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South Africa: Why the South African Communist Party, despite its proud history, has recently taken a backseat in South African politics.

Book Review

Saturday 25 February 2023, by siawi3



South Africa: Bua Komanisi

By Jeremy Cronin

Despite its proud history, the South African Communist Party has recently taken a backseat in South African politics. Understanding its roots helps us understand how it got here and what it will take to be rejuvenated.

Special official funeral of Eric “Stalin” Mtshali. Image credit GCIS via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

In late-July 1921 a fledgling Communist Party of South Africa, later renamed the South African Communist Party, was launched in Cape Town at a conference attended by 14 delegates, all of them white. Coinciding with the centenary of the party, the historian Tom Lodge has published this long-awaited history of an organization that now claims an official membership of more than 300,000. Some 40 years in the making, Red Road to Freedom, A History of the South African Communist Party 1921-2021, is a landmark scholarly achievement written sympathetically but from a non-Marxist perspective.

In the course of his own earlier research for his Black Politics in South Africa since 1945, published in 1983, Lodge was intrigued by the relatively unheralded role of communists in the late 1940s and through the 1950s as the African National Congress transformed into a campaigning, mass-based organization. It is a role that Lodge argues was underplayed in earlier academic work, such as the important six-volume documentary survey of black resistance politics originally coordinated by Thomas Karis and Gwendolen Carter under the title, From Protest to Challenge. To an extent, Lodge argues, this was the consequence of “the limitations of reliable information available at the time,” but it “also reflected the predispositions of liberal sympathizers of the ANC who maintained that the ‘independent-minded African patriots’ were more than capable of prevailing in any collaboration they might undertake with communists.”

“From 1945”, Lodge now writes, “knowledge of the party’s development becomes vital for any understanding of the mainstream of black politics in South Africa.” In many ways, the party’s extensive ideological, organizational and mobilizing impact on the South African freedom struggle, and particularly on the ANC, is the central theme of the book.

But to what extent has this role been beneficial or problematic? And what, if any, is the relevance now of this influence at a time when, after nearly 30 years as a ruling party in government, the ANC by its own admission is facing serious internal crises of factionalism, endemic corruption, and waning albeit still with significant electoral support?

While re-balancing the tendency to diminish the influence of the SACP in the post-1945 period, Lodge is equally effective in countering arguments that the party’s historical role was an over-weaning and essentially manipulative entryism into the mainstream ANC movement, perhaps acting on behalf of Soviet masters in the Kremlin. That was something the apartheid regime naturally frequently alleged. But it is also an argument advanced with greater sophistication for the period of the late-1950s through the 1980s by journalist scholars such as Stephen Ellis and RW Johnson. Lodge largely disagrees with these views, not least because, notwithstanding the party’s frequently repeated aspiration to be a tight “democratic centralist,” vanguard formation, its own composition and internal culture were typically diverse and pluralistic.

The detailed mapping of this diversity and Lodge’s particular interest in the internal sociology of the party is one of the great strengths of the book. Building on archives, extensive interviews, and personal memoirs, Lodge has an acute eye for biographical detail that captures the complexity of historical moments and the party members immersed within them. The early chapters trace formative influences on the party, like the important role of radical white trade unionists influenced, in part, by the syndicalism of Daniel De Leon. Lodge corrects the tendency, notable in some of the SACP’s own publications, to read the largely reactionary role played by white workers in the second half of the 20th century back into an earlier and more militant period. He also draws out the important role of Jewish emigre Bundists—their own East European connections were to provide one conduit for interest in and information on the Bolshevik revolution. Given their own experience of racial oppression in the Russian Pale, Lodge also plausibly argues for a reflexive disposition on their part to anti-racism, which was perhaps reinforced by the fact that some were store-keepers and itinerant sales-persons operating in black townships.

An inclusive non-racialism, the foundation of the post-apartheid South African democratic constitution, is arguably one of the major legacy contributions of the party to the South African reality. From the outset and for several decades, the SACP was the only political party in South Africa with a non-racial membership. But, in the first years there was, as Lodge delicately puts it, a certain “fluidity on the issues of race and cross-communal solidarity.” The party’s non-racialism was derived from its founding commitment to proletarian internationalism. But who were the proletarians? Eddie Roux, a key figure in the formation of a Young Communist League in the early 1920s, was later to remember: “I was not consciously hostile or prejudiced against black men. But for me the ‘workers of the world’ were the white miners, tramway men, building artisans and so on, who had trade unions and fought strikes.” Bill Andrews, trade unionist and founding chairperson of the party, “is an exemplary case,” Lodge argues for these early years, “in his inconsistency and ambivalence on racial issues, intuitively and emotionally finding his sense of community within the confines of white industrial neighbourhoods and yet intellectually ready to recognise that the real working class included black South Africans.”

By 1924 the CPSA was already claiming a large majority of probably fairly loosely organized black members, who brought their own impact into the party. “(I)f South African revolutionaries depended initially upon imported visions and an immigrant lexicon,” Lodge writes, quite soon African party members “like William Thibedi and Hamilton Kraai began adapting and domesticating these exotic visions and applying this foreign lexicon to their own circumstances.” This is certainly true. However, the resources drawn upon by the early African party members for this indigenization of Marxism at a practical level do not receive the same attention in Lodge’s work as the diverse and eclectic currents drawn upon by the early white pioneers of socialism. As they organized in black townships and rural villages these African communists invoked both cultural traditions of primary resistance to colonialism, and a liberatory Christian vocabulary that would have been familiar to their audience. In their organizational work, they also drew upon deep traditions of militant choral song, a legacy that lives on in today’s SACP, trade union, and ANC “singing conferences” (as one surprised but sympathetic European left observer once remarked to me in the 1990s)—a practice it would be hard to imagine occurring in Brezhnev’s CPSU. This is not a simplistic case of Marxism being lost in translation, nor is it merely folkloric. These practices are embedded in traditions of collective resistance and self-help, co-operative effort that infused party activism and was to give the party a 100-year durability, despite challenges and failings.

However, it was only in the late 1920s—and then unevenly amidst considerable internal controversy—that the party at least formally adopted a programmatic position that promised to ground its Marxism strategically in the South African reality. This was the so-called “native” or “black republic thesis” on South Africa developed by the Comintern (CI). It argued that the struggle for socialism in South Africa necessarily required, as an essential “first stage,” a broad national liberatory struggle for majority rule with minority rights guaranteed for all. The party was urged to work with emergent movements among the African majority and transform them into “fighting nationalist organisations.” The ANC was specifically mentioned.

Lodge’s interests and strengths do not particularly lie in exploring Marxist theoretical perspectives and debates, nevertheless, his in-depth archival work provides a useful account of the development of the black republic strategic perspective. This includes consideration of the contributory role of the South African communist and trade unionist James La Guma in the course of his engagements in Moscow with Nikolai Bukharin and leading CI personalities, although Lodge, correctly, does not go as far as Jack and Ray Simons in their Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950, in attributing larger authorship to La Guma.

As the official South African national section of the CI, the party at its 1929 Congress was obliged to endorse the CI’s “black republic” resolution as its own. While some in the leadership, like La Guma, were strong supporters, a majority of the leadership including other black leaders in the party were less than enthusiastic. There was concern that reference to a black republic would alienate white workers. There was also considerable skepticism about the call to work with and build the ANC into a fighting national liberation movement. At the time the ANC was seen largely as a dormant formation dominated by traditional leaders and mission-school educated liberal professionals.

The South African party’s internal differences on the strategic perspective were compounded by a sharp turn taken by the CI. Paradoxically, at the very time that the CI was insisting on South African communists engaging with the ANC, the broader strategy encouraging alliances with national movements in the colonial and semi-colonial world was being turned on its head. The CI’s so-called “left turn” against “right deviationism” was partly precipitated by the April 1927 attack by the nationalist Kuomintang on its former communist party ally in China. There was also what was to prove a disastrous hardening in Europe of the line on alliances with social democratic parties, now characterized as “social fascists.” The “left turn” in the CI, the beginning of Stalinization, also saw the formation now asserting a much greater top-down, factional interference in the affairs of local parties.

The strategic potential of the majority-rule, black republic resolution for grounding a Marxist practice in the South African reality was no sooner advanced than the rug was pulled from under the feet of the already hesitant South African party. Strategic confusion was compounded by factional interference by CI emissaries and damaging party expulsions of “right deviationists.” Through the early 1930s membership and influence dwindled to such an extent that the newly elected national secretary, Moses Kotane, wondered at the time whether the party would survive at all.

It was only in the course of the 1950s that the now banned, underground SACP began to recover a more effective strategic characterisation of the struggle for socialism in the South African reality. In doing so, it built on the earlier black republic thesis and the idea already present in the late 1920s that South Africa was a colonial formation of a “special type”— being at once a semi-peripheral, mineral exporting subordinate within the imperialist system, and a formation characterized by an “internal colonialism,” with a well-rooted white minority ruling bloc dominated by an established South African bourgeoisie nationally oppressing a black majority.

A central theme of Lodge’s book, as earlier noted, is the major influence of the SACP upon the ANC, in particular from the mid-1940s. The party, he writes, “brought with it a range of helpful resources to the larger organisation: technical and professional skills, organisational habits (…) and skilful managers—”cadres” as the party liked to call them—renewing these successively through selective recruitment and careful preparation.” With the leadership of both the banned ANC and SACP largely in exile, inside the country from the 1970s, “the party installed its own remarkably resilient networks that helped underpin wider political formations and bring to them a perception of inclusive loyalty.”

Above all, according to Lodge, the party’s Marxism provided a “morale-boosting teleology” to a wider movement particularly in periods like the mid-1960s to mid-1970s when the struggle was at a low point. Whatever its “flaws and mistakes,” he notes, “the party’s strategic understandings…served as sources of hope and moral certainty, not just for party ideologues but among the ANC’s own rank and file, helping to sustain the movement and ensure its survival.” The party’s Marxism of the late 1960s and 1970s, with its optimistic, teleological inclinations certainly inspired many, including non-communists in the midst of the iron-fisted years of apartheid’s ascendancy. This is evident, for instance, in the “Strategy and Tactics” document emerging from the ANC’s 1969 Morogoro conference in which the prospects for a radical national liberation advance were said to be enhanced by the fact that the South African struggle was “taking place within an international context of transition to the Socialist system,” … in a new kind of world … which is no longer monopolized by the imperialist world system.”

Lodge could, however, have explored more effectively the reciprocal influence of the ANC, and more generally of black emancipatory struggles upon the SACP. Implicit throughout but insufficiently explored for its contradictory pushes and pulls is the relative uniqueness and complexity of the ANC/SACP relationship. Going back to the 1920s there has been overlapping membership and, subsequently, overlapping leadership. At first “dual membership,” as it came to be known, was confined to black communist party members but from the 1980s the ANC opened up its national executive committee to non-Africans and then subsequently its general membership to all South Africans. This dual membership of two political formations has had a rich if complicated history.

Most obviously, it has resulted in a considerable degree of symbiotic influence. The ANC was launched in 1912, almost a decade before the party. With its own long tradition of struggle for an inclusive constitutional democracy, the ANC was not the creation of the party, not a simple communist front. Even at the height of the SACP’s influence upon the wider movement, the ANC retained its own independent lines of contact with, for instance, the Soviet bloc of countries.

If there were important conjunctures, as Lodge amply demonstrates, in which the party played a key role in assisting the ANC to overcome stagnation or disorientation, there were also moments in which arguably, these roles were somewhat reversed, typically in complex ways.

The story of Elliot Tonjeni, briefly explored by Lodge, is illustrative and exemplary in this regard. Tonjeni, along with fellow communists Johnny Gomas and Bransby Ndobe, had been expelled in 1928 because of their party membership from the influential and for some years genuinely mass based Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). The three then devoted their energies to setting up a string of rural ANC (and interestingly not communist party) branches in the Boland region of the Western Cape. One such branch in Worcester numbered some 800 members, mainly coloured farmworkers. Worcester became a hotbed of militant action, with Tonjeni leading a mass May Day demonstration through the town. It was followed by a second demonstration with police shootings in which five were killed. A conservative, provincial ANC leadership disowned Tonjeni, and expelled him and Ndobe. The two then established their own “Independent ANC” with three key demands: land, free education and the vote.

After further strike action Tonjeni and Ndobe were banished in 1932 by the government to rural Eastern Cape and Basutoland respectively. “In exiling Tonjeni”, Lodge writes, “the authorities succeeded only in displacing his political activism.” The significance of all of this for the wider history of the communist party is that Moses Kotane, the future long-serving party general secretary, thoroughly fed-up with the internecine factionalism within the party had relocated to deep rural Eastern Cape and it was here around Cradock and Tarkastad that he encountered groups affiliated with Tonjeni’s Independent ANC. The experience motivated Kotane to write his now often cited 1934 “Cradock letter” addressed to the Johannesburg party district committee. The dominant orientation of the party, at the time, Kotane observed critically, was remote from South African realities, with an obsession with “the German situation and the comintern, Stalin and Trotsky and the errors of various communist parties.” While it should “not lose its international alliance,” he urged the party to “become more Africanised (…) we must speak the language of the Native masses and must know their demands.”

It is, however, particularly in regard to the more recent decades that Lodge’s relative neglect in considering the reciprocal influence of the ANC upon the party that an opportunity is missed. Lodge frames his account of the SACP after 1990 in a global context he characterizes as “post-communist.” What, then, are we to make of the contemporary SACP, a “post-communist” communist party? Lodge’s account of the party in the current period concludes with a seemingly upbeat declaration of the party’s continued central relevance within contemporary South African politics, but it is not clear wherein, substantively, this actual or at least potential relevance might lie.

This is related to the framing of the current national and global context as simply “post-communist” (post-Sovietism would have been a better characterisation). Lodge suggests that the party’s continued relevance can best be seen in the fact that an “increasingly non-communist ANC leadership” nonetheless still routinely draws upon a struggle lexicon that it has borrowed from the party, notably in ongoing programmatic references to a “national democratic revolution.” But Lodge believes that these borrowings are distant from the ANC’s “everyday policy-making government decisions,” which “are shaped by quite different imperatives.” Lodge might not be entirely wrong to suggest that much of this invocation of a struggle lexicon by a non-communist ANC leadership is a way of “legitimating its performance among its own active following.” However, this raises obvious questions. Why should the idea of a national democratic strategy still serve to sustain an active following? Are there substantive reasons for this? Or is it just a matter of struggle nostalgia? And if the latter is the case, is the SACP’s current relevance simply that of a for-old-time’s-sake window-dressing?

A different framing of the global context of post-apartheid South Africa that went beyond “post-communism” would have opened up a more fruitful exploration of the challenges, dilemmas, partial successes, and, indeed, relative failures of both the SACP and the ANC over the past three decades. A different framing would also have better substantiated the potential positive contribution to the present of the pre-1990 seven decades of communist and broader liberatory struggles in South Africa so meticulously and richly recorded in Lodge’s earlier chapters.

The collapse of Sovietism, emblematically represented by the fall of the Berlin Wall, marked a critical historical turning point, the victory on a world scale of globalized financial capital—neoliberalism, for short, not just an ideology so much as an increasingly crisis-ridden new phase of capitalism. But it was not just Sovietism that was impacted. The rise of neoliberalism marked the erosion of the three historical compromises (in Samir Amin’s suggestive term) imposed on capitalism after the defeat of fascism in 1945: the existence of an expanded Soviet bloc; welfare states in much of the developed capitalist world; and the advance of decolonization in the global South. The period running through the late 1970s to the early 1990s was marked not just by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but also by the inter-related dilution of the other two broadly progressive, post-1945 currents. Whatever the internal mistakes (and there were certainly many—bureaucratization, state-centric illusions, stagnation, a democratic deficit, in some cases chronic corruption), the Soviet bloc, social democratic welfarism, and the national liberation momentum were all variously hollowed out by a neoliberal, globalized financialization that eroded Sovietism, outflanked national social accords in pursuit of low-wage economies elsewhere, and throttled the global South with debt.

Without understanding this global context, it is not possible to understand post-apartheid South Africa. In 1990 this was the global reality that confronted the newly unbanned SACP (illegal since 1950) and ANC (illegal since 1960). It presented the SACP in particular with a deep paradox. The party’s key external strategic reference point for seven decades, the Soviet Union, was unraveling. Around half of the central committee elected to the party’s senior leadership in April 1989 quietly left the party a few months later in early 1990. This included two future national presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. On the other hand, the moment coincided with an unparalleled domestic highpoint for the SACP’s national popularity with 40,000 attending its 1990 coming-out rally in Soweto. There was a five-fold increase in membership reported at its 1991 congress. Opinion polls found that a leading SACP personality like Chris Hani was easily the second (after Nelson Mandela) most popular political figure in the country.

What was the way forward? Notwithstanding the SACP’s frequent aspiration to be rooted in a rigorous and orthodox “Leninist” democratic centralism, it is here that Lodge’s earlier appreciation of continuous complexity and contradictory pulls might have been more forcefully deployed. Earlier chapters lay a useful basis for understanding what we might call the pluralist sociology of the party, marked not just by its obvious racial and ethnic diversity, but also often by sharp generational breaks exacerbated by waves of repression (with little new recruitment) and subsequent resurgence. There was also the often distant and for many a lengthy diaspora with non-African members forced into exile unable to base in Africa for more than a decade, resulting in diverging political cultures between the two main exile poles of London and Dar es Salaam.

Inside the country, the resurgence of progressive trade unionism from 1973 and a new militant student and youth rebellion from 1976, the latter strongly influenced by black consciousness, caught the exiled SACP by surprise but impacted on an internal and initially attenuated SACP underground with the writings of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, and Steve Biko circulating. Outliers among the older generation of the exiled SACP in the 1970s, like Ruth First and Harold Wolpe, were active in the burgeoning academic flowering of New Left-influenced Marxist theory in Western Europe. Their writings, along with the important contributions of the Trotskyist-inclined Martin Legassick, circulated internally in dog-eared cyclostyled copies and had a significant impact on activist (including party) circles leading the upsurge of mass democratic mobilization through the 1980s. Other influences on the internal movement, including SACP-aligned structures, were Antonio Gramsci and left Eurocommunist writers, such as Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband, as well as Andre Gorz and Boris Kagarlitsky, all of whom challenged the overly-simplistic reform versus revolution divisions that had haunted much of the 20th century left.

In the context of the collapse of the party’s Soviet reference point, insufficiently explored (and not just in Lodge’s work), is how the re-orienting influence of these left intellectual currents on the SACP was reinforced by a long-standing ANC political culture. It was a culture anchored around decades of struggle for an inclusive constitutional democracy. From at least 1955 and the adoption by both the ANC and the SACP of the Freedom Charter, and definitively from the ANC’s 1969 Morogoro conference, these alliance partners understood, in varying degrees, that the “national democratic society” to which they were committed was about the qualitative, progressive expansion of universal human rights and not their abolition in the name of either proletarian class dictatorship or a narrow Africanist nationalism. It was the impact of all of these additional factors, along with the popular acclaim for the SACP given its major role in the defeat of apartheid, that helped the SACP better survive the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when compared to many of its communist party counterparts elsewhere.

But what was the national democratic revolution? Was it a “stage,” a liberal bourgeois democracy in which capitalism would be “de-racialized”? And if so, what was to be the “second stage, ”a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, in which multi-partyism and universal rights would be abolished? And where would the ANC be in that scenario? Or, was the national democratic revolution a relatively prolonged, but hopefully uninterrupted, transitional period towards socialism, a mixed economy in which the working class would assert increasing hegemony within the context of a popular democracy?

Lodge’s deep plunge into the history of the party provides a fascinating picture of the continuous and unfinished debates on these matters not just between the party and non-communists in the ANC, but within the party itself. The 1928 CI resolution on South Africa unambiguously portrayed the black republic as a “first stage” in a “two stage” process towards socialism. This notion of a “two stage” struggle was largely carried through in party programmatic formulations for some six decades, with considerable emphasis on the characteristics of the “first stage”, and not so much about an eventual “second” stage.

However, already in the late 1920s at least one leading party personality, SP Bunting, was writing dismissively that “the language about ‘stages’ represented sociological rather than chronological sequences.” In fact, the notion of a “stage” was simply “verbiage”, he argued . Had Lodge deployed these earlier debates into his concluding chapter on the post-apartheid period he might better have anchored an understanding of the internal SACP and broader ANC-led alliance dynamics, and particularly of how the different contesting protagonists conceptualized their role and mobilized support for it in the post-1990 period.

The senior personalities who left the party upon its unbanning in 1990 were grouped around Thabo Mbeki. After the country’s first non-racial 1994 democratic elections Mbeki became deputy president and the effective prime minister to Mandela’s presidency. With considerable energy and skill, Mbeki sought to chart out a new vision for the ANC, seeking to transform it into a center-left electoral formation and no longer a broad movement. Strongly influenced by the emergent third-way politics in the West, the Mbeki circle mistook the positive international reception for South Africa’s “peaceful” (it was not peaceful) negotiated transition and the international acclaim for Mandela for the promise of imminent Marshall Aid-style support for the new rainbow nation, poster-child of a supposed “Third Wave” of democratization.

The support for the constitutional negotiations by established South African monopoly capital was also misunderstood. There was the strong belief in the Mbeki circle that a socio-economic accord with South African monopoly capital to accompany the constitutional settlement was at hand. In fact, established monopoly capital, restrained by anti-apartheid, UN-imposed financial, economy, oil and other sanctions and largely locked into South Africa by the apartheid regime’s defensive exchange control measures, looked to a post-apartheid settlement and the lifting of sanctions as the road to belatedly pursuing globalization. Internal investment, support for re-industrialization, or contributing to a major redistributive effort were remote from its collective ambitions. While all of these good things were promised by established capital, their delivery was said to be dependent upon removing exchange controls, lowering corporate tax, slashing trade tariffs, and generally introducing a neoliberal, shock therapy package. This duly arrived in 1996 when the ANC government unilaterally, without consultation within its own ranks (let alone within the wider alliance), imposed the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic package.

The gambit did not work with largely jobless growth, de-industrialization and a major outflow, both legal and illegal, of domestic capital. From at least 1997 the Mbeki circle began actively and openly to pursue a further dimension to the strategy, a supposed additional core pillar of their version of a national democratic revolution, so-called “black economic empowerment” (BEE). This was the active promotion of politically-connected, aspirant black capitalists who, it was reasoned, would be more patriotic than their established white counterparts were proving to be.

However, the primitive accumulation process required to promote these aspirant capitalists-without-capital has had outcomes that are not particularly patriotic or developmental. The primitive accumulation process has been largely premised on the regulatory requirement upon established capital to provide a percentage of encumbered shares to black partners, and on the diversion of public resources into politically connected black hands through state procurement, both legally in terms of preferential procurement regulations and, increasingly under the Jacob Zuma presidency (2009-2018), through so-called “state capture” plunder. The BEE policy has tended to produce dependent compradorist and parasitic strata, rather than an emergent “national bourgeoisie.” The impact of these primitive accumulation processes on the ANC has been deeply damaging, with most of its internal factional turmoil from the local branch level upwards associated with often violent competition for positions to secure access to public sector procurement, “tenderpreneurship” as it has come to be known. The desperate nature of this factional turmoil needs to be understood in the context of massive unemployment (currently at 44% in the expanded definition to include those who have given up looking for work, and an incredible 74,8% for those between 15 and 24 years old). Access to ANC positions and to public office can be the difference between personal advancement or a life-time of grinding poverty.

What of the SACP over this period? From the early 1990s the Mbeki circle, not content with having left the party, launched an increasingly hostile attack on the SACP and on its attempt to redefine itself and its role in the new reality. Part of this attack from the Mbeki circle took the form, ironically, of resurrecting (but in its own version), the old CI two-stageism. It characterized the post-apartheid period as a “national democratic” stage of “normalizing”, by “de-racializing”, capitalism, a stage in which there was little relevance for a Communist party. In contrast, at the same time, the SACP sought to definitively abandon any lurking two-stageism in its programmatic perspectives. A national democratic society in South Africa could only be consolidated, so it now argued, through a progressive consolidation of socialist advances in the context of an ANC-led national democratic transformation. The national tasks involved consolidating a non-racial social formation, transforming the physical and social infrastructure of the country which was reproducing racialized inequality and critically, enhancing as much as possible national sovereign capacity in what had become a unipolar imperialist world. All of this would only be possible through a national democratic society, the SACP argued, that was consolidated through a progressive consolidation of socialist-oriented advances.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, and still at present although now, perhaps with less conviction, the SACP sees this as a broad ANC-led process, and a great deal of SACP effort has gone into what it characterizes as a struggle for the “heart and soul” of the ANC to win it back to its days as a broad popular movement grounded in the daily struggles of the workers and poor.

Whether this is possible, and, if it is, whether the SACP has the capacity to effectively play a key role in this regard are open questions. The SACP’s relatively tight and targeted recruitment of the underground years no longer applies. Partly responding to its immediate post-apartheid popularity and then increasingly as a defensive move in the face of the anti-party aggression emanating from some ANC factions, the party has grown significantly to a current membership of over 300,000. A significant number are unemployed youths whose exposure to politics is often of a narrow ANC and student electoral variety, in contrast to earlier periods richly explored by Lodge, when the party’s influence was grounded in community and trade union activism. The party has a very limited full-time staff battling to effectively service its large membership. Many, not all, of the party’s several hundred national, provincial and even district level elected leaderships are in government, serving, in their day jobs, as ANC ministers, deputy ministers, members of legislatures and municipal councils, or in the state administration. Others in party leadership are employed trade union officials. Between this relatively thin leadership layer and the large youthful cohort stuck in socioeconomic precarity there are inevitable strains, with the latter alleging the former to be too often “more ANC than SACP”, sacrificing the party for careers. However, amongst the broader party membership there is also a considerable fluidity in shifting activism between the SACP and ANC according to local conditions and prospects.

Lodge’s Red Road to Freedom provides a very rich historical resource for understanding many of the roots and much of the trajectory not just of the SACP but of the broader liberatory struggle in South Africa. At a time when the early, perhaps always over-optimistic expectations, both within the country and globally, for a post-apartheid South Africa have been disappointed, Lodge’s work is a major resource for ongoing, collective academic and activist reflection, discussion, and debate.

Jeremy Cronin joined the SACP underground in 1968 and served as the party’s deputy general secretary between 1995 and 2017.