South African Communist Party (SACP)

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CPSA founding member Bill Andrews

Founding and development of the CPSA, 1921-1949

The founding conference of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) took place in Cape Town from 30 July to 1 August 1921. The party was founded mainly by radical White workers and socialists who had experienced workers' struggles in Europe and were inspired by the first workers' state, which was founded in 1917 in Russia, after the Bolshevik Revolution.

The founding conference was preceded by a public meeting in Cape Town on 29 July, attended by over two thousand mainly Coloured workers. William H (Bill) Andrews addressed this meeting and announced the establishment, aims and character of the new Party. The conference formally established the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) on 30 July and adopted its constitution and manifesto. The conference also elected an executive with its headquarters in Johannesburg. Andrews was elected as secretary, CB Tyler as chairman, and Sidney Percival Bunting as treasurer.

The formation of the CPSA marked a decisive turning point in the evolution of labour politics in South Africa. Up until then the organised labour movement consisted mainly of White working class members. Throughout the 1920s the CPSA focused on organising African workers around issues of trade union rights and national liberation demands, and by 1925 the party had a majority of Black members and in 1928, the CPSA called for Black majority rule.

It was also during this period that the CPSA and the African National Congress (ANC) began a close working relationship. Although there was much conflict in this relationship due to different working methods and ideas, and the ANC even rejected communism in 1930, it was a lasting relationship as result of a strong bond built up in exile post 1950. From the 1930s to the 1950s the CPSA engaged in mass struggles throughout the country and published various newspapers including Umsebenzi, The Worker and The Guardian.

The CPSA did not only work closely with the ANC, it also wholeheartedly supported the All African Convention, the Indian Congress and the Coloured African People's Organisation.

In 1946 the CPSA and the African Mine Workers Union organised the largest strike to take place during the Smuts regime. The strike was in the Witwatersrand and the strickers were demanding a wage of 10 shillings per day (approximately 4 times what they were earning). The strike meant that 11 of the 45 mines on the Witwatersrand came to a standstill. The strike lasted four days and more than 500 people were subsequently charged with conspiring to contravene War Measure 45 of 1942, which prohibited Blacks from striking. Amongst those charged were prominent CPSA members; JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Danie du Plessis, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, Hilda (Watts) Bernstein and Brian Bunting.

Last updated : 27-Jul-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Mar-2011