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.

In contrast, the South African Communist Party, founded in 1921 and outlawed in 1950, is a clandestine Marxist-Leninist party, claiming to be tightly controlled and highly disciplined. Its membership, undoubtedly very small, is almost entirely secret; its program is rigidly ideological and pro-Moscow. It responds primarily to its own elitist perception of the interests of the working class, although African nationalism has influenced the party. Beginning in the late 1920s, a few African Communists joined the ANC, some later becoming major figures in it. They are there today, valued and trusted by nationalists as comrades in a common struggle.

The allegation of outright Communist control over the ANC cannot be substantiated, and estimating the degree of Communist influence in the ANC is nearly as difficult. Though the Communists’ ideological convictions and long-range agenda distinguish them from many in the ANC, at this stage of the struggle for national liberation Communists and non-Communists in the ANC have no significant differences on policy or strategy. Furthermore the Communists and the ANC share an anti-imperialist stance, condemnation of many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, and embrace of all who support the ANC.


At present, the Communist factor is in many ways less significant than other groups supportive of the ANC. Both white and black leaders representing a wide diversity of interests have met with leaders of the African National Congress in Lusaka, Zambia, the group’s headquarters, or elsewhere, demonstrating a recognition that the ANC is essential to any negotiations. The visitors have been seeking reassurance or demonstrating support for the ANC. The visits have strengthened the international legitimacy of the ANC and furthered its campaign to attract white support. The first important white group came in September 1985: businessmen and journalists headed by Gavin Relly, chairman of the Anglo American Corporation.

Others include leaders of the Progressive Federal Party, which is the official white opposition, multiracial delegations of Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic and Anglican clergymen, and Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking student leaders. Representatives of the broad-based Soweto Parents Crisis Committee obtained the ANC’s concurrence on the need for students to return to school in early 1986. And officers of the National African Federated Chambers of Commerce came, as did a 21-member delegation led by the chief minister of the KaNgwane "homeland."

Joint communiqués issued after these meetings underlined the ANC’s importance now and "in a free South Africa." Representatives of the National Union of South African Students and the KaNgwane "homeland" agreed that the majority of South Africans recognize the ANC as their "genuine representative."

Among participants in the meetings were adherents of the United Democratic Front, whose support is of obvious importance to the ANC. Formed in 1983, the UDF brought under its decentralized federal umbrella a wide array of some 700 affiliated political, community, labor, religious, youth and other anti-apartheid groups representing a claimed two million members of all races. Its three presidents are veteran ANC activists; the UDF looks to the ANC as the leader of the liberation movement, but it does not advocate violence.

The meeting with the ANC that deserves the closest attention is that of March 5-6, 1986, with representatives of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. COSATU emerged late in 1985 as the largest union federation in South African history, with some 500,000 signed-up members, most of them Africans. It is important because of its potential labor power and the independence of its approximately 10,000 shop stewards, who are elected by the workers and not appointed.

At first, COSATU’s primary objective was to build national industrial unions that were nonracial and based on shop-floor strength. This is still the federation’s long-range goal, but in the latter part of 1984 the government’s new constitution focused attention on basic questions of political power. The reaction, combined with local grievances, sparked a wave of protest and violence that has bordered on countrywide insurrection. In such a defiant climate, COSATU came into being with a commitment to joint political action.

The joint communiqué that emerged from COSATU’s meeting with the ANC said: "There was a common understanding that . . . lasting solutions can only emerge from the national liberation movement, headed by the ANC, and the entire democratic forces of our country, of which COSATU is an important and integral part."

The delegation included Cyril Ramaphosa, the 34-year-old general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, who in conversation with this writer before the Lusaka meeting expressed his concern, as a socialist (but not a Communist), about the direction that the ANC leaders might be taking by meeting with the chairman of the Anglo American Corporation and other businessmen. (In the eyes of some sectarian critics on the left, the ANC confirmed the reformist and petit-bourgeois nature of its leadership by doing so.) Ramaphosa’s concerns appear to have been met. The joint ANC-COSATU communiqué, while ignoring the role of the Communist Party, criticized "the apartheid system of national oppression and class exploitation," and recognized the need for "economic emancipation."

In observing the movement toward common cause with the ANC, one must stress the determination of the new generation of labor leaders to maintain their unions’ independence from populist movements and leaders, including men as respected as the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and ANC President Oliver Tambo. For the new unionists, democracy requires accountability to their members on the shop floor. Ramaphosa believes that unions face a serious danger when a powerful political party presses them to accept party affiliation and to place party men in positions of union leadership, as in Zimbabwe.

At the height of the Solidarity union movement’s challenge to the Polish state, organized black workers in South Africa were strongly pro-Solidarity, not so much because they were anti-Communist but because they favored workers’ control and were anti-state. COSATU, in sum, represents the kind of autonomous force that could not easily be manipulated or controlled by a Leninist party or a party of pro-Soviet ideologues. Men like Ramaphosa, with their experience of prolonged detention, their own approach to socialism, and their political evolution from Black Consciousness to affinity with the ANC have developed a self-confident spirit of independence and a vision of democracy that is accountable to the grass roots.


Like other ANC leaders before him, Oliver Tambo has from time to time praised the contributions of individual Communists. In 1981, however, on the 60th anniversary of the party, he went beyond such praise and extolled the alliance—"a living organism that has grown out of struggle"—and the reciprocal influence of the organizations on each other. But the practical meaning of such an alliance is not clear; for instance, aid from the Soviet Union does not depend on alliance with the South African Communist Party.

From its formation in 1921 as the first Marxist-Leninist party on the continent, the Communist Party struggled with the need to reconcile race and class, nationalism and socialism in its doctrine. Formed by whites but for over 30 years the only nonracial political party in South Africa, it initially appealed to the white working class. Skilled artisans and intellectuals had brought socialist thinking from Britain around the turn of the century. In 1909 a Labour Party was formed but split over the World War. Those who opposed participation and were enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution joined with several small Marxist groups to form the Communist Party of South Africa.

The party’s notorious but anti-capitalist slogan during the white mineworkers’ uprising of 1922 was "Workers of the World, Fight and Unite for a White South Africa," (emphasis added). The strike was brutally crushed. Recognizing the hostility of white workers to it, the party turned to the African working class, conducting night schools and organizing trade unions. In 1928 almost all of its 1,750 members were Africans. Only about 150 were whites, but they continued to predominate.

Within a few years the party was shattered, hit by government repression but even more by the consequences of obedience to the Moscow-based Comintern. Despite remonstrances about the need for appealing also to the white working class, the Comintern in 1928 ordered as correct the slogan: "an independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic with full, equal rights for all races." The factionalism and expulsions that followed this declaration virtually decimated the party. With the rise of Hitler and Moscow’s new emphasis on organizing all-class united fronts, the party slowly revived.

Early party efforts to establish tactical alliances with African groups came up against conservatism, resentment of whites and competition for position or power. Links with a diffuse mass movement of African workers known as the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, more important than the ANC at the time, were broken in 1926 when the ICWU leadership expelled members of the Communist Party. Even brighter prospects were dashed in 1930 when a conservative leadership reasserted control of the ANC and defeated proposals for a tactical ANC-SACP alliance, after the incumbent ANC president went to the Soviet Union and returned with glowing praise for the equality he had observed there.

Another feature of the party’s history, to this day, is attacks upon it from ultraleft or, more recently, "workerist" groups which accuse it of delaying the revolution because of insufficient commitment to working-class leadership. Among the Communists’ critics in the 1940s were radical groups which advocated boycott of government-sponsored institutions over pragmatic efforts to exploit them, the Communists’ preferred strategy. For example, Communists ran and were elected by Africans to the all-white Parliament before 1950.

From the 1920s, South African governments have found communism a useful scapegoat. After the 1946 mineworkers’ strike, led by African Communist and ANC member J.B. Marks, the government charged members of the party’s central committee with sedition in a lengthy but abortive trial. In contrast, the target of the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act was so broadly defined that even virulently anti-Communist opponents of the regime were later to be banned under its provisions.

When the party’s legal existence came to an end in 1950, it had about 2,000 dues-paying members. The number of whites was still only about 150, and about 250 were Indians. Since the government knew the identity of virtually all the members and the party had failed to prepare for a move underground, its central committee decided on dissolution.

Former members of the party reconstituted it underground in 1953, but only during the 1960 emergency did it publicly announce its existence. In 1962 the party finally formulated its theory of revolution in South Africa, which is still authoritative today. According to this statement, the first stage of the revolution was to build "a united front of national liberation [primarily African liberation] that would unite all sections and classes . . . to destroy white domination." Eventually the second stage would emerge, one of advance to "the establishment of a socialist South Africa, laying the foundations of a classless, communist society."


The ANC’s attitude, and that of most blacks, toward the Communists can be traced through three rough stages: distance from Communists; joint action with them and all races; and increasing reliance on groups within South Africa. The major challenge facing the Communist Party over the years has come from Africans whose thinking reflects a deeply rooted strain of "Africanist" exclusiveness, self-reliance and national pride. Although nonracial in their ends, they have been suspicious of non-African ideologies and hostile to tactical cooperation with privileged whites and Indians, especially those thought to have conflicting allegiance due to membership in other organizations.

From the 1920s through the 1940s many ANC members, some of them temperamentally averse to militant protest, opposed cooperation with Communists. This was the early orientation of Mandela and Tambo, founding members of the ANC Youth League in 1944 and the two preeminent leaders of the ANC today. They proposed the expulsion of Communists from the ANC in the late 1940s. On the other hand, older leaders, long familiar with multiracial political contact, subordinated such differences to the need for wider unity. For example, Dr. Alfred Xuma, the exemplar of "moderation" as president of the ANC in the 1940s, joined in a declaration of cooperation in 1947 with the Indian leaders of the Transvaal and Natal, one a prominent Communist, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, and the other a Gandhian.

The high point of the Youth League’s influence was the adoption by the ANC in 1949 of a program for mass action: illegal but nonviolent tactics of civil disobedience as well as boycotts, strikes and noncooperation. The program was clearly the work of non-Communist and anti-Communist African nationalists.

The second phase in the ANC’s attitude toward Communists was marked by the shift of Mandela and Tambo toward acceptance of joint action with the left and all races. This change was largely a reaction to the policies of the new National Party government, which came to power in 1948. By discriminating against Coloureds and Indians (policies it has sought to reverse in recent years) as well as Africans, it widened the ground upon which a common opposition could be built. Moreover, the government’s drive to destroy communist influence by outlawing the Communist Party in 1950 stimulated wider unity, since it was perceived as a threat to the entire extraparliamentary opposition. While entrenching white domination, the government warned that Communists were undermining "our democratic institutions and our Western philosophy."

Not surprisingly, when the Communist Party was banned, African Communists who were members of the ANC redirected their energies to this still-legal movement, and Communists of other races sought close cooperation with them. African nationalists such as Mandela and Tambo reassessed the need for allies. Mandela later, in explaining "why experienced African politicians so readily accept Communists as their friends," said, "Communists were the only political group . . . who were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us and work with us." Close cooperation with whites and Indians probably contributed to the growing self-confidence of Mandela and Tambo as leaders of a multiracial movement.

In 1952 Africans and Indians, including former members of the Communist Party, worked together for the first time in a mass "Defiance Campaign" against apartheid laws. In 1955 the Congress alliance, an ANC-led coalition of Indian, Coloured and left-wing white organizations, sponsored the "Congress of the People," a two-day outdoor mass meeting. It endorsed the "Freedom Charter," which declared "that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white." Africanist and other critics complained that the meeting forestalled proper deliberation of the charter within the ANC, but early the next year ANC leaders closed ranks and formally adopted it. The Freedom Charter still expresses the ANC’s basic policy. It is not socialist or Marxist, nor is it anti-capitalist; it envisages a democratic welfare state and a mixed economy. For the first time, however, the ANC accepted nationalization of "the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry." This is not a radical program today in the light of the South African state’s control of the economy, including ownership of telephones, railroads, airlines, electricity, iron and steel, atomic energy, the arms industry and the production of oil from coal.

The government’s counteraction, as the 1950s drew to a close, further dramatized the need for unity. In December 1956 the police rounded up 156 men and women, almost all of them activists in the Congress alliance. For their militant advocacy of equality, they were accused of high treason as members of "a countrywide conspiracy" inspired by international communism to overcome the state by violence. During the trial, a few Communists were among the Africans, Indians, whites and Coloureds who sat together day after day in the unsegregated dock of a segregated courtroom. The case finally collapsed in 1961 when the judges ruled that the state had not proven that the ANC had a policy of violence or that it was a communist organization.

In what could be called a third phase in the evolution of the ANC’s relationship with Communists, the change was marked not so much by a different posture toward the Communists as by a relative increase in the importance of aboveground groups based in South Africa, such as those described earlier. When the ANC was forced underground and into exile after its banning in 1960, the task of maintaining a unified movement became infinitely more difficult. Another new development, in which Communists participated, was the forming of a military arm of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, in Zulu), to lead a largely symbolic "armed struggle" in tandem with political mobilization. The growing efficiency and ruthlessness of the South African police state and its ability to enlist collaborators made the task more daunting. A political lull settled over the country after discovery and raiding of the ANC’s underground headquarters and, in 1964, the sentencing to life imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and seven others, four of them Communists.

The year 1973 marked the beginning of a new period of militancy among African workers, and trade union organization. The Soweto uprising of 1976, the first substantial exodus of young blacks for ANC guerrilla training, and the crackdown on Black Consciousness organizations (which arose in the late 1960s to champion "psychological liberation" from racial oppression) in the following year led to the resurgence of the ANC. While aboveground groups were nearly immobilized by intense government repression, the ANC sponsored sabotage and small-scale guerrilla attacks that were primarily exercises in "armed propaganda." These were greeted by popular manifestations of support for the ANC and Mandela. In the 1980s the red Communist flag has been sporadically displayed at such demonstrations.

Continually seeking the widest unity among groups opposed to apartheid, the pragmatic leaders of the ANC maintained informal relations with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the KwaZulu "homeland." By mid-1980, however, Buthelezi’s own hopes for a "united front" with the ANC appeared at an end when Tambo declared that Buthelezi had "emerged on the side of the enemy against the people." Only afterward did Buthelezi, one of whose white advisers (Rowley Arenstein) is a Marxist-Leninist opposed to the Moscow line, begin to attack the ANC for working with the Communist Party.


African, Indian and white Communists have influenced the course of the ANC to an extent greater than their numbers, but they have not dominated or controlled the movement. In the pre-1960 period, one would have to believe that elder statesmen such as Chief Albert Lutuli, the ANC president-general after 1952, or Professor Z.K. Matthews, ANC leader in Cape Province and the preeminent African academic in South Africa, were naïve or gullible. Or that young African nationalists such as Mandela, Tambo or Walter Sisulu had come to accept the discipline of a minor and doctrinaire party or were manipulated by it.

The ANC did move in a more militant and radical direction after World War II. Its accommodation with the left can largely be explained by the circumstances of mounting repression and the priority that African nationalists gave to unity and the appearance of unity among the opposition forces. Issues of international policy were a matter of disagreement, but since leftists considered them more important, their views tended to prevail in the adoption of resolutions. A related problem for the ANC was the fact that it did not have its own national newspaper. New Age, the paper most widely read by ANC sympathizers during the 1950s, was pro-ANC and often gave the impression that it was speaking for the ANC, although on international issues it was pro-Soviet.

Critics of the ANC also cite activities that presumably affected individual thinking, for example, the trips of some dozen Africans to Soviet-bloc countries in the 1950s. Another example is the cordial hospitality that the Soviet consulate in Pretoria extended to blacks during the years 1948-1956, before it was closed down; the American embassy, meanwhile, maintained a social policy of whites-only until 1963. The importance of such activities in judging the Communist role is a matter of speculation.

Much is made of the fact that a few Communists held office in the ANC. Although no Communist held any of the top three offices (except the secretary-general in the late 1920s), three became members of the National Executive Committee in the late 1940s. One was Moses Kotane, general secretary of the Communist Party from 1936. Another was J.B. Marks, who also won election as president of the Transvaal ANC in 1950. His victory, however, was a personal one and did not signify that the ANC was substituting class for national appeals.

Senior leaders such as Lutuli and Matthews, as well as Xuma, opposed Communist domination. In a conversation I had with Lutuli in 1955 about the hypothetical consequences for him of a Communist government, he replied by motioning that his throat would be cut. Similarly, in a later conversation, Matthews expressed his belief that in an ultimate conflict between the aims of the Soviet Union and those of the ANC, a dedicated African Communist would follow the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, they regarded men such as Kotane and Marks to be outstanding and trustworthy members of the ANC. Matthews considered Kotane "more of a nationalist than a Communist."

After 1960 the circumstances of life underground and in exile made the question of dominance a shadowy one at best. Like the ANC, the party was virtually decimated in the 1960s, and individual relationships within the ANC inevitably became still closer as leaders sought to regroup and plan. Individual Communists who were not Africans became formal members of the ANC beginning in 1969. Although the ANC’s constitution was nonracial in its membership provisions, not until then did the ANC extend an invitation to whites, Indians and Coloureds to join (a small number, including non-Communists, have), while reserving membership on the National Executive Committee for Africans.

In 1985, at the first conference to be held since 1969, the committee was finally opened to all races, over the argument of some whites, Coloureds and Communists that the time was not ripe. Joe Slovo, a lawyer who was to become the chairman of the Communist Party in 1986, was the first white member. Two Indians and two Coloureds were also elected to the executive committee.

Speculation about Communist influence focuses upon its extent rather than its nature. Its nature, over the years and during the current stage of the struggle, is pragmatic and tends toward caution and restraint. In addressing the Communist Party’s 65th anniversary meeting on July 31, 1986, Slovo saw "a protracted conflict" in South Africa of increasing complexity; he saw no need for the party to "seek to occupy the dominant position in the liberation alliance." His nondoctrinaire open-mindedness about the future and the problems that might face the opposition were evident in a conversation with me in late 1985. He could not envision a clear revolutionary timetable, saying that nonradical "forces for change" have arisen. He wondered whether these forces might lead the South African government to release political prisoners, unban the ANC and allow political freedoms. Such actions might be calculated to expose Communist and ANC intransigence; he ruminated about the problems that would be posed by such a development, but in any case did not expect it to happen.


One reason for the difficulty in assessing Communist influence in ANC decision-making is the absence of significant differences in policy or strategy during the current stage of the struggle for national liberation. Another reason is the nature of influence that arises from personal friendship and shared experience. Influence, furthermore, is a two-way street—although anti-communists often assume that only Communists can exert it effectively. Walter Sisulu, former secretary-general of the ANC who is now, with Mandela, in prison for life, would say to friends about critics who assumed that Communists would dominate any collaboration: cannot these people see that we might be using the Communists?

When asked about Communist domination, Oliver Tambo, clearly not a Communist, said: "It is often suggested that the ANC is controlled by the Communist Party . . . by Communists. Well, I have been long enough in the ANC to know that that has never been true."

Another ANC spokesman has pointed out that "at the peak of the civil rights struggle in the United States, [Martin Luther] King was called a Communist." The occasion for his remark was a meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, on August 23, 1986, between a delegation of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, which was visiting the Front Line States, and a delegation of 17 ANC leaders, a majority of them members of the National Executive Committee. The meeting was unprecedented, said Alfred Nzo, the secretary-general; "for some of us, today is like a dream." In a spirit of solidarity rather than skepticism, a Jackson delegate and former activist in the civil rights movement asked the first question: how should he deal with the Communist issue when he returned home?

Pallo Jordan, a member of the National Executive Committee in his early forties who has lived in the United States, and who is not considered a Communist, gave a spirited reply. It was "absurd," he said, to assume that Communists are "smarter and cleverer than anybody else." (There were as many "geniuses and fools" among non-Communists as among Communists, he had said earlier in private conversation.) To assume that ANC members who were not Communists can be dominated now or in the future was "an insult." Africans who were Marxist-Leninists were not exempt from apartheid and had been welcomed as members of the ANC since the 1920s along with everyone else opposed to racism. "If this makes people in Washington uncomfortable, too bad."

Unlike speculation about influence, inquiry into the number of Communists in the National Executive Committee has the appeal of statistical objectivity, the assumption being that the number correlates with influence. Indeed, if it were true that the committee was dominated numerically by Communists, the question of influence and manipulation would become irrelevant. A further reason for interest in the composition of the committee is the presence of whites and Indians. One suspects that this interest may resemble a habitual racist assumption of white South Africans: that when Africans engage in complex activity, whites or Indians must be manipulating them behind the scenes.

The London Economist of July 26, 1986, declared that the ANC’s 30-member National Executive Committee contained at least ten "members" of the South African Communist Party "and perhaps as many as 14 or 15." That such a judgment has become commonplace illustrates how an assertion can take on authenticity through repetition, even if based only on flimsy evidence. Senator Jeremiah Denton’s (R-Ala.) Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism began the process in 1982 with assertions and information that were provided by South African intelligence and contained major inaccuracies.

In June 1986 the South African government distributed a booklet listing 23 members of the ANC executive committee as "members and/or active supporters of the SACP." In the same month, Congressman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) listed in the Congressional Record the names of 19 who were "members" of the party, adding that "we believe that as many as 25 of the 30 are Communists." His information had been "compiled from South African intelligence and other sources" by Senator Denton’s staff. Two months later Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) announced that William Casey, director of Central Intelligence, had declassified at his request "the biographies of the Communist members of the Executive Committee."

In my view, the CIA biographies do not substantiate the conclusion that all or even more than three of the 18 men profiled are "Communists." Three men in these biographies are publicly known as members of the Communist Party: Joe Slovo, 60, the party chairman, and, as chief of staff, the third-ranking officer of the ANC’s military wing; Steve Dlamini, who was imprisoned on Robben Island and later tortured, and Dan Tloome. Dlamini and Tloome, both in their seventies, are well-known stalwarts of trade unionism, the Communist Party and the ANC. Other members of the executive committee may also be party members; many almost certainly are not. Definitive proof most likely will not be forthcoming, though accusations with insufficient evidence are just as likely to continue.

But more important are the attitudes of current key ANC leaders toward the Communist Party, its thinking and its aims. The three top officials of the ANC are all in their sixties and veteran activists. Oliver Tambo, 68, the president, has been in the ANC forefront for some 40 years. He is a lawyer, an African nationalist, a practicing Christian, and a man of widely respected integrity, who is committed to Western forms of political democracy. It is difficult to think of any major African leader less interested than Tambo in personal power.

Another top ANC leader is Thomas Nkobi, an African nationalist who has not been prominent as a political spokesman. Perhaps because he succeeded Moses Kotane, a Communist, as treasurer general, there has been speculation about his possible relationship to the Communist Party, but his biography was not among those submitted by the CIA to Senator Helms.

The third top ANC official is the secretary-general, Alfred Nzo. The CIA describes him as "a self-avowed Communist" although he has never made such an avowal. In conversation with me on June 27, 1986, he emphatically denied being a member, saying he was "an African nationalist." This characterization is consistent with his public record and reputation. Another major ANC leader, although not among the top three, is Joe Modise, who is in his early fifties. He is commander of the military wing and has a reputation as a man of action who talks little of politics. His biography is among the CIA 18, but it is devoid of any facts that would justify a supposition about orientation toward the Communist Party.

Communist Party membership is kept strictly secret except for the chairman and general secretary and a few well-known members. Determining who is a member is complicated by the fact that some members of the pre-1950 legal party did not join the post-1953 clandestine party, and others have since dropped out. ANC leaders do not seem to talk among themselves about the identity of party members; it does not appear to be of particular interest. Joe Slovo has said that "a speculative numbers game is being played . . . to spot the Communists" in the National Executive Committee, a practice that the writer does not publicly indulge in. When asked about the number of Communists on the executive committee, Oliver Tambo said, "I have never counted how many, but they all owe their primary allegiance to the ANC and that’s all that matters to me."

Whether or not Nelson Mandela differs from Tambo regarding cooperation with Communists and the ANC’s more militant evolution has been a matter of speculation among government officials considering his release from prison. A long-standing friend of Mandela who consulted with him told me that Mandela dramatically emphasized his relationship to Tambo in order to remove any doubts about their unity when he replied to President Botha’s offer of conditional freedom. Speaking of "my greatest friend and comrade for nearly fifty years," Mandela said of Tambo in a statement read to a mass rally in Soweto, "there is no difference between his views and mine."

Nzo’s CIA biography, more than any other, epitomizes the pro-Soviet charge that is levied against the ANC. Nzo, it says, is "the ANC’s contact point with the Soviet Union"; he is a vice-president of the World Peace Council; and a high Soviet official has presented him with an award. These facts are not proof of party membership but obviously they indicate appreciation of the Soviet Union and points of agreement. Furthermore, Nzo expressed some typical ANC positions in a speech at the 65th anniversary meeting of the South African Communist Party on July 30, 1986, in London, where he extended "fraternal greetings." He condemned "the bellicose policies of international imperialism, first and foremost American imperialism," and cited conflicts or struggles in which the ANC opposed U.S. policy: the Vietnam War, Palestinian liberation, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Mozambique and Angola. And he condemned the invasion of Grenada and attacks on Libya.

Nzo does not make judgments about internal Soviet policy, but he praises assistance from the Soviet Union, a praise that appears genuine and not, as one analyst has said, the currency with which Soviet arms are purchased. In his single-minded pursuit of nationalist goals, Nzo has no problem in accepting the embrace of all who support the ANC, not only the Soviet Union and its allies but also the Nonaligned Movement, the Organization of African Unity, the Palestine Liberation Organization and "many countries in Western Europe." In his speech at the Communist Party meeting, he praised "capitalists [who] . . . act against the apartheid regime" and Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle, "who emerged as giants" in the fight against Nazism.

Nzo’s eclectic reach is reflected in the sources of financial and material aid received by the ANC. Nearly all of its military support comes from the Soviet bloc through the OAU. The kinds of assistance received from governments, anti-apartheid groups, churches and the United Nations are extraordinarily varied and fluctuating. The ANC has particularly sought aid from Western countries, which it says has increased in recent years. In response to an inquiry in October 1986, the ANC’s Lusaka office stated that probably more than half of its total aid now comes from Western and Third World governments and private donors, and from China.

The ANC has sympathetic relations with social democratic parties, the Socialist International and anti-apartheid groups in the United States such as the Free South Africa Movement and the American Friends Service Committee. In Lusaka in August 1986, Rev. Jesse Jackson pledged that his Rainbow Coalition would campaign for humanitarian and educational aid for the ANC, and announced an initial gift of $10,000.

The ANC’s radical anti-imperialist stance and rhetoric are hardly surprising in the light of the history of U.S. and Western complicity in bolstering the South African regime. What is surprising is the fact that the ANC continues to look to the United States for understanding and solidarity, and hopes for incremental pressure on South Africa by the U.S. government. Despite much of its rhetoric, the ANC historically, politically and culturally is more attuned to the United States and the West than it is to the Soviet bloc. Criticism of U.S. policies does not mean that the ANC accepts the Soviet Union’s political system as a model or that an ANC-led government would be aligned with the Soviet Union. Despite the typically cold shoulder shown to Alfred Nzo in Washington in mid-1986, unlike receptions in Moscow, Oliver Tambo stands ready to meet with Secretary of State George Shultz, even though the United States may be sharing intelligence on the ANC with the South African government.


Since the ANC’s formation about 75 years ago, its leadership has often had the problem of keeping up with its followers. The leadership has displayed remarkable continuity and a strong sense of responsibility for the kind of nonracial South Africa that will emerge in the future. But angry and impatient militants inside South Africa have tended to see its pragmatism as foot-dragging. Thus supporters of the ANC in Natal condemned Zulu Chief Buthelezi as a "traitor" while some ANC leaders outside the country, even after the public break in 1980, continued until recently to speak cautiously of him in hope of reconciliation.

Since 1984 South Africa has entered a new period whose end is not yet in sight. Black protest has shown unprecedented confidence in the coming of majority rule. The police and military have been unmonitored in their beatings and torture; they have shown that they intend to eliminate the ANC physically. A major problem now is the uncontrolled fury of many youths in the townships, some of whose violent tactics such as "necklace" killing (burning people with gasoline-filled rubber tubes) are not sanctioned by the ANC. The ANC has caught up with the mood by calling for a "people’s war." Its Radio Freedom often uses lurid language and, by endorsing the "elimination" of informers, policemen and "collaborators," leaves open the methods to be employed.

The mixed signals emanating from the ANC reflect the dual needs of maintaining leadership of violent resistance and guiding it in accordance with fundamentally moderate aims. ANC policy clearly rejects the indiscriminate targeting of whites because they are whites. As the distinction between white civilians and whites who reinforce military power becomes increasingly blurred, however, white casualties can be expected. Meanwhile, the ANC resists pressures that would justify the label "terrorist." It is constrained not only by a desire to maintain its international reputation but also by its campaign to win white support and the need it recognizes for whites to stay if South Africa’s advanced economy is to be maintained. However, if official violence—by far the preponderant violence that occurs—continues unchecked, latent anti-white hatred could erupt.

Black South African political differences may appear unusually complex, yet major trends of thought stand out. On goals, blacks are fundamentally more united than whites in their aspirations for a nonracial democratic system. On international issues, the key to understanding attitudes and perceptions is to be found in the maxim: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the friend of my enemy is my enemy.

Interviews conducted during June-August 1986 by a perceptive South African highlight trends that have been evident for some years. Broadly, there is a growing anti-capitalist sentiment, growing interest in socialism, great disappointment with the United States and antagonism toward it, and in particular, a deep anger toward President Reagan that is "felt equally by professional people, senior managers and businessmen and as much by middle-aged people as young people." The perception of the United States as a supporter of the South African government and a major hindrance to liberation unfavorably affects attitudes toward the U.S. role in Angola, Nicaragua, Libya and Afghanistan. Israel also is widely seen as a close ally of South Africa, and therefore sympathy for the Palestinians is growing. On the other hand, widespread criticism is extended also to Soviet "imperialism" in Afghanistan. Remarkably, neither the deep antagonism toward the United States nor acknowledgment of Soviet assistance to the ANC results in a pro-Soviet attitude on international issues. Support for a future policy of nonalignment is dominant.

The U.S. attitude toward the ANC can be described as at best ambivalent. "Today, an extraordinary movement toward democracy is unfolding in diverse corners of the globe," Secretary of State Shultz said on April 14, 1986. In his review of the worldwide "struggle . . . for democracy," however, he made no reference to the extraordinary upsurge of popular resistance to South African tyranny by supporters of the African National Congress and other activists. Yet in later congressional testimony, he recognized that "the ANC has emerged as an important part of the South African political equation" and that there was "a compelling need" for both its leaders and those of the United States to obtain "authoritative insight" into each other’s policies and interests.

The ambivalence of U.S. policy is now enshrined in the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, passed over President Reagan’s veto. On one hand, it states wisely that the United States will work toward an end of the state of emergency, the release of Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners, the unbanning of the ANC and other political movements, and the opening of the political process. The act also states the sense of Congress that the president himself or other high officials should meet with opposition leaders. Oliver Tambo would certainly be among them.

On the other hand, the act reveals some of the misperceptions underlying U.S. policy. It calls for "power-sharing with the black majority" rather than a universal franchise and majority rule with protection of minority rights. The act postulates that the ANC is engaged in "terrorism," expresses the belief that it has been "infiltrated by Communists," and asks that the ANC’s "commitment to a free and democratic" South Africa be made known (even though it has been clear for over half a century). Furthermore, in encouraging the ANC to "reexamine . . . ties to the South African Communist Party," it underlines the American lack of confidence in the independence of black South African leaders and in the consequences of an unfolding democratic process.

The United States should support a democratic process in South Africa in every way it can even though such a process carries no guarantee of a particular outcome. The probability is that any majority government in South Africa will be "socialist" in some form and committed to a redistribution of wealth. A danger exists that Americans who look at South Africa through ideological blinders and see in the ANC only the threat of pro-Soviet "extremism" will mistakenly urge support of unpopular "moderates" against the ANC and the overwhelming majority that identifies with it. This would be disastrous to the interests of the United States.

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  • Thomas G. Karis is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the City College of the City University of New York and senior research fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute on the United Nations at the Graduate School of the City University.
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