CPC centenary: Communists in the anti-apartheid movement

Thirty years ago, in June 1991, apartheid was legally abolished in South Africa. While it would be another three years until the country’s first democratic election – years that included violence like the Bisho massacre and the assassination of Chris Hani – the fact that the apartheid government had been forced to vote away its racist legislative architecture was an enormous victory of a long struggle.

The fight against apartheid, the brutal systemic racism which had been enacted into law in 1948, was the central commitment of the South African Communist Party (SACP) for decades. The main organizational vehicle was the African National Congress (ANC), which had been formed in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress. Initially organized to unite Africans in defense of their rights and freedoms, particularly voting rights, in 1948 the ANC turned its full attention to defeating apartheid. The Congress included several allied groups, key among them the trade unions and the SACP.

The communist commitment to fight apartheid had a global dimension. All over the world, communist parties helped form – often as the initiating organization – coalitions of unions, faith groups, social movements, parliamentarians and many others, with the goal of supporting the democratic struggle of the South African people.

This was also true in this country, where the Communist Party of Canada assigned several members to help build and mobilize the anti-apartheid movement. People’s Voice spoke with two of them, Jeanne McGuire and Domenic Bellissimo, who worked in the movement at different times in Toronto.

How did each of you get involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in Canada?

Jeanne McGuire: There was an ANC representative in Toronto, who met with several of us in the late 1970s and encouraged us to specifically help build support for the ANC as the legitimate representative of the South African people’s struggle. At the time, there was an anti-apartheid movement in Canada but, due to straight up anti-communism and anti-Soviet sentiment, key groups in that organization were quite anti-ANC. I’m thinking of groups like the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa (TCLSAC) who always proclaimed “critical support” to the ANC. So, we formed a group called Canadians Concerned about Southern Africa (CCSA), which included a lot of people from the South African community here. It meant we had a lot of people who were already ANC supporters. We also involved people from progressive, socialist-oriented groups, and we had a lot of Communist Party members who were assigned to CCSA. It’s important to note that, due to the concrete link with the ANC, the CCSA had quite a broad reach.

Domenic Bellissimo: I was doing anti-racist work alongside communists who were involved in the Committee for Racial Equality (CRE). This was before I joined the Communist Party, and I saw how it organized its members around principled support for national liberation. I’m thinking of the Palestinian struggle, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, as well South Africa, and the party never wavered on the question of the ANC as the legitimate representative of the movement inside South Africa. I compared this to other organizations in Toronto which wanted to study South Africa and write about the struggle, but not engage in it. As Jeanne mentioned, there was a lot of anti-communism around, so there was very little space to say anything positive about the ANC or about the Soviet Union, despite decades and decades of material and political support to the liberation struggle. I think that communists working in the anti-apartheid movement brought the vision and ability to build broad coalitions through unity and action regardless of which solidarity group we worked in.

We should make the point – Where would the liberation struggle have been without the Communist Party of Canada? I’m not sure the ANC would have gotten the same roots in the country. The NDP wouldn’t speak to them, the Liberals saw them as terrorists, there was no Green Party to speak of, and everyone else was sort of fragmented on the ground. Some members of the United and Anglican churches were different – they were better at demonstrating solidarity than the NDP and didn’t fear working with the ANC people here. They and some other ecumenical groups worked alongside us in the struggle, not because they agreed with our analysis as the Communist Party’s but because they agreed with the broad unity we were working to build.

As the movement grew and other allies came on board, how did the dynamics change?

DB: Some of the allies that emerged worked with CCSA, but another organization got formed to reflect the growth and breadth of the movement. This was the ANC Mandela Support Coalition (AMSCO). It was a later group, and it was aimed at building support in Canada for the ANC’s electoral victory. By that time, all kinds of people were anti-apartheid – they didn’t all agree with what they wanted to see as the final project, but they coalesced around efforts like fundraising, material aid and voter education. And this was important, because it continued to build solidarity and support for the ANC as the legitimate representative. When you look at the huge vote the ANC got, it was a clear indication of the positive role that the liberation movement had played in the Alliance.

Thinking of the friction you mentioned in the Toronto movement, from anti-communist voices, was this generally reflected across Canada?

JM: In general, yes. I recall a fairly active group in Edmonton that had similar positions to TCLSAC, but they weren’t central enough to the movement to be able to exert those views the same way. So, when CCSA called a conference, they came. They were always slightly uncomfortable because there was no criticism of the ANC – I mean, we didn’t even discuss that!

DB: And I think, as well, that we had won some fairly significant battles which made a pretty strong voice out of our approach toward the ANC. Those other groups had broader funding reach, to be sure – they got government grants, rented offices, hired staff. And here we were with no money and volunteer labour. But we were organized on a country-wide basis and with a clear analysis, and that made a big difference.

What was the impact on the Communist Party of Canada of this engagement in the anti-apartheid struggle?

JM: The work on apartheid, as well as the other work on anti-racism, was really critical to the Communist Party. I think a lot of people’s must have come popping up as they noticed this group of people who were right front and centre, taking action and not backing down. It was quite a militant struggle and the planning that we had to put into it was really important for our development. Besides that, this work helped us to make stronger connections with the Black community, and other racialized communities, which was important. The same is true for the Communist Party’s increased connection with young people, a lot of whom were moved by the fight against apartheid and against racism generally.

DB: This was the same period as a lot of struggles in the Caribbean – think about the US invasion of Grenada, for example – and our work against apartheid and racism helped propel our solidarity work to those countries and communities. Whether or not the people we worked with joined the Communist Party, and many did, it was a big step forward in terms of our engagement with progressive people and movements here in Canada. And that’s an important aspect of our mass democratic work.

JM: It also helped give us a broader platform – not in an opportunistic or sectarian sense, but in a movement-building way. I mean, because of our work we got to speak when there were rallies. This meant we could put forward our political and tactical analysis on a broader range of issues.

DB: Yes. It gave us the chance to build a movement that made the links between “race” and class, including an understanding of capitalism and exploitation. That, I think, was kind of unmatched at the time. Jeanne is right – the more we approached mass struggles, with our analysis and discipline and good assignments, and with the goal of building unity, the more we grew as a party and a movement. We also developed many wonderful friendships!

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