There have been two periods in the history of the Communist Party in South Africa when the Young Communist League has played a prominent role. The first period was immediately after the foundation of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1921; the second was in the 1940’s against the background of the Second World War.
The International Socialist League, which preceded the formation of the CPSA, had organised a Socialist Sunday school which was concerned mainly with propaganda the ideas of Marx and Lenin and discussing developments internationally in various communist , left and anti-war movements. After the Russian revolution of 1917 communist parties were formed in most European countries and the Communist International was established in 1919, to which both ISL and later the CPSA affiliated parties were considered to be constituent elements of the CI and obliged to accept the 21 basic principles on which CI was founded. Decisions of the CI were binding on all the constituent parties – something which was to become vital in the affairs of the CPSA after the adoption of the so-called Native Republic resolution, passed by the CI at its sixth congress in 1928.
Most of the YCL’s established at this time were modelled on the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth, better known as the Komsomol, which catered for the needs of young people between the ages of 14 and 28 and formed the party’s main source of recruits. The South African YCL regarded May 25, 1922 as the date of its official foundation, but there is evidence of young Communist activity in Johannesburg and Cape Town in 1921. Edward Roux, who was to play a leading role in the affairs of the Communist Party for 17 years, notes in his autobiography that he and a number of other young people had formed a Communist youth organisation in Johannesburg in 1921.
What brought matters to a head at that time was of course the great mineworkers’ strike of 1922. The 25,000 white miners went on strike because the Chamber of Mines proposed to dismiss about 2000 of them and after the ratio of white to black miners that had previously been about one to ten. The strike began in January and culminated in an armed revolt in March, which Smuts put down by calling out the army and putting down the insurrection by force, bombing the centres of resistance on the Reef. Afterwards there was a series of trials in which a number of strike leaders were sentenced to death and four executed until mass public protest forced the government to desist.
The Communist Party and YCL supported the strike because it was directed against the Chamber of Mines and the government, though they did not endorse the slogan “Unite and fight for a white South Africa” which had been advanced by the commandos set up by the Afrikaner element among workers, Roux writes;
“It was during this period that the Young Communist League came to life again. Events had taught us that there was work to do. A Strike Prisoners Committee had been formed. Young people were wanted to distribute leaflets. Meetings had to be organised, propaganda carried on. Men had to be saved from the gallows. Four had already been executed. Three of these, Long, Hull and Lewis, went to their deaths on the scaffold singing the Red Flag. Some fifty thousand demonstrated at their funeral, walking in closed ranks in a procession four miles long, a sight which must have convinced the government of their own deep unpopularity.”
The YCL committee used to meet weekly, but now activity was intensified, Roux says: “In addition to holding street corner meetings in Jeppe, Fordsburg and Benoni, we Young Communists started a chalking and sticker campaign. We plastered the town with stickers and pasted them on railway coaches so that their message was carried to the four corners of South Africa. On walls and pavements we chalked our slogan ‘Release the Strike Prisoners’, and when the words were rubbed out we chalked them again. At the time there were fewer than twenty of us in the YCL but we must have created the impression that a vast underground organisation was at work”.
The YCL, which comprised a handful of white boys but included few girls, had by this time become a well-knit and efficient organisation,says Roux; “We were beginning to get into the public eye. We had affiliated to the Young Communist International which at the time had its headquaters in Berlin. Following directives from YCI we now started anti-militarist agitation. The young workers of South Africa were called upon to refuse to join the Defense Force which had been used so hideously to shoot down their brothers and fathers during the recent strike and which would no doubt become the tool of the capitalists in the next world war”.
Since military training began in schools, it was clear that the YCL had to carry its message to the cadets. Leaflets were handed out at school gates and some schools were visited at dead of night and plastered with leaflets and slogans both on the outside walls and inside the class-rooms, “Our anti-militarist campaign had an excellent press”, notes Roux. He had been taking an active part in the affairs of the CPSA, distributing leaflets, selling the party paper The International, speaking at street corners and attending the inevitable committee meetings. In 1923 he joined the Communist Party and was shortly put on the Executive Committee as a representative of the YCL.
Although the African mineworkers were not directly involved in the 1922 strike, there were several clashes between the white and black miners, mostly provoked by the white miners. It was in this atmosphere that Roux and others came to have a changed attitude to the so-called “native question”, Roux writes:
“When I first came into the Communist movement my attitude on the ‘Native question’ was not much different from that of many of the other members, both in the youth section and in the Party. As far as I remember I was not consciously hostile to or prejudiced against black men. The ‘workers of the world’ were the white miners, tramwaymen, building artisans, and so on, who had trade unions and fought strikes. The blacks were simply disregarded. When the Young Communist League addressed itself to the ‘working youth’ it meant of course the young white workers, apprentices, and so on. My conversion to ‘labour negrophilism’, if I may call it that, occured some time in 1923 and was largely due to (SP) Bunting’s articles in the International, the weekly Party paper at the time.
Another who influenced him in the same direction was Willie Kalk, a young cabinet maker of German origin, whose father had been a social democrat in Germany. Kalk and Roux began to urge upon their fellow members of the YCL that their main job was to preach communism to the “young natives”. They wanted to bring the “native youth” with whom they had had not contact and of whom they knew very little, into the organisation.
They at once met with opposition. The YCL Secretary, Sarah Sable, feared and disliked Africans, and Kalk and Roux got no support from her. Another YCL’er and one of its forceful and capable members, Solly Sachs, admitted that African youth should be organised, but , he maintained, in a separate organisation – a belief he maintained in later life when, as Secretary of the Garment Workers Union, he organised white and black garment workers in separate branches of the union.
At the first Annual Conference of the YCL held early 1924 there was a stormy debate on the subject in which Sachs carried the day and the “pro-Natives” were in a minority of three. The “pro-Natives” were not prepared to accept this and appealed to the executive of the Young Communist International in Berlin. Back came the ruling that the YCL must organise the youth in a single organisation, whereupon the Johannesburg YCL reversed itself with a resolution that “the main task of the YCL of South Africa is the organisation of the native youth.” Sarah Sable retired from the YCL activities and Solly Sachs went overseas on a visit to England and the Soviet Union.
The YCL started to make contact with the African youth in the spirit of its Conference decision. By the time the CPSA, the senior body, held its third Congress in December 1924, the YCL had recruited two talented Africans, Stanley Silwana and Thomas Mbeki who were present at the CPSA meetings. The proceedings of the Conference demonstrated clearly that the activities of the YCL had made an impact on the CPSA. The main resolution passed by the Conference was not to apply to the Labour Party for affiliation as it had done regularly in the past with a view to securing a united front of the working class. The Conference declared that such a united front could not be built from the top, but must come from mass action by workers of all races at rank- and file- level.
The resolutions passed at the conference also reflected a more pronounced swing away from the white workers and towards the black workers. The Labour Party, by its failure to recognise adequately the exploited native workers, had forfeited all claim to be a true working class party, said the draft party programme adopted by the Conference for submission to all Party branches. “The Communist Party...declares unhesitatingly that the problems of the South African working class can be solved only through a United Front of all workers IRRESPECTIVE OF COLOUR. ‘The unity of labour is the hope of the world’. It is also the hope for South Africa.” SP Bunting was elected Chairman and Roux Vice Chairman.
Work amongst the African workers was intensified in the wake of the 1924 congress. Towards the end of the 1920’s many trade unions involving African workers had been formed and more and more Africans were being recruited into the Party. The racial balance in the Party changed radically. By mid – 1928 the membership of the party had risen to 1700, of whom 1600 were black A great deal of this advance can be attributed to the work of the YCL. Already in 1924 Party Chairman Bill Andrews had stated; “The growing numbers, activity and enthusiasm of the Young Communist League branches in South Africa is perhaps the most encouraging feature. Branches are being established in various centres in the Transvaal, Cape Colony and Natal, and it has long passed the stage of a mere debating society”.
Two members of the YCL had been elected to the Executive of the CPSA at the 3rd Congress. A senior member of the Party, Solomon Buirski commented at the time; “ Many a time I have asked myself the question, where are those that are going to replace us when time leaves us behind the general advance of history. Where are those youngsters whom I have seen in more than one country, who should combine the vigour of pasting leaflets, or slugging scabs, and occasionally overturning a tramcar during a strike, with the courage of facing an audience and the ability of figuring in lecture room. I have seen them now.”
There is no record of members of the YCL slugging scabs or overturning tramcars but there is plenty of evidence that the members of the YCL took part in the defense of the CPSA meetings whenever they were called upon. The major attention of the YCL however was directed towards the improvement of the conditions of young workers. In 1925 the YCL approached the South African Association of Employees Organisation, later renamed the Congress of Trade Unions, with the suggestion that an aggregate meeting of apprentices in the Witswatersrand area should be held to discuss the Apprentices Act, youth unemployment, trade unionism among young workers and other questions of youth labour. The SAAEO replied that individual unions would be asked for their opinions on the question, but no further action was taken.
On July 26 1926, the YCL approached the now named TUC stating that, although the suggestion for an aggregate meeting had been favourably received, nothing concrete had been done. The letter sent to the National Council of the TUC, signed by ES Sachs as secretary stated; “The necessity of such a meeting as we suggested (which should lead to the setting up of a permanent department of the TUC for conducting trade union propaganda among apprentices and young workers) is as great as ever. The Young Communist League is prepared to give your organisation every assistance in this work. We suggest the following points for the agenda for an aggregate meeting of apprentices and young workers on the Witswatersrand, to be called by the TUC as soon as possible;
- ‘Join your Union’ campaign among workers;
- Juvenile unemployment,
- Technical schools and training of apprentices,
- Legislation affecting young workers e.g Apprenticeship Act,”
On August 22, 1926 Eddie Roux, as acting secretary of the YCL, wrote to the Secretary of the TUC thanking the TUC for agreeing to receive a delegation from the YCL at its meeting and giving the names of the delegates who included Roux himself, ES Sachs and W Chalmers.
The YCL retained it close contact with the young working class and proved a fertile recruiting ground for the CPSA itself. Eventually the YCL leaders became more involved in the affairs of the CPSA and the YCL fell into the background. Thomas Mbeki Transvaal Secretary of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), while Silwana went to Cape Town and became a clerk in the head office of the ICU. The energetic work of the communists greatly extended the influence of the ICU, but eventually provoked the opposition of ICU leader Kadalie, influenced by his liberal friends, leading ultimately to the expulsion of the communists from the ICU and the beginning of the decline of that organisation.
In 1941 a group of scholars in Johannesburg approached the headquarters of the Communist Party of South Africa in Johannesburg with a request to join the Party but were advised to consider forming a Young Communist League instead. This they proceeded to do, but it took some while to make the necessary arrangements and contacts, and it was not until 1942 that the YCL was launched. The date of the launch is uncertain, but a copy of a letter from Ruth First as Secretary addressed to “dear friend” (in other words sent to a wider circle than YCL or Party members) stated; “To celebrate the first anniversary of the Young Communist League, we are presenting a Mass Youth Rally at the Ghandi Hall on Saturday 18th, 1943”.
A WATERSHED – THE RE-LAUNCH OF THE YCL AFTER 53 YEARS OF INACTIVISM!
In 2002, the 11th Congress of the SACP took a resolution to re-establish the Young Communist League of South Africa. It was relaunched in December 2003 after 53 years. The YCL was banned together with the SACP in 1950 under the Suppression of Communism Act. When the SACP was reconstituted underground, the YCL was not.
The Young Communist League of South Africa is a Marxist-Leninist youth wing of the SACP.
The YCL Stands for:
- Non Racism
- The socialisation of the ownership and control of the means of production.
The Pillars of the programme for the YCL are:
- Building a Strong YCL
- International Solidarity.
- Political Education.
- Youth development
- The YCL shall strive to achieve all this throughout its existence?
1. Brian Bunting, How the YCL began, African Communist, 2nd/3rd/4th Quarter 2005