The history of an exceptional newspaper

Posted on December 8, 2010


The Guardian — The History of South Africa’s Extraordinary Anti-Apartheid Newspaper.
By James Zug (Michigan State University Press/UNISA Press)

(First published, May 2009)

The Guardian, a polemical newspaper that survived three bannings and subsequent name changes and was once charged, alongside 156 individuals, with treason, is part of the anti-apartheid folk lore of South Africa. In this fundamentally sympathetic, but still critical history of this quite exceptional newspaper, James Zug has produced what amounts to both a journalistic and academic tour de force.

At a time in South Africa when historical revisionism and myth making are continuing apace, this is a welcome — and valuable — contribution. Much of it reads like a novel and its 113 pages of notes on the chapters provide a rare treat that helps to further flesh out the story while providing more tantalizing hints of the deeper ideological undercurrents that shaped this history.

Zug does not avoid the fact that The Guardian (and it successors) tended to toe the Moscow line. In the prologue he admits that the newspaper in its various incarnations “still retained its communist underpinnings and steadfastly supported the Soviet Union as the Cold War winds blew”(pp 4). But he feels that it only “morphed into a party organ” (pp 38) years after its establishment.

However, The Guardian was, from the start, and for the 1,400 weeks of its existence, very much a reflection of the political orientation and contradictions that beset both the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and its successor from 1953, the SA Communist Party (SACP). The contradictions arose from the complex relations of race and class in South Africa that were very different from those in countries such as the USA. These were compounded by the diktats from Moscow that conditioned the responses of the CPSA.

The fact that the party became, in 1950, the first CP to voluntarily liquidate itself, was also a reflection of the diktat from the Comintern that the party should prioritize the institution of a “black republic” rather than socialist revolution. Faced with the prospect of being banned by the recently installed Afrikaner nationalist and rigidly segregationist government, a majority of members decided that a formal communist party was, at that stage, unnecessary. The minority that disagreed finally got together in 1953 and reconstituted the party as the SACP.

This black republic thesis existed from 1928, so The Guardian (in its various guises) became, from the outset, the champion of the democratic nationalist cause, a communist newspaper for the first, popular front, stage of a two-stage revolution. That it occasionally veered from strict orthodoxy — and was always quickly pulled back into line — also reflected the suppressed debates that existed.

Those debates were never aired in The Guardian. So there was no mention of an earlier party chair, Lazar Bach, who travelled to Moscow to protest the “black republic” thesis or of the Richter brothers who had taken the same course. All three disappeared into the gulag, but were posthumously readmitted to party membership at the seventh SACP congress in Havana, Cuba, in 1989.

This ideological background and the machinations that resulted from it, was not part of Zug’s brief, but they now cry out for detailed analysis. This clear and exceptionally well written history concentrates on how a financially beleaguered newspaper not only exposed the brutalities of apartheid, but helped to shape the struggle against that system. In the process, and to his further credit, Zug has opened many other avenues for investigation.

This is especially pertinent since the April, 2009 South African elections that saw 97 current SACP members elected to national and provincial legislatures as members of the African National Congress (ANC). The SACP’s general secretary, Blade Nzimande, is now an ANC national minister of education while the party’s chair, Gwede Mantashe, simultaneously holds the powerful post of secretary-general of the ANC.

The “black republic” is also now — and has been since 1994 — a reality and was claimed as vindication of Stalin’s theories by Brian Bunting, the editor and major force on The Guardian from 1946 until its demise. Bunting was also, until his death last year, the longest serving central committee member of the SACP. He could, Zug notes, “be faulted for a vinegary disdain for ideological flexibility” (pp 81), a description that many who knew him — including this writer — would regard as an understatement. Zug adds that Bunting was also “a political mastermind…..unhesitatingly dedicated to the struggle” (ibid).

He was certainly unhesitatingly dedicated to the struggle — as he saw it. And his view was always from the perspective of Moscow; he adhered solidly to “the line” to an extent that seemed more akin to religious belief than critical analysis.

The effects of personalities and a particular ideological orientation dictated much of what The Guardian was and became. The same factors also played a part in shaping what South Africa is today — ultimately for better or worse is still to be decided.

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