Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 4, South Africa: Editorial/Editorial Note


SOUTH AFRICA has appeared in recent years to be one of the few regions of the world in which millions of people have taken to the streets to overthrow a system that has earned worldwide opprobrium – that of apartheid. The struggle against colonial control extends back to the seventeenth century when the native people first encountered the Dutch settlers. In conflicts over three and a half centuries, the political terrain altered with the changing social and economic structure of the country. The conflicts, which started as struggles against dispossession (of cattle and the land), moved in time to struggles in the new, largely commercial, towns where relations between master and servants were the contentious issues. Later, class issues were superimposed on colour issues, and these sharpened when diamonds and gold were discovered. There were periods of turbulence and periods of relative quiet, often coinciding with the cycle of boom and depression in the country. But whether at peace or in strife, there was a seething discontent that found outlets in religious sectarianism, riots, largescale demonstrations, boycott movements, shanty town organisations, and criminality. White workers and black workers confronted employers and the state – but rarely together. However, whatever the colour of the worker, most struggles, whether over wages or working conditions, over pass laws or over the women’s right to brew beer, were soon transformed into struggles against the state. And dissent was aimost always silenced by the full force of the police and the army. It was this that made South Africa a cauldron that seemed, in periods of revolt, to be so close to the boil. And it was this that has excited world opinion over the past decade.

Answers to state violence, peoples’ resistance and class struggles required new approaches from Socialists, and the South African Trotskyists played an important part in the mid-1930s in developing a specific Marxist critique of that society. In their activity they also contributed significantly in the organisation of the first African industrial trade unions. They worked in opposition to existing movements, condemned the programme imposed on the Communist Party by the Comintern, and lambasted the segregationist Labour Party. Yet, minuscule, impecunious, denigrated and harassed, they did not manage to break out of small circles. When they did emerge as a political force, they took the path of nationalism and concealed their Marxist past. Even more tragically, they were abstentionist. They stayed aloof from active campaigning, and claimed that nothing could be done until a cadre had been trained. This became a vicious circle as inactivity bred further demands that everyone wait for that trained cadre.

The Trotskyists made many mistakes, but they also advanced the sphere of Marxist understanding in the country, and for that they must be praised. But their absence from recent struggles in which a massive trade union movement was formed, when school students took the country by storm, and when mass movements emerged to lead urban struggles, is a cause for disquiet. Part of this failure can be found in the history of the movement, and it is to this end that this issue of the journal has a particular urgency.

Initially, this was to have been ajoint issue with Searchlight South Africa.

But the journals have different agendas, and it was decided to publish separately. The essays by Baruch Hirson appear in both publications, and for this we apologise to those subscribers who take both journals. There is, we hope, enough extra material in both to satisfy those who support Revolutionary History and Searchlight South Africa. Our magazine has greatly profited from the work done by Baruch Hirson, who has functioned as de facto Editor, and to whom all the credit for the collection of materials is due. As a result, our presentation here is richer and far better informed than is normally the case. We are convinced that our readers – particularly those in South Africa – will appreciate the effort involved, which we consider is justified by what appears below.

Editorial Board


Editorial Note

Only a small portion of the documents available are included in this issue of Revolutionary History. To print all that has become available, including a complete set of the journal The Spark, a partial set of Workers Voice, two separate sets of Socialist Action (1939 and 1944–46), copies of Unililo Motto (The Flame), and several pamphlets, would require a large volume, and would not necessarily be enlightening. The story of the groups has to be dissected out and supplemented with material drawn from many sources. The departure in this issue of Revolutionary History, made necessary by the nature of the documents available, also coincides with the wishes of the Editorial Board. They welcome the opportunity of printing creative historical writing. This is a definitive break with those who wanted to confine the journal to reprinting archival material, and is one which sets a new precedent in the production of the journal.

The main article and the supplementary articles on the economy and the rise of the left in South Africa in this issue are derived from an address given by Baruch Hirson to the Annual General Meeting of Revolutionary History in May 1991, which was attended by an enthusiastic audience. Four previous editors of South African Trotskyist journals were in attendance: Charlie van Gelderen, Bernhard Herzberg, Paul Koston and Baruch Hirson. An unpublished copy of the address, using a portion of the WPSA papers, and entitled The Early Trotskyist Groups in South Africa, circulated for a while in Britain and South Africa. The discovery of the second portion of the WPSA papers allowed for a more thorough study of the South African groups.

This is one individual’s interpretation of the documents, but it does have the virtue of referring to work in the 1940s in which he was involved. Comrade Hirson’s general viewpoint can be found in two books: Year of Fire, Year of Ash, London 1979, the story of the Soweto revolt of 1976–77, and Yours For the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa 1930–47, London 1990, which chronicles the activities in the African trade union movement of T.W. Thibedi, Murray Gow Purdy, Ralph Lee, Max Gordon and Dan Koza (pp. 4lff.). In later chapters there is an account of the WIL’s participation in the trade unions from 1943 to 1946, before the group imploded. Hirson’s more recent work, with Lorraine Vivian, is Strike Across the Empire, London 1992, the story of the seaman’s strike of 1925 in Britain, South Africa and Australasia, This, too, illustrates an aspect of Communist activity in South Africa, but, in this case, inside an international milieu.

Hirson is also co-editor of Searchlight South Africa, in which many of his essays have appeared, including articles on Clare Goodlatte and on Kenny Jordaan (no. 2), on I.B. Tabata (no. 6), and two articles on the Black Republic slogan (nos. 3 and 4). The journal also reprinted an article from The Spark and Trotsky’s letter to South Africa. Hirson’s discussion of Trotsky and black nationalism is printed in T. Brotherstone and P. Dukes (ed.), The Trotsky Reappraisal, Edinburgh 1992. Other articles have appeared in academic and popular journals, and he was interviewed in a television documentary on the life of David Iyon Jones, a founder member of the group that became the Communist Party of South Africa.

There are few studies of the Trotskyist groups in South Africa, and those that have appeared suffer from a dearth of documents. Authors had to use a limited number of sources and/or oral testimonies from the few early members who have been prepared to speak of their past activities. Unfortunately, much of the oral evidence has been found to be faulty, and many of the following accounts cite the interviews uncritically. We know of no autobiographies (except that of Phylis Ntantala Jordan, which has just been published and is not yet available in Britain), and there are only a few essays written on individual members. Most of the latter are quoted in the essays above. The Non-European Unity Movement has attracted more historians, but few have been able to provide a satisfactory discussion of the connection between the NEUM and the WPSA. This is not surprising. I.B. Tabata, in his history of the All-African Convention, does not mention the WPSA. Furthermore, without the archival material, the link, even when mentioned, could not be elaborated.

Books that contain references to members of the WPSA or the Johannesburg groups include:

R.J. Alexander, South African Trotskyism, in International Trotskyism 1929–85: A Documented Analysis of the Movement, Durham, USA, 1991.

Robert Fine with Dennis Davis, Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa, Pluto, London, 1990.

Ernest Harsch, South Africa: White Rule, Black Revolt, Monad, New York, 1990.

Baruch Hirson, The Reorganisation of African Trade Unions in Johannesburg 1936–42, The Societies of Southern Africa in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Vol. 7, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London 1990.

Baruch Hirson, Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa 1930–47, Zed, London 1989.

Franz John Tennyson Lee, Der Einfluss des Marxismus auf die Nationalen Befreiungsbewegungen in Südafrika, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Trotskismus und Stalinismnus, Frankfurt 1971.

Naboth Mokgatle, Autobiography of an Unknown South African, University of California Press, Berkeley 1971.

Eddie and Win Roux, Rebel Pity: The Life of Eddie Roux, Penguin, 1972.

Articles and Theses include:

Allison Drew, Events Were Breaking Above Their Heads: Socialism in South Africa 1921–50, Social Dynamics, 17/1, 1991, Cape Town.

D. Harries (B. Flirson), Dan Koza, Trade Unionist, Africa Perspective, Johannesburg 1981.

Tony Southall, Marxist Theory in South Africa Until 1940, MA Dissertation, University of York, 1978.

Tony Southall, Marxist Theory in South Africa: The Trotskyists, Centre for Southern African Studies, York, 1979.

Mark Stein, Max Gordon and African Trade Unionism on the Witwatersrand 1935–40, in Eddie Webster (ed.), Essays in Southern African Labour History, Ravan, Johannesburg 1978.

Books on the Unity Movement or its Affiliated Bodies:

I.B. Tabata, The Awakening of a People, Peoples Press, Johannesburg 1950.

Selected Articles and Theses on the Unity Movement:

Cohn Bundy, Land and Liberation: Popular Rural Protest and the National Liberation Movement in South Africa, 1920–60, in Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (eds.), The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth Century South Africa, Longman, London 1987.

Arthur Davids, Critical> Analysis of I.B. Tabata’s Book, Forum Club, 1950.

Roy Gentle, The NEUM in Historical Perspective, B.Soc.Sc. Honours Dissertation, University of Cape Town, 1978.

Ferida Khan, TheOrigins of the Non-European Unity Movement, Research Essay, University of Cape Town, 1976.

R. Mettler (B. Hirson), It is Time to Awake: A Criticism of The Awakening of the People, mimeographed, 1957.

Updated by ETOL: 12 January 2009