Culture/Creativity/Communism: cultural expression and South Africa’s communist movement by Judy Seidman

This paper opens up the question about the role played by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA/SACP) in shaping SA’s culture of liberation. This issue has been under-studied and ignored until today; it remains a blank hole in our cultural history.

The paper begins with a brief overview of how communist politics intertwined with South Africa’s culture of liberation.  In writing and poetry, this began with communist activists creating worker literacy groups in the late 1920s; it emerged in the writings of Peter Abrahams and Alex la Guma; it infused participation of liberation movement cultural workers in international “communist world” events and discourse.  Direct influence in performance art (theatre/dance/music) shows in the music of  Vuyisile Mini; and less directly South Africa theatre workshop’s often conscious engagement with Brecht and agitprop theatre traditions; it further influenced worker theatre.  The visual arts embraces Eli Weinburg’s photographs, silkscreened posters  by the CPSA during World War II, and within the 1980s poster movement (including posters by Dikobe waMogale Martins).  Communism also found expression in “people’s culture” – there are records of the song “my mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that’s why I’m a communist…” in Mpumalanga in 1940s.

The paper also traces international influences in South Africa’s culture; from awareness of Langston Hughes, WEB Du Bois, and the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, through debates about socialist realism, Brecht, and “worker culture”.

Political debates on the National Question played out in South African liberation culture, seeking to align communist theories of art-making with Africa’s art history and culture of resistance.

Finally, this paper looks at pressures that worked to submerge this history: from direct political repression; to profitmaking institutions idealizing individualism over collective artmaking; to endless debates of propaganda versus art nurtured in capitalism’s cold war campaigns against socialist realism.

Judy Seidman was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, USA in 1951. She went to Achimota secondary school in Ghana (West Africa) then to university in Madison Wisconsin, receiving a BA in sociology, and an MFA (painting) in 1972.  Since then she has worked as an artist and cultural activist within South Africa’s liberation movement, in Zambia, Swaziland and Botswana, moving to Johannesburg after 1990.  Seidman has written extensively on the South African poster movement, and creative culture within the liberation struggle. Since 2007, she has facilitated art-making workshops that encourage the expression of personal histories and social awareness.

Karl Marx and The Useless Man by Steven Sack

On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the SACP.

In 1976, 10 students, all of whom had studied at Wits University, created a new original play titled The Fantastical History of a Useless Man.

The group named themselves The Junction Avenue Theatre Company; and the play was performed, to acclaim, for a few weeks in the Nunnery Theatre, finding a receptive audience amongst students, academics, and even the general public. The first run of the play was advertised with a poster designed by William Kentridge and printed using a simple screen printing stencil method by members of the group. This poster had two of the historic figures that appeared in the play, Jan van Riebeek and Cecil John Rhodes - plus a portrait of Karl Marx.  In 1977 the play was invited by the Student Representative Council of the University of Pietermaritzburg (now known as the University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN) to be part of a student festival. The poster on this occasion has only the face of Karl Marx.

Forty five years later, Steven Sack, who performed the role of the Useless Man, brings nine members of the cast together, to talk about the play, and in particular to interrogate the significance of the appearance of the face of Karl Marx on the posters advertising the play. Along the way a conversation unfolds in which questions are asked and a series of memories are unearthed.

I propose to give an account of the descriptions and memories of nine of the original cast members: Malcolm Purkey, Ruth Sack, Ari Sitas, Anne Stanwix, Astrid von Kotze, Patrick Fitzgerald, Hannchen Koornhoff, William Kentridge and Steven Sack.  Each of their differing perspectives and accounts will shape this presentation: an unfolding discussion about the critical issues that underpinned the play’s coming into existence - a play which reflected the consciousness of emerging young white radical artists in that time. The paper will raise questions about the entire creative journey, how it began, and its context: what was going on in theatre more widely at the time; debates about the role of the artist; debates that were unfolding in terms of political thought and theory at the time; and our own education and socialisation under Christian Nationalist Education.

Why was the image of Marx included on the poster in 1976, and why is the Marx portrait used exclusively on the poster for the second touring production in 1977?  What will emerge are arguments - both for and against - whether the play was influenced by Karl Marx and the related readings and ideas that formed part of the zeitgeist at that time on university campuses. We were also profoundly conscious of the writings and plays of the Marxist-influenced playwright Berthold Brecht.

How did the meeting of the group and the play sustain our student years? Where was Black Consciousness (BC) in all of this? Is this a play about White consciousness?

The paper will draw on an archive of programmes, posters, the play-script, and various notes that have survived, and will help to peel back memory and understand the extent to which the writings of Karl Marx were a significant influence in the lives of the ten protagonists.

Ethnic Networks and the Road to Radicalisation: Jews in the South African Communist Party by Elizabeth Visser 


This paper focuses on ethnicity in the South African Communist Party (SACP), exploring the extent to which the ethnic origins, networks, values, and institutions that informed the early lives of Jewish radicals influenced their eventual support for – and involvement with – the SACP. 

Since its formation in 1921, the SACP fought tirelessly to improve South Africa’s political landscape – as the earliest significant non-racial political organisation in the country, and later a critical player in the liberation struggle. 

One of the SACP’s distinctive features was its core belief that working-class solidarity transcended racial lines, and had the potential to override ethnic and nationalist loyalties. This paper found, however, that ethnic networks and experiences nevertheless permeated the functioning of the SACP, and the pathways by which many radical activists came to it.

This paradox was particularly visible in the South African Jewish community, which produced a disproportionately large majority of the small minority of white anti-apartheid activists. Though few – if any – of these radicals took their anti-apartheid stance in their capacities as Jews, this paper found that their ethnic origins and experiences were not entirely disconnected from their political awareness and activism. The study discovered and explores three ‘subtle catalysts’ for radicalism that illuminate these connections. Drawing on a range of archival materials, oral testimonies, and memoirs and biographies of prominent SACP members (including Joe Slovo, Denis Goldberg, Ruth First, Hilda Bernstein, Albie Sachs, and Sonia Bunting) the paper explores how the legacy of immigration from Eastern Europe; the radicalisation of ‘red diaper babies’ (activists whose parents were involved with the SACP); and exposure to socialist-inclined Jewish youth organisations functioned as key intersections of Jewish ethnicity and radical political consciousness that provided the tools and values for an active engagement with – and commitment to – the SACP’s pursuit of a non-racial democracy in South Africa.


Elizabeth Visser has just completed an MPhil in International Peace Studies from Trinity College Dublin, as a Kader Asmal Fellow. Prior to that, she worked as a research assistant at the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre, where she produced a digital exhibition on the influence of ethnicity and ethnic networks on political radicalisation. 

In 2021, she will commence a PhD in Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town, researching the history – and theorising the future – of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Joining the party: Communists in South Africa, from the beginnings to the present by Tom Lodge, University of Limerick

 The Communist Party and its predecessor groups would find their first followings among immigrant British workers though almost from the beginning their leaders included middle-class professionals.  This paper explores the changing sociology of the Communist affiliation and looser support.  It will consider the Party's particular appeal within South Africa’s Jewish community and the extent to which women played a role in the Party at different times.  Black South Africans were amongst the Party’s following from the beginning but their movement into positions of real influence was halting.  The extent to which the Party succeeded in recruiting activists in factories and other workplaces varied over time; amongst “Africans” often its most successful cadres were relatively well-educated men in white collar occupations.  From the 1940s universities, especially Fort Hare, Witwatersrand and Cape Town became important arenas of party influence, remaining so through the 1980’s.    After 1990 with its transformation from a selective “vanguard” formation to a mass organisation, the social character of active party membership has shifted both sociologically and geographically.  In conclusion the paper will outline how these changes in the Party’s social make-up have affected its strategic orientation and political impact.  


Tom Lodge grew up in Nigeria, Borneo, and Britain.  He has a Ph D in Southern African Studies from the University of York. He taught in the Department of Political Studies at Wits between 1978 and 2005.  Subsequently he worked at the University of Limerick.  He now lives in France.  His Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 (Ravan) appeared in 1983.  More recent books include a biography of Mandela (Oxford, 2006) and a study of the Sharpeville Massacre (Oxford, 2011).  Red Road to Freedom: A History of the South African Communist Party, 1921-2021 will be published by Jacana in July.  

Geschwister: International Family and Sacrifice against Apartheid by Paul S. Landau, 15 February 2021

The paper examines two unrelated incidents to illustrate the problem of mutual identity among Communists, the creation and recreation of boundaries such as N. Luhmann argues in his outline of system theory, especially in the marking-out of religion. 

The two complementary focuses are these. In the 1920s and '30s, the Communist International brokered relationships between American and Caribbean Communists and the Soviet Party, leading to a shift in emphasis to support Black liberation. In the course of that permutation, the Soviet Party called Lazar Bach to come from South Africa to Russia for consultations, where he was taken to Siberia and shot. His wife Ray remarried the policy-compliant South African theorist Mick Harmel, and remained in the Party. While I was at first surprised, subsequent investigation has demonstrated how frequent such division and devotion were, not only among Communists but even some ex-Communists. As some international and American Communists expressed it, you could always get another spouse. 

Half a century later, in 1986, the East German (GDR) kid's magazine, Bummi, inaugurated a post-card writing campaign, for which tens of thousands of children wrote to Nelson Mandela who was then in Pollsmoor Prison. While I assumed at first the campaign was simply mandatory, I've since learned about the depth of feeling children evinced toward Mandela, a Black man none of them had ever met. Years later, letter-writers describe the earnest sympathy and even identification they felt for him and for other oppressed, colonized people. We now know this campaign occurred in a society rife with anxiety, state paranoia, and the cultivation of personal informants against friends and family members to the Stasi.

On this double example will turn a preliminary discussion of the coding of the boundaries making international solidarity, featuring the projection of the self as part of a greater other, and an imagination of siblinghood (Geschwisterlichkeit), even at the cost of the trusting partnership at the centre of a nuclear family. 

Paul S. Landau is Professor at the University of Maryland, and a Fellow of the University of Johannesburg's History Centre. Most recently he is a Fellow of the "Multiple Secularities" KFG program at the University of Leipzig. He is an Africanist and historian, the author of several articles and three books about the nature of political affiliation, mobilization, and self-representation, most recently, Mandela and the Revolutionaries: Spear (forthcoming with Jacana and Ohio University Press). His current project focuses on the world anti-apartheid movement as a sacralized space, a forum for collaboration and mutually contradictory aims and projects, to which this paper will contribute.