From the book: Johnny Gomas Voice of the working class: A political Biography by Doreen Musson

Gomas died on the morning of Wednesday 25 April 1979 two weeks after his 78th birthday. His funeral on the Saturday was conducted from the St Mark's Church in Clifton Street, District Six, one of the three remaining religious symbols of the District Six community which had survived the notorious removal of this inner-city population in 1966 and after. The small group of about 250 mourners included a sprinkling of political friends. The last few years of his life were spent in dire poverty and destitution, with the threat of an eviction order hanging over his head. Neither in life nor death did Gomas receive any rewards. Throughout his whole life he had sacrificed himself and his family in the cause of struggle. He was, however, no martyr. He would not have spent his life in a different way. Peace of mind and comfort lay for him in the progress of the liberation struggle. "The struggle", he stated, "was so fundamental, part of my life". District six, where he spent 58 years of his life, lives on today in bitter memories. Gomas's achievements live on in a few important legacies.

His greatest achievement may be seen in his contribution to the development of national liberation theory and strategy. As a leading figure in all the major political organisations of the oppressed since 1919 he traversed the whole spectrum of liberation politics. During his lifetime all the most important question concerning the South African revolution were posed.

The theory and practice of the CPSA in the 1920s and 1930s were inseparably associated with his action and thought. He joined the CPSA in 1925, continuing a tradition and analysis of the revolution in the South Africa which he had acquired in the ISL with its militant left-wing socialism" and its calls for "working class solidarity across racial lines". The Revolt of 1922 presented mining capital with a crisis of accumulation which was occasioned by the action of the black working class (in the 1920 Mine to disrupt the class alliance through which it had previously controlled the sate and made available to capital a new supportive white working class". The formation of the Pact Government in 1924 saw the nationalist-labour government embark "upon a strongly protection policy entrenching the privileges of white workers through a broad of legislation ".

Along with others, Gomas began to seriously question the primary importance the CPSA had placed upon the revolutionary action and potential of white workers. Increased proletarianisation of the South African social formation and the phenomenal growth of the ICU during its "golden age" shifted the interest of Gomas and Party to black workers. Within the ICU, it was Gomas, the orthodox Marxist, who tried to steer the body onto a "scientific industrial path', His expulsion (together with two other communists) from the ICU1926 squashed the hope the CPSA had of turning its energies towards that black national body. From 1927 the CPSA programme and strategy was fundamentally influenced by its affiliation to Comintern, an affiliation supported by Gomas. Individuals himself helped facilitate the Party penetration of the ANC, the organisation of the oppressed classes that remained on a national scale, after the demise of the ICU. The 'black republic' slogan aimed at mobilizing blacks so that the CPSA could become predominant influence in the liberation movement. From 1930 ANC was fully included among the forces that the CPSA wanted to bring into a broad front, under its leadership. This alliance took form of the Congress Alliance after the war.

As an organic intellectual of the working class, one indeed of shining talent, Gomas saw it as his main task to direct the ideas and aspirations of the black workers to which he belonged. He drew his conclusions inductively on the basis of his own experiences. From 1935 he increasingly differentiated between white and black workers, insisting on the vanguard role of the latter, supported by the black petty bourgeoisie and 'democratic whites'. His ideas on 'leadership' present a worthwhile study on the interrelationship between society and the individual, as one of the most important questions on social knowledge and understanding. Time and space do not allow a detailed examination of this question, thus leaving the field open to other researchers. His beliefs, together with resolute practice, gave him a power of leadership that was quits extraordinary for a black person in a Party whose leadership mainly hailed from Europe. This may account for the fact that he was never suspended or expelled from the Party hierarchy despite "bitter fights".

The major transformation occurred in his political thinking during the period of the 'black republic'. In this biography attempts have been made to demonstrate objective events at the time that have caused him to modify his orthodox Marxist position. Attempts have also been made to indicate the contradiction in the relationship between him and the CPSA. His leading roles in the AAC and the NLL brought him ideologically closer to his 'enemies', the Trotskyists, whose policy of non-collaboration became an immovable principle in Gomas's later political life. He fully supported the class conception of the Trotskyist left which upheld the view that there was a need for unity among the non-whites themselves in order to blur the racial barriers that segregation and racial policies had created and were reinforcing, and that a broader alliance with 'democratic whites' was the surest road to class collaboration. But their incapacity to build a national united force made them unable tactically to reap many profits from a more coherent conception of the national question and this incapacity placed an unbridgeable gulf between them and Gomas.

Gomas projected almost a simplistic sense of purpose which misled some people into hasty judgement. He, however, reached that simplicity after a long and arduous struggle of mind, body and heart. As one who passionately participated in the struggle for liberation, he believed that reaching conclusions and policies without accompanying them with concrete appropriate action was a waste of time and even a betrayal. His political education did not mean assimilating the sum of knowledge contained in socialist and progressive literature. "The walls of Jericho" he stated, "will not fall, by us making minute analyses . . . and not accompanying them with 'concrete mass action'". Without work and without struggle, book knowledge was worthless, for it would continue the separation of theory and practice. Gomas learnt by inseparably linking every project he undertook with the struggle of working people against exploitation and oppression. What he wrote or said was devoid of empty rhetoric, bombast or pretence. Gomas had nothing to hide or lose. Those guilty of 'phrase-mongering' were objects of bitter attacks by him.

His denunciation of the 'enemies of the people' has been described as "brutal, bloody and uncouth". But the masses liked to hear him speak, while opportunists and other 'traitors' were intensely embarrassed and aggravated. Sadly his 'hundreds of speeches' on the Parade have gone unrecorded, leaving South African historiography impoverished. Gomas's relentless attacks on "traitors, quislings, boss tool boys and collaborators" championed the interests of the working class and the masses. They had to be separated from the masses and exposed, discredited and ostracised, "made to feel unwanted in our midst" as he himself stated with typical directness and simplicity. The people could never win unless this scourge was combated.

The association between his action and thought and the CPSA theory and practice is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in his trade union work. Trade unions were to him by far the best 'schools of war' of the workers. His active involvement in the formation and development of trade unions deserves a special study. In this biography we have merely re-stated and outlined his general attitude to and belief in trade unionism. His dream of one big national union of all workers irrespective of colour, received many severe blows in the course of his political life, until it was finally shattered in 1948. It was a painful acknowledgement of defeat for Gomas to whom this national union had to be the ultimate goal of trade unionism.

The CPSA's position during the Second World War demonstrated to Gomas how detached its policy had become from national and local realities. Its policy was being inspired by the needs and for the defence of the Soviet Union. Gomas's position was less clear-cut, however. As a communist he naturally supported the Soviet Union as the only country "where the workers and peasants govern". On the other hand, he also perceived of the war between the Axis (Germany and its Allies) and the Allied powers to be of little interest to the vast majority of working people in South Africa. From the scant reportage in the press (mainly The Guardian) on his speeches at anti-war rallies, it was clear that Gomas was hammering the 'fascism at home'.

It was not quite the old Gomas who took part in the campaigns of the 1950s launched first by the FRAC and the Defiance Campaign which followed. The resolutions adopted were the old post-1935 language of the Party and to Gomas's ears it had both a familiar and yet a strange ring. But there was no turning back. The road was forward.

In 1950 the CPSA was banned and Gomas's subsequent banning order granted him the reprieve he seemed to have needed so badly. During the two years of 'solitary confinement' at home, he was re-examining old ideas, policies and political organisations in which he had worked his whole life. Between 1954 and 1958, in private conversations, letters to newspapers and in notes in his memoirs-diary, he was a challenging revolutionary, giving vent to old suspicions which, he believed, had been confirmed by time. His tirade was aimed especially at white revolutionaries, the white workers and the "lick-spittle coloured middle class". He saw no constructive role for white workers in the abolition of the system of racism and exploitation in South Africa since "they benefit from the system".

Before discussing any working together or collaboration organisationally between black and white it is necessary that the basic interests and attitudes of the white people, particularly the white 'working class' in respect of the African people be assessed. Is the white working class in favour of:

  1. (1) That Africans be employed in skilled and official jobs or work done by whites?
  2. (2) That Africans be paid generally the same wage rates as whites and the unskilled wage rates are raised closer to that of skilled workers?
  3. (3) That Africans be granted equal (to whites) political rights and all that it implies? What is the honest answer to these questions? In fact, how has [sic] these questions been answered historically until this day? (It is interesting to know who has ever ventured to ask these questions in South Africa).


The white workers have their trade unions and constitute quite a considerable section of the white population and are a strong force in society. Through trade union organisation they have succeeded to improve their standard of living and to a large extent has [sic] made their influence felt on the government and have been responsible for the introduction and practice of job reservation. He generally perceived of white revolutionaries and the coloured middle class as careerists who participated in the struggle for the sake of self-aggrandisement.

His subsequent break with the tradition and politics of the CPSA happened with little emotion and without ceremony. The Party had been to him more of a workplace than a home. "We didn't meet together as friends, you see. We met together as members of a Party who had to do a job, to carry through a mission". By 1959 he had joined the PAC and now re-asserted his support for a 'black republic', underlined by an aggressive black chauvinism. Hailed by some as "the father of black nationalism in South Africa", was Gomas a pioneer and builder of a new culture? For him it was only the black oppressed who could effect equilibrium between white domination and black oppression. Blacks had to restore the dignity and glory that they enjoyed before white domination. Blacks taking an active part in the revolution which would free them from economic, mental and cultural enslavement could only achieve this, Gomas believed. An address by Sekou Toure, first president of independent Guinea to the second Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Rome in 1959, is of special significance here:

To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves and of themselves.

In order to achieve real action, you must yourself be a living part of Africa and her thought; you must be an element of the popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity. This address by Toure finds a striking resemblance in the pleas by Gomas for a widening of cultural horizons by participating, actively, in the struggle for liberation. Culture had to be indissolubly linked with 'the people'. For example, art divorced from the people would be lifeless. For Gomas only those theatre pieces which had a social message were relevant. Thus for example the play 'Try for White' which was staged in October 1959 evoked Gomas to plead for a 'black identity', which ultimately would lead to "a happier ending".

But Gomas's views on 'culture' represent one important difference with those of a Toure or Sobukwe. Although a supporter and member of the PAC, Gomas did not totally subscribe to its manifesto which expressed hostility towards all that was associated with the 'Western Way of Life', including its cultural values. He was no iconoclast, and could still find some elements of the heritage of Western 'civilization' to be of universal significance and validity. He even gave his tacit approval to W. Richardson with the formation of the Eoan Group, while taking the teachers to task for promoting sports and liquor-abuse instead of culture in the coloured community. It was his perception of linking everything with 'politics and 'the struggle' that earned him the reputation of being one-track minded, obsessive and fanatic.

On the level of the 'political' struggle, Gomas's central key of reference was 'black polities'. The question arises: Is the Black Nationalism' that Gomas represented with such sincerity and intense emotion, a forward step in the strategy of liberation?

A thesis has latterly been advanced by social researchers which "seeks to identify what is specifically political and to advance a view of politics as not merely instrumental to economic ends or passively reflecting economic determinations, but as itself a distinctive field with relations and concerns, modes of behaviour and values) particular to itself". This is indeed the only constructive way which Gomas's aggressive black nationalism can be appraised "What is required is an explanation that can account for continued existence of nationalism as a form of political assertion the black 'petty bourgeoisie' and for its apparent effectiveness evoking popular action where strictly class-based positions have been less successful. By the same token, we need a basis understanding why a distinguishable proletarian struggle has fail to emerge in opposition to petty-bourgeois nationalism and explain the sympathy nationalist appeals have been able to gain workers".

For Gomas after 1948 there was no other optional alternative the weapon of Black Nationalism. There was no other way ahead than the road opened to and by Black Nationalism. That was what the heritage of conquest, dispossession, racism and Apartheid combined with the 'betrayal' by the white working class, had dictated. For him that was the reality.

The question why Gomas should have cared so greatly to elaborate and argue ideas open to great controversy even among those whose sympathy he wished to evoke, gives us a glimpse into the workings of his mind and the ways in which he conceived of realities in South Africa at the time. One such conception was concerned with dispossession and racism and its effects on black and white. Linked with this was his insistence on or consideration of the psychology of racism and of a 'slave mentality' among the conquered and oppressed blacks of South Africa. These questions were conceived against the background of the anti-colonial and independence movements in Africa and Asia, and it was in the light of these questions that Gomas attempted to evaluate the contribution of the organisations of the oppressed. (The question of why the CPSA, for example, failed to make an impact on blacks even with a slogan for a black republic is important, and yet has been totally disregarded in the lean historiography of the CPSA). For Gomas, the ethics of the system of oppression and exploitation had to be crushed. It is here where Gomas parts company with the orthodox Marxism of the CPSA and finds an affinity with the ideas of Fanon on colonialism in Africa.

Gomas perceived of the South African society as being bifurcated between black and white. The white oppressors are seen through the mental scars inflicted on blacks over centuries. These scars are "irrefutable evidence" of the barbarity of white racism. The dialectics of struggle demands the destruction of this racism and the edifice on which it is built. Racism in South Africa does not only have for its objective the maintenance of the 'enslavement' of blacks, but seeks to dehumanize them, make them into what Gomas calls "skepsels". The resultant fear, humiliation and hatred within blacks must be redressed through a mental and economic revolution. Those blacks who give in to fear and humiliation, degrade themselves and become quislings and stooges. It is the fighter against oppression and enslavement who is on the road to restore his/her human dignity. The fighter's fear and hatred of white domination, finds expression in resistance. For Gomas, this spontaneous and inevitable resistance must be canalised into organisations of the people. Thus while domination destroys blacks and divides them, it also deepens the revolutionary consciousness of blacks and ultimately unites them. In the process of decolonising and re-humanizing blacks, the whites too become free. Their freedom is, in the final word, dependent on the freedom of blacks. Whites have to accept that, just as Western civilization - its cathedrals, palaces, industrial cities - was built on the exploitation of black Africa, so South African industrialisation and apartheid have grown on the unfree backs of black people. Any form of unity and democracy in the struggle must find expression and reflection through these realities. In one of Gomas's explanations of the psychology of apartheid, he wrote:

It is wrong and immoral to oppress a racial minority, but it is a thousand fold more so if a social minority oppresses the majority of the people as in the Union of South Africa. Man's inhumanity to man is reaching intolerably precarious dimensions under Nat's regime. But I still maintain that the so-called friends of the non-white people, particularly the various white Christian denominations are inexcusably more blameworthy for having created a white S. African 'tradition' in white and non-white relationships in church, schools and otherwise. They started by indoctrinating the young impressionable minds of the white children to the teaching that the possession of a white skin place them in a position of tyrannical domination over those whom their white gods did not favour with a white skin. The successions of these barbaric perpetrators of an inhuman philosophy, should not escape their full share of gilt for the present situation. They initiated apartheid where there was no Nats and apartheid laws. The non-whites have been condioned [sic] mentally maimed and murdered to life into accepting an inferior status of humanless creatures (skepsels).

Although the 'struggle was his life', Gomas's zest for life was also revealed in his love for nature, while his knowledge of the flora of the Cape was quite remarkable. His sense of humour was maintained even after he had had two strokes. But even on these occasions Gomas could not but reveal his fundamental passion: the struggle. In one interview he teasingly referred to the absurd extremes of the policy of monopoly of diamonds by De Beers, which prevented a person from "even picking up a diamond lying about on the mine dumps". "But then," he remarked to the interviewer,",, Harry Oppenheimer was quite, comparatively speaking, a liberal man. Maybe you have got a bursary from him?"

Gomas, the man, was inseparably bound to Gomas the politician and activist."... Even in his last years, when bedridden and forced to view the world as through a window, news of the struggles of workers never failed to excite and animate him." The Durban strikes of 1973 prompted him to express admiration for the "firm action" of black workers. With the Soweto Revolt he paid tribute to the youth who "have done in one day, what we've been trying to do for years". The lion has finally come to rest, but not before a prophecy. "Sooner or later, the people must triumph," he stated with typical optimism. His legacy contributes, in no small way, to that pending victory. There can be no greater tribute to any person.