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Ethnic Networks within the South African Communist Party

This project focuses on ethnicity in the South African Communist Party, and explores the extent to which ethnic networks had an impact on how the party operated and its members interacted.

One of the most distinctive features of the SACP during its formative years was its promise of “oneness” — its assertion that working-class solidarity transcended racial lines, and had the potential to override ethnic and national loyalties. This was drawn from the Marxist-Leninist belief that ethnicity is a form of false consciousness — a construct designed to divert the attention of the working-class away from the class interests (and grievances) that unite them, to the identities and cultures that divide them. Guided by this principle, the SACP has, historically, condemned ethnic identification and mobilisation.

We speculate, however, that the “unbreakably united” fabric of Communist ideology was nevertheless permeated by ethnicity, and that ethnic networks had salience and influence in the functioning of party politics within the SACP. This study will, therefore, investigate whether ethnic origins and networks had an impact on the interpretation of the party’s values and purpose, on the development and promotion of its policies, and the recruitment of members. Drawing from a broad collection of sources, including archival materials, oral testimonies of SACP members, and the memoirs and biographies of prominent members (such as Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Ronnie Kasrils, Moses Kotane, and Solly Sachs), the study will thus evaluate how ethnic networks operated in a space where they were explicitly denied. It will ultimately try to determine whether ethnic associations, solidarities, and antagonisms remained tenacious among members, despite being submerged under the party’s promise of a “united front”.

The SACP is, remarkably, the subject of a very sparse historical scholarship, but in understanding how ethnic networks were formed, used, and sustained within the party — if, to whatever extent, they existed — this study hopes to simultaneously supplement and challenge this limited scholarship. In doing so, it hopes to enrich our thinking about the party’s history, and the wider significance thereof.

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