The brave few

A socialist journal that ran beauty contests; initially racially patronising yet becoming a kind of paper of record for the national liberation movements; having seven names in 26 years, the Guardian was something of a legend in the anti-apartheid struggle.

James Zug admirably brings out its complexity in his well-written and highly engaging book The Guardian: The History of South Africa’s Extraordinary Anti-Apartheid Newspaper (Unisa Press and Michigan State University Press).

The myth—made popular by the left as much as by the National Party—that the paper was always a Communist Party organ is quickly dispelled in the first pages. Although the founders of what in 1937 was initially called the Cape Guardian were later to join the party during South African communism’s heyday in the 1940s, and although it would become a major work of the party, it started out as a local socialist-oriented newspaper in Cape Town that had as its focus organised labour.

Initially, too, this fairly pluralist socialist perspective did not emphasise black political aspirations—if anything it was rather patronising in tone. As suggested above, it was fairly sexist too: its women’s pages focused on fashion and cooking, and it ran beauty contests among women workers—at least in this respect it desired to be more “proletarian” than other papers.

Rapidly in the 1940s it grew into what made it famous: an alternative newspaper run by the Communist Party that brought a Marxist (if somewhat Stalinist) view of national and international events. It consciously expressed solidarity with African nationalism—though this did not extend significantly to movements beyond the African National Congress.

For such delinquency after 1948 it was increasingly the subject of National Party pressure: raids on the paper and on the homes of staffers and its governing body intensified during the 1950s. Where previously it had had its fair share of legal wrangles—particularly at the time of its support for black trade unionism culminating in the 1946 mine workers strike—but also enjoyed the toleration (if not respect) of the pre-1948 government, it now faced a barrage of state opposition.

One reason for this was its uncompromising support for political campaigns of the ANC in the 1950s. Another was the fact that the investigative side of the paper revealed widespread human rights abuses: shocking use of child and convict labour on farms, sometimes tied into the hated pass laws. These were reported by top Guardian reporters such as Ruth First, Joe Gqabi and Wolfie Kodesh.

In the end, the newspaper’s final incarnation (as Spark) was brought to an end in March 1963, as the state finally cracked down on the public activities of all sections of the Congress Alliance.

Written with great vigour, reading at times like a novel, and packed with detailed research—including a swathe of interviews with former associates of the Guardian—this is an excellent contribution to modern South African history. It points to an area of history that needs more research, a sympathetic yet critical examination of the role of the left in South Africa. It deserves to be read beyond the small circles of scholarship and what’s left of the left.

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