The Azania Liberation Support Committee and its publications

The Azania Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) was formed in London around 1983 by Roseinnes Phahle and other individuals of various broadly leftist political tendencies. The ALSC launched Azania Worker and Azania Frontline as publications that were part of the South African liberation movement but independent of any political organization. Many of the ALSC members had been involved with the exiled Black Consciousness Movement of Azania. Thus, although they were Marxists and socialists, they did not shun black consciousness nor find it antithetical to class consciousness – hence the adoption of the name Azania in the publication titles.

Azania Worker was meant to be a forum in which socialists from all political currents within the trade unions, student and national liberation organisations could contribute towards the development of a relevant theory and practice of social change, and in which they could exchange experiences and lessons drawn from past and present struggles. It was non-sectarian and open to publishing contributions that differed from the views of the editorial group. Azania Frontline: Newsletter of the Azania (South Africa) Liberation Support Committee published articles written by the committee based on news reports from South Africa and also reprinted news articles from South African newspapers written by black journalists, such as Joe Tloeloe and Thami Mazwai, members of the independent and black consciousness oriented Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA).

In addition to Phahle, the London committee comprised Don Noels, Vukile Mdingi, Margaret Shakespeare and Charlie van Gelderen, a South African who had been in London since the 1940s and who was a member of the International Marxist Group. Among the group of supporters were Basil Manning, the former BCMA chairperson, Barney Segwai, Andrew Lukele, Thomas Ranuga, Chris Nteta, Haroon Variava and Sipho Buthelezi, who published in Azania Worker while he was studying at the London School of Economics. Lukele, Ranuga and Nteta were professors in American universities. Variava left for Australia; Manning, an ordained priest, went to work in Botswana, sending the London committee South African newspaper clippings about political activities on a weekly basis; Buthelezi went to Zimbabwe, later becoming a professor at University of Fort Hare.

The London group carried out all the executive functions to service the publications: they did the typesetting, layout, pasting and distribution themselves. British volunteers Don Weniz helped with typesetting and Jim Stewart with proof-reading. Ken Sprague – the British political cartoonist who conceived the British Anti-Apartheid Movement logo – designed the publications’ Robben Island Our University poster and the shield and spear logo on the publications’ mastheads and provided anti-apartheid cartoons. Bob Symes, a Workers Revolutionary Party supporter, later helped with layout using newly available desktop publishing software. Socialist Organiser did the printing at a reduced rate. Bob Fine, one of its leading members, was active in solidarity work for the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) and wrote several penetrating articles on South Africa’s growing independent trade union movement. By working with different and mutually antagonistic tendencies of the left in Britain, as well as in the USA and France, the publications were thus putting into practice what the ALSC wanted for South Africa: a unity of the left in action.

The publications each had a print run of 2,000. Basil Manning was strategically placed in Botswana to see to the distribution of the publications in Southern Africa and their infiltration into South Africa. From London copies were sent to South African university libraries and advantage was taken of the Transkei’s bogus independence by directly mailing copies to Cala Books, run by Lungisile Ntsebeza, subsequently a professor at the University of Cape Town. Some copies were sent to libraries in Europe and the US, for example, the British Library and the University of California, Los Angeles Library. Aside from library subscriptions, their only sales income was from London bookshops – as they did not receive revenue from copies infiltrated into South Africa.

The committee had very meagre funding. They began the publications with a capital of £300. They later received two donations of £2,000 each from the Combat Racism Program of the World Council of Churches, negotiated by Basil Manning. Phahle’s uncle, Ambrose Phahle, a Unity Movement member then living in Manchester, and Lady Tina Letanka, wife of South African medical doctor Dr Stanley Letanka, sent them occasional donations of £20 or £30. Lambeth Council lent space to NGOs at no charge and let the publications share offices in Brixton with other organisations.

The editorial group hoped that the journals would speak both to the black consciousness movement and the so-called workerist groups and unions. Azania Frontline, no. 1, April 1983, gave significant coverage to the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). They implicitly tried to edge the black consciousness unions to join FOSATU, since FOSATU trade unionists were critical of the ANC and its populism and aimed towards the formation of a workers’ party. However, the publications were also critical of FOSATU for excluding other unions and of those unions, particularly the black consciousness unions, who refused to participate in unity talks. The publications enthusiastically hailed the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) as they believed in the need for a single trade union federation: one country, one federation. The editorial group believed that if black consciousness organisations and unions isolated themselves from COSATU and the United Democratic Front (UDF), they would leave the terrain of struggle to the ANC and SACP without any contestation. They urged black consciousness organisations and independent socialists not to exclude themselves from what was broadly termed the Mass Democratic Movement formed in 1989 (Phahle, Frontline Worker, April-May 1990).

Although not formally tied to any political organization in South Africa, the ALSC members were in contact with Action Youth, the Cape Action League, launched in 1983, in which Neville Alexander was a key figure, and later with its successor organization, the Workers Organisation of South Africa, launched in April 1990; to all these organisations the publications gave much support and publicity. They were also in touch with the Commercial Catering & Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA), the Metal & Allied Workers Union (MAWU) and the Western Cape regional office of the Electrical & Allied Trades Union (EATUSA) led by Brian Williams before it merged with the Electrical & Allied Workers Union of South Africa (EAWUSA). During the very bitter strike actions embarked on by these unions, the publications used their contacts with British shop stewards to build support for them. For example, when Moses Mayekiso and Maxwell Xulu – respectively secretary general and chairperson of MAWU – came to Britain to solicit solidarity support for the MAWU strike, the publications used their contacts in Socialist Organiser to arrange meetings for them with shop stewards at Metal Box and other factories in the British metal industry. Similarly, the publications organised solidarity support for EATUSA, and in appreciation the union gave Phahle, Noels and Mdingi honorary memberships.

Azania Worker published in-depth analyses of South African politics by a range of leftist contributors. It produced a special issue featuring an article by Neville Alexander on the national question (December 1985), and another one with an article by Baruch Hirson (August 1987). Some authors wrote under pseudonyms. Phahle felt that it was important for the publications to be identified with known persons, so he contributed in his own name but also used several pseudonyms, including Sanza Chocho and Lerato Ngolizwe. Don Noels used the pseudonym Joe Gwala. Dot Keet, a member of the International Marxist Group [later renamed Socialist Action] who worked for the Mozambique, Angola and Guine Information Centre (MAGIC), wrote an article on Mozambique’s rapprochement with South Africa under the pseudonym of Jo Hendrickse; her authoritative article on the Nkomati Accords evoked much interest and was well received internationally. Allison Drew, later a professor of politics at the University of York, conducted the interview of trade unionist Salim Vally, then CCAWUSA’s Education Officer (February 1988). She also wrote ‘The Workers’ Charter,’ a report on Neville Alexander’s address to the Engineering and Allied Workers’ Union (July 1988), and an article on the boycott under the pseudonym of A. Byrnes (October 1988).  Martin Murray, a sociology professor at State University of New York at Binghamton and author of South Africa: Time of Agony, Time of Destiny (1987), reviewed Harold Wolpe’s Race, Class & the Apartheid State under the pseudonym Jeremy Robert in Frontline Worker (August 1989). Paul Montgomery, a colleague of Phahle’s at Lambeth College, reviewed African music for them. Suzanne Scafe, another colleague of Phahle’s at Lambeth and subsequently a professor of African and Caribbean Literature at South Bank University in London, wrote book and play reviews. They published an article by the Catholic priest Cosmos Desmond, author of The Discarded People, a book on forced removals in South Africa. Livingston Mqotsi and Desmond Tutu’s son-in-law Corbin Seavers wrote some articles. It’s not known who Dambisa (Spring 1985) is. Thus, the publications attracted international support and contributors.

Some issues were sent to the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF). But Barry Feinberg replied that their approach to the UDF was negative, and therefore IDAF couldn’t promote their publications, which he returned. The letter is reprinted (with a line unfortunately missing) in Azania Frontline, no. 9. To Phahle, Feinberg’s stance underlined the IDAF’s sectarianism – at least by some of the people who ran IDAF but certainly not of its founder and leading patron Canon Collins. Although the publications gave favourable – but not sycophantic – publicity to COSATU and the UDF and prominently reported statements by ANC supporters such as Zwelakhe Sisulu, it appeared that the IDAF saw the ANC and its allies as the only organisations worthy of uncritical support.

By 1989 the ALSC publications were having serious financial difficulties, so they were combined into Frontline Worker. Political conditions in South Africa were changing, and the last issue appeared in January 1991.


References:
• Roseinnes Daniel Phahle, Affidavit, 29 August 2000.
• nterview with Roseinnes Phahle, Johannesburg, 7 July 2018.

Last updated : 05-Sep-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 05-Sep-2018