party with the Soviet Union and the ANC brought the liberation struggle in South Africa into the global ideological camps of the Cold War, in much the same way as the movements in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other liberation wars. In this respect, the South African Communist Party was often seen as the power behind the ANC throne.
The 30 years of exile were divided between establishing bases in African countries, forming Umkhonto we Sizwe mainly in Angola, and establishing international relations with many continents. The Party’s main base was in London but with close links, especially in the Eastern bloc. The peace processes in Southwest Africa and the disappearance of the Soviet Union as its main sponsor created new opportunities for dialogue and radical political changes.
After its deproscription in 1990 along with the ANC, the relationship continued but its nature changed drastically. The liberating strategy went from targeting the National Party government to being the government itself. The party leaders became members of that government.
What is covered and what is not
tom lodge he is a trained historian. Most of his early publications were good historiographies. He joined the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and in the 1980s he testified for the defense in several ANC trials. He published extensively on ANC politics and later on elections as well.
This book is a return to his earlier works. At over 500 pages (excluding endnotes, index, and bibliography) and nine chapters, it presents the longest history of the South African Communist Party.
The first six chapters focus on the period up to 1950, and the last three chapters cover the last 70 years.
There are some areas and issues that could have been done with more attention. For example, a deeper political analysis of the last 30 years after the Party was banned and decided to become a “mass party” instead of being a member by invitation, as well as its role in ANC governments. This would provide more information about the political focus of the party.
In addition, the ideological evolution of the Party deserves special attention. For example, his 1962 party program, “The Road to South African Freedom”, can be linked to the ANC’s Morogoro program (1969), “The Strategy and Tactics of the South African Revolution”. The two documents created a common approach to their revolutionary strategy, which is very important in understanding their longstanding alliance. But Lodge only briefly discusses this on pages 354-355.
Another omission, in my opinion, concerns Joe Slovo’s article “Has Socialism Failed?” (1990). It is mentioned on page 457, but its implications for the reassessment of the party’s ideological position after the fall of the Berlin Wall were not considered. More recently, the Party has revised “The South African Road to Socialism” (2007, 2012) as its program. It gets more attention than the other shows on page 479, but it doesn’t explain how a communist party in a multi-party democratic dispensation sets a vision for itself.
Chapter 9 stands apart from the others, presenting a political analysis of the party’s dynamics, such as its choice to participate independently in elections. It includes brief references to match milestones, but a deeper discussion could have addressed the shortcomings of the earlier posts.
For readers who want a comprehensive, up-to-date and accessible publication on the Communist Party of South Africa, this is hands down the best. As a Wits Scholar, Lodge, who is now associated with the University of Limerick in Ireland, had many personal experiences with the people and events discussed in this book. Therefore, it was not simply a research or academic exercise for him.