The SACP - Origins
Since its formation in 1921, the South African Communist Party (SACP), initially known as the Communist Party of South Africa, fought tirelessly to change South Africa’s political landscape.
Founded by a group of mainly white radical workers, many of whom were immigrants from Eastern Europe, the SACP was the earliest significant non-racial political organisation in South Africa. Building on their experience of workers’ struggles in Eastern Europe, its early leaders focused on organising black workers in trade unions, and on national liberation demands. Within four years of its formation, the majority of Party members were black. In 1928, it called for majority rule in South Africa.
In the years to come, as racial oppression became increasingly entrenched in South African society, the SACP — in close partnership with the African National Congress (ANC), the Indian Congress and the Coloured African People’s Organisation — became a key player in the liberation struggle.
When the National Party (NP) was elected to government in 1948, it made the Communist Party one of its main targets. The Suppression of Communism Act, which was passed in 1950, formally banned the CPSA, and suppressed the political activities and organisation of many prominent activists.
Detail from a cover of The African Communist, the magazine of the South African Communist Party, 1971. (DISA Archive)
In 1953, the Party was revived under the SACP banner as an underground organisation, and for the next few decades, the SACP worked underground and in exile to advance the liberation movement in South Africa. In 1955, a number of banned SACP members (including Lionel Bernstein and Ruth First) had a hand in formulating the Freedom Charter. The Freedom Charter was a document that constituted a notable shift in thinking about the democratic rights of black South Africans, in its demand for a non-racial and democratic South Africa.
Later, in response to increasing repression, the Party allied themselves with the ANC to form Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1960, which marked the beginning of the armed struggle against the Apartheid regime. During this time, many Party members were arrested and imprisoned, while still others were killed, or forced into exile.
The Apartheid regime
In order to colour the history of the SACP in fully, it is important to understand the system it was fighting against.
In the apartheid regime of South Africa, white South Africans (Afrikaners) monopolised control over the state and the economy, developing a theology and philosophy of white racial superiority — and a a legal and economic system that flowed from it — that deliberately excluded non-whites from economic and political power.
Internal resistance to this regime originated from a variety of sectors of South African society, and black, coloured, and Indian South Africans who were the targets of the oppressive laws joined various social movements and resistance organisations to fight for freedom and equality.
Photograph of the SACP banner displayed for the first time, Cradock, Eastern Cape, 19 July 1985. (Gille de Vlieg, SAHA Archive for Justice)
The majority of white South Africans either supported, or acquiesced to it, but a small minority of liberals and radicals opposed the system. Their resistance took various forms:
In the sphere of culture, a number of white writers — such as André P. Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Alan Paton, and Nadine Gordimer — criticised the Apartheid regime through their published work.
In liberal politics, the predominantly white membership of both the Progressive Party of South Africa, and the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA) advocated for universal suffrage, and opposed the institutionalised racism of the Apartheid state. Later, in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the state cracked down severely on political movements and activists, forcing them to re-evaluate their commitment to a non-violent liberation struggle. For both the ANC and the PAC, this moment marked the beginning of the armed struggle. During the same period, the LPSA responded as well, forming the National Committee of Liberation (which was later renamed the African Resistance Movement) to function as an umbrella organisation for carrying out sabotage campaigns against the Apartheid government. This radical organisation, which had a predominantly white membership, carried out strategic attacks on electricity pylons, offices, and railway stations in an attempt to disrupt white minority rule.
It was most notably in the multiracial SACP, however, that a number of white anti-apartheid activists rose to prominence for their revolutionary activities.
Who were these radical activists, and why were they drawn to radicalism?