Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 4, South Africa: Baruch Hirson: Profiles of Some South African Trotskyists

Baruch Hirson

Profiles of Some
South African Trotskyists

The Editors of The Spark

IF the Trotskyists in South Africa had done nothing else, the production of The Spark during the period 1935–39 would have marked them as worthy of attention. Without a doubt, it was superior to any other left wing publication in the country until the late 1980s. Although it was mimeographed and small in size, it carried theoretical articles on South African issues, together with reprints of articles by Leon Trotsky and members of the Left Opposition. By way of contrast, most other publications of the left in South Africa avoided serious theory.

The people responsible for producing and for writing most of the articles were Yudel (or Jacob) Burlak, Paul Koston and Clare Goodlatte. The South African articles bore no author’s names, but to meet legislative requirements, Goodlatte’s or Koston’s name appeared in the journal as Editor. These three were also on the Central Committee, representing Cape Town, but they never met with the Johannesburg members. Consequently, they constituted the leadership for South Africa.

What is known about Goodlatte’s life (1866–1942), with new details now becoming available, was published in Searchlight South Africa, no. 2. Until she was 55 and required to retire, Goodlatte was a nun in the Anglican Community of the Resurrection in Grahamstown and was principal of the teachers training college. She moved to Cape Town, and, becoming increasingly left wing, she joined the Independent Labour Party and then the Lenin Club. When that body split, Goodlatte went with the WPSA, and played a central part in its work. In 1939, when she felt incapable of continuing, she resigned. Goodlatte was an ill person, but there was also a hint of disillusionment in her letters. The WPSA had not made progress, and she was obviously tired, politically as well as physically.

Paul Koston, who left South Africa in 1925, joined the US merchant marine. His movements are not clear, but it seems that in approximately 1930 he jumped ship in Cape Town and entered the Socialist movement. He was Secretary of the ILP, joined the Lenin Club and then the WPSA. For some time he was the party Secretary. Besides his work in the party, he also owned and ran Modern Books, the main outlet for Marxist books in Cape Town.

There are few details of the life of Yudel Burlak. It is known that he arrived from Poland in 1930, and he is said to have been involved in a strike of bank clerks before leaving Europe. In South Africa he worked as a bookkeeper. There is little doubt that all the WPSA’s major formulations came from his pen, and that the party’s theses, the main political letters, and the editorials of The Spark were written by him.

Isaac Bongani Tabata, Goolam Gool and Ben Kies

These three members of the Spartacus Club or the WPSA are seldom mentioned in the WPSA papers. Yet they, together with Jaineb (often referred to as Jane) Gool, Halema Nagdee Gool, Cadoc Kobus and others, all members of the WPSA, were the driving force in the formation of the bodies that joined together to launch the Non-European Unity Movement in December 1943.

Gool’s early involvement has still to be unravelled. He returned from Britain, where he was trained as a doctor, as an avowed Socialist. He joined the Lenin Club, and after the split he first joined the Communist League. At some stage he switched and joined the WPSA. He was an office holder in the National Liberation League, but resigned when he felt that leading members of the NLL, who were also in the CPSA, had deserted a demonstration near parliament against proposed legislation.

Gool was a member of the AAC, and was associated, together with other members or sympathisers of the WPSA, with the New Era Fellowship, formed in 1937 with a nucleus of students and members of existing Cape organisations. This club exerted considerable influence in and around Cape Town, and secured increasing influence among Coloured teachers and their organisation, the Teachers League of South Africa. The NEF played a leading role in opposing the formation of a Coloured Affairs Department, helped to form the Anti-CAD in 1943, and joined with the AAC to form the NEUM. After 1943 Gool and the others mentioned above devoted all their time to work in the NEUM, producing the Torch, and the newsletters of the AAC and the Anti-CAD.

A critical note on Isaac Bongani Tabata appeared in Searchlight South Africa, no. 6. It was slight because the writer had so little information on his activities before 1943. In that year he played a prominent role in relaunching the AAC and the NEUM. In 1958 Tabata led one section out of the NEUM following a stormy debate in which he proposed that after changes in South Africa, the peasants should be allowed to buy and own land. His opponents, led by Kies and Hosea Jaffe, opposed the private ownership of land. A full length biography is being prepared by Ciraj Rassool in Cape Town.

Ben Kies’s story has yet to be researched. A leading member of NEF, Kies led the campaign against the Coloured Affairs Commission and then the Coloured Affairs Department. He was a teacher, and played a major role in the politicisation of Coloured teachers in the Teachers League of South Africa. He later resigned his post as a teacher and entered the legal profession.

The independent radical journal Trek carried articles in July and August 1942, obviously written by members of the NEF, with proposals for a new liberation movement, together with a programme that foreshadowed that of the NEUM. The Educational Journal, organ of the TLSA, had a series of 23 articles on black struggles in South Africa, commencing July–August 1977 and ending in June 1980. Its approach was nearest to that of the Kies-Jaffe group of the NEUM. The issue of April–May 1978 has a sketchy outline of the NEF, and the issue of June covered the formation of the Anti-CAD and the NEUM.

The Workers Voice Group

It is not clear who the members of the Workers Voice group were. The three members who first framed policy were Joe Pick, Moshe Noah Aver-bach and Charlie van Gelderen. They named their group the Communist League of South Africa. Then van Gelderen left for Britain. New members included Joe Meltzer, Max Blieden and Bernhard Herzberg, who edited the group’s paper. It is not known which of the others played a prominent part, partly because the papers are not available, and also because the group dissolved itself and joined the Socialist Party.

When the SP was dissolved, the League reassembled, and several younger persons joined. However, it is not always clear when members entered. Arthur Davids was an early recruit, Zeid Gamiet entered at a later date, and Hosea Jaffe joined in 1939. The younger members, together with Averbach, were the mainstay of the group during the war years.

Joe Pick (1895–1968) came to South Africa at the age of 13. Apparently considered too old to go to school, he was apprenticed as a watchmaker. He entered the Socialist movement at the end of the First World War, and was a founding member of the Communist Party in 1921.

Active in the CPSA, he was on the strike support committee when British sailors walked off their ships in August 1925. But little else is known about his early activities. In 1931 he was expelled from the CPSA (see accompanying box) and joined forces with others who moved to the International Left Opposition.

Moshe Noah Averbach (whose initials form the acronym A. Mon) went from Europe to Palestine as a Zionist and from there to Cape Town. Profoundly alienated from the Zionist movement, Averbach joined the CPSA and the Gezerd, and tried to earn a living as a Hebrew teacher. However, finding that his job was to train boys for the bar mitzvah, the religious ceremony when they reached the age of 13, he opened a small grocery shop in the predominantly Coloured area known as District 6, where he lived with his family. Averbach never made a success as a grocer, and devoted most of his time to the group he had started—but was always at a disadvantage because of his poor command of the English language. The articles printed under his pseudonym were always heavily edited, and it cannot be ascertained how much was written in by his editors.

The Johannesburg Groups

At the beginning there was T.W. Thibedi. He was followed by Murray Gow Purdy, Ralph and Millie Lee, and J. Saperstein. They were joined by Max Gordon and others, mainly African recruits. But the groups never solidified. The story is told in the main essay above, and accounts of Purdy, Lee and Gordon appear in the discussion of trade unionism and the additional article on Lee. The roles of Gordon, together with that of Dan Koza, are described in greater detail in Hirson’s Yours For the Union. There were at one time three groups in Johannesburg, but they all disappeared when war was declared. Gordon was interned, presumably because of his involvement in organising African trade unions, but no official reason was ever given.

Very little is known about others who joined the WPSA, nor of the Sapire brothers who joined the left in 1937–39. Six members, only four of whom had been active in Johannesburg (R. and M. Lee, Heaton Lee [no relative] and Dick Frieslich), played an important part in the reconstruction of the British Trotskyist movement, and both Leon Sapire and Saperstein tried to get to Spain during the Spanish Civil War as journalists. All activity seems to have stopped in 1939 or 1940.

After 1943 a Trotskyist group was reformed in Johannesburg. Its main force, alongside Ralph Lee who had returned to Johannesburg and launch-ed the Workers International League, were six members of the left wing Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, who were to become part of the leadership. Among the recruits to the WIL were Vincent and Lilian Swart. Vincent had been a lecturer in English, and was a poet of considerable talent. He had gone to Britain as a post-graduate student just prior to the declaration of war, and had to return immediately. After returning he turned increasingly to the left, and was actively involved in the support committee of the bus boycott in Alexandra Township in 1943–44. When he joined the WIL he brought with him some leading members of the boycott committee.

Of the earlier Trotskyists who were enroled by Lee were Raymond Lake, Zina Blank, Issie Pinchuk and several others. Nearly all withdrew within the first year, and little is known of their personal histories. On the other hand, a few African trade unionists joined, or were associated with, the WIL. Except for Dan Koza, who never spoke of his personal life, little is known of the other black members.

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The Case of Comrade Pick

IN 1990 the CPSA issued an illustrated book entitled The Red Flag in South Africa. On page 20, veteran Stalinist, Ray Alexander Simons wrote a piece entitled: ‘How and why we expelled comrade Joe Pick.’ She explained: the Central Committee in Johannesburg sent a comrade to Cape Town to hasten the Bolshevisation of the party. He was put up at the house of Joe Pick. Then nemesis struck:

’Under the bed he was sleeping in he [the comrade from Johannesburg] found three unsold copies of the party journal Umsebenzi. They were part of a batch given to comrade Joe Pick to sell. Pick had already returned in full the sum owing on the batch. The money for these three unsold copies obviously had come out of his own pocket. Nevertheless, he was expelled from the Party for failing to carry out his duty to the full. That’s how things were in those days.’

It is not certain why Ray Simons waited 60 years to tell this story. A search under the bed, three unsold journals, the money paid, but out he went: ‘That’s how things were in those days.’ Ray Simons also gives the name of the man who went down to Cape Town. He was Lazar Bach—not an insignificant figure in the history of the CPSA. Lazar Bach went to the USSR, got mixed up with the wrong people, and was sent to the gulag. There he was shot or died, and, except for the Trotskyists, everybody said they did not know what happened. Even his lover said she did not know. Lazar Bach was rehabilitated in 1990, and his ghost did a little dance in heaven. So now the story can be told. You see, comrades, it can be said by comrade Ray, Lazar Bach was a bad, bad man. He was only being punished for expelling Joe Pick. Or was he?

What Ray Simons does not say is that Joe Pick opposed the Black Republic slogan. Is that not the real reason for his expulsion in 1931? Poor Lazar Bach, even after rehabilitation, his name is not safe in the hands of his one-time comrades.

Updated by ETOL: 28 January 2009