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The ethnicity question

In South Africa, national domination was maintained by a ruling class who manipulated state apparatus to perpetuate ethnic fragmentation and racial hostility, and in doing so, to protect the economic interests and social privileges of all classes among the white minority, to the exclusion of the black majority.

During its formative years, one of the most distinctive features of the SACP was its challenge of this domination, through its promise of “oneness” — its assertion that working-class solidarity transcended racial lines, and had the potential to override ethnic and national loyalties. This was drawn from the Marxist-Leninist belief that ethnicity is a form of false consciousness — a construct designed to divert the attention of the working class away from the class interests (and grievances) that unite them, and instead to divide them by fixating on cultural and religious identities. The ultimate goal of the SACP was for an emancipated society of economic and social equals, wherein class divisions, privileges, and disabilities would be impossible.  Guided by this goal, and these principles, the SACP has, historically, condemned ethnic identification and mobilisation.

The “unbreakably united” fabric of Communist ideology was nevertheless permeated by ethnicity. Ethnic networks had salience and influence in the functioning of the SACP, and the pathways by which radical activists came to it.


This paradox is most clearly evident in the South African Jewish community.


Detail from a cover of The African Communist, the magazine of the South African Communist Party, 1983. (DISA Archive)

In the struggle against racism in South Africa, a disproportionately large section of the small minority of white anti-Apartheid activists belonged to the Jewish community. Very few — if any — of these individuals took this stance against the racial domination of the Apartheid regime in their capacity as Jews. Hardly any saw their involvement in the SACP and in the struggle as arising from any kind of uniquely Jewish ethical imperative. Thus, a direct line drawn between the activists’ political values and choices, and their Jewishness, would be tenuous at best.


However, the ethnic origin of the Jewish radical activists and their political awareness was not entirely disconnected. On the contrary, certain Jewish institutions and cultural memories undeniably had a hand in shaping and motivating their radical views, as well as their capacity for empathy with — and advocacy for — those who are marginalised and oppressed.


Though the Jewish community-at-large was not drawn to radical politics, a significant number of white radicals were Jews. More than half of the whites charged in the Treason Trial (1956) were Jewish, as were all the whites initially charged along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki in the Rivonia Trial (1963). Jewish radicals were conspicuously present in virtually every aspect of the anti-apartheid movement — occupying prominent political, military, legal, and cultural positions in the liberation struggle. These numbers stand out, because the group accounted for only 2.5% of South Africa’s white population, which translated to a mere 0.3% of the national population. Not all were radicals – many of the Jews who opposed Apartheid were motivated by liberal ideals.


The exhibition that follows attempts to account for the motivations for these radicals’ activism. It explores the different pathways that Jews took into radicalism and the SACP – looking at the influences of community, family, and education on their politicisation.

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