Soviet Fall Boosts African Reform

Declining prospects for S. Africa's communists paved way to legalizing ANC and proposing multiracial settlement. THE COMMUNIST CONNECTION

WHEN South Africa's ebullient foreign minister, Roelof Botha, hosted a reception for foreign journalists at the end of 1989 he appeared wearing a grotesquely large lapel badge which read simply: Glasnost, Perestroika, Democratizika.

It was four weeks after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Mr. Botha was unable to suppress his joy. Beneath his beaming smile - although his guests did not know it at the time - was his knowledge of an imminent reversal in policies that had made South Africa an international pariah state.

He knew President Frederik de Klerk was preparing to legalize the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) and embark on a process of fundamental political reform leading to a negotiated multiracial settlement.

It was the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe which prompted Mr. De Klerk to take the risk that his predecessor, P. W. Botha, had balked at: sitting at the same table with communists. De Klerk could see that, with the tide moving against Marxism-Leninism, the ideology that underpinned the ANC-SACP alliance had a limited shelf life.

But the symbol of the hammer and sickle had gained a special significance among militant black youth in the 1980s. While the ideology of communism was being swept aside by popular revolutions in Eastern Europe, its symbols were gaining new popularity in South Africa's black townships.

For ANC exiles, the collapse of East Germany meant the disappearance of one of their main international allies, which had provided weapons and military training for the ANC's "armed struggle" as well as education and medical care for ANC leaders.

A small band of South African communists under Chris Hani, then the head of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, had provided the intellectual and tactical leadership of the ANC from an exile post in Lusaka, Zambia.

They also were a vital link to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which threw its full weight behind the ANC when it admitted whites into its executive committee in 1969. Mr. Hani later became chairman of the SACP.

Current SACP Chairman Joe Slovo was the first white to gain a leadership position in the ANC and provided a top-level link to Moscow.

The price the ANC-SACP had to pay for its moral and military backing from Moscow was high. The ANC-SACP alliance remained silent throughout the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. It was only in the late 1970s that SACP leaders began to publicly criticize the excesses of the Stalinist era.

After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Mr. Slovo, then SACP general secretary, tried to make sense of the events in Eastern Europe in a seminal document entitled: "Has Socialism Failed?"

"Socialism is undoubtedly in the throes of a crisis greater than any time since 1917," Slovo wrote.

He argued that it was a distorted form of socialism that had failed in Eastern Europe and that socialism without democracy was doomed.

Slovo's document provided some comfort for shell-shocked socialists about to return from exile after De Klerk's legalization of the anti-apartheid opposition in February 1990.

Inside South Africa, however, the militant youth leaders, trade unionists, and anti-apartheid activists who had built the resistance were less affected by events in Eastern Europe and had firmly rooted their struggle in socialist and communist ideology.

But the radical reforms of the Gorbachev era began to rub off on the anti-apartheid leadership in 1990, and the ANC and SACP found their economic policies - such as nationalization and redistribution - subject to a barrage of criticism.

Left-wing journals - like Work-in-Progress and the Labour Bulletin - became a forum for protracted and detailed debates about the way forward for socialism.

"The SACP, until recently an uncritical ally of the Soviet Union, has been thrown into something of a crisis," wrote Work-in-Progress editor Devan Pillay after the failed Aug. 19 coup. "The task of democratic socialists in the SACP is to make a clean and decisive break with any links to orthodox communism.... It is only then that the positive side of events in the Soviet Union can be appreciated."

The debate is by no means resolved. But the jargon of Marxism-Leninism is becoming discredited even in South Africa.

"It just doesn't wash any longer to use East European rhetoric in the post-Berlin era," says Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a mediator who chairs a multiracial negotiating forum for Johannesburg at local government level.

The ANC-SACP leadership was surprised and split during the Aug. 19, 1991 bid to oust Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

SACP leader Harry Gwala, a self-described Stalinist, threw his support behind Gennady Yanayev's failed putsch. But the party as a whole and the ANC threw in its support behind Mr. Gorbachev.

The final collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of last year was a further shock.

At the party's first national conference inside the country last December, outgoing General Secretary Slovo had his first public words of criticism for the former Soviet leader: "Gorbachev himself has completely lost his way," Slovo said, weeks before the Soviet leader quit and the Union collapsed. "He is colluding in the chorus of vilification against Lenin, the greatest Soviet and world revolutionary which this century has produced."

The ANC and SACP have been almost helpless bystanders in Pretoria's rapid rapprochement with the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe since De Klerk changed political course two years ago. Pretoria has established diplomatic ties with most of the former communist countries and is developing a warm relationship with the Russian Federation.

South Africa cut diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union in 1956 - six years after the Suppression of Communism Act made even advocacy of communism a treasonous offense.

Pretoria and Moscow were brought tentatively together again in the protracted negotiations in 1988 and 1989, leading to the independence of Namibia - one of the firstfruits of the 1986 decision by the United States and the Soviets to resolve regional conflicts through negotiation rather than war.

The collapse of Marxism-Leninism has accelerated concessions by warring factions in Angola at the end of 1990. Angola followed Mozambique in relinquishing Marxism-Leninism and embracing free-market economic policies.

Zimbabwe, alone among the nations of southern Africa, still clings to socialist policies in theory but has compromised them in practice.

"There is no doubt that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union have had a profound effect on the course of events in South Africa and the region," says a Western diplomat.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Soviet Fall Boosts African Reform
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today