Document 130 - Communists in Conference: The 1943/44 National Conference of the Communist Party of South Africa

From: South Africa's Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume One 1907 - 1950, by Allison Drew

PLANS FOR 1944 "WE meet at a time when one of the most colossal struggles against the forces of reaction is taking place.”Out of the bloody struggle of 1917 emerged the world's first Socialist State, and we dare to hope that out of the bloodshed and the tragedy of to-day a new order of social justice will emerge," said Bill Andrews, National Chairman of the South African Communist Party, opening the Annual Conference of the Party, held this year in Johannesburg on January 15th, 16th and 17th.

He added a reminder to the fifty-eight delegates. They met together "as a businesslike political organisation and not as a debating society." But this was scarcely needed. Most delegates had come with practical problems to discuss, with knotty points to put forward, and each was confined to a speech limit of five minutes, towards the end of the conference to be cut to a bare three minutes.

There were representatives of all the peoples of South Africa: Africans. Coloured. Europeans. Indians. All its languages were spoken. These delegates, men and women, came from all parts of the country -from Durban, from Pretoria, from Cape Town, from Bloemfontein, from East London, from Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg and, of course, from Johannesburg itself.

Their chairman, Mr. Bill Andrews, needs no introduction to the South African labour movement. He has been an active and leading member of it for more than forty of his seventy-three years. Even the most violent of anti-Communists has not dared question the integrity of this upright and honourable man.

The Communist General Secretary is Moses Kotane, an African whose int.llectua1 ability and personality are respected even by the colour-prejudiced. Both he and Mr. Andrews were unanimously re-elected at this Conference.

COMMUNIST DELEGATES

These delegates are men and women whose firm conviction is that progress for South Africa and racial harmony can only be achieved by the abolition of the Capitalist system of production for private profit and its replacement by common ownership of the means of production.

Each delegate is, in some degree, a personality. There is Indian trade union leader

H. A. Naidoo, who built up the Natal Sugar Workers' Union; well-known Pretoria advocate George Findlay and his wife Joan, who is secretary of the Pretoria Committee of the Communist Party; Errol Shanley, secretary of Durban's Trades and Labour Council Committee and one of the Communist candidates in the 1943 general election; Bertie Louw, Coloured secretary of the Non-European Railway and Harbour Workers' Union, whose members gave him a reception at every station on the way up from Cape Town; Danie du Plessis, who was another Communist candidate for Parliament, organiser of the building workers; popular Harry Snitcher, chairman of the Cape Town District and a mass leader; Alpheus Madibe, a Ieader of the African peasants in the Zoutpansberg; Hilda Watts, editor of "Soviet Life" and a candidate in Johannesburg's municipal elections; John Mtini, long-time Communist and a railway worker in Cape Town; Edwin Mofutsanyana, editor of the Communist Party's fortnightly newspaper "Inkululeko"; and Betty Sacks, editor of the Left-wing weekly "Guardian" whose circulation puts it in the country's first-ranking papers. She and Sam Kahn are the Communist Party's two first City Councillors, victories won in Cape Town's municipal elections in 1943. Both are here. And so are the District Committee secretaries, RexClose, Mike Muller, Rusty Bernstein, Roley Arenstein and the rest. These and many others make up the personalities at this Conference.

Fraternal greetings follow the chairman’s opening remarks sent by the Johannesburg Local Committee of the S.A. Trades and Labour Council, by the Cape Federation of Labour Unions, the Young Communist League, The Guardian, Inkululeko, Die Ware Republikein (three newspapers closely associated with the Communist Party), from the Campaign for Right and Justice, and other progressive organisations.

TO WORK

Next business is the election of a resolutions committee, and then Conference gets down to work. First report considered is introduced by a member of the Communist’s Central Committee, who speaks on the Committee's report, which has already been circulated to delegates. It is entitled "The Struggle for Freedom, Equality and Security" and is, as its foreword states, "limited to points that are especially important, both for an examination of what the Party set itself to do in the past year, and from the point of view of our future work."

He describes it as an optimistic report. The world is going through a period of epoch-making change. The peoples of the world have a great destiny before them. But, he warns, at this time too much emphasis is laid on the post-war period. "In spite of all the talk of our Government and other Governments, they are very far from keeping their pledges, as the report indicates. The Capitalist Governments will not be able to find the solution to their post-war problems. It is the Labour movement alone which can lead to peace and prosperity, to social justice for all."

CRITICAL APPROACH

The report is then before the Conference for discussion. It deals with the war, and is more critical of its conduct than was the report presented at last year's Conference. "We must begin with the war, for it remains the dominant factor in the political struggles of the people of South Africa, as in every other country." In the past year, it points out; the initiative has passed to the United Nations on all fronts. "Yet it is only on the Eastern Front that full use is being made of this position of advantage. Above all, use has not been made of the opportunities presented by the victories of the Red Army to invade Western Europe." The Allies have the forces, but they are not being used in the way total warfare demands.

This report also deals with the danger of apathy in our own country, the strength of reaction at home and abroad, the significance of the Moscow Agreement (the report was drawn up before the Teheran Conference), the need for labour unity, the struggle against national oppression, the low level of South Africa's production and the need for rapid industrialisation, war and post-war problems, and the tasks of the Communist Party.

THE GOVERNMENT'S FAILURE*

"We have to reckon with the failure of the Government adequately to prosecute the war, to mobilise the people, and with its renewed attacks on the non-Europeans," said Dr. Y. M. Dadoo. Dr. Dadoo is the leader of the Indian progressives, a man who has suffered gaol for his convictions. It was no good "merely talking" about national unity among the workers and progressives, he said. We should not attain it while we had the colour bar and colour prejudice. "My contention is that on a question like the abolition of the Pass Laws the Communist Party must go the whole hog in support of the Anti-Pass Campaign." Yusuf Dadoo suggests the Government's failure to achieve a real war effort is due to its failure to mobilise the whole labour movement. Adding a final plea for support for the Anti-Pass Campaign, he says these laws and other restrictions have prevented four-fifths of South Africa's population from full support of and participation in the war effort, telling Conference that "hindrances to the war effort won't be removed by platitudes."

Several African speakers explain that the Nazi-like restrictions imposed on the African people make it difficult for them to support the war. Edwin Mofutsanyana says there is urgent need for action. Oppression, poverty, lack of opportunity are driving young Africans to crime and gangsterdom.

Durban District secretary R. Arenstein said the Communist Party should not change its attitude of support for the Government in its prosecution of the war, should intensify criticism and "work out a militant course of action against reaction." The opening of the second front was of overwhelming importance. It would require colossal supplies, men and material. "We must rally the people for the final blow against the Nazis."

CONFERENCE PLEDGES

Resolutions arising from the report pledge Conference to undertake to work for a greater mobilisation of men and resources in developing a wider and clearer understanding of the issues involved, and by fighting against the reactionary policies and practices of our Government, which are spreading apathy and disillusionment among the people; in particular against:

a) The continued and increasing oppression of the non-European peoples;

b) the appeasement of the Fascist fifth column;'"

c) the drawing of enormous profits from the war;

d) the unequal distribution of food, and failure to keep down prices;

e) the stopping of recruiting among non-Europeans and the demobilisation of sections of the armed forces;

 f) the lack of democracy in the army and unfair treatment of many demobilised men.

Resolutions dealing with the international scene pledge the Communist Party "to press for a combined and total assault on Nazi Europe from the West and on all possible fronts, in accordance with a joint strategy planned by the United Nations"; to obtain wide public support for the rights of peoples of ex-enemy and liberated territories to set up their own Governments, as pledged in the Atlantic Charter;" and to demand the extension of the right of self-determination to all colonial countries, particularly the right of India to independence, and further, that the leaders of the Indian Congress and all other imprisoned anti-Fascists in India be immediately released.

WORKERS AND SOLDIERS *

Ronnie Fleet, another candidate in last year's general election and secretary of Johannesburg's Local Committee of the S.A. Trades and Labour Council, said the question of the returned soldiers was one of great importance. "Absorption point has already been reached in many industries," he warned. Workers and soldiers must stand together. The Trades Council Local Committee had, at its very inception, resolved to work in close collaboration with soldier's organisations.

They were supporting a demonstration of unemployed soldiers, which would coincide with the opening of Parliament. Pensions must be more adequate. Jobs must be ensured at trade-union wages. Betty Sacks, Cape Town Councillor, agrees with him, quotes instances

of hopelessly inadequate pensions and hardships suffered by demobilised soldiers. 

George Ponen, Central Committee member and active Durban Communist, supported the report's emphasis on the importance of labour unity. "We need unity to see that the Government carries out the pledges of the Atlantic Charter," he said, and added that the campaign against the Pegging Act, which restricts Natal Indians from buying land in so-called European areas, must be supported.

HOME FRONT CAMPAIGN

Conference instructs the Central Committee to campaign during the coming year for the achievement of the following demands:

(a) Fair distribution of food at low prices;

(b) jobs or unemployment pay for all;

(c) housing for all at low prices;

(d) abolition of the Pass Laws;

(e) inclusion of Africans as "employees" under the Industrial Conciliation Act;

(f) free compulsory education for all;

(g) security of employment at adequate rates of pay for all demobilised soldiers and adequate pensions for all disabled soldiers and their dependants.

TRADE UNIONS

A discussion of the trade union movement is introduced by Ray Alexander, General Secretary of the Food and Canning Workers' Union and a pioneer in organising workers in the country districts of the Western Province and Namaqualand. This outstanding woman comrade is a member of the Central Committee and has been a Communist almost since childhood. Through her work she has won support and respect for the Communist Party.

The report she introduces deals with the need for the expansion of production and for the improvement of working and living conditions. On strikes, it states: "Our Party's policy is directed towards a peaceful settlement of disputes and avoiding of any strikes or any other action that will hinder the war effort. BUT WE DO NOT REGARD THIS CONTRIBUTION OF THE WORKING CLASS TO VICTORY AS A ONE-SIDED ARRANGEMENT. Workers who labour under a sense of grievance, who are not able to maintain a decent standard of living, are certainly not in a position to apply their full strength and ability to production. They will be "reasonable" provided the employers are not less reasonable. It is unfortunate that with the relaxation of tension, the employers are showing increasing signs of reverting to the policy of "reducing cost of + production" by attacks on wages.

"In our opinion a great body of low-paid workers have every justification for embarking on a national campaign for wage increases."

INDUSTRIAL CONCILIATION ACT

In explaining the importance of the demand for the inclusion of Africans in the Industrial Conciliation Act, the report details the support given to this demand by the whole trade union movement as well as many other important organisations. It deals with the uneasiness of some European workers. "This fear, however, is completely unjustified. It arises from a mistaken belief in the old bogey of the 'wage-fund theory', that is to say, the theory that a fixed proportion of the national income is available for wages, and that any increase in wages of any section of the workers must necessarily reduce the wages of the other section. 

"In demanding higher wages neither the Africans nor any other group of workers desire to lower the wage standards of another group. The labour movement dare not accept the principle which the employing class is constantly trying to get established, namely that higher wages for the labourer must mean lower wages for the artisan.

'There is, however, another and even more important consideration in the removal of the colour bar. It will undoubtedly serve to strengthen the African trade unions and, therefore, the whole of the working class. It will assist in the forging of unity between all the racial pups hat makeup the working class, and so enable labour to play a much more effective part in the future development of South Africa."

NEEDFOR UNITY

This report coincides by urging the need for increased trade union organisation and, supports the plea for one trade union centre and trade union unity. "With a united Trade union movement, the workers can play a decisive pan in the fight against fascism and exercise a still greater measure of influence in the post-war period, directed towards the maintenance of peace and economic and social advancement of the masses of the common people."

Delegates who contribute to the discussion include well-known trade union leader

I. Wolfson, who is on the National Executive of the S.A. Trades and Labour Council. Not all non-Communists must be regarded as reactionaries. He warns and speaks on the importance of rank and file movements in the building and engineering unions. E. Weinberg says that in the past year the Nun-European Railwaymen's Union has made big advances, but the situation of the Eumvan railwaymen is a bad one. They are pided up into six groups, which are little more than company unions.

MINES, RAILWAYS AND FARMS

A. L. S. Louw, national secretary of the Non-European S.A.R. and H.Workers' Union, says there is little point in demanding the recognition of Africans under the Industrial Conciliation Act while the mines, the railways and the farms are excluded from the provisions of the Act, for the majority of Africans are in the employ of one or the other. "16 is high time! to fight against these barriers,'' he says.

Philemon Tsele, secretary of the Non-European Railway Workers in Durban, says that to-day African workers are a good business proposition for unscrupulous employers who want to make wealth out of the workers. Sam Andrews brings greetings from PaarI workers, and describes his feelings on seeing the huts and pondokkies bordering the railway line between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Houses so miserable "that I am sure people can only get in and out by crawling on their hands and knees." H. A. Naidoo says the Communist Party must not shout dead slogans of "equal pay for equal work" but must also demand equal opportunity. *

AFRICAN UNIONS

George Findlay of Pretoria says there are seventeen young African unions there, run by African secretaries and linked together in an African trade union council. They are well run and they are represented on the local committee of the Trades Council. They are making real headway. Harry Snitcher warnsof the dangers of ignoring the threat to the trade union movement from the Nationalists, who are again campaigning in the trade union field and attempting to split the trade union movement. We must demand that ALL returned soldiers are given opportunity to participate in the Government training schemes says Danie du Plessis.We must oppose repressive legislation and restrictions on freedom of movement.

M. Mokgathe is an African who draws the delegates' attention to the bad conditions in the small towns where workers are scarcely organised. Wage Determinations must be extended to cover these country areas.

Ray Alexander replies to the discussion. Useful points have been brought forward, she says. The report deals with the problems facing the trade union and labour movement, of which the right to work is the most important. Not only the Nationalists but the employers, too, are trying to prepare people to go out and organise the workers in order to obtain control over them. "THE WORKERS THEMSELVES ARE THE BEST ORGANTSERS," she says.

She concludes: ''Now is the time, when Parliament is sitting, to see that the views expressed at Mr Madeley's conference on recognition of Africans under the Industria1 Conciliation Act are carried into effect. We must press for this amendment and for the extension of the Act to cover employees of the railways, in agriculture and on the mines."

NATIONAL MOVEMENTS

The need for unity is again emphasised in the discussion on the report on the national movements of the non-Europeans, which is opened by Comrade H. A. Naidoo. The report declares: "The Communist Party supports the National Liberation movement of the non-Europeans, firstly because it recognises in this movement an identity of interests in the common revolutionary struggle against imperialism and secondly, as the greatest upholder of the peoples' freedom, the Communist Party supports the non-Europeans' struggle against the colour bar and for the winning of equal rights and opportunities for all people." Conference agrees with the recommendation of the report that "while not losing sight of the long range programme of demands for the realisation of non-European rights, a basis of joint national campaigns shall be conducted on such issues as extension of the vote, abolition of the Pass Laws and poll tax, removal of barriers which restrict freedom of movement, and abolition of the industrial colour bar." The need for the redistribution of land among the peasants is described by R. Bernstein of Johannesburg. He and Alpheus Madibe say there is trouble again in the Northern Transvaal as a result of ploughing restrictions and great hardships among the Anti-C.A.C. conference recently held in Cape Town is criticised by Cape Town's District Secretary, Rex Close. It failed to deal with practical questions, he says.

A delegate from Bloemfontein says it is important that the Communist Party should send organisers out into the country; otherwise others will do so "and will mislead the people." Not enough time has been allowed to discuss aspects of important questions affecting national problems. Delegates suggest discussion continue at a further meeting to be held next day. This is agreed.

COMMUNISTCONSTITUTION

"One of the most important tasks of Conference is to consider the draft of the Party Constitution," said the chairman. Bill Andrews, when he opened Conference, and with considerable discussion and several adjustments the new Constitution is accepted.

One or two delegates consider there should be a differentiation between long-term aims and short-term aims, and are informed by other speakers that the Party's Constitution must embody THE AIMS of the Communists. One of these reads in the Draft: "To break down race barriers and to promote unity of the workers of South Africa and throughout the world." Conference replaces "to break down race barriers" with a clearer statement: 'TOWORK FOR THE REMOVAL OF ALL POLITICAL, SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND CULTURAL COLOUR BARS WHICH RETARD THE PRO- GRESS AND DEVELOPMENT OF ANY NATIONAL GROUP AND pIDE THE WORKING CLASS . . ."

There is some discussion as to whether the National Chairman and the General Secretary shall be elected by the National Conference or the Central Committee. It is Comrade Bill Andrews who gets up and speaks vigorously for the more democratic procedure of election by Conference. Conference agrees with him.

EFFICIENCY AND ORGANISATION

A report on organisation and propaganda is introduced by Mike Harmel", member of the Central Committee. It deals with Party organisation, the need for the publication of more pamphlets, for more efficiency, for greater speed in dealing with issues as they arise, for a uniform system of book-keeping. Advances have been made, particularly as a result of the Party's putting up candidates in the Parliamentary and other elections, but some of the resolutions for greater efficiency made last year have not been carried out. Conference pledges itself to introduce many improvements in the coming year.

Advocate Harry Snitcher, the Communist candidate in Woodstock during the general election, says that the Communist Party has learned much from the election. It has taken the message of Communism to the people, and defeat has been turned into victory with the election of two Councillors in Cape Town and Advisory Board successes at East London, Port Elizabeth and elsewhere. Councillor Archie Muller had scored "a near miss" for the Provincial Council.

Bill Andrews, who opened the Conference, takes the chair again for its closing. His words are encouraging. He tells the delegates this is the best conference, the most practical in approach that the South African Communist Party has yet held. There are big difficulties ahead, but he is confident they will be faced by a Party membership more mature than ever before.

CONFIDENCE IN COMMUNISM

This note of confidence and optimism was struck by all delegates throughout the Conference. It was a spirit based on a year's solid progress and a sober examination of future tasks. As is stated in the main report to Conference:

"Confidence in ourselves is fully justified by the record of our growth. We have succeeded in what to many seems impossibility; we have brought together in our organisation men and women of all racial groups in South Africa, working together for common ends on a basis of complete equality. We have done this in the teeth of bitter opposition and in the face of the dominant prejudices of society. We say that our participation in the elections of 1942 and 1943 is only a beginning of a new period in the history of the South African people. Our experience has shown that our Party can gain the goodwill and support of large sections. Our members who have been elected to the City Councils of Cape Town and East London are the first of the future body of Communists on parliamentary and other representative organs. 

"A strong Communist Party, working in close alliance with the rest of the Labour movement and the national organisations of the non-European, will create the social forces that are needed to enable South Africa to play her full part in the war, and to create the conditions for a free and full life for all her people."

"THE COMMUNIST PARTY," CONCLUDES THE REPORT, "HAS A GREAT PART TO PLAY IN THE STRUGGLE OF MAN FOR LIBERATION FROM POVERTY, INSECURITY AND OPPRESSION. WE ARE MOVING IN THE DIRECTION OF HISTORY; WE EXPRESS THE DEEP-SEATED NEEDS OF THE PEOPLE, AND MUST THEREFORE EVENTUALLY OBTAIN THE SUPPORT OF THE PEOPLE."