“BRICS: in the Mirror of Times” The influence of the Comintern on South African communists
The twelfth episode of the joint project by TV BRICS and GAUGN is devoted to the relationship between the USSR and South African communists
In the twelfth episode of the joint project by the TV BRICS international network and GAUGN “BRICS: in the Mirror of Times”, dedicated to the training of communist supporters from South Africa in the USSR, Alexander Voevodsky, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Senior Researcher at the Centre for African Studies of the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke about the relationship between the USSR and South African communists.
The project was supported by a grant from the Russian Ministry of Education and Science as part of the federal project “Popularisation of Science and Technology”.
In March 1919, the Comintern (Communist International) was founded in Moscow on the initiative of the Bolshevik Party, an organisation which declared its main goal to be the establishment of Soviet power throughout the world. Africa was not left out of the Comintern’s attention. What impact did it have on South African communists?
Who fought for the rights of South Africans in the early twentieth century and why?
After the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, South Africa is facing a situation created by Africans themselves. The South African Native National Congress came into existence in 1912 with the aim of defending the land rights of the primarily African population. Since the Union of South Africa authorities had imposed restrictions on the ownership of land by Africans, i.e. the indigenous inhabitants of the country, only eight and a bit per cent of the land remained at the disposal of the African population, according to the new law passed. Outside the designated reservations, Africans could not own land. That is, 3/4 of the population was indigenous and only 1/4 was white, but the African population has just over 8% of the territory. All the efforts of the South African Native National Congress came to nothing, the law was passed.
After the First World War, new forces emerged in South Africa from more radical, more left-wing positions, but again these were mostly white people. In South Africa, the International Socialist League was formed, which essentially provided the basis for the future formation of the Communist Party of South Africa, which was founded in 1921. Now it’s the ruling party African National Congress, that’s what it’s called now.
What did Southern Africa hear about the 1917 revolution in Russia and how did they feel about it?
Oddly enough, they heard quite a lot. The International Socialist League (mostly made up of immigrants from Britain, they were British Socialists, Labour, former members of the Labour Party; they were immigrants from the Russian Empire) followed these events closely. In the brochures and newspapers they published, they even copied articles from “Pravda” and some materials from “Izvestiya”. So, basically, information was available through various channels: both official (what the Telegraph Agency and the South African press published) and from forces sympathetic to the Bolsheviks.
An interesting point: in 1919 there was even a lecture in Johannesburg that attracted several thousand people, featuring two Russian migrants, Sosnovik and Lipnitsky. They could tell everything as eyewitnesses of the events.
And how much influence did the communists have in South Africa in general?
The heyday of their activity was the second half of the 1920s. When the South African Communist Party was founded, it immediately became part of this Communist International. David Ivon Jones, one of the Communist Party’s members and founders, joined the executive committee of the Comintern, the highest collegial body. He died in Russia and his grave is located in Novodevichy Cemetery. So the South African communists were involved in the decision making.
Did the leaders of the Comintern think about any special destiny for South Africa and what it could do for the Communist Party?
Africa played its part. The Comintern saw the African colonies of European countries as a kind of underbelly of imperialism. That is, it was believed that if a movement against the colonial empires started there, it would weaken them and accelerate the revolution in Europe itself. Africa in this case played more of an auxiliary role, but nevertheless in this global strategy, global vision, the Comintern also gave its certain priority to this direction. All the more so because in Europe the revolution was somehow slow in coming.
It is known that one of the strategies of the Comintern was to train personnel in the USSR – supporters of communist ideas from different countries. There were such people from South Africa, as I understand it?
The two Comintern institutions are the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV for short) and the so-called Lenin School. It was there that they studied, and African students ended up there, well, listeners, if you can call them that. Future leaders of the Communist Party of South Africa John Beaver Marks, Moses Kotane – future general secretary and leader of the Communist Party of South Africa – were among those who studied. They were taught Marxist-Leninist philosophy, political economy, the history of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks, the history of the labour movement, and conspiratorial work.
When they returned to their homeland, they had to act as political organisers and carry out propaganda and other work among the population on the ground. That is, to act as bearers of this Marxist communist idea.
How did Moscow generally understand the goals of the struggle of the South African communists?
It was quite difficult. After the death of Ivon Jones (he died of consumption in 1923 or 1924) there were no permanent representatives of the South African Communist Party in the Comintern, although delegations from the South African Communist Party travelled regularly to congresses. The key was the Sixth Congress of the Comintern (1928), which adopted the slogan, that is, the goal of the Communist Party of South Africa’s activity was formulated: the creation of an independent indigenous republic, as it is formulated in the documents.
What was the difficulty?
That the main revolutionary force, according to the theses of the Comintern, was to be the African proletariat, and it had not yet developed in South Africa at that time. The white proletariat was more developed; there were a lot of whites among the Afrikaner workers. And the fact that this slogan was imposed from above led to a serious crisis. That is, in fact, it alienated the white workers, who, it must be said, were also pro-Russian. When there was a big uprising of South African workers, primarily white workers, in 1922, they marched under the slogan “Proletarians of all countries, unite for a white South Africa!”. They were protesting about hiring too many Africans and losing their jobs. Racial contradictions penetrated even into the working class, resulting in a major crisis in the 1930s.
The Communist Party barely survived the 1930s, its numbers shrinking by an order of magnitude, from a few thousand members to a hundred active participants. The situation changes with the beginning of the Second World War and the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet Union and South Africa were allies in World War II. During this period, the Union of South Africa began to treat the Soviet Union more favourably, because the government of the Union of South Africa, of course, was anti-Bolshevik. The Communist Party was not banned, but nevertheless the leader of the South African Union, Jan Christian Smuts, was an opponent of Bolshevism. That is, here his views were similar to Churchill, but during the war years he considered the Soviet Union as an ally, so even for the Communist Party the conditions for activity were softened.
A consulate of the Soviet Union, that is, a diplomatic mission, was established. The “Society of Friends of the Soviet Union” in South Africa, which collected material aid and money, launched its activities. A total of £700,000 was raised between 1941 and 1944, we are talking specifically about donations from citizens. This included medicine, some clothes, even blood components. South Africans as part of the British navy also participated in carrying out convoys north from Britain to Murmansk, which delivered arms and other aid to the USSR during the war.