The Final Prize - sahistory.org.za

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The Final Prize - sahistory.org.za
THE FINAL PRIZE
My life in the anti-apartheid struggle
Norman Levy
i
When the roll of those who died
To free our land is called,
Without surprise
Those nameless unarmed ones will
stand beside
The warriors who secured the
final prize
(Signed) D.A.B*
*Extract from “For a Dead African”, by Denis Brutus, New Age, 12.04.1956.
ii
Contents
Preface ...................................................................................................................... vii
PART ONE Coming of Age ..................................................................................... 1
Chapter One ............................................................................................................... 2
Family .............................................................................................................................. 2
Chapter Two .............................................................................................................. 8
The Politics of War .......................................................................................................... 8
Chapter Three .......................................................................................................... 24
The Broederbond ........................................................................................................... 24
Chapter Four............................................................................................................ 37
Working from within: A Case Study in Futility ............................................................ 37
Chapter Five ............................................................................................................. 49
On All Fronts ................................................................................................................. 49
“The war effort”......................................................................................................... 50
Challenging the Power Relations .............................................................................. 58
Chapter Six ............................................................................................................... 62
A Spiral of Trials ........................................................................................................... 62
Miners‟ Strike and Sedition ....................................................................................... 62
Sedition ...................................................................................................................... 73
Chapter Seven .......................................................................................................... 77
The Road to Fascism ..................................................................................................... 77
“The Suppression Act” and Dissolution of the SACP ............................................... 77
Fascist Measures ........................................................................................................ 82
The “Suppression Act” .............................................................................................. 83
Suppression ................................................................................................................ 88
Dissolution ................................................................................................................. 94
PART TWO From Civil Disobedience to Armed Struggle.............................. 100
Chapter Eight......................................................................................................... 101
Into the Fifties: Defiance ............................................................................................. 101
Context for Defiance ............................................................................................... 102
Defiance ................................................................................................................... 114
iii
Assessing the Campaign .......................................................................................... 126
An Afterword on the Volunteers ............................................................................. 128
Whites Support the Campaign ................................................................................. 130
Chapter Nine .......................................................................................................... 133
The Congress of Democrats: A Stalin Fetish .............................................................. 133
Parliamentary Politics .............................................................................................. 136
The International Dimension ................................................................................... 144
A Stalin Fetish ......................................................................................................... 146
Chapter Ten ........................................................................................................... 149
The Freedom Charter ................................................................................................... 149
Time for a Chartist Movement ................................................................................ 149
“A genuine parliament” ........................................................................................... 154
Three Phases ............................................................................................................ 161
Assembling the Charter ........................................................................................... 163
Making History at Kliptown .................................................................................... 167
Fiasco ....................................................................................................................... 170
Postscript ..................................................................................................................... 173
Controversy: Africanism, Democracy and Socialism ............................................. 173
Chapter Eleven ...................................................................................................... 178
“Bantu Education or the Street” .................................................................................. 178
Inferior ..................................................................................................................... 180
“A devil‟s piece of legislation” ............................................................................... 183
Re-interpreting the Resolution................................................................................. 184
The Act Comes into Effect (April 1955) ................................................................. 186
Boycott..................................................................................................................... 190
The Cultural Clubs................................................................................................... 193
Knowledge Games ................................................................................................... 197
Two Distinct Activities ............................................................................................ 201
Assessment .............................................................................................................. 203
The Landscape Transformed ................................................................................... 205
Chapter Twelve ...................................................................................................... 207
A Charge of Treason .................................................................................................... 207
iv
“There‟s plenty of room at the Fort” ....................................................................... 210
The Preparatory Examination .................................................................................. 214
Inside the Fort .......................................................................................................... 215
What is Treason? ..................................................................................................... 217
The Next Stage: A Formal Charge of High Treason ............................................... 229
The Struggle Explodes............................................................................................. 231
From Sharpeville to Langa ...................................................................................... 233
Government Panic: A State of Emergency .............................................................. 236
Hostile Intent ........................................................................................................... 237
Collapse of the “Conspiracy” .................................................................................. 238
On a Personal Note .................................................................................................. 240
Chapter Thirteen ................................................................................................... 243
Transition to Armed Struggle ...................................................................................... 243
A Change in Strategy ............................................................................................... 244
Umkhonto we Sizwe ................................................................................................ 247
Mandela: Setting the Stage for Leadership………………………………….……..248
Creating an Army .................................................................................................... 252
Legislative Terror .................................................................................................... 254
Tighter Security Laws ............................................................................................. 255
Operation Mayibuye ................................................................................................ 257
Chapter Fourteen .................................................................................................. 263
The Grand Coup: Rivonia............................................................................................ 263
Betrayal: State Witness Mtolo……………………………………………………..273
Mandela: An Epic Address ...................................................................................... 274
Sisulu: Strategy and Tactics .................................................................................... 279
No Moral Guilt ........................................................................................................ 280
"Rusty" Bernstein………………………………………………………………… 283
Denis Goldberg…………………………………………………………………… 284
PART THREE Inside and Out ............................................................................ 287
Chapter Fifteen ...................................................................................................... 289
The Chalk Circle: Face-to-Face with the Special Branch ........................................... 289
Endgame .................................................................................................................. 307
v
Chapter Sixteen...................................................................................................... 310
On Trial........................................................................................................................ 310
State versus Abram Fischer and Thirteen Others ................................................... 310
On Appeal ................................................................................................................ 331
Chapter Seventeen ................................................................................................. 332
Inside and Out .............................................................................................................. 332
Prison ....................................................................................................................... 332
Central Prison .......................................................................................................... 339
Back to Local ........................................................................................................... 345
The Last Lap ............................................................................................................ 351
On the Way Out ....................................................................................................... 353
PART FOUR Exile and Return ........................................................................... 356
Chapter Eighteen ................................................................................................... 357
Exile ............................................................................................................................. 357
Chapter Nineteen ................................................................................................... 372
Exile Politics ................................................................................................................ 372
Chapter Twenty ..................................................................................................... 382
Moscow, Havana, Harare and Home ........................................................................... 382
Preparing for Power? ............................................................................................... 382
Legal at Last ............................................................................................................ 389
Harare ...................................................................................................................... 392
Home ....................................................................................................................... 394
Endnotes .................................................................................................................. 398
Select Bibliography…………………………………………………..………...... 437
vi
Preface
“Everyone has a story”, Sephiwe, the librarian at the Robben Island Mayibuye Archive,
said to me as he handed me the newspaper file I needed. He was looking at my greying
hair and the creases under my eyes, and said quietly, “It‟s been a long journey!” He was
right! The journey I describe is both personal and political. The politics referred to is not
about the science and art of government, but more often a shift from the individual to the
mass, about the tensions between principles and political practice. At its core is a
lifetime‟s struggle with commitment, identity, choice and rejection.
Biography and history are compatible, provided the writer (present company not
excepted) is aware of the verbal fencing that sometimes masks attributes of pride,
ambition, avarice and enmity that have a way of creeping into the text in a work of this
nature. Besides, memory can sometimes be capricious and self-serving, especially when I
am writing about events that are contentious and extend over half a century. I have tried to
take these concerns to heart, aware that probing the past is not a dispassionate undertaking
even for the least partisan. I am sure that there are occasions where there are lapses, but to
the best of my ability I have tried to avoid errors of fact and judgments that are
intemperate. Where I have thought other witnesses were necessary to support an opinion
or offer an alternative view, I have referred to independent commentaries and used
biographical references. As a general rule, I‟ve avoided an instrumental approach,
whereby leaders decide upon an action and as a consequence everything falls neatly into
place. The actual unfolding of events is of course much more complex and frustrating.
I was often as intensely influenced by events as an observer as I was as a participant
or as an ordinary onlooker. There are events that I describe in which I did not participate
directly, but which influenced the historical context profoundly and continue to excite
interest and argument. The Broederbond is a case in point. Its reach was extensive and
influential. Few at the time could be aware of its secret presence. Its leaders were steeped
in the philosophy of National Socialism and they avowedly supported Hitler. Their
influence from the 1940s to the 1990s was as salient a part of the context of this narrative
as the repressive actions of the apartheid government. Later I wrote about the mindset of
the mine owners as I have here about the Broederbond.
While the effect of the Broederbond was insidious, the 1946 miners‟ strike was the
seminal event of the labour force in the 1940s and helped to rebut false illusions as to
whom the state served. It was a watershed in the relations between government, the
CPSA, the trade unions (and later) the national movements, prompting what I referred to
as a spiral of trials, starting with the Treason, “Fischer”, Rivonia and ARM trials (in the
1950s and 60s), extending into each decade of the century until 1990. The unintended
consequences of the miners‟ strike was the revolt of the relatively conservative
vii
councillors in the Natives Representative Council (NRC) where the paternalism,
condescension and political exclusion of the African representatives by government and
white officials appeared as a classic case study in the futility of working within the
system, thwarting future possibilities of African co-optation. The NRC‟s proceedings
were, for me, a significantly inspiring moment of African assertion to justify its inclusion
in this narrative.
My purpose in revisiting the seminal campaigns in the two founding decades of
apartheid, the 1950s and 60s, was to examine the steady slide towards fascism when the
apartheid government created the “enabling” legislation for perpetuating white rule. The
Defiance Campaign (effectively civil disobedience) was in part a response to this
legislative framework of social engineering. The innovative concept of the 1954 Congress
of the People (COP) evolved during the course of the campaign for the adoption of the
Freedom Charter. It was a salutary reminder that the COP did not just happen as initially
conceived. Its format changed as the campaign proceeded. Similarly the Freedom Charter
was more than the sum of the “demands” that were sent into the regional offices of the
COP; it was a document that reflected the social and political thinking that informed the
struggles during the half century and found its enduring place in the Bill of Rights in our
democratic constitution. On the Bantu Education Act, described by Chief Luthuli as a
“devil‟s piece of legislation”, I have virtually brought the reader into the makeshift
“classrooms” of the Cultural Cubs, established as a tentative alternative to education in
the state schools.
While the chapters on solitary confinement, the “Fischer” Trial, exile and prison are
intensely personal, they are also political. Like the other chapters in this memoir they are
more than monographs. My intention is to make this book a critical resource for everyone,
including participants in the struggle and the generation of young people who need to
know more about the historical events – the successes and the failures – that led to
Mandela‟s presidency. This history is well within the memory of the present generation
but what of the generation for whom the apartheid past is fast becoming an abstraction?
While I have sometimes lightened the narrative with anecdote, my main concern has been
to move beyond the merely humorous. Accordingly, I have stressed the substance of the
charges against the accused in the trials rather than make light of the allegations and the
incompetence of the prosecutors and state witnesses, although one might be forgiven for
dwelling on their immense ineptitude.
I was an activist in most of the struggles I have described from the mid-1940s to the
1990s and was an accused in the Treason Trial (1956–1960), the Fischer Trial (1964–65)
and sentenced to three years in prison in 1965 after a period of solitary confinement
during 90-day detention. The memoir records this as well as my experiences of exile. The
final chapter in which the anticipated features of the new democracy were discussed in
viii
seminars and conferences in Moscow, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Cuba are of interest today
for the vision we had then and the reality that confronts us now. The lesson is that the
journey referred to earlier is not really over.
Lastly, I could not have written this memoir without the assistance of friends and
colleagues – stalwarts of the struggle and many others – who read and commented on this
manuscript. They are too numerous to mention, but they know who they are. My sincerest
thanks to them all, including the librarians at the William Cullen Library at the University
of the Witwatersrand; the National Archives in Pretoria; the Robben Island Mayibuye
Archive at the University of the Western Cape; the African Studies Library at the
University of Cape Town; and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture (a
research unit of the New York Library). Last, but by no means least, my loving thanks are
due to Carole Silver, my wife, friend, mentor and formidable editor. Without her
enthusiastic support I would not have completed this memoir.
Norman Levy
Cape Town
October 2010
ix
PART ONE
Coming of Age
1
Chapter One
If history teaches us anything, it is that freedom is not achieved in a day; nor,
once achieved, does it necessarily last forever.1
Family
I literally fell into politics at the age of fourteen, a happening that set my life on a path to
prison, exile and finally return to South Africa. What triggered the event was a cycle ride
round the streets of Hillbrow on my elder brother‟s bicycle when, not expecting to find a
meeting by the side of the road, I made a sudden slide from the street onto the pavement.
The speaker was Hilda Watts, Communist Party candidate for the Johannesburg
Municipal Council. Her words, belted out in an unfamiliar English accent, somewhat
clipped and rhetorical as I remember them, evidently made sense to me and I stayed to
listen. The gathering she addressed was a street-corner meeting of a dozen or so
individuals, most of them black, voteless, domestic workers, and a small crowd of
bemused whites standing on the periphery of the assembly. A few onlookers turned their
heads towards me, but the meeting continued as if nothing untoward had happened.
Conspicuous in the gathering was “Ginger” who, while watching me re-set the handlebars of the borrowed bicycle, introduced himself as Philip Lieberman, aged sixteen and a
communist. He told me that if I was interested I could come with him to the next weekly
meeting of the Young Communist League, to be held in the city. And so it was that I went
in that same week, in February 1944, in search of Ginger and Communism.
I was not disappointed. The memory of that meeting is still with me. In addition to
Ruth First, Ginger was there and so were Joe Slovo, Paul Joseph, possibly Ahmed
Kathrada (Kathy), Lionel Forman, Lucas Masebe (the national chairman), and a few
Africans, somewhat older than the rest of the group of about 30. As I write this over half a
century later, I realize that many of them are more than names to me. Together we were
comrades, ready to change the world. Some of them are dead, others are no longer
committed, and the rest – a handful of veteran stalwarts – serve in the new democracy.
There are some that I remember more than others from that first occasion. For instance,
Ruth First, Paul Joseph, Lionel Forman, and Joe Slovo stand out most clearly. Ruth and
Lionel were the stars, however, and whatever fired them also drove the others. Both their
lives were cut short. Lionel, a self-assured Socialist at sixteen, died young in 1959, in his
early thirties and Ruth First was murdered in 1982, still in her fifties. I still see her image
Chapter One: Family – 2
as she was at that first meeting: eighteen, curly-haired, short and ill at ease, pursuing her
points at breakneck speed. She was earnest, self-conscious, and miserable with caring, but
it was her energy and directness that marked her out from others.
It was not surprising that I joined the Young Communist League when I was so
young. As far as I can remember, my mother was quite unsurprised by my association
with communists or “communism” and it never occurred to me to ask her permission,
which makes me think that I was sure of her approval. The stories I heard from her of the
revolutionary events of February 1917 and the Bolshevik‟s great victory had stirred my
interest in the Left from an early age. She had come to Cape Town from Krekenava, a tiny
village near the larger town of Ponevizh, in Lithuania, in 1908. This was two years before
the whites in the four colonies embraced to form the Union of South Africa, leaving the
majority of Africans virtually outside the constitution. She came to South Africa with her
sister, Rosa, on the death of their mother. Mary was twelve and Rosa seventeen, but the
younger sister, my mother, had the historical memory. She would tell us with all the
dramatic flair at her command of the pogroms in her village, lowering her voice to a stage
whisper at times, as if this conversation was not meant for the ears of the “gendarmes”
whose brass buttons gleamed on their military tunics (in her imagination) as they searched
for hidden draft-dodgers in the closets and cupboards, flinging doors open, ready to shoot
if necessary; frightening the timid old men and women and leaving indelible memories of
cruelty on the impressionable minds of the children. The militia searched for Bundists and
young men hoping to escape from military service in the Tsar‟s army. Years later, in
South Africa, she would refer to the police as “buttons”, an epithet for the security police
who in the 1950s conducted numerous raids on our small flat in Yeoville, Johannesburg.
What she encountered on her arrival in South Africa in that fateful year of 1908 was a
culture shock from which she never really recovered.
Her father, Ber Witten, had come to Cape Town with three brothers, Harry, Abe and
David in the early 1890s. David Witten, the youngest of the three South African Wittens
fought in the South African War – on the side of the British. I have a photograph of him
in military uniform, small, very young, sallow in complexion, somewhat timid in
appearance, intense black eyes half hidden beneath a pith helmet, his tunic complete with
a broad medal-less sash. David emigrated to the USA soon after the war, joining four
other siblings there (three brothers and a sister) whose descendants I only discovered in
1999, a century after the war began. My grandfather, Ber Witten, stayed in Cape Town,
while two of his brothers later settled on the Witwatersrand where they established
themselves as part of the immigrant community. Whether they sold wares to Africans
who journeyed to the goldmines from their villages or were involved in other
entrepreneurial activities, I never learnt. They were probably unaware of the affinity they
shared with the migrant streams of African labourers who travelled back and forth to their
Chapter One: Family – 3
families over a regular cycle of time, sending monetary remittances and replenishing the
family and the labour force.
Ber Witten journeyed to and fro in a parallel stream of migrancy, sent money home
just as they did and similarly increased the size of the family on each occasion he
returned. But it would seem that the act of replenishing the Witten family was not
confined to the shtetl from which he came and went but was continued rigorously by the
“bachelor” brothers in Cape Town, creating a “coloured” generation of Wittens who bear
the family surname but about whom little is known. In Cape Town my grandfather, Dov
Ber Witten, as he was formally known, lived in District Six in the inner city. His house on
84 Caledon Street no longer stands but it was there that he established a popular Jewish
and Hebrew Bookshop and lived alone in the quarters upstairs until my mother and her
sister joined him. In the yard at the rear of the bookstore he supplemented his income by
killing chickens according to kosher ritual. I am not sure how he acquired this skill and
nor do I know how he came to practise circumcising the male infants of the Jewish
community, but whatever the source of this learning, Dov Ber was the Shochet and the
Mohel in Cape Town. When he was not practising either of these professions, he provided
the readers, prayer books and possibly the works of Sholem Aleichem and other popular
Yiddish writers to the religious and literary local Jewish residents of Cape Town.
My mother and Rosa neither knew nor loved their estranged father. Their mother
had died after a long illness in 1908, before she was forty. “Cancer”, my mother would
say (too afraid to utter the word beyond a whisper). After her death, the two girls were
sent by their elderly grandparents to join their father in Cape Town, from where they were
taken by horse and cab and rode in silence from the foreshore to Ber Witten‟s spartan
space in Caledon Street, too overcome by the discontinuities of their lives to recall any
strong feelings they may have had about their new home. They spoke no English and
knew no friends. The culture of schooling in Cape Town was far removed from any
learning they‟d experienced in Lithuania, so it must have been quite a shock when Mary,
the younger of the two girls, was sent to the Normal College, a secondary school in town.
Her teacher asked the class if there was anyone present who spoke Yiddish. A slender,
fair-haired girl approximately her age came forward. They sat together talked a great deal
and became firm friends. She was Annie Kotkin, later a leftist activist, who after
completing her schooling left Cape Town for Johannesburg. Mary soon followed and the
friendship continued.
Annie married her second cousin, Lipman Kotkin. Mary married Mark Levy, my
father, a Lithuanian from Weeds about whose background I perplexingly know almost
nothing at all. For years after his death at the age of forty-four in 1935, his photograph,
together with all those of their socialist immigrant friends, lay in a cupboard next to a
large box of Black Magic chocolates, now holding Mark‟s gold-rimmed pince-nez, his
Chapter One: Family – 4
false teeth, and under them notebooks containing his poems and short stories, written in
Yiddish. They were never published as far as I know and the memorabilia in the chocolate
box were discarded only in the 1950s. But the photographs remained. One of them, a
photo of my mother and father was taken when they were still courting, the two of them
much engrossed in each other and very young. She was probably not yet twenty-one and
he about five years older, a tall, strapping man in a dark blazer, rather distinguished in his
rimless pince-nez and elegant shirt collar. He had a long face, dark brown eyes and thick
black hair meeting in a widow‟s peak in the middle of his forehead. She, slimmer than I‟d
ever seen her, was dressed in a loose black summer dress, looking obviously happy. In
another photograph they appear together with a group of landsleit, next to a large wicker
picnic hamper, very engrossed in what was being said by a dozen or so men and women
whose faces I do not immediately recognise.
Some of them were Socialists. Most of them, I believe, became successful in
business, prominent in the Krekenava Society and the other landsleit associations that
linked them to the tiny shtetls they had left behind in Lithuania. Some later became active
in the Communist Party of South Africa or the Jewish Workers‟ Club, made up of just
such a band of social revolutionaries, enthused by Lenin (and Trotsky‟s) leadership and
the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917. It must have been Annie who introduced Mark and
Mary to the Jewish Workers‟ Club and to the band of socialists who seemed to gather
frequently in a series of formal picnics at the Johannesburg Zoo Lake. Maybe it was a
clandestine style of meeting or simply a festive form of socializing, but I doubt whether
my parents were formal members of the various Leftist organizations in existence at the
time. These were the Jewish Workers‟ Club, the International Socialist League and the
Communist Party, which was formed in 1921 at the time of their marriage. As far as I can
tell from my mother‟s account, they shared the goodwill of their friends towards
Socialism and like them fervently followed the advance of the fledgling Soviet state
whose red star they believed was in the ascendant.
My father‟s death in 1935 sent my mother into seclusion. She mourned his departure
for years and kept the memories of their life together private, sharing virtually nothing of
their relationship with the family. None of my siblings knows much more than I do about
him and his memory is even fainter because of the loss of his poems and stories which
might have given us insights into how he felt and thought. He had volumes of works
written by Sholom Aleichem and other Jewish writers but these were bequeathed to either
the Krekenava Society or the Jewish Workers‟ Club, as none of the family (with the
exception of my mother) read Yiddish. The books were bound in green leather covers and
lay gathering dust under the divans in one of the bedrooms of our flat in Yeoville. We
were nevertheless proud to share something of his legacy with his compatriots, little as it
was.
Chapter One: Family – 5
The burden of providing for the young family was left entirely to my mother. Leon,
my twin brother, and I were barely six years old, my sister Goldie thirteen, and my
brother David, nine. Goldie was already involved in the rituals of courtship and marriage
and David was away at boarding school. Leon and I, as alike as two peas in a pod, were
similar in dress, interests and attitudes. He may not always be mentioned in this memoir,
but we almost always discussed everything we did and felt strongly about. We took each
other very much for granted as we did the shifts in the family‟s fortunes.2
As far as I can judge our finances were in a parlous state and rapidly declining. It
was this slide in our fortunes that led to our moving from the rented house in Loch
Avenue in the Johannesburg suburb of Westcliff, to a boarding house, the Villa Georgette,
and then to a flat in Hillbrow. I was nine years old at the time (it was 1937 or 1938) when
Germany was already in the hands of Hitler, and my relatives – momentarily trapped in
Lithuania – were among the last batches of Jewish émigrés to leave their home and escape
the Holocaust. Not all members of the family emigrated and those who remained suffered
the fate of most of the Jews in Eastern Europe, especially those from countries that
alternated in ownership between Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I remember my mother
setting off to the Johannesburg train station to meet the new arrivals. As they climbed off
the train she confidently named them, one after the other, Manny, Minnie, David and
Harry, names easier to pronounce than their Jewish ones. Their mother, Beila Malka and
her brother, Sleima Bensa, my father‟s siblings, were for some reason spared new
identities. Once the greetings were over, they were all taken to a newly rented house near
the synagogue in Orphirton, close to the goldmines, and a stone‟s throw from the mine
dumps that abut the main road that leads directly to the centre of the city.
***
My last two years at primary school were dominated by the war. In 1941 at the height of
hostilities our classroom teacher, a highly patriotic scion of empire, encouraged us to
support the war effort. And so it was that we learned to knit “for the men and women in
the armed forces”. Between lessons, Miss Beaucan would forego her usual instruction to
us to fold our arms and sit still, and instead command us to take out our knitting! All 30 of
us would then obediently turn our ink-stained hands to creating a multiplicity of coloured
woollen squares for a quilt “for the armed forces”. It never occurred to me to query the
true destination of the final product when all the squares were sewn together, but I
somehow doubt that this would have been a commodity of use to the regular army. At this
juncture there is little sense in speculating where it could have gone. It must, however,
have adorned someone‟s bed for a number of years and I hope it gave its occupant as
much pleasure as we had in creating it. I do occasionally smile though at the memory of
the imperious command: “Boys, take out your knitting!”
Chapter One: Family – 6
The rest of my schooling was relatively unmemorable. At Athlone High School,
where I remained until 1946, education was secondary to the YCL and the emotional and
financial crises at home. I have no doubt that other boys in the “white” suburbs in the
vicinity of my school experienced economic hardship, but adolescents are relatively
unaware that their peers too have tensions, however different these may be from their
own. It would be crass to contrast my situation with the poverty of black children, many
of them dependent for their sustenance on the miniscule earnings of ageing grandparents
or the meagre remittances of migrant fathers. However, I did not have that depth of
insight then, and there were times when circumstances were too badly stretched for me to
ignore the parched quality of our lives. Perhaps it was this that influenced my joining the
Young Communist League when I accidentally discovered it. But while the circumstances
of that discovery were serendipitous, I like to believe that our paths would sooner or later
have crossed. This was especially apparent as my awareness of the country‟s inequalities
became greater during the contentious debates among the Left on the nature of the war.
Chapter One: Family – 7
Chapter Two
Africans would find it hard to believe that a thief can protect them from theft or
that the English thief is better than a German one. Moses Kotane.1
The Politics of War
I was too young in the early 1940s to understand the thorny questions of the politics of
war. Was it an imperialist war or an anti-fascist one? Political activists invariably have to
live with the decisions of their erstwhile leaders. The Left‟s description of the war
between August 1939 and June 1941 as an imperialist one followed the thinking of
communist parties internationally and affected all of them for a long time. In defending
this position a few years later, when Nazi Germany attacked Russia in 1941, I was
perhaps justifiably mystified by the shift from the concept of an imperialist war to an antifascist, peoples‟ war.
Having inherited the analysis that the war was initially for corporate profits, I
accepted that assessment without question. Adjusting to the new view was difficult. The
delayed support for the war by communists the world over never ceased to be the stick
with which the Left was beaten, and I suffered the jibes of the party‟s critics on that
matter just as I did the chronic criticism of Stalin when I entered the movement in 1944 at
the age of fourteen – a few months before my fifteenth birthday. I avidly read The
Guardian, not an official organ of the Party, but its independence was only technical, and
its editorial comment for the most part reflected the views of the CPSA and the ANC
throughout the 1940s and of the SACP and the congresses after that. Its independence,
however, did not save it from being banned from publication by the National Party
government in 1952, although its independent legal status allowed it to continue under a
different name until 1960 when the last title, New Age was banned from publication. On
the other hand, Inkululeko was the official newspaper of the Communist Party, but its
solid design of uninterrupted text (in English and African languages) was mainly for the
most committed readers.
The Party communicated its analysis of the war in no uncertain terms both in
Inkululeko, and The Guardian, which I regularly sold on a Friday night on the corner of
Diagonal Street, Johannesburg, along with other stalwarts in the YCL and the Party. A
little later, I remember selling the YCL newspaper, an uptight, professionally designed
four-paged tabloid entitled YOUTH, for a New South Africa. No one has preserved all the
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 8
issues of this publication and most libraries no longer seem to be aware of its existence,
although it lasted for two years from 1946 to 1948. I sold either one or more of the papers
first as a schoolboy in my gaudy green and yellow-striped school blazer, and later as an
adult. Diagonal Street was the frontline of our activity. It was a splendid location for
selling “the paper of the people”, as I confidently marketed The Guardian, waving it at
frantic commuters rushing for a seat on the crowded buses. Set on the diagonal, the street
had roads running off it at all angles to various parts of the city, leading towards
Fordsburg, Vrededorp, to the Market Square and to the townships west of Johannesburg,
including Sophiatown. The commuters were mostly men, some of them already high on
liquor in early anticipation of a lively weekend in the townships. The war seemed very
remote from their lives. Later on I often wondered what they thought of this stalwart
group and the white boy, still in school uniform, ardently entering into debate about war,
the workers and “our social responsibility to defend the world from fascism”.
In retrospect, I realise how much a voice in the wilderness we were for much of that
time, and how confusing it all must have been. The Afrikaner nationalists in parliament,
the street fighters in the fascist “shirt movements” and the communists in the CPSA were
all opposed to the war, but their reasons could not have been further apart. The
communists opposed Nazism and were ambivalent about the real nature of the war. The
Afrikaner nationalists sought a Nazi victory. The broad belief of the nationalists, The
Guardian explained, was that Germany was likely to secure very large successes quickly
when their vision of an independent Boer Republic would be realised. While The
Guardian berated the nationalists and Hitlerism, it invested little trust in the Smuts
government. “Neither Boer nor „Brit‟”, it stated frankly, “would be other than bitterly
opposed to the rise of non European rights, non European Unions, [and] non-European
political action in this … rich non-European country”, It was the convention to use the
phrase “non-European” as if whites were in the majority of the population and Africans
marginal. “African” is what was meant or “black” if the statement was intended to include
Indian and Coloured people. At any rate, the inference of The Guardian‟s statement was
that while the Smuts government purported to be defending democracy, there was little
difference between them and their nationalist opposition on issues of domestic freedom.
For its part, the Left agonized over its stance on the fascist menace: Smuts was
“ready and willing” to go to war and his government had budgeted for an increase in
defence preparations while the leaders of the oppositional nationalist factions of Hertzog
and Malan were “neutral”.2 The CPSA pamphlet written in June 1939, “Must We Fight?”
held that pacifism would not stop the war and neutrality would not save South Africa
from the fascist menace. What the Party needed to know (its question, “Must We Fight?”
was pertinent) was whether the war would be in the interests of capital and markets or
genuinely in defence of democracy? This was the seminal question that preoccupied the
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 9
Party throughout the first years of the war; it would not go away. It arose in a number of
different forms. In this instance, support for a government that seemingly acted to defend
democracy abroad, while eschewing it at home, seemed like a contradiction in terms.
“The African”, the Party argued in 1942, “feels no loyalty to a government that binds him
with pass laws, burdens him with oppressive taxation, prevents him from buying land …
and in every way closes the door to [“his”] advancement”.3 In the light of its consistent
pre-war warnings of the dangers of the fascist menace and the untrustworthiness of the
capitalist class, the Party felt it correct to stay with that logic and prudently adopted the
slogan, “Democracy at home – Collective action against fascism abroad!”.4
As I was too young to join the army, I had to defend the position which had already
been taken by the time I entered the movement. It was intriguing to note the ways in
which some of the most profound political analysts on the Left could get themselves
entangled in inextricable knots. Notions I read about in earlier editions of The Guardian
were fanciful. In one instance, as fascist armies were sweeping through Europe, latter-day
Bolsheviks conjured up a Leninist vision of world Socialism. At least one such enthusiast
believed that as Russia in 1917 was for Lenin the weakest link in the capitalist chain, so
Nazi Germany was in that position in 1939/1940. What he meant was that just as Russia
was the weakest of the capitalist allies in World War I, Germany would be similarly
weakened by the coalition against it and its demise would trigger a socialist revolution.
This was reinforced in a letter from a “Socialist” printed in The Guardian, in which the
writer believed that neutrality would only bolster the dominant capitalist powers and lead
to the entrenchment of Nazism. “We cannot stand aside and say this is no quarrel of
ours,” he said, “the German people can only be liberated by the defeat of Hitlerism”,
which would be the quickest way to convert Germany into a Socialist country and “herald
the next step to world Socialism and a world without war”.5
The Guardian (perhaps in sympathy with this view) was not at that stage averse to
participation in the war. The possibility of a repetition of events similar to those in Russia
in 1917 was fresh in people‟s minds. It was all very confusing when the same newspaper
appeared to draw back from its support for the war: “We cannot however help being
lukewarm in our support for Messrs. Chamberlain and Deladier,” it said, suggesting that
neutrality was preferable to supporting the capitalists. Later, noting that its signals had
become a little mixed it clarified the point, stating that it was not half-hearted about
defeating Nazism, but had no sympathies with the likes of Chamberlain and Deladier.
By the time the war broke out, the Party had already made up its mind to oppose it,
although it still insisted that the ruling class in Britain and France would ultimately make
common cause with their counterparts in Germany. Britain‟s “lethargy” in the early
months of the war, when it ostensibly directed its troops to Finland to defend it against
attack from the Soviet Union, seemed to support this. Was the war “a struggle between
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 10
rival imperialisms for raw materials, markets, capitalist domination and the power to
exploit colonial peoples in Africa and Asia?” Or “would the capitalists of Britain and
France … come to terms with the German capitalists against the workers [in] another
Munich scandal?” as The Guardian columnist, “Vigilator” noted. The assumption seemed
to be that the capitalist class in Hitler‟s Germany would rather unite with capitalists in the
USA and Britain against the “Bolshevik Menace” than follow a strategy of their own to
dominate the world.
Moses Kotane, the general secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa, in his
written and public pronouncements was cynical about both imperialist blocs: “Africans
would find it hard to believe that a thief can protect them from theft or that the English
thief is better than a German one.” Turning the emphasis from the eventual unity of the
capitalist class to the awakening of the “inarticulate mass of the people”, he believed that
“… this war will wear out the strength of the unjust rulers and exploiters of the earth …
and then their chance will come”.6 Later, there was evidence that Hitler was far from
prepared to make common cause with Britain against the USSR but would accept a
separate peace in which he would allow Britain to retain its empire, albeit as a client state
of the German Reich.7 However, the Tory appeasers who might have accepted this were
unable to deter Churchill (who later replaced Chamberlain) from continuing the war if it
entailed such abject surrender. In the event, Churchill won overwhelming support for his
stance, reflected in his buoyant speech: “We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on
the shores … we shall never surrender!” I do not recall the rest of the speech, but I do
remember those memorable words relayed many times, muffled as they were by the
crackle and static of our wireless set, technologically obsolete even by the standards of
those days.
I was struck in the early years of the war by the very direct way in which the Left
leadership and the ANC connected the anti-fascist struggles with the winning of
democratic rights and the more parochial struggles at home. These were the high cost of
living and the multiplicity of local grievances. I.B. Tabata, formerly a CPSA member and
prominent in the short-lived Non-European United Front of South Africa (NEUF) urged
“that the government grant the non-Europeans the right to bear arms and fight on an equal
basis with Europeans”, adding defiantly: “only when we are granted definite democratic
rights will we be prepared to defend South Africa”. The language of protest became
increasingly militant.8 The ANC more or less unequivocally supported the war on the
condition that Africans be included in the “body politic” and the government‟s defence
schemes. While it approved the Union parliament‟s declaration of war on the side of
Great Britain, it also said “it was time the Union Government considered the expediency
[!] of admitting the African and other non-European races of the country into full
citizenship in the Union, with all the rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 11
appertaining to that citizenship”. It included in this a demand for the removal of the
colour bar in the Defence Act. This was followed up later in the Natives Representative
Council (NRC) calling for an amendment of the Defence Act of 1912, pressing the
government to open the door “to all loyal South African citizens, irrespective of race or
colour to take part in any sphere of hostilities for the defence of their common country”.9
It was a sign of the times that this amendment was rejected by the conservative
African members of the NRC as too strident and “embarrassing”. The year was 1941 or
1942, a few years before I became active in the movement. It would take another three
years before the ANC would look the government directly in the eye and broadly
challenge it on some of the fundamental issues of democracy. The ANC was nevertheless
becoming increasingly assertive. In 1942 it once again called for the abolition of the Pass
Laws, the de-regulating of trading rights for Africans and “freeing the African people
from oppressive laws”.10 Meanwhile, the Indian and Coloured responses to the war were
more inclined to equate the fascism in Europe with oppression in South Africa and to be
more emotive. John Gomas (a member of the Party in the Cape Province) asked irately
“how can we be interested in fighting Nazism thousands of miles away, while in reality
we have a similar monster devouring us here daily?”11 At the same time a young Yusuf
Dadoo, chairman of the Transvaal Indian Congress, was prosecuted for embellishing the
human rights appeal of the Non-European United Front, repeating the NEUF slogan:
“Don‟t support this war where the rich get richer and the poor get killed”. This led to his
conviction and a sentence of four months in jail.12
The priority in South Africa for Africans, Coloureds and Indians was to look after
their own interests, ensure the defeat of the pro-Hitler Malan–Pirow group, and demand
that the Smuts government suppress the Ossewa Brandwag (OB), the Greyshirt and
Blackshirt groups in South Africa. The OB, Pirow‟s New Order group and the Greyshirts
were pro-fascist and renowned for their National-Socialist slogans. Apart from the New
Order group, whose core members were articulate MPs and neo-Nazis, these groups were
drawn from backward Afrikaner workers and overtly racist sections of the middle class.
In a bizarre inversion of logic, Smuts had initially interned a number of vocal anti-fascist
activists on the Left, while leaving the majority of pro-Nazi elements at large. The initial
arrests were made under emergency regulations promulgated by Smuts in 1939 at the start
of the war, to anticipate the Afrikaner republicans fomenting a rebellion, as they had in
1914 at the beginning of the First World War. These regulations, as it turned out, were
amended after the OB-led explosions in 1941/1942, in the wake of which scores of their
members were subsequently interned.
In January 1941, the second year of the war, The Guardian provided a chilling
resume of
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 12
the death and destruction and indescribable misery … wrought by the class
responsible for the horrors of the past two years of the war … They were in
power, they formulated policy; they gave the orders resulting in War against
China; the annexation of Austria, Albania, Czechoslovakia; defeated democracy
in Spain and finally [were responsible for] the Second World War.13
This was written at the beginning of 1941, but these sentiments were often quoted in
1949 when their impact on me was stronger. Included in this denunciation of the “men of
Munich” was an optimistic note, more pertinent to the future than to the present, in which
the Soviet Union was cited as an inspiration to others, who, though currently enslaved by
capitalists everywhere, should follow the example of the Soviet Union and have their own
socialist revolution.14
“Vigilator”, the indefatigable overseas commentator in The Guardian, re-enforced
convictions that it was a capitalist war. In June 1941, two weeks prior to the attack on the
Soviet Union, his messages got confused. It seemed to him obvious that the Führer‟s next
move would be against Russia as thousands of German soldiers were massed on its
borders. Hitler‟s objective, he believed, was to keep the USA out of the war “and what
better way can there be than to assure Wall Street that Germany‟s going to fight not
Britain but that nasty Socialist fellow whom they both dislike” in Russia. Unfortunately
he did not let the matter rest there. In a macro assessment of the war, he momentarily
accepted the logic of prevailing political opinion to observe that “they [the Nazi
leadership] believed that if they turn their military machine against the Red Army, RAF
raids against Germany would soon cease; a long war would exhaust the Capitalist
powers” and to avoid that, Roosevelt would soon follow the logic of the capitalists‟
strategy and join the Nazis against the “Bolshevik Menace”.15
Nothing of the sort transpired, although in one substantial respect he was correct.
The Nazi Wehrmacht did in fact turn its guns on the Soviet Union on Sunday 22 June
1941, without any declaration of war or any change in its European alliances. Almost
simultaneously the cities of Kiev and Sevastopol were bombarded by German artillery
and before long a wartime alliance between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill was
established. As for the Left, its mind now concentrated on the Nazi attack on the Soviet
Union, it once again saw the bigger picture. The war was no longer an imperialist conflict,
but one that touched the poorest and the most powerless, that is “the worker at the bench
and in the fields, the Indian peasant and Chinese soldier, the African and all others who
are oppressed, [even] the intellectual who cherishes freedom not for himself alone, but for
humanity”.16 All would see “in this treacherous attack of Nazi Imperialism upon the
Soviet Union a menace to themselves and their hopes for national liberation and
Socialism”. Instantly, the imperialist war had become a war of freedom.
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 13
The Party explained its new approach to the war on numerous occasions, then and
later.
I repeated their explanations time and again, sometimes getting the logic confused
and the sequences muddled, like the hapless sheep in Orwell‟s Animal Farm. The
arguments were more tightly crafted than I‟d realised. Communists now supported the
war because “previously the party‟s view was that the war against British and German
imperialism was a war for the re-division of the world‟s markets, colonies, raw materials
and fields of investment.” In June 1941 it was different. The “beleaguered socialist state
now gave meaning to the struggle of all the world‟s oppressed. It was not only defending
the home of Socialism, fighting for the cause of all other nations and peoples, but fighting
for the workers of the world”, Accordingly, the Party called upon “South African
workers, friends, democrats and oppressed peoples to redouble their efforts to organize
themselves for liberty and social justice”.17 At the same time The Guardian called for the
release of anti-fascists who had been interned.
Among those on the Left who had been incarcerated were Max and Louis Joffe, two
brothers, both communists. Max Joffe was our family doctor. He was interned from
November 1940 to September 1941 under harsh conditions: half hour monthly visits in
the oppressive presence of armed guards (his visitors screaming to make themselves heard
and separated from him by a wire); no newspapers except for magazines like Time, Life
and Esquire, which he would not normally buy. As he maintained a very professional,
politically distant relationship with his patients, I never heard him refer to his prison
experiences and often wondered subsequently whether it was his confinement which had
made him so contemplative and sombre or whether he was naturally grave. Interestingly,
the few “privileges” he had were reminiscent of my own prison experiences more than 20
years later. Max did not take kindly to being in the limelight of public attention. As in the
later years, Mandela was the symbol for the freeing of those held on Robben Island and
Bram Fischer for those in other prisons, Max Joffe was the focus of attention in the 1940s.
The progressive media personalized his plight in order to make the case for the release of
all anti-fascists from detention. Inevitably this detracted from the profiles of the others
detained with him. At least two of these were active in the trade unions. They were Max
Gordon and Louis Joffe, Max Joffe‟s brother.
Gordon was a pharmacist who had given his adult life to the trade union movement
and was an effective secretary of several African trade unions, still unrecognised under
the law. He owed his success in the trade union movement to his dedication to shop floor
organization and the use of the Wage Commissions. At the time, these were the only
effective legal instruments available to African workers for improvements in their wage
and working conditions. Paradoxically Gordon was a Trotskyist with whom one would
normally associate strikes and stand-offs instead of the use of this most legal of struggle
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 14
instruments. Louis Joffe, on the other hand, had given his life to the Communist and trade
union movements and was intensely active, raising funds for the African Mineworkers‟
Union. The two brothers could not have been more unalike. Max was tall, thin, usually
silent, and except for an overt air of impatience, the model of a professional medical
doctor. Louis was short, prematurely grey with slightly crossed piercing blue eyes and a
ruddy, scrubbed face. He regularly wore a grey cloth cap that matched a tightly fitting
grey jacket, which once may have been part of a suit. In the 1930s he‟d been in the
leadership of the Party, but was expelled along with many others in a factional war over
the controversial subject of “the Black Republic” (the appellation given to the debate
initiated by the Communist International on the form the South African state would take
during the democratic revolution, an egalitarian, developmental phase prior to Socialism).
Louis Joffe was never readmitted to the CPSA, despite his continual annual requests,
although the SACP, its successor, eventually agreed to accept him. Sadly he died before
he heard of their decision. Max was more reticent. For someone so private, the media
attention he received during his detention must have been galling. Many of his patients
wrote to The Guardian singing his praises. “The poor of the city of all creeds and colours,
have good reason to bless his name … the depth of his patients‟ pockets had no interest
for him”. The same correspondent wrote from personal knowledge: “many an anti-fascist
can remember being attended by Dr Joffe at the time of the Blackshirt and Greyshirt
disturbances. His rooms were used as a dressing station for all anti-fascists who were
injured – and he did not mind working until any hour of the morning …”18 The ANC
Youth League in Alexandra township also protested against his continued internment, in
recognition of the fact that he had helped the people there win cheaper bus fares. Protests
against his confinement were also made by the Durban Liberal Study Group and a number
of progressive trade unions.
In addition to the CPSA‟s campaign for the release of detainees, the Party called for
the removal of the ban on working class and Russian literature and the recognition of the
Soviet Union by the Smuts government. In retrospect it seemed a disparate set of
priorities, varying in urgency, but always the final call was for equality of status and
rights for all South Africans regardless of race. At one of the “monster meetings‟ called
by the Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU) “to defend the socialist sixth of the world” in
which the subject of democratic rights for all South Africa‟s citizens was somehow woven
into the theme, the meeting was addressed by a panel of speakers, including Bram
Fischer. The crowd stood in the aisles and outside the door of the Selborne Hall (a long,
narrow venue, smaller than the main auditorium, within the complex of the Johannesburg
City Hall). Bram seldom spoke outside a court room, but the effect was the same, always
thoughtful, careful over detail and marked with long pauses. A meeting less judicial in
tone on the same topic, was reported to have taken place in Cape Town where Moses
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 15
Kotane, invariably strong on logic and soft on voice projection, raised the dilemma of the
Left regarding the disjuncture between the government‟s war against fascism in Europe
and the absence of democratic rights for the majority of the people at home. He argued by
analogy: “it is very difficult to defend what you haven‟t got. If you haven‟t got pots and
pans you can‟t defend them. If you haven‟t got a wife you can‟t defend her.”19
It was only after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, ten months after Max‟s arrest
and fifteen months after Louis‟ internment, that both brothers and Max Gordon were freed
from the detention camp at Ganspan on the condition that they refrained from
participating in political activities. The USSR was now an ally in the war against Hitler,
and it was no longer possible to ignore the appeals for their release. Max‟s ban on
political participation, however, was only lifted in July 1944. In reporting his
“unbanning”, a rare picture of him, younger than I remembered, appeared in Inkululeko in
the issue of 27 July 1944. A similarly youthful portrait of the indefatigable Yusuf Dadoo
appeared in May 1941, just prior to the USSR‟s entry into the war. Yusuf had recently
been released from gaol after his four-month detention on the absurd charge of
contravening the country‟s Security Code. He addressed the enthusiastic supporters who
gathered at the prison in Benoni on the East Rand to welcome him – patently undeterred
by his incarceration. The paradox of these “amnesties” was that the anti-fascists had been
released while many of the fascists in the Ossewa Brandwag, Blackshirts and Greyshirts
still remained at large. These were the street fighters, the paramilitary groupings outside
the mainstream of parliamentary parties.
***
“Doing battle” with the fascists during the regular Sunday night open-air meetings at the
Johannesburg City Hall steps was not anything for which I was physically equipped. Yet I
was faithfully present on almost every Sunday evening “to defend the party platform”. I
stood in the crowd or behind the speakers, as instructed by the “veterans”, most of them in
their thirties, fresh from war-time military service “up north” (meaning beyond South
Africa‟s borders in north Africa and Italy). They were a spirited group of Party
protagonists: Joe and Nathan Marcus, Mike Feldman, Monty Berman and Joe Slovo, to
name only the most prominent of the frontline defenders, and perhaps a dozen others from
the Left Club and Springbok Legion, ready to move into action as soon as the heckling
from the “street fighters” became too disruptive. It was only a matter of time before the
hostile spectators began their inane heckling and surged forward to attack the Party
platform. The speakers, Hilda Bernstein, Issy Wolfson, Betty du Toit, Danie du Plessis
and Michael Harmel as well as others from the trade union movement, took turns each
week to “confront the fascists” and defend the party‟s right to speak. Almost all of them
were eloquent speakers who deserved more credit from us for their endurance of the racist
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 16
taunts and insulting jibes they received. Perhaps we would have better expressed this
appreciation had we been less intent on containing the unruly elements in the mob and
given more attention to the content of their speeches, which often compelled even the
worst elements to be silent for a few moments.
I knew nothing of the political origins of the individuals in this audience or which
species of the “shirt movements” had spawned them. It was evident that they were the
foot-soldiers rather than the ideologues in the Afrikaner nationalist movement, although it
was known that the white nationalist intellectuals often supported them, many of them
having studied in the Third Reich or made pilgrimages to Hitler‟s Germany where they
saw at first hand the para-military and extra-parliamentary groups that accompanied
Hitler‟s rise to power. The formations referred to as the shirt movements to some extent
emulated these street fighters.
One of the smaller extra-parliamentary formations in South Africa was the
Greyshirts which concentrated on hate speech against Africans and Jews and propagated
the coming of the National Socialist New Order. The Greyshirts were active during the
1930s and 1940s under their founder, Louis Theodora Weichardt.20 He had left school in
1912 and spent three years in the Kaiser‟s army, which seemingly justified his description
in the brochures of his organization as an “ex-soldier and leader” of the Greyshirts. His
attributes were rather lyrically marketed in a pamphlet entitled “The Plan and the Man”
where he is presented as the leader “[who] the South African National Socialist Bund
offers to the Afrikaner volk”.21 He was, in the members‟ heroic image, “a visionary and
forceful spiritual leader”. This, however, was not sufficient to prevent his internment in
1944 (and possibly hastened it) under the same regulations for the detention of such
saboteurs as B.J. Vorster, a “general” in the OB, later to become South Africa‟s prime
minister. With Weichardt behind bars, the Greyshirts continued under R.B. Horak, an
equally vicious Nazi who led the fascist operations in the major cities of the country.
In Johannesburg the Greyshirts complemented the nationalist political platform,
voicing violently anti-Semitic and anti-African sentiments at political meetings. I recall
one of these at the City Hall Steps early in 1946, when Horak‟s obnoxious heckling of a
Communist Party speaker so angered the audience that the crowd surged forward,
knocking down one of his supporters. The supporter was rescued (together with Horak)
by two burly plain-clothes detectives standing next to me. It was one thing to read that the
police conspired with the fascists against the trade unions and communists, but quite
another to see this so cynically acted out in front of one‟s own eyes. After this fracas,
Horak apparently spent the night in “protective custody” and took the next day off to
recuperate from his night in goal in the Johannesburg office of the Greyshirts. This
enabled him to be present when a reporter from The Guardian newspaper interviewed the
Witwatersrand district organizer of the Greyshirts, an official named Du Plessis, who had
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 17
been appointed as head of the Witwatersrand district by Weichardt, the movement‟s
founder. On the walls of the two small offices were the leader‟s picture, three swastikas
and an anti-Semitic cartoon.22 Du Plessis‟ explanations of the movement were quite
uncomplicated. The Nuremberg trials were all lies: “low, dirty, mean, Jewish
propaganda”. The Greyshirt brand of National Socialism was “very different from Hitler‟s
– “a pure South African product” (he did not elaborate on the differences). On the other
hand, “the Broederbond [comprised] a bunch of parasites”.
Although very sensitive about the organization of the Greyshirts, Du Plessis revealed
something of its hierarchical structure: it had no committees, entertained no discussions
and its members (arranged in secret cells) took orders from him. The literature in the
office contained spurious references to the “Aryan German blood of the Afrikaner volk”,
bearing Goebbels‟ imprint on the subject of democracy which could be summed up in the
phrase “British Jewish capitalism and Asiatic Communism”. A pamphlet entitled “Secret
Organizations” lumped together the Free Masons, the Elders of Zion and the Broederbond
as “a conspiracy to run the state from behind the scenes”. Unconscious of any hypocrisy,
however, Du Plessis said that the secret societies (like the Broederbond) ought to be
banned and that the Ossewa Brandwag, whom he referred to as “Kosher fascists” were
only slightly better.23
Of all the fascist organizations, I was aware mostly of the Ossewa Brandwag which
translated literally as the ox-wagon sentinel. Because they were the largest of the street
movements and more overtly vicious, I saw them as even more anti-Semitic, violent and
authoritarian than the Greyshirts or any of the other fascist fractions of Afrikaner
nationalism in the early war years. The OB was established in February 1939, during the
highly charged nationalist centenary celebrations of the Great Trek and purported to be
against imperialism, capitalism and “Jewish money power”. It was formed ostensibly as
an Afrikaans cultural movement “to safeguard the ox-wagon spirit”, focusing on what it
called cultural and communal activities.
At school we were conscious of the OB as an Afrikaner nationalist organisation with
which our Afrikaans-speaking teachers probably identified. The celebrations in 1938 and
1939 were an emotive re-enactment of the movement of ox wagons from the Eastern
Cape frontier into Natal and across the mountain passes of the Drakensberg to the more
manageable terrain of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The exercise has been
described as an orgy of Afrikaner sentiment whipped up by the Broederbond to unify
Afrikanerdom and rally the volk to its nationalist aspirations. Nine replicas of the ox
wagons of the Voortrekkers, each named after a particular Voortrekker hero, trudged from
the Cape to Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, to be met en route by passionate crowds
of Afrikaner men and women, the former wearing beards and the latter in Voortrekker
dress. All this was displayed in pictures tacked to the notice boards in our classrooms,
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 18
showing the women in kappies and scarves leaning against the tented ox-wagon carts.
These were arranged in a circular laager, reminiscent of the wagon formations during the
Great Trek, “to protect women and children against attack from the natives”.24
In 1938, during this fervent Afrikaner cultural revival, I experienced anti-Semitism
in a small way when one of the Afrikaans language teachers at Yeoville Boy‟s School
referred to the Jews as “mongrels”. The remark became the subject of a “class action”
brought by my mother, to whom Leon and I reported the matter. She appeared promptly at
the principal‟s office the next day, leaving us feeling rather embarrassed by the drama
with which she laid the complaint. Formal statements were taken individually from “the
twins” (always identified in the plural when we were in trouble) as well as a number of
other pupils, who appeared before the principal, a mild man named Leach, who wore a
brown leather glove on his right hand, which we found sinister. Fortunately, either as a
result of this complaint, or for other reasons, the teacher did not return after the end of that
term. He may not have been a member of the OB, but the memory of the incident and the
image of the ox wagons carrying the intrepid Boer conquistadores over the mountain
ranges, still lingers.
Encouraged by the fervour of these celebrations, the OB developed into a mass
movement. As a group, they seemed very numerous, claiming between 300 000 and 400
000 adherents in 1941,25 but this was probably exaggerated. Their following was drawn
largely from the Afrikaner middle class, many of them teachers and civil servants. The
movement has more recently been characterised as a Nazi clone, complete “with its
„führer prinzip‟ authoritarian philosophy and anti-Jewish stance”.26 Its organization was
more militarily inclined than culturally and was led by a kommandant generaal; first by
Colonel Laas, and later, in 1940, by Dr J.F.J. van Rensburg, a high-ranking civil servant
(the administrator of the Orange Free State province) and a self-confessed Nazi who held
little brief for political parties, which in his parlance were “obsolete”. In his way of
thinking (not unlike some of his peers in the Afrikaner Broederbond), mass movements
were more effective. His mission was to propagate National Socialist ideas in the most
aggressive way possible and (after 1939) to establish an elite para-military core (a
Stormjaer detachment) to promote a campaign of widespread sabotage to undermine the
country‟s participation in the war.27 Van Rensburg boasted that he had mobilized more
than 200 commandos in the mines and industries where Afrikaners were predominant and
that he had also established units in the platteland in the Orange Free State.
The public was as aware as the government that many of the police and members of
the civil service were co-conspirators, if not leaders of the subversive movement. “It is no
use forbidding members of the civil service from belonging to the OB”, The Guardian
reported, well aware that the public service was the primary source of this organization‟s
support base. It called for “a thorough purge of the police force and the dismissal of all
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 19
disaffected individuals of whatever rank”.28 More practically it demanded a public trial of
those involved in a conspiracy to blow up bridges, pylons and railway tracks in the Natal
province and urged the United Party government to suppress the seditious propaganda and
hate speech emanating from the OB and the various other para-military formations.29
Recollections of this group and the feelings of menace they evoked, for the most part
dominated my memories of the war years. A general election was pending (a Khaki
ballot, due in 1943) and the Smuts‟ government was neither able nor willing to act in a
way that was likely to offend any of the different strands of Afrikaner sentiment in its
potential support base.
To be fair, the government recognised its nemesis in the pro-Nazi formations, but
was too timid to suppress them regardless of five explosions within eight days in
Potchefstroom at the end of 1941, and two attempts to dynamite the railway track to
Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) within a week. If this was the political action-front of
Afrikanerdom, as Van Rensburg claimed it was, it offered a bleak outlook for democracy
in the years to come. In January 1942, the Springbok Legion, a progressive exservicemen‟s organization, launched the first issue of its journal, Fighting Talk, noting the
developing drift to violence.30 “Disappointed soldiers”, it warned,
are going to turn to these anti-democratic organizations with their seductive
promises and high ranks. Fascists place a high value on trained men … It will
only need 1 000 to 2 000 ex-soldiers to convert the OB into an absolute menace
31
to the safety of the state.
Fighting Talk‟s calls for government action were of no avail. There was a spate of
further provocations against which the Minister of the Interior at the time (H. Lawrence),
would not act, despite a public statement that there was “a fascist plot to seize public
utilities and institutions in Durban”. There was also evidence of plots to attack military
camps and blow up the Marshall Square police station in Johannesburg, a popular target
then and later. Fighting Talk may have brought “new life and vitality to the cause of
democracy”, but its deepest irony was that the torch that it hoped to keep alive for a world
without Hitler was snuffed out within a decade by the fascist forces it came into existence
to eradicate, and which still later destroyed Ruth First, its editor. The assault on the Left
movement took greater shape at the end of the 1940s, when I was thoroughly involved in
the CPSA‟s election campaign, as the National Party refined its organization and (by
some self-regulation of its fascist para-military groups in the late 1940s) prepared itself to
engage with the democratic process and make a bid for political power.
***
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 20
In retrospect, I think we would have been less startled at the victory of the National Party
in 1948 – and possibly more prepared for its assault on the CPSA a year or two later – if
we had known more about the tenuous political sensitivities within Afrikaner nationalist
politics and had a better sense of the limited extent to which Smuts‟ United Party
commanded the country‟s electorate.
As for the street-fighting fascist groups (like the Greyshirts and the OB) the
distinctions between them were more difficult to discern. Initially, there was a working
partnership between the National Party (NP) and the OB and later much cross
membership between them, making it all too easy to see the two organizations as the
quasi-military and political sides of a single coin. After 1942, approximately 80% of the
members of the OB were members of the NP and many senior OB members became
important figures in the National Party, including P.O. Sauer, F. Erasmus, C.R. Swart and
Eric Louw, who (without exception) became cabinet ministers in the first NP government
in 1948. Swart, a stalwart leader in the National Party, was also on the Groot Raad (Grand
Council) of the OB. He went on to become the state president after 1961.
The apparent identification of Malan‟s party with the OB at times made it difficult to
differentiate between the political and “extra-political” branches of the movement. The
language of the non-parliamentary fractions shared a partiality towards hate speech,
racism and invective – and where these failed in the early 1940s – the OB at least, used
dynamite to demonstrate that it meant what it said. This situation lasted until the
organization over-reached itself at the political level, prompting Malan to move speedily
to immobilize it before the 1943 parliamentary elections.
In the mind of Malan, the extra-parliamentary groups complemented the role of the
NP, but were markedly different from it; politics was the party‟s role. He pressed the
point with the executive of the Broederbond (whose seminal role in the country‟s history
is discussed in the next chapter), insisting that the OB‟s volkspolitiek and party politics
were indivisible: it was the NP and not the OB which was to be dominant in the political
sphere.32 Malan accordingly planned the OB‟s organizational destruction, allegedly
colluding with the Smuts government on the dangers of the OB and urging it to
promulgate regulations under which the OB activists could be put behind bars. In
principle, the OB was to confine itself to cultural issues, despite the fact that they were as
political as the National Party. What triggered Malan‟s action was the OB‟s
“unauthorised” publication of a proposed republican constitution in August 1941, the
framework of which was allegedly the work of Afrikanerdom‟s arch ideologue, Hendrik
Verwoerd, and intellectuals within the Broederbond.33
Malan fought hard to assert his party‟s supremacy in the political sphere. The OB
was more than a splinter of the Afrikaner nationalist movement. It was a mass movement
in its own right, contending in 1941/2 against the other nationalist formations for the
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 21
broad command of the political direction of the volk. At first, the roles of the National
Party and the OB were seen as complementary (more or less defined by their extraparliamentary and parliamentary roles), but complicated by the fact that the actors in each
movement were sometimes leading members of the other. Their “partnership” continued
until June 1942 when the agreement reached, the so-called Cradock Protocol, was signed
between the NP and the OB, formalizing their respective spheres of activity. Accordingly,
the National Party would work for Afrikanerdom in the political sphere while the OB
would operate on the “cultural” front.34 As the political and the cultural were informed by
the same hate speech, it was inevitable that the agreement would be observed only in the
breach, while the National Party turned a blind eye to the OB‟s frequent unsophisticated`
racist and politically inappropriate references to British and Jewish capital.
As the avowed aims of the OB were to work towards a free independent Christian
National Republic – in which the English language would have inferior status – and a
social and economic policy that was “anti-capitalist and ant-imperialist”, it was unlikely
that the nationalists in the organization would confine themselves to narrow cultural
aims.35 They could hardly market their aims as anything other than political, especially as
they regularly held forth about the expropriation of the goldmines and key industries –
both of which were in their view “controlled by British and Jewish capital”. Their
language was less muted than the self serving phrases of Malan‟s NP, whose only hope of
achieving political power was by appearing to be capable of governing the nation in the
service of all the country‟s interests through parliament. These interests included the
Chamber of Mines, about whose role in the economy the OB was not especially
complimentary. As for the rest of the OB‟s aims, the National Party could live with its
anti-communist sentiments, its macho views on the role of women (“whose duty it was to
create the home and family”) and with its ideas on the “conspiratorial” proclivities of the
Jews – for whom “the Nuremberg trials represented the triumph of the ghetto”. 36 But
when it claimed the 1941 republican constitution as its own, it had gone too far. Its chosen
path to power was one that would be decided in the streets rather than through the ballot
box, which by this time was incompatible with Malan‟s strategy for attaining state power.
What was evident, though, was that the publication of the draft document on the
Afrikaner republic was seen as likely to promote the image of the OB and to undermine
the NP in the ensuing elections.37 Malan‟s objections to the publication of the draft were
based on the constitution‟s untimely appearance rather than its content and the fear that it
was likely to exacerbate the factional tendencies within the party. It would also impair his
party‟s electoral chances.38 It was not that the National Party rejected the sentiments of
the republican project per se: it was only that the messenger was the wrong one. At a
more propitious time, in 1946, Malan told the Transvaal Congress of his party: “Once we
are in power we are going to ask for a white Republic. We will most certainly exclude the
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 22
non-European from our Republic in which the white man will be the guardian of the nonEuropean. He will have the only say.”39
Even if Malan had not colluded with Smuts in crushing the OB‟s organizational
structure, the revision of the regulations were long overdue and were needed to stop Van
Rensburg‟s concerted campaigns to intensify the armed struggle by bombing targets in
Vereeniging, Delmas, Potchefstroom and elsewhere. The worst of these explosions
occurred at the end of January 1942. Over 300 members of the South African Police
(SAPS) many of them non-commissioned officers, were involved.40 At the same time, a
case of treason against 48 Stormjaers, units of OB hotheads, was opened only to collapse
with the mysterious disappearance of a key witness; however, the arrests crippled the OB
organizationally and ended its political future.
With the amended regulations, Smuts felt free to intern an unknown number of profascist “elements” without the burden of a trial. It was under these circumstances in 1942,
that scores of the OB (including Vorster – and like-minded members of para-military
formations) were interned, clearing the way for the National Party to pursue a political
path to power without the embarrassment or rivalry of its more militant cohorts. With the
demise of the OB an altogether more sinister organization, the Broederbond, took centrestage in determining the country‟s political future.
Chapter Two: The Politics of War – 23
Chapter Three
The government today is the Broederbond and the Broederbond is the
government.1
The Broederbond
Just as it was the white man‟s way to think and dream for the Africans, the Broederbond
(1918–1990) already a state within a state by the end of the 1940s, saw it as its mission to
think and dream for the Afrikaners. How had I come so far in the struggle with such little
knowledge of their collective mindset; of their national-socialist consciousness and of
their influence on the body politic? Who were the Broederbond whose distorting signature
was imprinted on the pages of the laws I was supposed to have contravened, and in whose
secret cells the country‟s policies were debated? These were the questions I asked myself,
albeit too late, when I was already their prisoner.
For most of its existence it was almost impossible to separate the thinking of the
Broederbond from the policies of the National Party in its united, re-united and purist
organizational forms. The majority of its leading members belonged to both organizations
and were tied to the Broederbond‟s decisions. On the occasion of its half centenary, one
of the Broeders explained the organization‟s thinking aptly: “Take the Broederbond out of
Afrikanerdom, and what remains … for the Kingdom of God? Who is going to serve the
cause, if Afrikanerdom is no longer there?”2 Here, in all its fanaticism, was the belief that
the ideas of service, nation and duty to God were created according to the Broederbond‟s
thinking; the National Party in all it said and did simply disseminated that message.
“Imagining Afrikanerdom” was a theme that fascinated me over approximately four
years of my imprisonment in the 1960s. I had enough time on my hands to reflect on this
and knew that I was the prisoner of a vastly repressive state rather than of any race or
group, but I was also the captive of an offensive “white” consensus in which, for the
present, the extreme values of the Broederbond predominated.
Bram Fischer, Marius Schoon and John Laredo, all of them fellow prisoners in the
mid-sixties and proud Afrikaners (Marius and John were a generation apart from Bram),
spoke of their family alienation as they turned their backs on racist traditions. Since then I
have had the opportunity to learn from more recent histories what I did not know at that
time, but no tome could compete with the lively conversations I had with Marius, John
and Bram in the prison exercise yard. They brought to life the sense of confusion within
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 24
Afrikaner families who perceived them as the black sheep of the family; boere seuns who
had wandered from the fold to embrace a comprehensive notion of nationhood rather than
the primacy of Afrikaner ethnicity. For the more traditional Afrikaners, this heresy
threatened the volk at large, creating frustration and confusion where the ideas espoused
were repellent and split families apart. The descriptive name for this inner-family
confusion was broedertwis.
It would take another 30 years before the concept of nationhood could mean
anything more than the unity of the Boer nation to Afrikaners. Later, the vision of a
“rainbow nation” opened a path for people of all colours to begin to find each other as
South Africans. It was the antithesis of that vision that preoccupied my attention while in
prison and my curiosity about how the country had been brought to the point where under
the National Party the ideology of apartheid had become the official vision. It was part of
the “mind game” I invented in my prison cell to try to reconstruct the little I knew of the
enigmatic histories of these institutions of Afrikaner history and to piece together their
origins and links with National Socialism, their connections with the street fighters of the
1940s and the effects of the Broederbond‟s silent power on the country. It helped to pass
the time. But 54 days in solitary confinement, a year awaiting trial and a three-year
sentence were not enough to uncover what was in truth a dark history, which has still
largely to be written. Only later was I able to piece together the fragments of invention,
supposition and assumption that I had made in prison and establish a more
comprehensible history for myself. What had begun as the mind game to while away the
time in prison had become something of a mission to unravel all the strands of the
Broederbond‟s odious history. This assignment was (unsurprisingly) more extensive than
I had realised, but from the limited picture I was able to construct, it is apparent that no
account of the struggle years from 1918 to the early 1990s seems plausible without
reference to the Broederbond‟s ominous presence.
The two significant Afrikaner nationalist organizations that most interested me were
the National Party and the Afrikaner Broederbond. I read of their respective histories
when I was technically beyond the reach of the security police as a sentenced prisoner or
in exile. It seemed that chronic disunity and confusion had always been an obstacle to the
attainment of political power for the Afrikaners; a volk‟s curse, delaying their political
deliverance. Initially, I understood little of the Broederbond‟s history and what I knew
was impressionistic, and insufficient to make me realise the danger of a clandestine state
within a state, that would touch all our lives with its neo-Nazi poison.
The Broederbond was formed in 1918 and within less than 25 years became the
strategic centre point for the promotion of Afrikaner nationalism. Ultimately it would all
but subsume the National Party, control the Calvinist clerics in the Dutch Reformed
Church and every significant sphere of Afrikaner political, economic and cultural
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 25
expression in the country.3 Its origins were modest. While the constituency and
membership of the nationalist movements were often rurally based, the founders of the
Broederbond were largely from the urban centres. Its youthful initiators consisted of
railway clerks from poor Afrikaner families, policemen and priests in the Transvaal
province and (after 1921) Afrikaans teachers who were anxious to defend the Afrikaans
language in schools and in the public service. While the defence of language was worthy
enough in principle, the social philosophy of the movement was steeped in National
Socialism: Afrikaners saw themselves as the sole beneficiaries of God‟s purpose, to
whom the rights of language, speech and culture applied exclusively.
Both the Broederbond and the National Party had a similar genesis; both grew out of
a period of confusion and despair, the NP preceding the Broederbond by about five years.
Famine and rural drift into the towns after the South African War had left many
Afrikaners indigent and politically abject. It is therefore not surprising that even at this
low ebb of Afrikaner fortunes there was a sense of desperation in the Broederbond‟s
mission “to sweep Afrikanerdom to power”. That it managed to do this (albeit with great
stealth) within three decades of its formation is in a way extraordinary, but what is
astonishing is how completely the principal professional politicians in the ruling National
Party (almost all of them secret members of the Broederbond) implemented the policy of
the Broederbond and, in so doing, reconfigured the political and social landscapes of the
country within a decade and half of achieving state power. In the course of this process it
was assisted by the influential Afrikaner institutions it infiltrated. It was always a matter
of supposition that the influence of the organization was deep and wide but its
overwhelming impact on our public life and political culture was not understood. The
awesome nature of its grip on our institutions was only documented in 1979, and even
then, bold as the reporters were, its exposure was constrained by the limitations of
newspaper coverage and fear of political intimidation. Only a handful of books have
chronicled the growth of the Broederbond since then; few have marked its corrosive effect
on our political system which claimed to be a parliamentary democracy.
Initially confined to the then Transvaal, the Broederbond was relatively
directionless, pious, Masonic and culturally oriented, but capable of focusing its attention
on matters political when expedient. Their efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to preserve the
Afrikaans taal helped to mobilize many Afrikaners in support of the nationalist cause.
Behind its linguistic and cultural aspirations was the desire to gain parity with the English
language in the cities, in commerce and in industry, as well as gaining access for
Afrikaners in the education and the public service sectors. Frantz Fanon, speaking of all
colonized people in the world, noted the burning fervour of dispossessed people to
become their own masters: “Every people”, he wrote, “in whose soul an inferiority
complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality, finds
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 26
itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation …”4 But the Broederbond‟s
struggle for the preservation of the Afrikaans language was part of a wider bid for an
exclusive Afrikanerdom; a project which, in the explicit words of the Bond‟s highest
executive authority, had as its object “the Afrikanerising (verafrikaansing) of South
Africa in all aspects of its life”.5
The Broederbond-centred association of cultural organizations, the Federasie van
Afrikaanse Kultuurverenigings (FAK) was entrusted with the leadership of the cultural
“front” of the struggle (it was sometimes as much a political front as it was cultural, and
the entire project was virtually projected as a war.6) Young academics, many from the
Calvinist University of Potchefstroom, placed themselves at the head of this movement
and soon replaced the teachers as leaders of the organization. The Broederbond grew
relatively rapidly for an elitist movement. In 1927 it had a membership of less than 200
enthusiasts scattered throughout the country; this increased to almost 1 400, distributed
over 80 clandestine cells during the depression in 1933/34. At this time the National Party
under General J.B.M. Hertzog fused with the South African Party under Smuts, causing
Hertzog‟s National Party to split into two main groups.7 A consequence of this was that
the Broederbond used the space within a divided Afrikanerdom to place itself above the
political parties and “speak” for the whole of the volk.8 In 1933 it tightened its
organization and internal discipline as it increasingly infiltrated its members into key
positions in the cultural and educational sectors of the country. At the parliamentary level,
it placed its recent recruits, D.F. Malan, then leader of the new (purified) National Party
and J.G. Strijdom and C.R. Swart (provincial party leaders) at the head of what was
effectively a Broederbond cell in parliament.9
Ardent Broeders like Malan and Strijdom later became prime ministers of the
country and Swart was appointed as the first state president of the South African Republic
of 1961. Their function was to stiffen their party‟s caucus when it came to implementing
Broederbond policy. By the time Malan became premier in 1948 dependable members of
the Broederbond were carefully selected to project its programme. The organization‟s
twelve-member Executive Council vetted every member to secure secrecy and ideological
purity. Qualifications for membership were rigorous: candidates entering the Bond had to
be of unimpeachable character, Afrikaans-speaking, financially sound (indicating the
upward mobility of its newer recruits) and sworn to actively promote the primacy of the
Afrikaner nation with its own language and culture.10 Four years before the NP attained
(whites-only) electoral power, the Broederbond‟s dedicated membership consisted of the
most prominent personalities within the church, the legal profession, the FAK, the media,
agriculture and parliament. Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom, the historians of the
organization‟s history, noted in the late 1970s that “no Afrikaner government can rule
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 27
South Africa without the support of the Broederbond, and no nationalist Afrikaner can
become prime minister unless he comes from the organization‟s select ranks.”11
This was, for the most part, true. An obvious weakness was in the financial sector
despite the growth of the so-called Afrikaner economic movements such as the
Reddingsdaadbond and Helpmekaar organizations, both of them spawned by the “Bond”.
Already in 1944, the Broederbond was described as the foremost institution of rising
capitalists and professional men in South Africa; “Afrikaner capital striving for economic
and political domination”.12 In the Cape, the nationalist entrepreneurs in the Broederbond
had already begun to mobilize capital through local Afrikaner savings to promote
Afrikaans business interests. In the north, the Broederbond was poised to do the same.
Throughout the 1940s the organization promoted the notion of a volk‟s economy to
develop an economic movement designed to marshal Afrikaner savings. This was
particularly evident in the thinking of L.J. du Plessis, for whom political power would end
British domination and sever the “golden chains of imperialism”. In his view the
Afrikaners‟ economic dependency on the English imperialists could be broken by
mobilizing Afrikaner savings.13 But the weaknesses of Afrikaner capital was a historical
and structural insufficiency, which could be remedied fully only after the Afrikaner
nationalist conquest of power in 1948. (Before then, the economy was dominated by the
English-speaking section of the population). Meanwhile, the Broederbond set up
commissions in the social, economic, educational and industrial sectors to deal with
almost everything that was politically sensitive. Individual members were secretly
mandated to work through the various legal “front organizations” to promote the
organization‟s position. The result was an extensive network through which they
penetrated all regions and most sectors, including the cultural sphere.
At the party-political level, the organization was strongest in the provinces of the
Orange Free State and the Transvaal – where the “purified” National Party was weakest.
One of the chief ideologues of the Broederbond at this time was Du Plessis, who went on
to share a place in the organization‟s Ivy League of fascists with racist fanatics like N.
Diederichs, P.J. Meyer and H.F. Verwoerd. A fifth uncompromising neo-Nazi extremist,
Albert Hertzog (son of General J.B.M. Hertzog, prime minister from 1924 to 1939) a self
-professed Nazi supporter who concentrated on the labour movement, especially the
Afrikaans-speaking miners on the Witwatersrand. Earlier, the leadership was enhanced by
the presence of I.M. Lombard and J.H. Griebe, prominent in the organization‟s economic
movements. They were extraordinarily influential and helped to define the Afrikaner‟s
place in the market economy and bring nationalism into the service of the growing class
of small capitalist Afrikaner entrepreneurs.14
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 28
In their book published in 1979, Wilkins and Strydom described the awesome power
of the Broederbond, detailing empirically what many surmised. “The [Broederbond]”,
they wrote,
has infiltrated members into town and city councils, school boards, the … state
controlled radio and television networks, industry and commerce, banks and
building societies … into the provincial administrations, the departments of
education, planning, roads and works … the quasi state corporations, the civil
service, the National Party caucuses … through Parliament and the seat of
government, until it finally reaches its apex in the offices of the Prime Minister
… Government today is the Broederbond and the Broederbond is the
Government.15
It repeatedly professed to be a cultural organization and used its extensive network in the
political, social and economic spheres to spread its message. But despite the denial of its
political aims, the future advancement of Afrikanerdom was the emphasis of its mission.
In 1934, the year after Hitler‟s ascendancy, the Broederbond‟s chairman, J.C. van Rooy,
summed up its fervent purpose: “Brothers, the key to South Africa‟s problems is not
whether one party or another shall obtain the whip-hand but whether the Afrikaner
Broederbond shall govern South Africa.”16
***
The consolidation of the National Party‟s electoral position had much to do with the
Broederbond‟s mobilizing strategies and its obsessive struggle for the ideological
hegemony of the Afrikaner movement. At this stage of its history, it was difficult to know
who the stolid but prickly nationalists were and who the more strategically gifted broederideologues were. The former were the professionals in the NP, using whatever means
their dour leader (D.F. Malan) and his lieutenants in the Transvaal and Orange Free State
had to keep the party‟s members together, and avoid alienating their seemingly
irreconcilable constituencies. The broeder-ideologues, on the other hand, were usually
mindful of the larger view that their struggle for the unity of Afrikanerdom was not an
end in itself, but a means towards state power.
To achieve this, the main focus of the Broederbond was always the ethnic unity of
Afrikaners. During a defining decade of nationalist political expression, harmony among
Afrikaners was seen to be imperative for winning political power and entrenching racial
segregation. This unity would not be the “broad”, white-fronted “South Africanism” of
the “renegade” prime minister, J.B.M. Hertzog, but the unity of Afrikaners within the
National Party, encompassing those English-speaking white South Africans who wished
to accept Afrikaner paramountcy on its own terms. According to the collective mindset of
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 29
the NP and the Broederbond, black workers were there to do the work that white workers
would not do. The tendency of all wage earners (including black workers) to combine to
improve their wages and working conditions was inimical to ethnic cohesion. Any attempt
to obliterate national differences flouted God‟s natural law, and the organization of
Afrikaners on class lines undermined ethnic solidarity. Solly Sachs, trade unionist,
member of the CPSA in the thirties and one of the nationalists‟ arch-enemies, experienced
at first hand the Bond‟s divisive attempt to detach Afrikaner women from his trade union.
For the Broederbond, he noted, “the Trade Union Movement was a „foreign‟ institution
and inimical to the interests of the Afrikaners as the latter wanted to divide the Afrikaners
into employers and employees, workers and capitalists”.17 The Broederbond‟s response to
this was that the trade unions were communist inspired, that the trade union movement as
a whole was “entirely controlled by Jews” and that the English-speaking workers were
subjectively oriented to Mother Empire and had different loyalties from those of
Afrikaners.18 If the Afrikaner volk was to be preserved and Afrikanerdom protected from
alien influences, ethnic solidarity was an essential factor in the development of the
Afrikaners‟ relationship to the volk and state – along with their relationship to fatherland,
history, politics and culture.
The Broederbond‟s strategy was therefore to detach Afrikaners from all so-called
alien institutions to prevent any dilution of ethnic solidarity. In this they were most
successful in the gold mining industry in the 1940s, where it fell to Albert Hertzog, the
Nazi-inspired son of the erstwhile prime minister, to urge Afrikaans-speaking miners to
leave their existing trade union and join an exclusively Afrikaner trade union movement,
more acceptable to the Broederbond. It was ironical that Afrikaans-speaking white
workers should opt to be organized on tribal lines at this time, when African miners had
already shown a preference for the ethically inclusive African Mineworkers‟ Union
(AMWU), despite the influence of traditional leadership and the constraints of customary
authority.19
The most explicit exposition of the relationship of Afrikaners to the volk and to the
state was elaborated in 1936 by N. Diederichs (Minister of Finance after 1948) in a lyrical
rendering of Afrikaner moral philosophy,20 subsequently popularized by H.F. Verwoerd
in the Transvaler newspaper. Similar views were expressed by other ideologues in an
Afrikaans student union review entitled Wapenspkou (Review of arms), a rich repository
of offensive National Socialist ideas. The Bond‟s ideas informed the sermons of the
dependable theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church. Their pious lessons regularly
provided parishioners with the inspired notion that salvation would come to the Afrikaner
volk in fulfilment of its divine solidarity as a nation. Just as God had looked upon the
Israelites in biblical times with benevolence, He would look upon the Afrikaner volk with
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 30
compassion in the future, provided they remained an ethnically intact community,
rendering undiluted devotion to His will.21
Sermons were delivered by the priesthood as well as the laity, and during my
detention in the sixties, I had the dubious privilege of watching one of the lay preachers, a
tall, sinewy official of the security police, named Van Rensburg, compose his tract for
church on Sunday. For him, the whites in South Africa, especially pious Afrikaners like
himself, occupied the moral high-ground. His inspiration for this was Malan, “high priest”
of the Nationalist Party, who had said a decade earlier that God had placed before each
people a unique calling and that the Afrikaners were the direct recipients of this message.
Malan, (Albert) Hertzog, Pirow, Strijdom, Verwoerd and Vorster were the most crudely
overt Nazi followers, but there were many others who were equally sympathetic to the
national socialist philosophy, although less prominent. In the economic sphere, men like
L.J. du Plessis and I.M. Lombard stand out clearly above their peers.
***
It took the National Party in its “purified”, united and re-united forms 30 years to evolve
into a viable parliamentary party before it could claim – in the late 1940s – that it was
largely representative of Afrikanerdom. This it was able to do because of the unifying
strategies of the Broederbond. The ANC, Afrikanerdom‟s nemesis, was formed in 1912 a
year before the NP (and six years before the Broederbond), but the modern histories of the
two nationalisms were poles apart and intersected dramatically from the 1950s onwards.
In time, the Broederbond was reinforced in its view that it was Afrikanerdom‟s moving
spirit and that the National Party was its major manifestation in parliament. At the outset,
membership crossed freely between the two organizations but steadily increased in
stringency. The NP was headed in the Orange Free State by the republican champion,
General J.B.M. Hertzog, who was critical of the Broederbond. Soon after its formation in
the OFS, it was established in the Transvaal under Strijdom and in the Cape Province by
D.F. Malan. However, the party‟s social base, political experience and quality of
leadership differed in all three provinces, causing its parts to relate with the utmost
difficulty to the whole. Its constituency in the Orange Free State was rural while the other
two provinces were less homogeneous, which enabled the Broederbond to be more
influential in the provinces where the party was weakest. The party‟s first foray into
government was in 1924, when, under Hertzog, it entered into an electoral pact with the
all-white Labour Party, defeating Smuts‟ in the election that followed the 1922 miners‟
strike. The Pact Government, as it was called, almost immediately began a process of
social engineering that was matched only in its repressive severity by Malan and
Verwoerd after 1948. Hertzog‟s government almost instantly built on the discriminatory
economic and social practices of the past by entrenching them in acts of parliament.
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 31
Notoriously, it introduced the so-called “civilized [white] labour policy”, privileging
white employment over black. It amended the Mines and Works (colour bar) Act, for the
first time entrenching the legal principle that skilled work was the prerogative of white
workers. Not least, it enacted legislation that played havoc with the limited rights that
Africans still enjoyed in the urban areas, and more controversially, embarked on a
protracted programme of removing the small number of Africans from the common
voters‟ roll. These were the so-called Hertzog Bills, first promulgated in 1925, but
introduced into parliament in 1935. There were originally four such bills, but only two
(concerning the franchise and land) were eventually passed into law in 1936.
After considerable debate, the first bill proposed that no more Africans could be
added to the 11 000 African voters already on the electoral roll in the Cape Province, the
only province where Africans could vote.22 Instead, Africans countrywide would be
allowed to elect four (white) senators to parliament by indirect means. (Margaret
Ballinger, Hyman Basner, Sam Kahn and Brian Bunting were some of the most eloquent
spokespersons for African rights elected under this provision between 1936 and 1958.
Their contribution to the struggle is well known and dealt with in subsequent chapters in
this book).
The second bill (known as the Land and Trust Act), together with the 1913 Land
Act, was at the centre of African nationalist grievances throughout the apartheid regime.
This act added a meagre percentage of land to the so-called native reserves, “allowing”
Africans a total of 13% of the land surface in South Africa. A further bill provided for the
introduction of a Natives Representative Council (NRC). This act was introduced as a sop
to liberal opinion to compensate for the removal of Africans from the common voters roll.
As seen in the chapter below, it turned out in its application to be what I have referred to
as a case study of a paternalistic and post-colonial institution, designed to ensure that even
the most conservative of African opinion would see the futility of securing fundamental
reform from within government institutions.
Hertzog‟s regressive programme of “reform” was interrupted by the economic and
political crisis of the early 1930s during which droves of Afrikaners drifted to the towns
in search of work and a major political realignment or “fusion” of the white political
parties took place. “Fusion” was a euphemism for a new understanding between the
mining and farming sectors (characterized in the 1970s by revisionist historians as the
political union of the interests of gold and maize). The reconstituted governing party was
described as the South African National United Party, once again under the leadership of
General Hertzog, who became prime minister, with the astonishing phenomenon of Smuts
serving in the same cabinet. This was more than the hard core nationalists could swallow,
and was probably a setback for the Broederbond that seemed to have little control over
Hertzog. He had, in their eyes, been co-opted by the vague neo-imperial concept of “co-
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 32
operative imperialism”, which rendered his ideas on republicanism too inclusive of
English-speaking whites for the more ardent Afrikaner nationalists.
With the National Party in disarray, it was a fractious moment for the unity of
Afrikanerdom. This provided an opportunity for the Broederbond to take full advantage of
the moment to assert its leadership. It strategically arranged for the nationalist splinter
organizations to find each other and facilitated the formation of the re-united National
Party (the Herenigde Nationale Party – the HNP). That the Broederbond was behind this
move was made apparent in a speech in Smithfield in 1935 by the prime minister, J.B.M.
Hertzog, whose policies were not in line with the Broederbond‟s thinking on
republicanism or on imperialism. In a hard-hitting reference to the Broederbond, Hertzog
spoke of storm clouds gathering over the country, where “the secret Afrikaner
Broederbond is nothing less than the Purified National Party busy working secretly
underground” and that the Purified National Party was “nothing but the secret
Broederbond which conducts its activities on the surface.”23
The newly “re-united” National Party rapidly consolidated itself under a few
paramount provincial leaders, all of them dedicated members of the Broederbond. These
included the stalwarts C.R. Swart in the Orange Free State, Strijdom in the Transvaal, and
D.F. Malan (in the Cape) as the party‟s overall leader. It took a while for the different
elements to cohere but the newly constituted party found its feet in the early forties. Those
nationalists who (before the 1943 general elections) were the least sanguine that they
would attain power through the ballot box, devoted their energies to the para-military
formations such as the Ossewa Brandwag, the Boerenasie, the Republican Front and the
Greyshirts. With the exception of the New Order Group (which had no military wing)
these were “the street fighters” referred to in a previous chapter, whose ideas reflected the
National Socialist thinking that menaced the entire decade of the 1940s. Proverbially, they
lost the street battles but won the ideological war.
War ended Hertzog‟s government in 1939, in what amounted to a parliamentary
coup. General Jan Smuts, a member of Hertzog‟s government, seized the opportunity to
enter the war on the side of Britain by rallying a small majority of parliamentarians in
support of the war. Hertzog, desperate to keep South Africa out of the war, hastily opted
for the dissolution of parliament and fresh general elections. This tactic was weak on
constitutional grounds and failed because the governor-general promptly rejected
Hertzog‟s claim to govern and called on Smuts, the most ardent protagonist of the war, to
form a government. Thus, in the see-saw succession of leadership changes that took place
in the decade, Smuts once again took over the reigns of power. His party was popularly
known as the United Party and dominated the political scene until 1948.
For the Left, in the Communist Party and among the ANC, this prompted the
obvious question: what purpose is there to be served in giving legitimacy to the country‟s
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 33
all-white elections by engaging in this undemocratic process? Questions were also raised
on the form of struggle we needed to wage. How were we ever to overturn a state as
solidly entrenched and as potentially violent as this one? Satyagraha in the period before
the First World War, passive resistance in 1946, the campaigns of civil disobedience
against unjust laws (in 1952) and ultimately armed struggle (in 1961), were options that
were eventually undertaken but in 1943 and 1948 the realities were more austere. The
Party leadership, through the columns of the The Guardian newspaper, summed it up well
on the threshold of the National Party victory:
There was mighty little to choose between the UP and the Nationalist [sic] Party
… their policies differ in degree … but the realities of the present situation must
be faced. The alternative to the UP is government by fascists … [T]here is very
considerable difference even for the most oppressed, between the present
reactionary government and open fascism. Government by the nationalists would
mean the suppression of the trade unions, of such freedoms as the press and
speech as we possess. It would mean complete segregation of the non European
[and], more restrictions on freedom of movement.24
***
The path to power of the reunited National Party (HNP) was reasonably short and swift. A
war-time election was held in 1943, but the outcome was a forgone conclusion. At first
glance it seemed that Malan had little hope of achieving political power in the near future.
The National Party won 43 seats out of a possible 153 and was (ostensibly) thrashed by
Smuts‟ United Party (UP). However, the trend should not have given cause for
celebration. Malan took 36% of the ballot with 362 000 votes. The nationalists actually
increased their strength by 71 000 votes, gaining five seats in parliament, becoming the
sole opposition to the United Party (UP). They had reason to be optimistic, despite their
loss of most urban constituencies and many rural ones to Smuts‟ party. They had
increased their rural support in the OFS and the Transvaal provinces where Strijdom,
(who was the sole NP member of parliament from the Transvaal in the 1938 elections)
now had a team of eleven nationalist MPs. In the OFS, the rural heart of Afrikaner
nationalism, the HNP held thirteen of the fourteen constituencies: in 1938 they had only
six.
Nationally, Smuts‟ UP, together with the Labour Party and the outmoded Dominion
Party, controlled 42 of the 82 rural seats in the all-white parliament and almost all the
seats in the urban constituencies except those in the few “white” working class
constituencies, where Afrikaners were primarily concentrated.25 Overall, the UP, together
with the Labour and Dominion Parties, (plus the so-called native representatives and two
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 34
independent MPs), increased the UP‟s majority from 87 seats in 1938 to 105 in 1943. But
what was generally overlooked in our analyses of these election results was that the
overall percentage vote for the Smuts government had actually decreased in 1943 from
42% to 32% and that the rural constituencies were beginning to defect to the National
Party.
The years between 1933 and 1943 were formative years in the Broederbond‟s
crusade to influence the mindset of Afrikaners. It was both a politically fractious period
and a time of National Party re-formation. During this time the Broederbond acted as the
strategic think tank for the Afrikaner nationalist movement: it would be the kingmaker of
the National Party, but remained distinct from it; its power was recognised by the
professional politicians (its members in the party), but institutionally it remained above
the party – emperor rather than monarch. If the Broederbond was not the sole architect of
apartheid in the formative years of that policy, it must have approved the plans and
overseen its foundations, while its members were the leading strings in the country‟s
power structures and the administration. Sam Kahn said as much in the country‟s
parliament. Flanked by broeders on all sides of the House of Assembly in 1950, he told
them: “Parliament is a rubber stamp to facilitate progress from Broederbond to Bill …
[T]he individual nationalist MP may just as well stay on his farm and telephone his vote
through from time to time between cups of coffee.”26 Sparkling as the rhetoric was, it
made no impact on the broeders in parliament. Their strategy was to tighten their personal
discipline and continue to direct their members to prominent positions in the various
fronts through which the Bond covertly presented itself. Secrecy (in membership and the
organization‟s agenda) enabled its spokespersons in the “front” organizations to make
sure that the policy decisions of the bodies they infiltrated were consistent with those of
the Broederbond. With such power, the organization dominated the National Party, and
later, the country‟s legislature and the national cabinet.
***
In the second half of the century, the ambitious National Party members in parliament, the
cabinet and the military, industrial and clerical establishments all served the Broederbond.
The president became its puppet and the cabinet a conduit for policy. Its clandestine
decisions affected every important facet of our lives, making it the single most significant
policy-making structure in the country. It dreamed up ideas for new racist legislation in
the formative phases of National Party rule and refined the existing discriminatory ones,
seemingly calibrating their ideas with those of the Nuremberg decrees in the Nazi Reich.27
By 1948 the NP, together with the Afrikaner Party, a small off-shoot of Hertzog‟s
party, garnered sufficient votes to win a narrow majority in parliament. (This is discussed
in the chapter entitled, “The Road to Fascism”, below.) Electoral power might have
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 35
passed to the National Party, but its leaders were hostage to the will of the Broederbond,
whose end came only 40 years later, prior to the formal collapse of the apartheid regime.
The organization was buried without ceremony, but not before it attempted to negotiate
with the ANC in exile in the 1980s, hoping that the NP would broaden the base of the
state to share power with a (co-opted) black majority government. In this respect, the
Bond‟s ideas were eventually adopted by the ruling National Party who far from coopting the ANC virtually negotiated itself out of power. The NP‟s demise occurred less
than a decade after the collapse of the Broederbond and with it, everything that was
earlier embodied in its Nazi inspired myth of a National Socialist Afrikanerdom.
Chapter Three: The Broederbond – 36
Chapter Four
There was an animal which had two colours. One of its colours is white and the
other is black. But that animal has only one tongue and with that one tongue it
licks both colours. Therefore I think what we say in our deliberations in this
Council should be listened to. Chief Mshiyani. 1
Working from within: A Case Study in Futility
The 1940s were crowded years, at times as inspiring as they could be depressing. The
most frustrating experience, however, was the suffocating paternalism of the white
officials towards the African representatives in the Natives Representative Council (NRC)
referred to in the previous chapter. The CPSA was slightly more successful in placing its
candidates in the institutions at the municipal level than it was in the NRC. There, the
ANC was represented through its more eminent, if conservative, members. But the NRC
was to test the patience of even these most moderate men. 2 It was a far cry from the
democratic, representative institutions the ANC and the CPSA called for and was an
anachronism in form and design as well as in the paternalism it displayed towards its
educated, professional, often erudite members. Formed to replace the informal
conferences that government occasionally held with Africans, it was set up in the context
of the removal of Africans from the common voters‟ roll and in the belief that it would be
a collaborative body to consult with the African chiefs, rural headmen and “Native
leaders” on an annual basis.3
Its African elected members were doubtless expected to treat the white government
appointees (who oversaw its work) with the deference and respect these officials normally
received in their interaction with Africans. They were to be disappointed. By 1942 the
NRC was something of a recalcitrant council of twelve of the most eminent elected
African leaders; the majority of them preferred to debate policy rather than simply receive
it. Initially, most of them were moderately independent rather than defiant, but that
changed over the years, culminating in their eventual revolt. Yet as the decade played
itself out, the confrontations between officialdom and the elected representatives on the
NRC mirrored the new political sensibilities of Africans towards governance and the
urgency of their need for a break with the paternalism of the past. It was, in a sense, the
embodiment of the change from the slogan “Away with Passes!” to the broader appeal for
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 37
the abolition of all discriminatory legislation and the adoption of the more imaginative
theme of “Votes for All!”
It was this concept of political freedom that was to challenge the racial hierarchy of
power in the country from the mid-forties; the proceedings in the NRC therefore
illustrated the futility of working towards democratic reform from the “inside” and
entrenched the preference for extra-parliamentary struggle adopted by the liberation
movement for the next half century. The status of the NRC was often debated in the
Debating Club of the YCL, when I was its convener and I was often taken aback by the
virulence with which the NRC was discussed. Smuts, the country‟s prime minister in the
1940s was often the target of the club‟s attack. His attitude towards the majority of the
country‟s black citizens was notoriously retrograde and little different from Hertzog‟s.
For him Africans were noble savages still under the pupilage of their civilizing white
masters who created laws for their wellbeing and established institutions to guide them in
the art of responsible governance. He believed that the “Native had the patience of an ass”
and that they consequently did not press for reform unless manipulated by communists
and agitators. However, as in most matters concerning “native affairs”, he was wrong in
this too – although he was not the prime minister of the country when the NRC
commenced its sessions in 1937.
The CPSA regularly contested the NRC‟s elections. In 1942, it selected Edwin
Mofutsanyana as the communist candidate for the urban areas in the Transvaal and
Orange Free State. Mofutsanyana had joined the Party in 1927 after attending the CPSA
night school in Johannesburg two years earlier, where he literally learned the ABCs of
Communism from the works of the Marxist writers Bucharin and Preobrazhinsky.4 He
became a Lenin School graduate in the 1930s and was general secretary of the CPSA until
1939, when Moses Kotane succeeded him; he was the Party‟s star candidate for the NRC.
When I first met him, I felt he should have been in a university or schoolroom, but
appearances are misleading. Far from having had the opportunities of study, he began his
working life underground in the mines in the Transvaal, having come from Witzieshoek, a
small town in the OFS. His labour on the mines must have been brief because he later
became a teacher. A photograph in The Guardian in 1942 during his election campaign
shows him as a rather youthful-looking man, wearing a trendy scarf, a club tie and suit
jacket, looking very thoughtful and dapper.5 This was quite different from my mental
image of him as a rather dour, serious individual, conventionally clad in a dark suit – and
very much a fish out of water in the formal surroundings of the district Party office; his
desk strewn with minutes, reports and papers under newspapers and ashtrays. He must
have been about 43 in 1942 when he stood for the Natives Representative Council a year
or two before he became editor-in-chief of the Party newspaper, Inkululeko. For all his
professorial appearance and unassuming image, he was well respected in the Party and the
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 38
ANC where he was valued for his quiet authority and strong intellect. 6 He stood three
times for the NRC and lost three times, in 1937, 1942 and again in 1947. The Party would
have repeated the exercise (and Mofutsanyana would have been willing) but for the
demise of the NRC and boycott.
Mofutsanyana was not the only Party candidate for the NRC in 1942. The other was
Alpheus Maliba, who was unfortunately also defeated.7 Maliba, an activist, was quite
different in profile and appearance from Mofutsanyana, two years younger and from a
poor peasant family in Venda in the Northern Transvaal.8 It was regrettable that neither of
them was elected although I doubt whether the history of the NRC would have been very
different had the CPSA been more successful in its election interventions.
From the start, the NRC was a powerless advisory body whose resolutions were sent
to government officials in state departments for consideration and then systematically
ignored. It did not even have the limited executive functions of local councils in rural
areas. 9 It was composed of 22 members, twelve of whom were elected by a remote
electoral college system,10 six government officials, all of them white and all of them
appointed by the government. Four were traditional leaders, also appointed by
government. It was the embodiment of an effete and powerless instrument that made a
mockery of the idea of political representation. It was irrelevant from its inception but
became noteworthy for the transformation of its members whose conservatism was turned
into deep-seated defiance of the government as they asserted their demands for genuine
forms of representation. From an instrument peripheral to the ANC‟s increasingly
outspoken opposition to undemocratic laws, it became a site of protest and later a
reference point for resistance to the paternalism of government officials.
Initially the NRC‟s sessions were held in the Pretoria Raadsaal, the old republican
legislature, presumably to add gravitas to its proceedings, but they soon moved to less
auspicious quarters following protests that the presence of “Kaffirs” in Paul Kruger‟s
Raadsaal was an insult to the old man‟s memory and white sensibilities.11 From the
NRC‟s inception the elected members were a mixture of caution, conservatism and
moderation, chosen for their local standing, their seniority and their professions. They
were often educators, traditional leaders, doctors, a professor (Z.K. Matthews) and trade
unionists, like the conservative A.W.G. Champion. From 1942 onwards, their insistence
that their grievances be heard, that political issues be addressed squarely and that attitudes
of deference be put aside, struck a new note in their relations with government. It was a
reflection of their intellectual calibre as well as a pressing sign of the times that they
would accept nothing less than the abolition of discriminatory legislation.
Many of the NRC‟s elected representatives were leaders on the National Executive
Committee of the ANC, which exposed them to more radical influences. John Dube and
A.W.G. Champion, both arch conservatives, were elected to the NRC in 194212 Dube was
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 39
the oldest member, first president-general of the ANC and editor of Natal‟s first AfricanEnglish newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal. A.W.G. Champion, ostensibly more radical but
equally conservative and later the bête noir of the African youth, was a leader together
with Kadalie in the Industrial and Commercial Workers‟ Union (ICU) in the 1920s and
politically destructive in excluding the communists from the ICU executive and the union.
The men that followed Dube and the core that remained on the NRC, from its inception to
its end, were not revolutionaries. But as they confronted the humiliating condescension of
the secretary for Native Affairs who chaired the NRC sessions and the (white) native
commissioners, all of them faithful watchdogs of government, they became increasingly
angry, assertive and impatient for government to respond positively to their demands.
The government would do no such thing, despite the protests and efforts of men like
Professor Z.K. Matthews who was the leading representative on the NRC after 1942. A
moderate man, cautiously conservative in his politics, his actions often had more radical
outcomes than he conceivably intended. These included his contribution to “African
Claims”, an ANC document relating the Atlantic Charter to human rights at home in
1943; his seminal role in the adjournment of the NRC in 1946; his conceptualization of a
congress of the people in 1954 for which he “proposed the basic idea”, and the Freedom
Charter, which he endorsed but did not write.13 I met him on a number of occasions much
later, the first during the planning stages of the Congress of the People; the second time in
the well of the magistrate‟s court in 1956, when he had with remarkable mobility, moved
from acting principal of the University of Fort Hare to being an accused on the Treason
Trial. He was elected to the Natives Representative Council in 1942 and remained there
until 1950, becoming its acting chairman and also chairman of the influential caucus of
the elected representatives. He took his duties in this capacity very seriously, interacting
well with the government officials and the strong-minded ANC men in the NRC. Whether
he bridged the gap between the older stalwarts in the ANC and the increasingly militant
ANC youth in the 1940s and 1950s as some commentators claimed, is debatable. I doubt
whether he was all that acceptable to the African youth who respected his erudition and
status but not his caution. Nelson Mandela, writing from his prison cell in 1970, noted on
Matthews‟ death: “There were some people inside and outside the movement who were
critical of his cautious attitude. But I am not sure whether they were not wild …”14
However, Z.K. undoubtedly enjoyed the confidence of the older, similarly cautious
representatives of the NRC, most of whom had been members of this council since 1942.
These included, R.V. Selope Thema, later editor of the Bantu World and very much
opposed to the radical youth and boycott strategies, R.H. Godlo, also a journalist, who had
been on the Council since its inception in 1937 (a protégé of Sol Plaatje); P.R. Mosaka, a
Fort Hare graduate, articulate and independent-minded (who with Hyman Basner helped
to form the short-lived African Democratic Party in 1943);15 and Dr J.S. (James) Moroka,
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 40
president general of the ANC in 1949. Moroka was defeated in the elections for the ANC
presidency in 1952 by Chief A.J. Luthuli, a giant of a leader with whom the militant
history of the ANC may be said to have begun. Luthuli joined the NRC in 1944, already
admired for his sterling qualities of leadership. In welcoming Luthuli the acting chairman,
a government bureaucrat, noted quite remarkably: “Chief Luthuli comes to this Council
with a huge reputation of uprightness, ability and progressiveness … I think he is the first
chief who has fought and won an election on his own merits.”16 If this official expected
him to be just another pliant traditional leader he was mistaken. It was the very qualities
with which he introduced the chief to the NRC that made Luthuli rise to be one of “the
most widely known and respected African leader of his era”.17
By 1946 the NRC had imploded on itself, a casualty of the arrogance of government
and the frustration of the councillors. It was a far cry from the democratic expectations of
Africans after the war, especially the ex-soldiers who returned after working and living in
close proximity “with men of different racial backgrounds who treated them as soldiers
fighting the same enemy and not just as labourers”.18
The strike of African mineworkers in August 1946 was the occasion for the first
serious row in the NRC. An initial resolution on the status of the NRC itself requested
that the council adjourn indefinitely (unless government undertook to review its “native
policy”). It was drafted before the 1946 mine strike and was to be proposed by James
Moroka.19 In the event, the council was in session when reports of police brutality on the
mines reached the NRC. The regular chairman, W.G.A. Mears, the secretary for Native
Affairs was unable to attend the session, having to report to government on his personal
assessment of the “rumours” of police violence. The under-secretary stood in for him but
was unable to contain the strained mood of the councillors, whose tense feelings were
exacerbated by Smuts‟ cold comment that he was “not unduly perturbed” by the strike or
the reports of improper police behaviour. As events unfolded, the elected representatives
showed more outrage over the indifference of the government to the plight of the miners
than the MPs in the all-white parliament or any of the paternalistic government officials.
P.R. Mosaka, with remarkable assertiveness, expressed his “surprise” that the undersecretary had made no reference in his opening remarks “to some most important matters”
pertaining to the “disturbances” on the goldmines. He demanded a statement from
government on the extent and nature of the disturbances, the number of people killed,
injured and arrested and whether any negotiations had been entered into with the miners.
All he got in response was the bland statement that the “present position is very much in a
state of flux”, but the matter was receiving the personal attention of the prime minister
who had appointed a cabinet committee “and that that sub-committee was still sitting”.20
Mosaka responded irately: “Personally I‟m not at all satisfied with the appointment of this
committee. I understand that some people are dead, have been shot … as a result of
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 41
instructions received from Pretoria.”21 He believed a judicial commission should be
appointed and wanted to know from the acting chairman “where we as a council come in
…? We want to see this Cabinet committee today …”.22 He eventually proposed the
adjournment of the session, saying they could not go on calmly discussing estimates of
“this and that” when African miners were in danger less than 50 miles away. A row
erupted when the acting chairman could “see no reason for the adjournment”. The elected
representatives requested a meeting of their caucus, when all the members spoke to the
resolution that followed in plenary, including Chief Luthuli, whose first meeting it was.
He did not mince his words: “Our people are beginning to feel that the deliberations of
this Council are so much waste of time. If the views of quite a large number of our people
were given effect to, none of us would come to this Council at all.” 23
This was the moment of truth. The representatives were frustrated at the impotence
of the NRC and had become increasingly aware of the humiliating insult that this dummy
institution was to the people they represented. Their impatience was reflected in their
speeches as they rose one after the other, to speak their minds. Mosaka complained: “The
government deals with us as it has been dealing with us all the time … [it] regards us as
nothing, as … an „internal affair‟.” Moroka interjected: “the Europeans of this country
treat us in the same way as they treat their cattle”.
“Oh no, much worse”, said P.R. Mosaka, who went on to ask:
How long must your gold be rated above human values? How long shall the
African people be huddled together in congested and unproductive reserves,
industrial compounds and urban locations? How long will eight million people
live on 13% of the land … how long must the rights and life of eight million be
subordinated to the interests of a few thousand mining magnates and rich farmers
... How Long? 24
It was an important debate, which dealt with a long list of discriminatory laws as
they affected the majority of the people. The topics were diverse, covering Kaffir beer;
education; old age pensions; mine workers; African trade unions; the food crisis; the
Atlantic Charter; the pass laws – the government‟s entire policy of segregation. Finally,
Chief Mshiyani, one of the traditional leaders, gently and by way of a rural analogy,
pointedly appealed to the government to hear what the councillors were saying: “There
was an animal which had two colours,” he said. “One of its colours is white and the other
is black. But that animal has only one tongue and with that one tongue it licks both
colours”. He paused and then added circumspectly, as only a chief used to addressing his
paymaster (who happened to be the government) could do: “Therefore I think what we
say in our deliberations in this Council should be listened to.”25 Unfortunately his words
of wisdom were ignored by the government. In the circumstances, the resolution which
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 42
the councillors adopted was more radical than might have been expected. Its preamble
noted that since its inception the members of the NRC had regularly brought the
reactionary character of the country‟s native policy of segregation to the notice of the
government. It deprecated the government‟s post-war continuation of a policy of fascism,
which was the antithesis of the letter and spirit of the Atlantic Charter and that of the
United Nations:
The Council therefore in protest against the breach of faith towards the African
people in particular and the cause of world freedom in general, resolves to
adjourn this session, and calls upon the government forthwith to abolish all
discriminatory legislation affecting Non-Europeans in this country.26
There was some debate about the summary nature of the demand for the immediate
abolition of discriminatory legislation but the councillors‟ anger could not be assuaged
and the word “forthwith” preceding the call to abolish all discriminatory legislation,
remained in the text of the resolution. The decision to adjourn the NRC indefinitely
precluded the members from hearing the government‟s reply to their resolution, but after
some intervention by the ANC‟s National Executive Committee, a compromise agreement
was reached between those of its members who wanted the councillors‟ immediate
resignation from the NRC and those who favoured proceeding slowly. Professor Z.K.
Matthews was in the latter group. He did not interpret the call for the immediate abolition
of the NRC and discriminatory legislation quite so literally as some of the others. He
believed that the councillors intended that government should accept the resolution in
principle and proceed “step by step” with abolition. By way of a compromise, the ANC
rather contradictorily called for a boycott of all elections under the act and also endorsed
the councillors‟ actions in full, calling upon them to attend the session set aside for 20
November 1946 – if only to hear the government‟s reply to their resolution.27 In the
meanwhile, the people were to continue their struggle for full citizenship and not rely on
impotent institutions like the NRC. It was probably one of the last confrontations of the
century on the ANC‟s executive in which the continued tolerance of racially distinct
institutions had any currency at all.
When the councillors met to hear the state‟s response to their resolution, they were
told that the government noted “with regret and surprise the violent and exaggerated
statement [that the representatives had made]; not in accord with the standards of
responsibility to be expected from a body like this Council”. The words were those of J.H.
Hofmeyr, the acting prime minister, but the sentiments were also those of Smuts, who was
conveniently abroad at a session of the UN. Hofmeyr, a liberal by reputation, dismissed
all hope of a new dispensation. Nothing in the language or the substance of his response
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 43
suggested that he was in tune with the changed mood of the NRC or the country. He
lectured the councillors, fatuously telling them that it would not be practicable to accede
to their resolution “in the interests of the Native people themselves”. The provisions of the
laws to which they objected “were enacted to protect Native interests”. The natives would
suffer if they were removed and any changes in existing conditions “must necessarily be
gradual”.28 In reply, Matthews described Hofmeyr‟s speech as an apologia for the status
quo and criticised the government for its policies towards Africans on the trade unions,
education, housing, health, social security and the Land Act: “we do not share the obvious
complacency with which the government appears to regard the situation. The permanent
subordination of the bulk of the population to a minority – however well-intentioned – is a
policy towards which we cannot subscribe.”29
Two blunt retorts followed this political broadside, one from the elected
representatives and the other from government. On the part of the elected representatives,
where deference to parliament, the prime minister and the white officials of the Native
Affairs Department had given way to a cold and distant stand-off, the formal response of
the NRC was predictable. “[T]his Council does not regard the minister‟s reply as of such
a nature as to allay the anxiety of the African people regarding their place in the body
politic of this country”, they declared. Accordingly, they moved that “pending the receipt
of a more reassuring reply from the government the proceedings of this Council be
suspended”. The state‟s retort came in nine words, the next morning: “The government
finds itself unable to vary its decisions.”
It was left to Matthews, as chairman of the caucus, to move the adjournment of the
session, noting somewhat icily “that the Council was unable to discover [in the
chairman‟s statement] any disposition on the part of the government to undertake a
revision of native policy”. The decision to abort the session was unanimous. Almost six
months later (in May 1947), Smuts, utterly out of touch with political reality, summoned
Matthews and five other representatives (three of whom were chiefs) to make various
proposals to them. According to Kotane, who must have received a report from one of the
five, “Smuts wanted to give the councillors a bone to chew at”,30 The report that was
given to Kotane stated that he (Smuts) had plans to give the NRC some definite
responsibility with regard to the government and management of the reserves. Similarly,
he would increase the number of members of the council and make the NRC “an allNative body”. His plans for the Advisory Boards were to “develop them” and bring their
activities under the aegis of the NRC. Kotane‟s response to this, which appears to have
been supported by the councillors, was that what the government had in mind was that the
functions and duties presently performed by the NRC would continue to be performed by
that body, while parliament would continue to make oppressive laws – which the NRC
would be obliged to enforce.31 The reply formulated by Dr A.B. Xuma, as president of the
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 44
ANC, was in keeping with this view. It stated simply that “we do not accept any proposal
that does not provide for direct representation of all sectors of the community in all
legislative bodies”.32
The election of a National Party government in 1948 meant the permanent denial of
any stake in the country for Africans. The ANC had already declared the Natives‟
Representation Act of 1936 to be a fraud and (perhaps precipitately) decided to boycott all
elections under it. There was no doubt that the NRC had been a platform for debate as
well as for the mobilization of African opinion, but there were serious misgivings on
whether anything could be achieved by further cooperation with it. The ANC Youth
League was vehemently opposed to co-operation with what they called an intransigent
and arrogant government, and was against further participation in the NRC. Their
argument took greater form in the ANC‟s 1949 Programme of Action, still two years
down the line in its formation. In the meanwhile, Z.K. Matthews adopted a more
moderate view, that it was not the moment for the ending of dialogue, and that the NRC,
though fundamentally flawed, was a forum in which African demands could still be
directly made to government. The ANC supported his position, (at least until the boycott
policy was adopted in 1949). This support, however, was controversial and further debate
on the subject was muted. Despite the conflict with the youth, Matthews decided to stand
for the NRC again, once more becoming the chairman of the caucus of elected
representatives which continued to include some members of the ANC.
Meanwhile, the members of the NRC had had enough of the government‟s
condescension and contempt for their aspirations. Their patience came to an end when
Verwoerd – at the time Minister for Native Affairs – arbitrarily declared a “no politics
ban” on the NRC. In their view, what was initially a futile institution had become an
absurdity. P.R. Mosaka, impatient with the endless charade, moved that the members
reject the ban on political discussions and reaffirm their “determination to exercise [their]
unrestricted rights to discuss all matters political and otherwise affecting the interests of
the African people”.33 Matthews and Moroka (whose continued presence on the NRC was
already being questioned in the ANC Youth League) soon resigned. In his statement
explaining his resignation Matthews said the ANC had other plans – he was referring to
the 1949 Programme of Action.
For their part, the NP government similarly had other plans, much more in keeping
with the apartheid project than the NRC would allow. In 1951 it passed the Bantu
Authorities Act, which provided for the abolition of the NRC and the establishment of
tribal authorities in the reserves. These would be appointed or selected by the government.
Sam Kahn, still in parliament, commented that the act did not give the Africans selfgovernment. Instead it empowered the minister “to become the Big White Chief of South
Africa and appoint a number of … “carefully selected puppets”.34 In the same vein, S.P.
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 45
Sesedi (at the time president of the Local Advisory Boards‟ Congress of South Africa)
more sensitively noted that: “the Bill was an apartheid inspired piece of legislation –
another failure in the white man‟s efforts to think and dream for the Bantu”.35
The National Party had no place for the NRC in its plans for the country‟s future.
Mears, the secretary for Native Affairs, communicated this to the NRC, telling them in
January 1949, that it “could no longer serve any useful purpose … ít was the
government‟s intention to encourage the local council and Bhunga system throughout the
Union, with due regard to ethnic and tribal affiliations”.36 Ruth First, reporting for The
Guardian, wrote in January 1949 that in disbanding the NRC the government hoped to
remove what it believed was “the instrument that helps to weld the African people into a
whole”.37 Nearly all the elected representatives participated in the debate that followed
Mears‟ message. Moroka demanded nothing less for Africans than full equality; Paul
Mosaka said “the failure of the NRC was the failure of segregation”; Selope Thema
bitterly told the government officials, “the Nationalists want us to go back to the kraals
(but they) have … destroyed the roads leading to [them]”. A.G. Champion, Msimang and
Z.K. Matthews added their voices to the chorus of protest. Finally, Z.K. reminded the
government that it was not that the elected representatives had misused the NRC and
“turned their mind to politics” as the government claimed, but that the Council had in fact
been established as a political body.38
Meanwhile the ANC was in an uncompromising mood. Its Programme of Action,
adopted in December of 1949, turned out to be a sharp retort to the government‟s policies
of “creeping fascism”. The programme‟s terse preamble stated that the fundamental
principles of the ANC were inspired by Congress‟s demands for national freedom and the
attainment of political independence and rejected everything motivated by the idea of
white domination, including the conception of segregation, apartheid, trusteeship or white
leadership – all of them euphemisms for subordination. The ruling party should re-think
its policy of second-rate representation, for
[l]ike all other people, the African people claim the right of self determination,
direct representation in all government bodies of the country … the abolition of
all segregatory institutions such as the Advisory Boards, the Natives
Representative Council and the present form of parliamentary representation for
Africans.39
This was backed up by a decision to call a one day general strike to protest against
apartheid (two “stay-aways” were in fact held in 1950, one on May Day and the other just
prior to the enactment of the Suppression of Communism Act in June 1950.) In what the
conference preferred to call a mood of “uncompromising non-collaboration”, it decided
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 46
overwhelmingly to boycott the government‟s Education Commission as well as the
forthcoming Provincial Council elections, the election of two native representatives for
parliament, and an NRC by-election to be held shortly because of the death of one of its
founding members, Counsellor Xinewe.
In this mood of militancy, especially among the young lions of the ANC Youth
League, Dr A.B. Xuma, still the presiding president of the ANC, was far too conservative.
His tenure ended when he voiced his preference for the continued participation of the
ANC in the NRC and the Advisory Boards “to fight apartheid from within”. The youth
would not hear of it and during the election (as a result of their intervention and priorcanvassing), the less conservative Dr James Moroka replaced Xuma as president of the
organization. The incoming members of the ANC‟s National Executive Committee (NEC)
included Walter Sisulu, a rising star in the organization, O.R. Tambo (who did not live to
witness the liberation of the country, but in a career that justified the potential that his
peers saw in him, virtually oversaw the ANC‟s progress from exile to office). Dan
Tloome and Moses Kotane, both of them communists, respectively secretary and
chairman of the SACP, were also elected to the executive of the ANC at that
extraordinary time. It was a path-breaking moment. Not only had the ANC adopted a
Programme of Action to achieve political independence, fight for direct parliamentary
representation and organize Africans in industry, but they had also changed the pace and
parameters of the struggle by their decision to boycott parliamentary and Advisory Board
elections and initiate a general strike. Along with their disdain for the NRC and other
unrepresentative institutions, they were in no mood to indulge the conservatism of men
like Xuma, although Sisulu (in retrospect) thought the treatment of Xuma too harsh. The
moment, however, was a militant one, and in order to ensure that their decisions were
carried out thoroughly, the young lions insisted on the appointment of a Council of Action
to execute the new programme.
***
The label “native affairs” or “native question”, was an offensive way of describing policy
that applied to the majority of the population. Z.K. Matthews dismissed both of these
descriptions, stating testily that “all South African politics is native affairs”. I remember
debating this matter in the YCL. As convenor of the Debating Club, I suggested that we
adopt Matthews‟ phrase as the title of the debate. Ruth First proposed this motion and
Lucas Masebe, national chairman of the YCL, opposed the motion, playing devil‟s
advocate, a role he did not enjoy. Ruth was an enthusiastic debater and what she lacked in
humour she made up with passion for her case. A portion of her speech appeared as a
feature article in July 1947 issue of the YCL‟s newspaper, Youth for a New South Africa.
She recounted how, under the 1936 Representation of Natives Act, the African voters in
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 47
the Cape were all but disenfranchised, their names summarily removed from the common
voters‟ roll and their franchise restricted to the election of three “Europeans” to the House
of Assembly and four to the Senate. Despite property and educational qualifications under
the old legislation (which did not apply to whites) “it kept numbers down, [but their
presence on a common voters‟ roll] was enough to be important.”
I remember her anger most. She reserved this for the whites-only legislature, which
had substituted direct representation in parliament for consultation on any matters
specially affecting the interests of Africans. All matters, she said, concerned everybody,
whether they were connected with health, education, labour, land – or anything else – that
affected Africans: to beg the question, was “silly”. “The NRC was a toy parliament,
powerless and ignored … The African people do not want a dummy parliament. They
want a part in the real thing.” 40 She‟d begun to enjoy the event and entered the spirit of
the debate. Lucas followed. He did not get much support from the members for presenting
the puerile case for the other side and of course lost the debate hands down. The final
vote, overwhelmingly in favour of the motion, was accompanied by much handclapping
and despite some boos for the losers, it was all very good-natured and its success very
encouraging.
The phrase “native affairs” virtually died with the Smuts government in May 1948,
although the succeeding concepts of “own affairs” and “general affairs” which enjoyed
great currency under apartheid, were worse. This was apparent much later, as the concept
of apartheid became clearer. By that time it was evident that it was the “white question”
rather than the “native question” that was really being addressed, namely how to
rationalize the position of a privileged minority in a country with an overwhelming black
majority in a world newly conscious of the freedoms it had won in the war against Hitler.
Chapter Four: Working from Within – 48
Chapter Five
Was there ever such a thing as a white civilisation – can there ever be in the
world of the future? Michael Scott.1
On All Fronts
Parliamentary politics was an arid affair, endorsing the fiction that the country was a
democracy. Ours was a wide-ranging engagement with the government on the day-to-day
concerns of the majority of the population, for whom parliament and employers had only
a marginal concern. I was active in the late war years from 1944 onwards but I often had
to live with the policies the Party followed in the heat of the earlier years of the war. For
instance, the ramifications of the Party‟s decision to mobilize the workers in support of
the war effort sometimes placed constraints on worker militancy that stirred a controversy
that is still being debated. It was mostly Trotskyists who kept open the controversy, taking
full advantage of the complexities of a policy of all-out support for the war against
fascism in a country where the labour practices for black workers were themselves close
to fascist.2 In the main, however, despite some of the constraints that this stance placed on
strikes, it did not interfere with the Party‟s sense of obligation to expose whatever it saw
as unjust.
There were reports of terrible housing conditions in Durban which were similar to
those in the townships in Johannesburg and indeed all the segregated areas where
Africans, Indian or Coloured peopled lived. Durban municipality‟s disgrace in providing
mule stables as homes for its residents was the disgrace of municipalities everywhere,
where people lived in squalor. The notion that a single room that had been condemned 20
years previously was a home, or that a disused mule stable without windows was an
acceptable form of shelter, was an intolerable indifference to peoples‟ welfare. The Party
campaigned against this and also against the overcrowded housing in Fordsburg, the
soaring food prices and the generally “low standard of living of the Africans in the
Witwatersrand”. Shelters that had begun to appear in Pimville (outside Johannesburg),
were made of corrugated iron without floor or ceilings and housed as many as four
families in a single shack. These were condemned by the Party and shown as the ugly face
of capitalism. It meant little to African residents living in slums without water, electricity
or municipal services that the country was in a wave of urbanization that accompanied
capitalist development everywhere. To the Party‟s credit it campaigned on every issue
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 49
from sanitation to social welfare. This was its essential humanity, which I think stirred us
to make sacrifices that ordinary apolitical people would not normally make. It was what
fired my activity; inspiring me to attend meetings instead of doing my homework, and to
sell The Guardian newspaper in Diagonal Street on Friday nights and again on Sunday
mornings in Sophiatown.
High on the list of protest was opposition to the operation of the pass laws. Official
statistics revealed that in 1940 there had been one conviction a minute under the pass laws
and the record hardly improved during the rest of the decade. Three quarters of a million
Africans had either been arrested, prosecuted or convicted under the pass laws in 1942.3
Originally introduced at the turn of the nineteenth century at the insistence of the
Chamber of Mines to police the mine labour force, the system served to sustain a matrix
of influx control regulations that separated families and sustained the apartheid system for
the major part of the twentieth century.
On the labour front, in the darkest days of the war in 1941, dockworkers, miners,
canners, dairymen, sugar workers, metal workers and sweet workers were at one time or
another out on strikes led by enthusiastic young trade unionists who began to make their
names in the trade union movement. Many of them were communists but by no means all
of them. Some of them did not stay the course, others fought to the end. H.A. Naidoo
organised the Sugar Workers‟ Union in Natal (where many were working for starvation
wages); Hester Cornelius worked in Johannesburg in the Garment Workers‟ Union where
Solly Sachs had been active since the mid-thirties. Betty du Toit was the feisty secretary
of the Johannesburg branch of the Food and Canning Workers‟ Union and Ray Alexander
was the militant national secretary of that union in Cape Town. Ray and Betty outlasted
the NP and the “apartheid” half-century. Gana Makabeni did not survive the sordid 40
years of National Party rule but was an effective trade unionist in the 1940s. He was also
president of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) as was Dan Koza,
whose other “hat” happened to be that of the secretary of one of the largest African trade
unions in the country at the time, the African Commercial and Distributive Workers‟
Union. Both of them were later claimed by the Trotskyists. M.D. Naidoo, another
stalwart, had a long career in the liberation struggle, starting in the anti-fascist movement
and in the 1940s in the Tea and Coffee Workers‟ Union in Durban.
“The war effort”
Wages and poor working conditions prompted many strikes which potentially undermined
the war effort. “The workers must become the driving force behind a whole-hearted war
effort, and its most vigilant guarantors”, the Party told its supporters through the columns
of The Guardian, after the Soviet Union entered the war in June 1941. “Their contribution
is to bring about the greatest possible production of goods required for the war”. It went
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 50
on (unrealistically) to call for “the establishment of workers‟ councils and factory
committees to formulate proposals for increasing production, eliminating waste and
inefficiency” – to secure the maximum output.4 It was difficult to support the wave of
strikes and at the same time promote the optimum level of production to win the war. At
its Cape Town conference in February 1942, the Party unanimously endorsed its policy of
giving full support to the government war effort, “directed towards the total military
defeat of the axis powers”. Later, Betty du Toit, secretary of the Food and Canning
Workers‟ Union introduced a strident note into the discourse when on behalf of her union
she sent a strong statement to the Minister of Labour in the Smuts government noting that
“the workers have made great sacrifices for the war effort, while the employers are
making big profits. The employers are taking great advantage of our workers‟ patriotism
in an attempt to further their own selfish ends”.5 Her statement was even more pertinent
when she added that the industry depended almost entirely on government contracts.
The Party soon paused to debate “whether it is the reverse side of patriotism to call
off the class struggle on one side only”.6 Ultimately, however, it bowed to necessity and
decided that pragmatism was the preferred approach and relied on the solidarity of the
working class to support the war effort and strike only when conditions were dire.7
Effectively, the Party left it to the judgement of workers and the discretion of trade
unionists to decide whether or not to strike. It continued to mobilise African workers into
the trade union movement, agitate for higher wages and oppose the obstruction of the
mine owners to the recognition of African trade unions. But as the war dragged on, it took
the moral high ground, convinced that the working class as a whole “is solid in its
determination to take all the action necessary for the defeat of Hitlerism”. The Party made
it clear that it understood that not all workers would refrain from striking, but hoped that
they would do their best to avoid such action whenever they could. This generated both
confusion and debate, which was not made any clearer by the Party‟s explanation that
“[the] CPSA believes the workers must make every effort, by arousing public opinion and
developing all forms of pressure available, to obtain a satisfactory settlement, while
avoiding any stoppage of work”.8 With the passage of history, I am not sure whether the
“flexibility” of this stance was disingenuous or a serious signal to employers that it would
be folly on their part to take advantage of the workers‟ patriotism “to further their own
selfish ends”, as Betty du Toit so impatiently pointed out in her frank statement to the
minister. However, no matter how much the Party campaigned against the industrial
colour bar, urged government and employers to support the war effort or called for the
rapid “skilling‟ of African, Indian and Coloured workers, it met opposition on all sides of
the profoundly undemocratic South African labour system.
The outcome was that in the years between 1942 and 1945, strikes continued to
occur (although possibly fewer than might otherwise have been the case), often promoted
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 51
by trade unionists within or close to the Party. The pressures on the trade unions to call
strikes came from a number of quarters. There were the rogue employers who used the
war to line their pockets. There was also the intransigence of the government who, in
deference to the Chamber of Mines, steadfastly resisted demands for the recognition of
African trade unions. In addition, Smuts used the state‟s coercive powers to promulgate
“war measures” to inhibit the organization of African workers and in some instances force
workers to accept work that they did not wish to undertake. These regulations were
promulgated from 1942 to 1944. War Measure No. 86 was particularly draconian. It was
promulgated for the purpose of compelling the Durban dock workers‟ to accept work or
be deported to their homes.9 War Measure No. 1425, which was the subject of many
campaigns, was promulgated in 1944 to prohibit gatherings on any gold proclaimed land.
It was unashamedly supportive of the Chamber of Mines. The Party‟s objection to it was
that it was seemingly intended to prevent activity by anti-war elements among the white
miners but was never used to stop fascist meetings. Instead it was used to intimidate
workers and inhibit their trade union organization. The presence of detectives at the gates
of the mines was a silent warning to the workers that any move that they might make
towards their trade union organizers, was being carefully watched.
It was a curious anomaly that while the Party was doing its utmost to promote the
war effort, and in that sense co-operate with the government, the state did nothing to
improve the quality of the workers‟ lives or to address the grievances of rural and urban
Africans. For the Party, one way of addressing this was by contesting elections in the
(“black”) Advisory Boards and the (“white”) City Councils. These contests provided a
regular forum to address social issues and raise important political problems. On these
occasions, especially in the years between 1943 and 1948, the movement always
presented its most credible candidates. It also entered the elections for the Natives
Representative Council (NRC) in 1942, 1945, and more half heartedly in 1947 and 1950.
This was not without controversy, however.
The question mark over elections had nothing to do with the fundamental issues of
reform and revolution or the inability of palliative improvements in housing, health or the
environment (encouraged by the presence of a communist representative in this or that
institution) to alter the capital-labour relation in South Africa. The problem was more
systemic. The local and national institutions for which the Party fielded candidates,
particularly the urban Advisory Boards and the NRC, were exclusively “black”. They
were also deliberative and advisory rather than decision-making institutions. The NRC
was a “talk shop”, which P.R. Mosaka, the urbane youngest of the African elected
members, politely called a “toy telephone”. The name stuck. The municipalities,
provincial administrations and parliamentary bodies, on the other hand, were exclusively
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 52
“white” but more effectual, and when the Party contested these elections, their candidates
spoke for everyone.
Moses Kotane was quite sanguine about the Party‟s participation in elections, when
he said in 1943 that
The South African parliament is by no means a democratic institution. Within the
House there would be brave voices that could not be bought or silenced,
consistently defending the interests of workers and oppressed sections [of the
population], drawing attention to the real vital issues.10
The question of our participation in the electoral process concerned the entire liberation
movement, not only the SACP. In that year (1943) the CPSA entered nine parliamentary
candidates in constituencies in Cape Town, Johannesburg, the Reef and Durban. All nine
lost handsomely. The candidates were on the whole impressive, particularly Harry
Snitcher and George Sachs, who respectively contested the working class areas of
Woodstock and Salt River in Cape Town. Both were prominent in the Communist Party.
Issy Wolfson, a trade unionist and rising star in the Party, described earlier by Hitler‟s
official newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter, as “one of the dangers to the Nazi
movement in South Africa, stood in the Rosettenville constituency in Johannesburg. A
strong, “hard-hitting straight-forward speaker”, he related well to workers, was exciting to
watch and gave as good as he got, but his “non-racial” message was the antithesis of what
his audience wanted to hear and he lost the election badly. Frans Boshoff, an Afrikaner
intellectual and eminent barrister, stood in Hillbrow with the same grim result. Errol
Shanley, a trade union and Party stalwart, contested the Durban Point constituency in
Natal with equally little joy if one measured success only by victory. The other candidates
were all activists too but less well known at the time. It was 1943, a khaki election with
singularly little concern for the noble ideals of the war.
Always a novelty when the outcome was successful, there was a degree of
triumphalism in the CPSA when two other candidates, Betty Sachs (Radford), editor of
The Guardian and Sam Kahn, then a rising star in the Party, were elected to the Cape
Town City Council in that year, the first communists to sit on any official body: “A new
period has begun in Cape Town‟s municipal affairs”, The Guardian noted optimistically.
Announcing /another electoral “coup”, Inkululeko proudly reported that Archie Muller, a
member of the District Committee of the Party in East London, had been elected to the
local town council as a representative of the Civic Workers‟ League, but the Party was
behind his candidature.11 He was selected with a majority of only 69 votes but the Party
saw it as cause for celebration.
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 53
Although there were some notable successes between 1943 and 1948, the outcome
of the elections seldom provided much cause for optimism. There were encouraging
moments in 1943 and 1944, at the height of the war years, when the Party was sufficiently
well identified with the Soviet Union to increase its electoral popularity and win a few
seats in local government. In addition to its wartime popularity, the Party‟s programme
must have had some resonance with the voters, as there were a few resounding victories
in the municipal elections. David L. Dryburgh captured the Woodstock constituency and
Cissie Gool, the Castle ward in Cape Town in 1944, but for the most part the outcome
was disappointing.12
In Johannesburg, where I was active in nearly every election campaign after 1943,
the CPSA had little cause for celebration. In March 1944, Betty du Toit, then local
secretary of the Food and Canning Workers‟ Union, stood in the white working class
constituency of La Rochelle-Rosettenville, and Rhona O‟Meara contested the Hospital
Hill constituency in the inner city. As this ward was more heterogeneous in its class
composition, she had little chance of success there. Hilda Watts stood in a predominantly
middle class constituency in Ward 10 in Hillbrow-Berea. Sadly, all three were defeated
although both Watts and Du Toit were formidable candidates who clearly appealed to the
voters.13 Betty had a strong trade union background, starting as a trade union organizer in
Cape Town, where she put fear into the hearts of employers and in one instance, was run
out of the small town of Paarl by local bosses aided by the Blackshirts, for her trade union
activities.14 She participated in the anti-fascist front in the late 1930s and before that (in
1936/7) visited the Soviet Union, where she studied Marxism. She was banned in the
early 1950s for her membership of the CPSA. Street-wise, elegant and an indefatigable
campaigner, Betty du Toit was a legend in the Party and the trade union movement.15 She
would have created a sensation in the Johannesburg City Council had she won the
election that year.
However, if anyone could reverse the fortunes of the Party it would be Hilda Watts
(Bernstein) in ward 10, Hillbrow-Berea. Although she had already been active in Left
politics in the UK and South Africa for about ten years before she contested the elections
(she came to South Africa in 1934), she firmly established her career as an anti-fascist
fighter when (in the words of The Guardian who published her profile and election
manifesto) “few people recognised fascism as the greatest enemy of mankind”. She, like
Betty du Toit, faced angry Blackshirt and Greyshirt mobs in the 1940s, and was
prominent in every progressive cause – many of them for women‟s rights. Du Toit and
Watts were very different personalities. Du Toit was a militant trade unionist and
communist activist, working class in background and mercurial in temperament. Watts, “a
red-diaper baby”, was middle class, English-born and of Russian parentage, with a North
London accent and a silver tongue.16 She was super-professional in everything she
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 54
undertook, while Du Toit was a political street fighter in a great tradition. Both of them
left deep imprints on our history.17
I recall Hilda Watts‟ election campaign in March 1944 with some nostalgia as it was
during that time that I inadvertently attended the small street corner meeting she was
addressing – when I was sufficiently encouraged by Ginger Lieberman to join the Young
Communist League. Hilda, Betty and Rhona (O‟Meara) were defeated, although Watts
was beaten by only 679 votes out of a total of 4 782 ballots.18 This encouraged the Party
to repeat the exercise in October 1944, when both Hilda and Rhona O‟Meara once again
contested the same seats. Rhona was a former school-teacher, in her mid-30s and rather
shy as I remember her. She regrettably lost the election but that was to be expected, given
the heterogeneous class composition of her constituency. In re-selecting the two
contestants, the Party stressed that both candidates should “put primary emphasis on the
needs of Non-Europeans who have no representation in the City Council and whose needs
are neglected and forgotten by other (non-communist) candidates who are out only to
catch the European voter.” 19
Hilda‟s victory was a triumph for the Communist Party. For once the privileged allwhite electorate in Hillbrow-Berea voted with their heads and their hearts and quite
extraordinarily delivered the seat to this exceptional candidate. On her election, she made
the point:
I regard my victory not as a personal triumph, but a triumph for the cause of the
Communist Party, and of democracy … I shall make it my special duty to fight
for a square deal … for the African people of the city.20
Solomon Buirski, one of the Party‟s amiable theorists, with little belief in the power of
human agency or the capacity of the electorate to venture outside the stolid “white
consensus”, humorously referred to her electoral victory as “the confluence of accident
and luck, aided by a fluke”. It was a watershed election, not only for the communist
victory in Hillbrow-Berea, but because the Labour Party, which had been the dominant
party in the city council for some time, lost control when six of their eight candidates lost
their seats. Three wards were won by National Party candidates during that election year,
which provided their party with a foothold in the Johannesburg City Council, an
indication of the changing shape of the political landscape.
Elections enabled the Communist Party to demonstrate its concern for ordinary
people. They provided an opportunity to dispel the negative images the white voters had
of communists, and enabled the Party to take its policies into the homes of the electors.
Elections were also occasions for the development of credible reformist programmes, but
were not always plain sailing. There was, for instance, much soul-searching when the
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 55
time, effort and money expended on electioneering were rewarded only with rejection by
the voters. This was the case in 1945, when encouraged by Hilda Watt‟s successful
election the year before, the party outdid all its previous efforts and presented a slate of
four candidates for the Johannesburg City Council and a further four for the Urban
Advisory Board elections. The city councils were exclusively “white” institutions and the
advisory boards entirely “black”. We had potentially more support in the advisory boards,
but contested them all so as to spread our message as widely as possible “to the workers
and oppressed sections of the population”, as Moses Kotane had said.
Our manifesto‟s main theme was one of “Rights and Freedom for All”. The Party
assembled its most impressive cadres. Michael Harmel, a serious man in his early forties,
somewhat soulful in expression for the revolutionary he was, was renowned for his
political insights, which were often brilliant and sometimes after the event. He contested
Ward 6 in the Von Brandis area, a white working class constituency, close to the central
business district of Johannesburg. His election manifesto included “a bold master plan on
a very big scale for the virtual rebuilding of Johannesburg”, which he largely devised. The
plan, as I repeatedly heard it, was the construction of a great community centre providing
indoor swimming and other facilities for physical recreation. It was, in his words “an
enlightened policy of making Johannesburg a city of greenbelts, parks and playgrounds,
community centres, health clinics and nursery schools”.21 All in the CPSA knew that he
was not only talking of the whites that would enjoy the fruits of this vision, but it was
difficult to know whether the constituents of the Von Brandis ward were aware of that
too.
“Mick” Harmel, as he was familiarly known, although nothing in his appearance or
speech ever suggested a common touch, was joined in a neighbouring ward by Molly
Fischer, married to Bram and a candidate who did have a good rapport with ordinary
people. She stood in the Braamfontein constituency, a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking,
working class ward, hostile to every item in her election platform. At the time she was in
her late thirties and although young, could be assertive when attacked but was
uncomfortable in the limelight. She related well to the white electorate who appreciated
her candour, respected her family background, but rejected her politics. Both the Fischers
and the Kriges (Molly‟s family) were eminent South Africans whose views on race and
social justice were probably quite different from those of Molly and Bram.
Frans Boschoff, another CPSA candidate, was also an Afrikaner, tall, ruddy in
complexion and professional in his manner. He contested Ward 10 in Hillbrow-Berea,
(another seat in “Hilda Watts‟ constituency”). By all accounts, Boschoff seems to have
appealed to the electorate‟s sense of fairplay and to their reason: “Like peace”, he told
them at one of his meetings,
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 56
the health of the community is indivisible. There cannot be one standard of health
for one sector of the community and another for the rest … Disease knows no
colour bar and invades the homes of the rich as well as the poor … There is a
vital necessity for the poorer sections of our population, particularly the nonEuropeans to have someone to fight for better conditions for them within the city
council.22
Paternalistic as it sounds over a half century later, Boschoff was direct in his presentation
and had the courage of his convictions. I remember the occasion quite well and helped to
swell the audience in the small hall at the Commodore Hotel which was close to where we
had once lived at Agol House in Soper Road, Berea. Issy Wolfson, the fourth CPSA
candidate in the 1945 local government elections, stood in the Yeoville constituency,
where his campaign headquarters were located at our house in Grafton Road. All four
candidates lost the elections and collectively received a combined total of 4 000 votes;
Issy Wolfson did best by capturing 1 300 of these. The Guardian noted, by way of
consolation, that the candidates, “who worked hard and fought well in the „white‟ areas,
may take comfort from the knowledge that the majority of people from whom they could
expect support, have no vote.”23
It was not so in the black townships. In Johannesburg, four CPSA candidates
contested the advisory board elections on a programme centred on health, housing,
welfare and community development. These themes were linked to the overall slogan of
“Votes for All!” All the candidates were well known residents of Orlando: Edwin
Mofutsanyana, Armstrong Msithana, Solomon Moema and J. Masophe – and all of them
lost the elections. It was difficult to know whether their defeat was due to the Byzantine
electoral process or to better campaigning by other parties. There was no secret ballot.
Voters called out the preferred candidate‟s name to an official who then recorded their
vote. There was no way of checking the accounting. Unlike the local government ballot in
the white wards, the right to vote for the advisory board candidates depended on the
presentation of rent receipts, paid up to the month of the elections. For women, the vote
was restricted to widows of deceased male residents, provided they had been resident in
the urban areas at that time.
The defeats, however, were demoralizing. One commentator, B. O‟Brien (probably a
pseudonym for a party activist; it could have been Rusty Bernstein or Brian Bunting)
writing in the Party‟s theoretical journal, Freedom, said what most of us did not want to
hear. “The results of the municipal elections on the reef in October 1945 were a defeat for
the Communist Party. [There were] four candidates and all came bottom of the poll, one
losing his deposit” This prompted the obvious question:
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 57
If the Communist Party‟s policy is acceptable to the non-Europeans, by reason of
their political, social and economic status, why does the party devote so much
time, effort and money to contesting municipal elections in which Europeans vote
and in which only Europeans are canvassed? … Should we confine the contesting
of elections to only the remaining fifth [of the population?].24
Michael Harmel, on the other hand, ever strong on analysis, did not help to clear up
the confusion, when he explained in The Guardian – soon after the event:
Only powerful active, well organized branches of the Communist Party,
continually deepening their own understanding of Marxism and Leninist theory
and practice, always responsive to the needs and problems of the people, always
deepening the workers political consciousness and eradicating capitalist
influences – only such activities can have a deep and lasting effect upon the
people.25
This was obviously profound political leadership but was only indirectly pertinent to the
question of whether it was more important to win seats in institutions that had little clout
but where our policies would reach large numbers of people, or whether we should seek
support for Party candidates in white institutions which had all the power, but where the
constituents (Hilda‟s election triumph, excepted) were too prejudiced to hear us. I suspect,
however, that somewhere within Harmel‟s argument was the oblique criticism that
winning seats in an election may be important but it required good organization and more
diligent work than was the case in this instance.
Challenging the Power Relations
The concept “Votes for All!” reflected the political climate nationally and internationally,
especially after the defeat of fascism in Europe.26 It linked together under one umbrella all
the major demands for the abolition of discriminatory legislation that was inconsistent
with a free people. In a single slogan it included a call for the right to vote, to take part in
government, to own land, receive a decent education and move about freely. They were in
effect social rights, which would be included in a future constitution, although not yet
formulated in a Bill of Rights or a broadly liberal Charter.
The linking of the specific demands with the overall aspiration for equal human
rights was expressed ten years later in the Freedom Charter and in 1996 in the constitution
created under the ANC‟s first government. Yet the slogan “Votes for All!” was
controversial at the time. Ironically, Rusty Bernstein, who was to write the Freedom
Charter which gave form to these aspirations thought that the slogan was wrong.
Acknowledging that the slogans of the party should always be in advance of the general
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 58
consciousness of the working class, he felt “this slogan at the present time, is so far in
advance that it does not bring the party into the position of leading the working class, but
leaves [it] out on a limb, far ahead of the working class”. To the average worker, he
believed, it represented a dream, an ideal, which did not appear possible at the
time.“Votes for All!” he insisted, was a slogan of advance in the struggle, but we were
currently in a defensive period. “It was not correct at this time.”27
Nothing stirred Moses Kotane into debate more than a polemic of this nature. He
was especially incensed by the dismissal of the aspirations of the African people as a
dream and by its critic‟s lack of political imagination. “Comrade Bernstein is hopelessly
wrong in his political analysis and contentions”, he protested in reply.
That the Africans do not regard the demand for equal rights as representing a
dream was shown recently when Sam Kahn, who stood for “Votes for All”
defeated his opponents by a majority of 3 000 votes … The present world
struggle is essentially a struggle for freedom, equality of rights and opportunities,
[a struggle for] peace and progress.28
This was a persuasive theme in its appeal to the members of the national executive of the
ANC who were strongly encouraged by Kotane‟s advocacy of this policy and the Party‟s
support of their recent militant stance against the government‟s paternalism. The decision
taken at the 1946 National Conference of the ANC to boycott elections to the NRC, had in
Kotane‟s view created a space for deepening the strategic unity of the Party with the
national movements, and Bernstein‟s criticism of the aspirational slogan was out of tune
with this.
Cultivating the slogan was an opportunity to raise the level of struggle and take a
strategically offensive position. It was a buoyant moment in Kotane‟s leadership. He
sensed a new mood in the ANC and was making a conscious effort within the Party and
the national organizations to achieve a subtle shift in the level of struggle beyond the
particular struggles to a general confrontation with the power relations in the country. As
he put it, a decisive thrust was needed “to lift the veil behind which the political
enslavement … of the African people [is] … perpetuated”.29 The focus was on the
abolition of all discriminatory legislation and the granting of full citizenship rights.
Bernstein, whose insights were invariably astute, did not believe that the struggle had
reached that strident moment. He was probably more aware than most of us that we were
on the cusp of a qualitatively different, more confrontational, phase of the struggle, to
which the state would ultimately respond with increased repression. He doubted the
readiness of the movement – organizationally and politically – to sustain this strategic
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 59
turn in approach, especially when the country was reeling from successive waves of
repressive legislation.
In the event, the movement as a whole followed Kotane.30 The Party endorsed the
ANC‟s 1946 conference decision to boycott the elections under the 1936 Native
Representation Act and worked towards a united front with its strategic allies in the
national anti-fascist movements. Its reasoning was that the real safeguard against
dictatorship lay in the extension of democracy by giving political rights to all the people.
South Africans needed to “unite to extend the vote; to maintain freedom of speech and
organisation, assembly and the press … [and] to guarantee freedom of movement and
residence”.31
A slightly different attack on Rusty‟s criticism came from another quarter.
According to Danie du Plessis, the Johannesburg district secretary of the Party, “Votes for
All!” was a living slogan. His intention was to correct “some confused thinking” on the
part of Bernstein. The two had clashed before, during the 1946 sedition trial, but this was
on a different level. Danie believed that Rusty had
lost sight of the fact that our slogan “Votes for All!” … is our general political
objective – whilst the tactical slogans are day-to-day issues. The confusion arises
out of the fact that Comrade Bernstein cannot conceive of the role the Party has
to play in the struggle at the present moment – we are struggling for the
alignment of forces directed towards democracy.32
Bernstein probably understood this perfectly well, but his concerns were about the timing
of the new policy and the capacity of the movement to sustain such a thrust at that
moment. As the author of the Freedom Charter, Bernstein certainly did not lack political
imagination.
Political imagination was not a commodity everyone had. This was not the case with
Michael Harmel. In the 1948 elections, for instance, he contrasted the CPSA‟s vision of a
democratic South Africa with that of the National Party:
Two kinds of future could face South Africa. The one was the Communist Party
vision of a better South Africa in which everybody had enough to eat, a decent
job, a weatherproof roof over his head, schools for his children and the
democratic right to share in the government of this country. The alternative was
deepening economic crisis, and intensified racial antagonisms leading to Fascism.
There is no middle road.33
This is what I would repeat to the voters during the 1948 parliamentary elections as I went
from house to house, eliciting votes from potential supporters in the Hillbrow
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 60
constituency. They would peer at me peculiarly and wonder what on earth I was talking
about. I had not appreciated that in the overwhelming whiteness of their world, every
child went to school, everyone had a job, every family had sufficient to eat and a
weatherproof roof over its head!
Harmel‟s vision is still the vision of the Communist Party, in more than a decade
after liberation. We have secured the political right to participate in the government of the
country but the social rights for all are not so surely attained. This important discussion
belongs in another place and concerns the concept of the national democratic revolution
(NDR). It is, however, interesting to reflect on how easily we believed that our vision of
the future would quickly fall into place, and how we could talk of the defeat of capitalism
and the victory of Socialism in a breathless moment, as if it were all to happen tomorrow.
Chapter Five: On All Fronts – 61
Chapter Six
It has been said that all history is contemporary history in fancy dress. Eric
Hobsbawm.1
A Spiral of Trials
In the arrests, indictments and trials that occurred from the 1940s to the 1990s, history
was being made and re-made; drama and farce competing. Beginning in 1946 with the
“sedition trial”, it became a feature of successive governments to have a major trial each
decade until the start of the 1990s. The trials commenced under Smuts with the indictment
of the leaders of the African Mineworkers Union and members of the CPSA, and
continued into the fifties with the Treason Trial in 1956, the Rivonia Trial in 1963 and
protracted but less spectacular trials each decade until the advent of Mandela‟s
government in 1994. Each indictment involved a new courtroom conflict over the limits
of political protest and fresh instalments of the same serial story. I was involved in two of
these trials (the Treason Trial and the Bram Fischer Trial in 1956 and 1964 respectively)
and was in my last year at high school during the miners‟ strike in 1946. In that instance
the Communist Party committed itself entirely to the strike, assisting the union in the
writing and photocopying of leaflets; the transporting of union officials to the meetings on
the various mines prior to the strike; and generally placing its resources at the disposal of
the union. Still at school, I did not go out to the mines but helped with the photocopying
on the Gestetner copier and the collation of the leaflets that were regularly distributed to
workers in the mining compounds and at the union‟s rallies.
Miners’ Strike and Sedition
The indictment of the leadership of the CPSA and a number of prominent leaders in the
ANC on charges of sedition was directly related to the strike by African miners in 1946.
The tension on the goldmines had been simmering for years. The demand for the legal
recognition of African trade unions had occupied the attention of the CPSA and the ANC
throughout the decade and later. Gana Makabeni, chairman of the Council of NonEuropean Trade Unions at the time, warned in a remarkably understated way that the
refusal of the government to recognize African trade unions was causing increasing
disquiet among African workers. At last, in October 1942, it seemed as if the government
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 62
would act. It appointed the Smit Commission which recommended that African trade
unions be recognized under the Industrial Conciliation Act, but excluded the mining
industry from the terms of that act! In the event, neither received recognition.
The agitation for trade union recognition continued with little success. By January
1943 there was still no progress, despite a strong case being made by the union to the
Smit Commission. It was an election year and Smuts (careful not to commit himself to
anything that would anger the Chamber of Mines or provide ammunition for Malan‟s
National Party) laconically told a delegation asking about the recognition of African trade
unions that
things are inconvenient just now … There is a wave of unrest … communist
influence is at work … on a fairly large scale … If one could devise safeguards
so as to ensure that these people [the miners] do not pass over into the hands of
others, this would be desirable … The goodwill is there.2
The mineworkers felt otherwise.
The CPSA had made a serious but unsuccessful bid in the early thirties to organize
the mineworkers, but had neither the resources nor the experience in managing an
oscillating migrant work force to sustain its efforts. The security system on the mines and
the interruptive patterns of migrancy made trade union organization difficult. The miners
would return to their homesteads almost as soon as they had been organized, when a new
cohort of migrants would appear. A decade later in 1941, the ANC took active steps to
form a union. Gaur Radebe held the shadow “cabinet” portfolio of secretary for mines in
the Transvaal region of the African National Congress. There were other portfolios
involving the various sectors of government. For example Edward Mofutsanyana, the
CPSA‟s general secretary, held the ANC portfolio for labour at that time. Modelled on
parliamentary lines, when Africans still aspired to parliament although they did not enjoy
its protection, the creation of shadow portfolios was seemingly an absurdity, but it was
empowering in its way. Radebe was already active in the 1930s and until 1942 a member
of the Communist Party.3 As shadow secretary for mines in the ANC, he called a major
conference in 1941 to discuss the conditions of the 400 000 African mineworkers. There
had been a number of conferences before then but the historical significance of this one
was that it did actually facilitate the formation of a durable union. The conference was a
highly representative gathering of most of the leading progressive trade unions, which
elected a committee of 15 “to proceed by every means it thought fit” to build up an
African Mineworkers‟ Union, “in order to raise the standards and guard the interests of all
African mine workers”.4 Radebe was among the members selected as well as
Mofutsanyana from the CPSA.
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 63
The conference was the first among many between 1941 and 1946, when the
tensions between miners and mine owners finally exploded.5 The labour regime on the
gold mines was a topic of angry protest at the epic open-air meetings I attended between
1944 and 1946 at the Johannesburg Market Square and these left a lasting impression on
me.6 Although the meetings were called by the African Mineworkers Union (AMWU),
both the ANC and the CPSA helped in mobilizing mass support for trade union
recognition and improvements in the miners wages and work conditions. The union‟s
engagement with the Chamber of Mines threatened the real relations of power in the
country and the confrontation with the mine owners was inevitably a challenge to the
state, which protected the gold mining industry as if it were its executive arm. The Party
threw its entire weight behind the miners, and along with the strikers and union officials,
experienced the whiplash of the Smuts government as they challenged the migrant labour
system and the awesome authority of the Chamber of Mines, the “spokesperson” for the
major mining houses. The Chamber‟s indifference to the conditions of the miners was
well known and its chronic attention to costs (rather than the welfare of the workforce)
was the subject of many union grievances.
The Guardian described the gold mining industry “as a parasite on the economic life
of South Africa”. This was one of many articles on the mining industry that dealt briefly
with the effects of the industry‟s destructive low cost labour system. The article did not
elaborate on the rationale behind the migrant labour system but noted that the industry
owed its profitability to the maintenance of the mine owners‟ cheap labour policies. The
Chamber, it wrote, “destroys the health of thousands every year and it fights tooth and
nail to stop the raising of wages of Africans because it fears the effects upon its supply of
labour”.7
An elaboration of the labour system would have shown that the supply of labour and
its price were uppermost in the mind of the Chamber, for it was these two factors that
determined the scale of profits to shareholders. The mine owners were aware that the
African migrant entered the goldmines to support an impoverished family in the rural
reserves and not necessarily because mining was an attractive form of employment. He
did not come to the mines for “the good food, the free beer and the cash he receives”, as
was sometimes projected.8 The migrant labour system was the industry‟s golden goose for
perpetuating the low-cost African labour supply and enhancing profits, especially as an
individual miner was paid at the rate of a single unit of labour, with no allowance for the
maintenance of his family. The system, somewhat modified but with a new structure of
wages, and a chastened Chamber of Mines, continues into the present. It was this system
that the mine owners defended extensively but not always honestly when they appeared
before the various government commissions, established to inquire into the miners‟ wages
and working conditions.
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 64
The AMWU‟s demands for humanitarian living conditions for the miners and its
continuous campaigns for increases in wages, struck at the heart of the industry‟s
economic weakness. It was well recognized that the price of gold was fixed by the
international agreement of the world‟s advanced economies. If wages rose and other costs
of production increased, the mine owners could not add that increase on to the price of
gold; this could be done for the products of manufacturing or agriculture, but not for gold.
This led the mining houses at the earliest stages of gold production to act together through
the Chamber of Mines to procure, house, feed and remunerate their labour force as
cheaply as possible. Generally it was low-grade ore that was being mined in South Africa
and the high profitability of the industry depended on the cheese-paring strategies of the
mine owners.9 The Chamber was more than equal to the task of cutting costs. In less than
a decade of mining it created a recruiting organization that spanned the sub-continent for
labour and at the turn of the twentieth century went as far as China to procure unskilled
labourers. They policed the labour force through the implementation of the pass laws
(which the Chamber drafted for Paul Kruger‟s government in 1895), and the mine owners
were protected from “deserting” labourers by the Masters and Servants Act, which made
it a breach of contract, punishable by a jail sentence, for workers to break their contracts
and abscond.10
It was the effects of these devices to secure the workforce at the lowest cost that the
trade union dwelt upon in its first official presentation to the Mine Wages Commission
created in July 1943 to “inquire into the conditions of employment in the mines”. The
commission was established as a result of pressures from the newly formed AMWU,
which presented a 50-page report to it, largely compiled by the union in cooperation with
trade unionist Ray Alexander and her husband Jack Simons, also a member of the CPSA
and a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. In the report they targeted every sensitive
strategy that the Chamber had adopted over the years to maintain its low cost labour
structure.
The report criticised the depressingly low average wage which had changed little
since the end of the nineteenth century; compared the remuneration of workers in trade,
commerce and manufacturing to wages in the mining industry; and showed that mine
wages had increased by a sixpence between 1931 and 1939 while the corresponding
wages of the workers in other sectors had increased by four times as much. It vividly
described the Chambers‟ soulless “storage” of its African employees in sub-human
housing to save costs. Security guards in the compounds protected the mine owners
against the so-called desertion of their employees and kept their workers from trade union
influence.
It was a chilling report in which much attention was given to the Chamber‟s
“housing” arrangements in which 80 men were accommodated in compounds 25 feet
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 65
square in size, and where the bunks for sleeping were made of concrete and had no
mattresses. The details of the miners work and living conditions are well known today,
but never fail to anger and disgust.11 I believe it was infinitely worse than prison and it is
hard to view the system as anything but a variant of slavery. Perhaps that was what the
union was saying when it described the mineworker “as a chattel at the mercy of his
employers”.12 Of course it was not the slave system, but it had many of its elements and
was sometimes worse than slavery. The labourers‟ freedom of movement was curtailed by
the pass laws; their lives were constrained within the carefully controlled compounds;
their reproductive patterns determined by the employment cycle; their families separated
by the refusal of the mine owners to allow the men‟s wives and families to live in the
urban centres; and their physical strength barely sustained by the appalling food they ate.
Njabulo Ndebele in his novel, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, describes the separation of
men from their womenfolk, the men only returning to their homesteads to help with the
harvest and reproduce the family. Some preferred not to depart again, while others settled
down “to the indulgence of memory”, many of them never returning home, “leaving
behind waiting women who sometimes followed their men [while] some women simply
waited”.13
The trade union complained bitterly about the barrack-like single male
accommodation, the separation of families and the oppressive compound managers who
became “brutal despots”. The quality of the food was also a deep grievance. The worst
food supplied by the Chamber was the meat; “a special grade known as „compound
cattle‟, trek oxen that could not find a market anywhere else”. It was inedible. According
to the miners, “the meat is spoilt by storage and is sometimes rotting with worms in
summer: we call it duladula – rubbish!”.14 Culturally it was also offensive. “We are given
uncleaned intestines … [and also] brains which are taboo for our people … The practice
of chopping up the whole head of the animal, uncleaned, is also objectionable to us”.15 It
was a sickening story. There was only one meal a day and as unpalatable as the food
might have been, resistance to eating it was short-lived. Myth had it among the Mosutu
migrant workers that a man would go mad if he eats the brains of an ox or cow. I doubt,
however, whether every Mosutu went hungry in deference to this folklore. The most
edible item was the bread, which was referred to by the miners as “mbunyane intlokaye
kati” – as small as a cat‟s head. I knew it in prison as “katkop” (literally, shaped like a
cat‟s head) which we would sometimes hoard.
The Chamber was unmoved by the union‟s criticism of its labour practices. It
responded by saying that “in addition to the handsome wages of two shilling and three
pence per day, the African mineworker receives a scientifically balanced food ration and
housing valued at one shilling and a penny per day”. 16 It was payment in kind and
probably seen as yet a further financial burden upon the industry. What with the cost of
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 66
recruitment, the administration of the labour system and the unit costs of the limited
health, housing and food, it was a capital loss to shareholders if miners voted with their
feet and absconded from the mines, as often happened when the miners felt trapped in an
alien and repressive environment. The practice of absconding was referred to by the mine
owners as “desertion”, a familiar term in coercive institutions like the military, the prisons
and the mines. On the recruitment of the Chamber‟s workforce, the NRC which also made
a submission to the commission, referred to the system as “legalised machinery for
trafficking in human beings, a system not unlike slavery [which] has long outlived its
usefulness”.17
Rusty Bernstein and Edward Mofutsanyana (both of them soft-spoken intellectuals
on the Johannesburg District Committee of the CPSA) presented the Communist Party‟s
statement to the commission. They urged the Chamber to pay a living wage to all its
African miners and challenged the Chamber‟s view that the wages of African miners were
supplemented by the income of their families in the reserves: “This is absurd”, they
argued, “it would be nearer [to the truth] to state the converse, that the labourers earnings
are absolutely necessary to supplement the income of a family eking out a miserable
existence in the Reserves”. The AMWU had brought its biggest guns to the commission,
including J.B. Marks, the union‟s president, Eli Weinberg (its adviser) and Hyman Basner
(the union‟s friend, lawyer, protagonist and a legendary MP). W.H. Andrews, the
Communist Party chairman was not present, but later wrote in The Guardian of 8 July
1943 that the statement presented by the union was the most impressive ever made on
behalf of the African workers.
Despite the impressive presentations, the Commission reported in April 1944, “that
the Chamber‟s labour policy was sound”.18 It could hardly avoid recommending wage
increases, because these had not changed for nearly 30 years. In the event its
recommendation of a paltry increase of five pence per shift for surface workers and
sixpence for underground workers (on the basic wage of one shilling and ten pence per
shift) only served to enrage the workers. To make matters worse, the mine owners pared
down these recommendations to four pence and five pence per shift respectively and
ignored practically all the other recommendations made by the commission. On reflection,
it would seem that Smuts‟ government had a better idea of the ramifications of ignoring
the miners‟ demands than the Chamber, and agreed to pay for the recommended wage
increases by a remission of mining taxation. The miners‟ wage increases were therefore
simply externalized to the ordinary taxpayer who subsidized the Chamber of Mines. The
remaining recommendations, which the Chamber ignored, would have indirectly
enhanced wages.19 Interestingly, these wage-related increases, off-set by concessions in
mining taxation, might have averted the strike had they been made earlier.
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 67
Following the commission‟s report, the union informally prepared its members for a
major confrontation with the Chamber of Mines, although its immediate reaction was to
formally reserve its right to press for a Wage Board investigation “whose
recommendations were more likely to be acted upon than those of government
commissions”. The next two years were effectively little more than a preparation for a
general strike on the mines. In this, the Chamber relied upon the state literally to defend
its cheap labour system and if all else failed, to order its police force physically to beat the
strikers back to work.
The prelude to the strike was the calling of a number of mass conferences, one of
them held in early in May 1945, the others in April and May 1946. Significantly, the first
of these was held just before the war ended, when strike action would no longer threaten
the “war effort”. It was a memorable delegate conference of miners from all over the reef,
convened by the union to consider their grievances and elect representatives to urge
Smuts‟ government to instruct the Chamber to implement the recommendations of the
Native Mine Wages Commission, released in 1944. The union‟s meetings were really
mass rallies for everyone, also open to supporters of the ANC, the CPSA and the
Transvaal Indian Congress, but the majority of those present were workers at particular
mines delegated to represent those who could not attend the meeting. I remember the
occasion quite well. I was an observer from the YCL and also its literature secretary. The
pamphlets I brought to the conference were almost all produced by the CPSA and dealt
with topical issues, but none that I recall specifically concerned the miners. There were,
however, leaflets that the Party had helped to reproduce on its hand-operated Gestetner
machine. The miners were distinguishable from the other participants by their warm
woollen blankets which they wore over their Sunday clothes, oblivious of the heat in the
packed hall. Among them were indunas (headmen) of the different mine sections,
theoretically “the eyes and the ears” of the mine managements, but they were not all
informers and whatever their purpose in attending the meeting, they experienced the same
poor conditions as their charges, who were often from the same rural village.
Each of the miners‟ interventions from the floor was translated into one or two
languages, and also into English, which had the effect of reinforcing their grievances
rather than endlessly repeating them. One after the other they rose to complain about their
wretched conditions, the low wages, the onerous work, inedible food and the separation
from their families. They were captives of the system – treated like units of labour – and
as long as they worked well at the rock-face or continued to perform the labouring jobs
they were given by the various mine managements, they were of no further interest to the
Chamber. The mine owners had long since calculated the per capita costs of maintaining
the mine labourers at the threshold of subsistence and they would take no quarter from
anyone who wished to upset that calculation. The militancy of the workers was
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 68
impressive, but the lasting impression they left on me was their powerlessness in the work
place, and the awesome faith they had in the union.
The mine owners, for their part, were unrepentant and repeatedly rejected the
union‟s submissions, especially the demand for married miners to live with their wives in
townships close to the mines. The only response from the Chamber was to say that the
union‟s notion of “urban villages” was ridiculous and that “it was almost inconceivable
that any responsible person should advocate the substitution of the attractive and healthy
existence [of women in the rural reserves] “for a native township on the
Witwatersrand.”20 If this response was hypocritical (for the rural reserves were nothing
but poverty stricken) its attitude to the union‟s demand for the recognition of their trade
union was unashamedly insulting. Echoing Smuts‟ fatuous remarks on the readiness of
Africans for trade unions, the Chamber repeated the well-worn myth that “the natives
were not ripe for [trade union membership] and are still in a state of pupilage … Native
trade unions would be in the hands of professional agitators”.21 This further enraged the
miners and stiffened their resolve to strike.
They were in that mood when the union called a number of urgent meetings between
April and August 1946. At the first of these rallies, in April 1946, about 2 000
mineworkers attended the meeting and demanded ten shillings a day, adequate food and
the withdrawal of wartime proclamation 1425, which prohibited a gathering of more than
20 workers without a special permit on “gold proclaimed land” – namely, mine property.
The Chamber characteristically ignored this, although the warning signs of confrontation
were evident from the number of short strikes that had already occurred at several mines
during the earlier part of 1946.
The formal decision to undertake a general strike on the mines was taken at a
memorable mass meeting on 4 August at the Market Square in Newtown. It was a bright
Sunday afternoon, flags flying,; street vendors selling mealies roasted in charcoal in open
fires; the miners conventionally wearing blankets; the participants in the vanguard of the
audience squashed against the speakers‟ platform; an old lorry, with a line of speakers
from the AMWU, the Party and the ANC; a crackly sound system which worked
intermittently, rigged up in front. I recall J.B. Marks, president of the union, explaining
the significance of the ANC and the Party‟s support for the AMWU and telling the
meeting that he was a member of all three organizations: “one, because they supported the
miners; two, because they were on the side of the poor, and three, because they were all in
the struggle together against the bosses”. As he spoke he held up the appropriate number
of fingers on his right hand to demonstrate his membership of each of these organizations.
There was a moment of light relief when he inadvertently blew out his front dentures and
rescued them with the three fingers he‟d raised to indicate the third organization he
belonged to.
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 69
It was an emotive address, prescient in warning the workers to be prepared for
repression and perhaps violence. Possibly, few of the miners present fully appreciated the
gravity of his remarks, which effectively anticipated that the Chamber would stop at
nothing to defeat the strike: “You are challenging the basis of the cheap labour system.
You must be ready to sacrifice in the struggle for the right to live like human beings”,
words that matched the seriousness of the occasion. I also recall the roar of approval
accorded to the veteran union secretary, J.J. Majoro, when he told the gathering that any
further meetings with the Chamber were a waste of time if the mine owners were not
prepared to recognize the existence of the union. The strike followed eight days later.
The resolution to strike was carefully phrased to draw public attention to the
unreasonableness of the Chamber as the country‟s major employer and the validity of the
union‟s demands. It was carried unanimously, stating plainly:
Because of the intransigent attitude of the Transvaal Chamber of Mines towards
the legitimate demands of the workers for a minimum wage of ten shillings per
day and better conditions of work, this meeting of African mineworkers on the
goldmines resolves to embark upon a general strike of all Africans employed on
the goldmines, as from 12 August 1946.22
The decision was subject to confirmation by the miners at (clandestine) meetings to be
held before 12 August at every compound.
It was evident from the relatively large numbers of miners who heeded the call to
strike that there was widespread endorsement of the strike. At the labour intensive deeplevel mine at Robinson Deep and at the New Kleinfontein mine, 100% support was
reported. At least six mines ceased production on the first day and about 32 were affected
on the second, out of the Rand‟s total of 45 mines. There was also impressive support
across the arc of mines along the reef. The union calculated that between 80 000 and 100
000 of the mineworkers responded on the first day (12 August), but the precise number
will never be known. The union‟s estimate, at best impressionistic, was probably too high.
On the other hand, the Chamber‟s count of between 45 000 and 50 000 out of a total 308
000 African mineworkers on the reef, was considered too low, a deliberate lie to
counteract the union‟s claims of success. On the mines where the union‟s organizers had
access to the compounds, the men came out in large numbers and word spread to many
mines where the workers followed the strikers into action.
The depth and sweep of the strike over the entire reef drew a violent response from
the Chamber, on whose behalf Smuts instructed the police to beat the workers back to the
rock-face. Although there have been impressive strikes since then, it was probably one of
the bloodiest strikes in South African history.23 The Guardian reported 30 miners killed
over the four days of the action.24 This figure (which was never confirmed) was probably
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 70
correct, given the serial brutality of the police on all the affected mines. At the Robinson
Deep, Nourse and Simmer & Jack mines the police used batons against the miners, and
repeated the action at the Sub-Nigel mine on the second day of the strike, where six men
were shot dead when they attacked the police for escorting scabs to the mine. A further
six were crushed to death in the panic that followed. The events at the Sub-Nigel mine
were vividly described by Ruth First in the YCL newspaper, Youth for a New South
Africa:
More than 40 policemen went one thousand feet underground to deal with a
thousand [Africans] who were staging „a sit-down strike‟. The police drove
[them] up stope by stope, level by level until they reached the surface … [They
chased them] over mine dumps and through the veld for miles before they could
be rounded up and driven back to the compound.25
The efforts of the Natives‟ Representative Council to stop the police brutality, as seen in
chapter 4, were futile.
Michael Harmel later noted,
the strike had ceased to be merely a strike but had become a war between 1 600
armed police and unarmed working men scattered throughout the reef …
Thousands of unknown miners have been seriously wounded, had their heads
bashed in, their bones broken … All pretence that the state is an impartial
democratic body, standing above the struggle, was dropped. The Smuts
government [had] revealed itself as the agent of the mine owners.26
There is no doubt that this was an accurate assessment of the strike, although it was well
known to us long before the strike, that the state was not impartial. The pain in the
aftermath was intense. There was no other course of action open to the union. It had
exhausted all the avenues for pressing its claims through the Wage Board, the Native
Mine Wages Commission, through “attempted negotiations” and now full scale industrial
action.
The outlook was bleak. The president of the African Mineworkers‟ Union, J.B.
Marks, was arrested the day after the strike ended and the union office was raided. Its
records and membership cards were removed in preparation for a trial in which a number
of individuals in the Party‟s leadership were to be joined with the AMWU on charges of
contravening the Riotous Assemblies Act and War Measure 145 (continuing an illegal
strike). The latter was the least ambitious of the charges that the state could prefer. 27 In
all, 50 people were targeted in the raid and trial that led to a clean sweep of the leaders of
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 71
the African Mineworkers‟ Union and the members of Johannesburg District Committee of
the Communist Party.
Although the Party had provided substantial assistance to the union, the indictment
of its District Committee had more to do with Smuts‟ obsession that professional agitators
were behind the strike than anything else. In his mind, the agenda of the “agitators”
(meaning the Communist Party) extended to conspiracy, sedition, even treason.
Unfortunately all that was missing for their indictment on these counts was the evidence.
The CPSA was thoroughly involved in the strike and aware of its planning, but there was
no attempt to commit any of these acts. For the moment, the charges under the Riotous
Assemblies Act and War Measure 145 were the best the prosecution could do. As with the
Treason Trial a decade later, and some of the other trials that followed in the 1960s, the
only official gatherings representative of South Africa were in the country‟s courtrooms.
In this instance, wrote The Guardian, black, white, Coloured, Afrikaners, Africans,
Indians and Jews sat together in the Johannesburg Magistrate‟s Court.28 It was a novelty
in 1946 but it became commonplace in the next 20 years.
The accused in the miners‟ case consisted of the leaders of the African Mineworkers
Union and the Johannesburg District Committee of the CPSA. In some cases membership
was cross-cutting. J.B. Marks, for instance, was a member of the ANC, the Communist
Party and the AMWU, while Moses Kotane was a member of the Communist Party and
the ANC, but not a trade unionist. On the other hand, Hilda Watts, Lionel (Rusty)
Bernstein, Abram Fischer and Michael Harmel (to cite only the best-known members of
the CPSA) were not members of either the ANC or the AMWU. It would have been
anomalous at that time for the whites to be members of an African nationalist
organization and their presence in the union as non-miners – not even trade unionists –
would have been quite irregular. This did not prevent their working in the closest
cooperation with the union and the ANC. Smuts‟ accusation that the strike was
communist-inspired was disingenuous, inferring that the African workers would not by
themselves have raised any of the grievances brought by the union and that in any case,
the miners‟ conditions were not anything to complain about. The only reason for the
protest, he told parliament, was because of the work of agitators.
The state‟s attempt to blame the Communist Party for the union‟s strike failed for
lack of evidence and the prosecution dropped all the charges against its members,
including the charge of conspiracy and incitement under the Riotous Assemblies Act.29
These charges were also subsequently dropped for the remaining accused, who pleaded
guilty to the single charge of continuing an illegal strike. They were individually fined
between ₤15 and ₤50 for this offence. This was a far cry from the original, dramatic
charges of “conspiracy” and in the event a resounding defeat for the prosecution.
Regrettably, it was a pyrrhic victory for the Left as it was followed by a period of intense
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 72
police harassment, arrests, courtroom battles and unwieldy show trials, unlike anything
the movement had previously experienced.
The union soon reflected on the events that preceded the shootings, arrests and trial
that followed. Almost immediately after the strike, it recorded the criminal indifference of
the employers to the case of the African mineworkers, noting that
practically every communication they had addressed to the employers over the
six years of the union‟s existence had received neither reply nor
acknowledgement. … The pay and conditions of employment were a notorious
national scandal as monthly wages remained at three pounds per month, the same
as it was in 1900.30
The union‟s tone was tense, not so much for the massacre of the striking miners, but for
the intransigence of the Chamber. Year after year, the union had attempted to secure a
response to its demands from both government and the employers, but its efforts had met
with nothing but frustration and contempt. The 1943 Mine Wages Commission had raised
the expectation of the workers, but “their hopes were dashed by the open admission that
the inquiry‟s findings were based on the necessity for the maintenance of the „cheap
labour‟ system”.31
***
Sedition
Within a fortnight of the trial‟s ending, the security police raided the office of the Central
Executive Committee of the Party in Cape Town, its offices in the different centres and
the homes of its members. The Party saw this as a campaign by the Smuts government “to
win the applause of the gold mining industry” in the critical aftermath of the mine strike,
and to punish the CPSA for its sustained identification with the mineworkers over the
years. Initially the Party interpreted the intensification of the state‟s assault on it as a
move by the ruling party to demonstrate that it was capable of a tough anti-communist
stance against its political opposition. As time wore on, it saw the government‟s action as
more far-reaching and strategic than a tough stance against Communism, but rather a
signal that without repression it could not hold the line against the depth of peoples‟
grievances, and “as the prelude to a general onslaught on all the labour and national
liberation organizations”.32
As if to verify this conclusion the police swooped on the leadership of the CPSA and
raided the offices of The Guardian newspaper in all the major cities, apparently to collect
evidence for an impending trial of members of the central committee on charges of
sedition, arising out of the miners strike. The security police searched for papers,
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 73
pamphlets, letters … anything that would bolster the state‟s charges of a conspiracy. The
general impression was that the security police themselves did not know what they were
looking for. Initially the net was widely cast and in addition to targeting the members of
the Central Committee, warrants were issued in terms of the Riotous Assemblies Act for
searches on trade unionists and party members in the various centres, especially in Natal,
where there had been a number of political rallies in support of the miners case. Among
those raided in Natal were trade union leaders G. Ponen, Errol Shanley, M.P. Naicker and
M.D. Naidoo.33 None of them are alive today but they are all celebrated figures. I knew
most of them but not Errol Shanley to whom I was introduced while awaiting trial for
treason at the Old Fort in the 1950s in Johannesburg, ten years later.
The defendants in the Sedition Trial in 1946 were all members of the Central
Committee of the CPSA. Generally the allegations were far-fetched and dramatic,
asserting that the Party had engineered the strike to “overthrow the government of the
day” and substitute a Communist regime in its place by means of revolutionary upheavals
and the seizure of political power by the workers.34 Additional charges included the
training of professional revolutionaries, the education, organization and agitation of nonEuropeans, and some technical offence connected with the contravention of the Official
Secrets Act. Altogether there were eight members of the Central Executive Committee on
trial, among them some of the most well-known names in the Communist Party, including
its national chairman, W.H. Andrews; its general secretary, Moses M. Kotane; Advocate
Harry Snitcher (chairman of the Cape District of the Communist Party); Betty Sachs
(known as Betty Radford), editor of The Guardian; Dr H.J. Simons, a lecturer at the
University of Cape Town; Fred Carneson (secretary of the Cape District Committee of the
Communist Party); Isaac O. Horvitch (former secretary of the Cape District Committee);
and Lucas Philips (trade union secretary). Some of these I would meet again in the
Treason Trial in 1956 and get to know quite well.
Sam Kahn acted as part of the legal team in the 1946 Sedition trial. His co-barrister
was V.C. Berrange, short and dapper in size, but a giant in stature against the prosecution
and a legal “street fighter” of some elegance. He was to go on to defend us together with
ever-larger teams of defence lawyers in the lengthy trials of the mid-fifties and sixties.
The attorney general, Dr Percy Yutar, was the prosecutor in the Sedition Trial and in the
Rivonia Trial in 1964. He failed to convict the members of the Central Executive
Committee in 1946, but 17 years later returned with an even heavier air of theatre to
secure convictions against members of the ANC and the SACP in the Rivonia Trial of
Mandela and eleven others.35
Unsurprisingly the charges against the members of the Central Executive Committee
of the CPSA collapsed in 1946 for lack of evidence. The preliminary phase of the trial
lasted about three weeks and provided a lasting source of information for future historians
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 74
on the role of the party during this period as well as its approach to the trade union
movement and strikes. Jack Simons (who conducted his own defence) told the court that
the CPSA had “made a singular contribution” to creating racial harmony within the
Labour Movement and had encouraged the organization of skilled and unskilled workers;
it was not the Party‟s policy to interfere with the unions or to call strikes. The
responsibility for the anger of the miners rested with the Chamber of Mines who had done
little to address the union‟s requests for arbitration or the miners‟ conditions of work.
Yutar rejected the defence‟s explanation – but not before the accused objected to
irregularities in the proceedings and a fresh preliminary hearing was ordered. This was
held in December 1946 – after which the accused were committed to the Supreme Court
on a charge of sedition.
The court hearing took place a month before the National Party came to power in
May 1948.36 In this trial, the prosecution had for its own purposes, transformed the
African Mineworkers Union into a concealed wing of the CPSA, blithely ignoring the
evidence of their own informers (present at the rallies of the union) and distorting the
prosecution‟s earlier interpretation of documents confiscated during the police raids in
order to prove that it was the Johannesburg District Committee of the Party that had
engineered the strike. Meanwhile, “expert” witnesses asserted that the Central Executive
Committee of the CPSA was responsible for the bloodshed that had occurred during the
strike, as it had initiated the action in the first instance. After lengthy evidence and
exhaustive legal argument the court was unable sufficiently to prove these linkages
between the AMWU, the Party and its Central Executive Committee. Nor was it able to
establish the violence and political revolt necessary to substantiate a serious charge of
sedition. Paradoxically, the National Party government (partly for whose benefit Smuts
had adopted a tough anti-communist stance) withdrew the charges in October 1948,
nearly two years after the initial arrests.
The Chamber, for its part, was undaunted by the consequences of the strike and
implausibly defended its labour policies in a booklet published during the course of the
trial. In it, the Chamber wrote: “Most Native labourers are housed in brick buildings set
among well laid gardens, lawns and playing fields known as compounds … [which] …
tempers the impact of what is to him a strange and bewildering world …”37 The blood
spilt in the strike meant nothing to the Chamber and they continued to project the life of
the happy African miner adjusting to an Elysian world created specially for him by the
mine owners.
However, the strike did not deter the union from organizing the miners and nor
would the spiral of trials (those already held and others to come) discourage the
movement from mounting the defiant campaigns that characterized the 1950s or from
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 75
creating the Freedom Charter, with its strident aspiration of transferring the mineral
wealth “beneath the soil” to the people.
Chapter Six: A Spiral of Trials – 76
Chapter Seven
It is worse in Franco Spain, it is worse in Greece. It was worse in Nazi Germany
and fascist Italy. But this is how it started. The Guardian, 19461
The Road to Fascism
“The Suppression Act” and Dissolution of the SACP
If Smuts‟ government had acted as if it were the executive arm of the Chamber of Mines
during the miners‟ strike, the CPSA identified the aggressive tactics of both the United
and the National Party in the years 1946–48 as the start of a significant stage in the
development of a police state.
The NP‟s path to power had been a tortuous one. In the run-up to Malan‟s election
victory it was clear that the country was on the road to fascism, but there was considerable
uncertainty about the pace and directness of that path. Hyman Basner (“Bas” as we called
him at Frankenwald, the university settlement near Rivonia that we coincidentally lived in
a decade later), was previously a native representative in the senate. A communist in the
1930s, Basner had few illusions about either the United or the National Party‟s disdain for
democracy and their racist post-war rhetoric. It was as if the world had stopped in the
mid-forties and the principles of the Atlantic Charter or the United Nations‟ Declaration
of Human Rights had never been written. His cynicism was expressed in his lively
column in The Guardian. He likened parliament (in May 1947, a year before Malan took
power) to an assembly of sorcerers, witches and warlocks, whose foul incantations
evoked a spectre of bigotry and chauvinism:
Fair is foul and foul is fair … For real wickedness, for senseless malice and
sterile intolerance, for destructiveness of mind and debasement of spirit, you‟ve
got to hear a racist doing his stuff amid the hear hears of his party‟s chorus.2
Basner believed that only a political miracle could save the country from an NP
government. However, he was unsure whether there would be sufficient consensus among
the all-white electorate to deliver the country to the National Party in a single electoral
contest. He envisaged the possibility of an NP–UP coalition, “or a position of stalemate in
which no party would be able to form a government”. His initial prognosis of an outright
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 77
victory for the Malan–Havenga alliance was perhaps the closest the Left came to
accurately assessing the proximity of a neo-fascist government in South Africa. Not until
the very end of the election campaign did the Party itself speculate on the chances of a
National Party electoral victory. It rightly recognized that “as long as the vote was denied
to the African, Coloured and Indian peoples, parliament would perpetuate the present
backward and oppressive system of society”. It regarded its task during the elections as
one of advancing the struggle for universal franchise – “Votes for All!” – “for a social
democracy and the rallying of the people against imperialism”.3 It did not expect an
outright National Party victory but had no doubt that this outcome would represent “the
greatest single danger to South Africa”. The Guardian (increasingly voicing the views of
the leadership at that time and even more so later) noted that the NP‟s open acceptance of
fascist ideology made it imperative “for all democrats” to unite and defeat them.4
Interestingly, the Party, along with the national organizations, still believed that even
though the eleventh hour had passed, an all-party national convention “whose object
would be to prevent splitting the anti-nationalist vote”, was possible.
Basner, who normally had his feet firmly on the ground, had little faith that the
“democratic” political parties would call a national convention on their own volition.
Instead, he called for a strong “organized progressive and working class combination” to
bring pressure on Smuts‟ party to abandon its more reactionary candidates and take a
stronger line against fascist organizations. He was searching for some effective form of
united opposition to the nationalists and in a statement that perhaps was designed more
for Communist Party consumption than the general public noted that
there is no possibility of immediate Socialism in South Africa, there is only the
possibility of immediate reforms in the colour bar and cheap labour structure of
South Africa‟s economy. Any party which will help to industrialize South Africa
and abolish its feudal agrarian structure is a progressive party at this stage in
South Africa.5
But there was no likelihood of reforms of the sort envisaged by Basner, let alone a united
front against the NP menace. The absence of conditions conducive to the development of
Socialism would be part of a later debate on the national democratic revolution which had
little resonance with the situation in 1948 and was not particularly pertinent at that
moment.6 Illuminating as that debate is, it was hardly likely that Smuts would agree to an
all-party national convention (least of all one including the CPSA) or “drop his party‟s
more reactionary candidates”, especially as he had personally instructed them to make
anti-communism a principal plank in the United Party‟s political platform.7 Either the
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 78
movement was on the edge of reality or like almost everyone else, it did not expect Malan
to win.
In April 1948, a month before election day, either in denial of the likely reality of an
NP victory or in an uncharacteristic leap of speculation, The Guardian noted:
Dr Malan is going to lose the election. He knows it by now, as must his followers
… but what is important is that the national defeat should be conclusive enough
to hound [him] and his bankrupt racialism from public life.8
It was not so much that the paper (which was close to the leadership) had been carried
away by the excitement of the election contest that was worrying, but that it should have
misread the moment so badly. The Guardian report was followed by a brief analysis in
which it argued that the proposed apartheid labour policies would be too restrictive for
South Africa‟s fast growing economy and that the industrialists and farmers (mainly those
in the Free State) were riding the crest of a prosperity wave and would not vote for the
NP. For all these and other reasons, the party believed “the Malan-Havenga coalition is
not going at all well”.9
The Party miscalculated on the extent of rural support for the Malan–Havenga
alliance, but could be forgiven for believing that the industrialists were not especially
enthusiastic about the possibility of a highly regulated labour structure, which they
associated with the new concept of apartheid. It was only in the early 1970s that the
orthodox view that apartheid labour policies were antithetical to capitalist growth was
analytically challenged. Progressive sociologists and historians disputed that apartheid
practices necessarily inhibited an increase in profits and argued that at certain times and in
particular sectors of the economy, apartheid might serve to enhance them. The chief
protagonist of this revisionist view of the economics of apartheid was Harold Wolpe who
became a good friend. Harold and I had quite a lot in common, including a very
precarious sense of direction as to streets and places. We had been together in the CPSA
and in the Young Communist League and lived close to one another in Yeoville,
Johannesburg, but it was in London that I grew to know him well and assimilated his
path-breaking analysis of apartheid into the research I was doing on the migrant labour
system.10 This was long after the impending parliamentary elections and the National
Party victory in 1948.11
I was taken aback by Malan‟s success in the elections but I was not alone in this. The
Guardian expressed its astonishment at the outcome, as well as everyone else: “The
elections had taken the whole country by surprise”, it stated. The combined vote for the
Malan–Havenga alliance was 443 700 votes against the United Party and Labour Party‟s
623 500. They had won on a minority of votes but in view of the favourable weighting of
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 79
the rural constituencies over the urban areas, the NP had won the largest number of seats
in parliament, with 79 seats to the Opposition‟s 71.12 It was a narrow victory, in which the
National Party had captured the countryside and “arrived” in the cities, especially in and
around the urban areas of Pretoria and the Witwatersrand. It is a feature of the
“Westminster System” (or variants of it) that the party which wins the popular vote might
often have no representation in government. Malan, a recent convert to parliamentary
democracy was now free to celebrate his triumph. Even Smuts, premier and leader of the
United Party, was stunned by his party‟s narrow defeat, and the nationalists were by all
accounts equally taken aback by the reality of their victory “which gave them
responsibility before they were ready for it”.13
For their part, the NP newspapers could not contain their jubilation and the English
language press that supported the Smuts government either sought an accommodation
with the new regime or sat on the fence and bided their time.14 The Cape Argus,
unconscious of the racial exclusiveness of an all-white election, called upon the United
Party “to close ranks and fight against the narrow racial exclusiveness for which the
National Party stands”. A week before the elections, the CPSA registered its disgust at the
limited opportunities for the whole population to vote (less than one million out of a total
of fourteen million people eventually participated in the ballot). The Communist Party
also expressed its disbelief at the banality of the issues debated during the elections. “If
the adult [African] population was enfranchised”, it said, “this election would have been
fought around issues of real concern to the people, instead of around racialist rubbish and
communist bogies.”15
Yet I had no clear understanding of what it meant that we were on the brink of a
fascist experience. The only thing to do was to carry on, as before! I do not remember
having any specific sense of personal danger. The Party called for objectivity and stoicism
in a tough election analysis and we accordingly followed its lead. Theirs was a sobering
impersonal assessment of the moment, in which the CPSA almost anticipated the entire
nationalist project for the next two decades: “The Nationalist victory”, it said in a
statement, “had given power to a group of men who had consistently threatened to abolish
the basis of democracy in South Africa” and before long would “abolish the Coloured
vote, seek to deport the Indian population, prevent the growth of the African trade union
movement and control the activities of the white and black sections of organised labour”.
Furthermore, the CPSA predicted that the NP government would “prevent the
immigration of Jews or the extension of civic rights to non-national elements”, seek to
“liquidate the influence of Communist elements” and prevent the further development of
the national liberation movement. The lesson that had to be drawn was that “the United
Party had failed to oppose the reactionary National Party with a bold and positive policy
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 80
of its own and had failed to deal adequately with the fundamental economic and social
political issues facing the country”.16
There were some errors in this message. The Indians were not deported in droves
although their entry into the country was formally restricted, and the immigration of Jews
was not overtly suspended. But for the most part these predictions were accurate, even
restrained. The difficulty was to carry on as usual, knowing that the axe was momentarily
to fall and that the security police were close at hand, awkwardly observing our actions,
waiting for a judicious moment to swoop. We knew that there was a familiar pattern in
which the Communist Party was invariably the first victim of repressive regimes.
Momentarily free, there were more questions about the future than good answers to cheer
us. We had written in our election manifesto in 1948 that the nationalist threat to outlaw
the communists was real and that “if we are to judge by the experience in other countries
[the attack on communists] would only be the beginning of a general onslaught against
every form of democratic liberty”.17 Now that the unthinkable had occurred there was no
other course for us to take but to resist: communists did not flee!
That this meant eventual arrest, detention, long trials and even longer prison
sentences was not anything that I envisaged at the time, and I doubt whether many others
did either. The evidence of hindsight is notoriously second-rate, but it seems obvious that
we would be caught “red handed” as the prison inmates would later tell me (unaware of
the delicious pun) unless we were “professional”. They did not need to read Lenin on the
necessity for “professional revolutionaries” to know that illegal work required painstaking
preparation and careful undercover activity, something elementary to anyone who took
“crime” seriously. Yet I would have done the same again, not out of bravado but for the
reason that it was our cause and I believed in it.
We may have been “unprofessional” but at that moment there was nothing criminal
about the Communist Party. In 1948 it was as legal as any other party. At the time, the
challenge was to make the transition from the relative freedom we currently enjoyed to
the more restrictive period ahead; to state the Communist case as best we could, just as we
had done during the elections. But the writing was on the wall. It was likely that we would
soon be outlawed or banned or both: a statement which was previously innocuous would
now be seen to have treasonable connotations. Underground work was not something that
one could seriously practise when the organization was still legal.
The Party was not dissolved for another two years during which there was little time
to become “professional” underground cadres. For some in the Communist Party this was
impossible, even when the underground SACP was formed in 1953 (two years after the
dissolution of the former Party). The majority of activists could not become professional
revolutionaries, especially when there were families to feed and where there were no
sources of income other than through paid employment. Many of us fell into that category
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 81
and nearly all of us in that situation went to jail. The degree to which we learnt to become
effective underground activists (but not technically “professional revolutionaries”) is
evident from the Fischer Trial in 1964, the first occasion in which a cell of the SACP was
exposed.
Fascist Measures
In retrospect, it was clear that our insistence on continuing the struggle irrespective of the
imminent dangers ahead led to the subsequent bannings and proscriptions many of us
suffered. Effectively our involvement never seemed to cease. After the NP came to power
in 1948, the attack on the Party was the least unexpected of the regime‟s actions. Before
then, the new government introduced the Natives (Urban Areas) Amendment Bill, which
set a new standard of callousness in the regulation of African labour.18 This was in 1949,
while the long anticipated legislation on suppression of communism was passed into law
in 1950. Both bills were under discussion at the same time.
There had been rigorous regulations regarding the movement of Africans to urban
areas since 1923 and these had been made more stringent over the years. Their purpose
was to manage the movement of the African urban population, contain African influx in
the towns and cities and direct the flow of labour to where it was needed. The new
regulations were restrictive and inhuman and purported to “streamline” the existing
regulations to suit the labour needs of the major business interests and satisfy the
ideologues in the Broederbond. Failure on the part of a person to satisfy the native
commissioner of his innocence would lead to an order either to remove him from the
urban area, return him to his home or direct him to a (work) place chosen by the native
commissioner or magistrate. The definition of an “idle” person included one who was
“habitually or intermittently unemployed or who because of his own misconduct … is
unable to support himself or his dependants.”
Sam Kahn, still in parliament, told the House that the institution being developed
was not a labour exchange but “something akin to a slave labour market”.19 In May 1949,
there were on average 208 cases of contraventions of the Urban Areas Act per day20 and
according to Kahn, every morning before the court started, the accused were herded
together in a wire-enclosed cage and addressed by the public prosecutor who told them
[illegally] that the court would withdraw charges against them if they accepted six months
employment from a farmer.21 Before Kahn, the Reverend Michael Scott, representing the
Campaign for Right and Justice, and later Ruth First, the Johannesburg editor of The
Guardian along with the reporters on Drum magazine, provided evidence of scores of
slave labour squads on the Bethal potato farms, all of them consisting of helpless victims
of the regime‟s repressive social policies. Many of them were captives under the (Natives)
Urban Areas regulations. In 1947, Scott noted that conditions were in many respects
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 82
worse than slavery. The men were signed up on a six-month‟s contract for two pounds per
month, were housed in windowless barn-like buildings and slept on sacks.22 The new
Natives (Urban Areas) Bill together with a number of other unjust laws, formed the
context in which the Suppression of Communism Act was passed.
The “Suppression Act”
Within three months of their accession to office the National Party government
announced the establishment of a special “secret police” to investigate communist
activities. The political section of the police force had been increased in size (this would
not be for the first time) and plain-clothes police would attend all meetings of the
Communist Party, trade unions and the congresses. This was more of an elaboration of
prevailing practice than anything new. What ought to have been alarming was that it was
all so unashamedly overt. Telephone lines were routinely tapped and surveillance
increased. There was talk that the police were compiling a register of undesirables – a
black list – along the lines of the Un-American Activities Committee in the USA where it
was rumoured that the FBI had listed 100 000 names of communists and sympathizers,
including activists “in the inner fastness of Hollywood”.23 It seemed that the National
Party government was looking closely at Canadian, Australian and US anti-communist
practice. In 1948, the entire national leadership of the American Communist Party were
charged with overthrowing the US government. Howard Fast and ten members of the US
Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee had been sent to jail for twelve months for refusing
to give evidence before a Committee of Congress. Paul Robeson, whose records we
played at musical evenings and whose stirring rendering of the Ballad for America I
chanted for years – although I could not hold a tune if my life depended on it – likewise
defied the US senate, and refused to answer questions.24 There were closer warnings.
H.A. Naidoo, the Durban trade unionist and CPSA leader cautioned: “the communists are
the first to face the initial attacks of a regime rapidly turning fascist” and that the US was
on the high road to Fascism. The more eloquent his expression of outrage, it seemed, the
more remotely we sensed the danger. He referred in dramatic terms to the “notorious
Mundt Bill”, the US subversive activities bill which was so widely framed as to include
any organization with a foreign or domestic policy similar to the Communist Party;
including so-called “front organizations”.
The idea of outlawing the Communist Party was one of a few options the
government could choose to suppress the CPSA. Initially it seems to have looked for a
more effective way of curbing communist activity than formal trials and eventually settled
for a form of legislation that would effectively silence the party. It charged the special
branch of the South African police to provide it with a report on the extent of the nation‟s
exposure to Communism and announced that it had received 700 dossiers of communists
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 83
throughout the country and a list of 300 fellow-travellers. My dossier was possibly among
them. Their thinking was to use the report to institute a public commission of inquiry into
Communism in South Africa, probably by appointing a select committee or a panel of socalled experts on Communism along the lines of the House Un-American Activities
Committee in the US.25 As it happened, the new government decided to consider other
options; it was evidently still feeling its way.
Eventually, the Minister of Justice, C.R. Swart, promised that the steps to outlaw the
CPSA were liable to be “drastic” but did not reveal the details – a bill had clearly not yet
been drafted. He nevertheless gave notice that consideration had already been given to a
proposal to expel all communists from any branch of the public service. This was
probably for National Party consumption as there were no prominent members of the
CPSA in senior government service at that time.26 More seriously, he told parliament that
it had been recommended that the government “immediately consider the dissolution of
the Communist Party” and that “literature of a communist nature would be strictly
controlled.”27 Although this would obviously affect us all very seriously, we seemed to be
inexplicably detached from these threats. Possibly it was easier to express anger at the
spate of repressive legislation that the regime was considering than to deal with the
impact the suppression of the Party would have on our lives.
There was an armful of bills before the legislature to keep our minds occupied, and
if the stream of legislation currently before parliament was to be written into law (there
were draft bills on education; discriminatory measures for Indians; and labour laws in the
legislative pipeline) these would give us much to campaign about. The government had
already declared its intention to deprive Africans of their meagre parliamentary
representation as well as their political rights in the urban areas, and now they prepared
themselves to remove the Coloured voters from the common electoral roll and give them
the same token representative institutions as Africans. For the Asian population, Malan
announced in no uncertain terms that government would repeal the franchise provisions of
the Smuts “Ghetto Act” and provide “special” (unequal) treatment for the Indians.28 The
future seemed bleak. I was nineteen years old, single and an indefatigable foot soldier. My
instinctive reaction was to “carry on”. The early exodus of a few activists had little impact
on me; those who had already left the country had done so quietly, unmarked, almost
unnoticed and their leaving seemed to be unrelated to present dangers.
As it turned out, the early draft of the anti-communist bill in South Africa was not
modelled on the US, but to some extent on the Canadian anti-communist legislation
which gave government “wide and drastic powers” to outlaw any opposition group it
believed to threaten the state.29 Canada had repealed this legislation in 1936 but its wideranging formulation of what constituted an unlawful organization initially attracted the
Malan government who presented an early draft bill to parliament, based on the Canadian
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 84
principles. This bill was severely flawed. It left no organization or individual secure; all
could be declared unlawful for promoting the interests of a particular class or section of
the population. Even if the organization were not banned, a person would be liable to
imprisonment for advising or defending a strike or encouraging political, economic and
social change.30 The Party warned that although the bill was aimed at Communism, in
reality it presented a blueprint for Fascism. It was also too drastic for the two major
National Party newspapers, Die Vaderland and Die Burger. The former complained, “if
the Bill were to become law in its present form it could affect even a good number of
Nationalist members of parliament because of speeches about cartels and private
monopolies”. Mindful of the less savoury extra-parliamentary movements it had
previously supported – which organizations might well resurface under a different
government – the newspaper cautiously reiterated its trust in Malan but at the same time
reminded its readers that “under a government like the present, there is little danger of
misuse … but this government will not always be in power”.31
Die Burger, slightly more pragmatic, wanted the bill to be “more expressly against
Communism” as was the case in Australia, where anticipating conflict with the USSR, the
Party was outlawed as a war measure.32 The government yielded to the pressure and
eventually withdrew the draft in favour of something less controversial. If it had not yet
realised that the spirit of the earlier bill could be recaptured by administrative practice and
ordinary intimidation, it would soon learn this as it gained more experience in
government. The similarities of the new anti-communist draft legislation with the
Canadian product however, were quite recognisable as was the language describing an
unlawful organization. The government did not accept Die Burger‟s suggestion that the
bill be phrased “more expressly against communism” and targeted “any association,
organization society or corporation whose professed purpose is to bring about industrial
or economic change … by use of force”.33 Unfortunately, Die Vaderland‟s fear that the
net would be cast too wide for their party‟s peace of mind should it lose power, was never
put to the test because the National Party remained in office for the next 40 years until the
apartheid regime was dismantled and with it the legislation on “Communism”.
It was not a propitious moment for the CPSA. At the time, however, even the
smallest of “victories” were a boost to morale. It was immensely gratifying to those of us
who felt battered by the incessant assaults on the Left to read Sam Kahn‟s war of words
with the National Party. His verbal offensive in parliament made little impact on the
legislators or on the majority of white South Africans, but it momentarily assuaged the
sense of powerlessness we felt as the government exposed its fascist facade to the
country. Kahn had been elected to parliament as the native representative for the Cape
(West) in November 194834 and from that moment until his eviction from parliament in
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 85
1951, remained a thorn in the flesh of the government. He was sarcastic, witty and
verbally devastating. “The whole country”, he told parliament,
has cause for alarm as … South Africa degenerated into an unsavoury police
state. High-handed police investigation and censorship of overseas mail, police
spying on trade unions and political meetings, are all pointers to a government
with the mind of Himmler, the tongue of Goebbels and the destined fate of a
Hitler.35
Kahn‟s satirical wit and good humour marked the end of an era in which Communist
ideas, if offensive to the white consensus, were not yet proscribed. The Party was battered
but still not banned and its representative in parliament could criticise the neo-Nazi
policies of the government with the abandon of a prisoner on death row. The Party,
however, was fighting for its life; on the one hand, encouraging mass meetings in the
main urban centres and on the other defending its right to exist by dint of reason and hard
argument.
In a mass rally, the first of many united front activities called by the CPSA the ANC
and the Indian congresses, 20 000 people gathered in Durban to observe a national day of
mourning to protest against what was still called the Unlawful Organizations Bill. It was
early June 1950. Similar rallies were held at the Feather Market Hall in Port Elizabeth and
at the Market Square in Johannesburg. I recall the meeting at the Market Square, for
which a team of energetic activists in the Indian Youth Congress, all of whom were
extraordinary young at the time, plastered the city with posters of the rally and distributed
tiny square-shaped leaflets at the Diagonal Street bus ranks. It was there on Friday nights
that we ritually sold The Guardian and publicized future meetings. The mass rally itself,
as I recall it, was a boisterous gathering of thousands of people in the bright Johannesburg
sunlight, a very lively affair, more pertinent to our winning the political war than the
sombre sight of the masses gathering to mourn.
In the imminence of the Party‟s suppression, there were a number of early
obituaries, one of them recording our long record of overcoming “barriers”, tracking the
Party‟s history through two World Wars and the Communist International. Death notices
are designed to bring comfort, but these tended to increase the tension between what Bill
Andrews, the Party‟s chairman, discerned as “appearance” and “reality”. Still a child
when Marx and Engels were in their prime and now in his eighties, Andrews could stand
back and view the scene unfolding with the distance of an intrepid “voyager”. He used the
metaphor of a turbulent river to describe the present conjuncture, urging us to learn to
distinguish the river‟s rapids from its restless currents and to see the rocks as “illusory
barriers that had to be gently navigated”. He wrote encouragingly “that barriers often
seem worse than they are” and exhorted us all to “press on” undeterred by appearances.
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 86
We would discover that the “barrier was merely a sharp bend in the river which when
rounded, disclosed a further long reach of navigable water, to be followed perhaps by
similar barriers which in their turn prove to be but illusions”.36
This was a stirring rallying call to those too young to have pioneered earlier voyages
but there was nothing illusory about the perils of the passage we were soon to confront.
This did not detract from the venerable struggles that Andrews recalled, especially the
brutal assaults from the earliest times that members of the CPSA suffered for protesting
against the intolerable working and living conditions of African workers, receiving prison
sentences for their pains. He recalled the traumas of the aftermath of the 1922 Mine Strike
and the arrests and charges of sedition following the African mineworkers‟ strike in
1946.37 But the era of neo-fascism was different and the assaults encountered during the
long struggle from Malan to Mandela transcended anything that Andrews could ever have
imagined. If Bill Andrews harked back to the CPSA‟s birth in 1921 and its intrepid
institutional forbears in the International Socialist League of 1915, Michael Harmel,
intellectual and professional revolutionary, and also a member of the Central Committee,
communicated an even longer journey, replete with hardship and struggle.
Harmel recounted Marx‟s eventful flight from his native Germany in 1843, when the
young founder of the movement was “hounded from France to Belgium and thence to
London”.38 He recalled the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, the incarceration of
countless Bolsheviks in Tsarist prisons before 1917, “when Lenin had to be sent abroad
by his party to save his life, and Stalin spent years of his life in the bleak waters of Siberia
where he was frequently exiled”. From the accounts of flight and exile of Marx, Lenin,
Stalin and the early Bolsheviks, he recalled the tribulations of martyred communists in
other struggles including Mussolini‟s Italy, Franco‟s Spain, Chiang Kaichek‟s China,
militarist Japan and Hitler‟s Germany. “Attacks on Communists”, he wrote, “are always a
prelude to the destruction of democratic rights and liberties, to the suppression of all
opposition … and [to the] eventual open dictatorship of the most extreme reactionaries of
the Hitler type”.39
These were at once stirring and bewildering thoughts at a time when the leaders of
the National Party and their counterparts in the Broederbond had only just assumed
control of the state. Externally nothing had changed. I went about my business as usual;
there was little sense of crisis in the streets. People pushed past each other, as they had
always done on Johannesburg‟s wide pavements in the city centre, the men often in their
double breasted suits and wide-brimmed felt hats and the women in long skirts, some with
scarves covering their heads. It was winter but as warm as an English summer. Everything
seemed very normal; the trams ran as before, rattling along Twist Street into Kotze Street
past Hillbrow, all the way to Yeoville where I lived, as if that journey home was the way
it was and always would be … I would jump onto the vehicle while it was still moving,
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 87
pay my fare to an idle conductor, and dart upstairs until it was time to jump off 20
minutes later while the tram moved on, a slithery red tube on metal rails. Doubtless,
Africans in the townships made their way back from work in the long, overly full PUTCO
buses wending their way out of the city – the men bearing the same burdens of poverty
and menaced by the same fears of police interference or arrest under a pass offence or
another section of the Urban Areas Act, as before. Possibly Andrews was right; it was all
appearance and the talk of arrest, political suppression and exile, an ugly illusion. At any
rate, it was not long before reality intervened, when the litany of communist sacrifice
encountered over decades became a reference point for the emulation of the heroes
Harmel had written about. “Communism is not … a petty conspiracy”, he stated: “it is at
the same time a profound social theory and a mighty historical force, arising out of the
creation of modern industry, capitalist society and the working class.” Encouragingly, the
final declaratory note stirred us into action: “You can kill communists”, he wrote, “but
you cannot kill Communism.”40 He had appealed to our sense of communist commitment,
to the defence of Socialism and all that we strove for. Fortified by the political theory that
in our view had been transformed into a science, Marxism was the force that would take
us beyond ordinary endurance, transcending mere belief and assuring us that we would in
the end succeed. It provided a sense of certainty, and we sorely needed it.
Suppression
“Communism” in terms of the new Bill was a broadly conceived doctrine, bereft of the
ideas of Marx, Engels and the Third Communist International. Its advocacy in South
Africa was an offence as long as it expounded the doctrines of Marxian Socialism or bore
any of these influences, including violent political, industrial or economic change or the
advocacy of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. Anything relating to this or encouraging
feelings of hostility between “Europeans” and “non-Europeans” was similarly
“communism”. (As defined, communism was a catchword for anything an insecure
government with a fascist ideology, unconcerned with the shades of meaning between one
political philosophy and another, wanted it to be.)
Three weeks before the Bill was passed into law, the CPSA told a Select Committee
of the House of Assembly:
[The Bill‟s] powers are so wide, and the right of organizations and individuals to
present a civilized defence before the courts of our country are so undermined,
that if it were carried into effect, this Bill would constitute a complete abrogation
of the rule of law in South Africa.41
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 88
The reference to the rule of law was an overstatement (at the time) but it was not
essentially wrong to say that the Bill profoundly infringed the rule of law and left it badly
limping. At any rate, what was left of the legal process provided space enough in the
1950s to raise the level of struggle to new heights and to move on to the offensive when
the government would have expected us to be reeling. Interestingly, the parliamentary
Select Committee, at the time of the act‟s making, gave the Party an opportunity to
present its views to parliament on a number of questions that touched on the state‟s
demonic description of Communism. It was a chance to set the record straight on some of
our fundamental values.
A major theme was our response to the government‟s stereotypical view – not
necessarily ours, we argued – of the phrase “overthrow of the state by force”. A literal
interpretation of this would constitute an offence under the pending anti-communist
legislation so we addressed the concept cautiously, as the Australian communists had
done before us. Doubtless, they too had been advised by their lawyers to treat the subject
with circumspection. Mention of the words “overthrow”, “force” or “violence” was
obviously to be avoided, and the concept of force was to be turned gently on its head and
replaced by the blander terminology of “gradualism”. As the National Party attached
some importance to the (coercive) notion of the Leninist concept of the Dictatorship of
the Proletariat – its connotations were seen to be violent – that matter too was sensitively
addressed.
The question of violence, generally, was a seminal one because it was seen by the
state‟s lawyers as likely to accompany any sort of industrial or political change. The
subject of violence would be repeatedly argued before the courts in the Treason, Rivonia,
Fischer and other trials during the next decade. As far as I can recall we hardly debated
the precise manner in which a democratic transition would occur, as we were so
preoccupied with the pending closure of the Party (and the possibility of democratic
transformation was so remote), that discussion of the matter seemed irrelevant. We also
dismissed the CPSA‟s entire submission to the Select Committee as an abstruse legal
argument, a sort of Aesopian exercise to confuse them, something that had no bearing on
our actual interpretation of Marxist or Leninist principles. The subject of political change
was accordingly presented by our representatives to the Select Committee as something
essentially unproblematical. It was a matter “upon which every student of history,
political science, sociology and philosophy should be tolerably well informed”, we
insisted. “Everyone knew that the subject was academic at the moment” and would be
considered “when the time comes”. It was all a matter of “contingency”.
The CPSA cited the Australian position,42 languidly explaining that:
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 89
in the ultimate ideal of [achieving] a communist society, all profess to welcome a
revolutionary change from the present economic system. It is, it would seem from
the writings in evidence, the element of time which must be clearly examined in
determining whether at the present or the near or very far distant future there is to
be any employment of violence and force on the part of the classes for which the
Communist Party claims to speak.43
What should have been confusing to members was that the Communist Party generally
rejected the “inevitability of gradualness” as a socialist and labour doctrine, favouring
instead human agency and class struggle. However, present considerations required a
refutation of the use of violence. Hence we stuck to our earlier submission that the
allegations that the Party aimed to change the order of society by force was “sheer
fabrication”, a falsification of the Party‟s fundamental aims and methods of struggle.
Change would occur quite naturally from the ruins of the old society, we explained, for “it
was clear to all Marxists that a socialist state would emerge from the very nature of the
capitalist economy”. But when? The question was rhetorical. “There is no answer to this
question. History shows that the struggle for communism illustrates the gradualness, the
extreme gradualness, of inevitability”.44 What could be clearer?
Ideology has a life of its own in which there are some propositions that can be
dispensed with only at the expense of the entire theory; remove one pillar of the temple
and the whole structure crumbles. The concept of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (the
DOP in its friendlier, modern form of reference) held that significant status in the body of
Leninist literature. A socialist revolution in which the working class seized state power
was unthinkable without the establishment of the DOP; the former ruling class would
simply subvert it. The concept of the DOP was not initially included in the Suppression of
Communism Bill, but found its way into the legislation because of its coercive con
notations – and because, in the government‟s view, it was further evidence of the Party‟s
proclivity for force and violence. Besides, its “necessity” was a defining (Leninist)
assumption of most communist parties.
The CPSA defended the principle staunchly as it was theoretically obliged to do, on
the grounds that the DOP quite naturally replaced one form of dictatorship with another.
The communists claim that democratic institutions conceal, but do not mitigate,
the concentration of political and economic power in the property owning class,
and that for such dictatorship, there should be substituted the open, undisguised
dictatorship of the property-less classes. They say it is extremely probable that
violent upheaval will ensue when the time comes to effect such substitution.45
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 90
Based on the premise of “gradualness”, in which the DOP would emerge from the
collapse of the property-owning classes, it was an eloquent if long-winded defence of the
Party‟s position.
It is, however, an irony that the SACP today would not have defended the concept
of the DOP as vigorously, because of its authoritarian connotations. The property-less
classes, in the modern South African state of the future would be protected from the worst
abuses of their defeated class enemies by the Constitution and the collective action of all
those who had the political will to defend it. The philosophy of Marxism–Leninism could
evidently remain intact with some reconfiguration of the concepts previously held
indispensable to it; the absence of the Leninist necessity for the DOP might be one such
superfluous conception. In this view, the thinking is that Marxist theory is so rich that one
does not need to eat the whole cow to know that most of the meat is good. However, a
new generation of Young Communists, weary of revisionist theory, may disagree on the
sustainability of working class power without the DOP.
It was easier for the CPSA to disclaim control from Moscow and argue that the
Party‟s affiliation to the Communist International did not formally bind it to that body‟s
decisions than to talk about the DOP. The Communist International (CI) had dissolved
itself in 1942 but in its evidence to the Select Committee, the CPSA insisted that it had
always been an autonomous body operating under its own constitution before, during and
after the formation of the CI. “We have no more been bound by our international
affiliation than, for instance, have the trade unions or the Labour Party or other
organizations by their membership of international bodies.”.46 Technically this was true (a
majority of the Party‟s Central Committee at least had to agree to the CI‟s resolutions),
but officially the CPSA was a section of the Communist International, an obligatory
requirement of the latter‟s constitution, and the CPSA was bound by its rules to accept the
decisions of its Central Executive Committee as if they were its own.47 The Party‟s
Bolshevik discipline and respect for the decisions of the majority of the executive of the
Communist International in the 1930s, led it to accept that body‟s resolutions completely.
It was unequivocal about its internationalism and in pursuit of this principle purged its
membership of those who would not accept that discipline or the CI‟s authority.
However, it was futile to argue with the Malan government on matters of Marxist
theory in order to refute the contents of the anti-communist legislation. Deeply frustrated
at the far-reaching scope of the Suppression of Communism Act, the Party cynically
noted: Anyone could be subjected to ministerial sanctions, banished, placed under police
supervision at the will of the minister … and any one charged with an offence under the
Act will be presumed guilty until he can prove his innocence.”48 In terms of the act, a
communist was anyone who encouraged the achievement of any of the objectives of
Communism and in terms of the act, any liberal, humanist or socially-conscious
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 91
philosophy would teeter on the brink of communist sin. We eventually adopted a
language to preserve our ideological identity by emphasizing the state‟s distinction
between “Statutory Communism” – the language of the Supression of Communism Act –
and the Communism we believed to be our own.
In reality the distinction between the statutory meaning and the way in which we
chose to interpret Marxism made little difference when it came to dealing with the public
official responsible for maintaining the register of named communists. Initially this was a
zealous official called De Villiers Louw, appointed by the minister to identify the leaders
and other activists in the CPSA, deprive them of their civil rights and render the Party
ineffective. His official responsibilities were to complete a register of office bearers,
members and active supporters of the Party who if found guilty of subsequently pursuing
the statutory aims of Communism, would be subject to the penalties prescribed by the act.
Unusually active for a public servant and possibly pressured by his minister he firstly
identified all the members of the central committee, gave them three weeks to make
representations before placing their names on the official register, and then wasted no
time in despatching hundreds of letters to the rank and file members of the Party.
Once placed on the “liquidator‟s” list, it was difficult to get off it. Ostensibly the
public protector against communism, he fingered any political opponent he believed to
have encouraged the objectives of communism, as prescribed by the act. Subsequent
appeals against his decisions proved futile and the archives of his office (probably a
potentially rich repository of fact and fantasy for future historians) appear to have
vanished with the act. Sam Kahn, who unsuccessfully appealed against the liquidator‟s
decision to include his name on the register, perfectly characterized this official‟s office
when he told parliament: “the Liquidator [would] … in the future, … rely on chit chat, on
malice, on innuendo, on gossip, on uncomprehending scraps of paper …” to add yet
“more and more” names to his incriminating list.49
As The Guardian predicted, when the legislation was still in an early draft in 1950,
“if you were only a member or active supporter of an unlawful organization for one
month in 1924 – you become subject to the minister‟s pleasure.”50 I had been a
communist for six years by 1950, first in the YCL and then in the CPSA. Recently (in the
year 2003), I gained access to my security police file marked (NORMAN LEVY: GEHEIM
[Secret]) currently in the custody of the State Archives and now by prescription of time,
an historical artefact. It was a strange and emotionally stressful experience, mulling over
the minutiae of entries that tracked the different phases of my life‟s activities over the
decades; a half-forgotten narrative which had only the remotest threads connecting past
and present. I nervously copied the documents from the folder, including newspaper
cuttings of the Fischer Trial in 1964 and 1965, summaries of the court proceedings, and
an inane extract of the meetings I attended in the 1950s and 1960s and what I was alleged
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 92
to have said. I was sure that some of the “facts” they listed were not facts at all but
detailed descriptions of Leon‟s activities and not mine. The security police never quite
sorted out which twin was carrying out the unlawful objectives of which potentially
unlawful organization.
There were garbled narratives accompanying some of the entries against my name,
one of them, a message I‟d brought from the Congress of Democrats to a meeting of the
ANC in Sophiatown saying, “South Africa is the most unhappy country in the world”. It
was hardly a subversive statement, and I‟m sure that that was not the only thing I‟d said,
but at least they got that part of the message right. There was also a long list of meetings I
was believed to have attended, which to the best of my knowledge was accurate,
excepting those occasions where they had the twins confused. My activist “history”, like
everything else, was written in cold “intelligence” shorthand and more worryingly, in the
ominous language of the objectives of the Suppression of Communism Act. As I leafed
through the pages in the folder, I was astonished to read what information the security
police were privy to and where they had unexpectedly penetrated. In my file there was a
list of persons whose names appeared on the liquidator‟s original register in 1950. The
names had been entered on a consolidated list published in the Government Gazette of 4
July 1986, with hundreds of others added, after the commencement of the Internal
Security Act of 1982. The long arm of the law, if that is an appropriate description for
administrative procedures dedicated to the suppression of democratic organizations,
extended to individuals on Robben Island and in the other political prisons as well as to
the entire diaspora of political exiles who had left the country after the Suppression Act of
1950. The list of named communists included persons in London, Tanzania, Zambia,
Mozambique, Botswana, Cuba and wherever else people had fled. It also followed them
literally to the grave. There was a category of persons referred to as oorlede – “deceased”
– including Ruth First, J.B. Marks, M.P. Naicker and Moses Kotane to mention only a
few of the veterans who died during the course of the struggle – a posthumous roll of
honour initially designed to de-personalize and destroy them.
There are two letters in my folder under the signature of the liquidator, D.P.
Wilcocks, a successor to the first appointee to this office. One of the letters named me as a
member of the South African Congress of Democrats, which was declared an unlawful
organisation by government proclamation in 1962. The “Suppression Act” as the new act
was often known, gave government the power to declare any organization unlawful if the
minister believed it was encouraging the spread of Communism. (This was an enabling
feature of the legislation, a crucial clause in the small print of the act, which allowed the
prevailing minister to proscribe other “non-communist” organizations by government
proclamation, without the need for further legislation.51) The second letter dated 5
December 1966, belatedly listed me as a member of the Communist Party. De Villiers
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 93
Louw, zealous as he was, had not placed my name on his black list. I have not yet been
able to track my security file for the period prior to 1956, which is probably lost. The
subsequent files are all in the State Archives, but not the folder with the information
leading up to the period of the Treason Trial in 1956.
When the liquidator finally caught up with me ten years later, in 1966, the evidence
in my file was much stronger. I had already been jailed for membership of the Communist
Party and still had nearly three years of my sentence to serve. Under the circumstances the
proscriptions on my movements were a bureaucratic bad joke. Oblivious of my prisoner
status he had prohibited me from attending social gatherings where persons “have any
social intercourse with one another”, or from any political gathering in which the
principles and policies of the government might be criticised or from any gathering of
students “assembled for the purpose of being instructed, trained” or addressed by me. In
gaol? As a person sentenced under the Suppression of Communism Act, I was now
(technically) a “Statutory Communist” but the prohibitions were no different in principle
from any of the others who received notices from the liquidator after the passage of the
Act in June 1950.
Dissolution
Despite the clarification of our political values at the sessions of the parliamentary Select
Committee before the anti-communist legislation was finalised, the Suppression of
Communism Act was passed into law without regard to any of our submissions. In the
debate during the passage of the act, Sam Kahn read a statement on the Party‟s decision to
dissolve the organization:
Recognising that on the day the Suppression of Communism Bill becomes law,
everyone of our members, merely by virtue of their membership, may be liable to
be imprisoned without the option of a fine for a maximum of ten years, the
Central Committee of the Communist Party has decided to dissolve the party as
from today, Tuesday 20 June 1950.52
It was part of a terse statement that suppressed more emotion than it revealed, ending with
a prophetic paragraph: “Nothing can stop the people of South Africa in their struggle for
full democracy, for the removal of colour bars, for justice and for Socialism.”53
After reading the statement, Kahn broke the tension in the hushed House, showering
his opponents with taunts that Communism would outlive the National Party, and that
“democracy would still be triumphant when members of this government will be
manuring the fields of history”.54 Earlier, rising to the historical occasion, Kahn had made
the speech of his political career, stating in words that will always be remembered:
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 94
after this Bill will come the concentration camps … and all the sadistic
bestialities for which their Nazi soul mates were responsible in Germany. In the
name of this Bill will come the extermination of people on the vast scale that
horrified, shocked and revolted the civilized world.
At this point, according to Hansard, Kahn was interrupted by the National Party Minister
of Transport: “are you talking about Siberia?” Sam responded characteristically: “I am
talking about your black heart” and proceeded with his prepared speech:
History cannot point to a single tyrant who has lived his life in peace and who has
survived the viciousness of his own tyranny. Hitler died a quavering coward‟s
death, Mussolini went to hell upside down … The history of people‟s struggles
for freedom throughout the centuries has demonstrated that one great truth: you
cannot imprison ideas; you cannot impale peoples opinions on bayonets … and
no amount of suppression; no amount of brutal force to hinder people in the
expression of their political views … will ever succeed. Life will always assert
itself.55
Kahn did not live to witness the revelations of the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission or experience the confessions of bestiality, the judicial killings or the crude
torture at Vlakplaas or any similar “facility”.56 His epitaph is to be found in his
contribution to the country‟s democratic constitution; in his commitment to Socialism,
and in the memorable message he left behind as the party reached its nadir. A life-long
champion of human rights, he would have recognised the Constitution as testimony to all
he had fought for and the Bill of Rights as “an assertion of life after the nightmare of
apartheid” (a phrase he frequently used).
The self-liquidation of the CPSA was a controversial decision and continues to
command the attention of the Party and a new generation of committed communists. In
1950, it fell to Kotane, the Party‟s stalwart general secretary, to convey to the Pary
membership the Central Committee‟s decision to dissolve the Party and dispose of its
limited assets as the act came into force. I remember the meeting convened for this
purpose. It was held in the Party‟s branch premises in End Street, Johannesburg, a cold,
oblong space with large dusty shop windows and a rough cement floor. Here the Party
night school had been held for years. There, I taught potential cadres to read, write and
count every Thursday night before going off to complete my own school homework. On
one occasion I remember standing in front of the class, chalk in hand, blackboard behind
me and watching a face peer through the dirty windows. Its owner then entered the room
to tell Myrtle Berman – the school‟s principal, who was standing close to the door – that
he should be teaching the class rather than me, because he was in standard nine and I was
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 95
a year below him. It was Ginger, who had first brought me to the YCL. That happened
five years before the Party was dissolved, and many of the cadres I coached during that
time had come to the meeting to hear Kotane‟s depressing message. Moses himself had
been the Party‟s star participant at the school in the 1930s but that was another time and
not in this cheerless room where almost everyone I knew was present. It was a galling
affair and Kotane was emotionally at his most distant. It must have been mid-winter in
Johannesburg and chilly outside, but not more numbing than the grim proceedings inside
the room.
The words “liquidate”, “dissolve” and “dispose” (of the Party‟s “assets”) are
impersonal, legal words that mask the emotions that lie behind them. Kotane‟s language
was both corporate and legal as he formally conveyed the Central Committee‟s decision
to dissolve the Party to a tense membership. His manner may have been impassive but the
message was as blunt as an old axe; the Central Committee had considered the unlawful
organizations bill and had agreed that the party should dissolve if the legislation was
passed. The districts and branches would cease to function and the CC would wind up the
CPSA‟s affairs.57 Earlier that day, Sam Kahn had read the CC‟s statement to the House of
Assembly. Kotane now repeated the gist of it: the CC had recognised that as soon as the
bill became law, each one of us would, by virtue of our membership, be liable to
imprisonment for a maximum of ten years. The decision had been “forced upon us … by a
government that represents one and a quarter million people out of a total of eleven
million”. The statement ended on a more stirring note with a reference to the Communist
Manifesto and the First International: “For more than one hundred years … the enemies
of the people sought to crush the movement for social justice … peace and socialism
[and] all those attempts had failed.”58 Kotane‟s address was followed first by a stunned
silence and subsequently by scepticism as to whether the message was really intended for
us – or to confuse the police informers who were likely to have been present at the
meeting.
I was sure that we would receive the leadership‟s instructions later at a more
propitious time, but it did not cross my mind that a collective leadership did not exist and
that we were on our own. Of all the members of the CC only two voted against the
decision to dissolve the Party. Kotane was not one of them.59 A realist, if ever there was
one, he had reservations about our ability to survive under the Suppression of
Communism Act and believed that the organization was structurally unsuited to working
underground. This became the official view a decade later, when a new communist
leadership praised the CPSA for spreading socialist teachings, leading historic struggles
and bringing profound changes in the political outlook of the people. In acknowledging
the tradition of the erstwhile Party, the SACP that arose from its ashes both praised and
damned its predecessor: “Hated, slandered and persecuted by the ruling classes, the Party
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 96
grew to become the outstanding champion of the oppressed”. The praise that was given
with the one hand was followed on the other, by a scathing critique of the CPSA‟s
“legalistic illusions [which] had penetrated into the ranks of the Party, including its
leading personnel”.60
The thrust of the critique was that the former leadership had been blinded by the
state‟s façade of democratic tolerance towards communists. It was more of an indictment
than a criticism, especially the accusation that the former party “had proved unprepared
and unable to work underground”. In the circumstances, the reproach was harsh but
consistent with our style of self-criticism. The authors of the critique were most probably
the same individuals who had voted for the dissolution of the CPSA, and their harsh
words were at best an act of self-criticism, at worst an abdication of accountability. What
I do not believe was fair, was the accusation that the Party leadership had “legalistic
illusions” about the even-handedness of bourgeois democracy, especially in the context of
the whole decade of the anti-fascist struggles, leading up to the passage of the
Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. The CPSA was never a putschist organization
and it did not work in secret. Its formation in 1921 was inspired by the Bolshevik victory
in 1917 and it wished to emulate its success in “[appealing] to all South African workers,
organized and unorganized, white and black, to join in promoting the overthrow of the
capitalist system” – as the Bolsheviks had realised in practical fashion in Russia.61 It saw
itself as a party “rooted in the working class” in whose name it would openly speak for
the whole of society. This was essential for the successful outcome of the Social
Revolution itself – “towards which every step it took must tend directly”.
At its inception the CPSA noted that the struggle was a grim one, often dangerous,
even mortal and it was idle to pretend that it could end in “a drawn battle or an
armistice”.62 Despite this and possibly naïve to the dangers of working legally, we carried
on to the end. It was the conventional wisdom that committed communists did not easily
abandon the Party in the face of danger, any more than communist parties could
“liquidate” themselves with impunity or the “social revolution” be stopped in its tracks.
That is how I interpreted the party lore, a convention more understood than articulated.
Those of us who believed it to be outrageous for the party to “dissolve” itself or berated
the leadership for its “liquidationist” decision, came closest to articulating that tradition. I
did not berate the party leadership or condemn its decision to dissolve the organization,
but expected it to send out signals that we would retreat and later regroup, that we should
not lose hope and that the Party would resume in a more appropriate form. I seem to have
expected more transparency than a vulnerable and beleaguered leadership, under recent
conditions of severe political censorship, could offer. Those signals came three years later
but in the interim I was disappointed and carried on in the mass movement; the peace
committee, the Indian and African congresses, the discussion groups. I was always
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 97
looking for signs that that call from the Indian or African National Congress, that
statement from a prominent trade unionist or that request from the Women‟s Federation,
was a call to the Communist Party.
When the call came (in 1953), the dust of the Suppression Act had settled and a new
leadership – derived from groups meeting separately and secretly in Johannesburg and
Cape Town moved to establish the SACP.63 The new party was formed under rigorous
wraps of cover, opening an entirely different style of party establishment. The new
organization was called the SACP, the name it has today, and was formed according to a
cellular structure in which trust of the leadership and trust of each member of the cell
were the central strands upon which our survival depended. Secrecy and the “need to
know” (meaning that one did not really need to know, unless the information was
essential to the “operation” being undertaken) were the twin standards sustaining the
system. The former party – after years of open activity – could not have made this
transformation if it tried. Although aware of the possibility of state repression, the
CPSA‟s membership was recruited for its left wing convictions but not its exceptional
discretion, its rigorous organizational discipline, or its low-profile lifestyle. Nor was its
orientation secretive; this was the antithesis of how it understood its social responsibility.
If it was to be the champion of the working class and the oppressed, it had to be visible.
Initially, there were numerous references to harassment, even the beating of
communists, but unlike the Bolshevik Party, the CPSA was not a clandestine
organization. It had persevered in the 1920s and 30s despite the police batons and nights
at the Marshall Square prison or (later) in the gaols at Roeland Street in Cape Town, and
Pine Street in Durban. Once it was diverted by the Communist International from its
exclusive concentration on the proletariat, its appeal had become broader and
encompassed both class and national struggles. Its activities were broad-based, intense
and as far as I am aware, seldom, if ever clandestine. From its mobilization of support for
the popular front against the rise of fascism in Europe in the late 1930s, it had bitterly
fought the insidious dissemination of nationalist socialist ideas. Once it accepted its
responsibility for participation in the war against Hitler, it gave it all its energy; acting as
the country‟s conscience for the unqualified support of the war effort and a rational
dispensation afterwards. Its radical message was distinctive and its actions as the party of
socialism had meaning only under its own name.
For a decade before its banning, the Party vigorously campaigned for the withdrawal
of the inhibitive war measures, for the organization of trade unions and their legal
recognition, for a living wage and for workers‟ unity. It made substantial submissions to
the wage boards, not least in support of the AMWU, and stood with them in their
confrontation with the Chamber of Mines, the de facto face behind Smuts‟ arrogant
image. In contesting the elections for the Advisory Boards, the local authorities,
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 98
parliament and the Natives Representative Council, the CPSA sought to mobilize opinion,
take up the pressing problems of the poor and work towards its aim of being a party
“rooted in the people”. The Party formed after the CPSA‟s dissolution drew on its
predecessor‟s identification with the working class and the national movements.64
Undeniably it was that which contributed to its lasting credibility during the struggle years
that followed. The next decade would see a break with the past in response to the
intensification of repression – a change in the pace, politics, organizational style and
strategy of the movement as it geared itself to confront the rapid rise of South Africa‟s
variant of fascism.
Chapter Seven: The Road to Facism – 99
PART TWO
From Civil Disobedience
to Armed Struggle
100
Chapter Eight
Into the Fifties: Defiance
Mass trials and mass action characterised the next two decades. The “Treason”, “Fischer”
and “Rivonia” trials, to mention the most prominent of these, were among the most
destructive assaults on the movement. Together with a state of emergency, police raids
and arrests – and new, more draconian legislation – they played their part in weakening
the liberation movement organizationally. One curious effect of the frequent court
appearances and the quaint antics of our lawyers was to make arrest, detention, court
appearances and court-speak part of our political culture: “Yes, your worship”, “no, my
lord”; “it‟s a convenient moment for an adjournment your worship”; “with the greatest of
respect m‟lord” – the latter implying that counsel intends to drive a bus through m‟lord‟s
reasoning. These incredible, archaic expressions of reverence and infantile regression
peppered our speech and made the dour proceedings bearable. For some of us on trial,
words and phrases like “quashed”, “expunge from the record” and “my learned friend”
became ridiculous embellishments of our daily banter. More usefully, the logic of legal
argument, the different approaches of counsel to the cross-examination of witnesses –
most of the latter spurious, some of them truthful – were simultaneously educational and
entertaining.
Impressions of the elegance of our lawyers – Issy Maisels, Vernon Berrange and
Bram Fischer; and some of the younger barristers – Mahommed Ishmail (later Chief
Justice in the new dispensation after 1994) and Denis Kuny, have never left me. Nor have
my memories of the less-experienced counsel in the 1956 Treason Trial, whose attempts
at cross-examination fizzled out almost as soon as they began their interrogations. On
occasion during this trial, there was a faintly audible “phzzzzz” from the seat next to me
(Leon?) when the interventions of (junior) counsel ran out of steam. But they invariably
rallied and went on to the assault, cutting their teeth professionally on interrogating the
incompetent informers and “crown” witnesses who gave evidence against us. Some of
these barristers are now on the other side of the bench, serving as judges or advisers in our
new democracy. I did not know Arthur Chaskalson then and George Bizos, a school
friend, was still in his early career. These were not exactly halcyon years – far from it –
but in retrospect they were golden times compared with those still to come. Solitary
confinement and physical abuse and long prison sentences were challenges we had yet to
confront. I doubt whether anything is likely to serve as a proper preparation for these.
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 101
Context for Defiance
The decade opened with a wave of anti-communist legislation in which South Africa
proved to be prominent but not alone. From the end of 1946 onwards, the Cold War
created an atmosphere of “anti-red” repression in which the US introduced a Subversion
Control Bill, which we understood provided for the internment of potential spies and
saboteurs in time of war, invasion or insurrection.1 The bill, subsequently tamed, became
the Communist Control Act of 1954 used by the Eisenhower administration against labour
unions. By that time however, the McCarthy repression had generally crippled the Left as
well as the trade union movement and wrecked the lives of many liberal minded
Americans.2 In the United Kingdom a less draconian bill than the US version was mooted
immediately after the war but did not materialize, while in Australia, Menzies promised to
renew the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, which had been rejected in 1946. Like the
other anti-communist legislation, the South African enactment of the Suppression of
Communism Act in 1950 had all the rhetoric of combating communism, but was overtly a
step towards eliminating the most outspoken opposition to its plans. It was a prelude to
the creation a neo-fascist republic that would serve the minority white population. As a
first step, this task was left to the liquidator, whose task under the Suppression of
Communism Act was to ban the former members of the CPSA and those suspected of
encouraging any of the objectives of communism, as dubiously defined in the act.
Since this official gave no indication of the evidence that informed his decisions, and
the data-base of listed communists came from the files of the special branch of the
Criminal Investigation Department of the police, it was practically impossible to
challenge a banning order with much hope of success. It was only a matter of time before
the axe would fall, forbidding listed persons from speaking or attending meetings or
continuing to work openly in their organizations. Failure to comply with the minister‟s
order in the early stages of the NP government meant at least a year‟s imprisonment (and
a maximum of three) without the option of a fine. At the political level the evasion of a
banning order involved an entirely new style of operation that was clandestine, risky and
organizationally destabilizing, as we learnt to sight-read the situation and duck and dive
from police surveillance. After hastily passing the act the government chose to bide its
time and apply the legislation strategically, whenever it felt most challenged: at the height
of a Congress campaign or at a point when its fascist programme was most threatened. It
was then, in the name of combating Communism, that persons on the liquidator‟s list
were ordered to resign from the public bodies to which they belonged, whether their
organizations were trade unions or cultural organizations or nationalist movements such
as the Indian and African National Congresses or those formed by Coloureds and whites a
little later in the decade. The activists fingered by the liquidator at first quite often carried
on as before, thinly disguising their defiance of the minister‟s orders. There was a brief
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 102
period of non-compliance but after that the need for leaders who were available and out of
gaol, able to think creatively and raise the level of struggle, encouraged them to be more
cautious.
The way forward did not come in a blinding flash of light. The policy of boycott
formulated by the ANC for its Programme of Action in 1949 and officially still in place,
offered no real alternative to the state‟s suppression of political rights. The Guardian
became an increasingly important forum for the dissemination of information and policy.
Its editorials, attributable mostly to Brian Bunting, but reflecting the views of the Party
after it was reconstituted in 1952, offered a practical and positive way forward. It was
argued that it was all very well “to absent [oneself] from dummy institutions, to refuse to
collaborate, to refrain from voting in an election …”,3 but the fight for full and equal
rights had still to be fought. The boycott could not be an excuse for withdrawal from the
struggle by boycotting everything. “This was a policy of … inaction which could only
lead to further loss of rights”.4 It was appropriate that the boycott of the NRC, the
Advisory Boards and the Bhungas (rural councils) be accompanied by a programme of
action to advance the struggle for the achievement of democratic rights. This led the
leadership, some more intuitively than others, to consider a more confrontational
approach than that of boycott. Mass action was more threatening to the regime; a strategy
that would leave the ruling party exposed where it was terminally vulnerable in view of its
narrow support base. The challenge for the movement was to turn this reality to its
political advantage, bringing together all the black sections of the South African
population to oppose the white minority regime on what the ANC described as a
programme of action “based on the human rights of all social groups, in consonance with
the United Nations‟ Charter”.5 For this a national convention was mooted.
Events, however, did not pan out that way. The first responses to counter the slew of
repressive laws at the beginning of the 1950 were confined to calls for the abolition of the
pass laws, the cessation of police raids and the repeal of the new fascist measures (among
them the Population Registration Act, new labour regulations and pending legislation on
“Group Areas”) that took the country several steps closer to what Dadoo called, “the
tyranny of a Broederbond Republic”. Something more imaginative and militant than a
convention or an ordinary campaign was needed to contain the pace of the government‟s
assaults. A programme of civil disobedience was eventually proposed to counter what J.B.
Marks described as “constitutional fascism”. “What Hitler had achieved by a putsch South
Africa was getting through constitutional parliamentary voting”, he said.6 One can
scarcely comprehend the struggles of the 1950s outside this context of democratic decline.
The provocations were extreme and fascist bills were churned out at a breathless
speed, each piece of legislation more mean than the last. Kotane, speaking in protest
against the country‟s slide towards fascism wrote with uncharacteristic exasperation: “the
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 103
National Party stood for a totalitarian fascistic republic … that would be ruled by a
president who could be directly and only responsible to God”. 7 It was 1950 and he was
referring to the new racist legislation, in this case the Population Registration Act,
enabling government officials to play God and classify (and declassify) people according
to what officials perceived to be an individual‟s ethnic identity. All this was “to make it
easier for the government to force its apartheid policy on the country”. 8 We boycotted
registration under the so-called “Classification Act” during its long implementation
stages, until it was no longer possible to evade compliance. The Population Registration
Act was the centre-piece of the legislation that made the social engineering under
Verwoerd possible, and preceded the more profoundly fascist Group Areas Act that would
herd the population like cattle into ethnic ghettoes and set off a series of forced removals.
The Group Areas Act came into effect on 30 March 1951 soon after the
Classification Act. It immediately became a target for mass action although with one
exception, no Group Area had been declared by 1954. A Land Tenure Board was set up in
terms of the act and had already held sittings in different centres for the setting aside of
separate areas for various racial groups.9 The whole of South Africa would in time be
converted into a controlled area and no-one (without the permission of the minister) could
sell, buy or lease land from a person of a different population group. Previous
governments had segregated black and non-black members of the population by formal
and informal means since the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the 1950s race laws
segmented the country‟s dissection into exclusive ethnic ghettoes to the extent that today
these residential divisions remain one of the most entrenched features of the apartheid era.
Although this was not the genesis of segregation it formed the concept of “apartheid
space” as the country‟s division into racial zones became known as after 1950. These
racially separated residential patterns continued after 1994 when Mandela took office, this
time not as a result of race laws, but of poverty, an enduring consequence of apartheid.10
Threatening as it was, the “Ghetto Act” was only one among many of the
provocations that motivated the movement towards mass action. Jews, Indians and black
workers were all under attack. The Ossewa Brandwag had previously debated whether
Jews should have citizen rights11 and the Afrikaner Party called for the repatriation of
Indians whom they referred to as “an undesirable and outlandish element in South
Africa”.12 They said this despite the fact that 95% of the Indian population at the time was
born in South Africa. Immigration had almost completely stopped and only the families of
domiciled Indians – and a small number of teachers – were allowed to enter the country
under the amended Immigrants Registration Act of 1913.
On the trade union front, the leaders of the more conservative white trade unions had
formed a new trade union federation to bar any unity between black and white workers.
Meanwhile the Trades and Labour Council from which they had seceded, hitherto widely
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 104
supported by communists, formed a “Unity Committee” which tried to find a formula to
bring the seceding unions back into the fold. But despite the efforts of the communist
members of the council, the formula it adopted was an accommodation with the
conservative trade union leadership, in which the Council‟s constitution was to be
restricted in membership to the (white) trade unions already permitted registration under
the Industrial Conciliation Act. Meanwhile the black trade unions (prohibited from
registration under this law) were to be provided with a parallel organisation of African
trade unions under the framework of the Council‟s newly amended constitution. In the
end, the dissident unions did not return to the Trades and Labour Council (TLC) nor did
the black unions accept the compromise. Gana Makabeni, chairman of the Council of
Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) who did not suffer racists lightly, unequivocally
told the compromising unions that their decision was unacceptable, adding coldly that
“[it] is an astonishing thing that the TLC should take it upon itself to come to such a farreaching decision … without first consulting us and asking if we wished to be organized
in parallel trade unions”.13 As it turned out, the position taken by the leaders of the
registered “white” unions further increased the sense of African isolation and hastened the
mass mobilization of black workers.14
Africans, however, were not the only ones to feel alienated. The proposed removal
of the Coloured voters from the common voters roll similarly antagonised the Coloured
people. Everything the apartheid regime did added to the disaffection of whole sections of
the population, pointing towards the need to bring the related struggles together to unite
the resistance around a focused programme of what the ANC described as “mass action”.
It was much more sensible for the ANC and South African Indian Congress (the SAIC),
now often working together, to cooperate closely. The alternative to this was to conduct
separate struggles on every piece of reactionary legislation which would have the negative
effects of stretching resources, dissipating the movement‟s energy and leaving it without
focus or clear strategic direction.
A national organization of the Coloured people was soon to join the ANC and SAIC
in opposing the apartheid government. The regime‟s intention to transfer the Coloured
voters to a separate voters‟ roll prompted the establishment of the Franchise Action
Council, leading later to the formation of a national organization, the South African
Coloured People‟s Organization (SACPO). Margaret Ballinger, native representative in
the House of Assembly (belatedly) sensing an emergent fascism, aptly described the
government‟s move against the Coloured voters as a product of “a narrow, tribal
oligarchy [who] have used [their] position … to lay the foundations of another system,
another way of life”.15 The Franchise Action Council (in an attempt to arouse political
consciousness among the Coloured people) mounted a political strike on their own in the
Cape. They chose six heavily populated Coloured areas where they stood their ground
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 105
against the government.16 Despite Malan‟s description of the strike as a “successful
failure”, 95% of the shop owners closed their premises on that day and 60% of the school
children stayed at home. Whatever the accuracy of these numbers, clearly many workers
absented themselves from work – despite the bullying by the national newspapers and
threats of loss of pay and dismissal.17
In addition to these, the new laws on urban employment and residential status
introduced in May 1951 prompted the resistance the regime feared. Collectively, the 40
clauses of the Natives Laws Amendment Bill read like a manifesto of civilian terror,
further tightening harsh laws and abandoning due process. Every new restrictive act was
proof of this. The new urban African legislation passed by an exclusively “white”
parliament was certainly legal and constitutional, but not legitimate. It was probably more
stringent than anything in Nazi Germany. Under the new legislation an African person
could be prosecuted for remaining in an urban area for more than three days without a
permit or for more than a fortnight if the permit was to seek work. The legislation may
have reinforced the ruling party‟s illusion of “white” cities in which blacks were at best
temporary wage earners, but it created havoc among the black urban population. A man‟s
right to stay in an urban area was valid only if he obtained a job and as long as that job
lasted. He was “tied hand and foot to his boss” and thrown out of town if he was fired or
if for some reason, the job was lost.18 Men bore the brunt of these laws but women were
also caught up in the consequences when the legislation was infringed. Due process and
the rule of law were tenuous and the minister could imprison an “offender” without a trial
or “perpetually” banish him without a hearing.19 Under the legislation, the governor
general (in reality the Minister of Native Affairs) had the power to divide and alter entire
boundaries or remove a so-called tribe or a portion of it (or a single African) from one
area to another. The regular infringements of the rule of law, the further tightening of
harsh laws, the residual presence of an independent judiciary and the exclusively white
legislature led Kotane and Marks to describe the system as “constitutional fascism”.
Every new restrictive law aimed at curbing political protest was proof of this. Heavy
penalties applied for contravention of these orders, all of which made the idea of
constitutional fascism seem an apt description of the apartheid political system.
The Suppression of Communism Amendment Act was another of the constitutional
assaults on the country‟s lop-sided democracy. This act addressed significant democratic
rights left untouched by the Suppression of Communism Act, passed in 1950. It provided
for the banning of a newspaper or periodical because (according to the act) they served
mainly as a means of expressing communist views. Under this amendment, The
Guardian, Advance and New Age newspapers – frontline organs of the liberation
movement – were subsequently banned. The amending legislation also re-defined
Communism and made the law retrospective to 17 July 1950, the date of the original act‟s
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 106
promulgation. In this new law, the finer points of political diplomacy were shed: a
communist was now one “who at any time before or after the commencement of the Act”
– in South Africa or abroad – “advocated or encouraged the objects of Communism”. In
the case of the Communist Party the amending act applied “irrespective of whether or not
[the Party] had been dissolved”.20 This virtually defeated an important part of the
rationale for the CPSA‟s self-liquidation and made us all vulnerable to the act‟s penalties.
Until then no action could be taken against anyone for activities related to being a
communist before 1950. This had now changed at the stroke of a pen. The rule of law was
in fragments. A parliamentary committee could notify a properly elected member of
parliament, a senator or member of a provincial council that he or she was no longer a
member of that body. The same parliamentary committee could also disbar a person from
office if it declared him or her to be a communist – whether or not that person had been
listed by the liquidator or convicted by a court for the “crime” of Communism. The will
of of the voters could virtually be dispensed with by the decision of a committee, as in the
case the expulsion of Fred Carneson, member of the Western Cape Provincial Council
and Sam Kahn the member of parliament for the Cape (West), both of them popularly
elected and now early victims of this measure. Always with a ready witticism to hand,
Kahn spiced up the debate on the bill, commenting:
There are ten clauses in all. They do not seem to have been thought of or
conceived by one single mind. Clause one and two seem to have been drafted by
Adolph Hitler. Three and four are obviously Goebbels‟; five and six are in the
handwriting of Mussolini … the whole by the Spanish Inquisition, with the
approval of J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.21
His words were drowned out by the catcalls of the nationalist MPs but his point was
made anyway. Earlier, he had summed up the bill with the caustic comment that “a
communist is now anyone who after the commencement of this Act, whether within or
outside the Union, in sickness or in health, in this world or the next, for better or worse,
advocated or encouraged the aims and objects of Communism”.22 The third reading of the
bill was passed in the House of Assembly in July 1951. Later the minister used his
draconian powers of excommunication to exclude Brian Bunting, Ray Alexander and Len
Lee Warden from office, despite the fact that all of them were elected with overwhelming
majorities to parliament.
Another piece of legislation that provided the context for the Defiance Campaign
was the Bantu Authorities Bill, marketed to the nation as a new dispensation for chiefs
and urban leaders. It extended the ruling party‟s version of black government to the rural
areas, cities and towns. It provided for un-elected councils, boroughs, local boards and
village councils, and endowed them with the label of “Bantu Authorities”. These bodies
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 107
would be split into wards in which the people would be of the same ethnic group where
their leaders were expected to think of themselves “ not as [South] Africans but as
representatives of their ethnic group”.23 The chairpersons of the Bantu Authorities would
effectively be appointed by the minister, and so would its members – “after consultation”.
In the words of the ANC they would be completely subservient to the government. In
effect, the government hoped to transfer its responsibility of administering its repressive
laws to Africans themselves. These new authorities would have executive powers whereas
the old township boards were simply “advisory”. The impact of this was that the councils
were to do all the dirty work of collecting rents from marginalized residents;
administering laws relating to overcrowding; preventing unauthorised occupation of
houses; and the construction of shacks and allocating housing where the need was so great
that every decision was seen by residents as arbitrary.
P.R. Mosaka, a member of the NRC (which the bill abolished24) said the legislation
provided for an extension of the machinery of the Native Affairs Department (NAD) to
areas it had not previously reached. It was, in his view, just one more attempt “to keep
down „agitation‟ among Africans”. In its application to the rural areas, Walter Sisulu
described the legislation as part of the government‟s intention:
to bluff the African chiefs into believing that it restored to them the powers they
enjoyed before the coming of the white man … [while placing them] … in a
position which would evoke the antagonism of their people and undermine their
prestige.25
Along with the government‟s provisions for stock limitation (the culling of cattle) the
regime‟s implementation of the Bantu Authorities Act was a serious rural grievance.
Sisulu seized on the legislation to link together the rural and urban struggles and to unite
the country in mass action against what was in truth a neo-Nazi regime.
***
The Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws (1952) and the call for a Congress of the
People (1953–55) had their genesis in the opposition to this spate of reactionary
legislation. While this resistance did not stop the country‟s transformation from
segregation to apartheid, it delayed it and increased the opportunities of the congresses to
mobilize the masses at a time when one would have expected them to be reeling. The first
campaign of nationwide resistance to the “entire apartheid system and all other
discriminatory laws”, was suggested by the Franchise Action Council in June 1951,
initially formed to oppose the removal of the Coloured people from the voters‟ roll. The
ANC, however, had something more potent in mind – a campaign akin to civil
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 108
disobedience, including a general strike against the torrent of reactionary legislation.
Later, the ANC‟s approach was more open-ended. It diplomatically invited the other
national movements to join in a dialogue with it “to discuss methods of direct action”
against what it referred to as “the government‟s aggressive laws and policies”.26 The
Group Areas Act and the whittling down of franchise rights as well as stock limitation in
the rural areas were listed as the major offending laws, but the selection of these was soon
extended to include the legislation on Bantu Authorities, the Suppression of Communism
Acts and the wide-ranging pass laws.27
Despite the harsh nature of other legislation, the pass laws were the most
immediately oppressive. Every day in 1949, as many as 2 7000 prisoners were
apprehended under the pass laws, a significant increase over the previous year.28 Many of
the men from the private jails outside the urban areas in the former Eastern Transvaal
became “slave labourers” on the maize and potato farms, victims of what J.B. Marks
described, as “the heartless pass laws and compulsory endorsement out of the urban
areas”.29 They were therefore high on the list of unjust laws. The ANC took the lead in
convening a joint conference of the executives of the SAIC and the Franchise Action
Council (FAC). The purpose of the conference as the ANC quaintly phrased it, was to
consider “a direct line of action in the light of the present trend of events in the political
field”. The delegates gathered in Bloemfontein in the former Orange Free State, on 29
July 1951. The mood at the conference was upbeat. James Moroka welcomed the
representatives, after which “delegate after delegate got up to emphasize the urgency of
an immediate struggle”.30 As expected, it was decided to embark on an immediate mass
action campaign for the repeal of the pass laws, Stock Limitation, Group Areas, Separate
Representation of Voters, the Suppression of Communism and the Bantu Authorities
Acts. By all accounts the action would be of “historic proportions” unlike any other
previously waged by the ANC or the SAIC. Although the mood was euphoric, the
delegates made some very practical organizational decisions, including a proposal to
conduct a joint planning council of the ANC, SAIC and FAC to coordinate the campaign.
There had previously been unity in action, but not by means of any interlocking
structures. This was a significant departure from the past.
The report of the joint executives of the three organizations was adopted by the ANC
at its annual conference in December 1951 and it agreed to launch a campaign of mass
action in the following year “for the redress of the just and legitimate grievances of the
South African people”. There was a sense that this was path-breaking action which
“would change the course of history in South Africa”. The announcement of the outcome
of the conference was combative and indicated the seriousness with which it viewed the
confrontational direction the struggle was taking. “All people”, it declared,
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 109
irrespective of the colour of their skin, who have made South Africa their home
are entitled to live a full and free life. Full democratic rights with direct say in the
affairs of the government are inalienable rights of every South African – rights
which must be realized now if South Africa is to be saved from social chaos and
tyranny.31
The ANC explained that it was a struggle not directed against any particular race or
national group but against the unjust laws which kept vast sections of the population “in
perpetual subjection”. The statement was made as much for the ears of government as for
the liberation movement‟s own supporters.
What followed was the toughest challenge the ANC had ever laid down to
government. It did not use the words “non-compliance with the law” or “civil
disobedience” which had overtones of civil disruption that might contravene the
Suppression of Communism Act, but its message nonetheless conveyed everything the
regime did not want to hear. “Mass action”, the ANC explained:
would take the form of committing breaches of certain selected laws and
regulations which are undemocratic … and repugnant to the natural rights of
man. Rather than submit to these unjust laws, those taking part in the … action
will defy them deliberately in an organized manner and will be prepared to bear
the penalties.32
The form the struggle would take would be one of organized defiance “for the repeal of
these laws”.33 In the rural areas the people would be mobilized not to cooperate with the
authorities in the culling of cattle and other livestock, while in the urban areas, ANC
volunteers would go into action against the other discriminatory laws, foremost of which
were the pass laws. The volunteers of the SAIC were deployed in defying provincial
barriers; apartheid regulations in post offices and railway stations; and the Group Areas
Act. The FAC would similarly direct its membership to defy the “whites only” regulations
in post offices, railways, stations and trams. It declared that the campaign would be
“based on non-cooperation against certain specified unjust laws … unless these are
repealed by 29 February 1952” – auspiciously a leap year.34
In conveying this ultimatum to Malan, Walter Sisulu the ANC‟s secretary-general
and Moroka, the president, made it clear that the campaign was against the system, and
not against the “white” section of the population. “The struggle”, the ultimatum read,
“[was not directed] against any race or national group” but against unjust legislation. “The
restitution of democracy, liberty, and harmony in South Africa are such vital and
fundamental matters that the government and public must know that we are fully resolved
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 110
to achieve them in our lifetime.”35 Unlike other attempts to communicate with the
government, this one was not ignored.
Quite unexpectedly Malan replied to the ANC‟s ultimatum, albeit in the most
arrogant and authoritarian tone. He interpreted the demand for the abolition of
discriminatory legislation as a demand for miscegenation and the “development of a
completely mixed community”. He would never allow non-Europeans “to have executive
power over Europeans”. Equality was sacrilegious:
It is self-contradictory to claim as an inherent right of the Bantu, who differ in
many ways from the Europeans, that they should be regarded as not different,
especially when it is borne in mind that these differences are permanent and not
man-made.36
Echoing Smuts, his predecessor, he reminded the ANC – with the same sophistry as the
former prime minister – that discriminatory laws were largely protective and that the
blacks would be at a hopeless disadvantage if they were thrown into open competition
with whites. Moreover,
[s]hould the ANC embark on their programme of defiance [and] incite their
followers to defy law and order … the Government will make full use of the
machinery at its disposal to quell any disturbances and thereafter deal adequately
with those responsible.37
Undisturbed by this, the ANC issued a statement, saying that it would redouble its
efforts for the attainment of full citizenship rights and that it had every intention of
conducting its campaign in a peaceful manner. On Malan‟s insulting reference to the
permanence of racial difference, it dismissed the statement with contempt and refused to
be diverted from the main thrust of the campaign‟s message: “The African people would
yield to no-one as far as pride of race is concerned.” The question, the ANC responded:
is not one of biological difference, but one of full citizenship rights which are
granted in full measure to one section of the population, and completely denied to
the others by means of man-made laws artificially imposed, not to preserve the
identity of Europeans as a separate community but to perpetuate the systematic
exploitation of the African people.38
The statement also attacked the legislation on land, “native” administration, the
Bantu Authorities as well as the draconian Natives Administration Act, none of which
was designed “to protect the African or provide enlightened administration of their own
affairs”. The SAIC similarly rejected the National Party‟s attitude to the Indian people as
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 111
“a foreign and outlandish element”. In a letter to Malan, Yusef Cachalia, Y.M. Dadoo and
D. Mistry (all of them prominent national figures and early volunteers in the campaign of
defiance) committed their organization to the action and – in a display of congress
solidarity – declared that the SAIC would join with the Africans in protest meetings and
demonstrations in the prelude to the launch of their joint struggle against discriminatory
laws.39
The enormity of the proposed campaign was apparent to the congresses, but the
likely consequences beyond the imposition of prison sentences for defying the unjust laws
was not articulated. They probably had not clearly contemplated the likely rigour of the
state‟s response to any campaign of mass action. Serious defeat was certainly not
envisaged. There was a feeling that it was the end of the road; that “as a defenceless and
voteless people … [there was] no other alternative but to embark upon a campaign against
all these discriminatory laws.”.40 Besides, the moment seemed propitious and there was
still space for protest, although the gap between what was legal and illegal was closing as
fast as the rule of law was receding. The regime was being challenged as much as it was
being tested.
The truth of the matter was that whatever the form of resistance, it would invariably
draw a predictable response from government; it would either react with overwhelming
force or resort to the repressive legislation at its disposal. It had the power to immobilize
the organizations, remove the leading individuals from their positions, introduce harsher
laws or similarly amend existing legislation to make them even more draconian. It could
also “deport” individuals to unsocial and arid places, or still worse, violently disperse the
peaceful batches of men and women who volunteered to defy the petty racist regulations.
As it happened, the government did all of these, except the last, although there was some
provocation that had a violent outcome in the Eastern Cape. Even then, the idea of nonviolence was so strongly asserted by the liberation movement that it had become a
“principle” shed only with the utmost circumspection.
***
It was not a moment for equivocation and it is only with hindsight that one wonders at the
lack of apprehension (felt but possibly not expressed) at the possible backlash from the
regime. There was overwhelming enthusiasm for the campaign of “organized defiance”
but it was not without its critics. One of the few dissenting voices within the movement
was made by H. Selby Msimang, a founding member of the South African Native
National Congress (the forerunner of the ANC) and one of the oldest members of the
ANC, but not one of the most radical. He was then the regional ANC secretary in Natal
and was present at the 1951 national conference when the decision to “defy” was taken,
but did not raise any objections at the time. Later, he wrote to the ANC outlining his
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 112
points of disagreement. It was a pity that he did not state his objections at the conference,
as his intervention would have encouraged further debate on the strategic direction of the
campaign, the nature of offensive and defensive action, civil disobedience and the style of
the proposed action. “Responsible men” he subsequently wrote to the ANC,
do not declare war unless they have assembled their forces and equipment
because it would be suicidal and sheer lunacy to invite the enemy to action
without the means of defence or power to attack … [The] Conference seemed to
have fallen into the hands of men and women carried away by a powerful current
and in desperation resolved to go under with the entire race … Civil disobedience
is a spiritual weapon … It involves a personal sacrifice … the result of assiduous
indoctrination of the individual not the mob.41
There is no record of a formal reply to H. Selby Msimang, but his concerns,
whatever insinuations they carried, were important.
In a similar vein to Msimang The Star, a newspaper that supported the Chamber of
Mines, wrote: “This is an artificial agitation fostered by false slogans, kept going by
methods alien to the spirit of the great bulk of the non-Europeans in the Union. Whatever
legitimate grievances [they] may have, they are not to be addressed by the systematic
encouragement of law-breaking.”42 The thesis was that if the defiance movement grew it
would make matters worse and play into the hands of the present government who “want
nothing better than to have another stick with which to beat the people …”
The ANC‟s response to these critics was important. It believed that these warnings
were typical of the advice it had received from successive governments for years, more of
the “do nothing” syndrome. It argued that the proposed mass action might provide an
excuse for government to increase its repression, but the option of inaction in the face of
the fascist measures which the campaign challenged, was to allow the reactionary
legislation to continue with impunity. Objectively, the liberation movement was already
under incessant assault from the ruling party, and the planned mass action was the only
viable defence it could offer at that time against an intransigent minority regime. The
ANC‟s declaration (of 20 December 1951) that it would embark on a campaign of noncooperation of certain unjust laws unless they were repealed by 29 February 1952, was a
serious ultimatum to the government, but the two-month stand-off left the way open for a
reassessment of the situation if the regime showed any willingness to end the impasse. If
not, the organizers believed the action would mobilize resisters, educate the masses and
advance the struggle against an intractable white minority regime. Moreover, the
campaign would appeal to all constituencies of the country and allow the ANC to take the
initiative at a time when its responses had been predominantly defensive. If the men and
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 113
women who decided upon the campaign were driven by any “powerful current” these
were the factors that drove them. It was a strong argument, almost obvious.
A more recent criticism of the campaign was that it would not change the
fundamental social relations in South Africa and that it hoped to persuade an ethically
corrupt government to reform through “moral argument and [the] example of the ANC”.
A further criticism was that the recruitment of volunteers from within the organization,
effectively avoided the mass mobilization it sought.43 This (post hoc) assessment ignored
the deeply repressive context in which the campaign was devised and that the aim of the
national organizations, collectively and through mass struggle, was to mobilize the masses
around a coherent programme to force the regime to repeal its fascist legislation. It was
not intended to challenge capitalist social relations, nor could the congresses have been
said to have “recoiled” from mass mobilization, given the reach of the campaign and the
support the action received. At any rate, insofar as the ANC was concerned, the National
Party government had already passed the point of reform through moral persuasion.
The assertion by Selby Msimang that civil disobedience is a spiritual weapon
involving a personal sacrifice, inspired by “assiduous indoctrination of the individual not
the mob”,44 has some resonance with the Gandhian understanding of satyagraha and
passive resistance. Both forms of protest had their place in the history of the struggle, the
first prior to the First World War and the second in 1946 at the conclusion of the Second
World War.45 The Defiance Campaign, which anticipated the Civil Rights Movement in
the US by a decade, was different. Although it involved a non-violent confrontation with
authority by an otherwise voiceless majority, it was not a spiritual action in which
suffering in itself was the desired virtue. Nor was it a quest for a personal inner truth. It
had no place for hatred and abhorred violence under any circumstances.46 The act of
defiance was instrumental and political, aimed at the attainment of human rights for all
South Africa‟s citizens. It was accompanied by hatred of an oppressive system and a
belief (that would only reveal itself a decade later) that non-violence in all relations was
not necessarily essential.
***
Defiance
Local leaders soon became nationally known figures as the effects of mobilization for the
Defiance Campaign became apparent in one region after another and a volunteer system
emerged in which the commanding profile of Nelson Mandela, the national volunteer-inchief, slowly impressed itself upon the country. It was a non-violent struggle, but there
was a limit to which the ANC could stretch the patience of its African constituency who
were in a combative mood. In the interim it became more assertive and inclusive of other
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 114
groups in the country. In November 1952, concomitant with the launch of the Defiance
Campaign, the unity of the ANC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was
supplemented by the initiation in Johannesburg and Cape Town of the small organization
of democratic white South Africans – the South African Congress of Democrats. Its
founding conference was in October 1953. This was preceded in September 1953 by the
formation of the South African Coloured Peoples‟ Organization (later Coloured Peoples‟
Congress, which grew out of the FAC). Together with the other national organizations
they made up the core of the Congress movement. A fifth component was soon added to
that core with the emergence of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU),
to some extent a non-racial labour federation created in 1954, as the formerly progressive
Trades and Labour Council succumbed to the regime‟s policy of racial exclusion, and
barred African trade unions from affiliation as equal partners.
The Defiance Campaign brought the different strands of the movement closer,
giving rise to the concept of the Congress movement, depicted emblematically by a giant
wheel supported by four spokes, one for each national group of the country‟s population.
The concept took time, but once it took root, the idea was enduring. It was a subtle shift in
thinking in which the sum of the individual congresses seemed infinitely larger than its
parts. As a movement, it had its own rhythm and an overarching rationale which
subsumed the broad humanitarian objectives of all the congresses, but desisted from
making decisions for them. Later, it would have a Consultative Committee on which
representatives of each congress would serve and its recommendations (rather than
decisions) would require adoption by the respective national executive committees of the
five congresses. I served as the first secretary of the National Consultative Committee
between 1957 and 1960 and when I could no longer combine my formal work in the
classroom with the real work for the Congress movement, Ben Turok took over from
me.47
***
Transition from the plans on the drawing board to action on the streets was, as always,
unpredictable. The mood on both sides was combative. The state, using its legislative
advantage to cripple the campaign and the ANC issuing its campaign orders with
discipline and precision. In stage one, the struggle began with groups of disciplined
volunteers defying the apartheid laws on set dates in the major cities of the Union. In
stage two, the number of volunteers was greater and the centres of “operation” increased.
In the third stage, which did not materialize, the intention was that there would be mass
action in both urban and rural South Africa, the scope of which would later be made
public. Volunteers who defied the unjust laws would accept jail sentences rather than pay
fines and might or might not be defended in court, depending on the law they had defied.
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 115
This information was published under the name of Yusuf Dadoo in The Guardian. As the
South African Indian Congress‟ representative on the Joint Planning Committee, he was
becoming increasingly involved in the forward planning of the campaign.48
The action would be limited to securing the repeal of the six unjust laws as
previously identified. A more conciliatory government might have realised that these laws
could conceivably have been repealed without undermining the existing racially
segregated social structure. There is no evidence however, that Malan ever considered
conciliation as an option. Yet, the legislation on Bantu Authorities and measures to
enforce stock limitation were administrative and ideological and would not have been
missed if they had been repealed. The Population Registration Act was the centrepiece of
the apartheid project and had implications for the labour structure, trade union
membership, sexual unions and the spatial location of the population, but it too was
ideological – and previous governments had managed to retain white supremacy without
it. Even the pass laws, on which the entire edifice of the migrant labour system was
initially based could go (as they did in the late 1980s) without altering the social fabric.
There were other mechanisms such as labour bureaux that could control the flow of
labour. The Star in Johannesburg was conscious of this, noting that many of the repressive
laws were ideological and not fundamental; that the government had
tightened the screw in such matters as railway travel and the use of the separate
entrances and facilities at various public buildings. But beyond that they have
done nothing tangible to show that they have the key to a solution of the
problems which they propounded to be vital to the future of white civilization.49
The miniscule presence of African and Coloured voters on the common roll was
hardly likely to alter electoral outcomes seriously and the election of native
representatives to parliament was unlikely to present more than a thorn in the side of
government, even if they were all clones of Sam Kahn. The Suppression of Communism
Act was purely an instrument of political repression, an essential accessory, in one variant
or another, of every authoritarian state. Its repeal would either have reversed the trend
towards fascism or slowed it down but it was not fundamental to the social system. Yet it
was hopeless to expect the National Party regime to alter its course. Although still feeling
its way in implementing its understanding of Verwoerd‟s apartheid utopia, the ruling
party was on a fascist roll in which regulation and control were the commanding features
of the neo-fascist state it had in its vision. It would have its Broederbond republic even if
it meant living on the extreme edge of uncertainty, political repression and violence. In
this context, opposing the NP behemoth was bold.
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 116
The occasion for the preliminary launching of the Defiance Campaign was a
“monster rally” held on 6 April 1952, a counter-celebration of the government‟s
enthusiastic activities to mark the 400th centenary of Van Riebeeck‟s arrival at the Cape.
The launch, itself, was initially intended to commence on this day but was postponed until
26 June, while the ANC regions in Durban and parts of the Eastern Cape caught up with
the rest of the country with their preparations for the launch. The slogan for the Van
Riebeeck Day protest was “Save South Africa against Fascism”. A surviving leaflet,
advertising the rally called upon the poor and the marginalized in the urban and rural
areas, and “those suffering under the laws that were rapidly making South Africa a fascist
state”, to come to the rally in their hundreds and thousands. The crowd was estimated at
about 15 000 by the end of the meeting. People had been gathering since early that
morning as successive groups carrying banners marched to the sides of the Fordsburg
Freedom Square, singing and chanting slogans. What was common in those days was the
array of inspiring speakers. This was certainly the case on 6 April, with an assembly of
powerful orators, still youthful on the whole, charismatic in some cases – and most of
them in their prime.
The multiple presence of the Congress movement‟s leadership would soon be
impossible at meetings, as one after the other they were banned from making public
appearances under the Suppression of Communism Act. On this particular Van Riebeeck
Day they were present en masse: Sisulu, secretary general of the ANC; Nelson Mandela,
not yet admitted as an attorney by the Supreme Court of South Africa – this would occur a
few weeks later; Moses Kotane, a soft-spoken orator, speaking in his capacity as a
National Executive Committee (NEC) member of the ANC (the CPSA had been banned
for almost two years); Dan Tloome and James Philip, two stalwart communists and trade
unionists;50 and David Bopape, also a communist, trade unionist and ANC regional
secretary in the Transvaal. Moroka made the final speech, capturing the sense of
enthusiasm that suffused the rally, pledging that when all of those present returned to their
homes they would do so in the determination “that what happened to our forefathers will
not happen to our sons and daughters”,51 Although this was only the pre-launch and not
the official start of the Defiance Campaign, it augured well for the future of the action.
The NECs of the SAIC and ANC met soon afterwards and formally announced the date of
the commencement of the campaign. Meanwhile there was a process of preparation; a
distinct quickening of activity and a combative note in the language that described the
phases of action.
***
Instead of retreating in the face of civil disobedience, the regime extended its ideological
agenda, embarked on policies of social and intellectual engineering (mass forced
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 117
removals, ethnic ghettoes and Bantu Education) and pursued its repressive assault on civil
rights by consistently amending the existing discriminatory laws and making them more
repugnant. In response to the Congress movement‟s defiant challenge to the worst of this
legislation, the government made liberal use of its powers under the Suppression of
Communism Act, choosing the tense political moment to destabilize the national
organizations, cripple the progressive trade unions and prevent the dissemination of
information on the Defiance Campaign to the movement‟s supporters. Strategically, it
banned the prominent regional and national leaders, Kotane, Dadoo, Bopape (by now a
popular ANC secretary in the Transvaal) and Ngwevela, also a communist and celebrated
ANC provincial president in the Western Cape. They were all ordered to resign from their
national organizations, refrain from attending any gatherings and to confine themselves to
their provinces. This had clear implications for the potential defiance of these leaders.
With the exception of a handful of MPs who were clearly uncomfortable with the
polarising impact government policies were having on all sections of the black
population, few inside parliament had any real idea of the tensions in the country. Among
the black population at large, the mood was quite different. There was a backlash to the
banning of the movement‟s leaders, the expulsions of Kahn and Carneson and the
minister‟s decision to close The Guardian. The paper‟s editor, Brian Bunting responded
defiantly, stating that he as editor, did “not accept [Swart‟s] decision to ban the paper as
either just or lawful” and that he intended “to carry on”.52 He delivered on his promise a
week later, introducing to a bewildered establishment, The Clarion, the first of the banned
paper‟s intrepid successors. It was a new tabloid weekly newspaper but in essence a
resurrection of The Guardian that would lack nothing of that paper‟s rigorous reporting
and vanguard tradition.
In its second week, the paper carried Sam Kahn‟s final address to parliament, not so
much a valedictory speech as a lashing of the National Party government. It was an
address that should have served to haunt his political opponents for the rest of their
political lives. Kahn did not live to witness the achievement of the principles for which he
was so summarily thrown out of the House of Assembly, but his spirit will always be an
encouragement to the post-Mandela generation. His words would be a prophecy for all
those in the struggle who were victims of their political beliefs:
Today it is the members of this Assembly who stand in judgment upon us, but it
is tomorrow that history will sit in judgment upon those who condemn us …
What we have here is a mockery. I have had sentence before verdict; I have had
verdict before trial and I have had trial without evidence … I am a victim of my
political beliefs, and what has brought me into conflict with the government
has not been my belief in Socialism or my belief in a Republic, but it has been
my advocacy of complete equal rights for black and white in this country.53
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 118
A week later, on 5 June 1952, a picture appeared in The Clarion of a defiant Sam Kahn
outside the House of Assembly, selling a copy of the paper to the Minister of Justice, C.R.
Swart: both of them smiling through their teeth.
Weeks before the official commencement of the campaign, a number of national and
provincial leaders personally defied the restrictions that had been placed on them.
Possibly the crude attempt by government to silence them triggered their decision to be
the first to ignore the restrictions imposed on them and in accordance with popular
parlance, “to defy”. According to Ahmed Kathrada, the most prominent of the national
and provincial leaders were requested to set an example.54 Kotane was arrested for
addressing a meeting (in defiance of his banning) in Alexandra township. Others decided
to join in a meeting at the Johannesburg City Hall steps with Solly Sachs, the outstanding
veteran trade unionist who had been ordered, together with a number of others in the trade
union movement, to resign from their unions, refrain from addressing meetings and
confine themselves to their respective provinces.55
In using its powers under the Suppression of Communism Act so extensively one
month before the formal commencement of the Defiance Campaign, the regime clearly
hoped to put a brake on the national momentum the campaign had developed. The banned
members responded militantly by expressions of individual outrage at their being
demonised as “named communists” and their loss of political rights. A few days before
his arrest, in June 1952, Moses Kotane wrote about the pattern of events of the previous
few months and the parlous state of the rule of law. “The Nationalist Party has dropped
the mask … of respect for law and order and democratic institutions”, he wrote. It is
“obsessed with the desire to retain state power at all costs … [and] will smash down any
and every obstacle in [its] path to dictatorship”.56 There was anger and more emotion than
one would have expected from Kotane, but the article was nonetheless a trenchant
description of the direction the regime was taking, and a sign of the defiant mood that was
emerging.
Similarly Yusuf Dadoo, in breach of his banning order, told a crowd of supporters:
“We can never give in to Fascism and we shall never give up the struggle for freedom”.
On the platform next to him were David Bopape (still secretary of the ANC region in the
Transvaal) and D.N. Pritt, a veteran British communist and barrister, who witnessed
Dadoo and Bopape descend the platform and walk towards the detectives who stood
waiting for them. The detectives “received‟ the two men gingerly and arrested them as the
audience sang Csikalele Izwela – “We are crying for our country which was taken away
by foreigners”.57 J.B. Marks was similarly arrested in Orlando after telling a singing
crowd of supporters: “The government is out to make our future destiny as dark as
possible and we are bitter.” Verbalising what he saw as a changed situation, he confided:
“A new Congress has arisen under new conditions and under a new leadership, this
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 119
leadership being the African people.”58 Possibly he was referring to the increasing stature
of the Congress movement and the evident support for the current campaign. At about the
same time as he was being arrested for defying his banning order, Michael Harmel was
similarly detained for speaking at a separate gathering on behalf of the Transvaal Peace
Council. The principal speaker at that meeting was again D.N. Pritt, who looked on in
dismay as another activist, Harmel, was taken into custody. (Shortly before this he had
witnessed Kotane‟s arrest).
The leaders‟ defiance of their restrictions on association and speech was the
prologue to the planned campaign against unjust laws. Their defiance was not initially
intended as a phase of the overall action but fitted into the plan and gave it impetus. The
emphasis was to be on mass struggle, beginning with the defiance of groups of disciplined
volunteers in the major centres, gradually increasing in number and areas of “operation”
as the action extended into the second phase (of widening) the campaign. The third phase
(which was never reached) was industrial action. At any rate, the action of the leadership
in going to gaol served as a curtain raiser to the formal launch of the campaign. The court
hearings of these leaders, which preceded the main batches of volunteers going into
action, were indicative of the pattern to emerge during the course of the planned phases of
the campaign.
***
The campaign immediately spread from Johannesburg to the major cities of Port
Elizabeth, East London and to the townships in Johannesburg; a few districts in the
Eastern and Western Cape and then to Durban. Although the triumphal court appearances
and caustic comments from the bench were predictable, the circumstances of the arrest of
each batch of volunteers were different. In all cases the leaders unfailingly made original
statements from the dock, explaining the reasons for their action.59 A surprising outcome
of the campaign was the discovery of the tenuous legality of the petty apartheid
regulations. This became apparent when nineteen “defiers” in the Port Elizabeth area were
arrested and subsequently acquitted after asking to be served at a “whites only” post
office counter. They were released because there was nothing in the postal regulations
enforcing apartheid and no offence had been committed! Interestingly, the absence of
precise regulations on the segregation of post offices had not previously prevented the
state from erecting partitions and setting aside separate telephone booths for “Europeans”
and “non-Europeans”.60
The mass action snowballed. By the end of July 1952, barely five weeks after the
start of the campaign, 1 200 activists had volunteered.61 The state prepared for a case of
grand conspiracy to inhibit any further success and in August 1952 ordered squads of
detectives to swoop on the offices and homes of communists and other activists. My flat
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 120
in Yeoville was one of the many raided in what was the beginning of a series of police
raids carried out on a massive scale with increasing frequency. They were fishing
expeditions, invariably intimidating because of the caginess of the special branch on the
items they were looking for, and always ending with the confiscation of yet more of my
library of Marxist literature. The raids on this occasion were not just fishing expeditions
but followed by arrests two weeks later in mid-August 1952.
In these raids, 20 leaders of the campaign were detained, including Sisulu, Marks,
Mandela, Kotane, Bopape, Tloome, the two Cachalia brothers and 23 year-old Ahmed
Kathrada. They were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for
“encouraging the achievement of the objects of communism”. The formulation of this
charge, in time, became so standard that we could almost compose it ourselves. I think the
ruling party actually believed its rhetoric (restated in the charge sheet) that “industrial,
social and economic chaos would result from alterations in the laws differentiating
Europeans from non-Europeans, especially the extension of the vote to Africans”. The
danger of this was that any peaceful protest against repressive legislation could be
construed as a threat to economic stability and if not treasonable, a contravention of the
Suppression of Communism Act.
The charges against “the twenty” were intended to disrupt the campaign and
intimidate Congress and its followers, but in the end turned out to be a damp squib for the
prosecution. Accused of attempting to bring about social chaos by demanding the vote
and an end to segregation, the accused stood trial from August until December 1952 (with
many adjournments). Eventually, Justice Rumpff (who ten years later sent Sisulu,
Mandela and Kathrada to jail for their “natural lives”), rather impatiently on this occasion,
sentenced all twenty of the accused to nine months‟ imprisonment with compulsory
labour, suspended for two years on condition they were not convicted under the same act
in that period. In the event, the volunteers successfully appealed against the judgment and
the state‟s case came to nothing.
In the Eastern Cape a similar trial took place of 15 local activists, many of whose
names would soon be known nationally. Among them were Dr J.Z.L. Njongwe, older than
the other accused; a youthful Joe Matthews, son of Professor Z.K. Matthews; and 13
young activists (described in a manifesto they had written as militants in the ANC Youth
League). In substance the charge against them (under the Suppression of Communism
Act) was similar to that of the “twenty” in Johannesburg, in which the aims of the
Defiance Campaign were linked with their activities in the districts of Port Elizabeth, East
London and Queenstown. Their trial commenced in October 1952 and dragged on until
April 1953, when sentence was handed down. In his statement, Njongwe summed up the
anger of the youth, expressing their frustration at the government‟s intransigence:
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 121
We feel it right to say [that the acts against which we have protested] were
symbolic of all that is reactionary and uncivilized in our country … While we did
not consider that the repeal of these Acts would in any way amount to an
overthrow of the fundamental structure in South Africa, we knew it would
provide relief to a suffering people.62
All of them were sentenced to nine months imprisonment, suspended for three years, in
line with the sentences of their counterparts in the trial of the “twenty” in Johannesburg.
By October 1952, four months after the campaign began, the number of volunteers
approached the 7 000 mark, causing the regime to act in contradictory ways. On the one
hand there were rumours that the law-writers were busy preparing harsher legislation to
suppress political opposition, and on the other there was talk of feelers being extended to
a number of African leaders in different centres to suspend the campaign. The informal
negotiations, according to the media, were “in order to create the best possible atmosphere
for talks with the government”.63 However, there was certainly no unanimity on the
question of negotiations within the ruling party. Die Burger, organ of the National Party
in the Western Cape saw in this as “the writing on the wall‟, labelling negotiations with
non-European leaders as “dangerous stupidity”.64 Malan, who was more than likely at
odds with his cabinet colleagues on negotiating with the ANC, opted for harsher measures
to crush the campaign. Accordingly, C.R. Swart, announced that he would be seeking
legislation to stop the “agitation” promoting the Defiance Campaign and issued
proclamations under existing legislation, banning meetings of Africans in urban and rural
areas throughout the Union.65 This made the outlook for the future of the campaign seem
bleak, but between the introduction of fresh legislation and the ending of “civil
disobedience”, a new factor emerged that increased international interest in the growth of
opposition to the regime. This was the surprise emergence of volunteers from the “white”
section of the population and an eminent group of volunteers led by Patrick Duncan, son
of a former governor of the country (see below).
The entry of whites into the Defiance Campaign ostensibly occurred after a strategic
decision of the National Action Council to broaden the campaign. Oliver Tambo led this
initiative, informing the media in November 1952 that the participation of whites was to
show that defiance was not directed at any racial group but to “achieve the recognition of
non-Europeans as human beings”.66
It had been an eventful nine months of active resistance from June 1952 to March
1953, in which the Defiance Campaign had been the main preoccupation of the
Congresses. After March there were only a few minor incidents, the campaign effectively
ending a year after it had started. About 8 000 activists had been arrested, some of them
more than once. The continuous “agitation”, as the ruling party described the many acts of
civil disobedience, did not inhibit the regime from reacting with overwhelming legislative
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 122
force to crush the campaign and silence its critics. The ANC, for its part, hardened by the
experience of the last nine months, responded with sharp changes in its leadership, its
organization and a new turn in strategy.
The first change (that had been brewing for some time) was to replace Moroka with
Chief Albert Luthuli, who was elected president of the organization at the ANC‟s annual
conference in December 1952. He was elected by a large majority and took office, rather
poignantly in the circumstances, with a salutation from the outgoing president, James
Moroka, who had lost favour with the youth and his peers in the leadership.67 Where
Moroka was conservative and uncomfortable in confronting state power, Luthuli although
not a radical, was equal to the challenge of the most commanding of authorities,
especially when he felt that the burden of oppression was no longer tolerable or the
condescension of government ministers so dismissive of African pride as to be
unacceptable to his sense of human dignity.
Unlike his predecessor, Luthuli was conscious of status not for himself, but for his
people. In 1962 he wrote: “I regard my life as one among many, and my role in the
resistance as one among many.”68 Although ambivalent about a violent struggle,
according to Mandela he was not a pacifist. He remembered Luthuli saying at Stanger,
where armed struggle was under discussion: “If anybody thinks I am a pacifist, let him go
and take my chickens.”69 He reluctantly accepted the recourse to arms, neither endorsing
the decision nor attacking it “but never forbidding the new path, blaming it on the
regime‟s intransigence”.70 He both listened to and heard the counsel of Kotane, Sisulu,
Matthews, Mandela and Tambo, icons of the century who were all on the national
executive of the ANC, which Luthuli now headed. A visionary in his zeal for the
democratic ideal and in his enduring faith in the attainment of human dignity for all those
he served, he was deservedly followed and regarded as a charismatic leader in what was
to be the most traumatic decade thus far in the country‟s troubled history.
The election of a new president was not the least of the important decisions made at
the ANC annual conference in December 1952. It also adopted an emergency resolution,
which gave the NEC of the ANC extraordinary powers “to carry out any decision it might
consider expedient to assure the continuance of the struggle in any shape or form”.71
Swart was preparing legislation to rush through parliament to end the campaign of civil
disobedience, so the resolution was designed to enable the organization to make plans in
the event of further restrictions on the conditions under which it might work, and to
forestall the debilitating effects of a possible order banning the ANC.
The first of Swart‟s measures was the Public Safety Bill. Accurately describing it as
“a complete blueprint for Fascism”, Moses Kotane called it a prelude to a putsch.72 He
was right. Power was passing from parliament to the ruling party. The governor general
(in effect, the leader of the National Party, acting through the Minister of Justice) was
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 123
endowed with the most astonishing powers to suspend any act of parliament “or any other
law”, except the Defence Act or legislation regulating the labour system. It was obvious
why the army and the labour system were exempted from the Bill‟s provisions. The
suspension of the latter would probably do more to unravel the fundamental structures of
the economy than anything the Defiance Campaign ever contemplated, while the army
would be used to replace civilian government if necessary. As if these powers were
insufficient to suspend the rule of law, the Bill also enabled the National Party
government to proclaim a state of emergency if this became expedient. It was an
Orwellian piece of legislation, purporting in its title to protect law and order but in reality
putting public safety at risk by virtue of its provocative nature. The ANC condemned the
Bill for what it was worth; it was yet another decree by a fascist regime “to impose a
Broederbond dictatorship on the country … It would not only be used to destroy the
congresses but all the anti-nationalist bodies, and enable the government to round up the
leadership and crush … civil liberties”.73
In fact, two overtly violent bills invoking corporal punishment were introduced into
parliament at this time. One was dubbed the “Whipping Bill” (an amendment to the
Native Sentences Act) and dealt with criminal cases, providing for compulsory lashes for
persons convicted of rape, grievous assault and other serious criminal acts. The other (the
Criminal Laws Amendment Act) passed into law in February 1953 was to provide
corporal punishment for civil disobedience. We viewed the first of these bills with great
apprehension at the time, although there was no suggestion that the amendment to the
Native Sentences Act would be extended to “crimes” of civil disobedience. But from the
tone of the debate in the House of Assembly, and the nature of a pending bill to punish
resisters in the Defiance Campaign (the latter was soon introduced) it was not difficult to
imagine that corporal punishment would be applied to these volunteers who defied the
law. The record of the debates on both bills in the House of Assembly read like eulogies
on the virtues of corporal punishment. In response to the debate on the “Whipping Bill”
Alex Hepple, the Labour Party leader, exclaimed: “I listened again to the honourable
member (for Krugersdorp) and I think his speeches in this House would qualify him to be
a leading philosopher of the Stone Age.”74 The offending MP had defended the whipping
of African offenders by citing Solomon Ch 26. 3. “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the
ass and a rod for the fool‟s back”, he declared with great approval from the other National
Party MPs in the House.
But it was not only the National Party member for Krugersdorp and his
inappropriate reference to the verses of Solomon that relished corporal punishment as a
deterrent to criminal and political offences. It was a punishment that had long been meted
out (illegally) on farm workers. Magistrates legally used it against offenders under the
common law. Brian Bunting, who had been elected as the native representative for the
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 124
Western Cape in November 1952 after Kahn‟s expulsion, was the last to speak in
parliament on the latter bill.75 “This sort of legislation and the whole succession of Bills,”
he said, “is the guarantee of a violent future.”76 Earlier, in a memorable maiden speech, he
warned the members of the House:
Social change is going to take place in South Africa … either peacefully without
violence and without bloodshed and without friction against the races. But it is
my charge … that the policy that is being pursued by the present government is
making that desire impossible.77
His message could hardly have been more accurate. Unfortunately, he could say this
under the privilege of parliament but could not repeat it to the public outside, as he was
banned under the Suppression of Communism Act soon after his election. The mentality
of the government was to crack the whip harder while the National Party press was
screaming for legislation to legalize floggings to counter political action. The government
eventually obliged with the Criminal Law Amendment Bill (February 1953).78 Previously,
the absence of such legislation had not stopped a magistrate in the Port Elizabeth area
from anticipating the Bill, and sentencing young resisters under the age of 21 years to
canings.79 Corporal punishment was frequently used well before the introduction of the
new legislation, despite opposition from liberal-minded reformists. One of them (A.W.
Hoernle) told the government during a commission on penal reform: “the use of the cat is
barbaric … While the world condemns corporal punishment, South Africa is making it
compulsory”.
The new bill was described by the media “as a descent towards barbarism” – as if we
were not already in a state of nature. The new measure brought stiff changes to the
criminal justice system, including the introduction of floggings for civil disobedience. It
literally criminalized black political opposition, and left Congress volunteers who
protested against the country‟s legislation vulnerable to harsh sentences of up to a
maximum of three years in jail or a combination of ten strokes and a term of
imprisonment. There was provision for yet stiffer sentences for civil disobedience – a fine
of ₤500 or five years in jail and fifteen strokes – or a combination of punishments. As it
was usual for volunteers to defy more than once, the new measure provided that in the
case of second offenders, “the courts would not be competent to impose a fine only”. A
whipping and a fine were thought to be more appropriate.80 Supporters of the Congress
movement who assisted others to protest against a law were also liable to a combination
of the same harsh sentences. It was unclear who would fall under this category besides the
“defiers” themselves. Was it the supportive crowds who gathered on the streets to cheer
the resisters or the voluble spectators in a courtroom? Even the volunteers who ferried the
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 125
“defiers” to their sites of operation and brought the resisters food while they waited to be
arrested were vulnerable.
Assessing the Campaign
Ironically, the momentum of the campaign had tapered off somewhat by March 1953
when these bills were introduced into parliament and the continuance of the campaign
was debatable. In reviewing the Defiance Campaign in December 1953, Chief Luthuli‟s
tolerance had been stretched to the limit. So much had happened in the year since he had
been elected ANC president, not least his summary deposition as chief of the Umvoti
Mission Reserve, a position he had held since 1936. He could no longer refrain from
passing moral judgment on those who stood by – either in denial of the relentless
oppression of blacks by the regime – or on those who were aware of the brutality of the
successive acts of government and by their silence condoned it. One had to work openly
for freedom, he believed, “or be guilty of directly or indirectly assisting the National Party
in its … unmitigated suppression of the non-white peoples”.81 The campaign had not
succeeded in forcing the government to repeal the six symbolic acts against which it had
been fought, but he felt it had to be assessed in wider terms that reflected its impact on the
people, their willingness to accept the leadership of the ANC and the added capacity it
gave them to renew the struggle. He was quick to note that the Defiance Campaign
showed “that there were weak links in our chain”, but he preferred not to list them, and
dwelt instead on the strengths it revealed. In his view, these would ultimately prove to be
more important. They included the support the campaign had rallied; its large appeal and
its positive effect on the political consciousness of the people. “The Campaign itself came
to an untimely end”, he wrote, “but it left a new climate and it embraced people far
beyond our range of vision”.82
This was true. The Defiance Campaign had not been “historic” in the anticipated
triumph of the repeal of racist laws, but it had helped to create a new mood, a new
scenario for multi-racial opposition to the regime and above all, had changed the
perception of the ANC among the African masses. The campaign, Luthuli wrote, “had
succeeded in creating among a very large number of Africans the spirit of militant
defiance”. This also was the movement‟s official response.83
Walter Sisulu argued differently and his points were persuasive. He believed that the
campaign had lifted the freedom struggle to a new level of intensity, “higher than any
previous struggle”, but he thought it was historic for this and other more tangible reasons.
“No matter what anyone feels or thinks about the Defiance Campaign”, he said towards
the end of the action, “the fact is that it changed the political life in South Africa”. 84 In his
view, the campaign had had an impact on the organizational development of the ANC and
fostered a new level of interracial unity, polarizing the struggle between those who
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 126
supported human rights and those who wished to retain the status quo. It had created
strong and reliable voluntary workers and in “1952 the Congress membership shot up to
more than 100 000 – an increase of more than 75% over the previous year …
strengthening our ties, as the major group in the country, with the other national groups”.
Sisulu was particularly encouraged by the addition of the Congress of Democrats to the
Congress movement. He told the ANC in April 1953:
I particularly welcome the COD in the democratic camp because their presence
challenges directly the contention of the racists from the “Nats” to the Liberals
that the liberation of the African is an express or implied threat to the Europeans
of the country. There is now a clear [direction] in the country which admits of no
middle groups and fence sitters.85
What Luthuli, Sisulu and others had captured (and this was notable from the
statements of volunteers to the court during their trials) was what Michael Dingake, a new
recruit to the ANC caught in his lively autobiography, My Fight against Apartheid
(1987): “Something needed to be done!”, he wrote. “The Defiance Campaign was the
right action. Arrest us! Kill us! Eat us if you will! The way you destroy human lives you
must be cannibals … It was my mood. Frustrated, angry and reckless.”86 I knew Dingake
from a fateful meeting before my arrest in 1964 and subsequent sentence in the Fischer
Trial. If he had not had his wits about him and gone into hiding at the time of our arrests
we would have been on trial together. Later, when I was already serving my sentence, he
was detained in solitary confinement in the African section at the Pretoria Local Prison – I
did not know it then, but we were neighbours!
Looking back, I wonder whether Sisulu‟s assessment was too uncritical to be
credible, and whether the effectiveness of the campaign had been overstressed. It was not
immediately clear that the impact on the people had been as widespread or deep as the
leadership suggested. I think it was true that the dedication and discipline of the ANC
membership had been proven “top down and bottom up”. But that on its own was not
sufficient to make the occasion “historic”. How far had the campaign been a mass
struggle, involving South Africa‟s millions as opposed to the core of its membership and
committed leaders? The court scenes and public support of Africans in particular was
evident but what impact had it had on Africans as a whole and on the “white consensus?”
Either the whites were so complaisant as to treat a campaign as important as civil
disobedience as of little consequence to their continued security – or they were in denial
of the turbulence in the country – and just ignored the regular reports of the Defiance
Campaign in the media. The white establishment seemed as intact as ever – monolithic.
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 127
An Afterword on the Volunteers
At least a monograph is needed to convey the excitement and the expectations of the
Defiance Campaign and the collective acts of courage of the volunteers in the campaign .
Few of the biographical accounts of the time have done sufficient justice to their sacrifice
and commitment, which was at its height in March 1953 when it tapered off with the
introduction of harsher legislation and successive acts of serial banning of the Congress
leadership. Only the perspective of the Congress organizations and a few of the actions of
the volunteers are noted here, but the history of this less celebrated aspect of civil
disobedience by the volunteers deserves more attention.87
The instructions of the National Action Council were quite explicit:
In all the main centres in the Union, organized groups of Indian, African and
Coloured people will go into action on 26 June and will deliberately break
discriminatory laws such as apartheid in trains, buses and at post offices; the pass
laws; curfew regulations; cattle culling; and regulations preventing Indians from
crossing from one province to another.88
Moroka, still the president of the ANC (soon to be superseded by Chief Luthuli)
passionately defended the action. With an impatience that reflected his own frustration
and the exasperation he sensed among his peers within the leadership, he told a mass
meeting of 10 000 people immediately after the NEC‟s had held a joint meeting:
Both the National Party and United Party regard us as their perpetual inferiors.
All of them have steadfastly upheld a policy of discrimination against the
Africans and have never differed in their policy of discrimination … There is no
alternative [to the launching of the Defiance Campaign] because we are disarmed
and unrepresented. Our national leaders are ignored and their warnings are not
heeded.89
There was, I believe, a new mood of militancy in the air that tested the tenets of
white privilege and engendered feelings of defiance against authority. This was apparent
from the preparatory stages of the campaign. Kotane, Marks, Bopape, Dadoo and Bhoola,
the latter a spirited resister of twenty-two who was arrested with them, were tried in close
succession. All except Yusuf Dadoo were sentenced to four months imprisonment. As
Yusuf was described (by the prosecution) as “a sixth time previous offender”, he was
given an extra six months sentence for contravening the Suppression of Communism Act
under which he was banned from attending and speaking at gatherings. Each of the
accused made statements from the dock: Kotane acquitted himself well with an eloquent
defence of his action, while J.B. Marks summed up the general feeling of the accused by
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 128
bluntly telling the court: “As this order condemned me without trial, I had no alternative
but to demonstrate my fundamental indignation against the intolerable conditions placed
upon me and thereby raise the cry of justice.” In his statement, Bhoola, who was arrested
with Dadoo, invited the magistrate “to take a trip to the township and walk through the
segregated streets and bazaars and see how our young people live”.90 Dadoo, more
didactic on this occasion than the others, told the magistrate: “Laws in the making [over]
which we have no say and which are bad and unjust, cannot be tacitly approved [and]
must be fought by every legitimate means.” 91 Fortunately, none of them served their
sentences as they successfully appealed against the judgments and were acquitted on
technical grounds. Their trials, as well as the subsequent trial of Harmel, coincided with
those of the batches of volunteers amid the same “unprecedented” scenes inside and
outside the court.
With the formal start of the campaign, Sisulu and Nana Sita, president of the
Transvaal Indian Congress, led the first contingent of 50 volunteers to jail on 26 June
1952. A veteran of the 1946 passive resistance campaign, Sita was the official leader of
the batch, though Sisulu (drawn into this particular operation at the last moment) played a
prominent part in the proceedings. The court scenes during this case and the others that
followed seemed theatrical while the sentences were nominal and the magistrates
reluctant to convict the volunteers. The trial of Sisulu‟s batch followed a month after the
action, which took place with a little drama and some farce, as the police hesitated to
arrest the volunteers in the small reef town of Boksburg. Sisulu and 38 fellow African
activists were charged with failing to produce a pass – to which they pleaded guilty. Sita‟s
volunteers (all of them Indian) were charged with illegally entering the African section of
the location without a permit – and similarly pleaded guilty. Each was sentenced to seven
days imprisonment or a fine of ₤1 but (with a single exception) they all declined to pay
the fine, opting to serve the week‟s sentence. Straining to be heard above the applause,
Sisulu told the court: “My duty is clear – it is to take the lead and to share with the
humblest of my countrymen, the crushing burden imposed on us because of the colour of
our skins.”92
In contrast, the dignified atmosphere during this trial was followed about a week
later, by the trial of Flag Boshielo and his volunteers, in what seemed like scenes from a
lively political rally. The corridors of the court were crowded with ANC supporters who
noisily clamoured to be admitted to the gallery where a large number of very vocal
followers were already seated. The magistrate dismissed the request for additional seating
for the spectators and derisively reminded the accused that they were in a courtroom and
“not a bioscope!” Boshielo and his 52 co-volunteers, were charged with contravening the
curfew regulations in Johannesburg but the magistrate, clearly reluctant to give any
impetus to the campaign by obliging the volunteers with the prison term they expected,
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 129
ruled that since the accused had not been asked to show their passes, there had been no
breach of the law! Following this, in what seemed to be a mixture of confusion and
elation, the accused and the spectators filed out of the courtroom, the men throwing their
hats in the air, the women ululating and all of them giving the Afrika Salute.93 (In a twist
to this story, Nelson Mandela was inadvertently arrested after he and Cachalia left a
meeting in the vicinity of Boshielo‟s batch that night and were taken by the police to be
part of that action. The police were uninterested in their explanations for being on the
scene and as any disclaimers of his connection with the campaign would have been
invidious, Mandela joined Flag and ended an eventful day in a prison truck, singing the
national anthem all the way to the Marshall Square prison!94 Cachalia followed,
separately).
Whites Support the Campaign
A meeting called to solicit the support of whites (from which the Congress of Democrats
was subsequently to emerge) was held towards the end of November 1952 at the Darragh
Hall, Johannesburg. A similar meeting was held in Cape Town at more or less at the same
time, after which a number of white supporters went into action in both cities. Patrick
Duncan, a liberal-minded white democrat, led a batch of some 38 white, Indian and
African volunteers in the Germiston area, about 15 miles outside Johannesburg. What
distinguished his group of resisters from some of the others was its high profile
participation and the international interest it created. Patrick Duncan, the son of a former
governor general in South Africa, attracted considerable media attention. A Liberal, with
strong views against racial bigotry, he did not mince his words when it came to
condemning apartheid. “White supremacy … may go quietly or it may be drenched in
violence”, he told the media at a briefing before his arrest, predicting the ruling party‟s
early demise from power. He was also a stubborn fighter and an optimist: “We do not
know the future in detail”, he told them, “ but we know that white supremacy is on the
way out”.95 He was correct about the future but wrong in his optimistic assessment of an
early change of government. The change occurred almost 40 years after he made that
statement.
Duncan‟s identification with the Defiance Campaign elicited international support of
the highest calibre – dignitaries from the House of Lords, the Anglican Church, the media
and the British cabinet. These included Canon John Collins (dean of St Paul‟s)l Lord
Stansgate; Fenner Brockway (later elevated to the House of Lord‟s but familiarly referred
to as Fenner); Lady Pakenham; Kingsley Martin and James Griffith (at the time Secretary
of State for the Colonies). Almost all of them retained a lasting connection with the
liberation movement. The volunteers themselves were also burgeoning personalities.
Among the Africans were Alfred Hutchinson, a talented writer and Henry Makghoti,
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 130
teacher and respected member of the African Youth League, soon to become prominent in
the ANC. Regina Twala was a social worker at the University of the Witwatersrand and
Lindiwe Ngakane was the sister of Lionel Ngakane, the star of the film “Cry the Beloved
Country”. Manilal Gandhi, son of the Mahatma and about a dozen others made up the
component of Indian volunteers. The white volunteers came from a variety of
backgrounds: Betty du Toit, the trade unionist and communist militant; Freda Troupe,
author of a biography on the missionary activist Reverend Michael Scott; Selma
Stamelman an anthropologist; and two Wits University students, Sydney Shall and
Margaret Holt. Duncan, hobbling on crutches as a result of a recent motor accident, led
the resisters.
They entered the Germiston African township (much as Walter Sisulu and Nana Sita
had done a few months‟ before them in Boksburg), amid cheers and great excitement
among the African onlookers. First they marched through the Asiatic bazaar and then
along the main road of the township with the flying squad cars and troops of newspaper
and cameramen bringing up the procession of spectators in the rear. For a moment it
seemed that the police were not going to arrest them and they retraced their steps, walking
in a circle of several blocks, back to the main road. Eventually the police swooped.
Duncan was the first to be arrested and the others were taken into custody separately.
They spent two nights in the dingy Germiston prison cells before they were brought to
court. The whites and Indians were charged with entering the township without
permission and the African volunteers with not being in possession of their passes. Until a
fortnight previously, this offence would have merited a fine of ₤2 or fourteen days in jail,
but under the new regulations promulgated recently by Swart under the Natives
Administration Act, the stakes of opposition to the regime had drastically risen.96
At the trial, the magistrate quite unashamedly explained that the Africans among the
accused were no ordinary offenders: “We are dealing with a race that is primitive [and]
easily led … who will under emotion act as they would otherwise not do under calmer
reflection.”97 He fixed bail at ₤20 for the black accused and ₤50 for the whites. Duncan as
the leader was sentenced to 100 days imprisonment and the others to 25 days each. The
discriminatory treatment did not go unmarked and all served their sentences.
In Cape Town, four whites, among them a youthful Albie Sachs, subsequently a
judge in the Constitutional Court sat (together with the Africans in their batch) on benches
marked “for Europeans only” in Cape Town‟s Central Post Office. With him was Mary
Butcher (later Turok), Hyman Rachman and a volunteer named Harrison, whom I do not
remember very well, all of them graduates of the University of Cape Town. The post
office staff tried to whisk them away but they would not budge. According to the media,
they sat for an hour writing telegrams of protest to Malan before a police captain and a
sergeant drove them away to a police station – in a sedan car.98
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 131
They were charged with “obstruction” because there were no regulations that gave
any validity to post office apartheid and they were not breaking any law when they sat
next to their African comrades on the seats reserved for “Europeans Only”. Sam Kahn
defended them with his usual good humour and razor-edge logic, arguing that his clients
could not have obstructed anyone, because they were sitting peacefully on the post office
benches, waiting to be arrested. It was not of their making that a large crowd had in the
meantime gathered around them, shouting and raising their fists in the Afrika salute. The
police, he added for good measure, had not arrested any of the onlookers who were
physically obstructing the site. “Nor did the Captain arrest himself for causing the crowd
to collect, although his arrival made many more people gather.” The accused were all
ultimately acquitted. At a reception to celebrate their release, a crowd of about 500
assembled at the Drill Hall in Cape Town. One of the speakers was Albie Sachs, aged
about 17 years, who was reported in Advance of 11 December 1952 to have told the
audience: “In South Africa, economic and social progress is being hampered by a gang of
Nazi tyrants, representing one tenth of the population. There is no future for youth in a
fascist country.”
In a conversation with Albie during the course of writing this memoir, I reminded
him of the speech and the court case, which he obviously remembered very well, adding
that at the end of the trial the magistrate, clearly intrigued at the extreme youth of all the
accused, asked if anyone‟s mother was present in the courtroom? Ray Edwards (Albie‟s
mother) raised her hand. The magistrate looked at her and at her son, paused for a
moment, and then without further ado said sternly: “Please take him home!”99
Chapter Eight: Into the Fifties – 132
Chapter Nine
The Congress of Democrats: A Stalin Fetish
Although it was a perception by many Liberals that the Congress of Democrats (COD)
was effectively the Communist Party in another guise, it was never seen by the ANC or
the South African Indian Congress – or for that matter the fledgling SACP – as a
“communist front”. The irony is that the COD was intended to be a broad church of
democratic opinion, initially a “loose forum”, in support of human rights and the African
and Indian congress‟ campaigns against discriminatory legislation. While it was true that
a significant outcome of the Defiance Campaign was the establishment of the COD, it is
highly likely that an organization – or at least a loose forum of democratic white opinion,
would have been formed sooner or later if the civil disobedience campaign had not
spawned it at that particular time. Sisulu had much to do with its establishment. There was
an obvious need for an organization that would house the small but growing band of white
democrats who supported the congresses. The SACP, formed about the same time as the
Congress of Democrats, carried on the tradition of being the only multiracial organization
in the country. But it was also a socialist movement based on Marxist principles. Many in
the congress movement might have agreed with its Marxist philosophy, but “Congress”
was a more eclectic and essentially nationalist organization, “a broad church”, as we were
fond of saying. In any case, the SACP was a clandestine body and any organizational
identification with the ANC or SAIC would have led to the banning of these bodies under
the Suppression of Communism Act. While many of the members of the newly formed
SACP, like myself, were long-standing activists in the CPSA (and later the SACP), we
joined COD as democrats to support the struggle against apartheid and not to promote
Socialism.
There were a number of meetings that led to COD‟s formation, each one making it
less likely that it would be as politically wide-ranging as initially conceived. The first was
an exploratory meeting at the Darragh Hall, a long and narrow venue with an old church
stone exterior, near the former Wanderers Sports Ground in Johannesburg. It was
convened in November 1952 by the National Action Council (NAC) which had been
formed by the African and Indian congresses together with the Franchise Action Council,
to plan and co-ordinate the actions of the Defiance Campaign. Oliver Tambo, Walter
Sisulu and Yusuf Cachalia represented the NAC at the meeting and Bram Fischer was in
the chair. A selected number of people were invited, some of them well known liberals,
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 133
some, like myself, close to the congresses and formerly in the CPSA – and a contingent of
left-wing supporters who had been members of the ex-servicemen‟s organization, the
Springbok Legion – all of them white, not all of them communists. Oliver Tambo was the
first to speak. His remarks were direct, rather formal and carefully crafted to avoid
offence. He said the aim of the gathering was to establish a forum of liberal-minded
individuals to encourage dialogue between progressive whites and the African and Indian
congresses. The regime, he said, was indifferent to the impact of its harsh legislation on
black South Africans and the distance that whites had generally placed between
themselves and the defiance movement suggested that they too were unperturbed at the
effect of this legislation on the black population. “The silence of European democrats to
the challenge of the issues involved in the Defiance Campaign,” he said, “ is being
construed by Non-Europeans as acquiescence in … the government‟s policies.”
It was a forceful speech followed by the interventions of Sisulu and Cachalia They
were an impressive trio, each as diverse in tone and physical appearance as anyone could
imagine. Tambo was slightly built, a permanent crease on his forehead and creases on
each side of his face, a confident speaker, precise and careful in his choice of words.
Walter Sisulu was thoughtful, shorter but stockier than the other two. Yusuf Cachalia, was
tall and relatively lean at that time, with glasses more darkly shaded than Sisulu‟s. He was
a figure for all seasons. He could have been at a church gathering, a meeting of a board of
company director‟s or at a funeral. None of them was more than in his early forties. They
answered a few questions concerning the aims of the Defiance Campaign and its progress,
and then left it to Bram Fischer to approach the subject of a democratic forum. This, Bram
said, was to be based on a number of broad human rights principles for all South Africans,
including the freedoms of speech, assembly, organization and economic opportunity,
independent of race, colour or gender.1 He spoke slowly and deliberately, weighing his
words for the impact they might make and apparently careful to ensure it was a broad
body of democratic opinion he was talking about and not anything more ideological. A
provisional committee was elected to draw up a constitution based on these seemingly
acceptable principles.2
The meetings that followed were less harmonious and the issues clearer. The
question was whether social and economic freedoms were possible for all South Africans
if some were excluded from the franchise. There were disagreements between the more
conservative individuals and those already close to Congress over the form of the new
organization and the nature of the franchise. Those close to Congress (mostly former
members of the banned CPSA; many of them not yet recruited to the new Party, which
was still in the process of formation) proposed a form of franchise that was unqualified,
immediate and universal. Those against this formulation wanted a franchise that was
limited by income and education. A more worthy reason for their objection, articulated in
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 134
Advance of 15 October 1953, was the proposal that the new organization “concentrate its
efforts [in the matter of recruitment] among sections of the population not catered for by
the congresses”. This meant that the new body would recruit its membership exclusively
from the ethnically white section of the population. They believed a body of democrats
should by definition be non-racial in its membership.
Disappointed, they went on to organize the “non racial” Liberal Party. Regrettably,
they never found a meeting point with the Congress of Democrats, the body that arose
from the initial discussions, and were very wary of the communists within that
organization. The subsequent adoption of a qualified franchise by the Liberal Party when
it was finally formed, did little to attract black members to its side. The Liberal attitude to
the franchise was summed up in an astute observation by Rusty Bernstein, who in his
autobiography (2003), noted that it opened a lasting breach between the Liberal Party and
the mainstream of black opposition in South Africa.3 Their stance on the franchise,
limited their party‟s reach into the black population and ironically rendered it an
overwhelmingly white organization.
The COD as the new organization became known, was soon seen as a partner of the
Congress movement. Its human rights‟ principles, formulated at the Darragh Hall meeting
in November 1952, were approved at its founding conference in October 1953, in the
midst of the most repressive legislation of the decade. Its founding conference was
convened by the Springbok Legion; the Johannesburg group of the Congress of
Democrats; and the Cape Town Democratic League. There were 88 delegates from the
major city centres who attended the opening. Rusty Bernstein delivered the keynote
speech and his main theme was equality and the repudiation of what he described as “the
false doctrines of white supremacy, apartheid, trusteeship and segregation”. It was an
eloquent address, not in the least declamatory, stressing equality and rejecting outmoded
ideas such as trusteeship, and (by implication) a qualified franchise for African voters. He
concluded with a statement that was challenging at a time when it was unclear how long
the government would tolerate opposition to the apartheid project: “Ideas such as ours
which march in step with the great political currents of our time cannot be put in straight
jackets or decreed out of existence.”4
The initial executive committee, elected to steer the new organization, included
Bram Fischer, Ruth First, Cecil Williams, Jack Hodgson (secretary), Helen Joseph (one of
the few non-communists on the executive) and Piet Beyleveld (president). As former
members of the CPSA almost of all of them, Helen Joseph and Piet Beyleveld excepted,
were already named under the Suppression of Communism Act. When they were banned,
their places were taken by younger members, some of them new recruits to the
underground SACP, formed in the same year. Not all the members of COD were
communists, especially for the two years of its existence after 1960.5 I do not remember
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 135
signing an application for membership of the new organization, but simply accepted that I
was a part of it, together with practically all the ex-CPSA members I knew. By the time of
COD‟s founding, however, I had already been recruited to the revived underground Party
(referred to as the SACP, to distinguish it from its predecessor) and found myself in a unit
with Rusty Bernstein, Ruth First, Cecil Williams and Rica Hodgson, all of them initially
members of the national executive committee of the COD. They were banned from
holding office in the COD and from all its activities almost as soon as the founding
conference ended in October 1953.
Little has been recorded on the history of the COD and equally little is known about
its campaigns. The organization was probably no more than a symbol of “white” support
for the liberation movement, its numbers were small and its influence tiny. But the
contribution of the COD cannot be measured quantitatively. We saw ourselves (and I
think the perception was mutual) as a part of the larger movement and not just a fraction
of whites on the fringes of the freedom struggle. Our brief in the Congress of Democrats
(outlined at the initial meeting at the Darragh Hall in 1952) was to expose to the white
section of the community the evils of discrimination and colour bars; to mobilize support
for the abolition of all discriminatory laws and practices and to stand for equal political
rights and freedoms for all South Africans.6 In doing so we did not exactly endear
ourselves to the white community; for many these thoughts were rank heresies, ideas
beyond their forbearance. While being applauded by blacks, we were readily derided by
whites and were perceived by the Liberal Party as Stalinists.
It was an uphill battle and although personally shattering, we persevered. We defied
unjust laws even before the organization was formally founded and sat together with other
members of Congress in the Treason Trial and later at the Rivonia and Fischer trials. Over
the ten years of COD‟s existence our members were active alongside the African, Indian
and Coloured members of the national organizations and together with them we
experienced the punitive treatment, detention, torture, long trials and harsh prison
sentences that were meted out to opponents of the regime. While the new organization
carried out educational work, held public meetings, produced publicity material and
enrolled members throughout the country, it was not its initial intention to enter
candidates for election to public office.7 However, the diminishing space for political
protest since Sam Kahn‟s expulsion in 1952 led COD to propose candidates at the
national and local government levels, and for the movement as a whole to support
progressive whites as natives representative candidates in the parliamentary elections.
Parliamentary Politics
Brian Bunting was the first of three Congress candidates to stand for parliament after
Kahn. He took his seat in 1953 only to be expelled about nine months later. Ray
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 136
Alexander, a stalwart trade unionist was elected in 1954 but was debarred from taking
office. At the end of that year, Len Lee Warden (a printer by profession) who was vicechairman of COD, won the election and formally took his seat in January 1955 as a COD
candidate. In all three cases the contests were lively. Bunting was officially ordered “not
to become an MP”, but the minister‟s prohibition was served too late for him to withdraw
as he had already accepted nomination and paid the obligatory deposit. The anger that this
incurred was extraordinary. Malan was so livid that he told his supporters (during the
general election that year): “if Bunting is elected to Parliament it would be for such a
short time that the seat he occupied would not even get warm”.8 As it happened, more
votes were cast for Bunting than previously for Sam Kahn or Fred Carneson (for the Cape
Provincial Council) and the total poll was higher than ever before. Bunting was elected
with an overall majority of 3 183 votes and all his opponents lost their deposits. Support
for him had been so solid that many voters (too late for the ballot) had stood in line
outside the Kensington polling station, ready to mark their crosses on the ballot paper
when the doors closed at 9 p.m. on election day.
Malan did all in his power to prevent Bunting from taking his seat in parliament. The
Minister of Justice insisted obstinately that he should either have withdrawn his
nomination (under the Suppression of Communism Act) or notified the returning officer
that he was no longer qualified to stand for election. But there was no provision in the act
for the withdrawal of a nomination and Bunting‟s lawyers told the court – “once he‟d paid
his deposit [the election officer] could not change his mind … the election process had to
go on!” More light-heartedly, the court was told that Bunting had already been sent a
Christmas card by the governor general and an invitation to lunch on the day parliament
opened.9 Much to our relief and the jubilation of his constituents, Brian was acquitted of
the absurd charge of becoming an MP. Meanwhile, his constituents told him goodhumouredly that they were very glad to have him as their representative in parliament,
adding: “it doesn‟t matter if the government kicks you out … That will show [that] you
are a true representative of the people, because the government is always kicking us about
too.”10 The sense of triumph was short-lived, for almost immediately after this a ban
under the Suppression of Communism Act prohibited Bunting from attending meetings
for one year. But there was nothing in the act to prevent him from taking his seat in
parliament or from addressing parliament on every substantive issue that came before it.
In a maiden speech that matched the challenging circumstances of his election, he
told parliament:
The manner of my election and the events of last year are an indication that the
African people of this country and the non-European people generally are now
challenging the whole system of rule in this country … The African people are
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 137
today staking a claim for participation in the government, for the right to take
part in the framing of decisions that affect them and the country, for the right to
sit in the House, for the right to sit in the cabinet. Yes, even the right … to be
prime minister.11
He felt sure that social change could come about in South Africa peacefully, without
violence or racial friction and without bloodshed, but the policy being pursued by the
present government “was making that desire impossible of fulfilment”. Citing a recent
statement by Chief Luthuli, he ended by appealing to white South Africans – before it was
too late – “to accept us now!”
But Malan would not accept the benign advice of Chief Luthuli any more than he
would tolerate the presence of Brian Bunting in parliament. The Public Safety Bill, with
its harsh clauses on corporal punishment for civil obedience was in the last stages of its
legislative journey through parliament. Bunting wasted no time in expressing his outrage
at the tyrannical nature of this legislation. His speeches on the bill and a slew of
discriminatory legislation enraged the National Party hierarchy as well as the
parliamentary backbenchers who regularly shouted him down (in one instance with cries
of “Mau Mau”) after he had made a reference to the combative Kenyan resistance
movement. “The government was guaranteeing a violent future in race relations in the
country”, he told parliament, “and the non-Euoropean people would not be denied
political rights forever but would fight this dictatorship”.12 The Congresses outside
parliament were making the same protests. Inside the House, Bunting raised the
temperature of parliament by condemning the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes)
Bill, under which legislation the minister had given himself absolute power to regulate
wages and settle disputes. Strikes were all but prohibited and made punishable with
severe penalties. The bill reflected the approach of successive governments to the status
of Africans and their rights as workers. African trade unions were simply not recognized
and despite the numerous wage commissions, few governments paid serious attention to
work and wages. In the words of the current minister, African trade unions could “bleed
to death”.13 Bunting‟s speech and the extra-parliamentary protests were ignored and the
bill was passed into law.
The COD threw itself into the campaigns against the labour bills and all other
discriminatory legislation, submitting an impressive memorandum of 78 pages to the
United Nations in which it contrasted every article of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights with the discriminatory practices in South Africa.14 It was a report that left the
world in little doubt of the fascist nature of the South African government: “The doctrines
of apartheid, white supremacy, trusteeship and segregation like all other doctrines of
racial discrimination”, the memorandum read, “are inimical to the peace, happiness and
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 138
prosperity of South Africa … We proclaim our support for the 30 articles of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights”. It was a worthy effort but we were titling at windmills –
for the ruling party wasted no further time in proceeding with a number of other bills in
the legislative cycle that year, including the notorious law to remove Africans from their
homes in the Western Areas of Johannesburg and a bill on Bantu Education, which in its
long-lasting consequences was probably the most enduringly disadvantageous to the
African population that has ever been introduced into law. Together with Helen Joseph, I
did what I could on behalf of COD to establish the Cultural Clubs created as a temporary
alternative to Bantu education for the African children whose parents had followed the
ANC‟s call to boycott government schools (see chapter 10: “Bantu Education or the
Street”).
The bill to remove Africans from the Western Areas of Johannesburg was part of the
Minister of Native Affairs‟ attempt to define apartheid space, which Bunting was quick to
point out was an escape from the reality of South African life and showed a serious state
of denial on the part of government of the fact that South Africa was an overwhelmingly
black country. Verwoerd, the Minister of Native Affairs at the time, was obsessive about
“containing” the black population. Bunting‟s criticism of his vision of the future of South
Africa was withering:
Shut the Africans out from our life, hide them away, do not let anybody see them.
The Minister hopes the Africans will become a people without homes, beasts of
burden who will do the bidding of their masters without question and to whom
obedience and submission becomes second nature.15
The only point of contact with Africans in the townships would then be via the officials of
the Native Affairs Department and with the police. The National Party MPs bristled. As
Sam Kahn later said in a tribute to Bunting, “he hastened his own expulsion by scarifying
the nationalists for their … callous treatment of the African peoples in a series of …
speeches, fired with indignation.” There was no doubt that Bunting would soon be
expelled, but he would go down fighting, confronting the government on every piece of
discriminatory legislation embodying callous laws that never seemed to be in short
supply. After years of writing editorials in Advance and its predecessors he had literally
found his voice in parliament, rising at every occasion to express his repugnance and
revulsion at the depth of the regime‟s depravity.
Ultimately, time ran out. Nine months after his election, in July 1953, he was
expelled. A parliamentary Select Committee appointed to inquire into his “record”
concluded by 19 votes to 2 that he had “advocated, defended and encouraged the
achievements of the objectives of communism both before and after the promulgation of
the [Suppression of Communism] Act.”16 The report, recorded over nineteen hours of
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 139
cross-examination of Bunting, contained 222 pages of evidence, an archival repository of
bigoted thinking. Only Alex Hepple (leader of the Labour Party in parliament) and the
natives representatives voted against the adoption of the committee‟s report when it was
submitted to parliament.
Bunting responded with a brave speech against the farcical procedure of expulsions
from parliament; the unacceptable grounds of his removal; and the recent bannings
against trade unionists and congress activists who were also ordered to resign from their
organizations and (preferably) be neither seen nor heard of again. He finally told the
committee: “… when a long train of abuses and usurpations reduce the people to a
despotism, it is their right to throw off such government and provide new guards for their
own security”.17 There would be another time, an opportune moment, when the African
people would come into their own as heirs of the future. His reference to the American
Declaration of Independence seemed enigmatic and abstract, and no one listened. In
paying tribute to Brian Bunting, Sam Kahn applauded Brian‟s tenacity as an MP and
looked beyond the apartheid parliament to the future, when Bunting‟s talents would be
properly appreciated. Brian Bunting can have good cause to be proud of his record in
parliament”, he wrote in the movement‟s newspaper, “and prouder too of the unique
position he occupied in the hearts of his constituents. He has been lost to parliament for
the while, but not to the cause of the liberation and emancipation of the South African
people”.18 When Bunting took his seat in parliament 41 years later in the jubilant
circumstances of Mandela‟s election victory, he must have recalled those prescient words.
The vacancy created by Brian‟s expulsion did not prevent the Congress leadership
from endorsing the nomination of Ray Alexander, party member, trade unionist and
named communist, in his place. In the decision to contest the election the ANC leadership
shoved aside lingering thoughts of boycott (still prevalent among the youth and within the
ANC) and urged that every opportunity should be taken to elect a person who would fight
for the right of Africans to sit in parliament, arguing that “there is nothing the government
would like more than for the people to refuse to vote!”19 Raymond Mhlaba, at the time a
trade unionist, later a member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe High Command, “appealed …
to the African people of the Western Cape to use the meagre rights at their disposal to
elect Ray Alexander”, saying that in his view she was the “true representative of the
people.”20 By contrast to this, news of Ray‟s nomination was received with hysteria in the
National Party-aligned press, their columnist “Dawie”, frantically wailing: “it is now too
late to prevent her from participating in the election and I think I can just as well say that
it‟s too late to prevent her from winning the election.”21 He was correct but despite his
confidence we knew that the government would try to keep her out of parliament just as
they had with Brian and Sam.
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 140
Unsurprisingly the Minister of Justice (Swart) quickly announced that he intended to
amend the Suppression Act to prevent her from taking her seat. Despite this, her
campaign continued as upbeat as ever. She was indefatigable. The skies would fall in if
she missed an opportunity to attack the regime in the limited space the election allowed
her. “I have only one aim in this election”, she wrote in her manifesto, “and that is to
carry on the fight … for justice, freedom and equality”. Her seat in parliament would be
held by an African if she had her way, she said, pledging herself to fight against
exploitation, race oppression and the suspension of trade unionists. Her programme was
endorsed by leaders of the ANC, the Indian Congress and prominent members of the trade
union movement.22 It was a winning ticket and so was her election slogan “Vote for
Alexander, Vote for Afrika!” The elation was immense on the news that she had won the
election with a total of 3 525 votes, double the number of each of her two opponents.23 As
the elections were held under the most difficult of circumstances and some of the
population had shifted back to the rural areas, the overall poll was smaller than Sam‟s or
Brian‟s, but the result was welcome enough. Predictably, she was forcibly prevented from
entering the House of Assembly by the formidable presence of police detectives who were
strategically posted at all entrances to parliament.24 Her election was nonetheless a defeat
for the regime and her flagrant exclusion from parliament noted with anger by her
disenfranchised constituents.
Brian‟s and then Ray‟s banning from parliament was part of the regime‟s offensive
against the communist and non-communist cadres of the movement. Between 1951 and
1953 the core of the Communist leadership was banned and with them some of the most
prominent activists in the movement who did not join the SACP. All were ordered to
relinquish their official positions and to resign from their organizations. The restrictions
were designed to destabilize the Congress leadership and the trade union movement
without actually shutting the organizations down. All the veteran white trade unionists
were banned including long-standing trade unionists Julia Wolfson, Willie Kalk, Piet
Huyser, Nancy Dick and Ray Alexander. I had known most of them for years. After
removing the effective trade union leadership, the regime made a concerted effort to
cripple the national movements by the same tactics of exclusion. One after another,
leading officials fell under the axe. A long list of African trade unionists received banning
orders, including many in the Transvaal and Eastern Cape. The assaults that had begun in
1952 on the leaders of the national organizations with the banning of Kotane and Dadoo,
were followed in 1953, less than a year later, by the banning of Yusuf Cachalia (joint
secretary of the SAIC) and other stalwarts. They were proscribed from attending
gatherings and ordered to resign their official positions.
Nelson Mandela, at the time president of the ANC in the Transvaal, who headed the
volunteers in the Defiance Campaign, was banned under an esoteric clause (clause 11) of
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 141
the Suppression of Communism Act which empowered the minister to remove any person
from office who had been convicted of statutory communism i.e. contravening the terms
of the Suppression of Communism Act, but not necessarily being named as a member of
the Communist Party. As Mandela had been convicted under this act in a trial with
Moroka and other Defiance Campaign leaders in 1953, he was technically a statutory
communist and now the first unlisted person to be banned under the “Suppression Act”.
He was also silenced under the catch-all clauses of the Riotous Assemblies Act, which
effectively enabled the minister to ban him under any circumstances and to order him to
resign from his official positions in the ANC.
Initially the government targeted the national leadership of the Congress movement,
hoping to strike at its executive heart, but it also had no compunction in applying its
strategy of exclusion to local leaders in the provinces if it thought their activities a thorn
in their side. Gladstone Tshume and A.P. Mda, a trade unionist and an intellectual
respectively, were first among those banned in the Eastern Cape along with John Motsabi,
Andrew Kunene and George Maeka, popular trade union activists in the Transvaal. The
traded unionists were given 30 days to relinquish their positions and resign from their
unions and from the ANC. In the Western Cape, John Gomas a veteran communist who
had been a trade unionist since the 1930s and was a leader in the Coloured Franchise
Action Council, was similarly silenced and ordered to quit his organization. It was more
like a putsch against communists and non-communists alike, a targeted gagging of the
most vocal activists in the movement. In a short time the regime rancorously banned a
number of long-standing activists in the Congress of Democrats, Cecil Williams, Hilda
Watts, Bram Fischer and Jack Hodgson (the general secretary), all of them well known
communists, but also prominent in either the theatre, the legal profession, local
government or the former Springbok Legion.
By December 1955, most of COD‟s experienced leadership was prohibited from
participating in the organization or from working in any of the structures connected with
the Congress movement. Cecil Williams, whom I knew quite well by this time from the
SACP cell we shared, was the national vice-chairman of COD and national chairman of
the Springbok Legion. The two organizations were small and their impact on the country
greater in the minds of government ministers than in reality, but their identification with
the cause of African liberation was enough to make them targets of repression. In the
racist thinking of the government the white leaders were the instigators of black protest
and the authorities would have been pleased to see their organizations “bleed to death”, a
phrase they used that was not necessarily confined to the African trade union movement.
Cecil was formerly a school teacher and at the time was an actor and theatre director. In
1962 he was caught in a roadblock with a bearded Nelson Mandela who had returned
from a much publicised tour abroad and was on the run for leaving the country without a
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 142
passport, the least of the charges that would be laid against him. Williams was tall and
urbane with a voice like an English gentleman. He was always immaculately dressed in a
signature three-piece suit, usually grey, pointed shiny black shoes and an elegant Stetson
on his head. If accosted by the police, he would say that Mandela was his chauffeur, but
bizarrely it was he who was driving the car when they were stopped in the roadblock!
The banning orders prompted novel ways of communicating with each other and
with the public. On one occasion we held a meeting in which the voices of Bram Fischer,
Hilda Watts, Dan Tloome, Nelson Mandela and Michael Harmel were heard on a tape
recorder at a meeting held at the Darragh Hall in Johannesburg. Beyleveld, the national
chairman (later a state witness in several court appearances, my own trial included)
opened the meeting with only himself and Rusty Bernstein on the platform. To the dismay
of a surprisingly large audience, he called upon his banned absentee speakers to address
the gathering. The earnest message from Mandela was quite heartening: “For my own
part,” he said, “these restrictions have not in any way deterred or frightened me. On the
contrary, they have made me even more determined”. Harmel‟s sombre voice followed
but was interrupted by two detectives who came up to the platform and before the others
could have their say, confiscated the “wire recorder”, as it was then called.25
Mandela‟s reaction to his restrictions was to ignore them as long as it was prudent to
do so. Similarly, the former CPSA members and officials or activists in the Congress and
the trade union movements did not allow their banning orders to prevent them from
meeting to plan, organize or discuss policy. The style of work was different, covert and
fraught with anxiety. There was always the fear of being observed by the security police
and the danger was ever-present of being apprehended for illegally attending meetings.
Not only had those who were banned and restricted attended these clandestine meetings,
but also those of us who had so far avoided being banned under the Suppression of
Communism Act. The new style of work required punctuality, safe houses, dedicated
fellow travellers, committed cadres and nerves of steel. It also required discrete
individuals who were cautious enough not to be followed and not to disclose where we
went or with whom we met and what was discussed. In some cases the leading individuals
(fast learning the art of working covertly) would spend an entire day at meetings. In many
respects these meetings helped to connect us, so that in time we became part of “the
family”, a phrase we mostly reserved for the SACP to define our common connection.
However, our mutual dependency and need for trusting relationships across the different
components of the movement, whether communist or non communist, made these
differences academic and rendered us all part of an extended family.
If we were previously “blinded by the illusion of bourgeois legality”, we had come a
long way since that time. Combining legal and illegal work involved rigorous rules,
including learning to cope with the unexpected and knowing when to act and when not to.
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 143
Many of us were in prison cells before these skills were perfected. I had known many of
the comrades who became political prisoners in the 1960s before I was arrested, some
from the CPSA before its banning, and later from COD or from the SACP. Often those of
us who were not yet banned attended the same meetings of the Peace Movement, the
Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU), COD, the Discussion Club26 and the Congress. We
also relaxed together from time to time, vague on the ambiguities of what in the legal
gobbledegook of the Suppression of Communism Act constituted a social gathering,
which according to the arcane terms of the act was punishable. In retrospect, it seems
incredible that a plain house party would present such complexities. Communists, whether
real or “statutory” were not expected to have fun!
The International Dimension
We were inspired by the struggles of others and encouraged that we were not alone in the
fight for human rights and Socialism. It was also important to know that we were not
unique in the treatment we received from the state. In the US McCarthyism was in full
stride. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had received the death sentence on a charge of atomic
spying which we believed to be false. Pleas for a reprieve of their sentences were refused
in the US and a petition to the US Consulate in Cape Town was ignored. These items of
international interest were squeezed in-between the news of the Defiance Campaign and
the serial bannings of communists locally.27
The fortitude of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had touched us quite deeply when they
were executed in June 1953. Long after the event, when I was released from prison in
1969, I re-read their “Death House Letters (1953) and was moved by one of the letters
from Julius to Ethel, written a short time before his execution. In it he described a visit to
the prison from his sons, Michael aged nine and Robert aged five. Julius wrote:
When I was in the solitude of my cell once more and the door clanged shut
behind me, I must confess I broke down and cried like a baby because of the
children‟s deep hurt. With my back to the bars, I stood facing the concrete walls
that boxed me in on all sides and I let the pains that tore at my insides flood out
in tears. The wretched … inhumanity of it all.28
The two boys had played games in the death cell section while waiting for their parents to
join them. They knew that their parents faced execution and that they were perhaps
visiting them for the last time.29 About a year earlier, Julius sent a chilling letter to Ethel
(held in another section of the prison) regarding a previous visit of the two boys:
Most of the hour was spent in discussion … It started with the death sentence … I
told [Michael] we were not concerned about [the death sentence]; we were
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 144
innocent … it was not his job to worry about that but to grow up and be well …
He asked many questions … and [then] the boy said, „Daddy, maybe I‟ll study to
be a lawyer and help you in your case,‟ and I said, „we won‟t wait that long as we
want to be with you when you‟re growing up‟.30
More than once, on the rare occasions that children under sixteen were allowed to visit
their parents in jail in South Africa, they were surprised by the inner strength of their
offspring. Quite often the parents still tried to direct their children‟s lives from jail and
often made light of the long sentences ahead of them, unaware that the family‟s lifestyle
had changed beyond recognition since their incarceration and that the children knew the
truth. They had learned to cope on their own. Sadly, in this instance of the Rosenberg‟s, it
was the death sentence that the parents faced and not a stretch in jail.
We followed every detail of their trial in the early 1950s and on one of the
anniversaries of their execution, I wrote a radio play based on the Death House Letters.
The play was written for the Discussion Club, a Johannesburg non-racial bipartisan
forum, organized independently but not exclusively by COD members and was run with
incredible commitment and some fanaticism by my brother Leon, the club‟s secretary.
Many of its participants were students who identified with the struggle long after the
club‟s demise, sometime around 1960. The radio play was a modest success. Michael
Piccardy and Pela Kruger, two students who later became professional actors, played the
parts of Julius and Ethel. They dutifully followed my directions during the play‟s
production, succumbing to the irritating idiosyncrasies of an old tape recorder and
patiently re-recording their lines which would fade in and out at the oddest times. They
were both about twenty years of age at the time and I was not yet twenty-four. It was the
first and only radio play I have ever written, least of all directed. Unfortunately, the script
and the tape were confiscated during one of the raids by the security police and were
obviously not considered to be of “enduring value” a term now used to assist officials in
the Intelligence structures to decide whether or not to store, declassify or destroy
information. The script must have been destroyed and is now quite forgotten. I recalled it,
though, when I met (Michael) the older of Ethel and Julius‟s two sons while writing this
autobiography. Both Michael and Robert took the surname of their adoptive parents
(Meerapol) and as adults became active in civil rights struggles. Michael was about sixty
when I met him, a confident and congenial man. He is an economist by profession and a
professor at a university in the United States. His daughter Ivy is a film maker and had
recently made an informative documentary film about her grandparents and the
circumstances of their depressing trial. Meeting Michael Meerapol made me wonder
about the generation of children in South Africa whose parents committed their lives to
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 145
the movement and either died in jail or exile or who, like Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,
were victims of judicial murder. What scars did these children carry?
The death penalty was abolished in South Africa only in 1994. But in 1964, a trade
unionist, Vuyisile Mini and two others were hanged for ordering the killing of a police
informer. In the same year John Harris, a member of the African Resistance Movement
was hanged for exploding a bomb in the main concourse of the Johannesburg railway
station. The African Resistance Movement (ARM) was an off-shoot of the seemingly
placid Liberal Party, many of whose members I met in prison in the mid-1960s. They
were intrepid individuals whose understated contribution to the struggle quietly
commanded the respect of all the communists who served time with them. John Harris
and Vuyisile Mini (who was a member of the ANC and MK) were early victims of the
gallows. I had met Vuyisile, who was a mild man, a popular musician whose political
songs are still sung in the Eastern Cape. His daughter Mary, who had a strong streak of
her father‟s courage, was an MK cadre and was killed in action in Luanda in 1979.
Between 1960 and 1990 an unknown number of activists died, some of them
murdered by the security police, many killed during the armed struggle and others
sentenced to death by hanging. A number of these atrocities have been recorded, but few
so movingly as in Harold Strachan‟s searing account of the last hours of his comrade‟s
life before he was hanged in the Pretoria Central Prison. Another is Hugh Lewin‟s
disturbing description of how in the mid-1960s we waited in line, in grim silence, on the
way to the prison workshops while the broken bodies of the common law victims of
hanging were removed by the prison undertakers.31 There were at least 100 prisoners in
death row at any one time in 1966 during the eight months I spent at the Pretoria Central
Prison. The numbers were written in chalk on the prison notice board. The practice of
hanging is now forbidden under the 1996 Constitution but the lust among many South
Africans for the re-introduction of capital punishment is still there.
A Stalin Fetish
Stalin‟s death occurred in the same year as the Rosenberg‟s execution but we were not
inclined to reflect on the human sacrifices that occurred during the 30 years of his rule.
Moses Kotane probably expressed the feelings of politically conscious Africans when he
wrote:
We who belonged to the oppressed, exploited and despised non-European races
feel the loss more than any other people because it was in his policy of racial
equality that we found inspiration. Those who traffic in human lives – the
warmongers, profiteers and apostles of racialism – dreaded his name. They feared
him because he was an indefatigable worker for world peace, and the architect of
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 146
the freedom of the common man and the abolition of exploitation of man by
man.32
It took nearly 50 years before we could properly accept the hard realities of the system
under Stalin, probably for the same reasons that Kotane identified in his statement.
We were not of a mind to read the signs that should have alerted us to the
unacceptable underside of Stalin‟s rule before Kruschev‟s revelations at the Twentieth
Congress of the Communist Party; and in any case we were anxious to avoid
identification with those who had quickly climbed onto the anti-Soviet bandwagon. So we
remained quiet and uncritical. In 1953, when Stalin died, there were no overt signs of
(official) “dissatisfaction” with his statesmanship and the tributes paid to him were
accordingly uncritical. Joe Slovo, Hilda Watts and Dan Tloome for instance, added their
voices to Kotane‟s, but they were all of a similar theme. Slovo reminded us that:
Stalin combined the best attributes of the scholar, the worker and the simple
soldier. He had been the chief architect of the state previously considered a utopia
and the most important factor in the defeat of world fascism … Stalin survives
wherever there are people striving for the advancement of mankind.33
Dan Tloome saw Stalin as “the emblem of liberation” and Hilda Watts, careful not to
exacerbate the Cold War hysteria, and speaking in the temperate language of the Peace
Movement, noted cautiously: “Stalin had made it clear that the peaceful coexistence of
capitalism and socialism was fully possible given the mutual desire to co-operate … The
Stalin state was busy creating not destroying.”34 The tributes were formal and also
informal. The latter were more personal but no different from the others in their
sentiments.
My personal tribute took the form of a Stalin retrospect, an exhibition of posters of
the dead leader that took up every inch of the four walls of my bedroom. As far as I can
remember, the exhibits highlighted my innocent, though mindless perception of Stalin‟s
humanity, as he peered amiably at a group of little children behind the narrow podium
from which he spoke. They gazed at him as on an icon of history, a symbol of light,
reflecting the past, the present and the (socialist) future. Next, a poster of the man as a
beloved leader receiving flowers from a young woman with braided hair, one of “the
brides of Stalin”; another in his study in the Kremlin, dressed in mufti, sitting crosslegged smoking a pipe, its curved stem hugging a jet-black moustache. Next to that
poster, a picture of him as a young Bolshevik in Lenin‟s team. By contrast, the posters on
the opposite wall portrayed him as a soldier heavily decorated, bearing the title “FieldMarshal in The Great Patriotic War”; another showed him in the image of a soldierstatesman in front of a dozen or so generals. Finally in a change of style, Stalin at a
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 147
concert of the Red Army Choir and another poster depicting him in a cadet-style topcoat,
bending forward to sign documents neatly arranged on his wide wooden desk. The entire
display was a shrine to the man and a reflection of the veneration with which I held him
as leader of the first socialist state.
It was during the Treason Trial in 1956 (three years after Stalin‟s death) that I first
read a version of the text of Kruschev‟s speech to the Twentieth Congress of the
Communist Party of the USSR. The text (which was not confirmed as genuine) was
purported to have been smuggled out of the Soviet Union and leaked to Nelson
Rockefeller in the United States, where it was copied and widely disseminated.
The document was passed around for all of us who were in the SACP to read.
Unfortunately, the “allegations” seemed serious but leaders were fallible, we were told.
Stalin had made “grave errors”; he had succumbed to flattery – a pitfall that leaders
should at all times try to avoid. He had made wrong judgments, but he was still the strong
leader, the wise statesman, an outstanding war hero and Marxist theorist. Nevertheless, he
was no longer the “fount of all wisdom”; to suggest otherwise was to fall into the line of
thinking that gave rise to the “cult of the personality” – which all communists should
avoid. Men did not make history, they simply responded to the material conditions around
them. We were not going to join the world‟s Bolshevik-baiters and fail to see the wood
for the trees. Every oppressed person knew that the USSR was the “emblem of
liberation”, the singular hope of mankind for a socialist future. The reality at that time was
that the movement in South Africa was under attack and its very existence challenged
while its leaders were being tried for treason. In the context of these developments the
“allegations” against Stalin were given scant priority and we accepted Krushchev‟s
revelations and carried on as usual!
Tradition, habit and political culture contributed to the “Stalinist” perception of the
COD among liberals and frustrated our efforts to make it clear to them that ours was a
non-sectarian, broad-based movement of democrats. They were clearly not convinced but
that is exactly what we tried to be, despite the fact that at the time we were pariahs among
whites; beyond the pale among liberals who should have been comrades; and pioneers of
a non-racial South Africa in the eyes of our liberation partners.
Chapter Nine: The Congress of Democrats – 148
Chapter Ten
If most of us recognise the major landmarks of global or national history in our
lifetime, it is not because all of us have experienced them, even though some of
us may actually have done so or been aware at the time that they were landmarks.
It is because we accept the consensus that they are landmarks. Eric Hobsbawm1
The Freedom Charter
Time for a Chartist Movement
The idea of the Freedom Charter and the Congress of the People (COP) from which it
emanated, had so much potential that it was already seen as of historic importance before
either the COP took place or the Freedom Charter was written. The South African Indian
Congress described the Congress of the People “as of historic importance” in a letter to
the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) early in 1954, 2 requesting the
institute not to proceed with its proposal to hold a national conference to “analyse the
position of the non-European people”, as it might interfere with the ANC resolution on a
similar theme taken in December 1953, at its annual conference in Queenstown.3 At the
conference, Professor Z.K. Matthews proposed the idea of a national convention which
would be representative of all South Africa‟s inhabitants, whose task it would be “to draw
up a blueprint for a free South Africa of the future”.4 Perhaps influenced by the decision
of the SAIRR to call a convention, he had been mulling over the idea for a few months
before the ANC met in December 1953. He had raised the matter at the annual provincial
conference of the ANC in Cradock in August 1953, in words that have since been cited
many times:
Various groups in the country are as you know considering the idea of a national
convention … I wonder whether the time has not come for the ANC to consider
the question of convening a national convention, a congress of the people,
representing all the people of this country irrespective of race or colour, to draw
up a Freedom Charter for the democratic South Africa of the future.5
This was far more advanced in scope than the convention mooted by the SAIRR whose
proposal did not include anything as inclusive as a congress of the people or as
inspirational as the idea of a freedom charter. All that the institute had said, up to that
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 149
point, was that the proposed convention would analyse the position of the non-European
peoples and that there might be a preliminary meeting to consider the desirability of an
agenda for the proposal.6 A conference about a conference. The context for these
proposals was the state‟s assault on human rights since 1950, which had exacerbated the
racial tensions in the country and made the need for an appropriate response urgent. The
summary termination of the Defiance Campaign in 1953 in the wake of the Criminal
Laws Amendment Act, and the continued presence on the statute books of the six specific
acts against which the Defiance Campaign was mounted, required at the very least, an
assertion of the demands for equal rights for all South Africans and a new call for the
abolition of discriminatory legislation.
Interestingly, in July 1951 about two years before Z.K.‟s intervention at Cradock,
The Guardian, probably speaking at least for the Congress leadership and some members
of the former Party (the SACP was not yet formed) wrote in an editorial entitled “Votes
for All!”:
the time has come for a South African Chartist movement … There is nothing
illegal or subversive about such a movement. Its aim is not to destroy parliament
but to convert it into a true parliament of the people, not to restrict the vote to one
section, but to open it to all.7
The editorial had little faith in the government undertaking any fundamental changes in
the conditions of the black population:
It was only the power of the organization of the non-European people themselves
who would succeed in extracting the franchise from the ruling group … The
father-child relationship between white and black in South Africa is played out.
The wards have remained wards for three hundred years and are no nearer
citizenship.8
The notion of a Chartist movement, however, was left in abeyance as the chosen course of
action was civil disobedience. After the summary ending of that action, an analysis of its
strengths and weaknesses prompted the congress leadership to mount a more allembracing mass action which would, in its assessment, match the heightened political
awareness that the Defiance Campaign had created. It was also important for the morale
of its supporters that action be taken against the regime‟s punitive response to political
protest. For all these reasons, the idea of a Congress of the People at which the delegates
would adopt a Freedom Charter which would assert the demand for civil rights for all
South Africans, seemed to be the appropriate next step. As it happened, it excited the
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 150
imagination of the masses and soon became a force with which the regime had to contend
even more seriously than it had the Defiance Campaign.
As the Chartist movement took root, the leadership of the national movements added
flesh to the original proposal and fine-tuned the concept of a charter, at the same time
clarifying the proposal for a Congress of the People. It would not be “a mere get together
of delegates” but the broadest representative assembly of direct representatives of
ordinary people of all races ever held. It would reach out to the masses “whether or not
they belonged to the [national] organizations” and unite with them in calling for such an
assembly. The movement would enable all lovers of freedom “to go on the attack and
sweep the country with a clear and limited call for freedom”.9 The leadership believed
that this was an objective which ordinary people understood and about which “all levels
of the congress membership were passionate”. That this assessment was accurate was to
some extent manifested in the intensity of our activity and the language of the campaign.
This last, was essentially the genius of Rusty Bernstein who as the movement‟s
“publicist”, reached out to the masses with a quality of prose that matched the
expectations of the occasion. Accordingly, the Freedom Charter helped to “mobilize the
people up and down the land and awaken an echo [for freedom] in their hearts”.
When the leaders of the national organizations met in March 1954, they elected a
joint planning committee accountable to the National Action Council, an instrument that
had already proved itself in developing the working unity of the congress organizations
during the Defiance Campaign. Collectively the NAC gave some form to the campaign,
which at that point was still a stimulating idea without shape or structure. Its first meeting
was held in Stanger, Natal, near the home village of Chief Luthuli, who was restricted to
that area. A number of important decisions were taken there that set the course for the
COP, ensuring that it would be people-driven, decentralized and start immediately.
Accordingly, local Peoples‟ Convention committees would be formed in every village and
reserve; the same would be done in the cities and towns and in the rural areas throughout
the country. Because their purpose was to mobilize and inspire the people, their first task
was to call public meetings to hear what grievances people had and what they thought
should be included in a freedom charter. The idea was that they should effectively
participate in the drafting of such a document, the contents of which “will emerge from
countless discussions among the people themselves … [and] be in every sense of the word
the charter of the ordinary man and woman”.10 Interestingly, the form of that assembly
and the election of the representatives to it, initially assumed the symbolic image of “a
parliament of elected delegates of the people” and the act of electing the delegates, “a
general election”. To emphasize the point, Advance of 8 April 1954 referred to the
assembly as “a new parliament”, adding that the Cape Town parliament represented noone but the white minority in South Africa. Accordingly it told its readers, “Let‟s elect a
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 151
new parliament – a peoples‟ parliament …” I was not on the COP working committee but
Rusty Bernstein who was present at that first meeting, noted in his autobiography that as
he listened to Professor Z.K. Matthews expounding his ideas, “a small internal voice was
telling me that it sounded suspiciously like treason …”.11 At the time I thought of the
various committees (approvingly) as a form of Soviet (Council) with shades of St
Petersburg in 1917, and was not quite sure precisely what the next step would be.
In retrospect, I think it was the novelty of the approach to the campaign for the COP
that appealed to the people‟s imagination; its emphasis on hearing rather than telling
people what was important to them; the spontaneity of its style; its insistence that
everything that touched their lives – whether it was education, employment, shelter or the
ordinary freedoms associated with speech, movement, justice or equity – were human
rights and proper subjects for a freedom charter. The idea of writing all this down and
“telling it like it is” was in itself empowering and was at the same time an assertion of our
rights, when these were being whittled away with scant regard for the people affected.
The irony of a people feeling its way “towards the inspiring goal of a fully democratic
state for all South Africa” when the country was faced with the stark alternative “of going
completely fascist”, did not escape Walter Sisulu who was encouraged by the favourable
conditions “the work of the liberation movement” had created for the success of the
Congress of the People.12 The idea of the COP had captured his imagination no less than
it had many in the leadership and activists in its ranks, including my own. He was excited
by the possibilities it offered and thought the event would be the most significant in the
country‟s history “for there for the first time would meet in a great assembly … the true
representatives of the people”. The elected delegates would come from diverse centres
“carrying with them their resolutions, demands and grievances of all sorts from the people
who sent them”.13
This excitement was captured in “The Call to the Congress of the People”, a
passionate document in the format of a leaflet, drafted for the working committee by
Rusty Bernstein under the imprint of the National Action Council of the Congress of the
People. Rusty was obviously touched by the emotions that the idea of the COP had
aroused. He was not by nature overtly passionate and but for a gifted facility to turn a
phrase to the most compelling advantage, he was taciturn by temperament and usually set
himself at a distance from others. When he wrote, reason supported by solid argument,
usually prevailed over emotion.
“The Call” (the first of the major documents of the campaign) was an exception, an
indication of the extent to which Bernstein was personally inspired by the egalitarian
idealism of the action. Its stirring message reached out “to brothers without land and
children without schooling”; to the farmers in the reserves; to the miners “in the dark
shafts and cold compounds, far from their families”; and to the farm workers and workers
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 152
in the factories. It called on them to speak of long hours, housing and pass laws, of taxes
and of cattle-culling and of famine, ending with the repetitive refrain:
Let us speak together, all of us together – African and European, Indian and
Coloured. Voter and voteless. Privileged and rightless. The happy and the
homeless … Let us speak of freedom.14
The leaflet closed with an appeal to form committees to campaign for the Congress of the
People and to gather in groups to send in their demands for the proposed freedom charter.
It is interesting that early understandings of the event were centred on the idea of a
charter emerging in situ from the demands and grievances of the thousands of delegates
present at the “great assembly”.15 Sisulu initially expressed this (as already noted) when
he said, “there for the first time would meet in a great assembly … the true representatives
of the people … carrying with them their resolutions, demands and grievances of all sorts
from the people who sent them”. The logistical implications of such a process, were it to
have happened, would have been unimaginable and as events turned out a huge disaster,
because the COP in its closing stages was surrounded by the police and the army, even as
the Charter was being adopted. Fortunately the organization of the COP and ideas on the
presentation of the Freedom Charter crystallised during the course of the eighteen
month‟s campaign and in the end a draft document was presented to the “assembled”
delegates largely compiled from the “demands” that had been submitted to the COP for
adoption. The remarkable feat achieved (by Bernstein who drafted the Charter on behalf
of the National Action Council) was that the document had the spontaneity of a peoples‟
charter and the resonance of the diverse demands for rights that were submitted over the
many months of the campaign.
It was an age of charters. The localized, grassroots style of the COP campaign was
taken up by women: ANC members, church congregants, trade unionists and housewives
attended in large numbers at a conference in Johannesburg in April 1954, just as the
campaign for the COP was getting under way. They adopted a Charter of women‟s rights,
resolutions embodying the demands of women “who came forward to tell of their
hardships, their dreams and their aspirations”.16 Significantly, they also passed a
resolution to form a federation of South African women‟s organizations, which gave rise
to the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and subsequently played a
legendary role in mobilizing women for the struggle. There were two aspects of the
conference that I recall quite clearly. The first was the identification of the local struggles
of women with the international movement of women for equity at work and at home.
The impact of this was to place this ordinary meeting of women from the smaller and
larger towns and cities in South Africa on a world stage with women everywhere. This at
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 153
least was the impression I had, listening to the speeches on that occasion. There were 150
women delegates who seemed to come from all over South Africa, representing more than
230 000 women.17 Hilda Watts Bernstein spoke of the struggle of women for peace;
Fatima Meer addressed the meeting on the terrible disabilities of Indian women in South
Africa; Ida Mtwana, fiery and militant as ever, on the struggles of African women as
mothers, as wives and workers. Duma Nokwe, the only male on the platform, fresh from a
trip abroad, spoke of the emancipation of women in China. He was dwarfed in height by
Ray Alexander who stood next to him and reminded the delegates that they were not
alone but were joined by working women throughout the world. What I remember most
about the event was the new division of labour arising from the inversion of “traditional”
tasks where the women were the delegates who made impressive presentations to the
conference while the men provided the catering and rendered all the services. Paul Joseph
captured this in an amusing piece in Fighting Talk where he wrote:
A visit to the kitchen showed a hub of activity. You would find John Motsabi,
banned secretary of the Transvaal ANC, and Youth Leaguer Harrison Motlana
slicing ham …Young Faried Adams would be preparing biscuits and munching
some at the same time. Leon would be washing lettuce while Norman would be
preparing fruit.18
The conference took up much of my time and energy. I remember making several
journeys in my battered car to meet the delegates at the old Johannesburg train station,
transporting them to the various houses where they were to be accommodated and later
ferrying them to the Trades Hall where the conference was held. After that, the catering
was an easy task.
“A genuine parliament”
If there was anyone who could connect the national and international struggles it was
Moses Kotane. Banned from public speaking and from the ANC, his Party outlawed
under the Suppression of Communism Act, he was still able to make political
interventions through the columns of Advance, the movement‟s feisty newspaper. It was
not an open secret that he was the general secretary of the new Party (or even publicly
known that he was a member of the SACP) but as the former general secretary of the
CPSA, his interventions were treated seriously. Kotane placed South Africa in a world
context. The current policy in South Africa had its origins in colonialism and the Empire;
it was rooted in the basic structure of South Africa, based on cheap labour and the
deprivation of democratic rights; it rested on the granting of concessions and monopolies
in business, political representation and commercial opportunities as well as skills and
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 154
professions to the white middle class and the (white) working class in order to buy their
support and sustain South Africa‟s top-heavy structure. “Only on such a soil could the vile
doctrines of apartheid take root and flourish … The choice was between suffering an
increasingly brutal dictatorship or emancipating the majority in a multi-racial democracy
with equal rights for all.”19 The liberation movement, a serious opponent of fascism, he
stressed, was the only major opposition to stand up to the government. The
representatives of big business and the mine owners feared democracy more than
dictatorship and sought a political compromise with the Nationalists under the guise of
stability; in reality, this was for the protection of their investments.
Warming to the recent campaigns undertaken by the liberation movement, Kotane
warned that a movement that failed to go forward would go backward. It was the absence
of a great central task, common to all democrats, that was a retarding factor during the
year between the ending of the Defiance Campaign and the COP. The Congress of the
People was just the task to unite the great majority against fascism.
It would be a great exaggeration to claim that any substantial section of the white
population has yet granted the vital truths that the real alternative to a fascist
republic is a genuine all-embracing democracy; that any real struggle against the
autocratic Swart–Malan state is in allying with the Non-European majority. It is
in the field of race relations that the Nationalists must be met and defeated if any
sort of harmonious development is to take place.20
He concluded this part of his long statement with the seemingly gentle warning that those
who were against the democratic majority “may preserve their freedom or their
unscientific prejudices but they cannot preserve both”.
Kotane displayed the same level of excitement at the idea of the COP as Sisulu,
despite the former‟s cautious tendency to stand back and subject the movement‟s policies
to rigorous scrutiny and analysis. The idea of millions of ordinary men and women
electing their representatives to a “real” assembly and discussing “how South Africa
should be governed, who should elect the men and women who make the laws, how these
should be administered … at meetings great and small throughout South Africa”, fired his
political imagination and led him to conclude that the Freedom Charter “could become an
historic document, guiding the way forward to a new and better life”.21 That is not to say
that he did not have his own ideas on what the Charter should include. In his view it had
to do more than express “pious hopes in words that mean all things to all men”. It had at
least to claim the four freedoms. These however were not the conventional freedoms of
speech, assembly, movement and equality before the law that come to mind. What Kotane
was saying was that unless “the rich farmlands were shared among their rightful owners”
and “the mines and monopoly-owned industries become the property of the people” and
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 155
“workers were guaranteed the right to free trade unions … and wages were sufficient for a
civilised life [which included the provision of houses schools and hospitals]” there could
be no freedom. 22 These ideas clearly helped to set the tone for the Charter.
It was Bernstein‟s task to resolve the tension between the specificity of Kotane‟s
characterization of the Charter, and the need for an open-ended document, acceptable to
the “broad church” of the Congress Alliance. Kotane‟s significant “suggestions”
regarding the contents of the Freedom Charter on the subjects of the land, mines, workers‟
wages, and social services (including education and health), were addressed later when
the demands were sorted, catalogued and interpreted. All the topics he raised were
important, but the most pressing questions at the time concerned the “who” and the “how”
of the COP. For the moment, the joint executives of the four organizations and the NAC
addressed themselves to matters of process and (for the sake of clarity) rehearsed their
original proposals. The COP would be a mass assembly of delegates elected by people of
all races, not only in the cities, but also in every village, mine, farm and kraal. As
representatives of the people the delegates would consider detailed demands
“incorporated and embodied in a Declaration”.23 This was an advance on previous
thinking on how the charter would “emerge”. Local COP committees would be set up on
a provincial basis as well as in the towns, factories, suburbs and streets. As to the
questions of who would be elected and how the people would vote for them, the directives
were clear: delegates would be elected by direct vote and speak directly at the COP. (The
NAC emphasized that the people had suffered enough from indirect representation in the
all-white parliament and were fed up with the contempt with which government had
treated the natives representatives in parliament and the members of the NRC, who were
elected (indirectly) through electoral colleges). This assembly would be a genuine
parliament. Anyone over the age of eighteen, without distinction of colour or sex could
vote and election day would everywhere be an occasion for great political demonstration
and rallies.
Meanwhile thousands of activists would be called upon to prepare for the COP
“stage by stage”. There was also (an overly optimistic) call for 50 000 volunteers to
mobilise opinion, assist the COP and help organize the resistance to the Western Areas
removal scheme.24 The progress of the campaign and absorption of the leadership in
ensuring its success, unnerved the government who in a moment of alarm acted
punitively, banned the most prominent of the leaders, made dire threats that the various
congresses were embarking “on a reign of terror and intimidation to create panic among
Europeans to provoke a bloodbath” and followed this up with a wide range of police raids
on our offices and homes, while at the same time threatening arrests. In July 1954,
Brigadier C.I. Rademeyer (parroting the Minister of Justice) accused the members of the
NAC of being “mainly named communists in contact with foreign envoys”.25 When
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 156
Sisulu denied this vigorously he was served with an order under the Suppression of
Communism Act, forcing him to resign as secretary general of the ANC and from the
organization within 30 days. At the same time, he was forbidden to attend gatherings for
the next two years. This was not only a punitive measure against an outspoken highranking official but another putsch in which a new layer of leadership was silenced.
Almost the entire NEC of the ANC was banned. Chief Luthuli and Oliver Tambo
were prohibited from holding office or carrying out any activities in their organization, as
were the Reverend James Calata from the ANC in the Eastern Cape; Isaac Moumakoe of
the Council of Non-European Trade Unions; Rica Hodgson of the South African
Congress of Democrats and Harold Wolpe for his work on the Peace Council. Sisulu‟s
banning was not the only overtly punitive one. In the following month Joe Slovo, a
member of the NEC of COD as well as its representative on the National Action Council
of the COP was banned from attending gatherings and forbidden to participate in 35
organizations in which he was alleged to have been active. Ahmed Kathrada, then aged
25, a passive resister in 1946 and previously arrested during the Defiance Campaign in
1952, was banned from a long list of 38 organizations to which he was said to have been
connected.
At the same time M.P. Naicker, the vice-president and organizing secretary of the
Natal Indian Congress, was silenced for two years and ordered to resign from all
organizations in which he was active. “M.P.” as he was known, an articulate and affable
person who died early, was feverishly active in the organization of the COP in the Natal
region and the kingpin around much of the congress activity there. Just before his banning
in October 1954, he had organized a highly successful rally in Natal at which Chief
Luthuli was due to speak. Banned from attending the event, Luthuli sent an inspiring
written address, posing the questions: “Shall it be freedom for all in our land or for whites
only? Shall it be an indefinite continuation of the status quo or a marching together for
freedom?” The roar from the crowded gathering as they listened attentively to his
questions was an unmistakeable indication that they endorsed the suggestion of marching
together for freedom. The success of the rally probably prompted the banning order that
was served on Naicker.
Apart from an attempt to cripple the resistance to the regime and target the most
prominent members of the various congresses, the proscription of the leadership from all
political activity was intended to prevent the COP from happening. An inevitable target in
this wave of repression was the movement‟s newspaper, Advance, which had so patently
disseminated the information “week by week” about the COP campaign and had opened
its columns to Kotane and Sisulu for their analytical contributions. Predictably, the
newspaper‟s offices were raided under Section 7 of the Suppression of Communism Act,
in tandem with the police raids nationally, and the paper was threatened with banning.
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 157
This occurred six weeks later, on 12 October 1954. The editor (Brian Bunting, now
expelled from parliament and back at his desk) responded to the government‟s notice of
closure by informing subscribers: “We regret to advise you that our paper Advance has
been dictatorially suppressed by government and we are therefore unable to supply you
with a copy in terms of your subscription with us”. “However”, he added matter-of-factly
and obviously masking a great deal of pride, “we enclose herewith a copy of a new paper,
which is now being published …”.26
The paper was entitled New Age. Brian Bunting was again editor, as he had been
with The Guardian and The Clarion. The first edition of New Age appeared sixteen days
after the banning of the “old” paper and to all intents and purposes carried on the intrepid
traditions of its predecessors, with a few changes in style and editorial presentation. The
country‟s media generally ignored the paper‟s peremptory banning, leading Bunting to
write in the first number of New Age, which appeared on 28 October 1954: “Where then
are the editorials of the Opposition press condemning the suppression of Advance …
Where are the protests of the political leaders to boost their stand for the preservation of
Western democracy? … All is in silence.” It seemed that however much the political
opposition disagreed with the ugly thrust of the National Party government, the ranks
closed around the “white” consensus whenever the crunch came. Kotane‟s insight was as
pertinent as ever, that there was as yet no “substantial section of the white population that
has granted the vital truths that the real alternative to a fascist republic [was] an allembracing democracy”.27 Cooperation with the non-European majority was in his view all
that could save them from fascism. This they resisted for a further five decades, during
which there was a protracted armed struggle, an international crusade against apartheid
and financial sanctions to make the white consensus accept the “vital truths” that Kotane
saw so clearly in 1954. The alternative was the National Party‟s variant of fascism, which
they clung to until the very end.
It was hard to believe that things could get worse. As Malan retired to make way for
J.G. Strijdom, the ANC Working Committee warned in December 1954:
The fully-fledged fascists have taken control of the Nationalist Party. We have
never been under any illusion about the coming into being of the police state …
The election of` Strijdom will mean a step forward in the direction of an
Afrikaner republic … on the pattern of the Hitlerite Republic of Nazi Germany
… We ask our people to prepare for darker days … under the leadership of a
fascist prime minister.28
This was not to suggest that the premiership of Malan was bland. The editorials of
Advance had already referred to Malan‟s six year‟s in office as the most disgraceful in
South Africa‟s history. He had paved the way for the extremism of Strijdom by creating
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 158
the structure of a dictatorship based on repressive legislation to outlaw communism (a
catchword for the suppression of all serious political opposition); stretched the rule of law
and enacted draconian legislation against all manner of protest. He had also introduced
labour legislation that was already more controlling than anywhere else in the world and
“slammed the doors of learning in the face of the African people”. His uninhibited racism
had found expression in the creation of residential ghettoes and the extension of the
dompas system (pass laws). Details of every individual‟s ethnic origin had to be recorded
in identity documents for the purpose of racially segregating the population. In the case of
all but white people, these were used to enforce regulatory controls on movement,
property ownership, residence and basic services.29 As if this was not the whole story,
Malan‟s vision extended to legislation against racially mixed sexual unions and interracial
marriages. Wryly the newspaper Advance, in its last breath of life, wrote that Malan‟s
retirement “had given him the unenviable privilege of being able to read his own obituary
notice”.30
This was the context in which the Congress Alliance prepared for the COP. The
irony was that we were planning for a democratic constitution of the future South Africa
in the most open forum in our history at a time when we were literally fighting for the
political space to exert any rights at all. The banning of the effective leadership of the
liberation movement made working more difficult, covert and fraught with the anxiety of
infringing the restrictive orders of the banned individuals with whom we met in
committees, sometimes in short meetings and sometimes over tea cups which curiously
contained no tea.
It also stretched the energy of those who were not yet restricted. I found myself
campaigning for the COP as well as speaking out against the concept of Bantu Education
and later in 1955 and 1956 applying my half-baked experience as a teacher in the creation
of informal syllabi for the Cultural Clubs (formed in April 1955 to provide alternative
education when the ANC called upon parents to withdraw their children from Verwoerd‟s
schools). Then there were the clandestine meetings of the SACP and the “legal” activities
in COD and of course, my school work. This took the last place in my scale of priorities
as I wondered whether I would eventually be arrested in front of the pupils or whether
they would read of it in the newspapers or find out through the whispered conversations
of the unsuspecting school staff. As it happened, the reality was worse than any of these
scenarios, yet like everyone else I carried on, notwithstanding the police raids and the
ominous warnings of ministers of state that the axe was soon to fall. Treason was not, at
that moment, in the forefront of my mind.
Yet it should have been. Exactly one year before the Freedom Charter was adopted
on 26 June 1955, over 100 police armed with automatic weapons raided a 26 June
freedom rally at the Trades Hall in Johannesburg. We‟d had greetings from different
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 159
centres and a stirring message from Chief Luthuli on the significance of 26 June in the
ANC‟s historical calendar. It was a day to be revered because it enshrined the
determination of the oppressed people in South Africa to fight for liberation “and the
realisation of a government of the people and for the people – and not Europeans only!”31
It was a crowded rally with representatives from trade unions, the ANC and the other
congresses and, as far as I could tell, a substantial number of other individuals for whom
attending meetings was as commonplace as going to church. Banners carried congress
slogans all around the hall which still hung framed pictures, fixtures from a previous era,
of a bearded Marx and a whiskered Bill Andrews on the wall above the speakers‟ table.
Speeches were, among others, about the Western Areas removal scheme, Bantu
education, trade union legislation and the COP. The multiplicity of issues that the rally
addressed were not for want of focus, but to link the COP with all the other campaigns
that were simultaneously taking place.
The meeting had just agreed to raise 15 000 “Luthuli volunteers” when the police
invaded the hall. We were accustomed to the presence of police at our meetings but it was
unusual for them to disrupt the proceedings with a flourish of automatic weapons. They
ordered us to sit down while they took our names and addresses, but the audience was
quite undaunted by the police presence. Soon they started up a “struggle song” to pass the
time and show their contempt for the police presence. As they ended one song they‟d
strike up another and then another and another. I‟d chime in when I knew the words, but it
was heartening enough just to sit and listen and be part of the scene. In hindsight, the
audience was astonishingly cool, especially as the police were so heavily armed and
patently there to find evidence for the government‟s intention to “investigate a case of
treason”.
This was not the first time the word “treason” had been bandied about, but as ever,
we chose not to hear it. In reporting the incident New Age struck a note of feigned outrage
when it rejected the pending charges of treason: “Police officials”, it asserted,
had the incredible effrontery to say they had raided the Trades Hall in the course
of investigating a case of treason … What year is this that armed bands stamp
into the assemblies of the people to flourish guns in their faces? Is this 1933? Are
we again seeing a kind of nightmare of history, the march of the Hitlerite
jackboot against the very heart of liberty?32
I think we knew that the state was doing its utmost to present the campaign as treasonable,
but we believed ours to be a peaceful protest in which there was no plan, either overt or
covert to overthrow the state by force of violence. The idea that it was treasonable was
simply scare-mongering. However, had the matter preoccupied our attention, the COP
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 160
may well have not occurred and the Freedom Charter not written. However, I doubt
whether the possibility that either the campaign or the Charter were treasonable would
have stopped us from campaigning for the COP. Where we were naïve was to think that
the absence of evidence would prevent the state from proceeding with charges. It was a
twilight moment for the rule of law.
Three Phases
The NAC had set out three stages for the holding of the COP, as it had with the Defiance
Campaign earlier, and as it would later do with the campaigns against Bantu education
and the Western Areas removal scheme. The neatness of the planning was admirable, but
in the end turned out to be too inflexible to be followed sequentially or carried out to the
letter. The three stages of the COP included a first phase which would encompass the
recruitment of 5 000 volunteers and the creation of provincial committees to direct the
campaign regionally, and (in the Transvaal) complete arrangements for the venue. The
second and third stages ran into each other. Stage two provided for the establishment of
local committees (about two thousand were thought to be appropriate). The purpose of
these was to gather proposals for inclusion in the Freedom Charter; prepare detailed plans
for the election procedure; and beef up the number of volunteer recruits from 5 000 to 50
000! Stage three involved the convening of the COP, drafting the Charter based on the
demands that were submitted, and publicising the event. There was more precision in the
rhetoric than in practice, but volunteers did in fact take their tasks seriously and the NAC
kept fairly rigidly to its working schedule.
The Transvaal Provincial COP committee where I was most active, established itself
in the province in July 1954 and initially organized a successful meeting to which trade
unions, political organizations, religious, sporting, cultural and social bodies were invited.
It is not clear how many delegates attended from the churches and political organizations
but the hall was full and the meeting lively, especially the speech by Joe Slovo (banned a
few months later) whose down-to-earth and practical approach – evident during the days
of the YCL – singled him out from others. There was no intrusion of an armed posse of
police on this occasion and the rule of law was for the moment upheld when members of
the special branch of the police intruded and were successfully ejected from the meeting.
This was possibly due to the intervention of Slovo, who together with two others obtained
a provisional interdict from Judge Blackwell in Chambers. The judge‟s ruling was a
victory for human rights and was maniacally cheered by the delegates when it was read to
them. The preliminary interdict (to be argued in court later in the month) read: “The
people have the right to assemble in this country to discuss matters of mutual interest and
the police have no right to interfere …”.33
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 161
For the moment the law had triumphed, but the police were conspicuously present at
all our meetings after this, leading the ANC to respond with some sharpness that “in all
matters affecting Africans today the police have a final say and the power of veto …”.34
In its report to the annual conference at the end of 1954, the ANC once more cynically
reminded its members that due to the appointment of Strijdom as prime minister and the
dismal record of the National Party government “we can now promise you nothing but
greater hardship, more forced labour, bannings and deportation … a suspension of the rule
of law and other manifestations of the principle of government by brutal force”.35
With barely six months to go before the COP was due to be held, the careering pace
of repression made the holding of the gathering increasingly imperative “not merely for
the progressive movement but for the whole of oppressed South Africa”.36 So said the
organizers of the COP in a call to the people to submit their demands for the Freedom
Charter. It was (technically) the third stage of the campaign and demands were coming in
at a gratifying rate, though time was running out. It was February 1955 and the National
Action Council had set the dates for the COP elections. These would be held between
March and 15 April, and for the actual meeting of the Congress of the People to take
place not later than June 1955. Responding to pressures to speed up the submission of
demands, groups of activist-volunteers urged workers everywhere to increase their efforts
“to speak together of work, land, laws, food and governance … and … write it all
down”.37
The response was greater than we expected. “National Demands Day” was Sunday
20 February 1955, but proposals for inclusion in the Freedom Charter came flooding in
from all over the country on all manner of topics until the very end of the campaign. It
was only the whites who failed to respond, despite a leaflet we distributed on behalf of the
COD, naively entitled “Is Everything Right in South Africa?” It asked:
Are you content with the high cost of living? … Are you content with the
interference with the right to speak freely … the right of the police to enter your
homes on the flimsiest of pretexts … the threat to deprive African children of the
right to a genuine education … the threat to the freedom of your newspaper?
Finally we asked (superfluously): “Why not add these to your demands on the Freedom
Charter?”38
It was clearly right to make the appeal. The campaign was about raising
consciousness and these were the issues that concerned everyone in the country. But
before the white section of the population could believe that these too were their concerns,
pigs would have to grow wings. The whites lived in a different country, impervious to
Luthuli‟s appeals for change. He wrote in New Age:
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 162
The future of the country appears dark and a great uncertainty has set in
everywhere in the land ... No-one is sure of his home anymore; … people are
being haunted by the Group Areas Act; they are being removed in the Western
Areas of Johannesburg; threatened with removal in the Western Cape, Natal, the
Transkei and other parts of the country … The political situation has never been
so critical.39
He was speaking to all South Africans. But none of this seemed to concern the white
minority. They were untouched by the Group Areas Act and oblivious of the havoc it
caused. For them, the words uncertainty, insecurity and crisis were the cries of agitators
and their meaning had no place in their sheltered world.
There was a blanket of silence on the COP from whites, while the mainstream media
ignored the encouraging reports from the ANC that delegates from all over the country
were expected to arrive en masse at the COP, now set for 26 June. They sent “demands”
for inclusion in the Charter from their workplaces in the factories in the major cities; the
gold mines on the East and West Rand and in the Free State; from remote districts in the
four provinces – and from wherever the call had reached them. At midnight before the
COP took place, the residents of Fordsburg and Vrededorp in Johannesburg were
showered with square-shaped leaflets, showing the Congress Alliance wheel, bearing an
explanation of what it meant and where the COP would be held.
Meanwhile, the diversity of the items for inclusion in the Charter defied
classification as they arrived written on homespun strips of paper, on pieces of cardboard,
envelopes and cigarette boxes. Some of the submissions were succinct (perhaps the size
of the pieces of paper on which they were written had been a constraint; or possibly they
were brief because of their basic nature). Other demands, longer and less elementary,
were set out on foolscap sheets of paper or in a school exercise book, possibly written by
a schoolboy scribe specially conscripted “to write it all down”. Half a century later, I can
still remember placing all these in my briefcase at the end of a meeting and taking them to
the COP offices to be sifted into topics, sorted and classified. In the frenzy of this activity
there was little time to think that this was history in the making, although a delegate at an
NAC indaba in Durban reportedly said just that.40
Assembling the Charter
Classification was easy for those demands that dealt with a single subject, like “Police
brutality must stop!” or “A good sports field for Kliptown!” But into which category was
the demand for “A better life for shebeen-owners” to go? And how was one to interpret
the longer, more philosophical contributions? The movement owes a large debt to Rusty
Bernstein and the small team that assisted him in creating the Charter from these items of
“history in the making” filed in rows all over the carpet of his living room and heaps more
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 163
lying in the wooden chest near the window, still to be sorted. Sometimes I thought Rusty
had not moved from his chair in his busy living room. We met there for editorial board
meetings of the journal Fighting Talk and for clandestine meetings of the SACP. I
remember entering the room and carefully skirting around these early intimations of the
country‟s future, the assorted submissions spread in apparent working order on the floor
beside Rusty‟s chair. He looked under pressure at the time and I have no doubt that he
was. Yet, he had time to write an article in Fighting Talk just before the Charter was
finally drafted: “Somewhere in this campaign,” he wrote,
the idea has filtered through to the men and women in the shack towns and the
backyards that they can make their future far more capably than all the politicians
… [This] has shown itself in the calm, self-confident tone of the demands that
have poured in.41
Normally detached and reticent, he was thoroughly captivated by “the quick
understanding among unlettered working people” reflected in the demands.42
But when it came to the task of writing the Charter, he put sentiment aside and
became the consummate pro while at the same time retaining the impassioned prose style
he had adopted since the campaign began. Banned and isolated he took no visible part in
the public functions of the working committee and in his own words concentrated on
turning “our thousands of bits of paper into a draft Freedom Charter”.43
He soon discovered that it was more than “just a writing job”. The task had been left
to the very end while the logistics of the COP itself were addressed and preparations for
the meeting made. Each of the ten chapters that emerged from his labours would normally
have needed weeks of discussion. For instance, in the debates at CODESA, the institution
established after 1990 to negotiate the shape of South Africa‟s new Constitution, it took
nearly four years before agreement was reached. Similarly, the White Paper on the
transformation of the public service (prepared after Nelson Mandela became president in
1994) took at least eighteen months to consider. It was one thing to categorize the paper‟s
contents, but another to assemble it in a framework that reflected the aims of the new
democracy. As was the case then, it was the same in 1955 with the Freedom Charter. The
“demands” could not be simply reproduced as a shopping list of grievances and peoples‟
needs supported by desires and dreams. If the document was to conceptualize a political
democracy of the future South Africa, it had to be cast in a framework reflecting a
particular order of social transformation.
This was not the only difficulty in drafting the Charter. The long-term perspective
was to create a Freedom Charter for a democratic South Africa of the future, derived
“from countless discussions among the people themselves” making it in every sense a
charter of the ordinary man and woman.44 But as Bernstein noted, many of the grievances
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 164
were immediate and carried the nuances of the leaflets and pamphlets that were circulated
during the campaigns against the pass laws, Bantu education, forced removals and for the
holding of the COP. The demands were not associated with any particular form of
political philosophy. They called for freedom, justice and equality but these needed to be
contextualized according to a democratic political philosophy reflecting the sensibilities
of a people subjected to centuries of colonialism and the white consensus in South Africa.
If the demands were to make political sense they had to be interpreted and prioritized in a
context that was appropriate to these realities.
What made the Charter enduring was that it spoke to these concerns so directly. It
was for almost 40 years an impressionistic template of the dispensation that would
succeed apartheid. It appealed to African nationalists and socialists alike. For the
Communist Party it reflected the content of a stage in the revolutionary process towards
Socialism and for the ANC its guiding principles would help it to define its policies in
exile and offer a vision of the future for activists internally. It would bring equity into the
workplace, the economy and the polity and ultimately serve as a Bill of Rights in the new
South Africa. It could have been a pedestrian document, a shopping list of demands, but
its declaratory tone made it memorable and the extraordinary succinctness of its ten
chapters, each of them encapsulated by an apposite chapter heading, “The People Shall
Govern!”; “All Shall be Equal before the Law!”; “The People Shall Share in the
Country‟s Wealth!”; etc, reflected the vision of every constituency in the movement.
Michael Harmel compared it to the rousing proclamations of the French and American
revolutions and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. 45 At the same time it
addressed the peoples‟ grievances.
Bernstein was probably correct in thinking that there was little in the demands to
justify the inclusion of clauses in the Freedom Charter that reflected his socialist bias –
and at the same time – equally little to support any demands for a free market economy.46
In the end, the Charter was an excellent compromise, satisfying non-communists that its
contents were hospitable to the growth of capitalism, and communists that it would help
to create the conditions for a future socialist society. The options before Rusty when he
compiled the Charter were fairly clear. The early debates during the 1930s within the
Communist Party concerning an “Independent Native Republic” were well known to him
and the ideals of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) envisaged in that slogan
were pertinent when the Freedom Charter was written in 1955. Only the language had
changed.47 Many of the “demands” in the concept of the Native Republic and the NDR,
(with the possible exception of the clause on the economy, which might have been more
moderate when the NDR was initially conceived) would not have been out of place in the
Freedom Charter. Objectivity in creating an entirely original road map for a democratic
dispensation was a tall order for anyone. Bernstein had to deal with the heavy hand of past
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 165
debates and the current discussions in the SACP on the content of the national democratic
revolution. He would have been privy to these on the Johannesburg district Committee of
the SACP and the discussions of the Central Committee. Significantly, he must have got it
right in their eyes for his formulation of South Africa‟s future democracy was
subsequently incorporated in the Party‟s programme, entitled The Road to Freedom,
approved in 1962.
Besides all this, Bernstein could hardly have drafted the Charter without reference to
the seminal expectations of Kotane (the Party‟s general secretary) in whose view the
document should assert that the rich farmlands were to be shared among their rightful
owners; that the mines and monopoly-owned industries were to become the property of
the people; that workers were to be guaranteed the right to free trade unions; and that
wages were to be “sufficient” for a civilized life and include all the ingredients of a future
Bill of Rights – such as effective housing, education and health care. Without these, there
could be no democracy and no freedom.48 Because Kotane insisted that the Freedom
Charter should be unambiguous in its final form, it was not an easy document for Rusty to
write. But he did his best to create a document that would faithfully include the major
demands of the campaign and formulate them in such a way as to satisfy the many strands
of thinking in the movement. Whether this was feasible without expressing “pious hopes
in words that mean all things to all men”, is debatable. But the tightrope he had to walk
was formidable. The Charter remains a reference point for South Africa‟s future, although
(for socialists) some of the social and economic items would have to await changes in
(what they would refer to) as the “balance of class forces” before they could set the
country on a different path of development. But this document would be the start of it all.
What was interesting is that Bernstein actually wrestled with the problem of
objectivity, believing that it was in this instance a realizable ideal: “I would like to think
that I was always perfectly balanced and objective in my reading [of the demands]”, he
noted, “but that must remain a matter of doubt. Although I tried”.49 He began to outline a
skeleton Charter, but realized that the range was too wide and finally used only “those
demands, which seemed to fit the concept [of the „general flavour‟ of the submissions] …
discarding those that did not.”50 In so doing, he had stumbled on a path that would give
coherence to the document and a set of principles captured by the chapter headings of the
Charter, often better remembered than the concepts they summarize. He was right when
he doubted that he was, so to speak, drawing on a clean slate. The demands of the Charter
had meaning only insofar as they were cast in a framework of equal rights and social and
economic security as understood by the movement‟s leadership over three decades of
debate. He encapsulated these in the four major chapter headings: The People Shall
Govern!; All National Groups Shall Share in the Country‟s Wealth!; The Land Shall be
Shared among Those Who Work It!; All Shall be Equal before the Law! He hastily added
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 166
a preamble and a stirring conclusion to the chapters, showed it to a few colleagues “whose
judgement [he] valued” and made some amendments. According to him, from there it
went to an augmented COP Working Committee. They “in turn, approved it without
alteration only days before the great event itself”.51 There seems to have been some
debate on the economic clauses, but as the document was printed for distribution at the
COP on the eve of the Kliptown congress, it was not amended before its presentation to
the assembled delegates. A resolution urging a stronger chapter on the economy was
proposed by Turok and Nair at the COP, but whether the original draft was later amended
is not altogether clear.52
Making History at Kliptown
The Charter proved to be ground-breaking and the Kliptown congress at which it was
adopted, was a memorable occasion. The surge of delegates that gathered there from
every major centre of South Africa was the first intimation I had that the event might
fulfil our expectations and perhaps mark a turning point in the struggle. The idea of a
peoples‟ parliament and the adoption of a Freedom Charter demonstrably inspired the
participants as they converged on the makeshift square, marching and singing, bearing
banners and ANC flags for the very purpose, it seemed, of making history. They came
from all directions, many of the women in traditional dress, the youth in tee shirts and
jeans, the older men in suits and their Sunday best. A brass band led one delegation; a
troupe of pioneers another, and so it went. The children in the pioneer troupe were decked
out in green shirts, black shorts and bright yellow scarves. They were the Baputasela –
meaning literally “they show the way” – an ANC pioneer group largely from Orlando but
including a few children of white supporters of the ANC from Yeoville. From the way
their little legs moved in time to the beat from the band ahead of them, it was apparent
that they sensed the significance of the day and perhaps heard from their parents that they
“were the representatives of the future”, the generation that would not carry a pass or bear
the blight of Bantu education.
As they self-confidently entered the enclosure where I stood with others verifying
the credentials of the delegates, it would never have crossed my mind that the struggle
would be so protracted that the first beneficiaries of the Charter would not be these
children but their children or grandchildren. Their parents, meanwhile, were more likely
to become recruits of Umkhonto we Sizwe.53 Yet freedom seemed so imminent on that
day … The derelict space that marked the enclosure, previously full of black-jack and
“khaki weeds” had overnight been converted into a viable conference square. One of the
resolutions declared: “We proclaim that in this land, where most of the people own
nothing and know only poverty and misery, this Charter will become the most treasured
possession of all who are oppressed and of all who love liberty.”54
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 167
Historically covenants are identified with the hallowed ground on which they are
made. This site, virtually a field of thorns, was ours. On that day it was decorated with red
banners with inscriptions, bright red on black (soon to be exhibits in the Treason Trial)
which read “Down with Bantu Education!” and “Away with Passes!” Other banners (later
the subjects of separate court proceedings) bore the aspirational chapter headings of the
Charter. The platform, facing the tiers of seated delegates was decorated with a huge
green and gold banner bearing the Congress wheel, the symbol of national unity. Trains
ran intermittently from the railway tracks at the rear of the platform, drowning out the
words of the speakers, causing Father Trevor Huddleston to remark in a moment of quiet
that he had “never known the South African Railways to be so efficient” and attributed
this to “a demonstration to this Congress by the Minister of Transport”. He also noted the
symbolic presence of the Minister of Justice “who is quite well represented here in the
background”. He was referring to the overt presence of the special branch and the armed
police who later invaded the meeting. The “invasion” occurred only towards the end of
the second day, when there was just sufficient light for the security police to conduct their
searches and interrogate the delegates.
The first day of the Kliptown Congress was preoccupied with the reading of Chief
Luthuli‟s speech because the ANC president was banned from the gathering. Messages of
international support were also read. Luthuli‟s speech was prophetic: He wrote that 25
and 26 June:
will go down in history as a significant landmark, a turning point for the better, in
the struggle to make South Africa a paradise for freedom for all its peoples
regardless of their geographical and racial origin. Generations to come, who I
trust will be enjoying freedom will thank the Almighty for this occasion.55
The presentation of the Isitwalandlwe, a traditional honour for exceptional sacrifice
followed a little later. The awards were presented to Chief Albert Luthuli, Dr Yusuf
Dadoo and Father Trevor Huddleston (still too young to be part of the clerical
hierarchy).56 Only Trevor Huddleston could receive the award in person as the others
were banned from attending gatherings. True to form, Huddleston, when told of the award
a fortnight before the COP, considered it “a symbol of identification with those struggling
for the ideals of freedom”.57 He spoke for himself, but Luthuli and Dadoo would have
agreed.
The second day of the COP was devoted exclusively to the adoption of the Charter.
The speeches were not brilliant but the focus was on the adoption of the draft document.
What was notable was a new wave of leaders on the platform taking the place of those
who had been banned, many of them still very young and uneven in experience and
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 168
leadership quality. Moretsele, veteran of the ANC, whom I knew only for his convivial
restaurant near Diagonal Street, welcomed the delegates as ANC chairman of the host
province; Ronnie Press, an academic who had turned from science to trade unionism, read
the international messages of solidarity; a young Bhengu read the Charter in three
languages, Zulu, English and Sotho. Beyleveld, national chairman of COD, began with
the stirring preamble – there were no speakers on this section and no discussion. N.T.
Naicker, from the Natal Indian Congress, introduced the clause on the franchise and
George Peake, a burgeoning national leader in SACPO, spoke on equal rights. While
these cadres were new to the national stage they had been active locally. Similarly with
most of the others: Ben Turok, from the Western Cape and Billy Nair from Durban, both
of them in a very early stage of their careers. They spoke on the clause covering the
economy. Dr Sader of the SAIC spoke on equality before the law; Sonia Bunting (COD)
introduced the section on human rights; and Leslie Masina, a long-standing trade unionist,
led the section on social security. According to the New Age report on the Congress of the
People, “everybody wanted to speak and only a sprinkling could but they spoke for all the
others …”.58
The remaining scheduled speakers spoke under the pressure of the presence of the
security police who first entered the confines of the conference site and then mounted the
platform in force. Ezekiel Mphahlele, already a notable intellectual, later a prominent
essayist and writer, spoke on education just before the police made their appearance in the
conference arena in earnest. This however did not prevent him from sharing an absorbing
parable with the delegates about a snake that disturbed a dove‟s nest and ate her young,
only to be seized and killed by the united action of the animals in the forest. (The unity of
the animals was self-explanatory, but what were the police to make of the killing of the
snake? Fortunately he saw fit to explain that the story was only a metaphor for the
importance of united action of the people against injustice).59
Helen Joseph followed Ezekiel Mphahlele, speaking on “housing, security and
comfort”. As she finished, the police entered the enclosure, encircled the meeting and
mounted the platform in greater force. At that point, my brother Leon Levy, a trade
unionist and secretary of the South African Peace Council, began his speech on the
section of the Charter that dealt with “peace and friendship‟. His contribution was
concluded in time for Robert Resha to deliver the report on the credentials of the
delegates, and for the chairman to put the Charter to the vote, for which the support was
unanimous. This was the most astonishing achievement of the two days, because the
Charter would not have been adopted but for the strategic blunder of the security police
who had been present throughout the proceedings. Fortunately they were more intent on
drumming up evidence for a charge of treason than preventing the Charter from being
adopted. It was only in the final stages, late in the afternoon, that a large force of
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 169
policemen was suddenly rushed to the area in trucks. We ignored their presence and
continued to listen to the speeches. Beyleveld, the chairman, took his cue from the
delegates who were quite determined to complete the day‟s agenda, and let the meeting
continue.
The specific purpose of the raid soon became clearer when about 15 special branch
detectives, escorted by a group of police armed with sten guns, mounted the platform and
announced that treason was suspected. Searches followed and every document in sight
was confiscated while the names and addresses of all the delegates were noted down.60
What the security police lacked in political strategy, the ordinary police made up for in
the thoroughness of their operational planning. Mounted police sealed off the rear of the
conference site near the railway line and a double cordon of armed constables surrounded
the entire enclosure in order to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the site. They had
allowed for a laborious process of name-taking and searching and erected hurricane lamps
over two tables – one for black delegates and another for the whites – from which the
security police recorded the names and addresses of those present until approximately 8
p.m. What lingers most in my memory, after 50 years, is the excitement, almost euphoria,
at having adopted the Freedom Charter in the shadow of the presence of the security
police. I recall the delegates‟ persistent singing while the detectives in plain clothes
placed the documents found on each person in envelopes and photographed the white
delegates (the crowd was too numerous for them to extend the privilege equally to all the
black delegates). At last it was over and we filed out of the Kliptown site in a long line
into the dark night. We may have been uncertain of the future, but we were in no doubt
that history was being made.
Fiasco
There is always at least one near-fiasco at an event such as the COP and I was responsible
for causing it. Shortly after Mphahlele‟s speech, the meeting was presented with the
report of the credentials committee. It was my task to collate the information from the
team of helpers who assiduously recorded the raw data supplied by the heads of
delegations as they entered the conference site. This included the number of delegates,
their province, city or town and their demographic and gender details. The credentials
team was highly efficient, consisting mostly of volunteers from COD and the Indian
youth who worked secretly at the south side of the conference square, recording this
information.
My task was to take the data by car to Ruth First who lived in Roosevelt Park, some
distance away, where we would assemble the information for presentation to the COP and
also draft a resolution pledging members of the Congress Alliance to work towards the
ideals of the Charter. Although the conference site was quite a distance from Ruth‟s
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 170
house, I knew the road intimately because as I had taken two temporary jobs near
Kliptown before making up my mind to enter the teaching profession. These were at a
brickworks near the Kliptown conference square and on a cattle farm near Roodepoort on
the West Rand. All this was at the end of the 1940s. It was bizarre work, which involved a
considerable amount of driving. Both firms were owned by the same employers who
needed me to record the cattle they bought and sold to local dairy farmers on the West
Rand and (on Fridays) drive along the Kliptown main road to pay the workers through the
tiny window of a shed at the brickworks. As a result of this I knew the road well and
could elude the security police if I was followed. All this I achieved without effort (as far
as I could tell I was not being tailed) and I drove along at a good speed to Ruth‟s place,
whistling the main themes of Beethoven‟s “seventh”, something I had picked up from our
Saturday night musical evenings at Percy Denton‟s in the late forties. Wolfie Kodesh, Joe
Slovo and Hetty September – all of them in the CPSA – would often be there. On this
occasion I revelled in the last movement of the symphony as I reflected on the success of
the COP and the excitement that the Charter had generated.
Ruth met me at the door (I could see that there were visitors on the lawn, at the side
of the house, but my coming was expected and did not bother her) and we sat down at a
small desk near the front door and worked on the credentials report and a few resolutions.
I conveyed to her the mood of the delegates, the ominous presence of the police and the
scene at the venue. There were nearly 3 000 delegates and almost as many observers. In
addition the delegates were from localities spread throughout the country. Ruth copied the
details of the audit for the New Age report, which she would file later in the day, and I
went on my way (driving confidently on auto pilot) back to Kliptown. Alas, as I was
whistling my head off, I looked down and did not find the credentials report, which I
thought I‟d placed on the seat next to me. Either I had inadvertently left it at Ruth‟s house
or conceivably thrown it in the waste paper basket under Ruth‟s desk with the other
papers I had dumped there! There was no other course than for me to return to the Slovo‟s
house and explain the problem.
Ruth‟s reaction to what she heard was uncharacteristically calm. Together we
searched for the loose pages of the report and then, as the conference time was running
out, quickly reconstructed the report from her notes and from the papers we‟d disposed of
in the wastepaper bin before I had left. If she thought I was an incompetent, she was too
generous in that instance to say so. The trip back to Kliptown was hardly triumphant. The
second movement of Beethoven‟s seventh symphony is a funeral march, which I did not
whistle on that occasion, but felt as if I should have done. On my arrival at the conference
site, I gave the report to Robert Resha whose charisma roused the 2 000 plus delegates to
loud cheers and although I was thoroughly distraught at the loss of the information, Ruth
and Robert had bailed me out.
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 171
In the article posted by Ruth First in New Age, she wrote:
Beneath the great green four-spoked Freedom Wheel, the symbol of the COP
campaign, 2 884 elected delegates of the people adopted the Freedom Charter …
pledging to strive, sparing neither strength nor courage, to win the democratic
changes set out in the Charter for all South Africans.
According to the credentials report the delegates came from “Natal, Sekhukuniland,
Zululand, Transkei, the Ciskei as well as farms and Trust Lands, mines and factories”.61
They came from all sections of the population, the overwhelming proportion of them,
African (2 186).62 The numbers would have been greater, but for the many delegates who
were turned back or arrested on their way to the COP. As Resha noted, “Some of the
delegates [were left] voiceless by the actions of the police [but] their demands are here
before us, even though they [the delegates] are not here”.63 Later, a New Age editorial
commented: “Every effort was made to smash the Congress. All roads to Johannesburg
were heavily guarded, and every vehicle was stopped which the police thought might
conceivably be carrying delegates … But still they came …”,64 including 60 delegates
travelling in two lorries from Beaufort West in the Cape; a lorry load from Standerton in
the Transvaal, another from Durban and yet another from Claremont. It was the same
story everywhere.
I visited Kliptown five decades later, on 26 June 2005, to celebrate the half
centenary of the COP. The celebration was officially hosted by the government of
Gauteng, which was in the process of transforming the Kliptown site into a “forum for
peace and democracy”. The place was a living memorial to the liberation struggle, and a
monument to Walter Sisulu, whose death had occurred a little earlier that year.65 Many of
us, now 50 years older, had not met since the COP in 1955. We talked excitedly all the
way to Kliptown, travelling in ten buses, one for each province, led through the busy
thoroughfares of Gauteng to the Kliptown Square by a squad of official cars, blue lights
flashing, sirens blaring, marshals signalling us through red traffic lights and carrying on as
if any other kind of display of respect for us would not do. We all talked at the same time,
behaving less like the old men and women we were, than the young activists we had been.
Only now the sirens we heard were not those of the police ushering us back to jail, but the
howl of the escort-cars leading us at break-neck speed to the scene of the “people‟s
parliament” that had been created 50 years before. A session of the National Assembly
had been held the previous day in one of the halls of the new building, and now as if in
contrast, the proceedings at the COP were vividly projected on to the wide screens, and
the contents of the Charter recited over loudspeakers for the benefit of veterans. But the
events scarcely needed recounting to that audience, for the COP was very much a part of
our generation‟s folk memory.
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 172
***
Postscript
Controversy: Africanism, Democracy and Socialism
After the COP, controversy followed. The Freedom Charter was endorsed by the NEC‟s
of each member organization of the Congress Alliance between 1956 and 1958, and a few
years later by the SACP in its 1962 Programme.66 The ANC, at the insistence of Chief
Luthuli discussed and accepted the Charter in each of the provinces and adopted it at a
special conference at Orlando, Johannesburg, on 1 April 1956. But the preamble was
unexpectedly controversial and as one prominent historian put it: “for „African
nationalists‟ within the Youth League and elsewhere in Congress, the inclusion of the
racial minorities in a broad notion of South African citizenship was unacceptable.” 67 For
the most part the debate was about ownership of the land, identity and pride. The African
people have an “inalienable” right to the land, they proclaimed. “Do stolen goods belong
to a thief and not to [their] owner?”68 This last was the query of an unidentified
contributor to the Africanist, journal of the African nationalist youth. The writer could
have been Mda, Roboroko or Robert Sobukwe – all of them outstanding nationalists,
professionals and intellectuals, and all of them of the view that dispossession from the
land was the African people‟s most common grievance. As the rightful owners of the
land, they argued, it should be returned to them.
The preamble to the Charter clashed with this in expressing the multiracial approach
that Chief Luthuli championed and which the ANC had adopted. However, while the
Charter was being written, new winds were blowing in Africa, stronger in the assertion of
African pride and selfhood than those expressed in the language of the ANC. Four months
before the Freedom Charter was compiled, Eugene du Bois, already in his mid-eighties
and a veteran civil rights leader in the US, had written an inspiring Freedom Charter for
Africa. This was published in full in New Age, which in its assertion that people of all
races were “welcome to Africa”, may have influenced Bernstein in his choice of preamble
to the Freedom Charter and the tone of some of the specific chapters of the draft itself.
But du Bois‟ understanding of who were Africans was just as problematic for the ANC‟s
critics as Bernstein‟s rendering of an inclusive multiracial South Africa. Du Bois‟ Charter
for Africa read as follows:
The people of Africa – black and white, brown and yellow – have a right to
freedom and self- government, to food and shelter, education and health.
We hereby warn the world that no longer can Africa be regarded as pawn, slave
or property of Europeans, Americans or any other people.
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 173
Africa is for the Africans – its land and labour; its natural resources; its
mountains, lakes and rivers; its culture and its soul.
Hereafter it will no longer be ruled by might nor power; by invading armies nor
police; but by the spirit of all its gods and the wisdom of its prophets.
Men of all races are welcome to Africa if they obey its law, seek its interests and
love their neighbours as themselves, doing unto others as they would that others
should do unto them. But the white bigots of South Africa and Kenya, the
exploiters of the Rhodesias, the Congo, West, North, and South West and South
East Africa, are solemnly warned that they cannot win. We will be free …
Our wealth and labour belongs to us,
The earth of Africa is for its people,
Its wealth is for the poor and not for the rich,
Peace on earth, no more war,
All Hail Africa!69
Du Bois was a spiritual giant of the new wave of Africanism on the continent. But among
the Africanists in the ANC, his tolerance of “„men‟ of all races,” provoked a mixed
response, as did Bernstein‟s phrase, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and
white”. The main opposition came from the Orlando East branch of the ANC Youth
League. In all, sixteen former members of this branch attended the special conference
held to adopt the Charter in April 1956, where they vociferously argued their case. They
had been expelled from the Youth League the previous year, but remained in the ANC to
press their point of view. According to a report in New Age by Ruth First, it was the
women at the conference who were most angered by the dissenting youth, led by Potlako
Kitchener Leballo. He was described by Fatima Meer as a “blunt, rash and … fierce
public speaker with a haranguing style directed at the raw emotion of the audience”.70
According to Ruth First‟s report, about ten of the women marched to his seat and
were on the point of physically ejecting him, when congress officials intervened. 71 After
this the Africanist youth left in a body. The rift soon widened when the Pan Africanist
Congress emerged from the Africanist faction of the ANC in 1958–1959. Leballo was the
faction‟s most vocal leader and carried a number of ANC members with him.72 The
Charter precipitated the split but was probably more the occasion for the rupture than its
cause. Despite the Africanist objection to sections of the Charter, the ANC proudly
defended the document and went on to affirm its adoption at its annual conference in
December 1956, making it the basic policy and programme of action of the organization.
“While the government regards this document as a dangerous one”, it noted, “the twelve
million peoples of this country welcome and see through it the attainment of racial
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 174
harmony and the establishment of a true democratic South Africa”.73 It opened up a vision
of the new life that would replace “all that is rotten and oppressive in the present
system”.74 It was also seen to be unique because the people had taken ownership of it; felt
that it belonged to them and optimistically treated it as a political programme to be seen
though “to the end of struggle”.
There were, nonetheless, cautionary statements in deference to the Africanist
opposition that there was a long journey ahead of us before freedom could be won.
“Enthusiasm for the Charter”, wrote New Age, “must be born not of blind obedience to its
aims, but of the understanding that taken together, these aims are the only possible way
out of the present impasse and towards the formation of a people‟s government founded
on justice and equality”.75 The words could have been Kotane‟s or Sisulu‟s or Brian
Bunting‟s, but they reflected the general view at the time.
A second controversy concerned the debate on whether the path to a peoples‟
government, as suggested in the Freedom Charter, was feasible under a capitalist system.
This was later the subject of legal debate during the Treason Trial, although it was
extensively aired in New Age about three months after the COP took place.
The major question then was whether the key clauses of the Charter concerning the
franchise, the land question, the economy and work, were attainable only within a
socialist society. It was felt at the time that these seminal clauses would need to be linked
together if the Charter‟s aims were to be realized. The initial debates within the movement
showed an awareness of the need for the state and capital to “loosen their grip” before the
transformation that the Charter envisaged was possible, but the proponents of this view
refrained from saying that the document‟s aims were attainable only under a socialist
system. On the other hand, Inkululeko (possibly a pseudonym for Kotane or Michael
Harmel) writing in New Age in 1955, insisted that “the Charter does not propose merely a
reform of the present system … but a complete change of state form”.76 The article argued
that a reformist attitude was ahistorical for it ignored the reason why there was colour
discrimination in South Africa in the first instance. It was not primarily the inhumanity of
whites towards non-whites or a question of “re-education in the spirit of justice” or a
sudden change of heart that was required, but an understanding that the real roots of white
supremacy were in the low cost labour needs of the mining, manufacturing and farming
barons of the country. “It would be a dream to pretend that the changes of the Charter
could be realisable if their economic grip was not loosened”.77
Migrant labour and the compound system, the argument went, were incompatible
with equal pay for equal work and the workers‟ rights of organization.
If tomorrow every discriminatory law on the statute book were repealed but the
mineral wealth, monopoly industry and financial empires were not transferred to
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 175
the ownership of the people as a whole, the system of white supremacy would in
its basic essentials be perpetuated for many generations.
Quite presciently for the transitional process after 1994, the writer concluded: “if it was
left to the present dominant groups, the new state will with a great deal of justification be
able to say it cannot „afford‟ to provide education or do away with slum conditions and so
on …”78 Despite the logic of this position, it was argued by Congress that the Charter was
not a socialist document. Nationalisation and Socialism were not synonymous and the
Charter did not advocate the abolition of private enterprise or the total nationalization of
industry.
I am sure I was not alone in thinking that a mere loosening of capital‟s grip on the
economy would not take the country in the direction of the Freedom Charter. However
this was apparently debatable. What did it mean that “the mineral wealth, monopoly
industry and financial empires” should be transferred to the ownership of the people as a
whole? Socialists assumed it meant a change in the property relations and the extension of
the public sector and this was how I understood it. I realize now that the concept of social
ownership is a technical one, in which the state (which now includes the entire population
and not whites only) owns the nation‟s wealth on behalf of its citizens and manages,
alienates, or controls it according to its lights. Socialization and nationalization are not the
same thing and do not necessarily involve a change in property relations. In 1962 the
SACP believed that the implementation of the Freedom Charter was a precondition for
Socialism and not the other way round. It had taken some time to come to this conclusion,
but it was quite clear by then that it believed unambiguously that “the main aims of the
South African democratic revolution were defined in the Freedom Charter [which was]
not a programme for Socialism.”79
During the closing stages of the formal struggle for national liberation in 1989
(when unity in action of all the democratic forces was seen as a powerful revolutionary
instrument) anything that would weaken that unity such as the “placing of the attainment
of Socialism on the immediate agenda”, was thought likely to “… postpone the very
attainment of the socialist transformation”.80 What I did not appreciate then was that the
full realization of the aims of the Freedom Charter was something towards which we
would aspire for decades after the establishment of the democratic state. The creation of
representative popular institutions of government, votes for all, and adopting a
constitution that contained a Bill of Rights of the kind that did full justice to the
sentiments of the Freedom Charter, was the easy part of the process. It would take years
to raise the living standards and enable the formerly disadvantaged sections of the
population to enter the economy, let alone gain access to its commanding heights. The
process of transformation was not an even one and its progress depended on which forces
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 176
led it. There was some debate about this at the time, but it was momentarily overtaken by
the government‟s assault on civil liberties.
Chapter Ten: The Freedom Charter – 177
Chapter Eleven
“A devil‟s piece of legislation”. Chief Luthuli1
“Bantu Education or the Street”
The first half of the 1950s was the formative period of apartheid and the liberation
movement fought simultaneously on four fronts against a new wave of fascist measures
that restricted education, movement, residence and work. For the most part, the action
occurred while the majority of the Congress Alliance leadership was either banned, on
trial or serving short sentences in prison. The main activities revolved around the
introduction of “Bantu education”, the threatened extension of the pass system to African
women, the forcible removal of Africans from the Western Areas of Johannesburg and
new labour legislation – in which Africans were seen as “unfit for trade unionism”. The
policies of Group Areas and Bantu Education, supported by the core of legislation that
regulated the labour market and managed industrial relations, formed the kernel of the
apartheid system. Despite the obnoxious character of all this legislation, the Bantu
Education Act was the measure that provoked the most prolonged resistance, which ended
only with the Mandela government in 1994. While the new laws restricting movement,
residence and work were strenuously opposed by the Congress Alliance there was none so
inherently disempowering as the Bantu Education Act. What made it especially offensive
was its essential idea that future generations of Africans were to understand that they were
unequal, inferior and different.
In 1954 African parents were faced with the cruel dilemma of accepting a “rotten
education” for their children or “no education at all”. As the more militant church leaders
said, it was “Bantu education or the street!” Although the Bantu Education Act was
potentially the most disabling act introduced by the apartheid regime, the resistance to it
in 1953 was vocal and well-intentioned, but insufficient to prevent its passage through
parliament – or to make it inoperable once it had become law. When its contents became
known in 1953 the ANC campaigned against it and in 1954, with the act‟s
implementation, a boycott of government primary schools was organized. Thereafter it
prepared for an interim alternative education system to meet the demands of an
anticipated student withdrawal. Apart from a lack of capacity to do this, the ANC‟s
resources were severely stretched. Its leadership was banned and it did not have the
expertise to provide an alternative educational system – the legality of which was in any
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 178
case exceedingly uncertain. Hatred of the principles behind the legislation, however,
continued to simmer for the rest of the century, until Mandela took office in 1994. Until
then there were at least 15 education departments, one for each of the ten Bantustans, a
department for each of the four population groups and a national department. These were
disbanded and welded into one in 1994. As a teacher I volunteered to assist the campaign
against Bantu education and helped to develop an “interim alternative” to the new system.
This last, in the legal-speak of the 1950s, was tactfully described by Professor Z.K.
Matthews as “a programme of cultural activities”.
Verwoerd introduced the bill on Bantu Education to parliament in 1953 with a
wordy statement that was as provocative as it was objectionable. The more he said, the
more he revealed the real intentions behind the measure, which were to prepare African
children for the lower echelons of the labour market. Under the new system, education
would be transferred to the Native Affairs Department (NAD) where Verwoerd (as
minister) could more effectively control it. Z.K. Matthews, acting president of the ANC at
the time (Chief Luthuli had suffered a stroke and was seriously ill) communicated his
thoughts on this in a letter to Tambo, saying: “The more I think about the system of
education under review, the more I am satisfied that the underlying philosophy and the
administration of it are even more important than the content of the syllabuses.”2
He was right. The statements and debates in parliament that I read were
unashamedly blunt about the bill‟s intentions. In the eyes of the government, the new
education policy was clearly too ideological and too important to be left to the
management of the Christian mission schools or the four provincial administrations who
were previously responsible for the provision of African education.3 Once removed as a
function of the provinces and made the responsibility of the Native Affairs Department,
African education would be treated as a “native affair‟ and be seen in its “proper” context
as a preparation for labour.4 In 1954, six years after the National Party victory, the NAD
was already burdened with the multiple tasks of undertaking the re-tribalising of the
African population under the Bantu Authorities Act, overseeing the operation of the pass
laws, collecting the poll tax, and in the words of I.B. Tabata, writer and activist, would
now place African education “in the service of these activities”.5 He went on to say: “It is
well known that when a government wants to juggle with the social order, it reconstructs
the system and the substance of education to suit its own aims.”
This insight became more apparent with each new statement made by Verwoerd. For
him the “Bantu” family was traditional and almost changeless. Boys and girls received
their training from their parents and older relatives. The chief was the father, judge,
guardian and link with the spirits. Men tended the cattle, sheep and goats and the women
undertook the work of hoe culture – which was “poor in technique and based on the
extravagant use of land”. Ideas of an almighty or creator had no practical effect on their
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 179
conduct, while the paramount belief was in the immortality of the spirits and supernatural
phenomena.6 The long-standing entry of Africans into wage labour in mining,
manufacturing and farming was not seen to contradict this view. For him, migrant labour
was “the customary life of tribal peoples within the Union” and had been encouraged “to
make manageable the enormous, if not overwhelming burden of adjusting the Bantu
population to modern standards of health, order and civil life”.7
Neither Verwoerd‟s spurious references to the spiritual virtues of the “Bantu”
community nor his senseless rationale for Bantu education could change the perception of
African parents that this was a measure for the intellectual enslavement of their children.
Africans spoke of it as a “poison”. For the most part, National Party legislators had made
it abundantly clear years before Bantu Education was enacted that they did not approve of
education for Africans beyond reading, writing and elementary arithmetic. Their speeches
repeated the conventional wisdom that “native education” should do no more than “teach
Africans to work”. The speakers seemed quite oblivious of the poor logic of their
statements: “No member on this side of the House wishes to impede the progress of the
native”, one National Party MP said in 1945, “[but] we say that he must live in the hut
and we must live in the house … We want to retain the respect of the native but we are
not going to sleep with him in the kraal”.8 Another outspoken MP declared:
We should not give the native an academic education as some people are prone to
do … If we do this we shall later be burdened with a number of academically
trained … non-Europeans … and who [then] is going to do the manual labour in
the country?9
Their vision of the future South African economy was one of a low paid, labour-intensive
workforce where all but the basic industrial skills were the privilege of the whites – and
where “the natives knew their place”.
Inferior
As a teacher in a privileged white school, already an activist in the Congress of
Democrats and the SACP, there was no question of my not placing my expertise – such as
it was – at the disposal of the Cultural Clubs that were soon to be formed. There were, of
course, consequences – not least my inclusion in the Treason Trial, suspension as a
teacher by the Transvaal Education Department and consequent loss of income. It was
difficult to stand by and do nothing as the National Party‟s plans for African education
unfolded. The contents of the Eiselen Report, named after the Commission‟s chairman, Dr
W.W.M. Eiselen, secretary for Native Affairs were even more unpalatable than those
expressed at the turn of the century.10 Referring to the functions of Bantu education,
Eiselen cited statements from 1903 and 1908 in the Transvaal and Cape respectively to
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 180
lend weight to his recommendations.11 According to the 1903 statement, education had
the effect
of creating in the natives an aggressive spirit [and] … an exaggerated sense of
self-importance, which renders them less docile and less disposed to be contented
with the position for which nature or circumstances has fitted them.12
It is difficult to believe that the Eiselen Commission, reporting in 1951, could be more
retrograde than this. But judging from the commission‟s extraordinary racist terms of
reference, it based its recommendations on the assumption that Africans were a “race” set
apart from the more rational varieties of the human species.
Its findings were premised on the understanding that the “Bantu” were “an
independent race in which their past, [and] inherent racial qualities” were to be taken into
consideration when it came to providing education.13 In the language of the Eiselen
Commission, the word “Bantu” denoted the many tongues spoken by original tribes living
south of the equator, “some of whom were dwarfs or dwarf-like”. Others again, “can
hardly be distinguished from the black West African negro”.14 As to whether Africans and
whites were equally intelligent, the commission kept an “open mind” on the matter,
noting that “while the volume of evidence on this subject … was considerable, it was of a
very contradictory nature”.15 As this line of enquiry was evidently inconclusive, they
conceded (awkwardly) that, “no evidence of a decisive nature” could be adduced to show
that as a group “the Bantu could not benefit from [the same education as whites] or that
their intelligence or aptitude were of so special and peculiar a nature as to demand on
these grounds a special type of education” (my italics).16
They therefore found other grounds on which to base their recommendations,
retrieving the sentiments of the earlier commissions they cited and adding their own
perceptions on the relevance of the family unit and the significance of the “Bantu” social
structure to “native education”.17 Verwoerd was immersed in this rhetoric and drew on it
when introducing the Bantu Education Act to parliament in 1953. The guiding aims of the
new system were to be based on the assumption “that the sale of African labour was of
evident importance to the educator” and that “native education must be coordinated with a
definite and carefully planned policy [for the development of Bantu societies]”. 18 The
concept was less benignly expressed in Verwoerd‟s assertion that “there is no place for
[the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour …”.19
It was these values that we tried our utmost to counteract when designing the
activities for the Cultural Clubs we formed after Bantu education was introduced into the
schools in 1954. The new system was based on the assumption that Africans in the urban
areas were only there as temporary, unskilled workers and that Bantu education would
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 181
produce the sort of individual “who may safely approach „his‟ future without the
enervation brought about by his imitation of European ways of life”.20 Much of the
curriculum depended on what the ruling party considered to be its guiding principles that
“Bantu education should stand with both feet in the Reserves and have its roots in the
spirit and being of Bantu society”. The starting point of this understanding (pre-set in the
Eiselen Report) recommended the teaching of social values “that make a man a good
member of the [„Bantu‟] community”. These were specified as loyalty to the chief, selfconfidence, reliability, a sense of duty, good manners and the “power to concentrate”.21
All of them good qualities for a job.
The system strove to undermine all previous primary education. By 1953 (prior to
Bantu Education Act) most of the Africans who attended school were enrolled in the
various mission, government, private and community schools. The principle of
compulsory attendance did not exist.22 Only about 40% of approximately 2.1 million
African children between the ages of six and sixteen attended the state and state-aided
schools – “most of them in the lowest classes”.23 Africans were at the bottom of the racial
hierarchy in the allocation of financial resources. Each African pupil received only 14%
of the amount spent on a white pupil and just over half the sum spent on an Indian or
Coloured student.24 Significantly, whilst the facilities were grossly unequal and the
teachers under-qualified there was no official ideological slant to the curriculum, although
the prejudices of each of the providers (church, government, community or private) were
apparent in the limited scope of the curriculum. Verwoerd‟s Bantu education system
changed all that for the worse.
The coercive instrument to relieve the state-aided schools of their control of the
curriculum was the withdrawal of financial subsidies if they failed to register with the
Department of Education (DOE). These schools included the church mission and
community establishments who received financial subsidies for approved staff as well as
schoolbooks and equipment. The extent of state aid depended on the size of their
enrolments. For these schools, which were chronically cash-strapped, it was either
registration or closure. All existing non-government schools were required to apply for
registration with the DOE and no new schools could be established without its approval.25
It was not so much a reform of the existing education system (which was ragged), but the
end of education for any African child who aspired to a world outside Verwoerd‟s
singular perception of the “Bantu community”. “The present native schools,” he argued
“may be characterized as schools within Bantu Society but not of that society [it] is the
government‟s intention to transform them into real Bantu community schools” (my
italics).26 This was in line with his specious statement: “[u]ntil now [the African] has been
subjected to a school system which drew „him‟ away from his own community and misled
him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 182
to graze.”27 As it turned out his version of the new Jerusalem had very little substance to
graze on.28 For most Africans between the ages of seven and ten years old, four years of
schooling after two years in the infant grades, were the norm and the ceiling. Ideology
was as important as the cost of African schooling. Even before Bantu education was
introduced, Verwoerd had made it clear that “it was wrong to utilize expensive teaching
staff to supervise large classes of bored children while thousands … entitled to some
measure of primary education are kept out of school”. The new system would cut costs
and double the enrolment of pupils in the sub standards by shortening the number of
hours of attendance to three hours a day. The pupils in the morning session would keep
the seats warm for those who attended school in the afternoon !29
“A devil’s piece of legislation”
This sophistry elicited an unusually bitter response from Chief Luthuli in December 1954
at the ANC‟s annual conference, a few months before the implementation of the Bantu
Education Act. “Leaders of white public opinion”, he remarked,
take every opportunity to present us in the world as sub-human beings incapable
of assimilating civilization … This matter of dwarfing our personality and trying
to make us believe that we are nobodies is the worst sin the white man has
committed against Africans.30
He called the act “a devil‟s piece of legislation”,31 Aware of the demoralizing effect it
would have on every African parent, Luthuli was adamant that the ANC had to fight it “to
the bitter end”.32 Because he was banned from entering Durban where the ANC had
chosen to have its 42nd annual conference, 200 delegates travelled in buses from Durban
to a location closer to his home-town near Stanger, to enable him to participate in a preconference debate on a possible boycott. His address to the delegates at the conference the
next day was read by Professor Z.K. Matthews. Luthuli did not speak directly of a boycott
but called for a multiracial front to challenge the menacing wave of reaction facing the
country. The three issues of greatest concern were the Western Areas removal scheme, the
threatened extension of passes to women and the question of the new Bantu education.
When it came to the latter, the overwhelming revulsion at Verwoerd‟s utterances in
parliament, and the belief that the system spelt the destruction of all meaningful schooling
for African pupils, led the delegates “to call upon the African parents to make
preparations to withdraw their children from primary schools indefinitely as from 1 April
1955”.33 This was the date on which the new syllabus was to be implemented by the
NAD. The resolution itself insisted that the correct policy was the total rejection of
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 183
Verwoerd‟s evil act whose purpose was “the moral and spiritual enslavement of our
children”.34
Seen in its context the resolution, although taken in haste and over-estimating the
parents‟ ability to comply, was predictable. But in their statements before the conference
the leadership (banned from attending the gathering) were apprehensive of a total boycott.
Their views (heavily nuanced) were made known through the columns of New Age, which
stated: “Bantu Education is a vital aspect” of the National Party‟s programme, part of its
preparation for a fascist state. It was evidence of the government‟s determination to
subject the majority of the people “to the lusts of a few greedy mining magnates and
labour barons”35 but a total withdrawal of African children from the government primary
schools was not recommended as the first recourse against the government‟s plans.
For their part the parents, faced with the choice of having their children fed with
“Verwoerd‟s poison” or removing them from school for an indefinite period, was a
difficult choice to make. Already, acting on the conference resolution, some of the ANC
branches in the Transvaal, the Orange Free State and Western Cape had begun to agitate
for the boycott of government primary schools for an indefinite period of time. In Orlando
West there were reports that anti-Bantu education committees were being set up and that
volunteers had come forward to pledge that every household would be organized to resist
the act.
Speakers at the numerous meetings were in a militant mood, positioning themselves
in such a way that there was no exit if the boycott failed. One speaker declared: “Every
African – young or old – should be ready for sacrifice rather than compromise.”36 He was
not alone in taking this view. Elsewhere, another speaker, the Reverend E.G. Mokoena,
chairman of the ANC branch in the town of Bethlehem, confidently told the distraught
parents: “what does it matter if the whole of this generation will be without education if
we know that through our struggle we will achieve our aim?”37 He was supported at the
same meeting by the branch secretary, J.M. Motaung, who said that the government
schools were “youth Camps for our children, …worse than prisons”. 38 In line with the
ANC resolution, the local branch there resolved to encourage parents to keep their
children away from school from l April 1955 “when Verwoerd‟s poisonous syllabus” was
to begin operating. It was the same at Langa, in the Western Cape.
Re-interpreting the Resolution
Despite the rhetoric, the general response to the call for the withdrawal of African
children from government primary schools was uneven. At its annual conference the ANC
had decided in principle to boycott the government primary schools, but it was for its
NEC to clarify the precise intention of its resolution and the process to be adopted in
carrying it out. An editorial in New Age similarly noted some difficulty in reading the
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 184
resolution correctly, adding that there were already conflicting views about the
conference‟s intentions. Was the withdrawal of children from Verwoerd‟s schools to be a
once off “demonstration” or was it to be “a stay-away from school for a week or so?”39
The editorial feared that an effective boycott on 1 April 1955 was unlikely and suggested
a temporary stay-away on that date “provided it was not seen as the beginning and the end
of the campaign”. This, it felt, would be an important step in the direction of preparing for
a full boycott in the future.
Meanwhile, the ANC‟s NEC met in March 1955 and after a more temperate debate
than that held at the conference decided to postpone the action. The NEC saw few signs of
a general readiness on the part of parents to withdraw their children from government
primary schools by 1 April and postponed the proposed action “to a later date, soon to be
announced”.40 It had a broader strategy in mind, which Oliver Tambo (acting secretary
general after Sisulu‟s banning) later explained.41 The plan was to allow the ANC regions
more time for preparation and for consultation with parents‟ organizations, church bodies
and other associations opposed to the act. The strategy was to broaden the campaign,
secure greater consensus for the boycott and provide an opportunity to discuss the best
methods of defeating the new education system with religious organizations, teachers‟
associations, as well as the congresses, the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. Two
positive decisions taken at that meeting were: first, to hold a broad conference (as outlined
by Tambo) during the Easter holidays in Port Elizabeth. Second, it called for a National
Council of Education composed of representatives of organizations opposed to Bantu
education. The idea behind this body, which would be wider than the ANC, was that it
should draw up plans for alternative educational activities for African children “to be set
in motion as and when the withdrawal from the schools is effective”.42 I had no idea at the
time how greatly, or how soon, this would affect my life. But I agreed to work in the new
body when it was established in April 1955 and to contribute to the design of what we
somewhat grandiosely referred to as a temporary alternative to Bantu education.
Helen Joseph and I served as representatives from the Congress of Democrats on the
regional committee of the new body, which became known as the African Education
Movement (AEM). Its brief was to provide “an effective alternative” to Bantu education,
a tall order given our limited resources and the restrictive nature of the act, to say nothing
of the depressing contents of the report of the Eiselen Commission and to Verwoerd‟s
sickening speech in the senate on the aims of the Bantu Education Act.43 As far as I could
see, it was difficult to think of any way of preparing “alternative” educational material
that would not contravene the rigid terms of the act.
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 185
The Act Comes into Effect (April 1955)
I thought Oliver Tambo‟s skirting of the issue of boycott and calling upon African parents
not to collaborate in the “administration” of the act was potentially confusing. He
appealed to the teachers and the parents to refuse to participate in the elections or serve on
the school committees and boards that were hastily being constructed by the Bantu
Education division of the NAD – but he said nothing of boycott.44 Aware that the
effective functioning of Bantu education depended on the parents‟ participation in these
structures, the chief education officer, a naïve NAD official named Prinsloo, called for the
establishment of “thousands of school committees”, and invited greater African
involvement in the “reformed” system.45 It was an especially tense period for the parents,
who not only had to resist the bullying of Bantu education officials and school principals,
but also had to overcome their fears of punitive steps from the NAD for whatever action
they might choose to take.
It was also a frustrating time for the teachers who saw the shameful syllabi for the
travesty they were and had to suffer the ignominy of administering the “medicine” of
Bantu education, as the parents called it, to African children. As members of the same
African communities the teachers were in an invidious situation. Those who failed to
resist the act for fear of losing their jobs would incur the wrath of the parents and selfhumiliation for their cooperation with the NAD. The government knew that the success of
the education programme was to a large extent dependent on their ability to co-opt the
teachers. They knew that the vast majority of the 22 000 black teachers employed by
government in 1953, were “strongly against Eiselen‟s recommendations, despite
subsequent inducements of greater mobility by promotion to the sub-inspectorates and its
guarantees of job protection”.46 It did not help to allay the teachers‟ sense of uncertainty
when Eiselen stated in his report that the payment of teachers would be protected by the
State unless they broke their service and that if they did so, female teachers would be
recruited in their place.47 Oliver Tambo, himself a former teacher, tried to assuage their
alarm by noting empathetically just before the boycott began: “the position of teachers is
a particularly difficult one because they can only oppose Bantu education at the risk of
immediately ceasing to be teachers”. Aware that only a small proportion were prepared to
take this risk, his advice to the remaining number was that they should not do anything
that was calculated “to undermine or obstruct the national struggle” against Bantu
education.48
The mission schools – run by the Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists,
Seventh Day Adventists and the Anglicans – were also caught up in this dynamic of
threats and inducements. They objected to the principles of the Bantu Education Act, but
were divided for reasons of finance, fear and indecision on the desirability of resisting the
state on this issue; they lacked the spirit to take a united stand against the provisions of the
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 186
act. Ultimately each religious denomination salved its troubled conscience in its own way,
with the result that only the Roman Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists refused to
register their schools with the NAD. They alone rejected the view that “it was better for
children to have a rotten education than none at all”. Some Anglicans thought otherwise,
but closed their schools in the Johannesburg Diocese, notably the famous St Peters School
in Sophiatown.49 However, all the other Anglican educational establishments capitulated
to the government. Later, reflecting on the almost complete surrender of the Anglican
schools, Trevor Huddleston noted with characteristic starkness: “[t]he truth is that parents
have no choice; or rather they are faced with the same hideous dilemma: „Bantu
Education‟ or the street.”50
***
The ANC had set no new date for the boycott to start and the system would be
implemented after the Easter holidays, when the pupils returned to school on 12 April.51
The leadership in the Transvaal were seriously troubled. They were critical of the NEC‟s
initial decision to postpone the boycott date and quickly called two (very vociferous) local
conferences to discuss it, the first agreeing to ignore the NEC‟s decision and go ahead
with a boycott as planned, and the second agreeing to rescind that decision. The other
ANC regions were in various stages of preparedness and it was not clear from their
statements what they would do when the school term started and the new education
system began. There were two options: indefinite withdrawal or a “strike” by the pupils
for a day or two or more. The national leadership evidently favoured the idea of
withdrawal for a day or a week as a signal of protest, but some of the activists (Chief
Luthuli referred to them as “enthusiasts”) preferred a policy of indefinite boycott. Would
they follow that option?
Brian Bunting highlighted the extent of the dilemma in an editorial he published in
New Age on 31 March, on the eve of the introduction of the new system. “When African
children go home for their holidays tomorrow,” he noted:
they will leave for the last time the schools run by the missionaries and the others
who for all their shortcomings, aimed at giving them a general education in the
universally understood meaning of the term. They will return on 12 April to
institutions controlled by the Department of Native Affairs … in which they are
to be drilled in the lies of … inferiority, baaskap and servitude.52
The editorial spoke for the ANC leadership when it urged against a policy of uniformity
of action in the hope that “somehow or other, everything will happen nicely and tidily on
the same day, just as the planners have planned”. Activists in each region, it suggested,
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 187
should work and win the support of the parents to prepare for a mass withdrawal of the
children when they were ready. In the interim, the ANC branches were to mount “some
kind of protest demonstration … for the 12 April when the education of 900 000 African
children would be taken over by the NAD and the new system put into place”. It did not
matter whether this was a leaflet-distribution or a conference of teachers and parents: that
would depend on the state of organization of the people in each area.53 (It was not unusual
for New Age to clarify a confused situation. In view of the banning of national leaders and
difficulties in rapid communication with the regions, its editorials almost certainly
reflected the views of the Congress leadership. The paper would comment on events and
policies, sometimes critically, but would not appear to make decisions for the Congress
Alliance). In this instance New Age addressed the timing and tactics of the pending
boycott. It was confident, along with the national leadership, that no “magical date”
should be set for the boycott.
With less than a fortnight to go before the schools restarted, the parents‟ would have
to respond to “this devil‟s piece of legislation”. The mood in the Transvaal and the
Eastern Cape was militant.54 Chief Luthuli issued a hard-hitting statement reiterating the
NEC‟s position, which was to defeat the intention of the government to regiment the
African people and make them a “docile and willing nation of labourers and servants”.55
He stressed the importance of co-ordinated action, stating that if the fight against Bantu
education was to succeed, it had to be based on a “comprehensive plan directed by the
elected leaders of the ANC and not on haphazard and spasmodic efforts.”56
As in other campaigns, there were to be three phases of the action: phase one would
be an intensive period of explanation of Bantu education and of the futility of joining
school committees, school boards or accepting posts under the system. In most areas this
phase, in which we had all been very active, had passed. However, there was still time to
persuade parents who had already joined these committees to resign. Phase two would see
the withdrawal of children in the organized areas and the establishment of broad
provincial and local “peoples‟ education councils” to provide educational and cultural
facilities for the children. The National Educational Council (now referred to as the
African Education Movement ) was directed “to proceed without delay” to draft plans for
alternative educational and cultural facilities for those children withdrawn from the
schools. Phase three, which referred to “total non co-operation on a mass scale”
throughout the country, did not materialize.57
The NEC meeting at which this strategy was outlined was planned to coincide with
the broad-based conference of organizations opposed to Bantu education to be held in
Port Elizabeth on the same weekend of 7–9 April 1955 as the NEC. The planning for this
conference was less than brilliant and Helen Joseph and I made hasty “last-minute”
arrangements to attend the conference on behalf of the Congress of Democrats. Setting a
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 188
precedent for future trips, we travelled in Helen‟s beloved all-purpose mini, a miniscule
vehicle, which I got to know quite well. (I had at least three cramped trips in it to different
parts of the country, two in 1956 to workshop sessions with cultural club leaders, and
again later, on another related mission just before the Treason Trial.) Helen was
passionately fond of this car, providing it with quaint human attributes, such as “gallant”
and calling it “Congress Connie”. She had come to the Congress movement in the early
1950s and had recently become the Transvaal secretary of the newly formed Women‟s
Federation. Remarkably young in spirit, with a commanding appearance and an imperious
quality to her voice – she was fifty at the time – she led us in the campaign against
Verwoerd‟s schools as soldiers marching as to war. Robert Resha, who always
accompanied us, was a considerate traveller, close to Helen and a good companion in
“Congress Connie”. In 1955, in his mid-thirties, he was a sports editor on New Age and
acting president of the ANC Youth League (succeeding Joe Matthews who had been
banned). He was short, solidly built and formal in his dress. He was just as historians later
described him, “aggressive, shrewd, and powerful on the public platform”.58
The conference itself has been quite well described by Joseph and by fragments of
commentaries elsewhere. It began more than two hours late because the police had
arrested Z.K. (still the acting ANC president) on a permit matter and the proceedings only
commenced when he had paid the fines and was released from custody. 59 He was
seemingly unperturbed by the police harassment he had suffered the previous night and
from his subsequent arrest. He told the delegates in his usual didactic way that the
campaign to withdraw the children from schools had been postponed and not cancelled;
the NEC would decide on a future date, which would be announced later by the president.
In the meanwhile, the move to establish a National Council of Education had been
endorsed and local, provincial and regional educational councils would be set up as part
of the NEC‟s plan to provide cultural activities for the children that had been withdrawn
from the primary schools.60
According to Helen Joseph, it was her first experience of a large ANC conference
(the Congress of the People where she was prominent, was held a few months later, in
June that year) and she was impressed by the militancy, the singing and the discipline at
Port Elizabeth. “The Congress volunteers from the former Defiance Campaign days,” she
wrote, were “out in full force in khaki shirts and black berets to welcome and usher in
visiting delegates and to maintain order. Many of the women were wearing the newly
adopted black skirt and green blouse of the ANC Women‟s League.”61 Her description, as
far as I can remember, was accurate and confined to the scene of the meeting, rather than
the debates, but is nevertheless still evocative. Another contemporary account by a
member of the Liberal Party, noticeably alienated from mass politics, was less exuberant:
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 189
Most [of the 700] delegates represented the ANC branches and local „vigilance
committees‟. The COD sent two delegates from Johannesburg, and the Liberal
Party sent three from Cape Town … It was perfectly organized. There were all
these young, uniformed men, around the sides. They saw that everyone was
seated properly … And then, of course, they always had the singsongs … But this
time it was a serious meeting … The COD was there. They got up and started to
talk emotionally again. And Helen Joseph was the one rapped over the knuckles
… She talked about the suffering of the people and Matthews cut her short. He
said, „Mrs Joseph, we are here to talk tactics, policy. We know that there is
suffering‟.62
It hardly seemed a reprimand. Z.K. always spoke that way, as most people knew.
The Port Elizabeth conference was seminal in many ways: for determination to frustrate
the implementation of Bantu education; for its anticipation of the sporadic militancy that
was to follow the opening of the schools a few days later; and for the innovative model it
helped to conceptualize for a system of alternative education. It also formally agreed that
the National Education Council, renamed the African Education Movement, should steer
the process nationally. I do not recall all the details the conference as well as Helen, for
whom this was one of her first mass meetings of the ANC, but she recounts an incident on
our return trip in “Congress Connie” which I do remember.
Apparently we needed petrol urgently after closing hours and in order not to arouse
the suspicions of the white petrol pump owner “with our odd mixture of races”, we
resorted to some reshuffling of places in the car. She was put into the driver‟s seat and
(she recalls): “Norman was squashed into the back with instructions not to show his white
face … while Robert appealed [to the sleepy white attendant] to help us out because his
Missus … had to get back to Johannesburg.” After that, Robert “nobly” continued to
teach her some African freedom songs, but her ignorance of African languages and an
unfortunate lack of a musical ear, left her “la-la-la-ing” while we made our way to
Johannesburg.63 It was difficult to forget that incident and the other rough overnight trips I
took with her during which we argued amicably, slept in cramped upright positions, drank
coffee and ate fish and chips when we were hungry.
Boycott
The next eighteen months were totally schizophrenic. I went through the motions of
teaching by day at the over-endowed white school where I worked, giving all my
remaining energy at the weekends and on some evenings, to a bizarre version of primary
“teaching” in the townships when those schools re-opened. A wave of protest shook the
Transvaal and parts of the Eastern Cape in April and May 1955, bringing the total number
of African children who had withdrawn from the schools to approximately 7 000. On the
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 190
East Rand the withdrawal of the pupils was immediate.64 This was due to the intense
organization there when the ANC Youth League held an all night meeting and songsession “preparing for the death of Bantu education”.65 They set out in a procession in the
early hours of the morning of the 12 April, headed by two buglers, reminding residents
that the boycott would take place on that day.66 The results were impressive. Elsewhere,
in Boksburg, Brakpan and Germiston – all along the East Rand – the parents heeded the
call and (in the words of the ANC and New Age), “the children led the country”.67
Anticipating turmoil, parents kept their older children out of the secondary schools
with the result that many of the classrooms were empty there too. It was the moment of
the youth. They took to the rough Benoni pavements, shouted anti-government slogans,
sang the congress songs they‟d learnt from their parents and were quite undaunted by the
mounted police who towered over them as they marched six-abreast along the dusty
streets of the township.68 Sometimes regular police personnel followed them in vans,
indiscriminately shouting threats of punishment – directed at the organizers, the parents,
the children, the teachers, anyone in the vicinity! Unperturbed by the noise that came
through the police loudhailers and buoyed by the attention they received from police and
press, they returned the taunts of the special branch with jeers and cries of “Afrika!” and
kept on marching. Nothing could stop them! The authorities would have liked to arrest
them, but as one confused police officer in command of the Benoni operation reportedly
told the media: “as African children are „very regretfully‟ not obliged to attend school,
[they] could not be legally prosecuted.”69 He added that there were however, some
regulations governing African townships under which they could be charged. Curiously,
the officer did not refer to the demonstrators as children – or boycotters or pupils – but as
“strikers” which in tune with the new legislation on labour relations, had a criminal
connotation to it.
The processions in Boksburg, Brakpan and Germiston lasted the entire week. By the
start of the second week, the authorities had become frantic. They were more than ready
to arrest, expel, threaten and punish. Verwoerd‟s frustration was also evident. He
threatened 4 000 African children with expulsion from the Reef schools and dismissed
116 teachers. (Significantly 71 of these came from the Western Areas of Johannesburg,
indicating how much the teachers had identified the struggle against Bantu education with
the overall fight against apartheid). Verwoerd equivocated on the dismissal of the
teachers70 but would not budge on the exclusion of the children, stating that they “must
return to school or lose their educational facilities for a long time”.71 He gave them a
fortnight to return – until 25 April. The ANC‟s National Working Committee responded
by describing Verwoerd‟s outburst as an “ hysterical and panic-stricken ultimatum”.
Instead of retreating in the face of his threats, it called on all ANC branches “to intensify
the campaign against Bantu education in their areas”.72
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 191
There were soon lengthy analyses assessing the situation and reviewing the
preparations and planning so far employed, but the first round had shown a greater
readiness on the part of the parents to react to Bantu education than the leadership had
anticipated. Having achieved their purpose by the protests that followed the reopening of
the schools, the ANC now urged the parents to send their children back to school and
make Verwoerd‟s threats of expulsion superfluous. There would be another day, the ANC
told them, when the children throughout the country would participate in a total boycott of
the schools and the system of slave education would completely collapse. For the most
part the masses followed this directive diligently, but not all parents were so persuaded.
Significantly, the campaign suddenly gathered momentum and the boycott spread to the
Western Areas of Johannesburg and then to the townships of Alexandra (near the northern
suburbs of Johannesburg), Moroko in the South West of Johannesburg and Natalspruit.
The tactics were not the same everywhere and the responses were uneven in intensity.
In nearby Dube, south west of Johannesburg, the ANC announced the establishment
of local committees to ensure that no parents accepted positions on the school boards and
other posts in the system. The same occurred some distance away in Lamontville, in
Natal. And so it went. Parents in other parts of the country, including the small town of
Bethlehem in the Orange Free State, imitated the pattern of the demonstrations in the
Transvaal. Here there was no picketing, the children simply joined the ANC-led
processions and stayed away from school. Wary of prosecuting the children on boycott
charges, the security police vindictively threatened the local leaders instead. The
outspoken Rev. E.J. Mokoena (remembered for his fiery speech exhorting the youth to
stay away from school until liberation if need be) was arrested on a charge of staying in
the township without a permit and threatened with eviction. He had lived there for 15
years. In another instance, in the same town of Bethlehem a teacher (H.Z. Nzimande) was
dismissed for wearing an ANC badge! He took the matter to court but I don‟t remember
whether he succeeded in forcing the NAD to reverse its blatantly desperate decision to
ruin him professionally.
The instances of personal hardship are too numerous to relate, but the solid
commitment of the teachers who would not acquiesce in the travesty of Bantu education
was well known at the time. There is, however, little record of their contribution and there
is no question that they deserve more recognition than the few paragraphs I can provide in
this personal history. The parents received a richly deserved tribute from New Age when it
noted that “they were not so [ill-prepared] after all … The silent classrooms on the day
the schools opened were loud testimony to the peoples rejection of Verwoerd‟s slave
education.” The paper queried the ANC‟s earlier decision to postpone the boycott and
asked whether it was correct to doubt “that the forces of the Liberation Movement were
strong enough to mobilize in a few short months an effective boycott”. Adding a gloss to
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 192
what it thought might initially have been a tactical error in postponing the action, it
concluded: “We are confident that other areas will follow the example of the East Rand
… for [invariably] … each mistake leads to a greater clarity for the future.”73
This was not wishful thinking. By the last week of May 1955, just when the
government believed that the boycott movement had peaked, the parents in the Eastern
Cape withdrew their children in force. The action occurred in the townships of Korsten,
Veeplaats, Kirkwood and New Brighton, all dotted around the city of Port Elizabeth,
always a militant area. In New Brighton at that time a large, populous township with
muddy streets, no pavements, church halls and more than one primary school, some 2 000
out of a possible 4 500 pupils stayed away – creating a huge need for “alternative” tuition,
which they looked to the AEM and the Cultural Clubs to provide.
***
The Cultural Clubs
Helen Joseph and I represented the Congress of Democrats on the provincial and other
committees of the AEM. Father Huddleston and later Father Jarret-Kerr, both of the
Anglican Order of the Community of the Resurrection, were the respective chairpersons
of the new movement. Myrtle Berman, a comrade from the former CPSA and principal of
the old CPSA night school, was its indefatigable secretary. The work in the Cultural
Clubs and the AEM took precedence over all my other activities, private and political.
The short hiatus between the actual launching of the school boycott and the establishment
of the clubs gave us time to prepare material and attend the preliminary meetings of the
AEM, which was to oversee the development of the Cultural Clubs. I have never met any
of the clubs‟ “graduates” since that time, but there ought to be many of them still alive
who attended that extraordinary class of 1955/6. I have seen a few photographs of the
club leaders standing close to the children during the police raids. In the background were
exercise books, slates, blackboards and chalk strewn about the makeshift school space –
frequent exhibits in the courts – but regrettably, I have never since met any of the former
pupils, now probably in their fifties. Their oral histories would be an inspiration to young
people today. Trevor Huddleston sensed the children‟s political perspicacity as well as the
“vibrant élan” of the clubs, despite the grim environment in which they functioned.
Visiting a Cultural Club in Brakpan on the East Rand, he was greeted by the children with
cries of “Afrika!” They gave him the “thumbs-up” salute and when he left sang “There
are two ways for Africa, one way leads to Congress, and one way to Verwoerd!” This
would not normally seem exceptional, but some of the singers, he notes, were only seven
years old!74
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 193
Helen and I (from COD) and Robert Resha and James Radebe (from the ANC),
visited the clubs as often as possible, meeting many of the African ex-teachers who
assisted the club leaders. In most cases the clubs were run by women, many of them
parents. We did what we could to help with the “training of trainers” and with the
planning of practical activities for the children. Fortunately, the ANC seem to believe
unconditionally in our expertise. This was generous as none of us knew what we were
doing and frankly learnt on the job, trying not to think of the serious responsibility we
shouldered. I had no idea whether I was capable of carrying out any of the tasks I had to
perform, but knew that I had to persevere. I think Helen Joseph felt the same, covering
this by assiduously attending meetings and planning the club leaders‟ conferences,
tirelessly directing everything. She was inexhaustible.
In the end, it was thoroughly satisfying. The more contact I had with the parents and
“teachers”, the more rewarding it was to be part of this uncertain undertaking. There were
not many teachers on whom I could draw for enlightenment. I had only been in the
profession for about two years, but that seemed to be irrelevant. It bothered no-one in the
movement that I was twenty-six years old and that I was thoroughly ignorant of anything
like “alternative” education or remotely related to it. I was as unfamiliar with the baffling
concept of “informal teaching” as the least experienced of the club leaders. It took a little
time to learn how to design programmes that covered what we thought to be the skills
pupils needed in the primary school. The revelation was that it was possible informally to
develop in older children the skills of listening, reading, understanding and creative
thinking. Younger learners naturally learnt that way. The challenge was to connect what
had become the different disciplines of geography, history, language, art, science and
mathematics and weld them into a narrative that related to the children‟s lives. Reintegrating all this knowledge was the real challenge. I learnt more from devising the
“syllabuses” for the Cultural Clubs and applying them in the club leaders‟ workshops than
I did in my first few years in the profession. In the Cultural Clubs I discovered a new
format for teaching and a different style of communication.
The name Cultural Club was an odd description for a makeshift school that was
political theatre, workshop and classroom all in one. But as extraordinary as it seems, it
worked. It was virtually impossible to refuse the insatiable requests of the club leaders for
resource material and for training sessions when we knew how desperately they needed
them. In any case I felt guilty at the prospect of their being prosecuted for applying our
syllabi, as they were in the front line of the action and we were not. It was almost a
forgone conclusion that the club leaders (along with those parents who volunteered to
assist them) were likely to be charged with conducting illegal schools – even if they were
not caught in the act of formal teaching. Although I never voiced the thought, I did not
think the courts would accept the legal fiction that their activities were “cultural” and that
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 194
they were not providing formal education. I was convinced that they would see it for the
sleight of hand it was, and reject their explanation. Interestingly, the club leaders had
begun to find something inspirational in the broad content of the curricula (it broadened
their knowledge) – constantly asking for more “roneo‟d papers” – risking prosecution by
adapting our material to suit their teaching needs. They treated the police raids and
tedious court trials as rude interruptions to their cultural work and returned from the
courts as fast as their fines had been paid, only to continue as before …
The club leaders‟ training sessions were initially tense, but as it became evident that
we were all feeling our way towards something new but potentially exciting, the sessions
became less formal, more comradely and often fun. The club leaders were regularly
adapting the material we prepared to suit their interests and as far as I remember made the
“lessons” infinitely livelier than we‟d designed them. The “trainees” innovated, sang and
moved around and expected the “trainers” to join in! I often wondered who was learning
from whom. The “workshops‟, as we called the shorter training sessions, were held in
Alexandra township and occasionally on the East Rand, although Helen and I had to
obtain permits to enter the townships there, making it difficult for us to complete the
tightly designed day‟s programme when permits were refused. The first training sessions
started during the July school vacation soon after the boycott began in 1955 and continued
exhaustingly for the rest of that year and much of the next. They took place on alternative
weekends or on a Saturday and on occasion extended for a week, when we referred to
them as “conferences”. We called our programme “Education for Knowledge”, and
presented it to the AEM – initially as a basis for discussion for group activities and home
education – but this was the format that was ultimately adopted.
The choice of the title “Education for Knowledge” was intended to mark the contrast
between our approach to learning and the concept of Bantu education. We described the
latter alternately as “Education for Slavery” or “Education for Ignorance”. Sometimes we
appropriated the title from Tabata‟s informative pamphlet “Education for Barbarism”, and
called it that too. According to our draft programme, the clubs would provide informal
activities that would help “to create democratic citizens who were able to compete as
equals in the labour market”.75 The reference to the labour market sounds somewhat
curious 50 years on, but the phrase was obviously intended to counter Verwoerd‟s
ignominious expression that “there is no place for [the African] in the European
community above the level of certain forms of labour”.
Our aims, though noble, were not as coherent as they might have been, but we were
still feeling our way. We intended to do more than supplement formal education with
informal learning and hoped to provide education through group work, in which
knowledge would be imparted through story-telling, acting and recreation. In view of the
dearth of books, “listening would be substituted for reading”. The programmes included
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 195
music, handcrafts, physical education and “library”, for which we innocently pirated
material from books and educational magazines in the African, English and Afrikaans
languages.76 This was painstakingly typed on stencils, reproduced on a Gestetner copy
machine in the ANC‟s busy office on Diagonal Street, Johannesburg. The content of the
resource material we produced was uneven in quality and too often hastily extracted from
reference books rather than written ourselves, but for all that it was vastly superior to
Bantu education.
As the authors of the texts we copied would never in their wildest of dreams have
had an audience such as ours in mind, we liberally adapted their intellectual property to
suit our pioneering project. Plagiarism apart, we were too unaware of copyright
constraints to plead that what we had done had been for a good cause. Fortunately there
was no need to mount any such defence, as the prosecutions that took place were for
teaching the course material, not printing it. Much of the history we reproduced was
revised during the radical revisionist re-writing of South African history in the 1970s, but
at the time we were in all probability quite unaware that the texts we copied were
historically seriously flawed. Interestingly, both the leaders and the learners were
captivated by the un-revised story of Nongqawuse and the cattle killing, 77 debating it and
providing as many re-interpretations of the event as there were club leaders. The fact that
the version we unsuspectingly circulated missed the point entirely, only served to arouse
more interest than it would have if we‟d known enough to revise it.
There were stories about Moshesh and Shaka, both of them popular histories that
were un-revised and would not pass muster today. These were taken at face value but
were nonetheless useful for the questions and answer exercises that followed the
narratives, stretching comprehension, language and historical imagination. Other histories
were more ambitious and concerned stories of colonial conquest, dealing with the
interaction of the white settlers and the indigenous people. The series was called “How
the White Man Came to our Country” and carried sections on the colonists‟ relations with
the San, Khoi and African people. In other stories called the “Forefathers of the Coloured
People” and “Slave Life in the Cape”, the narratives respectively recounted the history of
the Coloured people and the institutions of slavery. Often the topics were grouped in sets
containing general information that we thought everyone should have – something that
Bantu education would not provide on principle if it did not bear any obvious relation to
the Bantu social structure as they had defined it. The general information series was
probably among the most ambitious of the courses we designed. For the most part they
were intended to make the seminal contributions to science, art and invention, accessible
to the older participants. Like the other course units they were also in narrative form and
carried the titles “The World around Us”; “The World of Knowledge”; and The World of
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 196
Imagination”. Although the texts were complex, there were regular requests for additional
copies of the “knowledge” series, and appeals for more of this type of activity.
Knowledge Games
In a completely different vein, there was a set of number-rhyme exercises, ostensibly
“games”, designed much less for fun than to improve the children‟s skills in mental
arithmetic. Among these was the song, “Ten Green Bottles”, which was awkwardly
translated into Sotho as “Imbodlela ezilishumi zijinga edongeni … kodwa enye yazo
yapphonenka yawa”. Each line was sung by a different row of children until the end,
when they all joined in, cupping finger and thumb to make a naught, as the last green
bottle crashed against the wall! Finally, there was a three-part series which I compiled,
called “The Country we Live in” – a conflation of history, geography and social studies,
spoken by a narrator I‟d invented called “Old Henry”. He would somewhat irritatingly
stop talking at calculated intervals and snap questions at the children to see if they‟d
understood what he had said.78 Fifty years later Old Henry did not seem to me to be very
unlike his inventor.
Imparting the information contained in the course units was more demanding than
teaching the three Rs and we used the fortnightly workshops and extended conferences to
demonstrate how the course material might best be applied. The conferences were
occasions for interactive activities, games and role-playing, when the trainers would
become learners and the club leaders were the trainers. The first of these conferences was
held in January 1956 in Alexandra township and was spread over five days. Participants
came from all over the East Rand, hosted by the club leaders in Alexandra and also the
ANC residents there. Even before Father Trevor Huddleston opened the first session,
seven detectives sat outside on the verandah of a shop across the road from the conference
venue. Fortunately for us, in their arrogance, they had failed to secure warrants to search
and enter the premises and Helen Joseph frostily refused them entry.
For a while they stood outside or rode up and down on a motor cycle and then took
up positions across the street, watching who was entering and leaving. They remained
there throughout the five days, apparently having belatedly taken the strategic decision
not to obtain warrants but to record details of the participants who came and went. A lot
of the time they peered through a window at the side of the small hall to observe the
proceedings at close quarters. Quite often we would stop what we were doing and watch
them as they watched us, exchanging curious stares before carrying on with the business
of the conference. The bizarre behaviour outside the hall made me more aware of the
pressures the club leaders worked under than any of the accounts they gave of the police
surveillance they regularly experienced in the clubs. I have no idea what reports the police
scribes might have made to their seniors of this particular conference – not only of the
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 197
more formal proceedings but also of the singing of the number-rhymes which included an
equally interminable item (also translated into an African language) entitled “Ten Fluffy
Clouds”.
The conference at Alexandra township was intended to be a national one but at the
last moment the club leaders in the Eastern Cape were prevented by travel restrictions
from attending. Many of these leaders were inexperienced and without the benefit of the
fortnightly workshops held with their counterparts in the Transvaal and they requested the
AEM to send its Cultural Club Committee to the Port Elizabeth area to hold a similar
conference there. This necessitated a long trip to PE in “Congress Connie” with the same
contingent of passengers and even less in the way of leg-room, in view of the excessive
cargo of course equipment we carried with us. The conference (meaning a training
session) took place early in April 1956, during the Easter vacation, exactly a year after our
first trip to the conference in the Eastern Cape. Much had happened in the area since then.
The boycott had started a fortnight after the mass withdrawals on the East Rand and
exceeded all expectations with an explosion of support in New Brighton and ten other
townships around Port Elizabeth. Over 4 000 children were initially enrolled in the
Cultural Clubs that sprung up in 11 areas including the larger locations of New Brighton,
Walmer, Veeplaats and Korsten. The moment was marked by particular militancy,
leading the state to ban all meetings of over 10 persons anywhere in Port Elizabeth. This
ruled out our holding the conference there and we met instead in the Coloured
Congregational Church hall in Uitenhage, a journey of approximately 20 miles from PE.
Conferences often followed the same routine, but not this one. In the morning of the
first day the members of the ANC branch in Uitenhage helped us transfer the books and
course equipment from overloaded “Congress Connie” into the church hall and we started
off with a robust public session of parents and ANC officials, explaining what we
understood by the concept of the Cultural Clubs and how this was to be supplemented by
“home education”. If the audience was mystified it was probably because they doubted
that the clubs were there for any other reason than to find new ways surreptitiously to
teach the three R‟s, and that all the books, charts and roneo‟d sheets of course material
(stacked in huge piles at the side of the hall) were there with that end in view. The
discussion on the concept of the clubs and “home education” took half the morning and
for the rest of the day and evening we worked exclusively with about 22 club leaders from
six of the clubs, demonstrating through role-play, singing and simulation (as we had at the
conference at Alexandra) how they might best apply the full range of course material we
had prepared. By the end of the first night (we finished the session at 10 p.m.) the club
leaders were in no two minds that we were a fervent foursome of instructors and even
appeared less sceptical of the concept of informal education. Day one had been a long one
and especially productive, even enjoyable. The hospitality had been generous (courtesy of
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 198
the ANC branch in Uitenhage) and we looked set for another four days of intensive
activity in the spacious hall without the menacing presence of the special branch.
We were naïve in the extreme. Fresh from a welcome night‟s sleep in a bed and
ready for another round of role-playing and demonstration, we arrived at the hall at about
9.30 a.m. the next morning, only to be met by the township superintendent who seemed to
have taken over the participants, the course material and even the hall. He announced that
we happened to be in a Coloured area, on proclaimed land, and that we were subject to
location regulations and needed permits from him to be in the township. In the next
moment everything seemed to collapse in confusion around us. The superintendent
ordered the two whites (Joseph and Levy) to leave the hall and follow him while the local
congregants began to pour into the hall, headed by their helpless pastor who hopelessly
tried to persuade the superintendent that as the hall was church property and he was in
charge, all the authority was his.
As this went on, a posse of municipal police who had accompanied the
superintendent began to take the names and addresses of the club leaders in the hall, only
to be stopped from doing this by the more experienced ANC cadres who insisted that
these officials were not proper police and had no power to take their names. Meanwhile,
in the chaos the superintendent disappeared and momentarily returned with five armed
policemen and a police sergeant, who took the names of everyone in the hall and ordered
those of us that did not live in the township to leave the premises. None of this occurred in
an orderly way or in silence, because the local people had now become angry at the
treatment of their pastor and protested vehemently against the disruption of their
conference, the behaviour of the superintendent and the intervention of the municipal
police, who they thought should go.
More farce ensued when Helen and I were taken to the superintendent‟s office where
a special branch detective in plain clothes was waiting for us. We were told formally that
this was a Coloured area, controlled by the location superintendent from whom we needed
to obtain entry permits. He asked why we had not obtained these but we refused to answer
questions “in the absence of our lawyers or in the presence of the special branch”. A
dumb show followed when no-one spoke. I wondered whether the next step would be an
arrest and a trip to the police station, but all that happened was that the plain-clothes man
scribbled something on a sheet of paper, stared at the two of us and left without a word to
the superintendent. Outside he joined his men who sat in two police cars, parked outside
the township office. There was nothing for us to do but to leave our names and addresses
with the superintendent who did not seem to know what to do once the special branch
detective had left us. Finally he escorted us back to our car which he directed down to the
location gates where Robert Resha and James Radebe were waiting. We left the township
without wasting any time, only to be followed all the way back from Uitenhage to Port
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 199
Elizabeth, where we would probably have been apprehended except for a red traffic light
at the main street of the city, which Helen decided to ignore. This was an electrifying
moment as I watched her put her foot down hard on the pedal, cross the intersection and
race ahead. After that she turned into a side-street and then a garage and lost them. She
wrote about the incident frequently, referring to the “little TJ car” that had given the
special branch the slip.79 Curiously, she noted in her autobiography that she had flouted
the law inadvertently.80 I would have believed that but for the look of total triumph on her
face as she crossed the intersection at the traffic light and left the special branch to wait
for the red light to change.
We had started the conference and we were going to finish it. The ANC, together
with the four trainers and the club leaders, decided to resume the training sessions the
following morning. After some serious reorganization of the agenda, in which we
condensed three days‟ activities into one, we were taken to our hotel and prepared for an
early start the following morning. It was dark when we left (in another car) and were
taken to a space in the open air where we sleepily watched the dawn break around us. I
thought we were waiting for the club leaders to appear before moving off to the new
venue, but of course I was totally mistaken. This was it! When the club leaders arrived
their numbers had increased to 31 and all but one of the 11 clubs in Port Elizabeth were
represented. We began after quickly briefing the newcomers, and then continued well into
the night in the open air while ANC volunteers kept a careful vigil to ensure that we were
not being observed. Fortunately there were no further interruptions and there was a real
sense of collegiality at the end of the course as we loaded the remains of the equipment
into the car and waved goodbye to the club leaders. If anything, we felt a sense of triumph
that we had achieved most of what we had set out to do, despite the interruptions and lack
of facilities.
In the report that Helen submitted to the AEM on our return, she recounted the antics
of the location superintendent and the enthusiasm of the club leaders and then
euphorically described the proceedings of the last day and how the conference “took on
the pattern of so many of the clubs represented in Port Elizabeth – where the roof was the
sky and the floor was the veld and the walls were the hills of the Eastern Cape”. 81 That, at
least, was one way of turning a near-debacle into drama! We were certainly enthusiastic
over the clubs, the leaders and their refusal to be beaten by the system, but were
concerned about how long we would be able to continue.
The fact that the clubs had survived for so long was attributable to the political
awareness of the parents, the strength of the club leaders and the high morale of the
children. Ultimately it was not the vindictive banning of club leaders or the incessant
harassment, arrests and prosecutions that threatened the existence of the clubs, but our
incapacity to find the resources to sustain them. For the moment we persevered. The
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 200
experience of the Eastern Cape was not very different from the Transvaal. The children
would gather in any available space, enclosed or open, often in dark church halls and
dilapidated garages in the townships. In one township they met in someone‟s backyard, in
another a vacant shop, or if all else failed, under the trees where the proceedings were
frequently overlooked by the security police, leaving the club leaders and children
vulnerable and unprotected. In Despatch Village, near Port Elizabeth, the parents built a
makeshift shack which served as a classroom and centre for the club. In Benoni, on the
East Rand, the younger pupils were housed in an old cinema and the seniors in a cycle
shop, long-since abandoned. Trevor Huddleston described the atmosphere in the cinema:
What light there was filtered through two holes, high up in the walls, where
bricks had been removed just for that purpose … Seated at the table was a young
African woman, trying to demonstrate some game, trying to keep fifty, a
hundred, children interested; or at least quiet.82
I remember that old cinema, converted into a makeshift school, the children kneeling
on the uneven floor, one group drawing pictures, others pasting illustrations in a
sketchbook – dank pictures, torn from antiquated magazines. Exercise books, rulers,
blackboards, slates and textbooks, the usual paraphernalia of the least equipped
classroom, were initially absent from these sites but later these somehow surfaced, giving
the place the familiar smell and friendly feel of a schoolroom. But if the presence of the
special branch was scented they would be just as hastily collected up and secreted in a
safe place in a nearby house or a rusted structure that was once a shed and now someone‟s
bedroom.
Two Distinct Activities
It was easy to fall foul of the rigid regulation of African education. This led to two distinct
types of educational activities in the clubs, one that was legal and the other not. The
former was notionally informal and “cultural”, involving a macro presentation of
geography, history, language and number exercises, combined into one. This was
infinitely more demanding than the second outright illegal activity which was
indisputably formal teaching. This occurred more often than we knew when the club
leaders, frustrated with the pretence of appearing to preside over a cultural meeting rather
than teaching the three R‟s, chose to blow their surrogate cover, abandon their roles as
cultural club leaders and teach what they thought the children ought to be learning and
what they as teachers knew how best to provide. Under these circumstances they would
circulate the familiar school readers and (incriminating) exercise books which until then
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 201
were hidden away and put the cultural club material to one side. The result was a forgone
conclusion and raid after raid occurred, followed by prosecutions.
Police persecution was incessant. In May 1955 in Alexandra township soon after the
Club started, six Flying Squad cars and a troop carrier drew up outside the club and
produced a search warrant in terms of the relevant section of the Bantu Education Act.
They removed the club‟s records, counted the blackboards and made lists of the school
equipment.83 In the Jabavu Club, two of the women club leaders were sentenced to a fine
of ten pounds each with an alternative of six weeks imprisonment, suspended for 18
months. On this occasion, the Native Commissioner‟s Court which heard the case held
that the activities of the club – games, drawing and handwork – fell within the definition
of education and were therefore covered by the act.84 This was an alarming finding as it
was through these activities that “informal education” was conducted. Yet we continued
despite the raids and the intimidating behaviour of the police. In yet another instance, four
club leaders in Brakpan were prosecuted. The chief witness for the crown (a Detective
Sergeant Luttig) told the court: “I drew my revolver and pointed it in the direction of the
children.” When asked by Advocate George Bizos for the defence: “What were you afraid
of?” he replied (in an answer that might have been comical if it had not been so fraught
with gravity): “The children!” A group of 17 armed police had raided the cultural club
where between 500 and 600 children were observed writing in distinct groups on an open
plot. They promptly collected all the exercise books, pens and pencils as well as the
children‟s clothing found lying on the ground, and presented it to the court as “evidence”
for the prosecution.85
The raids were as regular as the mental arithmetic lessons. Joe Slovo, who often
acted as a lawyer for the club leaders, graphically characterized the rash of court cases
that occurred at the time: “The records of the trials were usually short, and the evidence
uncontested.” A typical composite record of the police evidence read something like this:
I am a police sergeant in charge of X police station … I received certain
information and proceeded with my men to a spot which overlooked a large tree
… Soon after the sun rose I noticed groups of children aged between six and
thirteen converging on a spot near the big tree … The accused proceeded to
suspend a blackboard (Exhibit A) from a nail which protruded from the tree. …
We kept the scene under observation for about fifteen minutes when I signalled
my men to surround the accused and the children. I approached the accused and
told him he was under arrest for conducting an illegal school … The accused
remained silent …My men then proceeded to confiscate a number of items which
I now hand in. Exhibit A, a blackboard with the five times table written out.
Exhibit B, a batch of 20 exercise books, bearing the names of the different pupils.
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 202
We also confiscated a number of children‟s basic readers … as well as some
vernacular illustrated story books which I now hand in as Exhibit C.86
It was difficult to believe that this was not an Orwellian satire in which the rulers had
gone mad and the law turned into a lunatic‟s dream.
Assessment
A year after we started we looked at the boycott more dispassionately. The consequences
of the action were enormous in terms of the arrests, court appearances, fines and
harassment of the club leaders and parents. It was also a distressing time for some 7 000
children who remained out of school once the protests had been made. Many of the
parents were outraged by the motives behind Bantu education and acted out of despair for
their children‟s future. Some genuinely believed that “no education was better than a
„rotten‟ education”, but the majority could not deal with the consequences of that view.
Engaged in a major anti-pass campaign at the time and in the throes of resistance to the
Western Areas removal scheme, the ANC found its resources severely stretched.
Weakened by the repression of its leaders and having simultaneously to fight on too many
fronts, the ANC was in no position to challenge the state on Bantu education more
aggressively or to provide an adequate alternative system, least of all one that would not
fall foul of the law. Yet unable to stand by and allow the system to be imposed on the
population without protest, it felt bound to act on its resolution to boycott the schools
without seeming to be retreating from that decision. Sometimes leading from behind but
often straining to contain the anger that the system rightfully aroused in the parents, the
ANC did its best to ensure that the needs of those children who had entered the Cultural
Clubs were addressed.
Z.K. Matthews had been the most prescient in his observations about the decision to
boycott Bantu education. At the time, we who were working so closely with the club
leaders thought him overly cautious and conservative, but in retrospect I believe he was
offering sound leadership that few had the insight or courage to articulate. He warned that
“an evil system of education … cannot be effectively challenged by means of sensational,
dramatic campaigns of short duration;” that the struggle would be long and bitter,
requiring efficient organization – for the lack of which “the fight against Bantu education
had fallen short of our expectations”.87 His strongest reservations were reserved for the
“undue emphasis … laid on the provision of alternative education as a condition
precedent to children being withdrawn from Bantu education schools”. This emphasis, he
believed, “lent weight to the argument advanced as an apology for retreating from the
struggle, namely that Bantu education is better than no education”.88 His point was that
our educational propaganda should help parents to accept that the act of withdrawing their
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 203
children from Verwoerd‟s schools was part of the struggle for liberation: “The average
parent,” he said:
who follows our local call in the belief that his children will be given adequate
alternative education will become disillusioned with the Congress if such
education is not provided. He must act therefore out of political conviction, and
… must be made aware of the sacrifice this campaign, as well as others for
freedom, will entail.89
This seemingly harsh statement was made nine months after the first withdrawals in
April 1955 and the parents were probably unprepared for the degree of police harassment
the clubs suffered. In fairness to the parents, in December 1955 when Professor Matthews
made these remarks, they were all too aware that the alternative provision we offered was
far from adequate but saw the clubs as a symbol of their resistance and a rejection of the
view that education was second to liberation. Yet, in the absence of a total boycott, the
ANC had to accept that the campaign had failed. The resistance had been valiant on the
East Rand and the Eastern Cape but only 7 000 children had boycotted out of a total of
900 000 in the whole country. After about 18 months the ANC and the other congresses
accepted that the statesman-like decision was to advise the parents to send their children
back to school. This was not an easy decision to arrive at, and for that reason the report to
the ANC‟s annual conference in December 1956 read obliquely:
Conference will be asked by the NEC to endorse an earlier decision it took this
year to the effect that the emphasis of the campaign must no longer be laid upon
the withdrawal of children from the schools, although the struggle against Bantu
Education and the boycott of School Boards and Committees, should be carried
on.90
The clubs continued until the end of 1956 when the boycott gradually ended but the
system of Bantu education continued into the early 1990s.
The circumstances in 1956 were in dramatic contrast to the Soweto students‟
rebellion against Bantu education in 1976. The uprising in that year, although largely
local, was the beginning of a movement that overshadowed the tense moments of the
1950s on the East Rand and in the Eastern Cape. For in the 20 years that intervened
between the introduction of Bantu education and the uprising in 1976 the state had
become more brutal. When it responded to the students‟ protests it did so quite oblivious
of the tender age of the “enemy”, sending soldiers rather than the police against the
students with a determination to shoot and kill if they stood in their way. The fact that the
enemy they confronted were sixteen-year-olds and younger school children, who were
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 204
seeking a more enlightened education in a language they could understand, mattered little
to them. But it must have seemed a far cry from the 1950s for many of the parents who
were themselves children in 1955. Many of them had been sent to the Cultural Clubs by
their parents who refused to succumb to a school system they knew to be inferior. Their
parents had simply removed them from the classrooms and sent them to the Cultural
Clubs. But in 1976, when the scholars were five or six years older than the earlier
protesters, the form of alternative education they sought was in the ANC‟s armed
struggle, a much more attractive and viable option for the militant youth than a Cultural
Club whose moment had come and gone and could not be replicated in an age of brutal
repression.
Many of those who left the country to join Umkhonto we Sizwe, spent a few years at
the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO), the ANC‟s formal school in
Tanzania, before they were sent for military training in Africa and elsewhere. The ANC
insisted on this although many of the students had had enough of Bantu education by that
time and wanted to challenge the state more directly. Interestingly, they spoke quite freely
of “education after liberation” (echoing a sentiment held by some leaders 20 years
earlier). Perhaps mindful of its earlier experience the ANC opposed this even more
vigorously than it had in the mid-1950s. I was involved in this discussion at SOMAFCO
much later. But it was contempt for the regime – then and later – that roused the
resistance of the parents and club leaders and tested the system so severely. Together, the
parents in the 1950s and the youth in the mid-1970s turned Bantu education from an
instrument intended to perpetuate the regime into its nemesis. Lilian Ngoyi, ANC
champion for women‟s rights, captured the mood for both moments when, standing on an
open lorry in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth in 1956, she told a mass rally of 4 000 ANC
supporters: “We are not going to allow Strydom [Strijdom] to throw chains of slavery
round us … We fight for freedom and in that fight no power in heaven or on earth will
prevent us from attaining that great goal.” Turning more directly to Bantu education, she
cited an old adage. “The best form of struggle,” she said, “is to kill a man‟s mind. If we
allow them to destroy our minds they have destroyed our manhood”.91 She often mocked
male virility when it came to men‟s passivity in standing up for women‟s rights, but in
this instance, I think, she was urging everyone to defend their humanity.
***
The Landscape Transformed
Years later, when I came back from exile in the early 1990s, I again drove down that road
from Port Elizabeth to Uitenhage. The all-white local authority was being transformed
into an inclusive municipality to be controlled by all sections of the town‟s population. It
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 205
was still early days. The Mandela government was not yet in place and the white public
servants who had run the apartheid municipalities for decades were jittery about their
jobs. How different it all seemed at that moment. Instead of the municipal officials being
arrogant they were contrite, “politically correct” and eager to please. I was invited to talk
to the aspirant ANC local government officials and the current white incumbents about
the local government affirmative action plans that we were developing at a technical
group of CODESA (a sub-committee of the forum negotiating the new constitutional
arrangements).92 The subject matter of employment equity is of course wider than
“affirmative action” and goes to the heart of transformation, but the initial concerns were
about the frameworks we were creating for affirmative action. I should have realized that
the agenda of the meeting would be more specific than the broad principles of local
government transformation that I‟d been invited to talk about, but I was taken aback when
I discovered that what all parties really wanted to know was who should properly head the
new council. Should it be the seasoned white incumbent from the Uitenhage municipality
or an inexperienced ANC nominee from the adjoining black township. In the course of the
discussion, the black residents (all too familiar with the radical language of the United
Democratic Front and the NGOs that were affiliated to it) spoke impressively of “civic
structures”, local authority governance, and the “new formations”, while the whites could
only speak of the expertise of the senior officials who had served the local authorities for
years. The whites steadily lost their cool, while the blacks were losing patience, but held
their ground. Suddenly there was silence and one of the senior white officials stood up,
searched for the right words, pointed towards the black representatives and in what
seemed to be a moment of self-realization that a new dispensation had fallen upon them,
asked: “Can‟t we be empowered like them?” His colleagues murmured in agreement and I
realized at that moment that although there was still much work to be done, the two sides
had found each other. The one side had the technical capacity, the other the vision.
Thinking back, I‟m not sure how I felt in 1956 after the encounter with the officious
location superintendent and that excruciatingly long day and night with the cultural club
leaders under the trees. But 50 years later, with the memory of that seemingly implacable
racism in mind, I knew that we had moved on, that we had turned the full circle from
outright lunacy to a point where we could at least entertain being rational.
Chapter Eleven: “Bantu Education or the Street” – 206
Chapter Twelve
It is becoming clear that the Government is planning its own version of the
Reichstag Fire Trial of Nazi Germany as a means of eliminating the most
determined opponents of its apartheid policy … New Age.1
A Charge of Treason
When detectives invaded the Congress of the People on 26 and 27 June 1955, it was clear
that the government intended to accuse the leading activists in the congresses of treason.
After the COP the charge of treason was bandied about quite regularly, leading New Age
to say with some cynicism: “With every fresh raid, it has become clearer in the minds of
the Special Branch, „treason‟ and „communism‟ are coming to mean every form of
opposition to the Nationalist Government.”2 The statement was justified, given the
persistent presence of the special branch at meetings, their surveillance of individuals, and
the utterances of senior government officials, including the justice minister, the prime
minister and chief of police, who made it clear that something extraordinary was afoot.
The opposition to Bantu education simply exacerbated the situation.
The regime‟s threats were followed up with police raids on 19 September 1955. On
that occasion I came home to find two members of the special branch outside our front
door, one of them waving a warrant authorizing them to investigate charges of treason,
sedition and offences under the Suppression of Communism Act. Instructions to keep
cool, think fast on your feet and have a steady hand during these encounters went out of
my head as I thought of all the things that I should have taken care of in anticipation of
these raids. I let the men in gingerly, trying hard to recall whether any incriminating
documents, notes, names and papers were lying about, exposed. There were so many
items to remember: banned publications, especially “Marxist-Leninist” books; periodicals
and journal articles from China, Eastern Europe and the USSR; lists of subscribers to
Fighting Talk; names of people in the Congress of Democrats and the African Education
Movement; and documents of the SACP. The illegal Party had not yet publicly “emerged”
and evidence of its existence was hardly anything I wanted to reveal through careless
possession of its documents. In any case, membership of the illegal organization carried
with it a severe jail sentence. I simply stood there, said nothing and waited as the security
police agents searched every shelf, cupboard and drawer. They removed a shelf-full of
papers, periodicals, posters, some old copies of Fighting Talk, extracts from New Age and,
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 207
of course, more books from my Marxist library, but fortunately nothing incriminating was
found. Usually my brother, Leon, and I were raided simultaneously as we lived in the
same family flat. However, on that occasion two other detectives met him at his trade
union office, leaving only after they‟d scrutinized every piece of paper they could lay
their hands on.
The September raids were countrywide and carried out over two consecutive days,
reportedly on the scale of a military operation. The warrants were standard, authorizing
the seizure of papers, telegrams, typewriters, minutes and tape recorders. The
organizations under investigation were (predictably) the four congresses, the youth and
women‟s movements and the South African Peace Council, but there were also some on
the list that did not exist in South Africa, including the “Cominform” and “Comintern”
which never had offices in South Africa. The security police were relatively
unprofessional at the time and the scope of the searches too wide for them to know
precisely what they were looking for. Consequently they seized anything in sight that
fitted their understanding of the purpose of the raids. It took almost another decade before
the regime secured the cooperation of the British, US, Portuguese and Algerian
intelligence structures to train its own “assets” to work more professionally – and even
then there was a lack of analysts to make sense of the information collected. Despite the
inept intelligence personnel and poor assemblage of information, the effect of the raids
was serious.
They were more than “a gigantic fishing expedition” as the media suggested and
helped to create the climate for the arrests that followed over a year later. The information
acquired during the raids informed the regime of the breadth of the movement‟s activities,
its deficiencies on the ground, its membership and its projected activities. Together with
information collected at the Congress of the People, it furnished the bulk of the
information that initially informed the amorphous indictment of the accused in the
Treason Trial in December 1956, while the names and addresses seized during the raids
enabled the special branch to widen its network of surveillance. More generally, it
intimidated some Left-leaning intellectuals and helped to create the climate of fear in the
minds of the white section of the population that treason was afoot. The general protests
against the raids from the COD, the Coloured and Indian Congresses and SACTU,
warning that this was the forerunner of more fascist measures, made little impact on the
white population and talk of democratic rights for all simply added fuel to the
government‟s fire. Yet the ANC seemed powerless to mount a specific campaign to stop
the government from carrying out its threats.
By May 1956, Justice Minister Swart, whose dour personality was singularly
unsuited to any sort of drama, told parliament that “as a result of the Union-wide search
two hundred people are to be prosecuted for treason, breaches of the Suppression of
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 208
Communism Act and other offences”3. The charges would be based on the evidence
seized during the searches in the previous year. The statement came as no surprise to
anyone but belated as it was, it helped sustain the air of uncertainty that had already been
fostered and that “justified” the September raids in the eyes of government supporters,
although seven months had passed and no charges had yet been made. The minister‟s
inaction, however, turned out to be little more than a brief lull while the government
prepared for a sensational show-trial. New Age suspected that this was the case and in
mid-November 1956 cautioned that it would be dangerous to disregard the possibility of
further raids. “Having promised parliament that arrests would be made”, it noted, “Swart
was more or less under an obligation to redeem his pledge”.4 Later, the same newspaper
commented that the government appeared to be planning a “Reichstag Fire Trial” to
eliminate the “most determined” anti-apartheid activists and that such plans seemed to be
imminent.5
At the end of November, in a less measured way, Moses Kotane, sensing a new
reality in the regime‟s move towards “a total police state”, expressed concern that there
were no plans to stop the government in its tracks:
Swart has given the clearest notice of his intentions to arrest up to 200 …
personalities in a gigantic frame-up for treason and sedition … yet we do not find
that all those naked preparations … have called forth the rallying of the people on
a scale [which the situation] merits.6
He had no doubt that the masses would respond if called upon and believed “that the fault
was not with the people [but with the many leaders] who have a completely
unimaginative response to events.”7 He believed the country was approaching “a crisissituation, an emergency”, where there was no time for leaders to “mess around
ineffectually”. These lapses in efficiency were a mark of the isolation of the leaders, “they
have lost sight of the people”, he felt. They should “wake up … and be doing!” But his
appeal was too late.
Six days later, the raids began. It began at the crack of dawn on 5 December 1956
with two thumps on our front door, accompanied by loud cries of “Open up, it‟s the
police!”, repeated a second and a third time in case everyone in the block of flats had not
heard. This time the warrants were printed on cyclostyled foolscap sheets of paper, copied
156 times (some held back for later) for all those presumably included in the morning‟s
exercise, allowing a clean space for the names of each new person. Leon and I each had a
separate warrant which we read while two special branch men and an auxiliary officer,
also in plain clothes, waited before stripping the place of whatever they interpreted “as
contraband” in line with their search warrants. More explicit than in September 1955, the
warrants were a depressing invasion of privacy, affording the police sweeping powers to
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 209
search the place for anything from a cheque book to a typewriter and of course, more
Marxist literature. All the items ostensibly related to the 48 organizations allegedly under
investigation (two had disappeared from the original list of 50 previously mentioned by
Minister Swart). Some of these organizations were mythical, like the “Cheesa Cheesa
Army”, and the “May Day Committee” (an antiquated relic of the disbanded Trades and
Labour Council, which I once attended); some non-existent like the Comintern, the
Cominform and the CPSA, the outlawed Communist Party. The security police had either
not yet adapted to the subtle change in name from the CPSA to the new SACP or
(inconceivably) simply did not know of the new Party‟s independent existence.8
It was a tense and critical moment and an abrupt change of pace for me. It was early
in the morning and there were few onlookers to watch the “twins” being escorted to the
police car in the street outside and unceremoniously driven away. While the staff and
students at my school waited for me on that miserable morning I was having my
fingerprints taken at the Marshall Square police station.
“There’s plenty of room at the Fort”
News of the dawn raids reached the mainstream media almost immediately. For the most
part, the English-speaking press initially took the matter less seriously than their
Afrikaans (pro-government) counterparts. The Star, a Johannesburg English language
evening paper, featured an interview with the director of Prisons headed, “Plenty of Room
at the Fort”. It carried a description of the prison diet and a comment made by the prison
superintendent that his prison was “like a well kept boarding house”.9 This was clearly to
allay the fears of the families of the detainees that conditions at the Fort left much to be
desired. Die Transvaler, on the government‟s side of the media, provided a spurious
definition of treason and reminded its readers that in olden times the perpetrators of the
crime of treason were punished by having their hands and feet tied to four horses before
being torn to pieces. Alternatively, they had their bones broken or were burnt at the stake.
As if these statements were insufficient to inform their readers of the dire forms of
punishment that we might have received in earlier times, the paper noted that “failing all
that”, the offenders were likely to be whipped, strangled or banished preparatory to
having their property confiscated.10 Presumably, after that anything milder was generous.
More soberly, an editorial in The Natal Mercury, published in the English language,
reviewed the rash of recent legislation curtailing civil liberties and noted that these laws
have fallen so thick in recent years that few are likely to retain any clear idea of
what the ordinary citizen may or may not do in matters of speech, affiliation or
publication to keep himself on the right side of prison bars.11
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 210
It is unlikely that the section of the white population that did not support the NP felt much
sympathy for the accused, despite the more liberal stance of the English language media.
Generally there was no mass outcry or serious alarm anywhere in the media over the
government‟s claims that the state was about to be subverted by force and violence.
While the ANC called upon the African people to stand firmly “behind their valiant
leaders” and pledged itself to continue the freedom fight, the Liberal Party called upon the
white people of South Africa to resist all encroachments on their civil liberties, adding
bravely that no country could enjoy justice and freedom unless it offered the same rights
to all its people.12 There was more sustained support for the detainees at the international
level when a National Defence Fund was established to raise money for bail and also legal
assistance and the relief of families affected by the arrests. Canon L. John Collins, Dean
of St Paul‟s, in London and Ambrose Reeves, Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg, were the
main protagonists behind this, but there was also strong support from prominent South
Africans, including Alan Paton, chairman of the Liberal Party; the Archbishop of Cape
Town; former Judge F.A.W. Lucas; and a few progressive MPs like Alex Hepple,
parliamentary leader of the Labour Party. The main financial contributions came from
abroad and the Defence Fund (later re-named the International Defence and Aid Fund for
Southern Africa, or as it was more popularly known, the IDAF) became the mainstay of
relief for the families of anti-apartheid activists and those in need of legal defence for the
next 45 years,13 At the time of the Treason Trial, New Age, provided a comprehensive
account of the fund as well as news of the arrests and what are now vintage pictures of all
of us filing in and out of the police vans before entering or leaving the precincts of the
court. The police net had been cast wide and indiscriminately: communists, trade
unionists, activists in the Society for Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union or
persons prominent in the South African Peace Council and the four congresses, many of
them banned from gatherings and legally restricted from participation in the movement‟s
activities for a number of years. All were caught in the net.
There were a number of others, more or less learned, who were inexplicably not
arrested. These included well-known national leaders such as Yusuf Dadoo, Mick
Harmel, Bram Fischer, (Hilda) Bernstein, Brian Bunting, J.B. Marks, Dan Tloome, David
Bopape and (Govan) Mbeki. Thabo Mbeki (who arrived in Johannesburg from the Eastern
Cape during this time was too young to be credibly included among the accused and was
not active in the Congress Alliance‟s major campaigns.
Initially 140 people from all over the country were detained, soon to converge at the
Old Fort in Johannesburg from various city centres and small prisons where they were
originally held and finger-printed. For some it was a first-time prison experience, for
others who were not white, a routine happening. It was my first experience of prison and
the naked powerlessness of prisoners. I was initially taken to the police station at Marshall
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 211
Square and then transported in a kwela (police van) with about 13 others from the
Congress of Democrats to the Fort. About 14 additional detainees came from Cape Town
in two military planes, one Dakota for whites and the other for blacks. Fred Carneson, one
of the accused, remembers it was a bumpy ride. Another batch came from Port Elizabeth
and a third from Durban, while a large contingent of African comrades from
Johannesburg, rounded up during the dawn arrests, was already there – all excitedly
meeting in the reception hall of the Fort, momentarily un-segregated. The initial meeting
was chaotic. Many of us were still in our twenties and early thirties although there were
exceptions that increased the average age considerably. It could have been an old boys‟
class reunion, except for the disparity in our ages – and the fact that the venue was a
prison reception hall.
Whatever the description, there was not the slightest hint from our demeanour that
we were (according to prison parlance) “in” for the most serious crime in the book. Once
the greetings were over our possessions were laboriously recorded by the clerks in the
respective “reception” rooms – one designated for “Europeans” and the other for “nonEuropeans” – and we were dispatched to the racially separated sections for prisoners who
were awaiting trial.
When the group from the Congress of Democrats arrived at the section reserved for
white prisoners who were to be put on trial, the Reverend Douglas Chadwick Thompson,
a Methodist minister from a parish in Springs, aptly described by Joe Slovo as
“wonderfully incongruous in a high collar”, was already waiting to welcome us. He had
been active for years in the Society for Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union, and
later with the South African Peace Movement. With him were Errol Shanley, a trade
unionist and Jan Hoogendyck, an accountant at the time, both of them activists in the
Congress of Democrats in Durban.14 Jan was as urbane and upstanding as Errol was lean
and unshaven, both of them still feeling the effects of the plane trip, another turbulent
flight in an army Dakota. Thompson greeted us graciously, as if we were entering the
gates of heaven rather than purgatory, but his attitude was stoical and his manner, as
always, dignified despite the inauspicious environment.
It was a relatively self-contained section of the prison with a row of singularly bleak
cells with black stone floors and high walls that were unusually lacking in graffiti. Each
of the cells had a barred window, too high to see through. On the north-facing side where
I lay, the window backed onto a rectangular space that served as an exercise yard. For the
first time on that day I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that we could be here
for years. Initially I shared a cell with Leon and Jan Hoogendyck; then a second wave of
prisoners arrived. It was a strange first night in which we were all too engrossed in each
other and too wound up to give the bewildered warders any impression that we were
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 212
concerned with the gravity of the crime of high treason for which we would be remanded
the following day.
Our appearance before the magistrate at Q Court the next day was a formality,
although the event was one of the high moments of the day. We set out singing in the
kwela, a Black Maria as big as a tank, making a brief stop at the women‟s section of the
prison, where six white women joined the whites in the front of the kwela and nine black
women were seated with the black male defendants at the back of the truck. Racial
segregation was in this instance more important than gender.
The singing came to an abrupt end when we arrived at the magistrate‟s court and
were hustled out of the van and placed in the cells in the basement below the courtroom.
The presiding magistrate (Hartogh) was already on the bench when we filed into the
courtroom. The spectators stood up as we entered, a roar of “Mayibuye” erupting from the
spectators‟ gallery as Chief Luthuli appeared. Their cries were quelled promptly by
Hartogh, with threats to clear the court if there were further demonstrations. He explained
that all the accused had to do was to answer to their names to indicate that they were
present. Initially we answered “yes” as our names were called, but the pattern soon
changed to “ewe” (meaning “yes” in Xhosa) and Ndi khona ke Teng (“present” in Sotho)
or “ja” in Afrikaans. Luthuli answered gravely, Ndi lapa (“I am here” in Zulu). This was
our expression of independence after the state‟s charade of the morning‟s extravagant
police escort to the courtroom. A preparatory hearing would take place and if the evidence
was sufficient, a trial would follow. Now formally remanded as prisoners who were
awaiting trial, we filed down the stairway to the well of the court and out into the fresh
air. Seated once again in the kwela, the mood was still buoyant as the unwieldy prison van
sped back to the Fort, the accused singing one stirring “struggle” song after the other. New
Age, reflecting on the events at the court that day, contrasted our racially integrated
presence in the dock with the segregated scene in the courtroom. Here was South Africa
in miniature, it noted, a courtroom crammed with black spectators in one half of the
public gallery and across the barrier, an ample space for whites with seats to spare.
A day or two later more new faces arrived at the Fort. There was no pattern to the
arrests. Rusty Bernstein who, unbeknown to the prosecution had drafted the Freedom
Charter, Moses Kotane, Walter Sisulu – already icons in the movement – were arrested in
a second wave of police raids. Ruth First, Duma Nokwe, Ahmed Kathrada, M.P. Naicker,
all of them still young enough to be in the youth leagues, and like so many others, banned
from participation in the affairs of Congress, were among those detained in the second
wave of arrests. It seemed as if the security police were undecided who to detain, unsure
of who made policy and who carried it out; who were the foxes and who were the
hedgehogs and in a final, frenzied moment, included everyone they happened to have
listed in their files. If the case went beyond the preparatory stage and the prosecution
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 213
failed to secure their commitment to a formal trial, at least the accused or a portion of
them would be confined to the courtroom for a long time and their movements outside the
court easily monitored.
The Preparatory Examination
We had never met in plenary like this before and were soon to take advantage of the
presence of local activists and national leaders to share experiences and learn from each
other. We were also able to contribute to some of the day to day decisions that had to be
taken in the movement‟s battles beyond the courtroom. At the beginning of the
preparatory hearing Congress intervened directly in a major bus boycott in
Johannesburg‟s Alexandra township where the Congress leadership, heads huddled
closely together during the lunch recesses in the Drill Hall, met with representatives of the
Witwatersrand and Pretoria Joint Action Committee to advise them of the strategies they
thought they should follow. This set a pattern for the treatment of other struggles.
“Azikhwela” (we will not ride – in the buses) became as popular a slogan during these
months as “Asinamali” (we have no money), the slogan chanted at the mass rallies that
were held during the national campaign for a minimum working wage of a “Pound a
Day”. A third slogan, “We shall not be moved”, was taken up in chorus by the residents
of Sophiatown even as they were moved in government trucks to the new township of
Meadowlands, eighteen miles away.
Meanwhile, in the rural reserves of Pondoland and Sekhukuneland; in Zeerust and
the interior of Zululand, rebellions erupted against the Bantu Authorities system – revolts
that developed into low intensity wars between popular chiefs, poor subsistence farmers
and the state. When Sisulu visited these areas in April 1956, eight months prior to his
arrest on charges of treason, he already observed these rising tensions which he said were
prompted by poverty and drought and discontent over the application of the Bantu
Authorities system.15 Much of the anger towards this system, he thought at the time, “still
flowed beneath the surface”.16 He was correct. Tensions erupted into local rebellions
throughout the years of our trial, only to be ruthlessly repressed by the regime, the leaders
imprisoned, banished and persecuted. Beginning in Bizana in Eastern Pondoland, where
“a vast popular movement arose in March 1960 … known as „Intaba‟ (the mountain)”,17
the “unrest” had spread to rural Zululand by November, where the canefields were set
alight in protest against a district chief at Empangeni who supported the Bantu Authorities
system. The Minister of Justice told parliament in February 1961 that “4 769 Africans,
two whites and two members of other races had been taken into custody [since the
troubles began]”.18 Less than half of these had been brought to trial. When it came to the
collection of statistics the bureaucrats in the NP government were as obsessive as any
other dictatorship, past and present.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 214
The lack of ANC structures in the rural areas and the failure to attend to specific
grievances were serious weaknesses that had not been properly addressed for years.
Before the armed struggle became ANC policy in 1961, the Pondos were literally begging
for guns.19 But for the immobilization of the ANC‟s activists in the Treason Trial, greater
attention might have been paid to this. Meanwhile we were immobilised in the Fort.
***
Inside the Fort
The prison regime was difficult to adjust to. By comparison with other prisons, the
“awaiting trial” regimen at the Fort was less sanitary, but more civilized than the brutal
underworlds I later experienced in Pretoria. But, irrespective of the institution, I never
overcame my revulsion to the terrible stench of shit and urine from the chamber pots,
routinely emptied in the lavatories when the cells were unlocked at six o‟clock in the
mornings. At the Fort there were queues for every occasion. Long lines to the lavatories
and to the washing basins in the early morning and then another queue for mealie pap and
black coffee for breakfast; a long line for shredded stew and black bread for lunch at
eleven or twelve o‟clock; and finally rows of ravenous inmates for soup without salt for
supper at four o‟clock in the afternoon before lock-up. Fortunately there was a welcome
food supplement from sympathetic volunteers outside the prison, who never once failed to
deliver our meals – sometimes twice daily. Although the prison routine in the nonEuropean section was more or less the same, the physical conditions were different, and
the food progressively worse according to one‟s racial classification. So to the majority of
prisoners the additional food from the volunteers outside the prison often made all the
difference between eating and going hungry.
There were just over a 100 black male detainees (as opposed to 17 in the white male
quarters), which allowed the blacks greater control over their section than we had. In
sharp contrast to the whites, they were treated with “extraordinary respect” by the
warders.20 Fear, prejudice and social class separated the white warders from us. Culturally
and socially they were closer to the prisoners in for arson or HB&T. 21 At a general level,
apartheid provisions prevailed for food, accommodation and treatment, and one‟s prison
experience depended on one‟s skin colour and gender. The black male prisoners slept on
the floor, close to one another, on thin rope mats. According to the measurements of the
comrades with the largest feet, the black detainees had two cells, 55 by 20 paces. There
were approximately 50 in each cell. Two open latrines, one in a corner of each cell served
them all. The walls were also atypically blank, suggesting that the respective “special
sections” had been prepared for us shortly before our arrival. The white males slept
mostly three to a cell, 9 by 9 paces each. The women‟s cells were slightly bigger to
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 215
accommodate the small cots on which they slept. In all the sections there was much
camaraderie.
It took three bail applications before the lawyers could secure our release, the
prosecution insisting (on the instructions of the security branch) that “if the arrested
people were released the police would lose further sources of information”.22 On a second
application to the Transvaal Supreme Court, Justice Bresler handed in a written judgment
refusing bail, noting the “gravity of the crime” and finding the prosecution‟s plea for time
to complete its investigations a sufficiently good reason to deny bail. The preparatory
examination therefore began while we were still held at the Fort, arriving at the Drill Hall
each morning in a convoy of kwelas, our singing inviting loud cheers from the massive
crowd of supporters outside the court bearing large placards in bold letters reading: “We
stand by our leaders!”
Inside the makeshift courtroom, a large, dreary hall with none of the baroque
trappings of a conventional court, we sat in a crudely constructed wire-fenced dock, big
enough to seat a small brigade. Chairs with narrow seats had been arranged in rows, as for
a concert. Outside, scores of armed police ringed the streets trying to contain the crowd of
chanting supporters, while in the courtroom, the chief prosecutor haltingly read from a 53page document outlining the crown‟s case against us. On the second day his tedious
argument was interrupted by the sound of gunfire outside the hall. Supporters trying to
gain access to the proceedings were prevented from doing so, while the crowd, in some
parts seven-deep and increasing all the time, was pushed back by the police. A baton
charge followed in which the police hit everyone within their reach, and in turn, were
pelted with stones by the unarmed demonstrators. Events came to a head when a young
constable allegedly panicked and fired two shots, later followed up by a volley of gunfire
ordered by the general in charge of a police detachment. As many as 30 people were
reportedly injured on that day, including two policemen.
The next day 500 police, armed with sten guns, cordoned off the hall, and later wade
into the crowd with a brutal baton charge, this time injuring 27 demonstrators. On this
occasion, the magistrate (either following instructions from the police or sensing that it
was prudent to clear the court as quickly as possible) to our great relief adjourned the
proceedings. It was against this background that the prosecution outlined its case against
us, alleging that it was our common purpose to subvert the state by force. Ironically, it
was also the state‟s contention that the provocation of incidents similar to the sort we had
just witnessed was a deliberate policy of the ANC leadership to rouse the police into
responding aggressively to mass action.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 216
What is Treason?
We had no idea what constituted the crime of treason. For those of us who were not
trained in the law, the answers to this question seemed highly subjective. Apart from a
few specific essentials such as having a hostile intention to endanger the safety of the state
(or actively to prepare to endanger it) a great deal seemed to depend on what acts the
prosecution believed were likely to impair the state‟s safety. Where, for instance, did it
draw the line between a simple protest against injustice and an intention to subvert the
state? Was it treasonable to advocate the substitution of the apartheid order for an
egalitarian one, albeit by peaceful means? Did an intemperate speech or an article or an
inflammatory act committed by one person, necessarily bind all the others?
Between the farce and the drama of the proceedings there were serious questions
involving matters of law, due process and jurisprudence. For instance, if the court
accepted the evidence of an expert witness showing that communist philosophy required
the violent overthrow of the state, would that make the Freedom Charter (which the
prosecution alleged was a “communist document”) treasonable? High treason was often
associated with war and aid from a proclaimed foreign enemy, punishable by death. Could
the internationalism of the Communists and the moral support received by the ANC and
its allies from Eastern Europe, be seen as aid from “the Communist enemy”? If these were
bewildering questions for those in the dock, the prosecution‟s concept of “violent
retaliation” by the police in response to the latter‟s deliberate provocation by the masses,
bordered on madness. According to this notion the police were deliberately provoked into
violent retaliation by leaders who egged on the crowd to confront the police, all the time
appearing to preach peace, but in reality purposely inciting violence.
These questions were at the core of the preparatory hearing and later in the trial and
were either raised in legal argument or were present in the substance of the documents
that were read into the record over the days and weeks and months of the proceedings.
The case for the prosecution was presented by one of the least inspiring of chief
prosecutors, an inept official by the name of J.C. van Niekerk. Ham-fisted, halting and
utterly humourless, he had the misfortune of watching his incompetent witnesses fall like
plastic pins in a bowling alley under the pressure of cross examination by V.C. Berrange.
Berrange was our chief defence counsel, known in the profession as “the most
surgical demolisher of official witnesses”.23 Van Niekerk was frequently reduced to
speechlessness by Berrange‟s caustic tongue and cutting sarcasm – often directed at him.
The magistrate was slightly more professional. He was F.C.A. Wessel, previously the
chief magistrate of Bloemfontein, who had probably never been exposed to the country‟s
bracing political opposition. He was just as humourless as Van Niekerk but had better
powers of concentration and was seldom distracted by the heated exchanges between
Vernon Berrange and the prosecution, or by the tedium of the proceedings. He also learnt
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 217
nothing from them. He was a small man with an expressionless face which on occasion
turned white with fright when he feared losing control of the proceedings. Despite his
stern warnings when he thought the order of the court was threatened, I suspect that in
reality he was just as frightened of the defence counsel as he was of the security police. If
he felt any emotion while the chief prosecutor outlined the disturbing details of the state‟s
case against us, he did not show it, and listened to the prosecutor as impassively as he
might have done were he hearing a case of arson.
The prosecution‟s case was often garbled and reflected how ill at ease it was with
(what it referred to) as Marxism-Leninism. According to Van Niekerk, who drew no
distinction between communists and non-communists, the evidence would be that the
liberation movement relied on extra-parliamentary action to achieve its aims because it
saw no alternative to white rule under the existing constitution. The accused had made
speeches inciting revolution, violence and bloodshed as a means of achieving their aims.
As stated in the Communist Manifesto (which he regularly cited) communists stood for
violent revolution and the destruction of the capitalist oppressors. It would be shown from
the documents that some of the accused had taught that the South African state had
reached a stage where “capitalist imperialism” was developing into fascism – and the
country was already a police state. In addition, parliament, as it existed, served the
financial magnates and would have to be abolished.24
Sweat poured from his head as he read on, while the accused watched him
frantically wipe his forehead with a large prison-sized handkerchief. The prosecution‟s
task was not made any easier by the presence in the courtroom of Gerald Gardiner, the
eminent barrister and future British chancellor. He had flown to South Africa from
London to attend the hearings on behalf of the (UK) Bar Council, the Association of
Liberal Lawyers and the Society of Labour Lawyers, and was shortly to report on the
absurdity of the prosecution‟s case, which was made even more apparent, when after three
separate applications, the Supreme Court granted bail according to an arbitrary scale of
₤50 for Africans, ₤100 for Indians and Coloured persons, and ₤250 for whites! This was
less than the crown had asked for, much to the surprise of a group of eminent persons, all
of them South Africans, who stood as sureties for us. Knowing that high treason was a
capital offence punishable by death, they were ready to stand bail to the extent of many
thousands of pounds.
The bail conditions were the same for all the accused and bore a striking
resemblance to the banning orders with which many of us were already familiar. These
conditions were recited by the chief magistrate, Mr F.C. Silk, his loud voice echoing in
the cavernous well of the magistrate‟s court. I remember him asking if there was anyone
who wished to explain these prohibitions to the accused, whereupon Chief Luthuli,
appropriate to his position as ANC president, came forward. “Are you an educated man?”
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 218
Silk asked him, without enquiring who he was. “I think so”, Luthuli responded, and went
on to explain in very lucid terms the bail conditions which largely entailed a prohibition
on addressing or attending any gatherings other than of a social, sporting, religious or
recreational nature; reporting before 10 a.m. each morning at a named police station and
for those who were lucky enough to possess them, the surrender of their passports. After
all this the prisoners and the sureties were brought before the magistrates on special duty
and the accused were issued with a covenant of liberation.25 This occurred on 20
December after 16 days in jail. At the time it seemed like a life sentence.
The bail proceedings ended the year and we returned to the same court in January
1957 – no longer en masse inside a kwela – but on foot or by public transport to hear
Vernon Berrange argue in reply to Van Niekerk‟s outline of the state‟s case against us.
The legal strategy Berrange adopted was overtly political. It could hardly have been
otherwise in view of the issues he had to address. The primary concern included the
questions of force and violence. We were soon to discover that any form of social change
(violent or not) was potentially treasonable in the state‟s thinking. It believed that protest
for equal rights was inherently hostile to the state and by its nature inflammatory.
Marxist-Leninist theory, the prosecution avowed, required the revolutionary overthrow of
the state by force under all circumstances, and since the Freedom Charter was in its view
a communist document, we were all guilty of treason. Furthermore, the solidarity shown
by the “socialist world” towards the liberation movement was indeed the external foreign
connection the state needed to convict us of high treason. Berrange confronted all this
head-on.
He characterized the treason trial as a political plot by the government. It was a
conspiracy against political opposition of the type that occurred in the days of the
Inquisition and the Reichstag Fire Trial. Its purpose was to silence and outlaw the ideas of
the 156 accused and the thousands of others whom they represented. It was a contest
between the state and the people for equal opportunities and freedom of expression on the
one hand, and a wish on the other hand, to deny to all but a few the means of material and
spiritual life.26
Assisting Berrange were Joe Slovo (himself a defendant) and John Coaker, both of
them young barristers at the time. The three of them valiantly defended the accused
against the main allegations of the prosecution, challenging the spurious testimonies of
the security police witnesses and disputing the most contentious of the crown documents.
There were at least 10 000 of these, printed leaflets and policy statements (not necessarily
those of the movement) laboriously read into the court record. In addition to these were
the reports of speeches (described by Slovo as unlettered and garbled) also read into the
record.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 219
Fortunately, about six months into the preparatory examination, I was saved from
the tedium of the trial by having to prepare history lectures for a part-time job I had taken
at a “cram” college for students who had performed poorly at school and wanted to retake their matric exams in the shortest possible time. No sooner would the court adjourn
for the day when I would rush for a tram in the direction of Eloff Street, in the centre of
the city, and give the lecture I had hastily crafted between the dull moments of the pretrial hearings and the occasional enlivening spats between members of the defence
counsel and the court. There was an irony somewhere in the preparation of these lectures,
as the topics were primarily on nineteenth-century Europe and the themes of nationalism,
class, insurgency and revolution were never far from the surface of the crown‟s case.
Amusingly, I realized only much later that by lecturing to a class of students, I was
contravening my bail conditions and if found out could have been sent back to jail for the
duration of the hearing.
Between the prosecution‟s outline of the case against us and the cross examination
of the crown‟s expert witness on Communism, the proceedings moved at a snail‟s pace.
The alertness of our defence counsel while the accused slept or surreptitiously went about
such work as they may have acquired, is in retrospect remarkable. Much of the evidence
was irrelevant to the charge of treason and in the view of our defence lawyers,
inadmissible. None of the special branch transcripts of the speeches indicated the
commission of any offence. Besides this, the detectives‟ reports were often so incoherent
and illiterate that in the view of our lawyers they constituted an abuse of the court. The
tedium was beyond belief, broken only by moments of theatre when state witnesses
behaved bizarrely in the witness box. A case in point was the matter of the missing
spectacles. In this instance the exchange between the court and the police witness said it
all:
Prosecutor: Will you read from your notes?
Detective Maselela: I can‟t your worship. The man has gone away with his
spectacles.
Magistrate: Your spectacles?
Detective Maselela: His spectacles.
Magistrate: Whose spectacles?
Detective Maselela: His spectacles. I use his spectacles.
Magistrate (to prosecutor): Does this man wear spectacles?
Prosecutor: I‟m afraid he does.
Clerk of the Court: (Takes his own spectacles from his pocket). Try these.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 220
Detective Maselela: (Puts on spectacles, finds them satisfactory) and case
continues [ineptly].27.
The evidence was often trivial, but however bland it seemed, its thrust was always to
attribute incriminating ideological motives to our actions to disprove our contention that
the struggle was a peaceful one. Frequently the prosecution projected the image of
communists whose mission (whatever the circumstances) was to overthrow the state by
force. Often, the prosecutors accepted the evidence of security police witnesses who were
too uneducated and too muddle-headed to comprehend the proceedings of the meetings
they spied on. Frequently they misidentified the accused. In one case a witness described
as a newspaper reporter, police informer and location superintendent (pathetic in each of
his three roles) gave evidence of an election meeting in the Western Cape addressed by
Len Lee Warden and Ben Turok. Asked to identify Len Lee Warden, the witness picked
out Ike Horvitch. When asked to point out Ben Turok he again walked towards the dock,
hovered over my brother Leon, looked briefly at me in the next seat and quickly identified
Leon. The laughter that this provoked was only partly due to the witness‟s incompetence.
For the most part the men and women in the dock were mystified at his speedy selection
of Leon from the pair of identical twins whom they could scarcely tell apart. Besides,
neither Len Lee Warden nor Ben Turok bore the faintest resemblance to the Levy twins.
While these incidents provided some diversion from the boredom of the case, the
evidence of Professor A.H. Murray, the crown‟s expert witness on Communism, was
entertaining, though more dangerous. Murray was dapper, seldom ruffled and completely
insensitive to the inconsistencies in his evidence. It was in the cross-examination of
Murray that Vernon Berrange again demonstrated his incomparable finesse in the
demolition of official witnesses, whether they purported to be experts in handwriting,
typewriters or Communism. Murray‟s interest in the “communist classics” (primarily
Lenin and Marx and sometimes Stalin) went back to 1935. A professor of philosophy at
the University of Cape Town, he was a diminutive intellectual of the apartheid era. He
served on the Eiselen Commission on Native Education in 1949–51 where he contributed
to the social theory behind Bantu Education and re-appeared at the Drill Hall in 1957 as
an expert witness on Communism. He appeared again at the special court in the Old
Synagogue at the end of 1959, when the accused had the satisfaction of witnessing the
demolition of his evidence for a second time by the defence lawyers, Maisels and
Kentridge. In both cases, the crown relied on Murray to provide the cement that linked the
liberatory organizations to the international communist movement and to show that the
clauses of the Freedom Charter were “essentially communist”. His charge seems to have
been to discern from the language of the Charter and the statements and speeches made by
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 221
the movement‟s leaders, that the objectives of mass mobilization were “in the light of
communist theory”, stepping-stones towards the violent overthrow of the state.
Murray was hardly a man of mild opinions. The concepts “oppression”,
“democracy”, “fascism” “peace” and phrases like “the police state” were in his view
“typical” words in the communist vernacular and had an Aesopian subtext in which those
who used them would say one thing and mean another. This, he said, was apparent in the
documents and speeches of the leaders of the ANC and their allies which revealed their
predisposition towards Communism, especially in their demands for the equitable redivision of the land and universal suffrage. His evidence provided the prosecution with a
framework that would cast every action or statement we made in a hostile light and lend
conspiratorial motives to everything we said and did. After defining Communism and the
concept of the materialist conception of history in the narrowest way possible, the
prosecution led him to the subject of revolution and change. But on this occasion Murray
was determined to continue his exposition of the materialist conception of history, even
though the prosecutor was trying to lead him on to a different topic concerning the land
question. To confuse the court further, the witness had begun to refer to the prosecutor,
Van Niekerk, as “Mr Chairman” until the magistrate (conscious that this was irregular and
that “chairman” was probably his role) asked him to talk to the court rather than to anyone
in particular. The professor appeared to be distracted by the court‟s constant interruptions
and seemed intent on taking the history of the communist project to its cyclical end: “the
workers would control the state and the means of production”, he volunteered, as if this
would come as a surprise to any one, adding gratuitously that “after a period of the
Dictatorship of the Proletariat (DOP), the state would disappear …”
Van Niekerk‟s response revealed a skill he had not yet shown in the course of this
trial. He stuck to a single point and pressed it home:
“And how is the change brought about?”
“Only by revolution,” Murray obliged.
Satisfied, the prosecutor then asked in a collegial tone almost suggesting that the
witness tell the court in confidence: “And what would happen to the land?” The response
was immediate.
“The monopoly of the small group of landowners will be broken; expropriated and
the workers will take control. Similarly the banks and other financial institutions will be
nationalized.”
“And then?”
“A dual authority will be established in the state – a body which will have influence
outside parliament and people will accept instructions from it.”28
This was not the answer he was looking for. He needed the witness to establish the
link between his evidence on the land question and the policies of the ANC.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 222
“And what does the ANC Constitution say about the land?”
“It says the land will be redivided and industry democratized …”
Murray sensed that the court seemed to be waiting for something more from him.
Perhaps he had not made his position clear? Evidently he had not, so to the obvious relief
of the prosecution, he added: “These show that communist tendencies run through the
whole document”.29
With this, the prosecution ended its evidence for the crown.
Berrange began his cross-examination lightly, listening intently as Murray described
democracy as a belief that the individual is a value in himself.
“Irrespective of colour?” Berrange interrupted.
“Naturally.” (Murray was on his guard, but Vernon had already changed tack)
“Have you ever experienced a fascist state?”
“No.”
“Have you experienced a communist state?”
“No.”
“But you are prepared to say a lot about [them] aren‟t you”?
“Based on the data of the communist masters,” Murray answered, obviously so
pleased with his reply that he misjudged Berrange completely and answered his next
question facetiously.
“What is a fellow traveller?” Berrange asked.
“If I travel by train and somebody travels with me, he is my fellow traveller.”
There were titters throughout the court and we did not know what next to expect
from Vernon. “You are not here as an expert on trains. You are a so-called expert on
Communism.” Berrange appeared to be angry. He put the question again. A more sober
reply followed, upon which Berrange proceeded to read out extracts from various political
philosophers. Could the witness identify any of these authors? The professor looked
puzzled. He was unable to place them, but it was clear to him “that they were the sort of
statements communists make”. As he said this, he looked across the courtroom towards
Berrange who had half turned towards the accused. The expression on Vernon‟s face was
deadpan and we knew that he was about to deliver an ace. The statements, he archly told
the court, were made by US President Wilson, Prime Minister Malan and Dr Van
Rensburg, leader of the Ossewa Brandwag.
What followed was a further set of readings, a quotation from a work on the
industrialized state. In it “the instruments of production” were described as being “in the
hands of the dominant group, draining the backward groups of their wealth-making forces
… [and] thus excluding workers from a share in the profits …”
“Could the professor give us the author”?
“No.”
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 223
“You will be surprised to know that you are the author. Do you deny it?”
“Not if you say so …” The mirth that accompanied this theatre – it was nothing less
than that – led the magistrate to accuse Vernon of deliberately raising a laugh at the
expense of the witness. Butter wouldn‟t have melted in Berrange‟s mouth. He denied
Wessel‟s accusation profusely and went on to deliver a second ace by reading lofty
extracts from Milton, Shelley, Lincoln and J.S. Mill to show that the concepts that Murray
had dubbed as “communist” were part of the liberal democratic tradition.
At this point, the proceedings took a new turn. It was nine months into the hearing
and the prosecution announced that the crown had concluded its case. The defence team
must have had advance notice of this and possibly drafted Advocate Norman Rosenberg
Q.C. into the defence team to request an adjournment until 13 January 1958. (I think it
was probably prudent for someone other than Berrange to make this request, although
Vernon may have taken a break on that day). Rosenberg came to the case with a fresh
mind and with an air of objectivity told the court that it was necessary to study the
voluminous court record which had grown to over 8 000 typed pages. The defence team
would also need to analyse the 10 000 exhibits and hundreds of records of speeches that
had been read into the record, and to take statements from witnesses. The request was
granted.
The first anniversary of the arrests, which occurred on 5 December 1957 passed
while the hearing was adjourned. Christmas was approaching and the accused were
generally in a festive mood, despite the long trial and the hardships that the court
proceedings imposed. Most of the accused who were not from Johannesburg had returned
to the regions that were home, although the case had caused a number of disruptions and
many decided to stay in the city for the duration of the preparatory examination. It was
therefore more than a surprise when the treason allegations were withdrawn against
“sixty-one” of us, before the defence team had begun its argument! The announcement
came on 20 December 1957.30 I was one of the 61 persons released, part of an
incomprehensible selection of former accused, some leaders and others in the ranks. Chief
Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Z.K. Matthews – to name only a few of those released – were
part of this number. The joy we felt was mixed with indignation. The attorney general had
belatedly considered the evidence on record and found it to be insufficient. As a result of
his decision, the magistrate would not even have to decide whether or not the evidence
against the “sixty-one” was sufficient for us to stand trial. Not one of us had given a word
of evidence to refute the charges against us.
The media interest in the preparatory examination had decreased substantially over
the year and it was left to New Age to say that, “any Minister of Justice responsible for
such a legal fiasco and miscarriage of justice should resign … the possibility is that the
remaining ninety-five accused are no more guilty of treason than the sixty-one”.31 The
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 224
government took as little notice of this as did the mainstream media. The court
reassembled on 13 January in the new year. Outside the Drill Hall, large crowds had
gathered with many of the demonstrators chanting the slogan, “Free the Ninety-Five!”
Inside the dismal courtroom a large number of overseas journalists as well as Barbara
Castle, then chairman of the British Labour Party, took their seats as the magistrate,
without looking up from his notes, announced the formal release of the 61 trialists and
granted a brief adjournment to enable the proceedings to continue against the remaining
95. The excitement outside the Drill Hall on that day was muted in view of the comrades
still charged. But among the photographs that appeared in New Age the following week
was one of an unusually exuberant Z.K. Matthews, sharing a private joke with Barbara
Castle. She had come to attend the hearing on that day and had obviously said something
to cause the customary scowl on Z.K.‟s face to change to a smile.
Meanwhile the status of each of the 61 just released from the preparatory
examination was altered. We were no longer “accused” persons but “co-conspirators”.
There were three different sets of “co-conspirators” in three different indictments
presented by the prosecution during the course of the trial. The legal implications of this
shift in status (from a primary conspirator to a secondary and then a tertiary one) were not
explained by the prosecution, but we knew that our fate would depend on the outcome of
the case against the others.
Six weeks later, in February 1958, many of those released from the hearing
(especially those based in Johannesburg) stood in the spectators gallery to hear Berrange‟s
reply to the prosecution‟s remarks at the closing of the crown‟s case; others had returned
to their regions and to such work as they could find.32 Berrange‟s final address to the
court at the end of the preparatory examination was as much an indictment of the National
Party‟s record of human rights as it was a response to the allegations of the crown. “This
trial,” he said:
concerns the right of the people to express themselves in open criticism of the
government and to … work for change in the political, economic and social
systems within the limits of our law. [The accused] were engaged in a battle of
ideas between those who would limit the free expression of thought and opinion
and those who held that it was not unlawful to criticize the government and to
work for change.33
The state had attempted to stifle all public opinion, “all freedom of expression, all acts
which are still legal” in the way it had formulated the charges against the accused,
suggesting that a campaign against existing laws was treasonable – “even though it was
not alleged and [it] had not been proven that any of the campaigns [were] unlawful or that
any persons were incited to commit offences …”
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 225
What was envisaged by the movement was not treason, hate or hostility, he said, but
economic boycotts, political strikes, demonstrations, processions and political education.
“None of this [was] illegal.”34 The COP was not “the mustering of an insurgent army; it
was a peaceful gathering of elected delegates to which all recognized political
organizations were invited, including the ruling National Party”. Nor was the COP a
secret cabal that had met for subversive purposes, but an extensively advertised public
meeting to adopt a charter of human rights and decide on political, racial and economic
policies for the future. Instead the government had ignored the invitation and rather than
be represented by delegates and speakers, had sent “hundreds of policemen with firearms
and an invading force of security police” to confiscate documents and photograph the
proceedings. The Charter was nevertheless adopted and every one of the ten points it
proposed was consistent with the political philosophies of civilized governmental systems
throughout Europe, the UK and Scandinavia. “If the presentation and adoption of the
Freedom Charter were now held to constitute treason, [it would mean] that the most rigid
principle of thought-control will have been enshrined in our law.”35
He ended his address as he began, with a condemnation of the government‟s assault
on civil liberties. The crown, he said, had proved nothing other than a desire to put an end
to any form of effective opposition to the government of the country. “If that which the
crown has established be evidence of treason, subversion, or communism as defined in
our law, then there is an end in this country to all that is implicit in the term
democracy.”36 Because he knew that Wessel would in all probability commit the accused
for trial, he did not confine his remarks exclusively to esoteric points of the law and
wisely left this for the defence counsel to do in the trial that was to follow the preparatory
examination. Instead, he concentrated on the political implications of the government‟s
attack on political freedoms, and the prosecution‟s insistence that a conspiracy existed to
overthrow the state by force and violence, despite the fact that the crown‟s own witnesses
“had given the lie to this over and over again … [during the preceding] thirteen or
fourteen months of the preparatory examination”.37
Before he sat down, Berrange pointedly directed his final words to Oswald Pirow,
the senior prosecutor belatedly selected by the crown to summarize and sharpen the case
against the accused. Pirow‟s admiration for Hitler was well known, especially his
reference to the Führer in 1938 as “the greatest man of his age, perhaps the greatest of the
last thousand years”.38 It was hardly surprising then, that half turning to the accused
Berrange sarcastically ended his address with the taunt, “it was with loathing and disgust
that the civilized people of the world rejected the concept of Herrenvolkism on which the
Nazis founded their political structure”.39 With that he sat down and glared at Pirow with
an expression he reserved for the most reprehensible of the state‟s witnesses, conveying in
that singular stare all the revulsion he felt for this impenitent Nazi.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 226
Pirow was no longer a practising barrister, but a farmer producing pineapples at
Bushbuck Ridge in the Transvaal.40 In the 1920s and 1930s he was a leading member of
the Union government under Hertzog and was later in the coalition government with
Hertzog and Smuts when he served first as Minister of Defence and Railways and then as
Minister of Justice. In the latter position he was responsible for amending the Riotous
Assemblies Act, which enabled him and subsequent ministers to ban meetings and deport
political “agitators” without trial. He also helped to devise the legislation that removed
Africans from the common voters‟ roll in 1936. Like many others in the National Party
government, he visited Germany twice in the 1930s and met fascist leaders during a
number of tours of Europe. As the leader of the New Order Group, a “parliamentary”
faction of like-minded fascists emanating from the rump of Hertzog‟s party in 1939, he
was and remained a consummate fascist.41
Replying to Berrange, Pirow dismissed Vernon‟s remarks “as more appropriate for a
meeting of the United Nations than to this court” and wasted no time in asking Wessel to
commit all of the remaining 95 for trial, arguing that the accused had committed high
treason by conspiring “with hostile intent” for the total subversion of the state.42 These
were the magic words – there could be no treason without “hostile intent”. As it was
evident that the state had hardly been toppled by subversion, he explained in legal jargon
that for the purposes of a technical definition of treason, a contemplated result less than
total subversion would suffice to constitute the crime. The prosecution took it for granted
that the Freedom Charter – Pirow called it the “People‟s” Charter – was subversive and
that all the accused including the organizations they represented had subscribed to it and
were pledged to do their utmost to carry out its aims. “If therefore the objects of the
People‟s [sic] Charter and or the methods of carrying it out are illegal,” he argued, “all the
accused are guilty of a criminal conspiracy, and anything said or done by any one of them
in furtherance of the common purpose is admissible against all of them”.43
According to him, Berrange had falsely presented the movement‟s support for the
Charter as a highly idealistic, perfectly innocent document – a belief held by people
whose only ideal was to improve the lot of their fellow Africans. But according to Pirow
it was “in truth”, part of a conspiracy. The real object of the “united front of Europeans
and non-Europeans was not to attain universally understood democratic rights, but to
foment trouble”. Every one of the Congress‟s campaigns (in which the participants were
“cranks and idealists”) was intended as a stepping stone towards the furtherance of the
revolution, “a stalking horse” to substitute a people‟s democracy – “in other words, a
Soviet State” – for the existing state. This they wished to achieve “by means other than
peaceful” – which amounted to treason. He declared that the “extra-parliamentary
struggle” was a misnomer. When the accused said “extra-parliamentary” they meant
“illegal”. It was fatuous for the defence to suggest, he said amidst laughter in the court,
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 227
that the police attacked people who were peacefully going about their business. He
claimed it was all part of an orchestrated campaign to cause as much disturbance as
possible by illegal means so that the police would be obliged to intervene:
They [the ANC leaders] will make the most violent, inflammatory speech[es],
bring their audience as close to hysteria as they can and then say „but don‟t get
violent‟ … [knowing] that the calls not to get violent, would have just the
opposite effect.44
This was the prosecution‟s theory of so-called “contingent violence”, in which the subtext
of the Congress appeal was to conduct a violent struggle by using “peaceful language”
that meant precisely the opposite of what we were saying. The word “they” did not refer
to all the accused, but specifically to those who made the most inflammatory speeches,
namely, Resha, Nokwe, Tshabalala, Ntsangeni and Mandela. Their speeches, Pirow
argued, were deliberately intended to create hostility between the black and white sections
of the population and if his earlier remarks on the legal concept of “common purpose”
was accepted by the court, by implication “all the accused [would be] guilty of a criminal
conspiracy, and anything said or done by any one of them in furtherance of the common
purpose … admissible against all of them”.
Robert Resha‟s speech (taken out of context by the prosecution) was the subject of
endless debate. It was alleged that at a closed meeting of COP volunteers he had said: “If
you are called on to be violent you must be absolutely violent. You must murder, murder,
murder, that is all.” Chief Luthuli later admitted under cross examination at the trial that if
this was in fact what Resha had said, this speech “ was a very violent one”, and was not
part of Congress policy. But in hindsight and in fairness to Resha, his speaking style was
bombastic and also didactic. His intention (judging from the overall text of his speech)
was to emphasize the importance of discipline, not to revise the organization‟s policy on
the issue of non-violence. However, it did not sound like that in the courtroom and the
evidence was grist to the prosecution‟s mill.
Although the alleged remarks made by Nokwe, Ntsangeni and Tshabalala were less
violent than Resha‟s, Mandela‟s statement was more seriously interpreted. He had said:
Those who want freedom are those who want to support a violent rebellion and
militant action. That is the only way to be prepared in South Africa … I know
that as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow a major clash will come and all the
forces of reason will collapse against the forces of liberation.45
Later in the trial Mandela explained that these remarks were not intended as a prescription
for violent rebellion (the moment was not a propitious one anyway) but an insight into the
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 228
need to be prepared for what might happen in the future.46 Meanwhile, Pirow‟s chilling
summary of the crown‟s case against the 95, together with the mounds of earlier evidence
and the (inexpert) testimony of Andrew Murray, were sufficient for the timid magistrate
to commit all the remaining accused for trial on a charge of high treason or alternatively
infringement of the Suppression of Communism Act.
***
The Next Stage: A Formal Charge of High Treason
The preparatory examination was followed by the trial in the High Court in Pretoria,
where the accused were formally presented with a charge of high treason. Fourteen
months had passed since the arrests at dawn on 5 December 1956 and despite the release
of 61 of the 156 individuals initially arrested, it was still not clear what each of the
remaining accused had done to warrant this ordeal by continuous trial. There would be
more releases, but a rump of the original number would remain before the trial was
concluded in April 1961. In order to keep as many activists in the net as possible, the
accused were charged with conspiring together with 152 others listed as co-conspirators.
Among these were the names of the 61 accused already released during the preparatory
examination, including my own.47 This meant my freedom would depend on the outcome
of the case against those who were currently still charged. The list of co-conspirators
changed with each new indictment, major amendments being made to the first one.
Like seasoned school-hands in an atmosphere that resembled the beginning of a new
term, the remaining 95 accused assembled at the Old Synagogue in Pretoria (revamped as
a special criminal court) away from the Congress Alliance‟s voluble support-base in
Johannesburg. Here the “muddle and inefficiency” of the Drill Hall was replaced by the
formal trappings of a law court, the fastidious mouldings, lumbering columns, open
courtyards (waiting rooms for witnesses), and narrow galleries (for spectators) setting the
scene for the accused for the next three years.
The presiding judges were Justices Rumpff, Bekker and Kennedy, the latter
replacing Mr Justice Ludorf who recused himself from the trial in August 1958.48
According to Helen Joseph, Rumpff “hardly seemed to breathe, so rigid was his
control”.49 He was already well known to Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada for his
judgment in the trial of the “twenty” in 1952. He had the reputation of being fair;
Kennedy was known as a hanging judge (we fasted in protest against the mass hangings
he ordered in a trial in 1957 when we were still in the Drill Hall); and Bekker was a
pedant “who needed to know everything: facts, background and context” and was less
comfortable with ideology, which was the substance of the charge from which guilt or
innocence would be inferred. Nelson Mandela believed him to be fair-minded and like
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 229
many whites in Natal, a “loyal Natalian” whose loyalty sometimes “transcended
colour”.50 The three of them presided over all the mutations of the charges and after a
slow start, the trial effectively began on l August 1958, ending abruptly on 29 March
1961.
There were actually two indictments, but impromptu changes within each of these
were made as the prosecution encountered legal complexities in their confrontations with
the judges and defence lawyers. There was nothing new in the prosecution‟s allegations.
The accused under the first indictment were alleged to have entered into a conspiracy for
their participation in Congress campaigns between 1952 and 1956. These included the
COP and adoption of the Freedom Charter; the anti-pass campaign; and the campaigns
against the Natives‟ Resettlement Act and the Bantu Education Act. These activities were
evidently seen as part of the preparations for a violent revolution to set up a communist
state “or some other state”, possibly a people‟s democracy.
Initially the accused were charged with “act[ing] in concert and with common
purpose to overthrow the State by violence”, or alternatively furthering the aims of
Communism by contravening the Suppression of Communism Act on two counts. The
court quashed one count under the Suppression of Communism Act and ordered the
prosecution to explain what the difference was between “acting in concert” and acting
“with common purpose” – and how these respectively affected each of the accused. The
prosecution, daunted by an extremely sharp response from Advocate Kentridge tinkered
with the indictment but did not withdraw it immediately. Instead they withdrew the
remaining charge under the Suppression of Communism Act and avoided the problem of
explaining how each of the accused was affected by “acting in concert and with common
purpose”. This they did by abandoning the irksome phrase “acting in concert” and
sticking to the main charge of high treason.51 However, Pirow insisted that the case be
fought on the assumption of a conspiracy, and in so doing provoked an extraordinary
exchange between himself and Justice Rumpff:52
Pirow: [T]he case stands or falls on conspiracy. If the Crown fails to prove
conspiracy all the accused go free.
Rumpff: Is this the Crown case that there is one count of treason, the conspiracy.
So even if the Crown proves in each individual hostile intention and a treasonable
overt act but fails to prove conspiracy you will not ask for a conviction?
Pirow: That‟s been our case all along … we must tie every overt act alleged with
conspiracy.
Rumpff: If you prove treason you will not ask for a conviction … That is
extraordinary … What sort of a case is this then that if the court finds a man has
committed treason but cannot convict because the Crown binds itself like this?
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 230
Pirow declined to answer this directly. He died in October 1959 a year after this
exchange, but not before he withdrew the first indictment, and with it the charges against
61 of the accused, who together with a long list of others were relegated to the list of coconspirators. This left a rump of 30 (only three of whom were part of the national
leadership of the ANC) who remained on trial until the very end. The second indictment
was more manageable for the prosecution (but not easier) as the crown had now to prove
that the intention of the accused was to act violently and that violence was indeed the
policy of the ANC and the other congresses. As the defence brought in witnesses to
support its case in February and March 1960 – Chief Luthuli and then Dr Wilson Conco
were giving evidence at the time – events in the country took a tumultuous turn, affecting
the ANC‟s continued commitment to a policy of peaceful struggle and making the ANC‟s
existing policy of non-violence (the central concern of the trial) open to debate. The event
in question was the massacre at Sharpeville (21 March 1960) in which 67 people were
killed and many wounded.
The Struggle Explodes
The Sharpeville massacre proved to be a watershed in the country‟s history. The mode of
struggle had been challenged (armed struggle became a serious consideration) and the
ANC was declared to be unlawful. It was as if Berrange‟s presentiments of thoughtcontrol were relevant – even before any judgment had been made on whether or not the
Freedom Charter was treasonable. The issues that the accused faced in the trial itself were
as significant for the jurisprudence raised by the defence team as they were for the ruling
on the status of the Freedom Charter and the clarification of the policies of the Congress
Alliance. The “sedate” politics of the courtroom (Joe Slovo described it as the discipline
of legalism) had been thrown completely into disarray by Mangaleso Robert Sobukwe,
the founding president of the year-old Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
Sobukwe was young, extremely articulate (his letters and speeches below attest to
this) and a fierce protagonist of African identity. Mda, who was close to him at the
University of Fort Hare, thought him a thinker and a scholar and “by far the most brilliant
fellow we have at College at the moment”.53 Mandela, who had at one time been his
lawyer, also thought him brilliant, but immature in his intolerance of minorities and crude
in his brand of black nationalism. He nonetheless “respected his sense of honour” and
found him a “dazzling orator and incisive thinker”.54 Despite his standing among his
peers, Sobukwe‟s most influential supporters in the PAC, Jordan Ngubane and A.P. Mda
were doubtful about the launch of the anti-pass campaign and there seems to have been
little enthusiasm from others and outright opposition from Madzunya, influential in
Alexandra township.55 It is indicative of the spatial separation and demographic isolation
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 231
of “the minorities” in the liberation movement that few of us who were white activists
knew of Sobukwe or of the depth of Africanist expression at that time.
Sobukwe literally burst into prominence on 18 March 1960 when he told a press
conference, with much confidence and very “little systematic preparation”,56 that the PAC
would initiate
a sustained, disciplined non-violent campaign against the pass laws on Monday
21 March 1960. Africans would leave their passes at home and would surrender
themselves at chosen police stations … The leaders would tell the police „we do
not have passes. We will not carry passes again … So you had better arrest us all,
now‟.57
The PAC anti-pass offensive was to pre-empt the start of an ANC campaign, which had
been decided at the ANC‟s annual conference in December 1959, and was due to begin on
31 March, a week later than the date announced by Sobukwe. The ANC‟s strategy was to
be more measured; first to send deputations to local authorities and Bantu Affairs
commissioners to demand the abolition of the pass laws and then to stage collective mass
action, which would not necessarily exclude the burning of passes.
Despite the PAC‟s contention that the ANC had been “de-radicalised and deracinated by its co-operation with communists, white democrats and Indian Gandhists”,58
Sobukwe‟s letter to the commissioner of police59 five days before the PAC‟s campaign
began, was restrained although unusually assertive in its reference to the police. In it, he
announced the PAC‟s intention to conduct “a disciplined, non-violent campaign against
the pass laws” and requested the commissioner “to instruct the police to refrain from
actions that may lead to violence”. It is unfortunately true, he wrote:
that many white policemen, brought up in the racist hothouse of South Africa,
regard themselves as champions of white supremacy and not as law officers … If
the police are interested in maintaining law and order they will have no difficulty
at all. We will surrender ourselves to the police for arrest. If told to disperse, we
will. But we cannot be expected to run helter-skelter because a trigger-happy,
African-hating young white police officer has given thousands or even hundreds
of people three minutes within which to remove their bodies from his immediate
environment.60
The warning was prescient. An early report from New Age reporters stated that at
Sharpeville 30 police fired into the unarmed crowd of approximately 5 000 people, killing
67 and wounding 200.61 Other reports suggested the numbers of wounded were less; Gail
Gerhart, the historian and author of Black Powerin South Africa reports 186 wounded,
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 232
including 46 women and eight children. Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, puts the
figure of dead at 69 and wounded at 400. He also suggests that the line of police who fired
at the crowd numbered 75. However, according to witnesses who testified at the
subsequent trial of the PAC leaders, the estimate of the size of the crowd was between
3 000 and 10 000, although the official number (a police estimate probably self-serving
and intended to justify the sense of danger felt by the officers concerned) was inflated to
20 000. Until recently, all agreed that no orders were given to shoot at the crowd and that
the first shots “were fired in a moment of panic” by a line of jittery white police who had
lost their nerve. But the evidence appears to be to the contrary.62
From Sharpeville to Langa
At least two people were killed when the police fired into the crowd at a meeting of 6 000
at Langa, in the Western Cape.63 There the PAC were relatively strong and the reaction to
the killings was angry. Two reporters for New Age, Joe Gqabi and Alf Wannenberg were
eyewitness to the shootings. Gqabi was present at the police station precinct at Sharpeville
and Wannenberg at the demonstration in Cape Town. Gqabi filed a chilling report of the
Sharpeville killings:
At a stage we counted 34 bodies (including those of at least eight women) lying
about the ground in front of the Sharpeville Police Station as though on a battle
ground. They seemed all dead, many with bullet head-wounds. Some of the
injured were shot in the back, some had more than one bullet wound. The police
firing was without warning. Saracens were on the scene and some said the firing
had been from them … [The shooting] was done from behind a wire fence into
the centre of the crowds standing about the police station.64
Alf Wannenberg was virtually part of the march on Cape Town. He reported:
Down every side street come marching columns: from the railway station, from
the centre of the city; from District Six. Solemnly they file into the street. By
12.30 a.m. fifteen thousand have assembled. They are silent. Now I am a part of
the crowd. On all sides of me men press closely, their eyes on the entrance to the
police station. Salutes are exchanged “Afrika!”, “Mayibuye!”, “Izwe Letho” (our
country). Now the voice of the police chief is amplified. He calls on all who are
not taking part in the demonstration to leave the area, and orders all businesses in
the area to close … The police chief has given the assurance that he will arrange
an interview of the leaders with the Minister of Justice. The crowd marches from
the city in peace.65
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 233
There had probably never been a march of 20 000 Africans on the city before. The
demonstration was led by Philip Kgosana, a 23-year-old regional secretary of the PAC in
the Western Cape “with a flair for leadership”, but insufficient experience to be wary of
police promises. He had been a student, but left his studies to devote his energies to
politics. While the general response to the PAC campaign was low-key, Langa in the
Western Cape was different. Despite a government ban on meetings, supporters gathered
in the morning at a point in the township, only to be met by a police baton charge and
gunfire in which two demonstrators were killed. Elements in the crowd responded by
stoning the police, setting buildings alight and rioting. The crowd returned to base, but
regrouped rapidly when the PAC leadership (by all accounts considerably depleted)
instructed them to assemble at a point in Langa later that day.
The subsequent march on Cape Town, following the savage police response to what
began as a peaceful protest, was virtually a spontaneous decision. Kgosana appears to
have taken the initiative (possibly with the approval of the local leadership although there
is no evidence that it was sufficiently intact as a body to offer much advice) to lead his
followers to parliament. It was possibly on the advice of the police that he redirected the
marchers to nearby Caledon Square – a wise decision in the view of the presence of
troops and Saracen tanks at the approaches to parliament and low-flying air-force
helicopters menacing the marchers overhead. He may have been urged by the crowd to
demand the release of the PAC leaders who had been arrested. This was refused. But the
demands that the police should not use force to undermine the planned stayaway and a
request to speak to the Minister of Justice, was “conceded” when the police, anxious to
secure the dispersal of the crowd, told him that an interview with the minister would be
granted and that the police would not interfere with the planned stayaway. 66 Kgosana
communicated these “concessions” to the crowd, using the police microphone to do so,
and with some sense of achievement naively led the marchers back to Langa. On
returning to the city in the evening with a number of PAC activists (for the promised
interview with the minister) they were all promptly arrested. Gail Gerhart later
commented with some acuity “[t]he gullible Kgosana, not realizing that his only
bargaining power lay in his ability to keep the crowd behind him … directed the people to
return home, telling them that that the police had agreed to make concessions.” 67
The carnage at Sharpeville and the march from Langa into the city of Cape Town
have somewhat overshadowed reports of the PAC campaign in other centres. In many
cases the call went unnoticed or was miserably under-supported because the campaign
had been poorly publicized and organized. In Alexandra, Evaton, Orlando and Soweto for
example, the response was muted. In Orlando, where Sobukwe and Leballo surrendered
themselves to the police for arrest, they were reportedly supported by only 150 volunteers,
and in Johannesburg and surrounding townships, the response was “negligible”.68 The
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 234
PAC call was also largely ignored in Port Elizabeth and East London in the Eastern Cape
and in Durban.
This was not the case in the townships in the Western Cape and at Sharpeville in the
Transvaal, where according to Mandela, “the PAC activists had done an excellent job of
organizing in the area.69 Indeed, at Langa, the support was overwhelming. There the PAC
was organizationally stronger and its publicity more effective. In some of the other
African townships in the Western Cape, where African squatters and migrant workers
were police targets under the influx control regulations, the PAC also had a modestly
significant following.70
In Nyanga about 1 500 men advanced to the police station at Philippi in answer to
the PAC‟s call, but other than their names being taken and the men told to report to court
later, there was no violence. Support for the PAC came from teachers, professionals, the
youth and students, while the main activists in Poqo, the impromptu militant offshoot of
the PAC, were declasse sections of African youth who were angry, jobless and sometimes
lumpen. They found the militant rhetoric of the Africanists appealing and more immediate
in contrast to the politically temperate language of the ANC. Both organizations sought to
mobilize support for their organizations by identifying the pass laws as the central
grievance of Africans, and pressuring the government to abolish these hated measures.
Whether Sobukwe saw himself as the nation‟s saviour is a matter of conjecture; he
was not alone among the most prominent in the PAC in envisaging a scenario in which a
successful outcome of the campaign would trigger the start of a social revolution. Nor was
he the only putative leader of the PAC who believed that a charismatic luminary would
deliver Africa back to the Africans. But whatever the leadership of the PAC might have
had in mind at the time, the outcome of the campaign was not a social revolution but
greater government repression. The ramifications of the Sharpeville shootings and the
events elsewhere were profound. The government was momentarily “in limbo” but if
there was a conciliatory mood it soon passed, despite the statement by Paul Sauer, a
minister in government and stalwart of the National Party, that “Sharpeville had closed
the old book on South African history, and that the country must reconsider its race
relations „seriously and honestly‟.”71
If anything repression intensified, especially when the ANC seized the initiative
from the PAC and reacted swiftly to the massacre at Sharpeville and killings in Langa by
Mandela and Nokwe burning their passes in Orlando. This they did in front of a large
crowd of Africans and “dozens of press photographers” on 26 March. 72 In Pretoria, Chief
Luthuli and other leaders also publicly burnt their passes, while Luthuli called upon all
Africans to do the same two days later (28 March 1960) and to observe that day as a time
of mourning for the dead. Political strikes were unlawful, but there were few who did not
understand the call to stay at home as a day of protest against the massacre at Sharpeville.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 235
Government Panic: A State of Emergency
The police shootings shook the residents of all the major cities and fear of further
confrontation prompted the government to use its powers under the Public Safety Act to
prevent more resistance. Wholesale arrests followed between 21 and 28 March73 and a
state of emergency was declared on 30 March. Temporarily shaken, the government
suspended arrests under the pass laws and arrested over 2 000 activists. Within days it
reversed its decision to relax its operation of the pass laws, thus enabling the police to
enforce their powers as intransigently as ever. Within a week, legislation was placed
before parliament (8 April 1960) to declare the ANC and the PAC unlawful organizations.
(The Congress of Democrats was made “unlawful” two years later on 14 September
1962.) “Aiding and abetting” these organizations was illegal and punishable by five years
imprisonment. Furthermore, “intimidating” others to strike or to protest against any law,
became subject to a fine ten times heavier than it was after the Defiance Campaign.74
There were few activists who were unaffected by these events. The emergency threw my
family into disarray and temporary exile, as it did quite a number of others. The first wave
of arrests occurred with the familiar knock at the door at 2a.m. (earlier than usual on that
occasion) when most of the active political leadership was arrested together with dozens
of people named under the Suppression of Communism Act. Many of these individuals
had ceased to be “political” since the CPSA was banned, some of them had been inactive
for 15 years or more. As New Age stated, “there was no warrant, no charge was preferred
and no bail or court appearances followed” – except for technical reasons on the first day
after the arrests.75
Mandela was among those arrested under the state of emergency along with a
number of others in the Treason Trial, but the defence team withdrew for most of the state
of emergency. It was left to Duma Nokwe (accused Number 16 and himself an advocate)
to tell the court the accused had serious misgivings on whether anyone testifying under
the current Public Safety regulations could freely express their points of view. For this
reason, the accused had taken the decision “to dispense with their counsel”. Maisels
accordingly told the court: “We have no further mandate and we will consequently not
trouble your Lordships any further.”76
During the hiatus between the start of the state of emergency and the return of the
defence team, the accused briefly (and with some bizarre imitations of their counsel)
conducted their own defence.77 The hearing continued (with some adjournments)
oblivious of the current turbulence.78 The lawyers returned a few weeks before the end of
the emergency, when the regulations were amended and court assurances given,
protecting counsel and witnesses from prosecution under the Public Safety Act. In all, the
emergency regulations under this act remained in force for the next five months, ending
only in September 1960. “The Emergency has ended”, wrote New Age, but the real crisis
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 236
of white supremacy has just begun.” The paper was banned on 6 April soon after the
declaration of the state of emergency, and was not to re-appear until 8 September 1960,
when it published the editorial items it was earlier prohibited from printing. Meanwhile,
the events had significantly altered the context of the trial. The shootings at Sharpeville
had clearly changed the mood of the accused and probably the attitude of the bench too.
Hostile Intent
Robert Resha was closely examined in the witness box in September 1960, his violent
speech still a source of worry for the defence and a target for attack by the prosecution.
Trengrove, the senior prosecutor, was unrelenting: “You exposed the innocent people of
the Western Areas to conflicts between the police and subversive elements”, he taunted.
“You don‟t know what you‟re talking about!” Resha replied angrily. This was
Robert‟s style, but after the events at Sharpeville and experiencing four months in
detention under the state of emergency, he was understandably testy. Asked why he had
referred to the police as imbeciles, cowards and hooligans, he responded: “because only
hooligans would go to a peaceful meeting of the ANC to disturb it, and only cowards go
fully armed to a peaceful unarmed meeting.”79
By contrast, Mandela‟s evidence was measured and manifestly thoughtful. He
traversed issues of the Freedom Charter, violence, Socialism and the franchise, clearly
impressing the judges who seemed to hear him and to need reassurance on the ANC‟s
policies on these matters. Equally impressive were M.B. Yengwa, former secretary of the
ANC region in Natal, and Z.K. Matthews, who was the last of the defence witnesses. Both
were questioned extensively, each of them models of peaceful persuasion.
In the light of the events at Sharpeville and Langa, the crown‟s closing argument
that followed the cross examination of these witnesses was rich in irony. Advocate
Trengrove, for the prosecution, asked the court to draw the inference of hostile intent on
the evidence against each of the accused. “All of them were engaged in a plot against the
state,” he argued and their activities “if left unchecked would have led to death, a
bloodbath and disaster for the citizens of this country, black and white”. He claimed that
they were all party to overt acts of treason which included a nation-wide strike, the
defiance campaign and violent acts “in pursuance of the conspiracy” – all of which were
calculated to overthrow the state. “There is a vast difference between what Luthuli and the
ANC present to the world and what they do here,” he said. As he saw it, they spoke with
two sides of their mouth. They wanted to do more than educate the masses; “they wanted
to smash the state”.80
Denigrating the ANC and making light of its overwhelming support in the country
was part of the strategy of government to bolster the prosecution‟s case. Earlier, in March
1960, the Minister of Justice, Francois Erasmus, had referred to the ANC as “a small
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 237
coterie of terrorists” who wanted neither peace nor order. “What they want is our
country,” he told parliament.81 In the mind of the prosecution, the Freedom Charter was
the instrument to do this. It was a revolutionary document, which went further than any
other ANC statement of its direction. Consequently, the prosecutor argued, “[the ANC
believed] they could only achieve these things through … the seizure of power.” He went
on to say that no Europeans would accept what the Freedom Charter wanted. “You can
only achieve this over the dead bodies of the Europeans.” 82
The trial then came to an abrupt conclusion. A formidable defence team opened its
case in March 1961, four years after the dawn arrests. Advocates Maisels, Kentridge,
Nicholas, Fischer, O‟Dowd and Berrange (who was called in appropriately later in the
trial to “take care of” the inept state witnesses) probed every one of the crown‟s
allegations, especially on the question of conspiracy; on the definition of treason; hostile
intent; the absurd notion of “contingent retaliation”; and on the ANC‟s policy towards
violence. When Bram Fischer rose to address the court on the speeches of the accused (as
an aside, he advised the judges that his argument would take approximately three weeks)
he was cut short by the bench who announced that the court “would consider ways to
shorten the proceedings”. It was an enigmatic intervention, which left the defence and
accused speculating on whether the prosecution would be asked for a more cogent
indictment setting out the case more clearly against each of the accused or whether there
would be new charges, more co-conspirators and fewer people in the dock. The consensus
among the accused and defence was that it was it an indication (couched in the nicest of
legalese) that the trial had reached its end. It had become superfluous and the state had
sufficient repressive legislation; it no longer needed a favourable verdict as an excuse to
ban Congress or silence its members. The ANC and its allies had been outlawed by an act
of parliament; the leadership could be confined to prison under numerous administrative
measures available to the government (and indeed had been confined recently under the
Public Safety regulations). Besides this, it was felt that the incompetence of the
prosecution and the insistence of the crown “that the case stood or fell on the grounds of
conspiracy” (incriminating every one of the accused) had painted the prosecution into a
corner from which neither Justice Rumpff nor the other assessors could retrieve it.
Collapse of the “Conspiracy”
This being the case, it was not surprising that the spectators‟ seats in the court were
packed when the judges returned to give their decision early in April 1961. There was an
air of excitement as the court was brought to order and Justice Rumpff, after a few
preliminary remarks, announced that he and his assessors had “arrived at a unanimous
decision, the full reasons for which would be given in due course.”83 He requested the
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 238
accused to remain seated while he summarised the court‟s findings. “The case for the
prosecution,” he said:
was not that the accused had come together and entered into a treasonable
agreement, but that from October 1952 to December 1956 a number of
organizations including the ANC … had a policy to overthrow the state by
violence. To prove the existence of the conspiracy the prosecution had to prove
the violent policy of the Congress Alliance. It also had to prove the adherence of
each accused to the conspiracy. It was conceded by the prosecution that if it
failed to prove the treasonable conspiracy there was no case against the
accused.84
The evidence, he said, had proved that the Congress Alliance was working together to
replace the present form of state with one that was radically different, based on the
demands of the Freedom Charter. This last was not a communist document, Rumpff
noted. Nor was the ANC a communist organization or the state it envisaged a communist
one – although in the thinking of the court, the form of state envisaged by the executive of
the ANC in the Transvaal region had the trappings of a communist state, given the
ideological statements made by members of the executive about the Dictatorship of the
Proletariat.
The court conceded that according to “custom” communists and anti-communists
could freely become members of the ANC and SACP. Indeed some former members of
the Party, he noted, were members of the ANC, where they were free to spread their
ideology as long as they honoured the policy of the organization. There was no evidence
to support the prosecution‟s contention that former communists had infiltrated the ANC;
this would have been superfluous in the light of the cross membership of the ANC and the
former CPSA. In the view of the judges, Rumpff said, the evidence of Communism was
relevant to the issue of violence, but the prosecution had failed to prove that the accused
had personal knowledge of the doctrine of violent revolution or had propagated the
doctrine.85 In particular the court was taken aback by the quality of the police reportage of
meetings addressed by the accused and the selective choice by the prosecution of the
speeches made by the defendants during the four years covered in the indictment. “Some
of the accused were guilty of sporadic outbursts in their speeches,” he said, (Mandela,
Resha, Nokwe for instance – and these varied in degree) but of the total number of
speeches, they formed an insignificant part. Finally, after weighing up the evidence,
Rumpff finally announced:
it is impossible for the Court to conclude that the ANC advocated a policy to
overthrow the state by violence, in the sense that the masses had to be prepared to
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 239
commit direct acts of violence. The prosecution had shown that the congresses
contemplated using illegal methods and used such means as, for example, the
Defiance Campaign, but the crown has failed to show that ANC policy was to
achieve a new state by these means … The accused are found not guilty and are
discharged.86
Pandemonium broke loose as counsel and former accused left the courtroom. Nkosi
Sikelel‟ iAfrika, was sung – today it is the official anthem of an ANC-led government and
the state is neither Communist, under the the dictatorship of the proletariat nor an
imitation of the former people‟s democracies of post-war Europe. Most notably, the Bill
of Rights (Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa) was adopted in
1996 during the presidency of Nelson Mandela and based on the Freedom Charter.
***
On a Personal Note
The years between my acquittal from the preparatory hearing in 1958 and the conclusion
of the trial three years later, were politically fraught and personally frustrating. The
transition from being an accused in the Treason Trial and then a co-conspirator was made
easier by an unexpected shift in my personal status. I fell hopelessly in love at the height
of that balmy Johannesburg summer, about the same time as the announcement of my
release from the preparatory hearing in December 1957. Philippa Murrell was twentyseven and I two years older. She worked for a short while in Port Elizabeth, made friends
among the Left, including Govan Mbeki (Thabo Mbeki‟s father), before settling in Cape
Town and joining Ray Alexander at the Food and Canning Workers‟ Union. She came to
Johannesburg at the end of 1957 and we soon met in the office of the Congress of
Democrats. After that the news of our whirlwind romance spread like a forest fire, along
with news of the latest developments in the Treason Trial and rumours of more bannings,
arrests and sudden departures into exile.87 Everything was happening so hurriedly and I
seemed to have been caught up in that breathless haste. We became engaged after
Christmas and married in February 1958, two months later, in a soulless office in the
Johannesburg magistrate‟s court. The fissures borne of too much happening too fast, were
beginning to show. Acquittal from the treason hearings meant that I could be re-instated
as a teacher, which though a boon financially, added to the anxiety I began to feel. The
burden of new and old responsibilities after 10 years in the movement, the early
intimations of further incarceration as the struggle progressed, and the year-long hearings
in the Drill Hall began to weigh on me. Together with this, marriage and a year later, a
new baby daughter, now required adjustments which were overwhelming.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 240
My pessimism was only at the personal level. Politically there was in fact good
reason for optimism. Just married with a new baby it was a difficult time. Philippa was
arrested at the start of the emergency and but for an habeas corpus application I quickly
made in the Supreme Court on her behalf, she would have remained there for another four
months. In their haste to declare a state of emergency, the police had used their powers
under the emergency regulations before these had been published in the Government
Gazette as legally required. This left a legal loophole and I was advised by Joel Carlson, a
lawyer sympathetic to the movement, to make an urgent application to the court for her
release – and succeeded!88 Fortunately there were a number of similar applications before
mine, and the judge almost made his ruling before I had finished addressing him. She was
released immediately and after leaving Deborah (still a toddler) with good friends for a
brief time, we drove to Swaziland. There we joined a number of others who were not
arrested when the emergency was declared. It soon became a typical exile community,
fraught with tensions, real and imagined, that stretched the tolerance of the more senior
exiles who served on the “cheery refugees committee” and eroded the harmony of
everyone. Ruth First, Jack Hodgson, Pieter Beyleveld, Julius Baker, Phyllis Altman and
Issie Rosenberg, to name only the most influential among them, should have given better
leadership to this distraught group.
The community became even larger with the arrivals of Marius Schoon, Harold
Strachan and “Jenny” (a pseudonym for Strachan‟s partner). Two others who came later
were Patrick van Rensburg, a member of the Liberal Party I had not met before, and
Melville Fletcher, trade unionist and personal friend. Visitors arrived from time to time,
including Sam Kahn who had dyed his hair ginger and probably attracted even more
attention than he would otherwise have done. Unfortunately he did not stay in Mbabane
for more than a few days before moving on. It is unlikely, however, that he would have
healed the antagonisms that existed between the earlier group and the subsequent arrivals.
These were partly based on economic differences and status in regard to their influence
and the length of time they had served in the movement. For the most part, the two groups
lived in different quarters, the first enjoying a very different quality of life from those who
struggled to subsist on very limited resources. Harold Strachan‟s irreverent memoir, often
apocryphal and cruelly satirical of the relations between the refugees, is the only account
of the 1960 escape to Swaziland that I have seen. It is more of a cartoon than a cameo
sketch but it captures the moment, as I remember it, with candour.89
I commuted to Mbabane in Swaziland from time to time and returned to
Johannesburg to help the “underground committee” as best I could. Regrettably I was able
to do very little, hampered by my trips back to Swaziland, lack of finances and sense of
insecurity at avoiding the attentions of the special branch. I had left my teaching job in
January that year and had started studying for a degree at the University of the
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 241
Witwatersrand, living on the proceeds of a small bursary and augmenting my income by
giving extra lessons in mathematics and an assortment of other school subjects.
Fortunately I succeeded in evading the security police for the rest of the state of
emergency which ended in September 1960. On Philippa‟s return from Swaziland the
family moved to Frankenwald, a university settlement co-incidentally near the famous
estate in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, where Mandela and members of the Umkhonto
High Command were later arrested. The years between the state of emergency in 1960,
the Rivonia Trial in 1963 and my arrest on 3 July 1964, were the most intense I could ever
have imagined.
Chapter Twelve: A Charge of Treason – 242
Chapter Thirteen
Transition to Armed Struggle
The brief respite from the Treason Trial which ended on 29 March 1961 and the Rivonia
arrests in July 1963 was a period of preparation for both sides, revealing nothing of the
turmoil that was to follow. With some exceptions1 we endured those times, not knowing
from day to day who would be arrested and who might be forced into exile. Mandela had
come into his own, more assertive, more combative towards the regime and immensely
single-minded. By the end of the Rivonia Trial he was already an icon in the struggle – a
phenomenon due as much to the circumstances of the moment as it was to his charisma
and confidence of the role he had chosen to play.
Between the Treason Trial and the Rivonia arrests (1961–63) there was much covert
activity and only a flicker of legal work. It started in 1961 with Mandela‟s visits to
various parts of South Africa to prepare for an All-African Conference, which Chief
Luthuli and other African leaders had proposed at a consultative gathering of African
leaders in December 1960. It charted the way forward following the ANC and PAC‟s
banning and the government‟s holding of a “fraudulent” whites-only referendum to
proclaim a white republic, which the leaders said “would continue even more intensively
the policies of racial oppression and political persecution already followed by the
regime”.2 The consultative gathering elected a committee to oversee the proposed
conference, but the members of that committee were promptly arrested.
Fortunately, this did not prevent the holding of the conference, which Mandela
addressed with some acclaim. It was held on 25 and 26 March 1961 and attended by
nearly 1 400 delegates, adopting some important resolutions, including the rejection of the
proposed white republic and a demand (addressed to the government) “for a National
Convention of elected representatives of all races” to decide on a new non-racial
democratic constitution for South Africa – which Verwoerd ignored. However, the
delegates had anticipated this and simultaneously resolved to stage countrywide
demonstrations on 29–31 May 1961, the eve of the declaration of South Africa as a
republic, to protest against the enabling act “should the minority government ignore this
demand”.
The protests took the form of a general strike, monitored by Mandela and members
of the National Action Council, whose oversight of the action was confined to a safe
house in Soweto. Unfortunately the strike was called off after the first day, due to an
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 243
apparent lack of support. Though not a disaster, the response was considered to be below
the expectations of the monitoring group.3 Their judgment was later disputed, but even if
the action had been a great success, it is unlikely that the regime would have convened a
national convention at that time.
After Sharpeville, the politics of achieving even moderate change through round
table recommendations for reform was beyond realistic expectation. The “progress”
which Mandela earlier referred to under cross-examination in the Treason Trial as an
example of the kind of incentive Africans needed, was long past. He was referring to the
granting of minority representation in the legislature, a not too-distant promise of an
extension of the franchise and a change in attitude by the government. This, he felt, would
be a sign that African pleas for democratic change would not continue to be ignored. The
above, he had suggested, would not be sufficient to assuage African aspirations, but
would at least be an advance on the present gridlock.
The holding of an all-party convention had been the ANC‟s idea of the path to
democratic reform since the organization‟s founding in 1912. It had repeated the demand
in 1955 and now again in 1961, but by this time talking to the government was futile,
especially after it had outlawed the ANC and introduced punishing legislation to curb
likely covert activities. It would rather see the liberation movement crushed, no matter the
cost, before it capitulated to African demands.
One of the lessons learnt 40 years later was that a national convention of the sort
envisaged could occur only once the social fabric of the state had been shaken sufficiently
– politically, economically, militarily and morally. This occurred in 1990 with the
Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), an all-party convention that only
became possible once support for the apartheid regime had been thoroughly undermined.
In 1961 we were far from that point.
A Change in Strategy
Following the government‟s rejection of a national convention and the setback of the
lukewarm “stayaway” the turn to arms, when it occurred, required a different resolve and
new skills. The change in strategy was not entirely a clean break from “peaceful”
struggle. The two co-existed until the structures of the Party and ANC – already stretched
by the demands on its resources by a different mode of struggle – collapsed under the
weight of the state‟s response to armed resistance. The banned leaders had in practice
worked clandestinely for years. Now the ANC – despite the absence of serious
organizational preparation for underground activity – publicly pledged not to submit to
the ban and, after dissolving the Women‟s and Youth Leagues, decided to “carry on in its
own name to give leadership and organization to [the] people until freedom had been
won”.4 In the words of Mandela: “We believed it was our duty to preserve the
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 244
organization … I have no doubt that no self-respecting White political organization would
disband itself if declared illegal by a government in which it had no say.”5 By silencing its
opposition and creating cruel penalties for the contravention of the various restrictive
measures in each new draconian act, the state had systematically edged the ANC towards
armed struggle.6
Mandela, Marks, Sisulu, Kotane and Nokwe were delegated by the National
Working Committee of the ANC to restructure the organization, but of the five, two were
soon arrested and convicted in the Rivonia Trial and three went into exile before any
serious restructuring could be done.7 I do not remember any debate among the
membership about the decision or the desirability of the new phase. The reasons were
evident in the need for secrecy to safeguard activists and take responsible precautions
against the security police gathering information of our every move. Argument about the
desirability of the new course of action was accordingly given little emphasis; debate
about process rather than policy seemed more pertinent than a discussion about alternative
options. In the event the policy debate was for the most part confined to the leadership in
the ANC‟s augmented National Working Committee or (on a few occasions) the National
Executive Committees of the five congresses. Mandela, Sisulu, Nokwe, Kotane and
Luthuli (his endorsement, whether implied or explicit, was essential) were the most
prominent individuals privy to the “new course”. The only whiff of opposition from
senior figures, it seems, came initially from Kotane, who was unconvinced by Mandela‟s
proposal to resort to armed struggle and accused him of being “out-manoeuvred and
paralyzed” by the government‟s actions and was thus resorting in desperation to
revolutionary rhetoric. “There is still room for the old methods if we are imaginative and
determined enough,” he stressed.8 He believed that armed struggle “would be exposing
innocent people to massacres by the enemy”.9
It was on this point that Mandela chose to argue the case when the ANC‟s NEC met
in June 1961 in Durban, where Chief Luthuli could attend. At the meeting Mandela
argued that it “was wrong and immoral to subject our people to armed attacks by the state
without offering them some kind of alternative”. Taking the point that Sisulu later argued
in his evidence at the Rivonia Trial, he said, “[the state] has given us no alternative to
violence.” He pointed out that this was already being adopted by various militant groups
(he did not name them but he must have had in mind the PAC, Poqo and the National
Committee of Liberation, later to become the African Resistance Movement) and the
angry groups of “insurgents” behind the rural uprisings in Pondoland and Zeerust. His
point was that violence would begin irrespective of who initiated it. It was common
knowledge that small clusters of activists across the political spectrum were talking
openly of taking up arms: “would it not be better to guide this violence ourselves
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 245
according to principles where we save lives by attacking symbols of oppression, and not
people?” he argued.10
The NEC endorsed the proposal for a change in strategy, but Chief Luthuli‟s
acceptance of it was tentative, though not disapproving. He cautiously advised that the
armed movement, subsequently called Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) be
autonomous, but linked to the ANC and that it should be “under [its] overall control”.
This formulation seemed to be a legal fiction that somehow satisfied the leadership and
fortunately satisfied the judge when the Umkhonto (MK) leadership was brought to trial
in 1963/4. In general the separation of the military and the internal political structures was
maintained only with difficulty. All on the NEC agreed that armed resistance would be
complementary to the “traditional” methods of struggle. The effects of its decision on the
organization of the trade union movement and legal work in the other congresses do not
appear to have been seen as insurmountable except initially by Kotane, who after further
discussion either did not sustain his objections to the proposal or was mollified by the
decision to keep the ANC and MK separate.
The ANC, SAIC and COD endorsed this decision at a meeting of the joint
executives of the congresses, with Luthuli present. Yusuf Cachalia, Dr Naicker and J.N.
Singh (of the SAIC) had reservations (as Kotane had initially) that “the state would
slaughter the whole liberation movement”, but the legalistic formulation that the armed
movement would be separate, but linked to the ANC and that “the [Congress] policy
would still be that of non-violence”, enabled a resolution to be passed in June 1961
instructing Mandela “to join with whomever [he] wanted” to form a military
organization.11
Once given the green light, Mandela began to recruit personnel and form units which
were technically autonomous of the ANC. In the course of this work he found expertise
among the communists. The SACP had already moved some way towards armed struggle.
The matter had been raised briefly at the SACP conference at the end of the state of
emergency in 1960, when it discussed the change in the political situation caused by the
outlawing of the ANC. Apparently there was little time for discussion on the subject at
that conference (reports of the Sino-Soviet dispute from Michael Harmel, who had
represented the SACP at the international meeting of Communist Parties and just returned
from Moscow, took priority over further discussion of armed resistance). However, the
conference agreed in the interim to establish specialist units (separate from the ordinary
Party units though still integral to the Party) and quite detached from the Congress
Alliance. These cells would “familiarize themselves with the practice and techniques of
forms of armed struggle”.12 No new organization was created by the SACP at that stage
as, according to Slovo, with the exception of the ANC, the congresses were legal and “to
have opened a dialogue with them about an illegal military organization would have
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 246
jeopardized the secrecy of the undertaking.”13 It would also have compromised them. The
presence of leading members of the ANC at that conference would informally have kept
the ANC in the loop. As it turned out, the members of COD and the ANC were not told of
the new developments, but as seen above, the National Executives of each of the
congresses were brought into the picture, if not for practical purposes and clarification of
policy, as an act of trust.
In truth, we were not any more aware of the establishment of the technical specialist
SACP units than we were of details of the other structures of the Party. The “need to
know” principle was an essential ingredient of illegal work. Its downside was that it
inhibited enquiry, but it was as important for our own security as it was for the Party‟s
existence. We accepted the discipline completely and those of us who were not directly
involved in the work of sabotage carried on “peacefully”, looking on approvingly as we
read the newspaper reports of bombs exploding and pylons collapsing in various parts of
the country. I recall Michael Harmel‟s paper, written at the time, nostalgically entitled
“What is to be Done?” It was presented to the SACP units as a “study document”. The
case for armed struggle was based on the assumption that the state‟s repressive strategies,
especially its outlawing of the ANC had set the movement on an inexorable path to
violence, leaving little space for peaceful struggle.14
I agreed with that in 1961. Few people would have disputed the security constraints
under which we worked, but re-reading the document 50 years later, it seems to me to
have underestimated the effect of armed struggle on the legal components of the
movement and failed to consider Kotane‟s objection (stated above) that armed struggle
“would be exposing innocent people to massacres by the enemy”. I knew that there was
talk of armed struggle; that there were references to the inspiring developments in Cuba,
and anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and other parts of Africa, but there was no formal
discussion of the pros and cons of armed struggle in the Party units or even privately in
groups before the policy of armed struggle was adopted. Security constraints and the
discipline of accepting the decisions of the Party leadership were well ingrained.
Umkhonto we Sizwe
Independent recruitment for the ANC and SACP streams of military preparation did not
last long and the recruits were merged into a single organization well before the formal
launch of the new organization in December 1961. There had been close cooperation from
the beginning, starting with the ANC Working Committee‟s initial discussions on the
subject of armed struggle, continuing into the establishment of specialist units of the
SACP and the formation of “ANC” units. At this initial stage, expertise was shared and so
were the technical personnel. The launch of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) formally took
place on 16 December. It was an event in which all the members of the party – and
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 247
probably the members of the five congresses – participated by clandestinely pasting
leaflets containing the text of MK‟s manifesto in public places. I remember the leafleting
operation quite clearly, my yellow gloves, incredibly conspicuous for a covert operation,
worn as much for protection against the residue of the glue on my hands, as against
fingerprints. Each of us in the cell carried a pot of paste and a large brush to glue the
leaflets to the factory doors and other public spaces. The pasting was done in an unlit
industrial neighbourhood known as City and Suburban, close to the centre of
Johannesburg.
The message the manifesto conveyed was matter-of-fact and its tone somewhat
measured for an announcement promising “planned attacks against government
installations”. The founding of MK “was a break with the past”, it said, adding
reasonably:
The government policy of force, repression and violence will no longer be met
with non-violent resistance … The choice is not ours; it has been made by the
Nationalist government which has rejected … every … peaceable demand …
with force and yet more force!
The announcement ended with an appeal for “support and encouragement … from all
those South Africans who seek the happiness and freedom of the people of this
country”.15 Before this, 13 explosions were reported. Bafflingly, not all of them were
caused by MK. One of them was the destruction of an electrical tower near Johannesburg,
which was toppled by sawing off two outside legs of the steel structure.16 Fortunately
operations were to become more sophisticated later.
Mandela: Setting the Stage for Leadership
The change that had been brought about by the establishment of MK reflected a
difference in style and leadership from anything we had previously experienced. 17 In
South Africa, Mandela was a leader among many. His position as a national leader,
already gaining in stature, was boosted by his tour of the independent African states – and
later by his court appearances – although he was not singled out as the foremost African
leader at the time: Walter Sisulu undeniably enjoyed that position for his political and
strategic perspicacity, and Chief Luthuli for his honesty, humanity and courage.18
Ever since the Defiance Campaign in 1952/3, during which he was volunteer-inchief, his capacity for leadership (already noticeable from the late 1940s) became more
apparent. After the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter he
had begun to express his views in the movement‟s theoretical journals, while his evidence
in the Treason Trial was notable for its thoughtfulness and authoritative quality. As a
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 248
protagonist of the establishment of MK, his arguments were forceful and probably
persuasive in the movement‟s acceptance of the armed struggle. In the circumstances,
there was a symbolic shift from the collective to a more personalized image. At a personal
level, he had announced that he was not giving himself up – a warrant had been out for his
arrest since April 1961 – and he would separate himself from his wife and family and
abandon his profession “to live as an outlaw”. He became the symbol of resistance, the
interface between the masses and the liberation movement. He introduced himself as a
proud “representative of Luthuli” to African leaders when the ANC requested him to
attend the first conference of the Pan African Freedom Movement for East, Central and
Southern Africa (PAFMECSA) held in Ethiopia on 3 February 1963. The conference was
the forerunner of the Organization of African Unity. He had never before “crossed the
boundaries of the country” and was probably quite unknown to the heads of state he
encountered in his visits to the newly independent countries in Africa.
The details of his tour are now history, but not much was known until the Rivonia
Trial began. After visiting Chief Luthuli in Natal, he left South Africa for Lobatsi on 11
January 1962; had discussions with Nyerere and other leaders in Tanzania (then
Tanganyika) and continued to Addis Ababa, via Lagos. His address at the PAFMECSA
Conference was recorded in his diary (an exhibit at the Rivonia Trial) and the text of the
speech he delivered was published in full in the Ethiopian Press. After outlining the
history of the ANC‟s long, non-violent struggle against successive oppressive
governments, he reiterated the ANC‟s rationale for embracing the armed struggle, arguing
persuasively that:
All opportunities for peaceful agitation and struggle have been closed. Africans
no longer have the freedom even to stay peacefully in their houses in protest
against the oppressive policies of the government … A crisis is developing in
earnest in South Africa. However no High Command ever announces beforehand
what its strategy and tactics will be to meet a situation … But a leadership
commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political
weapons when they … have become less effective.19
His goodwill visits continued after the PAFMECSA Conference, when he met more of
Africa‟s post-independence leaders and also underwent military training. This he may
have done as a member of the High Command of MK(although he may not have divulged
this to all his hosts). According to his diary, between January and July 1961, he met Julius
Nyerere the Tanzanian leader; Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia; Bourghiba of Tunisia; and the
king of Morocco. From Bourghiba and the Moroccan king he received generous promises
of money for the purchase of weapons for MK. His meeting with Hourari Boumedienne
of Algeria gave him the benefit of gaining instruction in the use of weapons and learning
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 249
the lessons of the Algerian war. He was then able to spend three days in Oujda in
Morocco, a short distance across the border. He also met the two philosopher kings of
Africa, President Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Sekou Toure of Guinea.20
In mid-June, Mandela met South African exiles in London, notably Yusuf Dadoo,
chairman of the SACP and prominent individuals in the Labour and Liberal Parties. He
successfully put the ANC‟s case before influential newspaper editors in London and
renewed his 1954 association with Canon John Collins of St Paul‟s Cathedral, founder of
Christian Action (forerunner of the IDAF), which organization provided most of the funds
for the Treason Trial and the legal defence of political detainees and their dependants
until 1990. Before his departure from London for South Africa at the end of June 1962, he
returned to Ethiopia where he was given military instruction, including field-drill and
demolitions demonstrations on advanced weaponry. This is well documented in his
autobiography and personal diary; the more rigorous the routine, the more he seemed to
enjoy it. A message from Sisulu to come home interrupted his programme of training and
he returned to Johannesburg to report to the ANC‟s National Working Committee on his
experiences in Africa and the UK.
He told them of some of the negative African perceptions he had encountered in
regard to the ANC‟s cooperation with communists and its multi-racial inclusiveness of the
white and Indian minorities. I was not aware of the minutiae of his tour, but reports from
him did reach us, in which he stated that the ANC‟s emphasis on cooperation with whites
was “insensitive”, and that Congress was perceived as “a communist-dominated
organization”. There was a lingering concern, he noted, that the ANC was soft on whites
and susceptible to communist domination.21 The result, I think, was that such statements
that were made in the future were more carefully nuanced, rather than reflecting any
discernible change in the ANC‟s multi-racial stance. Anyway, in Mandela‟s thinking it
was not a change of policy that was needed but a change in image.22 I don‟t recall any
warm acceptance of the view attributed to Mandela that the ANC “must regard itself as
the vanguard of the Pan African movement in South Africa”, but we were more conscious
of the concept of Pan-Africanism, which at that early stage I translated to mean anticolonialism and African self-assertion.
After his return to South Africa, Mandela stayed at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a
peri-urban area on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The “farm” had been bought by the
SACP in order to provide a safe haven for an increasing number of its leading individuals
who had begun to function as full time underground workers – “professional
revolutionaries” – some of them in hiding from the security police. It was also at times a
meeting place for the members of the National High Command. Mandela spent his days
there, reading, reflecting, studying the theory, strategy and tactics of armed struggle,
“regularly leaving in the evenings in disguise under cover of dark to meet the ANC
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 250
leaders and members in different places”.23 He lived in one of the small outhouses of the
farm with Walter Sisulu, Kathrada and others, including Raymond Mhlaba and from time
to time Govan Mbeki. Unfortunately, security was poor and it was only a matter of time
before their “safe” cover would be blown and the premises revealed to the special branch
by spies in the organization or by 90-day detainees forced to make statements under
torture.
Following a brief period at the farm, Mandela travelled to Natal to report to Chief
Luthuli on his experiences abroad. The Chief‟s response to the African leaders‟ criticism
of the ANC‟s co-operation with whites and other minority sections of the population was
“that the ANC should not weaken its public commitment on non-racialism merely to suit
a few foreign leaders”. While in Durban, Mandela spent a short time with the leaders of
the Durban Regional Command, sharing the lessons to be learnt from his overseas
discussions with African leaders in Natal. One of the leaders present at this meeting on 4
August 1962 was Bruno Mtolo, whose presence subsequently had great significance in the
Rivonia Trial. The next day (5 August 1962), on his return journey to Johannesburg, he
was arrested in the small town of Howick and ordered to appear before the magistrate‟s
court in Pietermaritzburg early the next morning. Mulling over the events in his prison
cell that night, he reflected on the laxness of his security and realized that either too many
people had known of his visit to Natal or there was an informer in the organization. He
suspected that it was the latter. Someone had “tipped off” the police about his journey
back to Johannesburg; it was a set-up.24
The trial was formally remanded to Johannesburg and the hearing subsequently
moved to the familiar Old Synagogue (converted into a courtroom) in Pretoria, further
away from the ANC‟s support base. Mandela was charged with leaving the country
without a passport and inciting workers to strike during the March 1961 stay-at-home.
The tone of the statements he made at this trial was wholly different from the measured
evidence he gave 17 months earlier in the same courtroom before Justice Rumpff in the
Treason Trial. It signalled an outspoken aversion to the injustices of white power, not
heard before by an ANC defendant in a “white” court. For the first time the “legal
discipline” for so long applied by counsel was challenged. What might have been a
dreary, formal hearing became an historic event reflecting the defiant anti-colonialist
feelings that pervaded the African continent and was now making itself felt in South
Africa.
Although he spoke in the first person, his remarks were intended for all those
without basic political rights. Conducting his own defence (a decision he made quite
deliberately) he turned the proceedings into a trial of the aspirations of the African people.
Though he referred to “the white man” and the “white people”, he detested racism but
was compelled to use this terminology by the nature of the application he was making. He
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 251
declared that he was “neither legally nor morally bound to obey laws made by a
parliament in which he had no representation”. Nor could he accept a white presiding
officer, “however high his esteem, and however strong his sense of … justice”. To do so,
“was to make whites judges in their own case”. In the absence of the right to participate in
the making of laws or seek the protection of the constitution in the courts – or to take part
in the administration of justice as judges, magistrates, attorneys general and the like – “the
phrase „equality before the law‟”, in so far as it was intended to apply to the majority of
the population, was meaningless. As he put it:
The White man makes all the laws, he drags us before his courts … and he sits in
judgement over us … Why is it in this courtroom I face a White magistrate, [am]
confronted by a White prosecutor, and escorted into the dock by a White
orderly?25
Politically the situation was equally dire: “I am voteless because there is a parliament in
this country which is White-controlled. I am without land because the White minority has
taken a lion‟s share of my country …”. The presence of white domination was
everywhere, he said. “I detest most violently the set-up that surrounds me here. It makes
me feel that I am a Black man in a White man‟s court”. His “defence” was wide-ranging
and assertive in style and content, ending with a reference to the conference in Addis
Ababa, which had clearly made a great impression upon him. “For the first time in my life
I was a free man, free from white oppression, from the idiocy of apartheid and racial
arrogance … from humiliation and indignity. Wherever I went I was treated like a human
being.” He had no doubt that posterity would pronounce him innocent and that the real
criminals were the members of the Verwoerd government, who should have been brought
before the court.
The magistrate appeared to be listening, interrupted him frequently and finally found
him guilty on both of the counts for which he was charged, sentencing him to five years in
prison. This was his first introduction to incarceration on Robben Island.
***
Creating an Army
During Mandela‟s trip abroad and the first year of his incarceration, MK‟s expansion
exceeded expectations. The organization – embracing the merged Mandela units and the
Special Units of the SACP – soon took shape. The National High Command was the
supreme body overseeing the activities of the four regional structures. Mandela was
initially the commander-in-chief and Joe Slovo his chief-of-staff.26 It was a new military
establishment, whose structures and activities were mostly unknown to those of us who
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 252
were not involved in MK. According to Slovo, an equal number of leaders were drawn
from the ANC and SACP between 1961 and 1963, but after that “with the virtually
complete destruction of [the] internal structures [of the ANC and SACP] MK was to come
almost exclusively under the direction of the ANC‟s external mission, and Party
involvement in its affairs was negligible”.27 This was true only in a technical sense: SACP
leaders (as Slovo explains) “did play a prominent role in the ANC‟s external mission”, but
strictly speaking, the leadership was not part of a Party collective, as before.28
Slovo‟s reference to the “virtually complete destruction” of the internal leadership
structures of the ANC and SACP may be correct, although the reconstituted High
Command, formed after the Rivonia arrests in 1963, had for a short time been quite
successful in partly rebuilding MK‟s structures (1963–64), and enabling further MK
activity for a year or two.29 Many of the recruits sent for training were members of the
SACP, but by no means all of them. On their return they were deployed across the four
regions of the country, some of them having little opportunity to apply their skills. Among
the first to return was Raymond Mhlaba, a member of the SACP, a trade unionist and a
protégé of Govan Mbeki. He was installed briefly as head of MK during Mandela‟s
incarceration, but soon had to join the other defendants in the Rivonia Trial.
A number of cadres who trained abroad and became members of the regional
command structures were tragically murdered by the state. Looksmart Ngudle (Western
Cape Regional Command) died in detention, probably at the hands of the security police
and Washington Bongco, a trade unionist who served on the Western Cape Border
Regional Command, was hanged following his arrest in 1963. Vuyisile Mini, also a tradeunion activist and a key cadre in MK, went to the gallows singing one of the many songs
he‟d composed. A popular hero, “Vuyi” Mini was one of the 156 accused at the
preparatory examination of the Treason Trial; a mild man and a talented musician whom I
remember clearly. He was sentenced for the murder of an informer and 17 acts of
sabotage and hanged in November 1964 while I was still on trial for contravening the
Suppression of Communism Act. In honour of his memory we stood in silence in the
prison exercise yard at the Fort where we were “awaiting trial” prisoners. Two other MK
cadres, Wilson Khayingo and Zinikile Mkhaba, whom I did not know, similarly went to
the gallows in those early years, for their part in MK. Both of them served in the Eastern
Cape Regional Command.
It had become quite apparent to those of us in the SACP who were “outside” MK
that leading cadres were no longer “available” for work in the ordinary way. Umkhonto
had begun to assume a momentum of its own, an indication of the movement‟s
concentration of resources on the armed struggle. Many of the ANC‟s cadres had been
recruited to MK and soon after their recruitment, left for overseas training. We sensed that
this was where they had disappeared to, but did not know it – or we simply believed that
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 253
they had “gone underground‟. Most activists were engaged in MK activities. It was tacitly
accepted by the officials in the SACTU unions that committee structures were convenient
venues for MK meetings in the work place.30 Their zeal was evident from the start. Within
a year of its formation the new, MK units had carried out 134 acts of sabotage, minor and
amateurish at first, but the potential for sophistication was there.31
By the time of the arrests at Rivonia in July 1963, the number of these acts
(according to the prosecution in the Rivonia Trial) had risen to 235, but as the defence
team pointed out, these could not all be attributed to MK. In all cases, the targets were
“soft” meaning strategically selected to avoid loss of life, although there may have been
maverick cases where this instruction was not observed. Invariably we learnt of the
various acts of sabotage and theft of explosives through the newspapers. Throughout 1962
and until mid-July in 1963, bombs exploded in administration offices and telephone wires
were cut in the major cities; dynamite was stolen from quarries; and in one case, a bomb
was thrown into the house of a detective in the Port Elizabeth area. 32 There were no
reports of fatalities on that occasion, but loss of life was against Congress policy. A single
death occurred in December 1960 at the launch of Umkhonto, when an MK cadre was
accidentally killed by a defective explosive he was handling. Except for the government,
which acted quickly in enacting more punitive legislation than it ever had before, the
whites remained silent and in denial of the grim era of repression the country was about to
enter.
Legislative Terror
The regime made no attempt to manage the crisis it had created after Sharpeville; it made
no political concessions. Under the cover of legislating against sabotage, it introduced
further restrictive legislation that effectively eliminated legal political activity. The socalled “Sabotage Act”, passed in 1962, was a sweeping piece of legislation so wideranging that its administrative restrictions extended to furthering the objects of
communism, house arrest and prohibiting banned persons from publishing statements. A
large part of the act dealt with the further silencing of peaceful protest and very little
directly with sabotage.
The Sabotage Act provided for a minimum sentence of five years‟ imprisonment and
a maximum of the death penalty for persons committing sabotage. In a further amendment
to the act (also passed in 1962) it criminalized the writing of slogans on public walls or
poster-pasting, making potential offenders liable to a maximum of six months
imprisonment.33 The effect of the legislation was to make our simple activities of slogan
painting and leafleting as difficult as possible. Amazingly we continued these
“operations” – at what emotional cost, it is difficult to say. We were not always lucky
enough to escape detection. In the latter part of 1962, Eve Hall, Mary Turok, Molly
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 254
Anderson and Pixie Benjamin – young activists in the Congress of Democrats – were
sentenced to six months in gaol for this minor offence. Others were charged and
acquitted. Jean Middleton, who was one of the 13 comrades accused with me in the
Fischer Trial captures the discipline and the danger of these intense underground
activities:
In the earlier days, the evenings when we put up posters and stickers, and painted
slogans, had been light-hearted and sociable … In the early sixties, the Sabotage
Act changed all that, for though it was directed more specifically against
organizations engaged in armed struggle, it affected all forms of political activity,
including this one.34
Each repressive act prompted another: it was not a matter of special pleading when
Mandela and Sisulu stated in court that the movement was driven to armed struggle.
Tighter Security Laws
Harsh legislation and a more rigid security regime followed. The intelligence services
were reorganized and the frequency of surveillance and spying on political activists
increased. The institution of Military Intelligence (MI), negligible until Sharpeville, was
reactivated in 1960 and placed under senior military personnel. With the passing of the
Sabotage Act in 1962, MI was made a sub-section in the Department of the Chief of
Defence. The department‟s budget was substantially increased – one never knew by how
much as “there was always a secret vote inside the open vote” – and as armed attacks
intensified, a new intelligence organization (known as Republican Intelligence – RI),
under Hendrik van den Berg was secretly established without the knowledge of the
personnel then employed in the special branch of the South African Police.
Alongside the newly enacted legislation, this was by far the most substantive
response to the liberation movement‟s turn to armed struggle. Van den Bergh was the
protégé of John Balthasar Vorster, the Minister of Justice, who in 1941–43 was a fellow
inmate of Van den Bergh‟s at Koffiefontein, one of the war-time internment camps for
Nazi sympathizers (see chapters 2 and 17). The minister had been a general in the Ossewa
Brandwag and Van den Berg had served in the Stormjaers, a sabotage grouping close to
the Nazi Robey Leibbrandt‟s National Socialist Rebels, an organization even more
extreme than the Ossewa Brandwag.35 Vorster found Van den Bergh, an ex-policeman, to
be an appropriate person to head the new intelligence establishment and it was him that he
entrusted with the creation of RI.
Van den Bergh‟s mission in 1963 was to turn the sluggish intelligence services
around. For this, he concentrated on drafting appropriate personnel and making the RI
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 255
effective, exchanging information with foreign powers (possibly on individuals,
organizations and techniques of torture); training African spies; and recruiting journalists
to feed him with information. It was a long haul. Anticipating the capture of ANC, SACP
and Umkhonto activists and unravelling the layers of the movement‟s structures, Van den
Bergh badly needed analysts, always a scarce resource. Colonel At Spengler, a relatively
genial policeman, who had previously headed the security police and for years spied on
Congress and the Communist Party, was deployed to recruit young policeman appropriate
for the new force.36 Recruits normally came through the ranks of the police service but as
the RI was established in secrecy, the new RI operatives were acquired under the pretence
of their “resigning” from the force and then being secretly re-recruited as members of RI.
Colonel Spengler for example, had resigned from the force in order to make himself
available for the new covert security structure. Like some of the common criminals I met
in prison, who hired offices to conceal their real activities, he established a small suite of
rooms in Johannesburg‟s Commissioner Street, pretending to be a private recruiting
agency, to give his clandestine project an air of authenticity.
Spengler proceded to appoint personnel to serve in the new intelligence structures
and then deployed them in “front” companies in the corporate sector to provide them with
cover. Two notable exceptions to this practice were the appointments of Gordon Winter
and Gerard Ludi, both of them working journalists.37 Ludi at some point infiltrated the
Communist Party and was instrumental in the arrest and conviction of all the members of
an SACP cell. In addition, he reported the date of a Regional Committee meeting of the
SACP that was due to take place the following week, and in so doing, succeeded in
securing my arrest and conviction along with the other members of the Committee. Bram
Fischer was included in the swoop. The other recruit who was not formerly in the service
(Gordon Winter), provided the police with the hurtful information on SACP activists he
collected as a journalist. In an effort to retrieve his integrity, he later shared this
information with the individuals he spinelessly fingered, in a book entitled Inside BOSS:
South Africa‟s Secret Police.38 BOSS (the Bureau for Secret Service) was the organization
that succeeded RI and this new body was also headed by Van den Bergh.
The refurbishing of the intelligence establishment clearly contributed to the state‟s
success in smashing the structures of the liberation movement, but without the regime‟s
abandonment of the rule of law, the damage would not have been as extensive or as
brutal. The “Ninety-Day Law”, passed under the bland title of the General Laws
Amendment Act (1963) was the blunt instrument to do this. It allowed a police officer
(without warrant) to arrest anybody he suspected of having committed an offence – or of
intending to commit an offence – and detain that person for up to 90 days in any place for
interrogation. Only a magistrate could have access to that individual and no court had
jurisdiction to order his or her release. The selection of magistrates for this particular line
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 256
of duty could not have taxed the mind of the lowest official in the Justice Department for
very long. The magistrates chosen to perform the task must have been the most docile and
least intelligent judicial officers in the country. The complaints, questions, requests or
protests the detainees addressed to them were mindlessly recorded in a large black book
and answers to our queries were never, ever given. They were magistrates in Wonderland.
This was my frustrating experience and everyone else‟s too.
If the 90- day clause was heartless, the section of the act that referred to persons who
advocated political, economic or social change by forcible means was lethal.39 This
section of the act provided for the death penalty for any person who since 1950 advocated
such change. This last was aimed more directly at MK, and targeted individuals who had
undergone training outside South Africa – or (more impressionistically) “obtained any
information from a source outside the Republic which would be of use in furthering the
aims of communism”.
The new legislation helped to destabilize the Party, the ANC and MK and enabled
the state to confront the wave of sabotage that had shaken the country since 1961. It also
inflicted incalculable suffering on its victims. The new legislation savaged the legal
principal of habeas corpus and allowed the state to keep activists in gaol by renewing their
detention again and again, if they had been sentenced under either the Sabotage Act, the
Public Safety Act or the Suppression of Communism Act, or indeed any other substantive
law/s suppressing political opposition since 1952.
We had expected the government to retaliate sharply when the strategy of armed
struggle was adopted, but had not given sufficient attention to the likely consequences of
that policy for the open activity of legal opposition. Nor had we anticipated the regime‟s
unashamed dismissal of the rule of law; and we were ignorant of the effects of the new
system of physical and psychological torture that the state had learnt from foreign
intelligence agencies. RI and later BOSS, used these coercive techniques to uncover
SACP and MK units under the blanket powers given to them under the “90-Day
Detention Law”. Their itinerary of torture, which I personally experienced, included
isolation, solitary confinement and a range of methods of physical and mental
mistreatment to wear-down, demoralize and disorient political prisoners. But despite these
coercive strategies, the state seemed to have had no intimation of the plans for guerrilla
warfare until the Rivonia raid, when a copy of the document outlining the plans for
Operation Mayibuye, was found.
Operation Mayibuye
The rationale for guerrilla warfare had been outlined in a draft document entitled
“Operation Mayibuye”, meaning literally “Operation for the Return of Africa”. Mandela
was abroad when the proposal was drafted and in jail when the matter was due to be
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 257
discussed at Rivonia. During the trial the prosecution accepted the draft as policy,
although the document was still under discussion internally by the ANC and the SACP‟s
Central Committee. It was on the agenda for discussion at the meeting on 11 July 1963,
which the police interrupted, and although that discussion had not taken place, it seems
that active steps towards the implementation of some of its aspects had already been
taken. (See chapter 14). It is possible that the High Command had adopted it, but the
evidence for this is not conclusive. The thrust of the document was that the white state,
“armed to the teeth”, had abandoned any pretence of democratic rule and presented the
people with only one choice and that was “to overthrow it by force and violence”. 40 Some
of this had been said in the poster-sized leaflet we pasted on the walls of public places on
the eve of the launch of MK in December 1961. At that time the objective of MK was
sabotage and it had not yet moved on to consider the viability of guerrilla warfare.
The desirability of this military strategy was probably promoted by contemporary
events in Cuba, the daring, though unsuccessful attack by Castro‟s guerrillas on the
Moncada Barracks in 1953; and in the ousting of Batista‟s dictatorship, six years later.
Castro and Che Guevara provided the most important sources of inspiration for the move
towards guerrilla warfare. A general uprising in South Africa would be “sparked off by
organized and well prepared guerrilla operations during the course of which the masses of
the people will be drawn in and armed”.41 The war might be protracted and the struggle
fraught with difficulties, especially as South Africa was a powerfully armed and wellresourced modern state, solidly supported “for the moment”, by three million whites. But
this, the document argued, was counterbalanced by South Africa‟s isolation and the
hostility towards it by the community of nations, the countries of the African continent
and the Socialist world. The plan envisaged
a massive onslaught on pre-selected targets which [would] create maximum
havoc and confusion in the enemy camp and which would inject into the masses
of the people and other friendly forces a feeling of confidence that here at last is
an army of liberation capable of leading them to liberation.42
The failure to interrogate the weak links of the plan and the confusion on whether or not it
had been adopted, says much of the conditions under which the High Command and the
SACP could meet. South Africa was hardly comparable to Cuba. It had been
acknowledged that South Africa was a heavily armed state with the most sophisticated
infrastructure on the African continent. Yet the rationale for rejecting this reality was
impressionistic and speculative. For instance, there was no guarantee that the regime
would be thrown into confusion by a surprise guerrilla assault in one or two rural areas,
and except for a few instances where there had been rural uprisings in the early 1960s,
there was no certainty that the rural masses – with no acquaintance of automatic weapons
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 258
and much police harassment – were ready or willing to be drawn into a guerrilla war of
liberation. Such was the level of surveillance that only the boldest individual would
welcome guerrilla forces unknown to the local population with the feeling that “here at
last is an army … capable of leading me to liberation”. It is not clear whether the High
Command had a solid basis for this assumption or that the trio of leaders who conceived
the plan could sufficiently separate themselves from the enthusiasm of Che Guevara to
think twice before conceding that simulating a revolutionary consciousness (where there
was no objective evidence that such consciousness existed), was speculative in the
extreme.
Goldreich, (Govan) Mbeki and Slovo were greatly inspired by the contemporary
events in Cuba and they were the chief architects of the plan. 43 At the time, was in jail but
before his arrest he had made elaborate notes on reading Che Guevara. There was some
resonance of the daring of the Cubans in the detailed plans for guerrilla warfare in the
document “Operation Mayibuye” (found by the police in the unlit stove at Rivonia) which
elaborated a strategy for an initial attack to be mounted in the Eastern and Western Cape,
the Northern Transvaal and Northern Natal. There would be simultaneous landings on
pre-selected targets by ship or air, accompanied by arms and other war material to arm the
local populations. Strategic roads, railways, power stations major industrial installations –
not people – would be the targets. Auxiliary guerrilla units would be formed in the
regions infiltrated. A political authority, which would ultimately develop into a
revolutionary government, would be set up in secrecy in a friendly territory prior to this.44
A separate report on procurements set out the production requirements for the
manufacture of explosives.45 This report showed that the procurements envisaged
indicated an extensive and lengthy operation. According to the prosecution they were
sufficient “to blow up a city the size of Johannesburg”. One would have expected the
prosecution to have said that, but the items listed were of staggering proportions and
included many thousands of anti-personnel mines, time devices for bombs and tons of
ammonium nitrate, aluminium and black powder.46 It was Denis Goldberg‟s responsibility
to oversee the munitions aspect of the operation and his understanding of it was that it
called for the high level of procurement he had listed, if the resistance contemplated was
to be sustained. In a survey report, written for the Logistics Committee of the High
Command, he suggested methods to be adopted in setting up the explosive devices and
proposed that this should be done under secret cover of some legitimate business such as
poultry farming. He had already purchased a small-holding on behalf of MK in the district
of Travellyn, near Johannesburg, where presumably the munitions would be housed.
According to the trial record, about “twenty witnesses, factory owners, wholesale
distributors and machinery merchants … [testified] that the fans, the furnace, tools and
other equipment required … had all been the subject of enquiries by Goldberg.” 47 (See
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 259
chapter 14). Denis said nothing of this to me during the relatively short time I was in
prison with him, but he recounts the story without embellishment in his poignant
autobiography, published as this memoir was being written.48
The main criticism of Operation Mayibuye was that it did not provide an adequate
context for an informed debate on the matter. If there was a reluctance to participate in
orthodox political struggles for fear of state reprisals (which was apparently the case)
logically one might assume that there might also be an unwillingness to support an armed
struggle, where the likelihood of government reprisals was even stronger.
On a more positive note, there may have been an indication of willingness to
undertake a guerilla struggle if sufficient time and work were done to mobilize support
and select recruits in the countryside for military training. Extravagant plans for a “next
phase” of the armed struggle were possibly premature and there is merit in the argument
that there might have been room for the development of “indigenous” methods of
sabotage followed by more sophisticated practices more suited to our resources and
designed to draw in an increasing number of the population, urban and rural, before more
advanced plans were adopted. The pace of the guerrilla war (as outlined in Operation
Mayibuye) was obviously too swift and without proper regard for the objective conditions
in the country. As one critic noted it may have taken years, but if it were a feasible plan
with “a hard-nosed assessment of the difficulties facing the movement in a revolutionary
war with the government”, it may have been more deserving of the leadership.49 Guerrilla
warfare as such, was not beyond consideration. All the material conditions may not have
been present for undertaking this strategy, but there were views that supported the belief
that it was possible for this to happen even before the objective conditions for it existed.
According to Joe Matthews, Joe Slovo believed it could. “[He] got that from … Che
Guevara‟s book of guerrilla warfare [which] suggested that a leadership could create a
climate in which eventually armed struggle could flourish even before the conditions
existed for such an armed struggle.” Echoing an earlier view of Bram Fischer‟s that no
Marxist would accept the argument as it had been outlined in Operation Mayibuye,
Matthews remarked that, “from a materialist point of view, you cannot have a subjective
feeling which is not based on … an objective condition … That, of course, is an idealist
position”.50
In his autobiography, Mandela is disapproving of the document: “As far as I was
concerned,” he wrote in 1994, “„Operation Mayibuye‟ was a draft document that was not
only not approved, but was entirely unrealistic in its goals and in its plans. I did not
believe that guerrilla warfare was a viable option at that stage”.51 Bob Hepple (a member
of the Secretariat of the SACP) noted in his memoir, which he reconstructed from his
notes made in 1964, that he shared the misgivings expressed by Bram and Rusty
Bernstein. “I thought it was a crazy plan which would provoke brutal repression … A
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 260
military operation of the kind envisaged had no hope of success, and would entail untold
suffering.”52 Rusty Bernstein, writing in 1999, remembers that his opinion at the time was
that the document lacked political depth – it was based on military and logistical problems
“rather than a social or political programme which also encompassed military force”. It
was military thinking “at its worst”; a “simplistic military assessment of the logistical
problems ” and was insufficiently cognisant of the strengths and weaknesses on both
sides. Some 35 years later he said he did not know how he would feel about the plan now.
Instead, he compared its contents to military thinking in general, saying that it reduced
everything to cold calculation and ignored human “consciousness, morale and ideas”.53
He had drawn up a list of his objections, which were to be discussed at the Rivonia
meeting, but that discussion was not to be.
Kathrada objected to the plan in principle and is the most explicit of all in his
memoir, published in 2004. Here he recalls:
Day after day, I listened to comrades excitedly formulating the plan, and as the
deliberations proceeded, it dawned on me … how isolated one can become in
one‟s thinking … Were my comrades living on a different planet? They were
certainly living in a world of their own completely divorced from reality … but
the problem was they sincerely believed in what they were writing and
planning.54
On Robben Island a little later, he expressed the view that “had the plan been
implemented, we would almost certainly have gone to the gallows”.
The objective truth however, was that the movement was bleeding. Dadoo, Kotane,
Marks, Tambo, Slovo among the leadership, and many others besides, had gone into exile
carrying out various missions abroad. When Walter Sisulu said in his evidence that
“opinion was divided” over Operation Mayibuye and that it was still under debate and had
yet to be adopted by the ANC and other bodies in the movement, it was more than a
“story” for a credible legal defence. There were quite vehement opinions on the subject at
the time and even more in the 40 years since Rivonia. The critique has ranged from the
plan being unviable, unrealistic, unMarxist, idealistic, impracticable; to a contingency
plan in case all else failed; a piece of phantasmagorical creative writing; and a proposal
still on the drawing board, not officially adopted by the ANC. While Sisulu (at the trial)
believed the latter to be the case and that the National High Command had decided to
seek the views of other bodies (the ANC and the SACP), Govan Mbeki (privately) was
adamant that the proposal had indeed been adopted by both organizations.
In the circumstances, the ambiguities on when and where decisions were made were
not uncommon. Decisions often had to be made by a few people; many of the leaders
were incommunicado and a meeting in a secure place with all the leaders present was
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 261
something of a luxury. But in view of the importance of the proposal and it being a
departure from existing policy,55 an attempt was made to obtain consensus at an
augmented meeting of the National High Command, the Secretariat of the SACP‟s
Central Committee and the ANC. This was quite a difficult proposition when some of the
leaders wore “hats” from all three organizations and did not agree with the majority
decisions. Notwithstanding this, the matter was on the agenda for the fateful meeting of
11 July when the entire leadership that was still within the country was arrested.
The main protagonists of the proposal were Mbeki , Slovo, Goldreich and possibly
Harold Wolpe, who was close to Slovo and Goldreich and involved in MK. Officially the
task of drafting the document was assigned to Slovo and Mbeki, but clearly there were
other contributors too.56 Among the protagonists, only Mbeki was at the meeting in July:
Goldreich and Wolpe, who were not members of the NHC, were not expected to attend
the gathering. Slovo had gone into exile, but was “allowed” by the Central Committee to
take the document abroad with him and canvass the opinion of the leadership in exile – on
the understanding (according to Ahmed Kathrada) that its status was that of a proposal, a
draft plan.57 Bram Fischer, who opposed the document, was unable to attend the meeting.
Had he and those who had gone into exile been present, they would all have been arrested
at Rivonia on that critical afternoon.
Chapter Thirteen: Transition to Armed Struggle – 262
Chapter Fourteen
The Grand Coup: Rivonia
The Rivonia Trial set the political scene and provided the sub text for at least two other
trials in 1964. In one of these (State versus Abram Fischer and Thirteen Others) I was one
of the fourteen accused.1 By mid-1963 MK recruits were being trained abroad and
arrangements were well in advance for a new style of underground activity. The core of
leaders still in the country were in hiding, fast learning to become “professional
revolutionaries”. They often met and lived in the safe haven purchased by the SACP for
the protection of its leading individuals. This was the small-holding at Rivonia, known as
Liliesleaf Farm. The location was relatively isolated in a wooded hollow ten miles north
of Johannesburg, far from the road and out of sight of curious neighbours. It had a
spacious modern main building and a number of outbuildings, one of which often housed
Mandela and other ANC members. Unfortunately, the hope that it would be a safe haven
was short-lived. The venue was raided when the police entered the premises in a laundry
van and the senior leadership of the movement surprised and arrested without resistance.
On that day, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Rusty Bernstein, Raymond
Mhlaba and Bob Hepple had come to Rivonia to discuss the document on Operation
Mayibuye, the proposal for guerrilla warfare. They were all seated in one of the outhouses
when the police arrived. Denis Goldberg (a young civil engineer, involved in the
acquisition of munitions for MK) had recently purchased a Kombi for the High Command
and that afternoon transported Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada to the
meeting. He was waiting in the main building for the meeting to end when the raid
occurred and he was also apprehended.2 Bob Hepple‟s account of the raid is evocative of
the moment:
We all had small items of business which took ten minutes to complete … Govan
had brought with him a copy of Operation Mayibuye – a document I had never
had a chance to read – and it was resting on Rusty‟s lap because he wanted to
renew his objections … It was about 3.15 p.m., when a van was heard coming
down the drive. Govan went to the window. He said: “It‟s a dry-cleaning van.
I‟ve never seen it before.” Rusty then went to the window and exclaimed “My
God, I saw the van outside the police station on the way here!” … Someone
yelled out “Go and see what that van wants …” The next moment I heard the
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 263
dogs barking. Rusty shouted “It‟s the cops, they‟re heading here.” Govan had
collected up the Operation Mayibuye document and some other papers and I saw
him putting them in the chimney of the small stove in the room. The back
window was open and I helped Govan, Walter and Kathy jump out of it ... The
door burst open. D/Sgt Kennedy, whom I had cross-examined in an earlier trial
that year, rushed in: “Stay where you are. You‟re all under arrest …”3
Cars were allowed to enter the farm but not leave it. In the early evening on the same
day, Arthur Goldreich (co-author of “Operation Mayibuye” and the ostensible “tenant” of
the property) unsuspectingly returned to the farm with his wife, Hazel. They too were
arrested. A search of the premises revealed a number of documents including a copy of
the proposal for Operation Mayibuye. Later, James Kantor a Johannesburg solicitor,
practising together with his brother-in-law Harold Wolpe, was also arrested. The funds for
the purchase of Liliesleaf Farm had been transacted through Kantor‟s legal office. His
firm had acted for the nominal buyer of the farm, although Kantor apparently knew
nothing of the political purposes for which the premises were bought. The arrangements
for the purchase of the farm were Harold‟s responsibility. On hearing of the raid at
Rivonia, Wolpe quickly went into hiding and prepared to leave for Botswana (then
Bechuanaland) in the same week as the arrests. He was unfortunately captured near the
border and placed under 90-day detention with Goldreich, who was being held in a
cheerless cell at the Marshall Square police station. Two more arrests were made as a
result of information probably gleaned through the torture of 90-day detainees. These
were Andrew Mlangeni (trained in China and recently returned) and Elias Motsoaledi
(similarly trained abroad), both of them members of the Johannesburg Regional
Command of MK. They, together with Nelson Mandela (already serving a sentence) were
taken to join the others, bringing the total of the accused to thirteen. Wolpe and Arthur
Goldreich daringly escaped from the Marshall Square prison before the court case began.4
This reduced the number of accused to eleven.
The Rivonia Trial was one of a number of court battles that took place between 1963
and 1965. The various trials reflected the parallel struggles taking place at the same time:
one of them concerned with peaceful protest and the others with armed struggle, but the
lines were not always clear-cut. The two aspects of the struggle were seen to be
complementary, but predictably there was a disproportionate shift of focus towards the
military.
I knew of the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, but nothing of the details of its
organization. Therefore my surprise when I noticed the newspaper placards celebrating
the news of a police raid on an ANC estate in Rivonia and the capture of the movement‟s
leadership. It was 12 July 1963, the day after the arrests. We were on the journey home
from a family trip to Isipingo, in Natal. When we reached Johannesburg we confirmed the
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 264
arrests but only obtained details of the allegations against the accused months later, when
the leaders were released from solitary confinement and indicted. For the first time I
learnt of the composition of the High Command, the structures of MK and what seemed a
comprehensively detailed plan for guerrilla warfare, although it was said to be a draft, yet
to be formally adopted by the internal leadership of the ANC – and its rationale properly
explained.
The allegations were alleged, so we had to be careful about what we believed.
Gradually, the true facts of the period are emerging. The autobiographies of Nelson
Mandela, Rusty Bernstein, Jimmy Kantor and the memoirs of Ahmed Kathrada, Denis
Goldberg and Bob Hepple are instructive, but insufficient to satisfy the post-liberation
generations with a legitimate “need to know”. The riveting accounts of the trial by Joel
Joffe and George Bizos are inspiring, but despite these and the anecdotal descriptions by
some of the actors, the script has still to be completed.
***
Nelson Mandela, Sisulu and Kathrada were veteran trialists, often detained. Together with
Bernstein and Govan Mbeki they were the senior leaders of the liberation movement.
Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, more recent activists, were
not unknown to the security police either. Denis Goldberg had already had a brush with
the law in a minor political offence. James Kantor was totally innocent and not a member
of the ANC, SACP or MK. Bob Hepple, though still young in his career as a barrister had
been in the movement for about ten years before his arrest, and had over the years
defended many of the movement‟s activists in the courts. Except for a short skirmish with
the law in a student protest, this was his first experience as a defendant rather than as a
lawyer. They were charged under the Sabotage Act which, like treason could be a capital
offence, a point emphasized by the senior public prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar, who said:
Although the State has charged the accused of sabotage this is nevertheless a case
of High Treason par excellence. It is a classic case of the intended overthrow of
the government by force and violence with military and other assistance from
other countries.5
There was, in fact, a compelling reason for the choice of the Sabotage Act; a charge
under this act would not need a preparatory examination, requiring every overt act to be
confirmed by two witnesses.6 The Sabotage Act had shifted the onus of proving one‟s
innocence to the defendant, thereby undermining the cardinal assumption that an accused
person was innocent until the state had proved him or her to be guilty. This shift in the
law had already had a negative effect on the conduct of the prosecution who (the defence
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 265
team noted) seemed to think that providing precise details of the charges against each
accused was superfluous.7
The initial indictment left little to the imagination.8 It charged the defendants with
complicity in over 200 hundred acts of sabotage aimed at facilitating violent revolution,
armed invasion and a conspiracy to overthrow the government. As in the Treason Trial,
the assumption was that the state would be reduced to chaos or communism once
discriminatory laws were repealed. Legally the indictment was imprecise and could not
stand as it was phrased. Bram Fischer, as defence leader, was scathing about its
shoddiness. “The state,” he said, “had decided that the accused were guilty. It had further
decided that since they were guilty a defence would be a waste of time”.9 To the dismay
of the prosecution, the judge, Quartus de Wet, accepted his argument and set aside the
indictment. A new one entitled The State versus Nelson Mandela and Others followed.
This one was just as damning, alleging a conspiracy to commit sabotage and
guerrilla warfare along with armed invasion and violent revolution. It charged the accused
with acting in concert for the purpose of recruiting persons for instruction and training
outside South Africa and for manufacturing and using explosives to commit acts of
violence and preparing for guerrilla warfare.10 From the start the eleven defendants had no
doubt that they‟d be found guilty. For them “the trial was simply a continuation of the
struggle by other means”. They were confronted with a mass of evidence that guerrilla
warfare, violence and more sabotage was planned; that a transmitter had been installed;
finance had been acquired for the manufacture of hand-grenades, time-bombs and
explosives and individuals had been sent for training in sabotage. It was clear that
guerrilla warfare had at least been discussed and some preparations for it made. This last,
was the core of the prosecution‟s case for the imposition of the death penalty, by all
accounts, a serious possibility.11 Their conviction was a forgone conclusion. Although all
of them pleaded “not guilty”, they did not deny their participation in military action or
their association with MK and the ANC; they would speak in support of their ideals and
use the opportunity of the trial to put their case to the world and show that it was the
government and not they that should be in the dock.12
The proceedings were for the most part too tense to be boring. Bob Hepple was
called as a surprise first witness for the state. But the prosecution had erred in thinking
that in the final analysis, he would give evidence against the accused.13 His story is
instructive for what it reveals of his own thinking and the effects of arrest and torture on
apartheid‟s victims. Almost everyone I met in prison had similar experiences under
solitary confinement and all of them refused to become state witnesses. It is a mystery
why some succumb to the sly assurances of the security police while others walk away
from their insidious advice and refuse to give evidence for the state. I have cited Hepple‟s
experience at length in an attempt to understand this anomaly.14 He almost succumbed but
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 266
drew back at the eleventh hour. His recollection of his own ordeal in prison is not well
known (nor is his high ranking position in the SACP leadership and his relationship with
Nelson Mandela) and by including some aspects of his account in this memoir, more light
might be provided on the controversy his conduct provoked.
Hepple was not a member of the High Command or of MK and had never seen
himself as “cut out” for military activity: “What strengths I had to contribute,” he wrote in
his memoir, “were as a lawyer, writer, speaker, lecturer and union activist, but certainly
not a revolutionary soldier.”15 He sat on the highest committees of the South African
Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), including its Management Committee where the
members were predominantly banned; was a member of the SACP secretariat; and was
present at what seems to have been an augmented meeting of members of the High
Command and SACP secretariat when the arrests occurred on 11 July 1963. Following his
release from the trial he wrote his memoir, “Rivonia: The Story of Accused No. 11”.
He was a little under thirty at the time of his arrest, comfortable within himself,
committed and professional in manner. I knew him for at least 10 years before the events
at Rivonia and we have remained good friends. His parents were close to the movement,
but not members of the ANC or SACP and his father, Alex Hepple, a veteran socialist and
leader of the Labour Party in parliament. In April 1960, after Sharpeville, he was asked by
Bram Fischer to join Michael Harmel and Moses Kotane “who were all that was left of
the political leadership – the other leaders were in detention under the State of Emergency
regulations or had fled”.16 At the end of the emergency around September 1960, Bram
and Joe Slovo asked him to join the SACP secretariat, a body “which serviced the central
leadership”. At the same time he carried on a legal practice at Chambers. His personal and
political life had become quite blurred; a constant stream of high-profile “named” persons
visiting him regularly at Chambers and at his home – using him as a conduit to the
underground leadership. Among them, Ruth First, Joe Slovo and Bram Fischer, were
frequent visitors.
Like many of the other defendants he knew he was over-stretched, but “there seemed
to be no alternative”. He attended two or three meetings a week with underground leaders
at various street locations, undertook “contact” work, handled large sums of money and
attended secret meetings including one in his home, at which Mandela was present. He
became one of Nelson‟s support team while he worked “underground” and also made all
the arrangements for his secret mission abroad. “I developed a bond with him”, Hepple
wrote, “reaffirmed when he asked me to act as his legal adviser during his trial in
November 1962”.17 He had become a lifeline for the underground leaders, in particular
the secretariat who met with him on the day of his arrest: “Walter, Govan, Mhlaba and
Kathy were outlaws”, he wrote, “ Rusty was under twelve-hour house arrest and I was the
only one at freedom”.18 All six of them attended the meeting on 11 July knowing that the
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 267
place was no longer a safe haven. They had agreed to meet there again on 11 July – “for
the last time” and “just for a few hours”. That was the day of the raid.
All of them were arrested, taken to the Johannesburg Fort and ultimately to Pretoria
Local Prison, where they were placed under 90-day detention. Their confinement in single
cells without anything to read or anyone to talk to, or having any idea of what to expect
during the imminent interrogation sessions, was all part of a systematic process to
undermine and deplete their self confidence and their capacity to cope with the threats and
taunts of their interrogators. The whites were accommodated separately from the
Africans. Hepple and Goldberg were both confined to single cells at the Pretoria Local
Prison where Rusty had been held all along. All of them were held in solitary confinement
but allowed to do their ablutions together in the morning for 30 minutes and afterwards
take their exercise in the prison yard, provided they did not talk to one another. (I was
soon to discover for myself that the fear of being locked up for disobeying the “no
talking” prohibition was strong – this was so even later when I was out of solitary
confinement and already sentenced.) As talking is the single most important thing a
person in solitary detention needs to do, detainees find ingenious ways to communicate
with each other. For me, the most fascinating parts of the biographies of political
prisoners held under these conditions is the creative character of their attempts to
overcome the worst effect of solitary confinement, in itself a cruel form of torture. In the
final instance solitary confinement is a private affair and each individual approaches the
debilitating end-point that the process is designed to reach in his or her own time.
The combined effects of solitary confinement on a detainee‟s judgment differs from
person to person and theoretically, the longer the time in solitary confinement, the better
for the interrogator. Some detainees withstand its effects better than others. Nightmares,
hallucinations, obsessions, agitation, sleeplessness and sometimes, incessant sleep are the
symptoms. After three weeks in solitary detention, Hepple was afflicted by all of these:
“As the days and nights slowly passed”, he wrote in his memoir, “I became increasingly
confused and created my own world in which reality and fantasy were hard to separate”.19
It was in this state of mind that his interrogation began, leading to outcomes that he had
not intended. His account of his experience in solitary confinement is not exceptional
(Rusty Bernstein, was similarly confused) but Hepple‟s ordeal during his interrogation is
instructive for the insight it offers on how detainees react differently to sensual
deprivation, physical abuse and the incriminating evidence thrown at them by the special
branch.
Like most of the other detainees, Hepple was at first unaware of the intimidating
documents seized by the police and the extent of the evidence they had against him. When
told by his interrogators that they had a copy of the “Operation Mayibuye” document (and
much other incriminating evidence besides) he worried even more. As a lawyer he knew
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 268
that whether or not he had read the document “or agreed to it”, he could be easily linked
to the conspiracy. He knew a great deal and was troubled by the thought that he might
break down if tortured; that sooner or later someone would “crack” and that his situation
might be even more serious than he had initially thought. Van Wyk and Dirker, his initial
interrogators, “guaranteed” that he would be given an indemnity from prosecution if he
told them what was being discussed at the meeting on 11 July and why he was there. They
added casually that they would call him as a state witness. He was alert enough to detect
the menacing implications of that “aside” and told them that he would never agree to that;
he remained silent until he was eventually returned to his cell.
Soon after his interrogation he was visited in his cell by Lieutenant Swanepoel, who
was a senior member of the special branch and had the reputation among detainees of
being a violent psychopath.20 Swanepoel‟s request to Hepple for a statement may have
sounded bland but the man‟s burly frame, his demeanour and sadistic reputation
suggested only menace. Significantly, Hepple turned him away, only for him to return
after he had suffered a further short period of solitary confinement. On that occasion
Swanepoel pressed his advantage, gauging the deepening effects of solitary confinement
on Hepple and promised him immediate release if he gave the security police a
“reasonable” explanation of why he had been at Rivonia. “By then [Friday 2 August
1963]”, Hepple writes, “my judgment was seriously impaired, fantasy and reality were
difficult to separate [a]nd I was emotionally and physically exhausted.”21 He mulled over
the offer during the weekend and gave Swanepoel his answer on the following Monday, 5
August.
During the weekend, as often happens, the security in the prison is more relaxed
because the relief warders are friendlier to the prisoners than the regular gatekeepers.
Communication with other detainees was easier. Notes passed between Bob and Rusty
Bernstein and later they were able to talk to each other. According to Hepple, Bernstein
told hold him that if he “could get out quickly he should grab the opportunity!” For one
thing, he could clear out the hiding place in Mountain View, which they believed the
police had not yet discovered; secondly, he could “pass vital messages to Bram and others
who were still not detained”; and thirdly, an innocent statement made now might
somehow help him in his defence at any subsequent trial. Bob trusted Rusty who had
known him since a young boy. He “would not have made that statement at that stage,
without Rusty‟s agreement”, he said in his memoir.22 Denis Goldberg, with whom Bob
also briefly talked, warned him “that it could be dangerous”. For Hepple, consensus from
the only people available to him to consult was important. He knew he was breaking a
cardinal rule that one simply did not make any statement to the police, but he thought the
circumstances in his case were extraordinary. Normally a methodical and lucid thinker, he
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 269
overlooked the possibility that Denis and Rusty were probably also in an impaired state of
mind and may not have been thinking clearly. Rusty confides in his autobiography:
I am close to breakdown but I dare not give way to tears. Not for fear of losing
face with some macho warders and Security men, but because I know that once I
let go there will be no way by which I will be able to redeem whatever is left of
my life.23
This was relatively early in his detention, but his state of mind did not improve until the
trial began. He also did not discern that Bob has reached his nadir. Quite the contrary, he
notes of Hepple: “I know that anyone can crack under the stress of solitary confinement”,
“but he has shown no sign that he has done so.”24 As it happened, the path that Bob chose
(with or without the cautious confirmation of his fellow accused) was personally and
politically disastrous.
Swanepoel reappeared on 5 August and Hepple made a statement to the effect that
he had been a member of COD; that he had previously acted professionally for Walter
Sisulu who happened to have sent him a message to see him on 11 July to discuss the
plight of 90-day detainees. On arriving at Rivonia on that day, he was surprised to find the
others there and had been there for only a short time when the police raided. The
statement was received with derision. The security police seemed to know more than he
had given them. Their next tactic was to simulate anger and make him stand once more in
a single spot. They threatened to arrest his wife and parents and shouted taunts that “he
would hang like the others …” They said they knew from informants that he had visited
the farm at Rivonia “many times”; that he had been in an underground cell; that
individuals in that cell had made statements to the police.
Uncertain as to whether “Security” did in fact have that evidence, Hepple did what
most of us did under the same circumstances and stood by his initial statement. Later he
was returned to his cell in an exhausted state. But the interrogation did not end there. It
continued hour after hour for the next three days until he verged on collapse. Swanepoel
became menacing and toyed with a revolver he‟d deliberately placed on the desk next to
him “Would you like this or the rope?” he asked, showing him a bullet. 25 He was well
known for these antics. In a similar incident he had pushed a pistol to the forehead of Mac
Maharaj, one of the regional MK leaders at the time, and without further ado put him up
against the wall, saying: “You talk!” When Mac remained silent, he pulled the trigger.
Fortunately, the gun was unloaded.26
Swanepoel, however, was intimidating without his having to try. On the fourth day
of Hepple‟s ordeal and 28 days into solitary confinement Bob made a statement admitting
that he had been recruited into a banned organization by Joe Slovo; that he had delivered
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 270
mail to Rivonia at Slovo‟s request (Slovo was already abroad) and that he had met Govan
and Walter at the farm. Confirming what they already knew, he admitted that he had once
driven Kathrada to the Rivonia site. In making this statement, Hepple believed that he had
not seriously incriminated anyone still in the country and that he had given away only the
information that he knew the police already had. Bernstein confirms that Bob‟s statement
was unlikely to cause further harm to the accused, but was worried about the personal
consequences of his testifying. Giving evidence for the state, he wrote, “would be seen as
an act of cowardice and betrayal which will be remembered, and will haunt him”.27
Hepple was aware of this.28 Two weeks later, still in solitary confinement, he realised that
he had “made a serious error of judgment”. He had incriminated himself while he was
“unable to think straight” and had compromised himself completely. His admissions were
enough, he thought, to link him to the common purpose of the other detainees and he
“could be hanged now for Operation Mayibuye, a plan which he had not been a party to,
and which he thought was “crazy”. Worst of all, he now felt that his having made a
statement would be used to demoralize others and he began to feel ashamed.29
His misgivings were well-founded. A few weeks later, he was taken to see Yutar, the
state prosecutor, who told him that he had decided to prosecute him, adding that he could
expect to be sentenced to death along with all the others! Yutar‟s advice to him, under the
circumstances, was to compose his own statement and give evidence for the state. Hepple
said nothing. One way out of this impasse, he thought, was for him to agree to give
evidence in return for conditional release and to escape before events reached that stage!
Believing that this was a workable plan he wrote out a statement similar to the previous
one he had given, and waited. Yutar‟s response to this was ambiguous. He saw Hepple
twice more, first saying that “five or six leading persons were making statements” and
that he wanted to see what they had said about him before he took any further decision.
On the second occasion, Yutar told him he had decided to use him as a state witness. Bob
replied that he was still undecided about this. For the moment the matter was left there.
Back in the prison and now awaiting trial, he could consult with others and spoke to
Rusty, Nelson and Bram. They told Bob that his decision would have to be a “personal
one”. Finally he asked Mandela what his attitude would be if he persuaded Yutar to
release him conditionally and then escape. “That would be excellent! “ replied Mandela.30
Goldberg recollects:
Bob Hepple was in an invidious position because he had told us that he was
considering whether to be a state witness, yet he was with us during our opening
consultation … He withdrew from the consultation. I don‟t remember thinking
very deeply just then about him giving evidence, but still hoped that he would not
do so.31
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 271
When the trial resumed after an adjournment, the prosecution revamped its initial
indictment and the judge asked Hepple whether he had anything to say on this matter. At
this point Yutar jumped up and announced that all charges against him had been
withdrawn and that he would later be called as a state witness. On the understanding that
this would be the case, the state released Hepple from custody. From there, events moved
quickly. Bob immediately contacted Bram through an intermediary and discussed his
position. They met again after Fischer had briefed the other defendants. They felt there
were a few options open to Hepple: he could give evidence as a friendly witness when
cross-examined; he could enter the witness box and refuse to testify – or he could flee the
country. Ultimately it was decided that escape was the only viable alternative. Eight days
later (on 25 November 1963) Hepple was taken to the Bechuanaland border and into
exile. It is difficult to foresee what might have happened had he stood trial. He may have
given evidence in his own defence and been acquitted as was Bernstein. Or he may not
have been as fortunate and spent the next 25 years of his life in prison. (Bernstein was
probably as involved in Umkhonto as all of his co-accused though, like Hepple, not a
member of MK. Yet he convinced the judge that he was innocent of the “conspiracy”.)
Hepple may not have been as lucky. The evidence against Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond
Mhlaba was as slender as the case against Hepple, yet they each received life sentences.
The trial was as lengthy and as nerve-wracking for the accused as it was interspersed
with intricate legal argument and new jurisprudence. The examples below have been
chosen with a view to the mind-set which the accused brought to the trial following the
trauma of solitary confinement, interrogation and 90-day detention. They have also been
selected for the depth of vision and clarity of the liberation project as shown in the
evidence of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki; for the strength of
conviction and integrity in the face of overwhelmingly incriminating evidence (e.g.
Goldberg) and most significantly, for the refusal of the defendants to be intimidated by
the court, the charges and the sentence that might follow (e.g. Kathrada, Mlangeni and
Mhlaba). Last but not least, I have selected the evidence of Rusty Bernstein for his gifted
capacity to deal with the insidious inferences of the prosecution and walk away from the
court as a free man at the trial‟s end. To a greater or lesser extent these personal qualities
were present in all the accused. Together their testimonies illumine the principles behind
their actions and the movement‟s thinking.
***
Betrayal: State Witness Mtolo
While Hepple‟s case provoked comment among the accused it was not disastrous. On the
other hand, outright betrayal was something with which the defendants in every political
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 272
trial invariably had to contend. Rusty Bernstein had written “[b]reakdown would be
forgivable; testifying against his comrades would not”.32 He had Hepple in mind, but he
could also have been referring to Bruno Mtolo, the state‟s prize witness. Mtolo had no
compunction in betraying his colleagues and showed no visible signs of the effects of
solitary confinement or security police pressure during detention. Before he took the stand
the public galleries were cleared and the media were ordered by the court to refer to him
as Mr X. The prosecution‟s reason for this was that they feared for his safety, but the
request for the court‟s clearance was consistent with the senior prosecutor‟s flair for
theatre. The appearance of Mtolo was to be one of the trial‟s dramatic moments and Bob
Hepple‟s another. In Hepple‟s case, Yutar told the court that he “had been threatened by
the accused or their supporters and fled the country”. The defendants knew otherwise and
enjoyed the prosecutor‟s discomfort at Hepple‟s disappearance. Mtolo‟s evidence,
however, was bitter in its assessment of the movements‟ leaders and was damaging to the
defence. He was as much a renegade as a common law criminal, a recidivist, who
unbeknown to the ANC had been prosecuted for attempted murder and theft and had
served time in jail. Joel Joffe, who advised the defence team had much to do with
unearthing his past.
It was obvious however that the Mr X in the witness box was not Bruno Mtolo the
overly daring and confident person the liberation movement had once trusted. Ronnie
Kasrils knew him best from their time together in the MK structures in Durban. “It was
Bruno and a few others who collapsed”, he wrote in his autobiography:
The SB boasted that Bruno started talking the day after his detention. They said
they knew how to deal with a criminal … It was obvious why [he] had displayed
such skill breaking into the dynamite magazine. We had all too easily accepted
his credentials, without really knowing him.33
Mtolo was well placed to finger practically everyone in the dock because he was
active in many anti-apartheid organizations, including SACTU, in which he was a union
organizer; MK, where he was by 1963 a leader of the Durban Regional Command; and
the ANC. He was also a member of the Communist Party and active in the Natal region in
the service of all four organizations. This made his cross-examination difficult for the
defence team, who on instructions from the defendants did not want him to reveal any
more information about activists than he had already done. Over the three days of his
testimony Mtolo professed to his being a saboteur, in which capacity he blew up pylons
and other government property on the instruction of MK‟s Durban Regional Command.
He also claimed to have committed acts of sabotage on the homes of informers and to
have planted bombs where peoples‟ lives were placed at risk. As Mandela noted in his
statement, “[s]ome of the things so far told to the court are true and some are untrue”, but
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 273
reference to Umkhonto attacks that deliberately endangered peoples‟ lives was contrary to
ANC policy and was not true.34
As Mtolo‟s task was partly to incriminate as many people as possible, he named MK
activists even if he had only known them peripherally. At the top of his hit list were
Sisulu, (Govan) Mbeki, Kathrada and Bernstein whom he said he‟d met at Rivonia.
Others he named were Kasrils, Hodgson, Strachan, Joe Slovo, Modise, Mlangeni and
Motsoaledi (except for the last two names, they were all named separately as coconspirators). Equally important was his obvious instruction to link Mandela to the
conspiracy and to confirm the prosecution‟s allegations of foreign assistance and
preparations for guerrilla warfare. This he did by describing Mandela‟s meeting with the
Durban Regional Command in August 1962, on the eve of Mandela‟s arrest. He described
Mandela‟s account of his visit to countries in Africa and referred to his meetings with
African leaders, as well as his military training (which included guerrilla warfare) and
promises of foreign financial assistance.
Although Mandela felt strongly that Mtolo should be cross-examined on instances
where he was lying and slandering leaders of the movement, it was pertinent for the
lawyers only to challenge his version of events, when in some instances they knew them
to be untrue. Equally important, they did not wish to provide names that would
compromise the accused on other trials or activists still in the field. Apart from the
constraints on the evidence on which Mtolo could be cross-examined, 90% of his
testimony was thought to be substantially true. The critical concerns were in the
remaining 10%.35
This is invariably a problem when erstwhile comrades renege on their colleagues.
We faced this predicament with Pieter Beyleveld, a state witness in the Fischer Trial
whose evidence, with a single crucial exception, could not be controverted. 36 Mtolo‟s
evidence was left largely intact by the defence team. It fell to Nelson Mandela in his
statement from the dock to correct the erroneous statements Mtolo had made about the
ANC‟s policy on violence and it was left to defence advocate Vernon Berrange to destroy
the slanderous statements that this witness had made to disparage the movement‟s leaders.
Mandela: An Epic Address
From the tenor of Mandela‟s address to the court when he rose to make his statement
from the dock, there was no question in his mind, that ultimately history would exonerate
him. There was some resonance in his statement with Fidel Castro‟s court testimony after
his partisans‟ attack on the Moncada Barracks in March 1953, a decade before the
Rivonia Trial. “History will absolve me”, Castro had told the court and then proceeded to
speak of his treatment under detention, the context of his actions, and the motives of his
compatriots. Mandela‟s testimony was also lengthy. In his case, only five hours and
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 274
equally wide-ranging. It was an epic address, describing his youth, his ideals and the
intellectual influences upon him, as well as the poverty and inequality that led him to
identify with the ANC and (ultimately) become an “outlaw in the land of [his] birth” for
the views he held. The thrust of his address was similar to the rationale for the ANC‟s
policy-shift to include armed struggle in its overall strategy for liberation. But it was more
than an explanation of past policies. His statement was an opportunity to accept collective
(and sometimes personal) responsibility for his actions, and to correct what he believed to
be the erroneous statements of witnesses or of the prosecution. It was not exclusively a
testimony in his own defence; nor was it intended to deny the charges against any of the
defendants, but an opportunity as one of the movement‟s leaders, to explain the logic of
his actions and why the leadership had adopted the policies they did.
This went hand in hand with his understanding of the obligations of leadership and, I
expect, like the notes he took of the books he read, helped him to clarify his own thinking.
He dwelt at length with the different aims of the SACP, Umkhonto and the ANC; he
defined their respective roles in the struggle and their relationship with each other; openly
took responsibility for his part in the formation of Umkhonto; and clarified the reasons for
his visit to Addis Ababa. He made no secret of his inspiring visits to the newly
independent countries on the African continent or of the audiences afforded him by Julius
Nyerere, Leopold Senghor and Sekou Toure, the “philosopher kings” of Africa. The tour
made an ineffaceable impression on him, notable from the details he recorded in his
diaries that were exhibits in the trial. Later he explained that his diaries were merely
summaries of his impressions abroad and the notebooks a record of his reading in politics,
economics and the modalities of armed struggle. The writings of Clausewitz and Mao
interested him but the extensive notes he made on them were not blueprints for war.
Similarly his reading of Che Guevara was pertinent to the choices one might make “in the
long time before sabotage [as a strategy of struggle] is exhausted” but not “proof” of a
conspiracy to overthrow the state by means of guerrilla warfare.
“Violence” [meaning the armed struggle] and its inevitability was a recurring theme
from the start of his statement. He reinforced this issue as he went along, insisting that
there was “no other path than the one the movement had chosen … Violence by the
African people had become inevitable” – not for its own sake but because the people had
been driven to it “by government policies”.37 The resort to violence was a gradual
process. Only when political protest was legislated against and protest met by force “was
violence answered with violence”. If uncontrolled violence was to be avoided, responsible
leadership, capable of “canaliz[ing] and control[ing] the feelings of the people”, was
essential or there would be intense racial bitterness. The relentless repression since 1950
had shown “that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to
succeed in their struggle ...” He told the court: “I felt morally obliged to do what I did.”
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 275
As violence was inevitable, it was “unrealistic and wrong” to preach non-violent struggle
when peaceful protest was met by government force. The dilemma with which the
movement was faced, was in his view, “either to accept a permanent state of inferiority,
or to defy the government” (my emphasis). As he saw it, there was no question that the
fight should be continued, “anything else would have been abject surrender”, the problem
was how to continue the fight. There was a feeling among the people that the ANC‟s aim
of achieving a non-racial state by non-violence “had achieved nothing” and people were
losing confidence in the efficacy of peaceful protest. After 50 years of non-violent protest
“there was more repressive legislation and fewer and fewer rights”. Already, in June
1961, when leaders of the movement considered embarking on acts of sabotage,
“disturbing ideas of terrorism” were developing. “Small groups had arisen in the urban
areas and were spontaneously making plans for violent forms of political struggle.”
In his reference to the formation of Umkhonto, he said, “the avoidance of civil war”
had been dominant in the movement‟s assessment. The immediate reaction of the state at
the time was to quell peaceful protest with violence. Although MK was formed as a
response to state violence, its establishment was not an entirely reactive rejoinder to
government force, but “to bring government and its supporters to their senses before …
matters reach the desperate state of civil war”. Civil war was a last resort, but plans
needed to be flexible if it became inevitable. Since 1957 the government had been
responsible for successive acts of state violence against women, peasants, and urban
protesters in various parts of the country. The counter revolution was feeding the
revolution, showing, as he put it, “that a government which uses force to maintain its rule,
teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it”. This had its disadvantages. A worrying
factor for the movement was that the local responses to the imposition of the Bantu
Authorities Act and other aspects of government repression had for various reasons taken
the form of civil strife – “not of struggle against the government” – as Mandela phrased it,
“but of civil strife among themselves”. As this would inevitably lead to loss of life and
bitterness, responsible leadership was needed to redirect this inward expression of rage
towards anger against the regime. When it came to a choice of forms of struggle, the
obvious path for the ANC was one that did not involve loss of life and minimized the
possibility of disharmony.
The policy sought was consequently one that would help to inspire the people and
“provide an outlet for those … who were urging the adoption of more violent methods”.
For this reason, the decision was taken to adopt sabotage and exhaust its potential as a
strategy for achieving change, before considering any other form of violence. “[I]f it bore
fruit democratic government could become a reality.” The policy envisaged attacks on the
country‟s economy, linked with acts of sabotage against government buildings and
symbols of apartheid. Other forms of armed struggle included guerrilla warfare, terrorism
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 276
and open revolution. Of these, “if force was necessary to defend ourselves against force”,
guerrilla warfare, a long-term undertaking, “held out the prospects best for us and [posed]
the least risk of life to both sides.” The ANC had not yet adopted Operation Mayibuye,
the document in which the outline of the preparations for guerrilla warfare had been
explicitly set out. This document had been drafted with little left to the imagination of
anyone who might wish to add to its detail. However, military training would continue
and provision made for the possibility of guerrilla warfare as a contingency plan for the
future. In the meanwhile, in view of the length of time it would take to establish a
guerrilla army, plans would go ahead “to build up a sufficient nucleus of trained soldiers
to start a guerrilla campaign and whatever happened, the training would be of value”. The
phrasing of this section of his statement was necessarily cautious because it trod on
ground that could easily evoke considerations of the death sentence in the mind of Justice
Quartus de Wet, at least insofar as the members of the national High Command were
concerned.
Clarification of the relations between the ANC, the Communist Party and MK was
seen as equally important to explain the difference between cooperation and cooptation.
Identification of any of the organizations with the objects of Communism, when linked
with sabotage, could be the kiss of death. But it was convenient for the state to treat the
issues of sabotage, Communism and African nationalism quite interchangeably. Mandela
endeavoured to correct this and went to some lengths to explain that the ANC, Umkhonto
and the Communist Party were not the same as alleged by the state and that the High
Command of Umkhonto, the SACP and ANC were politically, historically and
ideologically quite discrete, although it was true that they cooperated and shared the
common goal of removing white supremacy. This was “not proof of a complete
community of interests”. There were many examples in the world of cooperation between
governments of diverse interests: “Nobody but Hitler would have dared to suggest that
such cooperation turned Churchill or Roosevelt into communists or communist tools”.
Clarification of this was seen to be as necessary for the understanding of the court as it
was for the movement and its followers.
In Mandela‟s view, ideologically the ANC was for nationalism, meaning “freedom
and fulfilment for the African people in their own land” as exemplified by the Freedom
Charter, “the most important political document ever adopted by the ANC”. As he
understood it, the Communist Party stood for a state based on the principles of Marxism.
For the SACP “the Freedom Charter would be a short term solution for the problems of
white supremacy”. The Party emphasised class distinctions “whilst the ANC sought to
harmonize them”. Both insights were perceptive as were his remarks on the role of
communists in anti-colonial struggles. He believed that in the fight by colonial countries
for freedom, “the short-term objects of communists would always correspond with the
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 277
long term objects of freedom movements”. This was borne out historically by communists
elsewhere in Africa and Asia, and the same pattern of cooperation between communists
and non-communists typified the Party‟s relationship with the liberation movement in
South Africa. Joint campaigns and cross-membership characterized this cooperation. “It is
perhaps difficult,” he told the court, “for white South Africans, with an ingrained
prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so
readily accept communists as their friends.” But for him it was a self-evident truth that:
for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who
were prepared to treat Africans as human beings, as their equals; who were
prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us, and work with us … the only
political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for … a stake in
society.
Interestingly, his co-accused, Raymond Mhlaba, expressed a similar view in his personal
memoir:
I found Whites, Coloureds, Indians and Africans sitting together discussing
problems facing the country. What struck me was to see a white person
discussing issues openly with an African as an equal … I then thought to myself
that this was perhaps the true brotherhood and sisterhood that was preached but
not practised by many Christians.38
Mandela‟s positive embrace of his communist comrades could not have helped his
case legally and probably worried those who sought communist influences in his political
and intellectual evolution. For Mandela it was a matter of principle that he acknowledged
the role of the Party in the struggle. Possibly there was some special pleading in his
statement but that is to be expected in a legal defence. It was, for all that, a complex
exposition of what had brought him and his co-accused to the dock: it was a statement
brave in its acceptance of responsibility for his part in establishing Umkhonto, blunt in his
account of his visit to African leaders to request money and aid for MK, and principled in
its defence of the movement‟s embrace of armed struggle. Above all it was unforgettable
for his passionate assertion that the ANC‟s struggle was no less than a fight of the African
people for the right to live. It was, in his words, “ … an ideal which I hope to live for and
achieve. But if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”39 Here were
intimations of Mandela the man transcending the image of Nelson the lawyer and Madiba
the political leader, inspiring others by his unquestioning certainty that South Africa
would be free, however high the personal price. Today, his address would have been
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 278
referred to as “presidential”, were it not that he was still a long way from Tuinhuis;40
fighting for his life, as well as the lives of his co-accused.
Sisulu: Strategy and Tactics
Unlike Mandela, who did not give formal evidence but made a statement from the dock,
Sisulu took the stand in the witness box for cross-examination. He elaborated on the
relations between MK and the ANC and its status as a discrete organization within the
liberation movement: it was as much a testimony in his own defence as of the ANC‟s
unremitting resistance to apartheid over the previous 50 years, an oral history by one of
the struggle‟s most strategic thinkers. (I had known him for years and corresponded with
him while he was on Robben Island.) His testimony was wide-ranging and confirmed
much of what Mandela had said, covering the refusal of the ANC to submit to the
government‟s banning; the need for the responsible leadership of a struggle that had
transcended peaceful protest; the co-operative linkages between the SACP and the ANC –
and finally on the formation of MK and its policy of avoiding personal injury or loss of
life. On this he was questioned at some length by Quartus de Wet:
Judge: If you are going to start bombing buildings, is it possible to avoid that type
of accident? Can you ever be sure that you have avoided killing or injuring
people?
Sisulu: My Lord, an accident is an accident. But the intention in fact is the
intention …
Judge: Your argument is that as long as you have not got the intention to kill
people, it does not matter if you kill people. Is that your argument?
Sisulu: No, Sir. I am saying that the precautions are taken in order to avoid such a
thing. I am not saying it can‟t happen. But I am saying that precautions are taken
that it should not happen.41
The judge left it there, although the line of questioning was thought to be ominous by
counsel. They nonetheless felt that Sisulu had done well under the “double barrage” of
questioning from judge and prosecutor and that he had argued with eloquence throughout
the five hours of his cross-examination. What was evident about his performance was his
integrity and his sense of certainty of the correctness of his cause. Asked by Bram Fischer
if he would have acted differently, he replied: “I can‟t see how I could have done
otherwise. “Because even if I myself did not play the role I did, others would have done
what I have done instead.”42
During the course of his cross-examination by the prosecution, Yutar disingenuously
made reference to traitors. When asked whether he considered Mtolo a traitor to the
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 279
cause, he replied in the affirmative. Pressed to say that he regarded Hepple as a traitor (in
the same way as he had Mtolo) Sisulu said he did not know what Hepple had said but if
the prosecution‟s version of the facts was correct, then he was a traitor. Sisulu later wrote
to Hepple:
I sincerely regret the publicity given to my evidence by the press on this matter
… It certainly did not reflect my views about you. Apart from the fact that the
statement was taken out of its context … I was forced to answer the question put
to me by Dr Yutar … I said you were not in the same position as [witness] X.
What I wanted to convey was that the information by the police [regarding your
statement] would have to be checked … I am not the sort of man that easily falls
for the branding of a colleague. I certainly would not just rely on the police
statement without checking and satisfying myself about the true facts of the
matter.43
***
No Moral Guilt
For the remaining accused who gave evidence or made statements from the dock, Sisulu
and Mandela‟s testimonies were a hard act to follow. When Ahmed Kathrada took the
witness stand there were moments of deep seriousness and also some lighter ones.
Kathrada denied membership of MK, but acknowledged that he knew of its existence. He
did not disclose the full extent of his involvement in MK to his counsel, Ishmael
Mahommed, or to the court. As he noted in his Memoirs, “I rationalized that since I owed
no allegiance to my enemy, I could tailor my evidence to my best advantage.”44 He was a
defiant witness, who responded to the prosecutor‟s aggressive sarcasm in kind, making “it
hard for Yutar to keep his temper”, especially when he refused to answer questions that
incriminated others.45 This was bold because the state‟s evidence of his participation in
MK was slender.
He was 34-years-old at the time of the trial and I had known him for almost 20 years
before then, first in the YCL and then in Congress and in the CPSA. Our age and
birthdays are close together and we still jocularly refer to each other (my twin included)
as “triplets”. The case against him was weak, as despite some of the evidence, the
prosecution failed to prove that he had taken part in acts of sabotage, prepared for
guerrilla warfare or any of the other allegations they made against him. However he was
at Liliesleaf Farm on 11 July – in disguise – in the same room as Mandela, Sisulu,
Bernstein, Mbeki, Hepple and Mhlaba, and the prosecution concluded he was a member
of the High Command. Ultimately he suffered the same fate as all the other accused who
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 280
were convicted. His sentence of life imprisonment was another deep reminder that the
halcyon days before MK were gone forever.
His co-accused, Govan Mbeki, was next in the witness box. Until 1962 he had been
the Eastern Cape editor of New Age newspaper. He was well educated, with two postgraduate degrees and was formerly a teacher. I admired and liked him and had met him on
the trips I made to Port Elizabeth during the campaign against Bantu education. He and
Sisulu were a study in contrasts. Walter Sisulu was slightly younger – in his late forties at
the time – an activist in the movement for all his adult life, but more measured in his
views. He had only a modicum of schooling, but was as intellectually vigorous and as
logical in his thinking as any of his peers.
Like Sisulu in the Transvaal, Mbeki was the doyen of the movement in the Eastern
Cape region, easily accessible and friendly but though no less committed, more
doctrinaire and inflexible than Walter. A key figure in the movement, he was charged
with contravening the Suppression of Communism Act and committing acts of sabotage.
Although he had ostensibly entered the movement only in the 1950s, he soon rose to
membership of the Central Committee of the SACP and the High Command of MK and
was in the leadership of the ANC. If I were asked at the time which of the two men I
thought would be president of a liberated South Africa, there was no doubt that Govan
Mbeki would have been as high on my list as Walter Sisulu. With 24 witnesses against
him and 13 documents implicating him, he stood little chance of acquittal. But he was
undaunted by this and his exchanges with Yutar were lively and revealing of his tenacity:
Yutar: Well, Mbeki, I will put it to you in very brief form. Four charges against
you, and you have replied … “yes” to all of them. Can you tell his lordship why
you have pleaded not guilty to all four counts?
Mbeki: Yes. I did not plead guilty to the four counts for the simple reason first
that I should come and explain from here under oath some of the reasons that led
me to join MK. And secondly for the simple reason that to plead guilty would to
my mind indicate a sense of moral guilt attached to my actions.
Yutar pressed his point further, left aside the question of moral guilt and wanted to know
whether Mbeki still pleaded not guilty “after admitting” that he was on the national High
Command, had committed sabotage, furthered the aims of Communism and solicited
money abroad to advance these claims.
Mbeki: I am not pleading guilty!
Yutar: No you don‟t. You don‟t even admit you are legally guilty?
Mbeki: I have explained my position. 46
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 281
In his refusal to suggest that he was in any way morally guilty, he expressed the
sentiments of all his co-accused. By not denying their involvement in the ANC, SACP or
the alleged acts of sabotage and insisting that the government should be in the dock and
not them, the defendants had little doubt of the likelihood of their conviction.47 The
question was what emphasis the court would place on the level of their involvement in the
alleged conspiracy and whether the sentence would be one of capital punishment or long
terms of imprisonment.
***
The evidence against Mlangeni and Motsoaledi made them vulnerable. Both had entered
the movement in the mid-1950s and I knew them only slightly. They had undergone
military training and had returned to apply the military skills they had learnt. They each
made statements from the dock in order to avoid implicating other cadres under crossexamination. Their rank and file status in the movement exposed them to many activists,
including the state witness, Bruno Mtolo. Motsoaledi admitted to membership of MK (he
joined in 1962) and to the recruitment of individuals and their transportation abroad for
military training. Andrew Mlangeni also made a number of admissions involving his
membership of MK (this was as late as February 1963) and having acted as a conduit for
the training of MK cadres. He was also handicapped by the fact that Mtolo was his “gobetween” in communicating with other cadres. From the dock they could at least correct
serious inaccuracies in the prosecution‟s case against them – as much for the record, as
for their own pride of purpose.
Raymond Mhlaba, who received military training in China, records that “there was
no concrete evidence that I was involved in sabotage”. He was incensed that the main
evidence of witnesses brought to testify against him was fabricated: “I felt angry,” he
wrote, “that the state was desperately using our people to tell lies in order to indict me.”48
He knew that he would possibly have received a lighter sentence if he had told the truth
about his whereabouts; he was in China on military training when the events alleged had
occurred. In his memoir, he wrote:
When … Dr Yutar, wanted to hear my comments on what state witnesses said
about me in court, I refused to respond. I intended not to divulge my secret
military missions. I was prepared to rot and die in prison rather than dispute
blatant lies from the apartheid state.49
The judge underestimated his strength of character and treated his refusal to answer
questions incriminating others as evasive; an attitude from which he might draw “a
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 282
negative inference”– something the judge had not said in the case of the previous
defendants. Joel Joffe believed that the evidence was not strong against Mhlaba, “and that
if he had made a better impression, he might have been acquitted. Bizos similarly noted
that his “hesitant and faltering manner did not augur well, and we believed that our
submissions for his acquittal would not be well received”.50 It was not so much that
Raymond did not have the presence of mind or facility for the right phrase that came so
easily to Rusty Bernstein, but that he consciously refused to trust the court although he
knew his future, if not his life, depended on it.
***
“Rusty” Bernstein
If the court was intolerant of Raymond Mhlaba‟s evidence, it was almost deferential in its
attitude towards Bernstein‟s testimony. Few had his aplomb and sophistication – or were
as adroit as Rusty in negotiating his way round the insinuating observations of the
prosecution. He seemed to enter “enemy territory” with impunity, admitting to being a
communist for the past 25 years and to being a member the Communist Party – when it
was legal. As a veteran communist, he said he had advised, written and assisted the
movement in a myriad of ways. He declined to answer the question of membership of the
SACP when that body was formed in 1952/3 on grounds of incriminating others, and was
threatened with being in contempt of court for refusing to do so. But neither judge nor
prosecutor pressed the matter and according to Bernstein, De Wet soon realized that if he
convicted him for being in contempt of court, “a few more days or weeks in jail would
hardly hurt him.”
More pertinently, he sensed that De Wet was beginning to “warm” towards him, a
happening he attributed to his coming from the same “white” middle-class world that the
judge inhabited. I had known Rusty as long as I‟d been in the movement (he was still in
the uniform of the South African Army during the war when we met). We were held at
the Fort and in the Treason Trial together in 1956 and 1957 and shared the same SACP
cell since 1953. We also worked on the editorial board of the journal Fighting Talk and
lived not far from one another. I respected him enormously and admired his extensive
understanding of political theory and familiarity with Engels and Lenin. Somehow, I
believed that if we required him to explain Einstein‟s theory of relativity, he would have
done so with the same clarity he unravelled Marx‟s conception of the fetishism of
commodities. Shortly after his acquittal, I met him at the funeral of Molly Fischer51 in
Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Although he was always quite introverted, solitary
confinement and a long trial with the death sentence threateningly close, weighed heavily
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 283
upon him. He seemed to be even more detached than at any other time than I had known
him.
Although there was less evidence against him than any of the others in the
leadership, he said in his evidence that he was often involved in MK at various levels,
though was technically not a member. He denied that he had ever been a member of
Umkhonto or of its High command and (seemingly unperturbed) admitted to his “having
regular contact with both bodies.”52 Except for his presence among the seven individuals
arrested at Rivonia on 11 July, there was little evidence to tie him directly to the
“conspiracy”.
His story was that he had come to Rivonia on 11 July in his professional capacity to
discuss architectural matters. His performance in the witness box was remarkable. Joel
Joffe describes him as an ideal witness, one of the best – clear and to the point.53 It was
nonetheless a stressful cross-examination for Rusty. The prosecutor presented him (as he
later wrote) with “one document after another” emanating from Communist Party sources
although there was no suggestion that he had written them or seen them before.
Fortunately, he was sufficiently “at home in [his] own game of politics” to deal with
Yutar‟s sarcastic innuendo and insinuations. In any case the documents had no bearing on
the charges against him. It seems that he was able to retain his calm and project an air of
self-assurance during the most delicate parts of his ordeal in the witness box. This he did
by diverting the answers to the prosecution‟s questions towards the legal moments of the
liberation movement‟s history – away from anything likely to exacerbate the charges
against him.
***
Denis Goldberg
Rusty said in his autobiography that it went without saying that in the chauvinistic
environment of apartheid, colour (far more than deference) was the important priority.
Yet when it came to Denis Goldberg the judge showed hostility rather than deference.
Denis was also from a white background, but seemed to have antagonized the court at an
earlier stage of the trial by what were seen by the legal team as facetious antics. This was
a great pity because Denis was (and remains) a very serious person, despite the witticisms
that worried the lawyers and his “derisory expressions when a prosecution witness
contradicted himself”.54 However, like many others, he did not have Rusty‟s quiet aplomb
nor did he have his ability to simulate deference. More importantly, the case against him
was strong. In Bizos‟ opinion he was a successful witness but “the judge‟s lack of interest
in his evidence” was patent from the beginning.55
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 284
He was faced with the damaging testimony of 20 witnesses: “factory owners,
wholesale distributors and machinery merchants”, from whom he sought quotations for
iron castings to conform to a particular specification of hand-grenade that Arthur
Goldreich had personally designed, and left among his papers.56 There were also details of
a property Denis had acquired on behalf of the ANC under a pseudonym, another smallholding, not as grand as Liliesleaf Farm. This was named Travellyn at which the ANC
leadership often stayed and – but for the raid on 11 July – could have been used as an
armoury for MK had the arrests not occurred and the plan for Operation Mayibuye been
carried out internally.57 There were also allegations of training young people at a youth
camp in guerilla warfare, which Goldberg strategically denied was the purpose of the
camp‟s activities.58 Almost all the evidence was formidable and according to the lawyers,
indefensible. But despite this, Denis chose to enter the witness box to explain his actions,
something that does not surprise me now that I know him better.
I had met him before the trial and knew his parents, both of them stalwart
communists. Later, we were part of a group of about 21 political prisoners held at the
Pretoria Local Prison between 1965 and 1968. Denis had already been there for 10
months by the time we arrived. I believe it was his stoicism and inimitable humour (taken
at face-value as facetiousness) that enabled him to survive the trial, separation from
family, a life sentence and an initially brutal prison regime. In his stoicism and selfdiscipline, he was a role model for all political prisoners. In this instance being white
drew greater wrath from the judge and prosecution than if he‟d been a different colour.
In general the defendants‟ expectations of leniency from the judge were low and
their responses to questions from the prosecution sometimes belligerent. The defendants
had had enough and seemed to experience the urge of the powerless to verbalize their
anger for their personal hurt and the social injustices they experienced in the course of
their lives. They also baulked at the insulting attitude of the prosecution towards them.
George Bizos‟ quip about statements made “in aggravation of sentence” could quite easily
have referred to some of their replies to questions during their evidence. The verdict was
not unexpected although the possibility of the death sentence was always present.
That the court did not invoke the death sentence may have been due to a number of
factors, including international pressure on the regime by the UN Security Council. In
addition, the all too pervasive understanding that a sentence of capital punishment might
have a detrimental effect on investment, may also have influenced the outcome of the
judgment. The independence of the judiciary, much vaunted at the time, had over the
decade been severely compromised by the laws eroding due process. The compliance of
judicial officers simply aided the process. Quartus De Wet spelt out in a dozen lines how
he felt the judges should comply when he reminded the accused that his function was to
enforce law and order and the laws of the country. Although the crime of the accused was
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 285
one of treason, he said, the state had not charged the accused in this form and the only
leniency available to him was a sentence of life imprisonment.
All the accused, except Rusty Bernstein, received a life sentence. Kathrada was
found guilty on two counts, the others on four. Kantor was discharged earlier. (He was
widely believed by counsel to be held by the special branch as a hostage for Harold
Wolpe.)
The trial marked the end of a fighting decade. Those of us who were not on trial
remained to continue the legal and the armed struggles, but could hardly fill the void left
by the leaders who were sent to prison or had gone into exile. We ultimately went to jail,
although for many of us it was the end of an extraordinary moment in the struggle and an
unexpectedly sudden coming of age.
Chapter Fourteen: The Grand Coup – Rivonia – 286
PART THREE
Inside and Out
287
– Do you know why they‟ve brought you?
And she said
– I do
And he said
– Dulcie, I will never betray my comrades,
And with a frog in her throat she replied
– I‟m behind you. One hundred percent.
So back they hauled John Matthews then and
there,
back to the cells,
that was that, then, but
all the way down the passage
toe-heel, heel-toe, diddle-diddle,
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT
I mean, he was high
off the ground, man.
He was walking on air
Extract from Inside by Jeremy Cronin (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1983).
288
Chapter Fifteen
The Chalk Circle: Face-to-Face with the Special Branch
We were out of step with what was happening in the security structures after the
commencement of the armed struggle. The government was way ahead in its plans to end
the campaign of sabotage. Torture was now a regular part of the security police routine.
Our instructions to activists who might be apprehended were inadequate and needed to
take the new developments into account.
Van den Bergh‟s confidence had been buoyed by the Rivonia arrests in 1963 and the
life sentences passed on these defendants only three weeks before my detention. This and
the subsequent arrest and conviction of the African Resistance Movement‟s defendants as
well as the accused in the “Little Rivonia Trial” in December 1964, secured his position
as the security supreme chief.
The new intelligence service was highly effective. The arrest and conviction of the
members of the High Command and others at the Rivonia Trial in 1963 all but
immobilized the armed struggle for over a decade. The raids on the African Resistance
Movement and the incarceration of its members similarly ended a brief period of
systematic sabotage and provided the context for further arrests under the “90-day law” in
July 1964, three weeks after the Rivonia defendants were sentenced. The impact of the
restructured security police and post-Sharpeville legislation on the liberation movement
had been immense and destructive.1 The new security police (which by now incorporated
much of the old security establishment) infiltrated one of our most active party units and
eliminated the entire area committee of the SACP in Johannesburg. Later, the members of
the new Central Committee were arrested. The Area Committee was an important
coordinating and leadership structure that maintained the cohesiveness of the units in the
city. Pieter Beyleveld, Jean Middleton, Esther Barsel, Lewis Baker, Bram Fischer and I
were members of this body. Michael Dingake and Mac Maharaj attended one of the
meetings and may also have been members. We all served sentences although Michael
and Mac were apprehended and sentenced later (in various capacities) in different trials. 2
***
Before my arrest in July 1964, I worked in the movement‟s structures, continuing to
attend meetings of the SACP and interacting with members from the other congresses,
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 289
many of them banned from attending gatherings. As I was not formally in MK, my
activities were confined to the slender space of what was “lawful”. The wider dialogue on
the adoption of the policy of armed struggle, such as the viability of the co-existence of
legal and armed activity, the impact of the new strategy on resources as cadres were
recruited for sabotage (many of them suddenly disappearing to work in other structures of
the underground and others going into exile), could not be discussed for reasons of
security. There were no longer any of the movement‟s structures that were really safe or
legal except those of the South African Congress of Trade Unions and even these were
endangered when shop stewards, also wearing Congress and Communist Party “hats”, met
on the shop floor to discuss MK business. Ultimately it became increasingly difficult to
contain the parallel struggles as activists in the ANC were often members of the SACP,
SACTU and Umkhonto, all of them working simultaneously in the armed and unarmed
components of the liberation movement. Court cases were fraught with what the evidence
extracted from detainees under the 90-Day Detention Law might reveal. Few knew of the
activities of others: it was a case of not knowing what the next person was doing for one‟s
own security, especially when there was really no strategic need to know. The silences
were sometimes broken when we met again as political prisoners in one of the major local
prisons or on “the Island”. By then we had undergone arrest, solitary confinement and
interrogation under the 90-day law.
“Time for Reassessment”, an SACP document, written after the Rivonia raids and
studied closely under wraps by every Party unit – under orders of strict security – partially
explains the reasons for our reluctance to talk to the special branch interrogators.3 This
was the first and only document to reprove the leadership for their slack security prior to
the Rivonia arrests. It did not cite the surprise experience of the Rivonia raid and nor did
it attribute the “many errors” it enumerated to the members of the Party Centre, the ANC
or those on the National High Command. With the Rivonia arrests obviously in mind, but
the lessons from it applicable to us all, the document emphasized that too many meetings
had been held in the same place and too many people knew each other: “if we were a
skilled underground, we‟d be on the move and have guards”. Incriminating documents
were left in places where people lived, worked or met; fingerprints were left on
duplicating machines exposing people to arrest and conviction.
If these mistakes were to be avoided in the future, greater precautions were needed
at all levels of the Party and their security routines regularly revisited. Every act had to be
efficiently planned and no evidence left behind. Activities had to appear to be legal: what
could be done openly ought not to be concealed “and what must be concealed must be
hidden”. This was not to be seen as a “game” or an overly dramatic “pretence” but a
matter of life and death. Security Police surveillance was pervasive and likely to take
many forms: microphones were, as we knew, hidden in houses and tiny transmitters easily
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 290
concealed to record at a distance what we were saying. The less one knew of what others
were doing the better for everyone‟s security. The entire movement needed “to consider
how badly it had been weakened”. We had come under the fire of a ruthless regime and
the 90-Day Detention Law had taken its toll. Torture had been systematically applied as a
matter of policy “on instructions from the highest level”, and the assaults would not
lessen. As a consequence, large numbers of people were in prison, detained, awaiting trial
or already convicted, while (courageous) people were being prosecuted in long drawn-out
trials and were likely to receive heavy sentences.4 It would be far better if we avoided
arrest by learning from the lessons of the past. We still mistakenly believed that we were
governed by laws which fostered the false assumption “that provided the police could not
prove their allegations it did not matter if we carried on as before”. In the 1950s we
worked without secrecy, now the situation had changed as we encountered “real police
state tactics” in the form of the 90-day law. This last, we needed to understand, was a
powerful weapon of counter-revolution. People were recruited without adequate
preparation or “regard to their ability in the future to withstand solitary confinement and
torture”. We had to be strong, prepared in advance to resist torture, “mentally resolving
not to answer questions or make statements under any circumstances”.
This, of course, was more easily said than the writers of “Time for Reassessment”
had realized, as the countless testimonies of ex-detainees since then have shown, but the
document‟s description of the methods of interrogation were beneficial to all 90-day
detainees.5 The question explored in the last chapter, however, still lingers: to what extent
could one anticipate a person‟s ability to withstand solitary confinement or other more
overt forms of torture? Most activists submitted to interrogation, prepared in advance to
resist torture, but, but they did not always find that possible. In every major trial in the
1960s and the years following, there had been a state witness who had collapsed under
interrogation and solitary confinement. Bruno Mtolo in the Rivonia Trial had little
education but a good recall and some sterling qualities as an activist; Lionel Gay in the
Little Rivonia Trial was a highly educated scientist whose memory in the witness box
served him beyond the call of duty in various courtrooms. Pieter Beyleveld, in the Fischer
Trial had only a farm school education, but like all the others had become a state witness.
It was not only in the ANC and SACP that this occurred. Adrian Leftwich, an
erudite and ardent activist-leader in the ARM trial, which ended in 1964 as the Fischer
Trial began, similarly gave evidence for the state. Could one discern in advance who
would crack and who would not? Ruth First, in her account of her confinement under the
90-day law,6 noted that activists who sometimes seemed weak and woolly in their
thinking held out the longest and did not break under solitary detention. In contrast, others
(she had herself in mind) succumbed with insufficient resistance. If she had read the
document “Time for Reassessment” before she went to prison, it would probably have
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 291
contributed to her negative self-perception. But one way or another, the long-held
insistence that 90-day detention could be withstood by discipline and adherence to a set of
strictures on making a statement would have added to her angst, as it did to us all when
we were confronted by our interrogators. What induced one person to talk and another to
remain silent? More than anything, at that time, I thought about the perception that
“people could better understand the treatment if they knew in advance what to expect”.
Was a prior understanding of security police practices sufficient to ensure that we
“remained unbroken”, especially when solitary detention was a part of the torture
process?7 Could one anticipate a person‟s reaction to being trapped in a concrete cell,
challenged by too much time and too little space for 90 days or more? I know that as a
detainee I was aware from the start of the consequences of succumbing to the devious and
crude devices of our interrogators and the “unending shame” that would fall upon me, as
it would on everyone else, if I gave way and volunteered statements “to save [my] own
skin”. I knew that one‟s sense of mission played a part in resisting the special branch
interrogators, but there was more to it than that. The surly voyeur, a lieutenant in the
security police who later stood and stared at me as if I were a clown in a circus ring while
I was being interrogated, asked me if I wanted to win “rugby colours by simply standing
there, holding out for so long?” That was a question I would never have thought about in
the days before my interrogation. One thing I knew was that I dared not succumb: better if
I did not talk at all, or at worst emulated those who had revealed the minimum, “resisting
as much as possible and concealing a great deal”.
The important thing, I thought, was not that one talked, but what one said. But we
were warned that even revealing the innocuous might lead to numerous arrests, detentions
and long-term jail sentences for activists in the field. The party‟s instructions for tighter
security were comprehensive and indispensable for the future, but they were too late and
the precautions they urged now were of little avail. However, the document‟s attempt to
alert us to what we might expect under interrogation was exceedingly helpful, especially
the warning that the security police might play one person off against another using their
“good cop, bad cop” strategies – one officer‟s cruel and crude treatment followed by the
simulation of empathy and kindness by another. All of that was useful to know but despite
all the injunctions not to succumb to the pressure of the security police – to stay silent at
all costs and “resist”, were difficult to adhere to when the time came to apply them.
***
The arrests came at four o‟clock in the morning on 3 July 1964. The knock on the door,
no longer unexpected, neither terrified nor surprised us. Philippa and I let them in and
made way for them to inspect the premises, “cautioning” them not to wake up the
children. They confirmed that I was being detained under the 90-Day Detention Law; that
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no search warrants were required and that communication with a lawyer was not allowed.
Two of the men searched the interior of the house, while a third hovered around the back,
cursorily looking for papers or caches of arms, buried in the garden. There were no arms,
of course, as I was not active in MK; nor were there any papers. It had been snowing the
day before and I‟d built a snowman in the front garden with the children the night before.
The eldest of them (my step-son, Tim) was eleven, the youngest, Simon John, sixteen
months and Deborah five. I left them the next morning, their hands linked on the veranda
of the house, standing in silence as if they too were being held under 90-day detention. It
was the last memory I had of them together for a long time, Philippa, Deborah, Simon
(still a toddler) and Tim, all watching me being whisked away; a forlorn family image that
remained with me until my release in April 1968. The snow statue still stood in the garden
and would eventually melt but it lingered in my mind, an icy metaphor foreshadowing
four seemingly endless years ahead.
I was escorted to the front gate, a rather battered suitcase beside me. This I had
packed perfunctorily while the security men searched the cupboards and drawers around
me, my attention focused on what they were doing rather than on anything I might need.
(What that might be or for how long I could expect to be gone, I had no idea). It was light
by the time they had completed their search, having riffled through everything, but found
nothing that was incriminating. I was nudged into one of the police cars parked in front of
the house on Ivy Road, Norwood. Two of the detectives sat in front of the vehicle and I in
the rear. I‟d expected to be taken to the prison at Marshall Square but we were heading
down Louis Botha Avenue, in a northerly direction towards Pretoria. It was a miserable
gray day in an unusually cold year. There was little traffic on the road at that time and we
moved in silence to what I assumed was the Pretoria Local Prison.8
It was in the prison reception room that I met Terry Bell, then in his early twenties
and a reporter on the Rand Daily Mail. Neither of us had the presence of mind to pretend
that we‟d never met before and greeted each other like lost friends. Terry glanced at me
curiously, muttered something that I did not hear and said in a hoarse whisper, “that‟s a
very large suitcase, you‟ve got there”. I replied without thinking, “It‟s going to be a long
time”. His face fell as I said this, but little did I realise how prophetic it was. Terry was
active in one of the task teams with Jean Middleton but I did not know that at the time. He
was one of a small army of committed activists responsible for keeping the public aware
that theliberation movement was alive despite the banning of the congresses and arrests
under the 90-day law. They worked in teams and covertly painted slogans in prominent
places in the city, pasted posters printed by the banned organisations on public walls and
distributed flyers and pamphlets late at night to avoid arrest and conviction. I knew
nothing of his particular activities and did not know whether or not he had been recruited
to the Party. If the two special branch men overheard our whispered conversation, they
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 293
did not say anything. They were busy talking to the harassed officer at the reception desk,
announcing that I was another 90-day “gevangene” (detainee, literally someone who had
been “caught”) and signed for me in the large book on the officer‟s desk as if they had
delivered a parcel. That completed, they paid no more attention to me and left the prison,
presumably for a hearty breakfast.
I was soon separated from Terry, searched, stripped of my watch and wallet, my
possessions listed and carefully examined and returned to my (capacious) suitcase, which
was placed on a shelf in an ante-room leading off the corridor. I was allowed no reading
or writing material and only a few possessions. I was taken to a cell in a secluded section
of the prison, separate from any other prisoners. It had freshly painted walls, unusually
free of graffiti, painted in a cobalt blue and disturbingly empty of prison furniture. On the
rear wall was a miniscule window with vertical bars, not designed for much air. Opposite
was a heavy steel door also painted a metallic blue, the whole scene a forbidding
landscape, sufficient to crush the hardiest spirit. Fortunately I was kept there for only a
few hours before being taken to a cell in another section of the prison which I discovered
was exclusively inhabited by less than a dozen 90-day detainees, each alone in a cell. My
“quarters” were on the second floor with two other cells next to it; only one of them
seemed to be occupied. It was a self-contained area close to a wrought-iron grille that
divided it from the stairway that led to the yard below. Here I remained in solitary
confinement for the next 54 days, interrupted by frustrated efforts at communicating with
my neighbour and all too brief periods of exercise in the yard outside. This and periodical
visits to COMPOL, the nearby building of the commissioner of police where the members
of the special branch were quartered, occupied some of my time.
The interrogations at COMPOL did not start immediately, either for technical
reasons or to allow time for the disorienting effects of solitary detention to set in. The
longer the wait, the lower my resources were likely to be. As the days passed I closely
watched the lines of light play against the walls, gauging the length and shapes of the
shadows they cast to pinpoint the moment I might expect the special branch detectives to
arrive. The walls were once a gangrenous green but were now covered in graffiti, a grim
diversity of etchings that expressed the frustrations of former common law prisoners
awaiting trial or pending sentences of imprisonment. On one of the walls was an outline
of a head, evidently etched with a ballpoint pen by a depressed former inmate. I used the
doodle to design a clock face, more or less corresponding to the light shadows that shaded
the wall surface, mentally placing the number twelve between the eyes, the figures nine
and three on each cheek and the figure six between the teeth and chin. This completed the
sundial. A crack in the plaster, visible in the afternoon light, was where I calculated the
figure five to be.
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 294
This was also the time of the morning when the only light to be had came from the
dim bulb behind the wire mesh, next to the cell door. At that moment the door was noisily
unlocked by the warders, the grilles separating one section from another flung open, and
the inmates led to the toilet at the end of a long corridor downstairs. Along this passage
was a row of cells where most of the 90-day detainees were held. It led to a quad-shaped
yard no more than 40 yards long and 15 wide. In the centre of this was a primitive low
walled outdoor enclosure with four showerheads, two toilets and a water tap. The
structure was referred to differently by diverse sets of detainees. Post-1960 it was called
“Potemkin”, presumably for its battleship image. Its other name was “Joe‟s throne”,
which derived from the days of the state of emergency in 1960, where Joe Slovo was
often seen sitting on the lavatory seat, talking at considerable length to his comrades. The
throne was subsequently dismantled and ablution facilities built inside the section at the
end of the corridor. No-one, however, would miss the absence of the cold showers in the
middle of winter and the dearth of personal privacy on Joe‟s throne.
On my first morning in “solitary”, I was alone in the yard. After that there were five
or six of us at ablution time, three of whom I knew. One of them, Piet Beyleveld, was
chairman of COD and on the Area Committee of the SACP with me. He was later taken
to another jail. I subsequently learnt that he was also a member of the newly reconstituted
“Centre”, the name used to describe the Central Committee. He gave no sign of
recognition and seemed very strained. The other two in the yard were Paul Trewhela and
Costa Gazides, SACP recruits in Jean Middleton‟s party unit. Paul was a journalist on a
daily newspaper and Costa a newly qualified medical doctor. Both were in their twenties
and straining to make contact, but only had time for a quick surreptitious nod when the
warders‟ attention was diverted. It was difficult to conceal my excitement at seeing
familiar faces but the close scrutiny of the warders made further communication
impossible. In silence, one at a time, we emptied the contents of the sanitary pails into the
toilets inside Potemkin and filled the basins and enamel plates with water from the tap at
the side of the enclosure. Carrying these was a problem. I placed the pail and plates
precariously on top of one another, carefully watching the others to see how they
managed the balancing act and then awkwardly moved in line with them, petrified that I
would upset the entire ensemble on the highly polished floor in the corridor or on the
stairway. Most of the other detainees left us on the ground floor and Costa and I shuffled
along the rest of the corridor to the cells upstairs. As we did this a warder walked between
us to ensure that we did not communicate with each other. It was an insane charade that
would not have been out of place in a mental asylum.
Once in the cells, we had time to shave and wash, roll the mat and fold the blankets
according to a uniform prison pattern. The blankets, when folded resembled an old
fashioned wireless-set, especially when placed on top of the rolled mat which stood
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 295
vertically against the wall. I first learned how to do this at the fort in 1956, while awaiting
trial for treason. The long-time recidivist who taught us would watch us struggle to get the
blankets into the right shape and when the ordeal was over say with a toothless smile,
“Don‟t switch the thing on now; radios are against prison regulations!” It was not really
very funny at the time! After that there was time only for a few leaps across the floor to
re-arrange the cell and shine the floor before “inspection”. The activity on the floor was
called “taxiing”, as familiar to regular offenders as the mealie meal they received for
breakfast. All one needed to do this were two rags under the feet, smeared with a bit of
polish. A few quick movements along the floor were enough to clean the cell. Polishing
was a prison obsession just as essential to the emotional equilibrium of the warders as it
was to help the prisoners pass the time of day. After taxiing, breakfast. This was the only
edible meal, eaten in the cell like all the other meals. Breakfast consisted of cornmeal
porridge (mealie meal), black coffee and bread shaped like a cat‟s head, brought to the
cell door and placed on the floor in a tin dixie. “Inspection” followed when once again the
cell doors were opened (this time with much noise and nervous energy) and the inmates
ordered to stand at attention while the chief warder accompanied by a high-ranking
officer, presumably the head of the prison, royally progressed from cell to cell asking if
there were any complaints. This exercise was apparently a prison ritual. I frequently used
the opportunity to request a personal visit or to inquire why I was being held or to ask for
my lawyers, only to be told that these were not complaints. With that he‟d quickly move
on to my neighbour Costa Gazides in the next cell.
All was quiet after that until the light shadows covered the space on my clock‟s face,
signifying that it was about 10 a.m. This was exercise time, a welcome break but a
charade from start to finish. The routine followed the same choreography as before: an
awkward walk in a crocodile down the long corridor and then a walk in two single
horizontal lines, without talking or acknowledging each other‟s presence. Smokers could
claim their cigarettes, one at a time, from a warder who kept them at the door at the
entrance to the yard. Smoking in the cells was forbidden. I would smoke at least two
cigarettes in the half hour, but some of the others managed more and perhaps smuggled
one or two into their cells besides this. The problem with smuggling was that the
contraband had to be secreted in a safe place in the cell, out of sight of the warders and a
match needed to light it. This would have to be obtained from a prisoner cleaning the
section or one of the kitchen inmates. None of this was easy to arrange, although I later
learnt that some of the more adroit detainees became quite skilled at negotiating
“supplies” from the local prison population. As soon as time was up we were again
paraded to our cells and locked up until lunch. This meal was served on a tin plate
consisting of boiled and shredded beef and an unidentifiable blending of boiled
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 296
vegetables. The bread was the only edible item, served with a thick pea-coloured soup
mixture before lock-up for the “night” – at 4 p.m.
There was little relief in the routine except for the illicit attempts at communication.
We all managed to communicate with our neighbours in the adjoining cells although the
process was both hazardous and laborious. The most daring of the inmates was Costa
Gazides in the cell next to mine. I learnt how to communicate “secretly” with the other
detainees early in my detention, when on one occasion I joined the procession to empty
my toilet pail in the yard and filled the basin with fresh water before joining the wacky
bucket-walk back to the cells. On the way back, I noticed a blob of silver paper in my
water basin. It was a message from Costa saying I should tap on the wall, sequencing the
letters of the alphabet to denote each word (1 = A; 2 = B etc). It took a bit of time to
figure it out, but eventually we were communicating with each other, oblivious of the
bleak world around us. I used a segment of my hair comb to scratch each letter that he
tapped onto the cover of my Bible. Sometimes I used the table to do this and at other
times the wall. It didn‟t take long before we were “busted” by the chief warder, one mnr
Breedt. He burst into my cell while I was in mid-conversation and red-faced and
breathless from the rush to my cell. He asked what I thought I was doing. “Reading the
Bible”, I mumbled feebly, but he saw the comb and the scratches on the table and
shrieked, “You bleddy liar, do you think we‟re stupid?”. I stood there in silence, like a
naughty schoolboy caught in the act of smoking in the school lavatory. He confiscated the
comb – almost toothless at that point – and warned me “to behave”, threatening that
punishment would follow. But after a while communications resumed with ever more
sophisticated systems until Costa was removed from his cell and sent to another section of
the prison. I missed him badly.
***
I divided the time in my cell between work, reflection and recreation. “Work” involved
feverish preparation for the meetings I anticipated with the special branch. This I did for
an hour or two before 5.30 a.m., beginning when the light-shadows, still pencil-thin,
spread slowly along the edge of the cell wall. If the security police had more pressing
business or if, after interrogation, I was returned to my cell towards the end of the
exercise period, I would schedule the hours between exercise and soup for reflection, my
euphemism for serious contemplation of politics and history, in which “mind games”
were a major theme. The time between soup and sleep was reserved for these (a
combination of fantasy and recreation) although there was no line separating the two
activities. The mind games were initially recreational. They provided the conversation,
repartee and mental stimulation that solitary confinement denied me. They started when I
thought about the people in the movement I‟d known over the years, and how different
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 297
from each other they were. This led to long imaginary conversations with them, especially
Walter Sisulu, Rusty Bernstein and J.B. Marks (who I knew less well than the other two),
but admired. It was a disparate guest list, selected for their diversity of interests and partly
at whim.
Ruth First, Joe Slovo and Moses Kotane were an awkward imaginary trio,
thoughtful, zealous and cool as a cucumber – in that order. Father Huddleston, Sam Kahn
and Helen Joseph were a mischievous threesome, in turn sometimes irreverent, witty and
passionate. Govan Mbeki, learned and didactic, had a view on everything. He talked about
the national question, land, labour and peasant oppression and was never at a loss for
words. But the conversation that was most spirited and diverse was the session with
Trevor Huddleston, Sam Kahn and Helen Joseph. Each of them in turn held forth with
unassailable self-assurance on the themes of state, church, parliament and the military.
Helen was an officer in the South African Defence Force during the war and (quite
incongruously) an authority on the subject of the army in this bizarre prison daydream. A
modern-day Major Barbara in her commitment to the cause, she would rather die than go
into exile. They all spoke past each other. Once or twice the trade unionists Leslie Masina
and “Marks” Shope appeared. The one was pensive and cautious, the other garrulous –
debating worker stayaways, politics and trade unions. They would sit familiarly on the
rough mat on the floor of my cell and sample the remains of my prison fare. In another
“conversation” Bram Fischer, flushed and tightly controlled, shared his disquiet at the
flight of Leftist activists into exile. Little did I know at that stage that he would shortly
join me, not in playful fantasy, but as a defendant in the same political trial. The
discussions were contentious, inconclusive and contradictory, but intense and lively
enough to make me oblivious of the imminence of the special branch. The mind games
had an impetus of their own. Fantasy was my temporary reality. I had no idea that I had
the resources or the imagination to withstand solitary confinement and later “standing
torture”, in which I was made to stand endlessly in a single space until I was too fatigued
to be properly conscious of time and place or to see where the confrontation would
ultimately end.
I have seldom spoken about the mind games (invented, I suppose to save my sanity!)
except to Hilda Bernstein, soon after my release from prison. I was already in exile in
1969 in England. She needed an “authentic” account of one who‟d been in solitary
detention for a novel she was writing, subsequently published under the title, Death is
Part of the Process,9 The circumstances of that interview were not without irony. We sat
in the chintzy lounge of the Commonwealth Library, oblivious of the giant portraits of
scions of the old empire and paintings of the South African randlords I was writing about.
I was researching a book on migrant labour which I‟d decided to write instead of an
account of a life in prison. At first I thought I‟d tell her of the more serious of my
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 298
reflections on “imagining Afrikanerdom” – revelations I valued – but instead (I do not
know what induced my change of mind) I opted for the mind games concerning the prison
conversations. We had known each other since the 1940s, but were of different
generations and had never talked about ourselves. As I knew she wanted to hear about
experiences of solitary confinement at first hand, there was no point in my recounting the
conventional diversions I‟d heard from fellow prisoners of physical exercise, press-ups,
running on the spot, or memorising the text of the Old or New Testament – most of these
equally mad, I think – so I told her about the mind games I‟d invented. I hoped that she
would not think it too banal for her book but evidently that was not the case and the
central character in her novel, the villain of the piece (not a portrait of me, I hope) made a
dour host to his imaginary callers. I would have been happier if my brain games had been
attributed to one of the more inviting protagonists of the liberation struggle, but as her
husband Rusty Bernstein might have said, “no good deed ever goes unpunished”.
***
My reveries were rudely interrupted when the warders burst into my cell, shouting “kom,
kom, kom!” as if these were the only words they knew and without further profundities
escorted me to the detectives waiting downstairs, impatient to transport me to the
COMPOL building, the security police venue for interrogation.
It was not surprising that I knew nothing about the development of the new
Republican Intelligence (RI) establishment, as its emergence in 1963 was an equal
surprise to most of the (inept) members in the “old” intelligence community. 10 A police
spy who infiltrated the SACP referred to the new security agency as “the secret section of
the South African Security Police!” I only learnt of it long after it was formed. This
knowledge now makes sense of my impression at the time, that the special branch‟s first
session with me was an interrogators‟ workshop, where I was one of the guinea pigs
under observation. The participants, at least nine of them, sat in three rows of desks
cramped formally in straight lines in an otherwise austere room, taking turns to question
me. As far as I can remember, Van Rensburg, Grobler and Geyser – all three of them
drafted from different sections of the old establishment – led the session, alternatively
displaying aggression and empathy in which they simulated the standard behaviour of
“good cop – bad cop”, a cynical performance routine we‟d been warned about. It was
difficult to know what to expect.
I stood in front of them, confined to a chalk circle which Van Rensburg, the meanest
and most aware of them, had drawn on the floor. I refused to answer their questions, but
they continued to ask them anyway: “Was I a member of the Communist Party … Had I
attended a meeting on 16 June 1964 … ? Who was at the meeting? What was discussed
… What were the names of those who attended?” These questions, thrown at me with
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 299
little variation were asked by different members of the “seminar” and repeated again and
again, interlaced with threats of violence, anti-Semitic jibes and scurrilous comments on
the women in Jean Middleton‟s cell. It seemed important to them that I should see them as
protectors of the country‟s morality and that the slogan “equal rights for all” was at the
very root of communist depravity. As I listened to them, it crossed my mind that their
invective may have been part of their security manual. From this they swiftly moved to
the familiar track, probably the next chapter of their “instruction book”, threatening to
detain my wife and mother unless I cooperated with them. I ignored the abuse and
answered none of their incriminating questions. Nor did I react to their threats to detain
members of my family. Their menacing movements and taunts of violence, however,
alarmed me most, especially as Van Rensburg, and a tall, burly individual, whose name I
never learnt, crept stealthily behind me, coming up so close that I could feel them
breathing against my neck. The “workshop” ended at about midday and the men filed out,
leaving me standing. But the three seminar leaders, Van Rensburg, Grobler and Geyser
kept up their watch, rotating in shifts throughout the night. They took me back to my cell
in the morning, just before exercise time, telling me that they‟d “had enough shit” from
me, and that “next time” would be a different story.
A few days later they came again. It was my 34th day in “solitary”, my birthday,
which I was foolish enough to mention. One of them (I think it was Grobler) mumbled
something to the other and then disappeared. He returned with a cake, which he cut into a
number of thick slices, handed one of them to me and moved to the door with the
remaining pieces still in the cake-box. As he reached the door, he beamed with a selfsatisfied look on his flushed face: “we‟ll share the other slices with your comrades who
are all busy writing statements”. I stared at him in disbelief. The signal he‟d be sending to
other detainees was obvious and diabolical, but I would not beg him to stop and said
nothing. Instead I glumly resumed my position in the circus ring, feeling frustrated and
foolish. There would be no statement, at least until the situation became dire.
Van Rensburg was evidently prepared to wait. He stared at me closely as I stood
there refusing to answer the questions I thought might incriminate me (or others) and
answered only those that referred to activities that were legal. I stayed in the chalk circle
for a day and a night, with a few breaks to go to the toilet – which was far enough for me
to shuffle along the passage and down a few steps to stretch my legs, already stiff and
getting numb. Much to my embarrassment, Van Rensburg had to grab my arm to steady
me on one occasion. The interrogation was a wearisome process, which lasted about 102
hours over three sessions. Most of the time I stood silent, interrupted by trips to the toilet,
trying to sleep while on my feet, allowing my body to sag so as to take the weight off my
legs. I never succeeded in doing this for very long, before Van Rensburg would get up
from his chair, walk menacingly around the circle and tell me irritably that my orders
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 300
were “to stand up”. I knew I had to rethink my position on making a statement, but I
needed a plausible narrative before I could venture into his territory. I realized that I could
not continue endlessly to stand and parry his questions or allow his simulated anger to
become real rage. A serious strategy at this stage was beyond me. All I could do was to be
neither compliant nor openly hostile; try to anticipate his next move, avoid provocation
and make no waves. Van Rensburg peered at me intently. I was sure that he had noticed a
movement of the eyes and a sudden shift in body language as I mentally rearranged the
data he had thrown at me, mapping out a plan in my head to acknowledge that the
meeting he alleged to have taken place, had in fact happened. My idea was to dispute the
construction that he had put on the meeting and give it a non-incriminating purpose.
However, I needed to plan more carefully, preferably off my feet and in the privacy of my
cell. I needed time but Van Rensburg was relentless.
“Ah Levy,” he mocked, looking at me accusingly, as if he‟d caught me out for
thinking. “You‟ve seen the light.” He held up the script he was writing – a sermon for
Sunday‟s church service – and then put it down.
“What light?” I asked feebly.
“ The light, Levy, the truth!” You know very well what I mean.”
I did! But his fanatical gaze settled the matter for me. There was no escaping him; he
would never accept my invention of a plausible story. All I could do was continue to stand
in the chalk circle he‟d again drawn on the floor and say nothing. He stood and looked at
me piercingly for a long time, as if he needed to see right through me, into my eyes and
inside my head. Suddenly, his mood changed completely and instead of gazing at me,
began to rant. He told me of his lay religious activity, pointed to the script he was writing,
murmured something about atheists, and then shouted that I was “filth”. With that he
stiffened his body, walked towards me, put down the script and grabbed the folded
newspaper from the table and smacked me hard on the back of the neck, all the while
spitefully contrasting his “spiritual” piety with my “kafferboetie” morality.11 Whether this
was the lesson in sadism he regularly read to destroy political prisoners, I do not know.
He behaved as if it were his personal calling to make me talk. I‟d been standing all day
and I could tell from the light against the grimy window that it was almost midnight, and
knew he would not give up until his shift ended.
He was relieved of his eerie watch by Grobler who arrived a little after midnight. He
was a detective from Durban, who as a rule played the role of “the good cop”. From the
start of his shift he nudged me to give up the “game” and make a statement. It was clear
that an understanding of the politics of the struggle was beyond him, and the structures of
the movement meaningless, but I needed more time. I told him that I had nothing to say,
other than to repeat what I had already said – all of which was perfectly legal.
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 301
“Tell us what we want to know, write it all down,” he said with a gesture of the
hands, suggesting that that was the logical thing to do. He could have been my uncle. For
an instant I thought he‟d been drinking. His tone was thick and the look on his pale face
vacant rather than naïve. Van Rensburg would return later in the morning and I needed to
be more decisive or the moment would be lost. I waited another hour before taking the
plunge and finally, in a fatigued tone, called for some paper and a pen.
Grobler visibly started out of his seat, reached for a stack of lined writing paper and
drew up a chair for me to sit down. I sank into the chair and slowly began to write. As I
did so, I became increasingly aware of how easy it was to incriminate myself and
inadvertently heap suspicion on others: naming names was hazardous and might suggest
an association that would prompt security police attention and, possibly, arrests under 90day detention. Reference to the SACP was to be avoided at all costs, not only for fear of
admitting membership – something that this investigation was probing – but also to
distance myself from any association with it. One did not need to be a member of the
Party to be seen to be “aiding and abetting” it. Anything I wrote would have to be a good
mixture of truth and lies. Piet Beyleveld, had once advised Jean Middleton “not to tell
lies, but simply not to speak at all: Don‟t be too clever. You don‟t know what other people
have told them”.12 Unfortunately he never followed the earlier part of his own advice
while he was under interrogation, but he was right to warn against being “too clever” and
not to tell lies. These were easily exposed by contradictory information from other
detainees under duress.
Grobler saw me glance at his flask, nodded and poured a cup of coffee for me and
then handed me one of his cigarettes. I was too preoccupied with what I was going to say
to relish the tang of the coffee or take full advantage of the numbing effect of the nicotine.
My mind was racing forward, conscious of the pitfalls ahead of me. Apart from the
incriminating admission of being at the meeting of 16 June, an SACP gathering, my reinventing the purpose and sponsorship of that meeting was a risky undertaking, easily
contradicted by the other detainees present at the same gathering. Most of them were
known to the security police and were probably under detention. Beyleveld, I knew to be
in the Pretoria Local prison, but Lew Baker, Esther Barsel, Jean Middleton and two others
(whose identity was unknown to me) might still be at large. The names of these comrades
had been endlessly flung at me by Van Rensburg and the exposure of my story by any of
them would depend on whether they had made statements, a highly likely occurrence,
judging from my own experience. The more I thought about it, my decision to revise the
reason for the meeting was too dangerous to follow, but it was the only option I had: if
any of the detainees told the whole truth I would be damned anyway. It was a risky option
but there was no other.
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 302
I decided to go ahead with the plan, realizing that if the meeting was seen as an
SACP one, my admission of having been there would confirm my membership of the
organization at a secondary leadership level on the Area Committee, and lead them to
assume (correctly) that I was in contact with half a dozen members of a party cell. Van
Rensberg and Grobler had referred to my membership of COD, but said nothing of my
activities before 1953. This was astounding as I was an accused on the Treason Trial in
1956 and my activities dated back to the 1940s. So my political life had better begin with
COD. I made a mental note of all the items they had questioned me about during the long
hours of interrogation and decided that my statement should closely follow the security
police profile of me, except when it was plainly self-incriminating. I filled nine doublespaced pages, the statement becoming increasingly vague as I struggled to complete it
before the end of Grobler‟s shift. Finally I gave it to him and waited, expecting him to
read it and express his disappointment. But instead, he patted me on the arm, stapled the
pages of the statement together, helped me to stand up and led me back to the prison.
There, two warders on night duty, each grabbed me by an arm, lifted me up in the air and
dumped me in my cell as if I were a sack of rotten potatoes.
I had hardly slept for an hour when I woke up to see the same two warders standing
over me: I must have slept the sleep of the dead, because I had not heard them unlock the
cell-door and enter, something they always did with the noise of going into battle. They
took me to a small room downstairs, painted in the same sickly green colour as the walls
of my cell. There, Van Rensburg was waiting. He looked at me threateningly and in no
time pressed my body against the wall, all the while screaming that I‟d known Grobler
was “gullible”. It was almost as if he had known I‟d take advantage of his credulous
colleague to scribble something innocuous and return to my cell. He ordered me to put my
hands above my head and pressing his face up against mine, shouted insanely that I was
mistaken if I thought the rubbish I‟d written for Grobler would be acceptable. Whether
this was simulated or real anger didn‟t really matter as he immediately became violent,
slapping my face with two strong blows of his hand, aiming a third at my head. But he
was too late. I slid down to the floor, hugging the wall closely as I fell, as if I‟d fainted. I
expected him to kick me and drag me to my feet, but fortunately he took hold of himself
and called the two warders to take me back to my cell. He waited three or four days
before returning early one morning to take me back to police headquarters.
Again I stood in the chalk circle and ignored his derisive comments on the statement
I had made to Grobler, who did not reappear until much later. During this time, Van
Rensburg took only brief breaks when he was relieved by Geyser (who seemed
unpredictable and difficult to read). Finally, while it was still light outside, I told Van
Rensburg that I was ready to make a fuller statement. There was more sarcasm that I
would turn in the “same trash” as before, but he eventually drew up the chair in front of
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 303
his desk and told me to “write”. By then it was quite dark outside. In order to escape
another fracas with him, I included an innocuous paragraph on matters he had raised
during my interrogation: details of my visit to Rowley Arenstein in Durban and my role in
the Kensington Discussion Club in Johannesburg, as well as my relationship with a
number of individuals in COD – some of whom had either been banned, gone into exile or
been inactive for years. For the rest of the statement I embellished the first draft of the
“rubbish” I‟d written for Grobler, but kept to the same principles I had adopted in
formulating the piece. The new statement was stamped 13 August 1964 and bears the
reference number 1/1712 in my security police file.
Re-reading it for this memoir made me startlingly aware of my misery in composing
it. It is repetitious and has several false starts and really begins on the third page. (Van
Rensburg retrieved the sheets of paper I had discarded while “getting started” and
included them in the main statement, which made it seem even more ragged than it was.) I
did not admit to membership of the SACP; did not incriminate anyone in anything that
was illegal (where the police knew of the attendance of banned persons at the meeting, I
used their banning to show why we met in secret although the meeting itself was legal)
and managed to confine the statement to the information they had. I admitted to activities
in the Congress of Democrats and my role in the campaign against Bantu education (my
involvement in the formation of Cultural Clubs, the development of material for
dissemination by club leaders and the extensive tours with Robert Resha and Helen
Joseph – of which the security police had much evidence – and any connection I had with
the African Education Movement, Father Huddleston and his successors). I made no
attempt to conceal my participation in the Congress of the People and the propagation of
the Freedom Charter (I had been acquitted from the Treason Trial in 1958 where all these
issues formed a large part of the record). Sadly all I could tell them about my activities
during the post-Sharpeville state of emergency were the reasons for my inaction, due to
visits to my family in temporary exile in Swaziland and my need to earn an income and
complete my degree.
The two items of some interest to the security police were my role in the Kensington
Discussion Club (I was its secretary) and a visit I made to Rowley Arenstein‟s house
while on holiday in Durban. The first was easily disposed of as the object of the
Kensington Discussion Club was genuinely to extend the opportunities of liberal-minded
individuals to debate current affairs. Another reason for its formation was to divert the
attendance of people from the Observatory Discussion Club to Kensington, because there
were too many people at the former. The Observatory Club met in Molly and Bernie
Arenstein‟s living room (co-incidentally, they were Rowley‟s brother and sister-in-law).
The meetings were crowded to capacity during the club‟s regular Friday night meetings.
This was not a COD activity and the club had been in existence since 1954. It attracted
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 304
university students and many other individuals from all over Johannesburg, white and
black. They sat on the tables, on the floor and lined the walls of Bernie and Molly‟s living
room. My brother was the club‟s secretary. (Privately, Leon and I opposed the opening of
a “second front” in Kensington. We felt that apart from the conviviality of the
Observatory Club, the youth seemed to feel a certain excitement in their meeting in large
numbers and continued to attend for that reason; it added to the buzz, excited them
intellectually and was a social opportunity to meet people.) Doubtless, debates would
have been better if the numbers were smaller, but Leon and I believed that the dynamic
that brought all those people together was more basic than intellectual stimulation. The
security police were not interested in the Observatory club, but believed that the “socalled” Kensington Discussion Club was a “front” for an SACP cell. I denied this in my
statement, but although I was telling the truth, I‟m quite sure they did not believe me.
The explanation of my visit to Rowley and Jackie Arenstein in Durban in 1963 was
equally simple but too straightforward for them to accept. I said, truthfully, that it was a
social visit. The special branch probably wanted reasons to detain Rowley who had been
active in the CPSA for years. He had represented activists in many political trials and
more recently represented the accused involved in the rural struggles in Pondoland. In
addition, he was banned from attending social gatherings but received visitors in his
kitchen (there was a back door to the yard from there, enabling a quick exit in case he
needed to leave urgently). On the occasion of my visit I was reminded a little of the
discussion club meetings in Observatory. The kitchen was overflowing with people,
captivated by Rowley‟s ardent style of debate and wide-ranging Marxist knowledge. He
contested the wisdom of the armed struggle and believed that the resort to violence would
shift the emphasis from mass struggle to sabotage. It would not only provoke total state
repression but would also destroy the Congress structures. I argued that peaceful protest
was no longer possible – but no-one could out-argue Rowley! It was a good discussion (I
think I made another visit in 1964) but they were not communist meetings, nor were they
anything more than social occasions. Jackie, his wife, emphasized the gathering‟s social
character by making tea and providing homemade cake for everyone.
I said nothing of our discussions in my statement, insisting that they were social
visits. I knew Jackie from the Treason Trial and had known Rowley for years. The
security police eventually arrested him and he was ultimately sentenced for a range of
activities under the Suppression of Communism Act – certainly not for arguing in his
dressing gown in the family kitchen. The debate about the efficacy of the armed struggle,
however, lasted a long time. It continued in jail where we were cellmates for some of the
time. His Marxist understanding was extensive and fascinated the political prisoners who
had not met him before. At one point he shared a cell with John Laredo and David Evans
(or maybe one of the three was Hugh Lewin). There was a good deal of banter in the cell,
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 305
and on one occasion Rowley held forth on the subject of dialectical materialism while
cleaning the cell floor. Suddenly one of the members of his two-person audience
interrupted him to tell him that he had left a little of the objective situation on the floor
behind him! It was the sort of irrepressible remark I would expect Dave Evans or John
Laredo to have made. I think it was John who told me the story while walking in the yard
at exercise time. Sadly John died in the late 1990s and Rowley followed soon after.
The central part of my statement was the meeting of the 16 June 1964. That was
what interested the security police most. I re-invented the purpose of the meeting
completely, stating that it had to be held at a secret venue because Beyleveld would be
charged with contravening his banning order if the house was “unsafe”. Although very
little had been discussed at that meeting, I knew they would not believe this, so I invented
a number of items for discussion. These were the pressing problems of the day: the
political situation; the plight of political detainees; securing welfare for their dependants;
and scholarships for the children of sentenced prisoners. For good measure I added that
we had also discussed ideas about drawing in more people to oppose the repressive
government measures. The individuals who attended the gathering were not all known to
me (I was protecting Mac Maharaj, Lew Baker and Michael Dingake and dared not
mention their names because the police, who had clearly watched us enter the venue, had
not been able to identify them) but I believed all those present to be like-minded
individuals. For what it was worth, I wrote it all down as I have here. In extremis I had
wrestled with the knowledge that the special branch had observed the site of the meeting,
but hoped that provided no-one “cracked” completely, there was a chance against all the
odds that my statement would not be contradicted. Although my re-interpretation of the
meeting may seem an implausible explanation, I was quite heartened to see that our legal
team accepted it in court during our trial and referred to it again in their argument on
appeal before the Supreme Court.
But although the lawyers accepted it in good faith, it didn‟t fool Justice O. Galgut
who heard our appeal against the magistrate‟s decision about four months after we were
sentenced. After examining the context of the meeting and the evidence of my codefendants (who corroborated my story) he concluded: “Number 5 accused [meaning me]
must have known of the membership of all those people, and for a man in his position to
attend a secret meeting, seems to indicate, so it seems to me, that he too was a
communist”!13 His conclusion was not as great a leap in logic as it seems. The special
branch had seen us enter the “secret” venue and knew from a tape (recorded by Ludi, the
police spy in Jean‟s cell) that an SACP Area Committee meeting was to take place on that
date – and Beyleveld‟s evidence in court dutifully confirmed it.
***
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 306
Endgame
Relief from Van Rensburg was short-lived. I was taken back to police headquarters for
further interrogation sometime after the third week in August 1964. The satisfaction that I
had in not admitting to membership of the Communist Party was shattered immediately
Van Rensburg came into the room. This time he was accompanied by the “good cop”
Grobler, although I soon realized that they had reversed roles. Van Rensburg was in an
unusually cheerful mood and greeted me with the words, “Good morning, Bentley.” I
stared at him, more in disbelief than shock. Someone had “cracked” and revealed my
party code name. This had to be the endgame. If they knew my code name, the person
who had named me might have been someone on the Area Committee. If that were the
case the security police would know that my explanation of the meeting of 16 June was
false and that it was an SACP meeting after all. My mind went racing ahead: it would not
be long before they‟d want details of what had transpired at the Area Committee meeting
and the names of the members of my cell. (Few people, if anyone other than the national
treasurer, were likely to have known the identity of members at unit level).
Van Rensburg wasted no time in telling me more: “We know about the Area
Committee, the District Committee and the „Centre‟. We know the names of all the
people on those committees, the sub-committees, we know all”. His confidence was
difficult to dismiss. Grobler was less amiable, but he was also in a buoyant mood and
grinned stupidly at my apparent discomfort. I could not be sure of what it was that they
knew, except for my Party code name. If that were divulged, as it evidently had, it was
likely to have been in the context of a comprehensive statement that somebody had made.
It was however possible that Van Rensburg‟s claim to know “all” might be exaggerated,
but it was also clear from what followed that our structures had begun to unravel. As if
reading my thoughts, he made more revelations, mentioning that Beyleveld, on the Area
and Central Committees, had been co-operating with them. Taking pleasure in the power
that Beyleveld‟s incriminating disclosures had given him, he threw each piece of new
information at me with the relish of feeding peanuts to a monkey in the Pretoria zoo. I
ignored all of it, but it was more than apparent from what he said that Beyleveld or someone senior had made a statement.
My dilemma was either to refuse to admit anything incriminating or to confirm some
of what he had told me. It seemed illogical to remain in the “statue” mode for hours on
end, knowing that they almost certainly knew most of what I was keeping from them. But
there was still the will to resist! Was this just heroic, “the right thing to do” or was it
rational? I needed to think clearly. Above all I needed to keep my head; to deal with one
matter at a time, and to assess the truthfulness of their information and determine what
they clearly knew and what they might not know. This last seemed to be the most
important question. They had not mentioned the names of the members of my cell, so I
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 307
assumed that they had no knowledge of them. In any case, I had long since decided that I
would rather die than reveal their identities – whether or not they had been detained. My
wife was one of the members and as far as I was aware, the others were equally unknown
to the special branch. I would have to invent a unit and create a fictitious narrative as well
as generalize about everything we discussed and did. I was too confused to remember
who had fled into exile and who had remained, so I had to be careful about names as well
as think quickly, and on my feet.
Eventually I decided to err on the side of caution and assume that their knowledge
was partial and lacking in the particulars, although some of the details they volunteered
were disturbing. The most urgent item was the composition of my cell and its activities. In
the first instance, I chose the most prominent of the named communists I knew to be in
exile. Secondly, I related fictitious details of our ordinary and normally unexciting
meetings. As neither Van Rensburg nor Grobler were in a position to dispute anything I
said, I could invent anything I fancied. But I could tell from their manner that they no
longer cared; their interrogation was routine. The evidence the security police already had
was more conclusive than anything I could give them, and as it turned out, Beyleveld, the
author of the statement they cited, was prepared to become a state witness against me.
Despite the duress, I insisted that my statement end with the words: “I am not prepared to
give evidence against any of the persons mentioned in my statement”. I would not sign it
without that insertion. But I knew that I would never get away with my re-interpretation
of the party meeting on 16 June and that I would be brought to trial and jailed. This was
clear the moment they brought the statement to me (typed on old fashioned wax stencils).
They asked if I would delete the sentences in which I refused to give evidence against my
colleagues, but I flatly refused, thinking that rather than sink to the appalling level of a
state witness, jail would be a preferable alternative.
After that, all was over bar the shouting. Van den Bergh, the security chief, appeared
later, urbane, elegantly dressed in a gray suit and of all things, solicitous of the long time
his men had taken before they could question me. He did not say what had delayed them,
but I subsequently discovered that the “Harris bombing” at the Johannesburg station and 4
July raids had occupied their time with detainees connected with acts of sabotage from the
ARM. In addition, David Kitson, Mac Maharaj, Wilton Mkwayi, Johnny Matthews and
Lionel Gay, the newly constituted High Command of MK, were detained soon after the
CPSA arrests on 3 July, and their interrogation sessions occupied the attention of the
special branch before mine. I complained to Van den Bergh about solitary confinement
and the “standing torture” but he cast aside my complaints with a dismissive movement of
his shoulders that suggested that “that was the way it had to be” and after mumbling what
seemed to be a few words of encouragement in Afrikaans to Grobler and Van Rensburg,
left the room as suddenly as he had entered.
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 308
I felt utterly drained from the whole ordeal. The same warders that had escorted me
to the special branch detectives early that morning led me back to my cell. Half way up
the stairs, in a corner of the stairway, I met a detainee who was either being taken for
interrogation or returning to his cell. We passed each other without showing any signs of
recognition, although I saw that it was Raymond Eisenstein, one of the members of ARM.
(I did not know that then). He had black bruises around the eyes and seemed as
dishevelled as I was. We glanced at each other without greeting but there was an
immediate empathy and understanding between us. There was also something hugely
encouraging that I was not alone in resisting the security police at that moment, and I was
curious as to whether Raymond had been physically assaulted while evading their
questions or whether his forthright manner had simply enraged them. I collapsed onto the
prison mat once I‟d entered the cell, wondering whether I would have fared better if my
interrogators had physically assaulted me rather than insisting on extracting a statement
by making me stand for hours on end “to win rugby colours” (as Van Rensburg taunted).
The idea that detainees would “talk” was generally unacceptable to the movement, and
even though I had been as discreet as I could under the circumstances, I still felt a sense of
submission and defeat. I was not sure whether to feel elated that the interrogation was
over or, to cry.
Chapter Fifteen: The Chalk Circle – 309
Chapter Sixteen
On Trial
State versus Abram Fischer and Thirteen Others
The change from being a 90-day detainee under solitary confinement to an awaiting trial
prisoner was bewildering and the transition unexpectedly confusing. In “solitary” I was
unable to communicate with family, fellow-detainees or legal counsel, write letters or
talk! As an awaiting trial prisoner I could “enjoy” all these facilities but the effects of
solitary detention lingered. Fear of further interrogation and solitary confinement left me
wary of everything connected with the police and prisons and the prolonged imposition of
silence was contrasted by an endless need to talk.
I remained in solitary confinement from the first week in July 1964 until the third
week in August, approximately 54 days after my arrest on 3 July. After being charged
with membership of the South African Communist Party and furthering the aims of
Communism, I was held with the other male detainees at the old Fort in Johannesburg.1
Our cells in the men‟s section of the prison were constructed of steel, painted a dark gray,
with lighter metal inner gates twisted in the shape of chicken wire. At night the “cages”
were closed by a heavier metal outer door, but although the ambiance was chaotic, noisy
and disorganized, it was a complete antidote to the silence we had experienced under
solitary confinement. A part of the section still stands in the grounds of the Constitutional
Court in Johannesburg, where the Fort once stood, probably viewed today by visitors as a
quaint relic of the old regime. As we were technically the “property” of the prisons
department, we were also subject to its regulations. The significance of this was that the
special branch had less control over us, although we were not beyond their reach. They
still considered us to be “political prisoners” despite there being no such category of
offender in the prison regulations. Under the instructions of the special branch the prison
authorities kept us apart from the common law offenders (as far as this was a possible in
the chaos of the jail) and supervision was stricter. Anomalously, a cocky official named
Brigadier Aucamp held the position of liaison officer between the special branch and the
Prisons Department, the man acting as if his authority was greater than the commanding
officer of the prison.2
The list of defendants for the trial finally took shape as the analysts in the security
police sifted the evidence that they had extracted from 90-day detainees and from
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 310
information provided by informers and spies. The prize detainee was Bram Fischer,
whose membership of the SACP had been well known to the special branch for at least a
year before his arrest. Unlike the rest of us, the police initially treated him with
extraordinary diffidence. They detained him three times and released him each time. On
the first occasion (the day after my arrest) the special branch went looking for him,
extending their search beyond Johannesburg to communist veterans Ray and Jack Simons
who had a holiday house in Onrus along the garden route in the Cape Province. They just
missed him there, but caught up with him in the little town of George on the next day (4
July) when once again they arrested him and promptly released him. On the third occasion
they lay in wait for him when he arrived home on 8 July and raided the family house in
Beaumont Street, Johannesburg. After extensive searches at his home and his lawyers‟
chambers, they kept him for three days under the 90-Day Detention Law, perfunctorily
interrogated him on two occasions for an hour at a time and then released him! On 23
September, more than two months later and four weeks after Beyleveld (at the time a
detainee) had divulged almost everything he knew of the SACP to his interrogators, they
re-arrested him. The evidence they now had on him went well beyond his membership of
a party cell and was damning. In addition they had two witnesses against him. This was
what they were waiting for.
The eminence of the Fischer family (members of the Afrikaner aristocracy) may
have made the special branch wary of summarily arresting him as they had everyone else
in the movement they identified as threatening. His family‟s distinction went back more
than a century. His grandfather, Abram, was an elected member of the old Orange Free
State Volksraad before the South African War, and thereafter he was premier of the
Orange River Colony. Bram‟s father, Percy, was judge president of the Orange Free State
provincial division of the Supreme Court, and Bram himself was highly respected by his
peers at the bar. Moreover he was an Afrikaner more eminent than any in government.
Plainly, his Afrikaner heritage embarrassed them and their discomfort was increased by
his attitude towards fleeing the country. (They knew from the informer who infiltrated his
cell in the SACP that he was passionately opposed to exile, unless the person wishing to
flee the country was a potentially damaging state witness.) Intimidation had not affected
him as he had been subjected to police surveillance for years. It was a well-worn tactic of
the special branch to arrest and release their victims, believing they would lead them to
others. But the frequent rounds of his arrest and release did nothing to disparage him
politically, not even the security branch ploy of distributing cheese and crackers “with the
compliments of Bram”, (making it plain that they were sent to his fellow detainees at
Marshall Square). He was charged with the rest of us under the Suppression of
Communism Act, but immediately applied for bail.
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 311
In this instance, his eminence and heritage helped him. “I am an Afrikaner,” he told
the court during his application for bail. “My home is South Africa. I will not leave South
Africa … because my political beliefs conflict with those of the government. 3 His
counsel, Harold Hanson, referred to his distinguished family and impeccable standing at
the bar, pointing out that only two days before his arrest he had been given a temporary
passport to enable him to appear in a copyright case for a large pharmaceutical concern
before the Privy Council in London. He had previously argued the matter in the Federal
High Court in Salisbury, Rhodesia, but the matter had now gone on appeal. The
magistrate (Van Greunen) responded unpredictably. It was clear to him that the interests
of the state would not be damaged by his appearance before the Privy Council, because
the ministers of Justice and the Interior respectively had already granted him a passport to
leave the country. It would be “rather churlish”, he thought, for any court to prevent him
from complying with his Privy Council brief. He was “a son of our soil and an advocate
of standing in the country”. He was granted bail, although the prosecution objected to the
application on the grounds that he was a member of the SACP‟s Central Committee and if
allowed bail would leave the country, as had many other communists before him. The
hearing was remanded to 16 November to enable Bram to return from London in time to
stand trial.4
Bram was revered in the SACP. He seemed to take personal responsibility for the
arrest and conviction of the leadership, many of them on Robben Island or in exile.
Numbers of people who had left the country (among them Hilda Bernstein and Ruth First)
had guiltily met him at Beaumont Street or somewhere in secret before leaving, to tell him
that they no longer had the forbearance to remain in South Africa. He heard them, but his
mind was elsewhere and they left without his blessing, feeling that they had let him down.
When I told him in the prison yard that I would probably leave the country after
completing my sentence, he showed no anger, but I do not think that his grim experience
in prison had changed his attitude towards exile. His was a rare mixture of compassion
and commitment to the cause. His outward appearance of calm and care for others above
his own concerns was as genuine as his mission to rebuild the Party. The measure I got of
him in jail, when the tension and responsibility for leading the movement had passed, was
of a man who would not allow grief and personal pain to interfere with the fight for social
justice. If he spoke of his place in the struggle, his narrative would have been in the third
person rather than the first; there were social forces that he felt one neither could nor
should resist, and while personal matters were a distraction, the struggle for Socialism
was the primary one.
When he left for London two months before the start of the trial, his mind was
probably weighed down with the effects of personal tragedy over the death of his wife
Molly, and the legal niceties of the case before the Privy Council. The confrontation that
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 312
he anticipated with the SACP exiles in London over his return to South Africa must also
have weighed heavily on him. If the Privy Council cases was the official reason for his
application for a passport to leave the country, his major concern was clearly to discuss
his personal mission to reconstruct the “underground” at first hand with the leadership in
London. For this he would need money, logistical support and their approval. It is
inconceivable that his discussions with the exiles would have been confined to whether or
not he should skip bail or stay with them in London. He was adamant that he would
return. This was not because he had “given the court his word” as some comrades
suggested, but that the course of action he intended to take was of a higher order of
integrity than any pledge he might have made to an apartheid court. His thinking was
political rather than personal and was expressed later in his letter to the court, when he
wrote: “I have left the trial because I want to demonstrate that no-one should submit
meekly to our barbaric laws.” What he was proving was that if he was a “son of our soil”,
it was not only the prestige of his family that made him so, but that he had sufficient
integrity to defy an immoral authority that was driving the country towards civil war, race
hatred and ruin.
The SACP leadership – Slovo, Harmel and Dadoo among others – by all accounts
implored him not to return,5 but either he convinced them that his action was the right one
(as Steven Clingman, Bram‟s biographer avers) or he wore them down by his stubborn
insistence on building the underground at home rather than abroad. As money and
logistical resources were initially forthcoming for his project, it seems that they decided to
support whatever decision he might make. Sentiments attributed to some of the London
exiles to the effect that he had “a quaint sense of ethics for a Marxist” were, I think,
mistaken.
***
The trial had been set down to begin on 16 November 1964 at the Regional Court in
Johannesburg. To the surprise of many (including the government, the court, the special
branch and many of his comrades) Bram returned in time to take up his position as
accused No. 1 in what became known as the “Fischer Trial”. Formally it was referred to
as The State vs Abram Fischer and Thirteen Others. The hearing was to be in the
magistrate‟s court only a stone‟s throw from the Johannesburg public library, the City
Hall and the old post office, among the most identifiable landmarks in the city. Most of
the accused “knew” the court and its precincts more or less intimately from previous
charges. The magistrate, Mr S.C. Alan, an English-speaking official was relatively
tolerant, but wary of communists. His reputation, to the best of our knowledge, was not
overtly political. The senior prosecutor, Liebenberg, had appeared in the Treason Trial
nine years previously and remained as uninspiring and bored-looking as ever. He seemed
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 313
far less enthusiastic about these proceedings than his two special branch “advisers” who
sat on either side of him.
Counsel for the defence included Advocates Vernon Berrange, Denis Kuny and
Ismail Mahommed (the latter was judge president during Nelson Mandela‟s presidency).
Advocate Harold Hanson appeared for Bram while Joel Joffe, a pale and seemingly
diffident young man appeared as our instructing attorney. Although he had acted in this
capacity in the Rivonia Trial, I had never previously met him. Berrange and Hanson were
veterans at the bar and Kuny and Mahommed relatively junior at the time. We trusted
them with our lives and will always remember them for the passion with which they
defended us. Any impression that Joel Joffe was diffident, however, was wholly
misleading. He was tenacious, feared by the prosecution (who found his thoroughness
daunting) and loved by all of us. Most of the accused in the Fischer Trial had been
activists for a long time. They were listed in order of their alleged SACP responsibilities
and included Abram Fischer, Ivan Frederick Schermbrucher and Eli Weinberg (all
members of the Central Committee). Esther Barsel, Norman Levy, Lewis Baker and Jean
Strachan (Middleton) were all members of the Area Committee. Ann Nicholson,
Constantinos Gazides, Paul Henry Trewhela, Sylvia Brereton Neame, Florence Duncan,
Mollie Irene Doyle (all members of Jean Middleton‟s cell) and Hymie Barsel (Esther‟s
husband), who was the only other defendant besides Bram Fischer to be granted bail.
Curiously, the time-scale referred to in the charge sheet was just over a year, from
May 1963 until July 1964. These dates roughly reflected the occasion of the first cell
meeting attended by Gerard Ludi (who infiltrated the SACP cell in which Bram Fischer
was coincidently located) and the day preceding the majority of arrests. The short timescale probably accounted for the special branch‟s indifference to anything I told them that
did not refer to the recent past. The brevity of the period, however, did not make the
charges any less formidable. There were three counts, all of them rather repetitious, but
each carrying a maximum sentence of three years The first of these alleged that during the
period mentioned, we had – in contravention of Sections 11 and 12 of the Suppression of
Communism Act of 1950 – continued to be office bearers and members of the CPSA or
the SACP – they saw the one unlawful organization as a continuation of the other.
Count two alleged in the most formidable of legalese that we had acted “in concert
with divers[e] other persons in furtherance of a common purpose” to carry out the
activities of the Party. The “common purpose” referred to “the replacement of the present
state of the South African Republic by a Dictatorship of the Working Class”.6 Other
activities included recruiting members, painting slogans, receiving banned literature and
circulating party documents, such as, the cautionary paper entitled “Time for
Reassessment” referred to in the previous chapter. This last was considered by the court to
be a manual for the training of cadres in underground activity. 7 Another charge in this
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 314
long list was very specific: the “making of an arrangement with the occupants of a house
in … Cyrildene, Johannesburg, for the purpose of holding an Area Committee meeting on
16 June 1964.” The parochialism of the latter charge contrasted sharply with the
generality of the overall theme of count three. This alleged that we had all acted in
“common purpose” to further the objects of communism by carrying out acts designed to
“establish a despotic system of government based on the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.8
At the time, we would have been glad to have gone to jail for starting a revolution
rather than attending a meeting or painting. In a normal society nothing that we had done
would have been considered illegal; the acts referred to were forms of peaceful protest,
unexceptional in any democracy. The allegations stopped short of any charges of
violence.
***
The state‟s case against all the accused in the trial rested in varying degrees upon the
evidence of Ludi and Beyleveld. Little of their personal lives is known beyond their
relatively brief political involvement in the movement. Beyleveld was born in 1916 in the
Orange Free State, in the small farming town of Rouxville in the former Northern Orange
Free State. He gave no information about his parents or whether he had any siblings,
although the surname Beyleveld is still common in Rouxville.9 His education was
minimal and was confined to “farm schools” at Goedemoed (near his birthplace) and in
Windhoek, South West Africa, as it was then called. He became a farmer in 1934 at the
age of eighteen and joined the South African army five years later.10 He was very much a
loner; a troubled person who had found recognition and respect in Congress, the trade
unions and the SACP, to which he devoted all his energies. He may not have had access
to higher education but his lack of learning did not seem to bother him and in the space of
barely a decade rose in the ranks of the liberation movement to become the president of
the Congress of Democrats; secretary of the Textile Workers‟ Union; the first president of
the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and was active in the District,
Area and Central Committees of the SACP.
During his evidence one of the accused sent me a note asking whether he would
have done as well if he had been better educated. I wondered.
Beyleveld sat on the Congress Allaince‟s national Consultative Committee where he
displayed an impressive grip on Congress policy and a marked sensitivity towards the
consultative character of the alliance partners.11 I worked with him in the Congress of
Democrats and in the SACP, staying with him and other expatriates in Swaziland during
the state of emergency in 1960. He was attractive to women and had a number of extramarital relationships. His wife Stella drove herself hard in an office-service facility she
owned and in which he worked after he was banned. He came to the movement in 1943 or
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 315
1944, where he met Jack Hodgson, Rusty Bernstein, Brian Bunting and Cecil Williams.
All of them were communists and founding members of the Springbok Legion. It was
probably during the political lectures that they gave to the troops that Beyleveld was
drawn towards the Left.12 He had few friends as far as I am aware and seemed a dour,
unsmiling presence at meetings and socially.
Despite this I would never have thought he would look us in the eye and betray us
with the evident composure he displayed in the witness box. The explanation he gave for
testifying as a state witness was spurious. In a message he sent to Bram Fischer before the
beginning of the trial, he maintained that he was saving us all from more serious charges
in a higher court, where we could face 10 years in jail.13 Bram regarded this as selfserving and in a note smuggled into the prison told him not to testify at all. “Ten years
was preferable to that”, he wrote. But Beyleveld would have none of it.
In his evidence to the court the meaning of his message to Bram became clearer. He
said nothing of the intimate relationship of the SACP to MK, and so avoided charges
under the “Sabotage Act”. Technically the congress organizations and the SACP were
separate (the Rivonia Trial had already established that) and it was in Beyleveld‟s interest
to stay with that “technicality” for fear of being seen as part of the overall conspiracy to
overthrow the state by means of sabotage, for which the minimum sentence was 10 years.
It was a case of “enlightened” self-interest in which his own personal liberty was more
important to him than the liberty of all the others. As it turned out, he was the only
witness against all the accused except those in the cell Ludi had infiltrated. Without his
testimony we might have had a chance of acquittal. I doubt whether he had any feelings of
personal loyalty to Bram as a fellow comrade and Afrikaner or to any of the defendants.
He said as much in answer to our lawyer Vernon Berrange‟s questions under cross
examination:
If you could have saved even one name because the police didn‟t know about it,
would you have done so? … No.
Loyal party member? … I gave the facts as I knew them.
You have said that over and over again to me. I am asking you a simple question.
If you could have saved one person, loyal party comrade that you are, because the
police didn‟t know about him, would you have tried to save him? ... No.
Why not? ... Because I realized when I made a statement that the only way I can
do it is factually.
But if the police hadn‟t mentioned a certain incident, or a certain meeting, or a
certain name … would you not have tried to at least save that person and that
incident from the wreck? ... No.
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 316
In the witness box he looked unruffled and no more troubled than he normally
seemed. He said he had made a statement voluntarily after two interviews with the
security police when he was asked to reveal all he knew of the SACP‟s structures, but
refused. Apparently he had been standing for three hours, but insisted to the court that he
was neither tortured nor intimidated. On 20 August, the third occasion on which he saw
his interrogators, he decided to make a complete statement about his activities in the
SACP and to name his comrades. This he said, was “after a discussion which lasted six or
seven hours”,14 in which he gained the impression from what he had been told that the
police knew everything, and that the structures of the movement had been destroyed: “I
recognized the situation that the party and its existence had been defeated,” he said.15
In his evidence he described the SACP‟s organizational structure in detail, starting
with the basic unit of the party cell. Above this were the Area, District and Central
Committees and a Secretariat (referred to as the “Centre”) whose members were chosen
from the Central Committee. Up to this point, the party‟s structure had never before been
publicly disclosed. No-one previously had been accused of membership of the SACP and
the authorities did not actually acknowledge that it was an entirely different organization
from the former CPSA.16 Beyleveld testified that Fischer, Schermbrucher and Weinberg
were members of the Central Committee and went on to state how long they had been
members of this committee and how many meetings they had attended. At the same time
he identified the “secret” places where they met.
With great attention to detail he referred to the meeting of the Area Committee on 16
June 1964, which the prosecution relied on for my conviction as well as Jean Middleton,
Esther Barsel and Lewis Baker. After describing the dismal discussion we had there,
Beyeleveld confirmed that we were members of that committee and prompted by the
prosecutor, added our party code names – Bentley, Clara, Smithy and Sandy – in that
order.17 He gave a full account of the SACP unit that Ludi had infiltrated, amply
corroborating the electronic recordings of the cell‟s proceedings and then named all the
members of the cell. The significance of his evidence was that it corroborated the
testimony of Ludi and all but guaranteed a jail sentence for each cell member. (Bram
Fischer had seen from the outset that Beyleveld was the crucial “second witness” that the
crown needed to secure our conviction.)
The only defence open to the remaining accused was to deny the truth of
Beyleveld‟s testimony. Our lawyers were quick to advise us that the evidence of a truthful
witness was the most difficult to disprove, but as there seemed to be no other recourse but
to change our pleas to “guilty”, we decided to challenge Beyleveld‟s evidence. It was,
after all, his word against ours. However, the task of disproving Beyleveld‟s testimony
was harder than we anticipated and the possibility of convincing the magistrate equally
difficult. All this was compounded by the simple truth that we were all very bad liars. If
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 317
any of us had the wit, self-confidence and composure that Rusty Bernstein had displayed
during his evidence at the Rivonia Trial, we might not have had to punch above our
weight. Desperation, however, was a powerful incentive and Eli, Ivan, Esther, Lewis and I
decided to enter the ring and testify that we were not members of the SACP and never had
been; that if our political sympathies were similar, they reflected a mutual concern over
the government‟s policies on human rights and race. Although we admitted the meetings
had taken place, we would insist that the matters discussed there were entirely different
from anything the witness had described.
Ivan and Eli testified along these lines with varying shades of emphasis on the depth
of their involvement, each of them sounding less and less credible as their evidence
proceeded. Ivan said he‟d held the post of manager of the Guardian newspaper and
subsequently New Age and Spark. For this he received a small salary. During his time
there he had seen repeated police raids and the regular banning of the new titles under
which the paper was published, but was nevertheless prepared to make the personal
sacrifices this entailed because he believed in the principles for which the paper stood –
which may also have coincided with the party‟s positions. He appeared angry and in the
witness box, aggrieved over what he believed to be his wrongful arrest. He had smuggled
a note out of the prison complaining about his 90-day experiences in which he berated the
special branch for its treatment of him. (In the witness box, he omitted the
uncomplimentary parts of this note, which only added to the magistrate‟s scepticism about
his evidence.)18
His impression on the court did not improve as he explained that he‟d socialized and
also worked with communists on a number of bodies such as the Amnesty International
Committee and the Society for Friendship with the Soviet Union, but was never a
communist and had never been asked to join the party. He claimed that Beyleveld was
lying when he referred to him as a member of the Central Committee. He was not a party
member, although he endorsed “a substantial portion” of communist doctrine and
approved aspects of the Communist Party‟s programme. (Mercifully he was not asked
which portions of communist doctrine he did not accept.) The magistrate eyed him
intently and occasionally intervened, but gave no indication of whether or not he accepted
his evidence.
Eli Weinberg followed but found it more difficult to separate himself from the
SACP and disavow his communist principles. He admitted to his membership of the
former Party from 1933 to 1950 and said he was not a member of the SACP in view of his
need to concentrate on his photographic business and support his family. Yet he still held
to his communist principles and read the publications of the SACP. He had previously
been a trade unionist and still supported the work of the South African Congress of Trade
Unions (SACTU). He regarded himself as an activist in that organization, despite raids,
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 318
prosecutions and detentions. He denied that the meetings he was alleged to have attended
were those of the Central Committee. This was a fabrication of Beyleveld‟s.
He might have fared better if he had a more plausible story and had not run into
some difficulty in explaining his possession of a key belonging to one of the “safe”
houses in which (according to Beyleveld‟s testimony) a number of CC meetings had been
held. Evidence of the key had been provided by the owner of the “safe” house, an old
Party sympathiser, who had been called as a witness for the prosecution. Eli refuted the
notion that he had used the venue for a Central Committee meeting; he said he had
acquired the key because he was banned from attending meetings and wished to discuss
an important memorandum with an official of SACTU before the document was sent to
the Chamber of Mines. Pressed by the prosecution to disclose the name of the individual
he had met, he identified an African female as “Emily”.19
This led to some ambiguous comment from the prosecution and also from the
magistrate, leading Eli to respond with indignation that there was nothing improper about
the meeting. His whole demeanour changed. He was barely five feet tall and drew himself
up to the full height of the witness stand to tell the court with quaint eloquence that he
knew how to conduct himself! He then waited for the court to respond. The prosecutor
knew better and let the matter rest there. Unfortunately Eli‟s confidence as a witness
waned as the cross-examination proceeded, something the magistrate was quick to
observe. Apart from this he noted at the end of the trial that Weinberg was taking too
many risks for a person who was not a party member. He believed the meeting with Emily
(and other meetings) had been invented in order to explain his possession of the key. In
his opinion, the meetings in question were for no other purpose than for meetings of the
Central Committee. In his summary at the end of the trial, the magistrate remarked
without a hint of embarrassment that “it was strange conduct on the part of a white man to
meet a Bantu female in a flat for the purpose suggested”. On Appeal, the judge in the
Supreme Court referred to this remark as “rightful comment” on the part of the
magistrate.20
Despite this shameless bias of the court, Weinberg‟s fate was sealed by the conflict
of his evidence with Beyleveld‟s testimony, his deflated demeanour half way through his
cross-examination and his spurious evidence. Neither the magistrate nor the judge on
appeal found it believable that Ivan or Eli would expose themselves to the risks of arrest,
banning and detention if they were not also members of the Communist Party.
Esther Barsel was more composed when she entered the witness box. She looked
sincere, confident and serenely blended fact with fiction to set the scene for the meeting
of 16 June.21 Defence counsel, Ishmael Mahommed, described her performance as
“regal”. On this we all concurred. She said we were all like-minded people and the
discussion at the meeting had been wide-ranging, encompassing the raising of finances for
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 319
the defence of the accused in political trials and the education and welfare of their
dependants.
When it came to my turn give evidence, I expected to be questioned on my activities
of the past 20 years. But the only point of importance to the court was whether I was a
member of the SACP during the limited timeframe of the charge sheet and whether I was
politically active on 16 June 1964. Asked whether I knew “communists”, I said that I had
as many non-communist friends as communist ones. I was sympathetic to the struggle
against the government‟s racial policies and was keen to assist in the efforts of former
colleagues in the Congress of Democrats to address the educational needs of the
dependants of political detainees. It was for this reason that the meeting of 16 June had
taken place.
I denied that it was a meeting of the Area Committee and corroborated Esther‟s
evidence in insisting that it was a gathering held soon after the Rivonia Trial to consider
the plight of political detainees and their dependants. We had each been invited for our
special expertise: Lew for his legal knowledge – he had appeared in many political trials
and was well placed to solicit the support of other lawyers; Jean and I for our educational
experience as teachers; and Esther for her fund-raising and organizational skills.
Beyleveld chaired the meeting. As he was prohibited from attending gatherings, we met at
a “safe” venue, which Esther had arranged.
Liebenberg left no stone unturned in demolishing my evidence over the three days of
my testimony. His questions were sarcastic and discursive, adding approximately 300
pages to an already overblown court record. He dwelt at length on my relationship with
the SACP – the risks I was prepared to take even though I was not a member of the party;
my views on Communism; and my interaction with Joe Slovo, Ruth First and the
“communists” with whom I worked in the Congress of Democrats. He insisted that the
COD was a “front” for the SACP; that it “galloped” along with the other congresses and
dictated policy to the ANC in accordance with its communist objectives. “All was a
camouflage” to conceal the real activity of the communists behind the scenes. His
questions ranged from the particular to the general without regard to the coherence of his
cross-examination or my disposition, as in the following exchanges:22
Didn‟t you try to emulate Joe Slovo ... In what way?
To revive the activity of the Wits [university] campus …No Sir, I played no part
in that.
Now, your brother Leon Levy was as active as you were, wasn‟t he? ... I would
say so, yes.
Yes, and he used to walk around with Lenin[‟s] What is to be Done? ... I have
never seen him walking around with it.
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 320
Is it just incidental that you moved around in Communist circles? ... I didn‟t say
that I moved in the Communist circles at all.
… [T]he Congress of Democrats galloped along with the other organizations? ... I
wouldn‟t say that it galloped along with them. It had a common programme with
them.
These were the people who possessed a theory, who possessed a definite
objective, who knew how to formulate plans and schemes. ... The Congress of
Democrats never had a theory, it never had a philosophy behind it. It was
committed to the Freedom Charter, which was an open democracy with
fundamental basic human rights. That was the total extent of its aims. It never
was a party that subscribed to any theory or philosophy.
But its members had the philosophy? … [I]ts members have many philosophies
… there is no sole philosophy, which one might say is the aim of the Congress of
Democrats other than what is contained in the Freedom Charter …
You see, the Congress of Democrats had a very opportunistic policy. It merely
stated a broad objective of full democracy? ... I wouldn‟t say that was an
opportunistic policy. It was a policy based on the United Nation‟s Declaration of
Human Rights, which had its roots in the Declaration of Man and the
Declaration of Independence. It was, I would say, an aim of fundamental freedom
common all over the world.
Yes, and that I suggest to you was just a camouflage Mr Levy? ... Camouflage for
what?
Oh, to conceal the real activity of the Communists behind the scenes …
Having diverted the focus of his cross-examination to the wider political argument, he
suddenly switched to the statement I had made during 90-day detention, hoping to
insinuate it into the court record and to demonstrate the disparity of my present testimony
with the statement I made under interrogation. In doing this, he had unintentionally
opened a can of worms.23
That brings me to another point. Did you say to the police that you had gone to a
meeting at Stanley‟s place? Yes or no? ... [A]nything … I might have said to the
police … was made under 90-day detention and very severe conditions of
interrogation. I stood on my feet for over a hundred hours in three sessions and
any statement that I made to the police would have been forced out of me after
hours and hours of standing and tremendous fatigue. I do not want to comment
on anything the police might have said in this direction.
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 321
Yes, I expected you to come with that cock and bull story. ... I deny your Worship
that that is a cock and bull story. I think … that that is a very cruel way of
describing the treatment that I received at the hands of the Special Branch under
90-day detention.
You haven‟t answered my question yet ... I answered your remark.
Did you say to the police that you had gone to the house of Stanley?
Mr Berrange objects: … [A]nything that this witness is alleged to have said to the
police, must be established by my learned friend as having been made freely and
voluntarily … and unless that pr-requisite has been met, my learned friend is not
entitled to refer to any statement made by the witness to the police and the
witness has already indicated that any statement that he made was not made
[voluntarily].
At this stage the magistrate intervened to say that he would allow the question if it were
reformulated – and actually rephrased the question for him: “Did you make a statement to
the police which conflicts with the statement that you are making now?” The prosecutor,
however, decided to put the question less directly and was completely distracted in the
process.
Now My Levy, you gave His Worship such an innocent explanation of the
meeting you attended on the 16th June. ... It was the truth, sir.
Why couldn‟t you give that innocent explanation to the police? ... Your Worship,
when I was taken from solitary confinement after 27 days to COMPOL Buildings
in Pretoria, where interrogation took place, I said to the nine interrogating
policemen that I was not aware of the charge that was being laid against me. I
did not know whether anything I said would be incriminating. If I was properly
charged and brought to Court I would answer all questions put to me by His
Worship.
The prosecutor was becoming increasingly rattled and did what he clearly intended to
avoid – entering into a dispute with me over my comments on the security police‟s
methods of interrogation.
You say you gave the same explanation to them that you are giving now? … I
stood at COMPOL Buildings for 42 hours on the first occasion in one spot. I
made an explanation to the Special Branch, explaining the nature of the meeting.
They would not accept it. I came on another occasion, I made the same
statement. They said: “We want more.” I said I have no more to tell you. They
asked me what else I had to say about myself. I told them about my activities in
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 322
the Congress of Democrats from the date of my joining that organization until its
dissolution in 1962 … I was brought to COMPOL Buildings on a third occasion
and a whole lot of facts were thrown at me. I was made to stand and the police
told me a whole lot of things. They told me that I would stand there and stand
there unless I was prepared to make a statement. Your Worship, under these
circumstances I simply wrote down what the police told me.
Why couldn‟t you sit down? ... Your Worship, a chair was placed behind me on
the first occasion to tempt me to sit down, and it was indicated that if I did sit
down I would be physically assaulted. It was not possible to sit down. A chalk
circle was made for me, I was asked to stand in that chalk circle and if I as much
as moved my feet, I was told to [keep standing] in that circle. When I wanted to
go to the cloakroom [meaning the toilet] I dragged my feet … escorted by a
policeman. I was told not to wash my face in case I should regain my strength –
and be less tired. I was brought back to the interrogating room and further
interrogation took place. Under these circumstances I made the statement …
Yes, you have also instituted civil action against the police. ... I understand sir
that my attorneys have …
Yes, you are now doing your best, your very best to try and bolster up your story.
... I am doing nothing of the sort sir. I am merely indicating to you the nature of
the interrogation and the circumstances under which the statement you are
referring to, was made.
The whole lot of you got together and you fabricated a case against the police?
Liebenberg‟s perseverance was beginning to weigh on me and I became increasingly
blunt in my replies to him, adding as much as I could to corroborate what I had said about
special branch treatment, telling him that the district surgeon had seen me at COMPOL
Buildings and done nothing to stop them from continuing their “treatment”. I had also
seen the visiting magistrate two or three days after one interrogation session and
complained about the standing torture, but he simply wrote it down in a very full minute
book (page number 83D) and did nothing about it.
The end to this part of the cross-examination came quickly, as Liebenberg dug his
heals in and refused to accept my evidence:
I still don‟t see why you couldn‟t have sat down and refused to get up? ... It was
perfectly clear that if I had sat down I would have been bullied and I would have
been assaulted. I did not want to do that for health reasons or for any other
reason.
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 323
Then you preferred to become exhausted? ... It is not that I preferred to become
exhausted at all, sir. That was one of the phrases put to me by the Special
Branch; that “This is murder. You are doing this to yourself. Why don‟t you tell
us what we want to know and then you can sit down and you will be less tired.”
I have been standing in this Court now for how many days, Mr Levy … Try
standing, sir, in one position for 42 hours. Try standing in one position after
solitary confinement, after that for another 32 hours.
I would have sat down and you could have sat down too ... Perhaps, sir, I was
foolish not to get a boot in my face, but I decided against it.
If I thought the prosecutor had failed to confuse or surprise me, he could at least
embarrass me. This he did, egged on by the special branch investigating officer who was
keen to demonstrate the humanity of his men in the special branch. So Liebenberg
referred to the cake they had “clubbed together” to buy for me on my 35th birthday. He
made the most of the situation to make me squirm in the witness box, while casting the
security police in a favourable light. The exchange between us was frosty:24
Yes. And the police clubbed together and bought you some cakes … and you had
a nice celebration with them? ... That was a very humiliating experience. I had
been standing for hours and hours on end … I said to them: “Well, tomorrow is
my birthday are you going to make me stand again?” On that day they brought
the cake, they all stood round the room. Their motive may have been a good one
but I fail to see or appreciate that they felt any regard at all, I was humiliated by
it; I didn‟t reject the cake, I could not say anything, I didn‟t make any speech in
thanking them for the cake. I also felt that it was possibly an attempt on their part
to make other people say all sorts of things about me, by taking the cake that they
bought for me and passing it round to other people who were interrogated at
COMPOL Building and saying things that possibly I had not said. I was very
embarrassed, very humiliated by this.
Mr Levy, I was told that you rather over-indulged? ... In the cake?
Yes? ... I did have a piece of cake I may have had two pieces of cake. I do not
know that I over-indulged, if I did, I wouldn‟t deny it.
Yes, to come back to this meeting of the 16th June …
And so it went on. He wouldn‟t give up! Finally, I left the witness-stand to join the other
defendants in the dock. It was the most galling three days of my life.
Lewis Baker‟s evidence was in marked contrast in style and tone from mine.
Displaying all the confidence gained from years spent in the courtroom, he quietly
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 324
corroborated my evidence of the meeting of 16 June and convincingly insisted on his
innocence. Unfortunately he had to deal with past activities about which it was difficult
for him to be silent. He had been a well-known member of the CPSA until it was
dissolved in 1950. He casually explained that he was a communist and continued to be
one, but did not join the SACP as the demands of party work would interfere with his
“one-man” legal practice. He might not have been quite so forthcoming about his Marxist
past but for an incident with an employee and fellow comrade, one Simelane, who had
been forced to make a statement under the 90-Day Detention Law regarding lectures Lew
had given to him and another comrade, in 1962. The lectures were in history and
communist theory. Initially, Simelane who had been brought to court against his will by
the prosecution, bravely refused to testify, but agreed only when asked by our lawyers to
do so.
In all this Lew took the stand with the confidence and unassailable self-assurance of
a lawyer whose conduct was beyond suspicion. He denied that the lectures were given as
part of an SACP study class: they were quite independent of the party and had only taken
place for three months before they were discontinued, due to pressure of work in his law
firm. If Esther‟s performance was “regal”, Lew‟s was flawless.25 Judge Galgut, who heard
our case on Appeal could not fault him, except to say that his fate was bound up with
Esther‟s and neither he nor the magistrate accepted her testimony.
It would have been interesting to have seen what the outcome of the case would
have been if our story had not begun to unravel. This happened when the prosecution
probed Esther‟s explanation of how she came to have arranged this particular venue for
the meeting in June. Once again it was a small matter of a key. As in the case of
Weinberg, the owner of the premises was called to testify on the circumstances under
which he had given Esther the key. His evidence was that she had told him that she
wished to entertain her friends, whom she could not invite to her home because her
husband was banned from attending social gatherings. She quite explicitly (and I thought
convincingly) told the court that she had held two such meetings, the one in June and
another in April that year, at which banned persons had been present.
Unfortunately Beyleveld‟s resistance to our evidence was intense. His liberty was
more important to him than our story. He was unshakeable on the purpose for which the
meeting had been called. It was our word against his – and he was “adamant” that the
gathering was an Area Committee meeting, convened to discuss a report of the District
Committee. As the latter had not met for very long, he said, the meeting was aborted and
little of significance was discussed before the members dispersed. “I don‟t think it lasted
for more than an hour,” he said “and most of the time we just sat and chatted”.26 If
Beyleveld could not be shaken from his evidence, nor would the magistrate accept our
story. He believed the whole thing had been concocted and that the secret venues had
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 325
been acquired to avoid the attention of the authorities. The meeting of 16 June he said,
was a communist one.
Considered in complete isolation, the defence version of the meeting of the 16th
June ‟64 is reasonably possible. As told by Accused No. 4 [Esther Barsel] it
becomes to my mind unreasonable. Considered against the setting and the
background as depicted in the evidence, the whole fabric of the story to my mind
falls to pieces. I am left with the alternative story told by Beyleveld, which I
accept.27
In his summing up, and in the view of the judge on Appeal and the judge president, this
was confirmed. None of us was to be believed. In my case, Judge Galgut was quite
explicit:
It is inconceivable that with his background and association with communists, he
would not have known that Beyleveld was an active Communist and a member of
the Area Committee … Number 5 accused [meaning me] must have known of the
membership of all these people, and for a man in his position to attend a secret
meeting indicates, so it seems to me, that he too was a Communist.28
***
Ludi‟s evidence was as devastating as Beyleveld‟s had been. As a master of “spin” he
projected the self-image he wished others to have of him, especially those in the special
branch who he most intended to impress. He was contemptuous of the accused in the
dock, anxious to attract the admiration of his superiors and the spectators in the gallery.
His evidence was supported by tape recordings of the SACP cell he had infiltrated in May
1963 and remained in until the 3 July arrests, submitting scores of reports to his superiors.
His evidence was complemented by the transcripts of Klaus Schroeder, a special branch
officer, who had been installed in an apartment next to Jean Middleton‟s flat, where he
could see who visited her and record her private conversations by means of bugging
devices placed inside her premises. (We spent a day in court listening to the transcripts of
his recordings, which were voluminous, prurient, and often inadmissible as hearsay
evidence.)
Ludi‟s testimony ranged from reports of the discussions held at the cell meetings to
details of the Marxist study classes he attended and the unit‟s alert response to the party
document, “Time for Reassessment”. This he had copied before returning to Jean
Middleton, who (unusually) allowed him to take it away. According to Ludi, “she
suggested I take [it] somewhere and read it on my own … I then immediately phoned
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 326
Seargent Kleingeld … and instructed him to make a photocopy of it”. It turned up in court
as “Exhibit J”.29
He spent much of his three days in the witness box detailing a list of impressive
activities of the SACP unit he had infiltrated. These included painting slogans in public
places, distributing party leaflets and participating in the other illegal activities.
Meanwhile his erstwhile comrades in the dock listened to him, appalled at the enthusiasm
with which he anticipated their hasty dispatch to prison. His appearance as a police
witness had not surprised them because it had become apparent to some of them during
their interrogation under the 90-Day Detention Law that he was the mole that had
informed on them. His evidence was damning, especially the bleak image he depicted of
the Party and the incriminating evidence he gave against them and Bram Fischer, whose
misfortune it was to have been a member of that cell.
Ludi was followed by Professor A.H. Murray, the state‟s expert witness on
communism. Bram and I were the only two defendants who had heard Murray before. He
reproduced the same drivel as he had in 1957 and 1960 at the Treason Trial and again in
1964 at the Rivonia Trial. He had learnt nothing new in the seven years since his first
appearance and was just as arrogant. His appearance as an expert witness this time served
to bloat the trial record and add more documents to the long list of court exhibits. In all
his appearances, the defence counsel was obliged to cross-examine him in order to refute
the worst of his inexpert opinions.30
He would have gone on talking for longer had the trial not taken a surprising turn a
few days after his appearance. Although we had just returned from the Xmas break, the
defence applied for a 10-day adjournment, which was granted. It is not entirely clear to
me why our lawyers made this request but as we were in no hurry to conclude the trial
(jail seemed imminent) we were happy to spend the time at the Fort, reading, writing
letters to family and friends. When we were not in the cells we sat in huddles in the yard
or walked up and down the narrow quad, talking about anything and everything
unconnected with the idea of spending the next four or five years in prison. When the
hearing resumed on the morning of Monday 25 January, we entered the dock unsure of
what we might expect next from either the prosecution or the defence team. What
transpired was hugely encouraging. Bram had broken his bail conditions and gone
underground. His absence from the court at that moment came like a bolt from the blue to
all of us and I expect to many people in and out of the courtroom. The image of Harold
Hanson, Bram‟s high-powered counsel, tall, elegantly dressed, but looking a little bereft
that morning, remains with me. He had in his hand a letter from Bram (found under his
door at Chambers, he said), which he read to the court:
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 327
By the time this reaches you I shall be a long way from Johannesburg and shall
absent myself from the remainder of the trial. But I shall be in the country to
which I said I would return when I was granted bail … I have not taken this step
lightly. As you will no doubt understand, I have experienced great conflict
between my desire to stay with my fellow accused and, on the other hand, to try
to continue the political work I believe to be essential. My decision was made
only because I believe that it is the duty of every true opponent of this
government to remain in this country and to oppose its monstrous policy of
apartheid with every means in his power. That is what I shall do for as long as I
can … If by my fight I can encourage even some people to think about, to
understand and to abandon the policies they now so blindly follow, I shall not
regret any punishment I may incur. I can no longer serve justice in the way I have
attempted to do during the past thirty years. I can do it only in the way I have
now chosen. 31
Ruth First used to say that Bram‟s prose read like a barrister‟s brief. This, however, must
have been the monumental exception. His final paragraph, an appeal to the magistrate,
was a warning – in Bram‟s discreet language, an urge upon the court – “to bear in mind
that if it does have to punish any of my fellow accused, it will be punishing them for
holding the ideas today that will be universally accepted tomorrow”.32 As Harold Hanson
walked towards the bench to hand the letter to the magistrate, Broodryk, the special
branch adviser to the prosecutor, leapt towards him and took the envelope from counsel‟s
hand as if he were grasping at a piece of Bram.
Liebenberg‟s response was more articulate, but no less angry. He described
Fischer‟s flight as “the desperate act of a desperate man and the action of a coward”. In
the dock we could not conceal our glee. We did not consider his action cowardly, it was
precisely what we had expected of him. If Bram had not left the trial in January after
Ludi‟s evidence was completed, he would most likely have had to reconsider his plea of
“not guilty”. This, the members of his cell were advised to do in February 1965, although
it was evident from the statements they subsequently made from the dock that they
offered no apologies for what they had done. They still adhered to the principles of human
rights and equality and freely admitted that they were members of the SACP and believed
that the answer to the country‟s problems lay in the ending of the apartheid system and
the development of a socialist South Africa. They were proud of the philosophy and ethics
for which they were being sent to jail.
As the trial drew to an end, we all speculated on the outcome. I had no doubt from
the start that we would all go to jail. Back in the Fort, before sentence was passed, Lewis
Baker and Ivan Schernbrucher still felt optimistic that the court would not convict the
members of the Area and Central Committees on the strength of one witness. I had no
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 328
such faith in the legal process. Significantly, the magistrate at the trial went to extreme
lengths to ensure that Beyleveld‟s evidence was not accepted uncritically. To all intents
and purposes he treated him as an accomplice on all counts and laid much emphasis on
his credibility.33 In the judge‟s view at the subsequent Appeal Court hearing, he was not
merely a witness with a possible motive to tell lies about an innocent accused, but was
well equipped because of his inside knowledge “to convince the unwary that his lies are
the truth”. Although this applied to all accomplices who gave evidence against their
fellow accused, it was particularly pertinent in Beyleveld‟s case. He was conversant with
all aspects of the SACP, the court noted, and had a special desire to win his liberty –
knowing that he could be detained under a 1963 Act for a long time.34 But in the final
analysis they chose to believe him. Sarcastically, the judge reflected on the easy manner
in which “a man so dedicated to the part” could capitulate so readily under special branch
pressure. He concluded that Beyleveld had “fingered innocent people” to cover up for
others in the leadership.35 These observations notwithstanding, they found him “a truthful
witness” despite their awareness that he was prepared to betray his friends for his liberty
and might (if necessary) perjure himself to win that liberty.
The verdict was a foregone conclusion. Of the 14 persons originally charged, 12
were found guilty and only Hymie Barsel discharged. Bram, in the words of the court, had
“absconded” during the trial, while three quarters of the way through the proceedings,
Jean Middleton, Ann Nicholson, Flo Duncan, Paul Trewhela and Costa Gazides had
changed their pleas to “guilty”. All of us were found guilty of membership of the SACP
(count 1) and carrying out its aims and objectives (count 3). The allegations in count 2
were “split” between the other two counts: it followed that if we were members of the
SACP and attended the meetings of its committees we were members of the SACP and
had furthered the objects of communism. That effectively took care of count 2.
In the week before sentence was passed, the court had adjourned and we were left to
ourselves at the Fort to attend to the minutiae of domestic matters and the larger concerns
of family and children. These had gradually receded from our reach to become the
responsibility of others as the trial edged towards closure. In my case it was Philippa, who
with meagre resources would have to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the
family and preserving the home. Pre-occupied with these matters I walked up and down
the busy exercise yard, awkwardly avoiding the inmates‟ laundry, a patchwork of shorts,
shirts, jeans and underwear laid out to dry before their owners appeared in court. They too
were apprehensive over the length of the prison sentences awaiting them. They mumbled
words and jumbled numbers that I did not understand: “two to four, five to eight, nine to
fifteen, GBH and the merrie. These I discovered were references in prison jargon to the
statutory length of time they were likely to serve in jail, the latter numbers depending on
whether there were aggravating circumstances such as violence and grievous bodily harm
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 329
(GBH). In certain circumstances an accused would be sentenced to strokes with a light
cane on the buttocks, while lying straddled across the merrie (the wooden structure built
in the shape of a horse).
Not all were contemplating their potential sentences. A syndicate of prisoners, “in
for fraud”, who often joined us in our walks in the yard, cursed the court for its bias or the
inadequacy of the magistrate. They were a group of white-collar fraudsters “shocked and
disgusted” at the “corruption of the law”, speaking as if the latter was something they
regularly respected and adhered to. One of the inmates, less given to matters of
jurisprudence than the others in the yard, joined us as we walked in a line along the
concrete quad, our heads down like all the others. He had clearly decided that it was time
for us to think of the more practical matters that were to confront us and regaled us with
details of what the prison protocol was likely to be once sentence was passed. He spoke
with an air of authority, if not some experience. According to him we‟d be brought back
to the Fort and then placed in leg-irons on entering the prison van and taken to Pretoria.
There were other jails, but he had no doubt we‟d be taken to Pretoria. As he warmed to
the subject, one of the inmates overhearing his unending narrative grabbed him by the arm
and told him to shut his mouth and not tell things like that to people like us. As it turned
out, he prepared us quite well for what followed on the day that sentence was passed.
When that day arrived and we left the Fort for the court, the trial was in its seventh
month. The courtroom was already crowded when we walked up the stairs from the well
of the court to take our seats in the dock for the last time. Although it was primarily a trial
of “whites”, the support of Africans never let up, despite the length of the case and the
boring technical arguments over the law. Philippa came to court regularly and was already
in the spectators‟ gallery when I arrived. If she thought that I was likely to receive a long
prison sentence, she had said nothing during her visits to the Fort. In the courtroom that
morning she smiled bravely and made a supportive nod as she looked in my direction.
The magistrate dealt decisively with the evidence of all the accused and soon left the
court. All but one of the accused (Hymie Barsel) was found guilty of “the crimes of being
members of the Communist Party” and carrying out acts to further the objects of
communism. Pleas in mitigation of sentence made no impact on him: he had made up his
mind. Ivan and Eli on the Central Committee received five years imprisonment; Esther,
Lew and I, on the Area Committee, three years each. Ann, Mollie, Sylvia and Paul each
were sentenced two years and Costa one year, all of them for their membership and
activities in the same party unit.36 As the magistrate hastily left the bench, Eli led the
accused in the customary singing; fists raised high and each one of us defiant in the
certainty that far from this being the end of the road, it was a new turn in the struggle. The
belief that we would in the end succeed in bringing the regime down was without doubt in
our minds. It was this confidence in the future, this assuring sense of certainty that had
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 330
made arrest, detention, torture and the weariness of a long trial endurable. And now it
would be the spur to overcoming the destructive effects of imprisonment.
Not everyone felt as we did, especially those on the outside who realistically saw
what devastating effects our absence would have on our families, especially on the
children. It was this thought that struck me as the magistrate pronounced sentence – the
long absence from the children. The babble I had heard in the exercise yard was still with
me, the numbers buzzing in my head: “two to four, five to eight, nine to fifteen”. Simon
would be five when I returned, Deborah barely nine and Tim fifteen. Sentence had been
passed on all of us, the families too. Philippa was left to pick up the pieces. She shared the
sense of certainty that the favourable outcome of the struggle was “inevitable”, but in the
interim the extended (political) family would have to fill the void created by our
separation. It was with these thoughts in mind that I climbed into the prison van for the
journey back to the Fort and then the uncomfortable trip to Pretoria in precisely the
manner described by the hapless inmate who spoke from the heart, having obviously
experienced the shuffle and the clank that everyone familiar with leg-irons knew so well.
***
On Appeal
The magistrate‟s verdict went on appeal to the Supreme Court and that court‟s judgment
was delivered after we had already been at the Pretoria Local Prison for four months. The
trial court record ran to 3 500 pages exclusive of exhibits, some of them lengthy. Only
Ivan, Eli, Lew, Esther, Molly Doyle [Anderson] and I were thought to have had sufficient
grounds on which to appeal. The verdict in the trial court was upheld. Judge O. Galgut,
who heard the appeal, noted that “the magistrate was seen to be fully justified in finding
[that] the merits of Beyleveld as a witness were beyond question”. He was unable to say
the same about the accused, whose “demerits” were similarly “beyond question”. In
approving the judgment Mr Justice Quartus de Wet, judge president of the Supreme Court
in the Transvaal Division – the same man who had sentenced Mandela and all but two of
his fellow accused in the Rivonia Trial – confirmed Judge Galgut‟s findings and said that
the magistrate “had not erred on any point of law or failed to consider any factor which
might have favoured the accused”. Becoming even more indulgent, he added:
Bearing in mind that the trial court … had an opportunity of assessing the
credibility of the witnesses, I find it impossible to come to the conclusion that the
magistrate was wrong. In fact, on a reading of the relevant evidence, I find
myself in agreement with the magistrate.37
Chapter Sixteen: On Trial – 331
Chapter Seventeen
Inside and Out
Prison
The routine for sentenced prisoners was subtly different from the regimen under 90-day
detention. First the clothes: all khaki and ill-fitting, then the shoes, either a size too large
or a half-size too small. Mealie pips (corn kernels) soaked in water and inserted into the
shoe to enable the leather to stretch as the kernels expanded was the standard prison
recipe for shoes that did not fit. My cell was on the ground floor this time, but the toilet
buckets and bowls for washing and drinking water were the same as before. The exercise
yard was as depressingly gray as I remembered it under 90-day detention, but the “notalking” regime that was in place then had been relaxed just before our arrival. Familiarity
with the Pretoria Local Prison was of no special help to those of us who had spent time
there in solitary confinement. Among the warders, Du Preez was the main source of
continuity between the former detainees and the new guards who now serviced the
section. He did more than act under orders; he was the special branch‟s accomplice in
policing a political prisoner. It was under his supervision at Pretoria Local that we
exchanged our smart courtroom identities for prison ones.
The “political family” was a relatively broad one, from the centre-left in their
thinking to liberal and communist. The long roll-call of political prisoners was an
indication of the extent to which the structures of the liberation movement had been
decimated. The toll of black activists in jail ran into thousands. Proportionately the
number of white politicals was smaller but not insubstantial. Ben Turok and Harold (Jock)
Strachan were the first of the MK recruits to arrive at Pretoria Local. They were tried at
different times and each sentenced under the Explosives Act to three years imprisonment.
They narrowly missed being charged under the “Sabotage Act” (introduced in 1962)
under which they would have received 10-year sentences. Jack Tarshish, sentenced in
1964 was not as “fortunate” as the previous two. He was sentenced to 12 years for an act
of sabotage he was trapped into committing by an enemy agent. Similarly Marius Schoon
and Raymond Thoms, both in their late twenties and members of COD, were led into a
police trap by an agent provocateur. They were apprehended just before placing
explosives at the Hospital Hill police station and each sentenced to 12 years
imprisonment.1 Denis Goldberg was found guilty at the Rivonia Trial in June 1964 and
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 332
sentenced for life; Dave Kitson and John Mathews were convicted for sabotage in the
“Little Rivonia Trial” for membership of the Transvaal Regional Command of MK. Dave
was sentenced for life and John Matthews for 15 years. Their co-accused Wilton Mkwayi,
Laloo Chiba and Mac Maharaj received similarly lengthy sentences and were sent to
Robben Island. Their trial ran concurrently with ours, but was half as long. I had no
knowledge prior to their arrests that they were involved in MK activities.
The convicted members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM) were already
at “Local” when we arrived in April 1965. They were a spirited group, most of whom I
had never met before. Their trials had taken place at the same time as ours, but they were
tried in the Supreme Court under the “Sabotage Act” while we were charged under the
Suppression of Communism Act and the case heard in the magistrate‟s court. The
members of ARM would probably have been at home in MK if they knew how to find it.
They were admirably militant and would have found COD too placid; they might also
have been uncomfortable with its communist image. In any case COD had been banned
since 1962 and some of those sentenced for their membership of the African Resistance
Movement had joined the organization since then. In 1966 Fred Carneson, Bram Fischer
and Issy Heymann, all of them SACP members, joined us. Rowley Arenstein and Dave
Ernst from Durban (unaffiliated to any formal group of communists) arrived a little later.
All of them, except Bram, were sentenced to between one and six years in prison. Bram
was tried under the “Sabotage Act” and sentenced to imprisonment for the remainder of
his life. Had he not left the trial to re-establish the underground network, he would have
been sentenced to five years in jail. But it was highly likely that further charges would
have been preferred against him and his sentence made much longer.
Ben Turok, writing about his experiences in prison almost 40 years later, described
the members of ARM variously as nice, delightful, fair-minded, entertaining, courageous
and laid-back. They were Hugh Lewin, Raymond Eisenstein, Alan Brookes, Dave Evans,
“Spike” de Keller, John Laredo, Tony Trew and Baruch Hirson, probably all of them
(except Baruch Hirson and John Laredo) in their late twenties. Their sentences ranged
from one year to nine. I knew Raymond (he preferred to be called Roman) and Baruch,
but had had no idea of their involvement in ARM or its forerunner, the National
Committee of Liberation. They were all liberal in their politics, except for Baruch, who
was a Trotskyite. Turok knew the communists better and described them without gloss.
He saw Ivan Schermbrucher as severe in his political judgments, vehemently opposed to
the armed struggle and a wonderful comrade in prison; Eli Weinberg as resolved to sit out
his five year sentence with the least possible discontent; Norman Levy as disconsolate and
furiously critical of the leadership outside; and Lewis Baker as a sombre figure but a kind
comrade – when he broke out of his depression.2 Ben‟s sentence expired before the arrival
of Fred, Rowley, Dave and Bram and he was therefore unable to comment on them. Ben
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 333
Turok himself was solicitous of others‟ welfare, conforming to the rules, but not afraid of
contesting an order that was unfair. He was always affable and as far as I could judge,
inexplicably happy.
Class, status, opportunities and good fortune outside the jail did not matter. Attitude,
however, counted a great deal. Also important were how one adjusted to the inanity of the
prison regime and its rigid discipline; whether one was able to come to terms with the
reality of being a sentenced prisoner; and how much one was able to identify with others
in order to live comfortably with them. As far as I could see, to live together amicably one
had to have the capacity to mask one‟s irritation at times, to share and to trust. I managed,
but it took time. I did not always share the work ethic of others and often liked to read
fiction for pleasure. But work and study kept us sane in a lunatic environment and sanity
was the paramount thing. Sensitivity was also an essential quality, but that could not be
learnt. Significantly, personal and family problems were discussed between confidantes
rather than with the group as a whole. There was much that I discovered after my release
from prison that I did not know about then. Differences in politics, religion and prior
educational attainment were less important than the shared experiences that made us a
family – something the prisoners, at Pretoria Central Prison noticed. We may not all have
agreed on how to change the world, but we were all opposed to apartheid and many of us
had experienced the harshness of 90-day detention. Most of us had suffered the strain of
solitary confinement, standing-torture or in some instances brutal physical assault from
overzealous security officials. All of us had been through emotionally draining trials and
in many cases been hurt by the betrayal of comrades who had turned and become state
witnesses. Now we were in prison together and this and everything else we shared was
sufficient to make us a family.
At first we were placed in separate cells on routine observation for the prison
psychologists (more likely criminologists) to ascertain whether we were capable of
rehabilitation. Apparently we were incurable. Routine prison protocol was therefore
abandoned and we were held three to a cell, like everyone else. The entire section, a
dormitory of about twelve adjoining cells, held about 22 political prisoners facing
sentences from one year to life. We read, studied and bared our personal histories to one
another: eating, reading, sharing anecdotes and occasionally contraband. Sometimes the
most private and least forthcoming of cellmates were the most self-revealing, using inner
resources they never knew they had to overcome the social constraints of prison. Over
three years, at different times, I shared a cell with at least a dozen prisoners..
There is nothing comparable to getting to know a person in prison. Costa Gazides
read, wrote copiously and enlivened the dullest of prison moments with amusing
reminiscences of his youth. He took sheer delight in testing the limits of authority,
believing that the prison regulations were only there to be broken. As a medical doctor his
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 334
remedies for our ailments were mostly homeopathic and political. If I had a headache, its
cause was imperialism and the cure a wet handkerchief spread firmly across the forehead
(the large red prison handkerchiefs fitted the prescription perfectly). Rowley Arenstein
and Dave Kitson were similarly two early cellmates as were Paul Trewhela and Lewis
Baker. Rowley talked and listened attentively to others and was fond of recounting his
experiences as a lawyer during the rural uprisings in Pondoland. He was proud of being
referred to by his clients as an honorary Zulu. Dave Kitson was a talented engineer, then
about forty-five years old, resigned to a life sentence that left him numb. He had a fund of
stories, incidents from his youth in the CPSA in the 1940s in Durban and his activities in
the trade union movement in London – all of which he often repeated. But most of the
time he buried his head in old books from the prison library, anything that he could get. It
didn‟t seem to matter that their publication pre-dated the South African War or that
chunks of their spotted pages had been torn out for use as wrapping paper for home-rolled
cigarettes by half a century of prisoners. He seldom spoke of the movement or said much
about the state witness, Lionel Gay, who had betrayed him. For all his taciturnity Kitson
was a good ally to have in prison; private but accessible.
Marius Schoon and Jack Tarshish were quite different “chinas”. Marius was then in
his mid-twenties. I had met him before in Swaziland during the 1960 state of emergency,
when he was thin, pale and angry.3 When I met him again in prison he had not changed. A
delightful cellmate, he lived in his head, feasted on anecdotes, embellishing the plot and
altering the scenery according to the mood and the occasion. He found happiness after 12
years in prison, re-married and had two children with his new wife, but tragically she and
his younger daughter were killed in Angola, where they were victims of a parcel-bomb
sent by the special branch and intended for him. Sadly, he died while I was writing this
memoir.4 Jack Tarshish, the last of my cellmates, could either be the life and soul of the
cell‟s threesome or deeply depressed. He had narcolepsy and frequently fell face-first into
his porridge or into his soup-plate at mealtimes. But I warmed towards him and was
touched by his affection for his sister (Ethel de Keyser) whose photograph he valued
highly and kept where he could always see it, on the top of his locker in the prison cell.
Soon after his release he took his own life.
***
Prison was very bleak in the beginning. We were closely watched by the warders who
were all patently aware that the special branch was monitoring our treatment. This was
despite the fact that the officer commanding the prison was nominally responsible for our
keep. On our arrival, exercise time was a miserable half-hour in the morning and half hour
in the afternoon, preparatory to a long lock-up. Conditions improved later, but it was a
contest all the way. As D-category prisoners (in itself a punishment usually experienced
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 335
by the most intractable of common law prisoners) we were entitled to a single letter and
one visit every six months. My first visit was in October 1965. I had not seen Philippa
since April and was probably as apprehensive about the visit as she was. She looked
thinner than I had remembered her and she had specially dressed for the half-hour visit.
She kept a brave face as we awkwardly greeted each other through a brass grille, I on the
inner part of the visiting cubicle and she on the outer; a warder next to her, his ear cocked
to hear every word that passed between us. She made no comment on my ugly prison
garb, close-cropped hair and unfamiliar appearance and spoke about the children, her
work, my mother‟s poor health, her own family – anything but local or international news
of the world outside – we knew that that was strictly forbidden, as was information about
the prison, the prisoners, or what we did “inside”.
I returned to the cell disappointed that I had not used the time more sensibly and that
the visit had been about everything except feelings. Later, I learnt from the others to make
a list of the topics to talk about and also figured out a way of masking questions that
would normally be disallowed. But it made future visits less spontaneous and the quest
for news seemingly more important than the visit itself. News, however, was our lifeblood; we fed on it and were desperate for any snippet from which we could weave a
credible narrative. In the absence of newspapers or a radio, news-gathering became an
object of a visit to the dentist, the doctor, a conversation with a new warder (who was as
desperate to talk to others on his watch as we were ravenous for news) but there was
nothing we prized more than news from a family visit.
One morning in 1965, Lewis Baker received an unusual visit from the then Minister
of Justice, B.J. Vorster. As the names of visitors were never announced and Lewis Baker
was not due for a visit at that time, it was a curious, if not ominous summons when
Warder du Preez called him to the visitors‟ room. It was not entirely untoward that a
government minister should visit the prison, but it was unusual to be selected for direct
contact. When Lew returned to the cell about an hour later, we heard it all, some of us
several times over as we walked round the exercise yard in groups of three, sometimes
joining a new group to hear the details a second or a third time.
It seemed that Vorster had remembered Lew from his days as a lawyer in Benoni.
The two men had previously practised at the side-bar on the East Rand in the late 1940s
and early 1950s. They were not friends. Lew was a member of the Communist Party and
was now a prisoner and Vorster was in one of the fascist “shirt movements” before
becoming an internee in an internment camp during the Second World War. Vorster had
welcomed the Nazis as allies at the start of the war and found a political home in the neoNazi Ossewa Brandwag in which he rose to the rank of general in the Port Elizabeth
district. In September 1942 he was interned for two years at Koffiefontein and his
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 336
activities were severely curbed after his release in January 1944.5 Later, he became a
member of parliament and in 1966, in the wake of Verwoerd‟s murder, prime minister.
Vorster‟s sudden appearance at Pretoria Local was an enigma. Had the man come to
gloat over Lew‟s incarceration? Or was it nostalgia at the memory of old times in a prison
camp? The visit no doubt gave Vorster an opportunity to reflect upon his own
powerlessness in the war years. He spoke about his restrictions in detention and
commiserated with Lew on his prison conditions, saying that “this was the way it had to
be”. At which point Lew interrupted him to ask for an upgrading of status, an increase in
the number of visits, more frequent letters, a variation in the prison diet, and above all,
permission to receive newspapers and enjoy contact visits from our families. Vorster
appeared sympathetic and nodded his head in recognition of conditions familiar and
unforgettable. He had experienced it all at Koffiefontein, he told Lew. He had had only a
modicum of privileges there, half-hour monthly visits under guard, separated from his
visitors by barbed wire, kept at arms length from society and banned from receiving
newspapers or journals, except for a number of prescribed magazines which nobody
would ordinarily buy to read. It was the way things were for political prisoners and Lew
and his fellow travellers should understand that they were in that category now, as he and
his comrades in the Ossewa Brandwag had been before. Sadly, he knew it all but could do
little to change things!6
Vorster‟s visit made little difference to our lives and prison conditions were slow to
improve.
***
The grimmest of my years in prison was in 1965, the year I arrived, but it had been worse
before then. For a long time there had been no work. Then mailbags were found. They
were unusable, whether or not we mended them; wear and tear and old age had
contributed to their attrition. At first they were placed in each cell and the inmate‟s
worked on them for about four hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon.
Fortunately that work arrangement changed after our arrival and we were all allowed to
work outdoors, in the yard. This was fine in the warm sun but uncomfortable in the cold.
We sat on wooden stools brought from the cells, our backs resting against the yard wall. It
was an infant school activity, threading adhesive string through the eye of an outsize
needle and stitching countless holes, as if we were darning socks long past repair.
Unfortunately I was never any good at darning socks (concealing a book under the bag‟s
folds was out of the question as surveillance was strong). Dave Kitson sat next to me and
worked characteristically quickly, completing bag after bag before I had even begun to
enter the production process. Denis Goldberg worked with equally rapid results. More
often than not, my contribution lagged behind everyone else‟s.
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 337
This could be serious as there was always the residual fear of losing the “right” to
work at all. Mailbags were bad, but no work and being shut in a cell was worse. Kitson
came to my rescue, adding sufficient sacks to my share of the day‟s production tally to
enable me to exceed the informal quota. Work was to be taken seriously. “No talking”,
was the rule, but of course we did talk when the guards weren‟t looking. I had my finest
conversations with Bram during some of these work sessions. This was much later, after
we‟d come back from a brief interlude at Central Prison in November 1966, and he had
already been sentenced to life imprisonment. He talked about his family‟s involvement in
the 1913 rebellion and his revulsion at the school cadets, which he associated with the
British army, imperialism and the enemy. On one occasion we talked about the 1936
Soviet trials (which I knew he had attended) and asked him whether he suspected they
were unfair. Before he replied, he adjusted the mailbag perched on his lap, looked around
and paused characteristically. His answer was a surprise. “Of course I did! But that‟s
between you and me!” He did not want to join the anti-communist bandwagon.
Throughout 1965 conditions were bleak. Harold Strachan was released soon after
our arrival in April 1965 and promptly did his best to expose the conditions he had
experienced in jails in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria. This did him little good
personally and he was returned to prison on further charges and treated abysmally. But
every prisoner benefited from his disclosures. The articles were published in the
Johannesburg Rand Daily Mail, despite their contravening the Prison‟s Act of 1950.
Lawrence Gandar, the newspaper‟s editor, forfeited his job for publishing Strachan‟s
story, but the disclosures were subsequently discussed in parliament and clearly reached
cabinet and prime minister.
In the aftermath of these articles, Helen Suzman, the lone Progressive Party Member
of parliament, made a sudden appearance at Pretoria Local. She had come to follow up
Strachan‟s revelations of prisoner abuse. She walked from cell to cell until she reached
the end of the section, bombarded all the way by an earful of complaints. Later she visited
the prisoners in Mandela‟s section on Robben Island. There the inmates were more astute
in providing her with a coherent list of complaints. They had got wind along the prison
grapevine that a visitor was coming and stood to attention at the entrance to their cells,
saying very little as she walked through the section. When she reached Mandela‟s cell he
was waiting for her with a long list of complaints. Characteristically, she listened
carefully and said she would take them up with the prison authorities – and typically did
as she said.
She came to Local again in 1967 and on that occasion asked to see Hugh Lewin.
Like old friends, they greeted each other from either side of the brass grille in the visitor‟s
room where Hugh spoke for us all. Nothing much had improved since her last visit;
upgrading was still very slow, and work was a meaningless activity, amounting to little
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 338
more than a form of punishment. Much time, he told her, was still spent in the cell and
registration for advanced university courses was increasingly difficult, due to the
authorities‟ incomprehensible opposition to post-graduate study. (I was fortunate enough
to register for an honour‟s degree in history in 1967, but after that there were few who
were allowed to register for post-graduate courses; the regulations for common law
prisoners simply did not apply to “politicals”.) Unlike the other prisoners, we were not
allowed to receive local or international news; treatment was more punitive, searches
were more severe and surveillance fierce. Helen Suzman‟s visits led to a few permanent
changes, but apart from the welcome recreational improvements, things remained the
same as before.
It was study, however, that kept us going. It enabled us to survive the long lock-ups
and lack of amenities. We registered with the University of South Africa (because it was
equipped for distance learning and was the only tertiary institution sufficiently trusted by
the regime to be free of subversive ideas). It was a safe “school” where the tutor would
not be seen as a conduit for subversion. For us it was access to the university library that
was important; the ability to requisition books on history, literature, anthropology,
philosophy and Native Administration (but not Political Science or Government). The
university‟s printed notes could be discarded without serious intellectual loss. In the
weeks prior to the exams there was hardly any movement in the cells. We sat perched on
our wooden stools until “lights-out” – heads down, silent as the dead, transforming the
section into a dormitory of a most unusual university. As a captive student-body, it was
rare if we did not do well at exam time.
***
Central Prison
“Kom, Kom, Kom!” the warders‟ battle-cry rung through the corridor as it always did
when something untoward was about to happen. Without a word being said on where we
were headed, we were led out of the prison through a side door and conscientiously
herded into a truck like so many sheep. The vehicle stopped almost as soon as it had
started, at Central Prison – a stone‟s throw from Local. We were led into the main hall, a
huge concourse with high walls and a black, stone floor. The whole place reeked of polish
and the atmosphere commanded order and silence. The only activity was the opening and
closing of grilles by turnkeys and the motion of a few inmates skating on “taxis” from one
set of gates to another.7 There were about 15 of us, Dave, Denis and Marius had been
summarily removed from the section at Local the day before, and were now reunited with
us. They had been brought to “Central” first, but we were at a loss to know why. There
was equal confusion as to why we were moved at all.
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 339
The one-on-one surveillance by a handful of alert warders at “Local” (on the lookout for signs of mutiny against the prison regulations) was out of the question at Central.
There were many more opportunities for our interacting with other prisoners in this jail
and less likelihood of our being micro-managed than before. We stood in the stark hall,
ignored by the turnkeys and of no special interest to anyone except the floor-dancers.
Time seemed to be of little consequence to anyone. Finally, there was movement.
Warders entered the hall carrying suitcases, which we recognised as ours – some of us
still had “personal property” kept at “reception”. Among the bags was my capacious
green case, which Terry Bell had found so incongruous; he had only a toothbrush, which
he kept in his shirt pocket. I forget why we were handed the suitcases, but as soon as I
was reunited with mine, I opened it and looked for contraband. There was no tobacco to
be found, no matches, no radio, money or chocolates. All I found was a peppermint,
which I quickly threw into my mouth and just as quickly spat out again. I might have been
starved for sweets, but this was a mothball.
Central was another world. It had its own political economy. Jam, sugar, tobacco
and matches were all “household” commodities that could be bought and sold on the
section floor. Books, sex, secrets and skills (which were all part of the legal and
professional service sector) were eminently exchangeable for other commodities. The
Prisons Department more or less owned their prisoners – at least for the duration of their
sentences and for each further sentence they received. Many prisoners were often “in” and
“out” of prison in what amounted to a lifetime cycle of release and return. They were
subject to regulations rather than rights. “Basic rights” included meals, exercise, visits,
letters, study materials and work. These could easily be forfeited if the regulations were
contravened. Rights depended on one‟s category of “citizenship” (a forbidden word as
prisoners forfeited their citizenship for the duration of their sentences). One‟s status as a
citizen (meaning the number of letters, visits, purchases, etc.) depended on whether you
were grade A, B, C or D. Most of the political prisoners were in grade D and remained in
that category far longer than the other prisoners. They barely qualified for anything more
than the basic prison rights. The commanding officer was the most authoritative
individual in the system but real power rested with the warders and their vassals: the
section cleaners, the librarian, the heads of stores, the workshop-heads and the narks.
Together with the corrupt community in the kitchen (the “hidden hands” behind the prison
economy) they ruled the roost in the jail and no inmate in his right mind would attempt to
ruffle anyone‟s feathers.
Our section at Local Prison was tiny by comparison with Central. It took time to get
used to the size of this huge establishment, the large number of inmates, the prison‟s
heterogeneous culture and its babble and buzz. It was not called the “The Big House” for
nothing. It came as a surprise to us that we were not kept together as a group of political
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 340
prisoners, but accommodated in different parts of the section. Possibly the authorities
thought that we would not have the same opportunity to assert our solidarity as a special
category of prisoners if we were mixed with common law prisoners. The irony was that
we regularly asked to be treated equally with the other prisoners, but the special branch
preferred to keep us apart and dispense separate and unequal treatment.
Hundreds of inmates in the higher grades filled the cells in the B section and as it
was a “hanging jail”, about 120 prisoners (few of them white men) were held at any one
time in death row. In the 10 months that we were there about 80 hangings took place. The
choral ritual that preceded the executions, and the mournful lament of fellow inmates on
death row, could be heard as far as the Local prison from before dawn to dusk. All the
inmates lived with it, carried on their ablutions as usual, ate their breakfast before rushing
down the stairs to “assembly” in the large main hall on the ground floor. After two or
three rounds of counting (to confirm that the number of prisoners remained the same as
the night before) we moved in double-line formations through the prison yard to the
workshops. On hanging days we silently waited behind a door wedged into the wall of the
complex that housed the gallows. This was to allow the prison hearse to remove the
remains of the dead men from the yard after the executions. On these mornings we
marched to the workshop more slowly and the mood was more sombre than usual. What
remains with me is the memory of the nightlong lament. Lewis Baker and I were closer to
the singing than the other political prisoners because three months after our arrival at
Central we were unexpectedly transferred to cells in a section opposite death row. The
reason for this doubtful privilege was our upgrading in status from grade D to grade C!
***
By some strange coincidence the work I was given on my first day at Central was
concerned with coffins. The allocation of work to prisoners was a mystery. Lew and I
were sent to the sheet metal workshop and the other “politicals” randomly placed in the
fitting and turning, blacksmith and carpentry workshops. Nothing prior to this had
prepared us for any of these occupations, but as “Jock” Strachan sensibly said, “prison
was comprehensible and manageable but never predictable”.8 The prisoner who acted as
the foreman of the sheet metal workshop was a badly brutalized inmate who had set
himself the impossible task of improving my working skills. In this instance it was
hammering and folding the malleable metal sheeting into the shape of long, narrow
coffins, referred to in Afrikaans as “trommels” (literally “drums”). We were told these
were used to store armaments for the SADF. Subsequently I discovered that they were
also used to store government documents that accompanied the minister of a national
department from Pretoria to Cape Town twice a year, when parliament sat. My job after
knocking out the bumps in the sheet-metal case was to bend the crooked wires straight for
Chapter Seventeen: Inside and Out – 341
the opening and closing mechanism in the lid. Lewis Baker made the lid and used the
wires I tortured into shape to thread them through the coffin‟s hinges.
“Big Eye”, the workshop chief, regarded the politicals as “peace freaks” and kept a
watchful eye on us. Lew Baker, a sensible judge of the inmates (they were, after all, his
clients in the prison law practice he found himself conducting9) said the foreman was to
be ignored at our peril – and I believed him. More than once this aggressive recidivist had
threatened to throw me into the trench of filthy pea-green water outside the sheet metal
workshed if I didn‟t improve my work performance. It was numbing work, hammering
out the humps in the coffins, my head in the tin box for hours at a time, ears ringing until I
was totally deaf. Relief came for a short while with the visit of the new Minister of
Justice, Petrus Cornelius Pelser. His appearance at the workshops occurred just after the
assassination of Verwoerd in 1966 while the officials sorted out the turf war between the
special branch and the Prisons Department as to whose prisoners we were. Pelser came
virtually unannounced except for a brief warning along the prison grapevine that an
important visitor was on his way to inspect the workshops. The message was passed in
quick succession from one workshop to the other until it arrived at the sheet metal section,
at the end of the line. Big Eye gave the orders for all of us to make a good impression on
the visitor. This injunction was hardly necessary as Pelser‟s visit consisted of a
peremptory walk in double quick-time past the workbenches, a slightly raised eyebrow as
he looked in the direction of Lew and me, and he was gone! When the minister left, Big
Eye (who had noticed my effort to appear productive) sla