Commies in and under the bed

The ANC in exile in Zambia: an encampment for 700 refugees/new recruits at MK's Chelston Transit centre, 1991. (Supplied)

The ANC in exile in Zambia: an encampment for 700 refugees/new recruits at MK's Chelston Transit centre, 1991. (Supplied)

THE HIDDEN THREAD: RUSSIA AND SOUTH AFRICA IN THE SOVIET ERA by Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson (Jonathan Ball)

THE LUSAKA YEARS: THE ANC IN EXILE 1962-1994 by Hugh Macmillan (Jacana)


The Hidden Thread by Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson (supported by Stephen Ellis's External Mission) is the book that set off the argument about whether Nelson Mandela was a communist – and, if so, what kind of communist: card-carrying or co-opted? Some of the discussion was carried in these pages, including a piece by Hugh Macmillan, author of The Lusaka Years, which was to my mind the most nuanced and plausible explanation (he goes for co-option).

For Filatova and Davidson, whose work is built on masses of new research into previously unavailable Soviet resources, it is clear that Mandela was seen by the Soviets as their man in Africa, or at least the southern part – and at least until he'd been in jail a while.

And it is now clear, as it was not two decades ago, when the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) returned from exile, that Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) was a SACP initiative and the ANC became a full partner in it only later.

From this point there develops a range of arguments about the SACP's influence – benign or malign – on the ANC in exile. Without the help of the SACP and its Soviet sponsors, the ANC might well have withered like the Pan Africanist Congress did. The SACP pushed the party towards nonracialism, but also insisted on the primacy of the armed struggle (even, or especially, when it was inert) and introduced forms of ideological correctitude that could end, for some, in torture and the firing squad.

Today, even if the historical context is moot, the ideological arguments continue. The SACP's formulation of a "two-stage" revolutionary theory is echoed in references to a "second transition" – an idea that popped up again at the ANC's pre-Mangaung policy conference in 2012, before quietly dying away again. Yet the ANC still employs the notion of a "national democratic revolution", while dodging the issue of the socialist revolution that is supposed to follow with Marxist inevitability.

Amateur Stalinism
Breakaway parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, which some see as crypto-fascist rather than socialist, enthusiastically embrace ideological tenets that were once unique to communist parties, while the actually existing SACP has become a lapdog of the Jacob Zuma ANC, making racial transformation its top priority and otherwise sinking into amateur Stalinism.

It's hard not to see much of this kind of ideological confusion as rooted in the SACP's 1950s entryism and subsequent need to speak with if not a forked tongue then at least double meanings that are difficult to disentangle.

One small example would be the SACP's recent embrace of Arthur Chaskalson, South Africa's former chief justice. After his death, the SACP said Chaskalson had been a long-time secret member, calling him the party's man at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa; thus it claimed centrality in the ground-breaking work that brought our Constitution into being. At the same time, SACP leaders such as deputy head Jeremy Cronin were tagging the Constitution as "anti-majoritarian".

Such twists and turns in the party's history are traced by Eddy Maloka in his rather dour institutional history of the SACP from 1960 to the attainment of freedom, including the tension between critique and co-option. In 1996, for instance, when the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy was introduced by the ANC, the SACP accused the ANC of treachery, insisting on its role as an independent organisation within the tripartite alliance – while declining to leave that alliance, however treacherous the ANC had been.

It returned to a reliance on entryist politics, which might in fact be forms of co-option; today, the SACP lambastes "neoliberalism", without any longer identifying the ANC in power as neoliberal.

Yet the idea that the ANC betrayed socialism in 1996 has taken hold and extends far beyond the confines of the SACP. This is another of the ways in which the SACP has been deeply influential on South African history and ideological positioning, even when the party itself seems to have abandoned the gospel it used to proclaim as unchanging and undying.

Maloka's book is good on the strategic and tactical interventions of the SACP and how its thinking evolved after 1960, as well as its complicated relationship with the ANC. It makes a solid introduction to the party's history, though more on the pre-1960 era would have been useful in understanding how it changed.

For the Cold War international background, and particularly the Soviet-SACP relationship, one would have to read The Hidden Thread, and for more detail of life "on the ground" during the exile period one has to read The Lusaka Years.

Tsar Peter the Great
As Filatova and Davidson show, the link between South Africa and Russia goes far back into South Africa's history, when Tsar Peter the Great became fascinated by Southern Africa during the Dutch colonial period. The white National Party's theory of "total onslaught" is also evidently indebted to the Soviet Union's conception of the global onslaught on it by all non-communist countries, a view that emerged soon after the 1917 revolution and became entrenched after World War II.

Filatova and Davidson's intensive focus, though, is on the ANC and the SACP's alliance with the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia: they recount the mechanics of this 60-year ideological and financial alliance, examining who was trained and endorsed by the Soviets and who disappeared during the Stalinist purges, as well as the role of Soviet spies in apartheid South Africa. They note how cordial contact was made between the KGB and apartheid's spooks well ahead of any talks between the South African government and the exiled movements.

One of Filatova and Davidson's key informants is Vladimir Shubin, who as a Soviet official did much liaising between the Soviets and the South African parties. Shubin also wrote a personal account of Mzwai Piliso, who took much of the blame for human rights abuses in the MK camps in the 1980s. The piece appeared in One Hundred Years of the ANC: Liberation Histories and Democracy Now, published by Wits Press in 2012, and, as a human story, is worth setting beside the account of those abuses as given in Ellis's book.

Sometimes, reading history with all its many parties, ideological contestations, defeats and victories, the human beings involved – with all their contradictions, their mix of good and bad behaviour – can be forgotten or partly erased. They become pawns in history's great game of chess.

This is not a forgetting of which Macmillan can be accused. His history of the ANC is located in and limited by Lusaka, the party's base for most of the exile years, but he by no means ignores the wider context. In fact, it feels as though the Lusaka tag is merely a convenient way of containing the historical sprawl and perhaps a way of distinguishing the book from Ellis's account, which covers the same era.

Less tendentious than Ellis's External Mission, Macmillan's book is studiously even-handed, without ignoring the depredations caused by groups such as Mbokodo, the ANC's internal policing unit, of which Zuma was famously deputy head. For instance, Macmillan gives a more detailed and thorough account of the case of Thami Zulu, whom Mbokodo arrested, abused and detained until he died, than has been seen elsewhere.

The Lusaka Years is the fullest account of the ANC in exile so far. Macmillan not only gives the historical overview, as traced by the big events and ideological shifts, but also provides what sociologists call a "thick description" of what life was like for those cadres whose lives centred on the Zambian capital – down to the vegetables they grew, what they drank, and sometimes even who had affairs with whom.

The very texture of those lives can be felt in The Lusaka Years, and the detailed human interest offered here adds considerably to the book's immense readability. Set alongside other works in the recent surge of such histories, including more individualised books such as Bob Hepple's Young Man with a Red Tie and Alan Wieder's Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid, and even without more detail on the ANC's other exile-era bases (London, for instance), Macmillan's work stands as the most comprehensive and engaging history yet written about the party in exile.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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