Brian Bunting. Moses Kotane, South African Revolutionary

14. Chief Lutuli & the Treason Trial

Altogether 140 people were arrested on that morning of December 5, — a birthday present from the security police to their Minister of Justice, Swart. A later round of arrests brought the total of accused to 156, including the company which was responsible for publishing New Age. The accused were in jail for a fortnight before being released on bail.

The police had been invading Congress meetings and raiding homes and offices for some time armed with warrants alleging treason. In an editorial written one day before the arrests took place, New Age stated:

“It is becoming clear that the Government is planning its own version of the notorious Reichstag fire trial of Nazi Germany as a means of eliminating the most consistent and determined opponents of its apartheid polity. In the last two weeks, two Cabinet Ministers have denounced ‘Communism’ and promised to take action against ‘Communists’ in South Africa. The first was Mr Swart; the second was Dr Donges. Obviously the Cabinet has decided on plans which are to be put into effect in the near future. Action against the people’s leaders is likely to be based on the Freedom Charter campaign and information collected during the September raids of 1955. During the last session of Parliament Swart promised that more than 200 people were due to be arrested for treason and other offences."[292]

By the time the paper was on the streets, the arrests had taken place. The New Age editorial stated: “Progressive South Africa must recognise the Government’s anti-Communist campaign for the evil it is — an assault on those who fight for equal rights at home and peace abroad, an assault on the best elements of the South African population who are trying to replace race hatred with harmony, and brute force with co-operation.”

The Government obviously hoped that in the climate of opinion created by the events in Hungary and the Middle East, this mass attack on “Communists” in South Africa would pass unquestioned, at least by the white population and its allies abroad. But by casting its net as widely as it did, it brought about the very thing it wanted to avoid — unity in the ranks of its opponents, a unity which from the point of view of the Government unfortunately served to shelter rather than expose the true Communists. Amongst the 156 on trial, the Communists were in the minority. By their side sat with them in the dock “moderates” like Chief Lutuli and Professor Z.K. Matthews, Africanists, trade unionists, housewives, workers, men and women of all shades of political opinion. What united them was their detestation of apartheid; probably most of them would have endorsed the Freedom Charter, but that was as far as it went. Many of the accused were if anything anti-communist or at any rate non-communist in their philosophies, but had come to accept co-operation with communists as one of the realities of political life in South Africa.

No one could blind himself to the fact that the South African communists had been the most consistent opponents of racialism, apartheid, white domination and exploitation ever since the days of the first world war. For nearly 20 years the press associated with the left — Guardian, Inkululeko, Fighting Talk, Freedom, Liberation and a stream of pamphlets had espoused the cause of black liberation, and were often the only outlets available for the Congress movement to state its own case. Top Congress leaders had not only written articles for these journals, but had helped to defend them against Government attack. Undoubtedly, the ANC had a wider mass appeal than the Communist Party, but when it came to the implementation of decisions, to the house-to-house canvassing and day-to-day organising, it was more often than not the Communist Party groups who did the work. Despite its growing influence, the ANC relied too greatly on the annual conference and the mass meeting as its means of communication with the people; and even where the ANC did build its local groups on the so-called M-Plan in the late fifties and early sixties, the nucleus of these groups, too, often consisted of members of the Communist Party — no “fifth column” as the enemy of the Party alleged, but loyal Congressmen, loyally carrying out Congress policies and decisions. Communists at leadership level as well as amongst the rank and file of Congress were no strangers to the colleagues they worked with. Kotane and many others who were members of the Party had through sheer hard work, consistency and reliability in good times as well as bad won the confidence of their people. The same held good for Indian and Coloured leaders — Defiance Campaign and Indian youth leader Ahmed Kathrada; writer Alex La Guma; SACPO leader Reginald September; Indian Congress militant and journalist M.P. Naicker; trade unionist Billy Nair and many more. And if white Communists had at any time seemed strange bed fellows for black nationalists, here they were too, side by side with them in the treason trial — architect, journalist and C.O.D. activist Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein; ex-servicemen’s leader Jack Hodgson; advocate Joe Slovo, who conducted his own defence; his wife, Ruth First, New Age journalist and editor of Fighting Talk; Lionel Forman, advocate, journalist and historian of the people’s resistance movements, and many others.

Here in the dock were 156 people of all races, Communist and non-Communist, who were being persecuted for their years of solid work in building up the Congress Alliance, strengthening the unity between all racial groups working for the establishment of a new democratic society on the lines of the Freedom Charter. The possession of a prison card from the Fort — the Johannesburg jail to which all treason trial accused were taken after arrest — was almost a passport to political respectability. Certainly, many observers were to remark that the 156 treason accused comprised a leadership more capable and representative by far than the 156 members of the all-white Parliament in Cape Town representing only the white voters of South Africa and South West Africa.

In the Fort the accused quickly organised themselves and took stock of their situation. The black accused were led by a triumvirate composed of Chief Lutuli, Professor Matthews and Moses Kotane. They organised talks among the various groups of politicals, lectures and seminars on general political and theoretical issues, and discussions about the problems relating to the trial itself. These discussions were important not only from the point of view of maintaining morale, but also because they helped to deepen understanding among the accused about the political situation in the country and the significance of the trial in the context of the general opposition to the Government’s apartheid policies. Chief Lutuli as ANC President-General, and Professor Matthews as an executive member and the country’s leading black academic assumed their leadership role almost as of right, but none of the accused had any doubt that in this period Kotane’s long political experience and his penetrating insight played a vital role in the conduct of affairs. His capacity to analyse the situation, to formulate policy and. reach a decision, his knowledge of the possibility of practical political action, was unrivalled amongst his colleagues.

The trial in retrospect seems almost a farce. But at the moment of arrest it was far more menacing. A conviction for treason was always a possibility, and carried with it a possible death penalty. The accused drew courage from their association with one another in jail and in the courthouse; songs were composed memorialising their experience which they sang together on public and private occasions for years afterwards. A bond was forged between them which not even later political differences could dissolve. Moreover, the whole of democratic-minded humanity, both at home and abroad, sprang to the aid of the defence. A National Defence Fund to raise money for bail, legal assistance and relief for the families of the accused was launched the day after the mass arrests, and sponsored by prominent civic and church leaders of all persuasions except the extreme right. Abroad the Christian Action Treason Trial Fund began its massive support exercise; and in London, Father Trevor Huddleston who had been so closely associated with many of the accused in the Western Areas removal campaign declared: “I hope with all my heart I shall be arrested. I would passionately welcome the opportunity to stand in a South African dock on this charge and say all the things I've been longing to say.” He warned the British people not to be deceived by the Government’s claim that this was merely an anti-Communist operation.[293]

If the Government had hoped by the arrests to throw the ranks of the extra-parliamentary opposition into confusion, the opposite was the case. The ANC’s annual conference took place as scheduled in Queenstown over the week-end of December 15 and 16 and passed unanimously a resolution declaring: “This conference notes with deep concern the events of December 5 when a number of progressive South Africans were arrested on charges of high treason. Conference calls upon all provinces, regions and branches to trim their organisational machinery to keep the people in readiness for any action that might be decided upon by the National Executive Committee to meet the emergency situation.” With arms raised in the Africa salute, the 300 delegates and people in the audience rose and feelingly sang a new song;

“The leaders are arrested

“We demand their release.”

Reporting the proceedings, Govan Mbeki wrote that the provocative tactics of the police who had raided the conference failed to intimidate the gathering. “If the spirit manifested at the 44th conference is any guide at all, the ANC is a powerful force based on principles that have fired the imagination of South Africa’s underprivileged millions”, he said.[294]

When Moses Kotane was arrested on December 5, a New Age representative who was on the spot questioned his son Joseph, aged 15, who assumed control of the household after his mother left for work. “What do you think of it all?”, he was asked. Joseph answered: “My father has done nothing wrong and I am proud of him.” The younger Kotane boy Leonard rushed off to his father’s work-place to stand in for him as butcher’s assistant.[295]

A bare week before the treason arrests, Kotane had written in New Age a review of current affairs headed: “This is a time for action!” The article had surveyed international events and the local scene, and urged emergency action to meet the crisis situation that was developing. The people were militant and ready for action, he said, but the leadership seemed lost in routine affairs. This was not a time for sectarianism, he wrote, nor for restricting the ranks of unity by accepting only those who endorsed the Freedom Charter. The recent all-in African conference convened by the Interdenominational African Ministers’ Federation which at its Bloemfontein meeting had rejected the Tomlinson Commission’s Bantustan plan for southern Africa had shown that the opportunity existed “to bring the overwhelming majority of anti-Nationalist South Africans together with a common programme of struggle against the Government ... . Now is the time when every leader and member of the liberation and progressive movements, at every level, must be seeing to the grievances of the people, rallying them in tens of thousands of meetings, big and small, up and down the country, against the attacks of apartheid and the persecution of their leaders."[296]

The treason trial brought about precisely what Kotane had been advocating. The courage and determination with which the accused flung back the charges of the prosecution inspired their followers from end to end of the country. Early in January 1957 defence counsel V.C. Berrange told the court that the treason trial was a political plot to silence and outlaw the 156 and the thousands of people they represented. It reflected a battle of ideas: on the one side the ideas of equal opportunities and freedom of thought and expression for all; on the other side those which deny to all but a few the riches of life both material and spiritual. That same week newspapers carried reports of the impressive unity in the ranks of tens of thousands of Africans in Johannesburg, Pretoria and other centres who had started a bus boycott in protest against 1d. increase in fares. The boycotters walked up to 25 miles a day to and from work, day after day, week after week, overcoming every obstacle placed in their way by bosses, police and Transport Minister Schoeman — until they won their demand for a reduction of fares to the old level. The boycotters’ shouts of “Asinamali” (We have no money) and “Azikhelwa” (We don’t ride the buses) were shouts of defiance against a brutal government and the whole establishment of white domination. The treason trial had produced a mass upsurge amongst the people similar to that which had occurred during the Defiance Campaign of 1952. To walk, to boycott, to strike — these were ways of supporting the Congress call to “Stand by Our Leaders."[297]

In another New Age article in May 1957 later published as a pamphlet entitled The Great Crisis Ahead, — A Call to Unity, Kotane wrote:

“Because of the injustices, ruthlessness and indignities which accompany the implementation of the policies of apartheid and segregation, a mood of resistance and defiance is rising among the voiceless and rightless Non-White people in this country. More and more they are turning to the African National Congress and the five-fold Congress alliance, whose policy is the direct antithesis of that of the Nationalist Party. Instead of apartheid, the Congress movement stands for human fraternity; instead of baasskap, equality; instead of suppression, liberty”

The Government’s only answer to the people was repression, said Kotane.

“It is not many years since the Nationalist Government banned the Communist Party, and now insistent threats are heard from Government sources that steps are to be taken to ban the African National Congress and other democratic organisations.”

The ANC and other democratic bodies must defend their right to exist, said Kotane. But the signs were favourable. On all sides the people were active and militant. The basis must be laid “for a great and united movement of all sections of our population that could sweep the Nationalists from office and open the way for a great democratic advance in South Africa ... . “[298]

The year 1957 saw tens of thousands of the black peoples of South Africa in militant action The South African Congress of Trade Unions launched a campaign, with the backing of the ANC and its allies, to recruit 20,000 unorganised workers into trade unions to win a national minimum wage of 1 a day. In Port Elizabeth, a fortress of the ANC, an economic boycott of Nationalist products was declared — later to be officially adopted as Congress policy throughout the Union, forcing some firms to negotiate with the ANC to secure exemption. In Zeerust revolt erupted in protest against passes for women and the deposition of an anti-Government chief. In May 40,000 African workers went on strike in Johannesburg and a huge demonstration marched to the City Hall to protest to the Mayor against the pass laws. Further mass demonstrations took place on Freedom Day, June 26, and South African Women’s Day August 9, with tens of thousands staying away from work. In November striking millworkers in Johannesburg won a great victory when their demands for higher wages were met by the employers. In December over 300 delegates of all races attended a historic multiracial conference in Johannesburg backed by the Interdenominational African Ministers’ Federation, the Congresses, the Liberal Party and other organisations and individuals which decided to start work immediately towards the achievement of universal adult suffrage in an integrated South Africa as the only alternative to apartheid.

Kotane’s call for unity was echoed by the Acting Speaker of the ANC Mr Manyube at the Cape conference of Congress in Oucenstown. Quoting Kotane’s warning: “History will never forgive our generation if we fail now to come together to save South Africa”, Mr Manyube said:

“This task cannot be left to the next generation. That must be saved by us who are still mentally free because when the Nats will have carried out their Bantu Education and apartheid university plans, the minds of the next generation will have been poisoned."[299]

In July the Acting President- General of the ANC, Mr G.S.D. Nyembe, addressing a public meeting in Maritzburg jointly convened by the Natal Indian Congress and the Liberal Party, reiterated the call for unity of all democrats in South Africa, irrespective of colour, in the fight against apartheid.[300]

In September the writer Alan Paton, in an article in New Age supporting the calling of the multi-racial conference, said:

“This is the first time I have written in New Age, a paper that has attacked the Liberal Party from time to time, just as Liberals have attacked it. New Age has not conquered me, and I have not conquered it. But both New Age and I have grown aware that this is neither the time nor place to attack one another while the real enemy of human dignity and happiness attacks us both."[301]

The call for unity of all anti-Nationalist forces was endorsed by the 45th annual conference of the ANC held at Orlando township, Johannesburg, in December. The main policy resolution on South Mrica declared:

“For the last ten years the Nationalist Government has brought intolerable oppression and suffering to the Non-European people of this country. They have disenfranchised the Coloured voters, evicted thousands of Africans and other Non-Europeans from their land and houses, ‘Bantuised’ African education in order to prepare us for a subservient role in white society, forbidden men and women of different races to worship together, extended passes to African women, introduced apartheid in the nursing profession, deprived the African workers of the right to form trade unions and attacked democracy in various ways.

“It is therefore the duty of all freedom-loving people in our country to rally behind the ANC to resist and defeat the Nationalist Government and to fight for democracy in our land.”

The conference expressed its full support for the leaders on trial for treason, and pledged to keep the trial as the central issue in the country. Most significant was a memorandum submitted to the conference “on the place of the 1949 Programme of Action in present-day ANC policy.” The memorandum pointed out that the Freedom Charter and the 1949 programme were not contradictory, as maintained by the Africanists, but complementary. The Freedom Charter defined what was meant by “national freedom” and therefore expressed the ANC’s policy, while the 1949 Programme set out only a tactical plan of action. The Africanists present at the conference fought stubbornly against the memorandum, but were hopelessly defeated, and the final resolution proclaiming once again the ANC’s full support for the Freedom Charter was passed by 305 votes to 5.

The ANC conference also welcomed the launching of the world’s first earth satellites by the Soviet Union as “enriching science and bringing mankind to the threshold of a new era."[302]

On December 17, 1957, the treason trial prosecution suffered its first setback, when charges were withdrawn against 61 persons, who were included as co-conspirators in later charges against the remaining accused. One of those who had the charges against him withdrawn was Chief A.J. Lutuli, President General of the ANC. During the year that they were in the case together, a remarkable friendship and understanding developed between Chief Lutuli and Moses Kotane. In their persons can be discerned the relationship which came to exist between the illegal Communist Party and the ANC.

It was politics which in the first place brought the two men together. Though the Communist Party was illegal and unable to function openly, everybody knew it was there, representing a force which the ANC had to take into account in estimating political policies and the possibilities of carrying them out. By the time of the treason trial, the Communist Party had made great advances in the process of reconstituting itself. Not only had the central committee been re-established, but district committees had been set up in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. National conferences with delegates from all centres had been held under the very noses of the security police. Statements made from time to time by leading Party members, including some of those issued by Moses Kotane, were statements issued on the authority of the CP’s Central Committee, and were understood to be such by the majority of those who read them. Even under conditions of illegality, the Communist Party had at its disposal a machine and cadres to operate it more efficient and united than those at the disposal of the ANC.

Far from being a source of conflict or division, this mode of functioning during the fifties seemed to suit both parties. The Communist Party had not yet officially announced its existence to the outside world, and whatever the Communists did was done through the channels of the Congress movement and in pursuit of policies laid down by the Congresses. Apart from one or two minor instances, nothing was done by the CP which was in conflict with Congress policy. On the contrary, CP members were seen to be the most active in carrying out Congress decisions and working in Congress campaigns, and this established a unique unity and mutual confidence between the two organisations. It was this unity which underlay the enormous popular upsurge by the masses in South Africa during the decade of the fifties.

Discussing this issue, one of the ANC’s top leaders and later Acting President, Oliver Tambo, has stated:

“I think Moses Kotane contributed more than anyone to this kind of collaboration between the ANC and the Party, to the unification of the liberation movement in South Africa. He could have used his position to underline attitudes which were specific to the Communist Party, to speak from a particular position and remind everybody about the ultimate objectives of the Communist Party. But he never did that. He debated from what seemed to be an exclusively ANC standpoint, and from the point of view of building unity this was extremely important. I am absolutely certain that many people who might have been hostile to the Party were won over because they found a man like Kotane to be an ANC man second to none.

“It is significant that Chief Lutuli, who was not a member of the Party, and not near to being a member, on difficult questions on which he wanted advice by-passed his officials and secretaries and sent for Moses because he had discerned this loyalty in him. He knew Moses was 100 per cent a member of the Communist Party, in fact its general secretary; but he also knew him to be 100 per cent ANC, and this gave Lutuli great confidence in him. Even when Lutuli was confined to the Groutville area in Natal, he would send for Moses to explain or discuss some issue he was uncertain about.

“None of us in the ANC was deceived by the dissoluton of the Communist Party. It may have been a dissolution in terms of structure, but the Party members we knew never ceased to be Party members. It may be ironic, but I think the dissolution of the Party politicised the ANC, which developed its most progressive policies in the years after 1950. This was undoubtedly due to the influence of men like Kotane, Marks and other Communists who had won the trust of the Congress. Before 1950 there was the feeling that there Were two camps; some belonged to one, some to the other. But after 1950 we were all together and when we discussed policies we never thought of the differences in our philosophies. We were all equals deciding what must be done."[303]

Another top ANC man who first met Kotane in the late fifties (let us call him B) testified that when he first heard Kotane talk, he thought he was more of an ANC man than a Party man.

“In his speeches and in conversation, he never mentioned the Communist Party, and it was only when I joined the Party after the banning of the ANC in 1960 that I realised Kotane had been putting the Communist Party line all the time.”

This witness also testified to the great influence Kotane had on Lutuli.

“Lutuli had so much confidence in Kotane that he would not make up his mind on controversial problems until he ‘had discussed them with Kotane. Lutuli used to say: ‘Kotane is the leader of the workers. We must hear what the leader of the workers has to say about this’. In fact, it was Lutuli’s attitude to Kotane which first made me think there was something more to politics than the ANC.”

The ANC leadership was not merely impressed by Kotane’s personality and judgment. It was also because behind Kotane stood the apparatus and experience of the Communist Party that his advice was valued. B worked closely with Kotane and Sisulu in the late 1950s.

“They were the people with whom I used to discuss ANC problems. I then realised that Kotane had a profound’ understanding of the situation in South Africa and of methods of practical action. During the 1957 bus boycott, for example, I was on the committee which ran the boycott. Although he was banned at the time, Kotane gave a lot of advice, because he was in touch with everything. He told us how to bring together all the elements in Alexandra Township who were for the boycott, even though they were divided about other things, and it was thanks to his suggestions that we were able to get representatives of a number of organisations on our committee — the Standholders’ Association, the Tenants’ Association, the Madzunya splinter group (in the ANC) the outfit of Trotskyite Vincent Swart. On his advice we gave the chairmanship to S. Mahlangu, chairman of the Standholders’ Association, to convince the people that it was they who were in control, that the boycott was a matter for the whole township, not just an affair of the ANC. He was always thinking about involving wider and wider groups of people in action.

“Kotane also created confidence in those who discussed or debated with him, because he never made up his mind without listening to what other people, had to say. When he drafted a document, he thought carefully about every word and phrase, and changed his formulations many times before he was satisfied. For this reason, he was much better as a committee man than as a speaker on a public platform.

“He was also a very able man at settling disputes, getting people to work together, handling people who were ‘difficult’ and keeping them in line, always stressing the need for unity. I remember when the Bantustan question was first discussed on the head committee, there was a strong feeling that we should have nothing to do with them. Kotane’s line was that we must be where the people are — we should even get into the Urban Bantu Councils and ensure that they didn’t work. He said we must never allow policy, no matter how correct in theory, to isolate us from the masses. Later I sometimes felt he took this too far, and the Party suffered.”

B also spoke about Kotane the man behind the politician:

“If you didn’t know Kotane, he appeared to be not very friendly, but when you got to know him he was one of the nicest people, provided you were straight with him. He would not stand for any nonsense, was honest himself and a strict disciplinarian with others. When I was working for the ANC in South Africa, I used to get paid irregularly. Kotane once came to my home, and saw my children had no proper food because I had no money. So Kotane summoned a meeting of Sisulu, Tambo, Mandela and myself and asked how much I was owed. I told them — in five years I got 100. That day Kotane said: ‘We will never allow a situation of this kind to happen again’, and from that day he took over the handling of funds. After that I got my pay regularly, together with others who were in the same boat."[304]

The treason trial was intended by the Government as a weapon to bludgeon the people’s organisation into silence, to smash the leadership and intimidate all opposition. But it had the opposite effect. It cemented the Congress affiance together. More than that, during the preparatory examination when all 156 accused were before the court in the Drill Hall, Johannesburg, it provided a natural meeting place for the people’s leaders, who were able to consult together as never before, conveniently and at a moment’s notice despite all the banning orders that were supposed to isolate them. Anyone acquainted with the set-up in the Congress movement — and that must have included the Special Branch — could have seen the whole machinery hard at work during the lunchtime adjournments. Here in one comer sat the ANC leadership, there the Indian Congress, in another corner SACTU, COD, SACPO — all the head committees, including non-trialists who came into the hall during the lunch-hour — discussing the affairs of the day and the conduct of the various campaigns they had initiated. And two men who were often seen alone together debating and discussing were Chief Lutuli and Moses Kotane. To some their association seemed incongruous. What could bind together two men with such diverse backgrounds, upbringing and belief? What but the struggle for liberation that brought them together and made the fusion of their talents essential in the interests of national unity. Over the years that they worked together the two men developed a high regard for one another. Kotane found Lutuli very broadminded and tolerant, never narrow in his beliefs or his approach to politics. “I am sure he would have joined the Communist Party if I had asked him”, said Kotane later. “Not because of the name or the philosophy, but because of our programme and the work we were doing in South Africa, and because he and I were so close together.” Lutuli in fact once confessed to Walter Sisulu: “I am not a Communist but if Kotane ever asked me to join the Party, I wonder what I would do.” As for Kotane, his great regret was that he had no chance to say goodbye to Lutuli before he left South Africa in 1962.[305]