Intellectual and revolutionary. Member of the SACP and MK’s High Command.
Michael Alan Harmel, born to Irish immigrant parents, became a radical socialist, fiercely opposed to racism while studying at Rhodes University in the 1930s.
An intellectual and a revolutionary, Harmel was profoundly versed in Marxism-Leninism and deeply devoted to the liberation of all mankind, most passionately in his homeland. He spent virtually his entire adult life working full-time for the Communist Party in whatever roles he was assigned. Harmel was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, its foremost theoretician, as well as a member of MK’s High Command. He inspired generations of young South African communists through his own passion and commitment. Harmel endured endless banning orders, arrest and ultimately house arrest before going into exile on the orders of the Communist Party. He retained an absolute belief in the triumph of the movement, a triumph he did not live to witness.
After graduating from Rhodes with an MA in English literature, Harmel worked in London for a brief spell on the British Communist Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker. He returned to South Africa in 1939, and immediately joined the Communist Party of South Africa where,at the age of only 25, he was elected to the Johannesburg District Committee where he served as District Secretary. He served on the editorial board of Inkululeko, alongside Edwin Mafutsenyane.
Harmel was one of only two members of the Central Committee who opposed dissolving the Party in 1950. After its dissolution he worked tirelessly to reconstitute the Party and was a prominent member of the underground Party collective. He remained under banning orders continuously throughout the 1950s and worked in the underground movement. Publicly, Harmel devoted most of his time to journalism. He was on the editorial board of Liberation, and also worked as a correspondent of The Guardian through all its apparent transformations under successive bannings – Spark, New Age, etc. Harmel also collaborated in the formation of the South African Congress of Trades Unions (SACTU). He was one of the first to be banned under the Suppression of Communism Act which he defied and for which he was arrested.
Harmel was a founder member of the Congress of Democrats, and ilIegally contributed toward the planning of the Congress of the People.
For a year, Harmel served as Headmaster of the first multi-racial teaching staff in South Africa at the Central Indian High School, established by the Transvaal Indian Congress after the government closed the Fordsburg Indian high school. Essop and Azziz Pahad were among his students.
In 1959 Harmel was appointed by the Communist Party as the first Editor of the Party’s new journal, The African Communist. He wrote countless articles for the journal, largely under his pseudonym, A. Lerumo. He was appointed to the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Tutor in Marxism-Leninism to new recruits of the Communist Party, he played a leading role in drafting the Communist Party’s new programme. “The Road to South African Freedom” contained the theoretical approach Harmel developed, known as “colonialism of a special type” which characterized the class and racial structure of South Africa. and emphasized the importance of making the national liberation struggle the Party’s first priority.
In 1962, Michael Harmel was one of the first people to be placed under 24 hour house arrest for 5 years. Facing charges for breaking the conditions of his house arrest, Harmel was instructed by the Communist Party to go into exile in London where he was required to continue editing and producing The African Communist. He was later named as a co-conspirator in the so-called Rivonia Trial.
While in exile, Michael Harmel continued his full-time work in both MK and the Communist Party, serving as the Editor of The African Communist. He also played an important role in the shaping and work of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, as well as the establishment of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. Through his writings, attending conferences and meetings, and cultivating friends in various parts of the world, stimulated and encouraged international support throughout the then socialist countries as well as in Western Europe and Africa against racist South Africa.
Harmel was asked by the Communist Party on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, to write a history of the Party. The outcome, his book, Fifty Fighting Years, published under his pseudonym A. Lerumo, was translated into many languages.
Harmel was sent to Prague to become the Party’s representative to the journal World Marxist Review. He worked and lived in Prague until his untimely death at the age of 59 on 18 June 1974. He was survived by his wife Ray Harmel (1905-1998), his daughter, Barbara , and his grandaughter Lisa.
Michael Harmel was one of the most influential members of the South African Communist Party and the national liberation collective throughout his life. He was tasked primarily with forumulating theoretical approaches, policies and writing for the movement. A dedicated Marxist-Leninist, with a profound knowledge of those doctrines, Harmel was valued particularly for his incisive, original and fresh approach to issues. He played a critical role in forging and maintaining the exceptional bonds that grew between the ANC and CP. He was also a crucial member of the collective that developed vital and ongoing support from the socialist countries of eastern Europe.
• Gerhart G.M and Karis T. (ed)(1977)