South African Liberation: The Communist Factor

In a free election in South Africa, the now-outlawed African National Congress could possibly win three-fourths of the black vote as well as some white votes. No such election is in sight, but the popularity of the ANC poses a challenge for U.S. policy. Since one of the ANC’s allies is the pro-Soviet South African Communist Party, there is apprehension that the Communist Party dominates or controls the ANC. This issue has become so contentious that the October 1986 U.S. Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposes sanctions on South Africa, also directs the president to report to Congress about "the extent to which communists have infiltrated" black South African politics. As the conflict in South Africa intensifies and becomes more violent, the issue of who the ANC is and what it stands for will preoccupy U.S. policy.

This essay argues that focusing on the role of communism or the Communist Party risks misunderstanding the nature of the ANC. Although some of the ANC’s support is only symbolic, and its capacity to control events in South Africa is weak, its strength lies in its stature as a national movement rather than a party. Most students of South African black politics do not believe that the ANC is dominated or controlled by the South African Communist Party. Their key premise, grounded in South African history, is that non-Communist African leaders work with Communists for their common end of opposing white domination.

From its formation in 1912 by a group of African nationalists, the ANC has been the standard-bearer of the African’s quest for equality and full political rights. It has sought to unify all opponents of white domination. After five decades of peaceful protest, the ANC was outlawed in 1960, forcing its leadership into exile and its cadres underground. But open support for the ANC since its resurgence in the late 1970s has been defiant and nationwide, cutting across classes and ethnic groups and bridging the racial divide. Its goal is a democratic, nonracial and undivided South Africa, and its economic program is moderate and pragmatic.

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