COMMENT

How the Nats aided the SACP

John Kane-Berman says the white govt's response to the communist threat is a lesson in how not to do it

Communists, Nationalists, and hallucinogens   

The previous government, as this column observed last week citing a remark by James Myburgh, was not "hallucinogenic" about communist penetration of the African National Congress (ANC).

Nor, contrary to what some people are saying, were liberals under any illusions, as Myburgh also noted. Although some liberals became fellow travellers, prominent liberals in the South African Institute of Race Relations, the Liberal Party, and the Progressive Party were especially alert to the machinations of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Many liberals suspected from the outset that the "Congress of the People" was controlled by communists. We at the Institute were well aware of the age-old communist technique of "entryism".

But where liberals and the then National Party (NP) government differed, fundamentally, was on how to deal with communism. The government might not have been hallucinogenic about communist influence, but its response was deluded. And it played into the hands of the SACP, despite warnings by liberals against this.

In the first place, the NP thought it could destroy communism by banning the then communist party in 1950. The party reincarnated itself underground. Secondly, the NP government thought it could destroy the ANC by banning it in 1960. The effect was to strengthen the argument that peaceful change was impossible. This suited the SACP's revolutionary agenda perfectly. Less than a decade after being slapped with its banning order, the ANC at its Morogoro conference had endorsed the SACP's plans for a National Democratic Revolution (NDR).

Back in South Africa, the NP sabotaged alternatives to the ANC/SACP/Umkhonto we Sizwe. In 1968 it forced the multiracial Liberal Party to dissolve itself, and the Progressive Party to expel its black members. Nearly ten years later it banned a dozen and a half black consciousness organisations, among them organisations worried about the influence of white communists in the ANC, just as some of the leaders of the Pan-Africanist Congress had been. That organisation, of course, had been banned in 1960.

Despite its arsenal of legislation supposedly designed to destroy communism, the NP and its security forces acted as recruiting sergeants for the ANC, the SACP, and Umkhonto. Most notoriously, they did this by gunning down protesting students in Soweto and elsewhere in 1976. The result, predicted at the time, was that many who fled the country wound up in the waiting arms - and military training camps - of the ANC, the SACP, and Umkhonto.

Nor did the ANC and the SACP waste away after having been driven into exile. They mobilised a global movement against apartheid, capturing some of the organs of the United Nations, along with newsrooms and foreign ministries in various capitals. The NP helped them there too with its torture and killing of political detainees, its forced removals, and all its other mindless brutalities. Each death, each bullet, each removal, was probably worth a few thousand dollars, kronor, marks, pounds, roubles, etc, in the coffers of the ANC/SACP/Umkhonto. So the NP not only recruited for its enemies, it helped them fund-raise as well.  

By the time FW de Klerk threw all this into reverse in 1990 – 40 years after the Suppression of Communism Act was passed – it was too late. In the meantime the NP had supplemented that futile piece of legislation with a whole lot more. It had also built up a huge arms industry, set up fancy security management systems, planted spies all over the show, bombed a few towns around the region, and whatnot. Now we have a government, parliament, and public service full of communists dedicated to driving the NDR and the "transformation" agenda reiterated by President Jacob Zuma in his speech last week.  

The NP government was right to fear communism. But how it dealt with that threat is a textbook case of what not to do. Just as we liberals warned them.

 *John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, will be published by Jonathan Ball in March.