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Being or not being a communist in South Africa today


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Being or not being a communist in South Africa today

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

27th February 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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From 1969/70 until 2006 I had been a fairly orthodox member of the South African Communist Party, and I broke ranks over the party’s conduct during the Jacob Zuma rape trial and its collusion in the corruption of the years of his state presidency, dramatically illustrated in the diversion of funds intended for poverty relief towards refurbishing Zuma’s Nkandla home into a luxurious mansion. I have had no official contact since then and very little interaction with individuals who remain members. (See Raymond Suttner, Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2017, new Introduction, on this break).

I am frequently asked whether I, nevertheless, remain a communist, partly because in recent times I have quoted biblical texts bearing on xenophobia and other questions and drawn on feminist theological writing (and feminist ethics) to explain how I understand commitment and betrayal. Some who may believe that atheism is a missionary creed think that these biblical allusions signify how I have gone off the rails.


When asked this question, that I have not yet answered, I initially reacted like a scholar and looked to see what Marx, Engels and Lenin said on ethics and found that much of what I found was not immediately helpful to me. Much of the classical Marxist writings do not address ethical choices of individuals but expound on the class basis of all ethical systems and the frankly working class basis of Marxism. (See H Selsam and H Martel (ed) Reader in Marxist Philosophy. International Publishers. 1971).

Doctrinal understanding and acting on beliefs


The question that concerns me now is not the social basis of moral systems but whether or not individuals act on the doctrines with which they associate, whether their concern is that of ideas alone or whether they put their body on the line - make a commitment that they live by - and what it means to embody the pain of the oppressed in one’s own life choices.

This does not apply to communism alone but any belief system and those who undertake to act in its support. Other belief systems may not require extreme sacrifices, but they may entail a measure of suffering or loss for those who subscribe to the doctrine and act it out.

Much of what Lenin wrote relates to morality and class, attacking attempts to disguise the social basis of ethical systems. But Lenin did address the ethical questions with which I had been grappling and that I had thought were not addressed by Marxism. In a speech to Communist youth after the October 1917 revolution Lenin said, inter alia:

“When the workers and peasants proved that they were able by their own efforts to defend themselves and create a new society, a new communist schooling began, a schooling in the fight against the exploiters. A schooling in alliance with the proletariat against the self-seekers, against the psychology and habits which say: I seek my own profit and I don’t care a hang for anything else….” (Selsam and Martel, p. 274.  My italics)

I am not examining the practice of Soviet Communism, but the way it addressed ethics through classical writings. What interests me is Lenin’s reference to the quality of individual concern for the fate of others, not simply the social base of ethics that is to be found throughout the rest of that talk and the limited study I have made of other writings on this question.

That Lenin refers to those who “don’t care a hang for anything else” apart from their own profit is in fact a repudiation of any actions that display indifference to the fate of others.  His communist ethics in fact exhorted the youth to care about the fate of the downtrodden and make that question their own.

Dispute with SACP not over doctrine but actions undermining ethic of solidarity with the oppressed

What I have come to realise is that my problem with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and my break with the organisation related partly to difference with the directions it took in the Zuma era, but  mainly with ethical questions, their failure to respond with concern to the hurt that people were suffering, as with Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo‚ referred to as "Khwezi”, when she was the complainant in the Jacob Zuma rape trial. My break with the SACP, although directly provoked by its complicity in the pummelling of “Khwezi”, also related to broader involvement in the rise of Jacob Zuma to the ANC and South African presidency and its support, especially ideological support for many of the scandals, like Nkandla spending, that characterised his presidency. (See Raymond Suttner, Inside Apartheid’s Prison, 2017, Jacana Media, new introduction, pp.xviii-xxii)

That there were cogent allegations of corruption against Zuma was well known for some time and had been referred to in court, during the trial of one of his financiers, Schabir Shaik.

My reaction to the trial and the general SACP propagation of Zuma’s candidacy despite the allegations swirling around his head, was not based on Marxist doctrine, nor was it based on any specific learning of Marxism that I drew on at the time. It related to failures in practice, in carrying out undertakings to serve the poor and vulnerable with integrity.

My adoption of Marxism and communism

My way of practising and understanding Marxism started not purely or even primarily from Marxist doctrine but from a sense, that if I were to be a communist, I had to relate to the pain that people experienced and make it my own. I regarded recruitment into the SACP as something “sacred”, given the gravity of the tasks and the heroic figures who had served in that organisation, unlike more recent times. (See Inside Apartheid’s Prison, Introduction)

As with feminist theologies and ethics, it was based on mutuality, mutual concern for one another, relationality, people joined together by compassion, empathy and a sense of identification with the pain of others.

When I return again to think about Marxism, my sense is that although it may not have expressly addressed pain, and anguish and oppression in these terms, it is in fact, implicit in the step that is taken between accepting Marxist doctrine, and a commitment to act on those beliefs.

It is implicit that when you take a step to help bring about a society that ends this oppression and achieves freedom, one is speaking about a concern that you as a human being have, for that Other with whom you decide to identify yourself as a Marxist or as a communist and, of course, also as a democrat who may not be a communist and may have made that commitment as a member of the ANC or an allied organisation.

That is what made me a communist. That is why I became a communist party member. And that is, also, why I left the South African Communist Party - because it no longer acted in fidelity with the principles and practices that had drawn me and many others to the organisation.

The same concern for the pain that black people experienced in South Africa was what initially made me a liberal until the late 1960s. And I did not abandon liberalism, because I found that it lacked compassion for the pain of the poor and the marginalised and black people in general. The liberals I think of were not in the John Steenhuisen mould but people like Donald Molteno QC, who had been a much-loved “Natives Representative” in Parliament in the 1930s, Helen Suzman, Colin Eglin, Zac de Beer, Ken Andrew and other fine people.

I left liberalism for the ANC and Communist Party, because I came to believe that liberalism did not have a programme for change. I came to believe that the strategy for change that the ANC and Communist Party had developed was a realistic way of achieving freedom in South Africa.

Who is a communist?

What that means for me, in relation to the question that I was asked, about whether I remain a communist is that I cannot say that I'm no longer communist, but I need to clarify how I understand that in a situation where I'm not identified, and I do not wish to be a member of the existing Communist Party in this country

What does it mean to be a communist when one is not part of the communist movement, where one is an independent communist? When I joined the South African Communist Party, I was told that the definition of a communist is to be a member of the Communist Party. Now that I'm no longer a member of the Communist Party, I ask myself whether that definition is wrong, and I believe it is wrong.

Where a Communist Party no longer adheres to the ethics of communism, it is important for one to find a way of realising those ethics, of helping others who experience pain and oppression, from outside the Communist Party. This is the case in South Africa because of the recent record of the SACP that has betrayed its own constituency.

My reading of feminist theology helped me to understand commitment as forming a connection between myself and the organisation I joined and the pain of the oppressed. That connection required offering one’s life to the Struggle. That was what was entailed by commitment.  (See Inside Apartheid’s Prison).

But I think on a closer reading of what engaged those who decided to commit themselves to the Struggle, not just to analyse with Marxist tools, those who decided to put their life at the service of the Struggle, I think we may find we are speaking of understandings that are very similar to those that are found in feminist ethics and feminist theologies. Their tools for understanding the question of association with a cause embodying one's life in that of the oppressed may enrich the understandings of those that do not, like me, come from a position of religious affiliation.

What I am saying is not original thinking about reasons for being a Communist. Chris Hani lived out such values. Dipuo Mvelase, a former MK commissar, in an interview shortly after Hani’s death told me that when she and 200-300 others were recruited and based in Angola, Hani spent every night with the new recruits:

“[H]e spent every single evening talking to us.  And you felt wanted, you felt at home.  You felt important… Asking you about your family, how you feel, what is your experience, do you miss home? Questions that you thought you wouldn’t be asked because we are in a revolution - the revolution and such things, you as a person, you get lost… But Comrade Chris made sure that you don’t get lost. You don’t become part of a mass of revolutionaries where you are expected to take home certain things and you are forgotten as a person… [H]e humanised the Struggle… He made every single one of us feel we count. We matter - which is something that one never experienced, even before one left the country or when you just came into the Struggle because there are those big expectations that revolutionaries have to do this - have to sacrifice that and that revolutionaries are human beings, are ordinary people - one never felt that until Comrade Chris and ja… you can imagine losing such a person, what it means.” (Interview, 1993).

Taking this passage about Chris Hani - and there are others who in the past displayed exemplary qualities of care and concern and rejected indifference - there is a body of thinking and conduct to draw on.  There is a body of ethical thinking and practice not only for Communists but for every person who believes in a cause or is a freedom fighter (a word that needs to be retrieved and its meaning renewed) who will go beyond understanding and act on their beliefs.

I have not answered the question whether or not I am a Communist and instead tried to point to a broader ethical compass that I believe is needed in the current situation, not only in the ANC and its allies, but more generally.

I am not a Communist in the sense of loyalty to the SACP - but I still remain committed to the ethical values that drew me to communism over 50 years ago. Certainly, much of the doctrine of the time needs to be revisited or abandoned, but the principle of bending one’s efforts to help the poorest of the poor and to achieve an egalitarian society remain necessary. In that sense I remain a communist, albeit an independent one.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities of the ANC,SACP and UDF. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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