Prisoners of Apartheid(1)

Statement submitted to the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid on the occasion of the Day of Solidarity with the South African Political Prisoners, October 11, 1979

It is a singular honour to have been invited by the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid to mark the occasion of United Nations Day of Solidarity with the South African Political Prisoners. In welcoming the opportunity to address you I am deeply conscious that this honour is not mine personally, but one that rightly belongs to the millions of toilers and their leaders, my comrades-in-arms, who are sacrificing life and liberty in the struggle for freedom, democracy and peace in our country.

My task is therefore the more onerous since I am entrusted to speak in their voice, with their feelings and their desires, in regard to those scores of gallant heroes of our people with whom the world community stands in solidarity today. Namely the men, women, and yes, children who are incarcerated in apartheid`s prisons; who are facing its tortures in interrogation centres and who are standing before its so-called law courts in so many parts of our country.

In a very real sense all black South Africans are political prisoners - prisoners of the system of apartheid which denies them freedom in the land of their birth. And yet, at another level, it is equally true that those, for whose security and interests black South Africa is imprisoned, are themselves prisoners. For, as Karl Marx once remarked: no nation that enslaves another can be truly free.

But it is not to South Africa, the imprisoned society, that we are addressing ourselves today, but to those who have sacrificed their freedom for the creation of a just and non-racial society in which democracy shall be the rule rather than the exception; a right of all South Africans rather than the privilege of the few.

The General Assembly of the United Nations first demanded the release of South African political prisoners in October 1963, in response to the Rivonia trial which commenced in October of that year. This Committee will undoubtedly remember this as the trial of Nelson Mandela and other great leaders of the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party. Today, despite the appeals and demands for their release the world over, Nelson, together with his comrades Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni face the prospect of imprisonment for life on Robben Island and in Pretoria prison. And life imprisonment means just that. The policy of the apartheid regime allows no remission of sentence for those sentenced under its security laws.

Ever since then the Special Committee against Apartheid has given unstinting support to the efforts of the African National Congress and the international solidarity movement for the release of political prisoners, and, pending their release, for the improvement of their conditions. Moreover, each year, evidence of ill-treatment and torture of prisoners and detainees has been heard by your Committee and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. This information has been disseminated world-wide to solidarity movements and Governments, as well as non-governmental organisations.

The work of the Special Committee, and of specialised agencies of the United Nations, has won the respect of our entire fighting people as surely as it has earned the manifest anger of the apartheid regime. Allow me to place on record my personal thanks, those of the prisoners and their families, as well as that of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. Your actions have been crucial in helping save the lives of many of my compatriots on trial for their lives, and also in securing the amelioration of their conditions in the prisons of apartheid. Perhaps none can express this more eloquently and sincerely than an ANC activist recently released after 12 years on Robben Island:

"International pressure has helped to maintain morale and spirit because man can adapt to the worst conditions if he feels he is not alone, if he feels he has support in what he is doing, and that why he is there is for a just cause and a cause that will triumph."

With the intensification of our liberation struggle and the consequent increasing repression by the racist State, the need for strengthening the international campaign has never been greater. The number of political prisoners has grown and at present there are at least 550 in jails throughout the country, including more than 50 SWAPO leaders and militants. Earlier this year the Minister of Justice disclosed that 447 of these prisoners were held on Robben Island, including nine children under 18 years of age. I don't need to remind this Committee of the brutal conditions to which political prisoners are subjected.

And still the number of victims grows. From July 1978 to 31 May 1979, 46 people are known to have been sentenced to a total of 377 1/2 years' imprisonment. All black male prisoners are incarcerated on Robben Island, while black women are kept in Kroonstad prison. In Pretoria a special maximum security section has been built to house the white male security prisoners.

Since the Soweto revolt, the authorities have been especially severe in their crackdown on the youth. In the last three years, almost 9,000 people under the age of 18 have been arrested for offences linked to "public violence" and "sabotage", and nearly 6,000 prosecutions were brought before the apartheid courts. Asked in Parliament earlier this year how many people under 18 were detained in terms of the security laws during 1979, under what law and for what period, the then Minister of Justice, Kruger, replied:

"Except to confirm that 227 males and 25 females under the age of 18 were detained in terms of the Terrorism and Internal Security Acts during 1978, I consider it not to be in the public interest to disclose all the information required."

Some of the pupils in detention were found to be as young as 13 years of age, and in Port Elizabeth one child detainee was found to be only seven years old, while a large number were between 12 and 14.

Young people are not exempt from torture while in detention. They too are beaten, given electric shocks, made to sit on imaginary chairs, half drowned in buckets of water and so on. Hundreds of school children have been sentenced to floggings for taking part in peaceful demonstrations, and in June 1978 six children under the age of 16 were known to be on Robben Island serving five-year sentences for sabotage. Being political prisoners, they will serve their full sentence, without remission. This year alone the Security Police have acknowledged that they have detained 317 people, and that 168 trials involving so-called national security have come before the apartheid courts in the last seven months.

Evidence has repeatedly been presented to this Committee detailing the widespread inhuman torture, mental and physical, and the appalling prison conditions that prevail. Over 50 political prisoners, including Joseph Mdluli, Elijah Loza, the Imam Haron, have died while in detention. The murder of Steve Biko, which was widely reported in the international press, indicates the treatment meted out to the political prisoners of our country. Discrimination towards political prisoners in terms of diet, clothing, visits, letters, even nationality, is institutionalised within the prison system. When detained, prisoners are held incommunicado without access to lawyers, family or friends for indefinite periods, during which time they are not allowed reading or writing materials. A further serious deprivation now being instituted by the regime is that prisoners who have been sentenced will no longer be allowed to study beyond matriculation level. The objective of the withdrawal of study rights is not to preserve security, as the regime claims, but to break the morale and solidarity of the prisoners. As Nelson Mandela declared in 1969, the regime regards its prisons as institutions with which "to cripple us, so that we should never again have the strength and courage to pursue our ideals."

The prisoners themselves have refused to be subdued, and both on Robben island and in Pretoria prison they have fought unyieldingly to defend their rights and protect themselves against the physical and spiritual aggression of the racist authorities. Robben Island prisoners have time and again gone on hunger strike and fought legal battles to support their demands. Last year, too, nine political prisoners in Pretoria brought an action before the courts asking for an order that they be allowed the right to receive books, newspapers and periodicals of their choice, and that their letters and visits should not be subject to censorship - at present only family matters may be discussed. The decision of the Appeals Court was that under the Prisons Act prisoners have no rights, but only privileges subject to the discretion of the Commissioner of Prisons, and that the conduct of the Commissioner is not subject to review by any court unless inconsistent with the provisions of the Act. Furthermore, under the Prisons Act it is an offence to publish any "false" news about prisons or prisoners, with the onus on the publisher to prove that he has taken reasonable steps to ascertain the truth of his story. The effect of this Act has been to discourage the press from exposing jail atrocities.

During the last session of Parliament earlier this year, two further restrictive laws were added to the statute books. One extended the above provisions of the Prisons Act to cover the police, so that in future police atrocities will also be immune from investigation by the press. The second makes it an offence to publish anything about unnatural deaths until the inquest is complete - a provision aimed at preventing future exposures of killings as in the case of Steve Biko.

All these provisions place South African political prisoners at the mercy of a merciless Government. One of the most important questions facing the international community with regard to support for and defence of South African political prisoners is the question of granting prisoner-of-war status to the gallant freedom fighters of our country.

This year, on April 6, in spite of world-wide protest and campaigns to save his life, Umkhonto we Sizwe combatant Solomon Mahlangu was sent to the gallows.

Today in Pietermaritzburg, 12 young militants of the ANC are facing charges of treason and terrorism, with every possibility of the death sentence again being imposed. These men are considered so dangerous that a 24-hour riot police patrol has been mounted around the courthouse, and a special bullet-proof glass cage has been erected in the court in which the accused are to be confined for the duration of the trial. Despite severe torture and constant intimidation, our cadres stand firm; they have dismissed their defence and refused to participate in the trial as the judge has ruled that evidence against them will be heard in camera and that the names of State witnesses are to be kept secret. Their call is for the people of South Africa to know that their "crime" was attempting to overthrow the South African Government by any means possible... The judge has already sentenced two of them to six months' imprisonment for so-called "contempt of court".

Indicative of the morale and dedication of our cadres is the statement of ANC militant Petrus Mothlane, who, after being sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, told the court: "The most important thing to me is not how long I live but how I live. Those of us who love life as much as we love this country shall never cease to make efforts for the attainment of liberty regardless of creed, race or colour. I am not the first nor shall I be the last to be convicted for this just cause."

It is our demand that patriots and freedom fighters like these should be treated as prisoners-of-war under the Geneva Convention. Both in the courts and in the prisons our comrades have displayed a spirit of heroism and determination which is the expression of an inflexible will for freedom.

Allow me to remind the audience of another category of political prisoner. About 20 men, members of the African National Congress, are serving sentences in Rhodesia`s maximum security prison. These militants were captured in the Wankie and Kariba areas of northwestern Rhodesia in 1967 and 1968 during the joint ANC/Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) operations. We demand their immediate release and not their repatriation to South Africa, as is planned by the puppet Muzorewa.

Forty years ago the nations of the world united to defeat Nazism and the rule of fascist tyranny. Though defeated, fascism has not been destroyed. It has regrouped and reconstituted itself in many parts of the world since the conclusion of the Second World War. What I have attempted to indicate to you, and through you to the world community, is that racist South Africa is one such corner of the world where the jackboot continues to hold sway.

Forty years ago those nations who could do most turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the witnesses of democracy and peace from inside Germany. Nothing, we were told, should be done to upset the voracious appetite of the fascist beast. A nation's life and hopes were sacrificed for the sake of a piece of paper bearing the false promise of peace.

My plea to you today, on behalf of the millions of oppressed and exploited black peoples, the real witnesses of peace and democracy in our country, is to heed their voices, their call, for those who cannot themselves bear witness today - South Africa's political prisoners. If history has taught us anything at all, it is that we can never appease the oppressor and exploiter through our silence and inactivity.

In conclusion, we place before you and the world community once more the demands of our people and of the national liberation movement led by the African National Congress of South Africa:

(1) To intensify the campaigns internationally for the release of all political prisoners and, pending their release;

(2) To demand all-round improvement of prison conditions, including the right of all prisoners to opportunities for furthering their education together with the facilities necessary for this;

(3) To demand the end of torture of detainees and to highlight in every international forum the deliberate policy of torture and murder pursued by the regime of terror with regard to political detainees;

(4) To intensify the demand for the granting of prisoner-of-war status to all captured combatants of the liberation movement in accordance with the relevant accords of the Geneva Convention.

Right now twelve freedom fighters are facing the so-called courts of the regime on charges of high treason. Their lives are at stake. Let us act now to save them and demand their release!

Your actions, in unity with those of the liberation movement, progressive governments and the international solidarity movement, can do much to secure the well-being, safety and release of our gallant freedom fighters. Fundamental to the release of political prisoners in our country is the total eradication of the apartheid regime, which the United Nations has declared a crime against humanity. It is more imperative now than ever before that all United Nations decisions with regard to the imposition of economic, military, political, cultural and sporting sanctions be fully implemented. The total isolation of the racist regime in every sphere of human endeavour is a prerequisite for the destruction of racist tyranny and the achievement of human rights, justice and true liberation. All our support, moral and material, should be given to the liberation movement led by the African National Congress for the achievement of these goals.


This volume of documents has been produced to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the South African Communist Party on July 30, 1921. Our Party, the oldest Communist Party on the African continent, has a long and proud history of struggle to its credit - struggle against the inhumanity and injustice of race and class oppression flowing from the pursuit of private profit, struggle for the achievement of a saner and juster non-racial and non-exploitative society in which all South Africans will enjoy equal rights and opportunities based on the common ownership of the means of production and distribution.

Officially the Communist Party of South Africa (as it was called during its legal period) was formed on July 30, 1921, with the merging at a conference in Cape Town of a number of like-minded organisations based in the main centres of the country and proclaiming the philosophy of Marxism. The most important of these founding bodies, the International Socialist League, was formed in Johannesburg in September 1915, and it was this date that was often referred to by the early leaders of the Party as its birthday. In fact, the separate existence of what we may regard as a Communist nucleus came about even earlier, in September 1914, when the true socialists within the Labour Party formed the "War on War League" inside the Party to give expression to their opposition to capitalism and war and their determination to uphold the international solidarity of labour in the fight for socialism.

"Socialism and internationalism" - these have been the watchwords of the South African Communists from that day to the present. Above all, the socialism for which the Communists strove was not utopian but based on the scientific principles of Marxism. It was because of their adherence to Marxism that the South African Communists, who started their crusade as a minority of whites among the white minority, were able to weld together in their ranks representatives of all the various sections of the population opposed to racism, white domination and capitalist exploitation. It was because of their Marxism that the South African Communists have remained one of the staunchest components of the international Communist movement aiming at the elimination of imperialism and the achievement of a world socialist order.

It has often been argued by our opponents that Communism was brought to our country by whites and foreigners, that it is an alien importation unacceptable to the indigenous majority. Our reply to this is that the concept of the brotherhood of man, of the sharing of the fruits of the earth, is common to all humanity, black and white, east and west, and has been formulated in one form or another throughout history. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto:

"The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes."

The composition of the South African proletariat was something dictated by history, by white conquest and settlement, the importation of capital following the discovery of gold and diamonds, the immigration of skilled white labour from abroad, the press-ganging of unskilled labour from the ranks of the dispossessed blacks. The Communist Manifesto also pointed out:

"The Communists are distinguished from other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement."

The immediate aim of the Communists, said The Manifesto, is the formation of the proletariat into a class, the overthrow of bourgeois supremacy, and the conquest of political power by the proletariat who constitute the immense majority of the population. Under the circumstances prevailing in South Africa at the time, it was inevitable that it was whites who would take the lead in the formation of a Communist Party. But it is a matter of record that the whites who pioneered our movement, men like W. H. Andrews, D. Ivon Jones, S.P. Bunting and their colleagues, realised from the outset that, if it was true, as they proclaimed, that "socialism, to be effective, must be international", it was equally true that "an internationalism which does not concede the fullest rights which the Native working class is capable of claiming will be a sham".

From the outset the Communists sought to bring the black workers into their movement, held aloft the banner of equal rights for all. They helped form some of the first black trade unions, sought cooperation with the various black organisations like the African National Congress and the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU), the African People's Organisation (APO) and the Indian Congress, involved themselves in the day-to-day struggle of the people against oppression. As blacks consolidated their position in the ranks of the proletariat, so the composition of the Communist Party was altered. Whereas in 1915 the International Socialist League had been composed only of whites, 15 years later the overwhelming majority of Communist Party members were Africans, and men like J. B. Marks, Albert Nzula, Moses Kotane, Edwin Mofutsanyana, John Gomas, James La Guma, Johannes Nkosi and others were to be counted among the leaders, responsible for framing policies and implementing decisions. Today our party faithfully reflects at all levels the composition of the working class and liberation movement of our country.

Our Communist Party was always a party of militants and activists and we never had room for passengers. Our Party members have been in the thick of every people's struggle since the First World War - in the ceaseless campaigns against the pass laws, the fight for higher wages and better working conditions, the fight against fascism and war, the mineworkers` strikes of 1920, 1922 and 1946, the Defiance Campaign of 1952, the campaign for the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter, the bus boycotts, the resistance to apartheid, segregation and dispossession. The mass movement against white domination headed by the African National Congress which has assumed such vast proportions today, striking ever more effective blows against the racist enemy, extends far beyond our ranks, but we are an essential part of it, and the unique value of our contribution is recognised by friends and enemies alike. Our Party members have been tried and tested in battle. Thousands of them have been arrested and jailed, many have died at the hands of the police. We have proved ourselves in action as the party of the working class.

Decade after decade we have campaigned and fought, organised and mobilised, taught and propagandised, carrying our message into every corner of the land, holding aloft the banner of Marxism-Leninism at the head of the people's army. The course we have followed has not always been smooth. We have had our setbacks and reverses; we have endured the disasters of repression and dissolution, the self-inflicted torments of sectarianism, but we have succeeded in reforming our ranks and revitalising ourselves. Rooted in the working class of South Africa whose mission will not be completed until capitalism is overthrown and replaced by people's democracy leading to a socialist society, the Party has proved itself to be a vanguard organisation in the best tradition, constantly seeking the way forward to the new South Africa outlined in its programme, steadfastly testing in action the theories formulated at our conferences. Our members have shown themselves resourceful, courageous and adaptable, winning for the Party the confidence of its allies in the liberation struggle. And we have had our victories, steadily advancing the cause of the workers and the forward positions of our freedom fighters.

The principle which has guided all our efforts has been the need to build up the broadest united front of patriotic and anti-racist forces in the struggle against white domination. It was in pursuit of this aim that our Party explored the relationship between the national and class struggles in South Africa, and formulated in its 1962 programme the concept of "colonialism of a special type" which provided the theoretical basis for yoking together the forces of national liberation and working class revolution. At this, the stage of the national democratic revolution, the main component of which in the South African context is the national liberation of the African people, the main thrust of the revolutionary forces is to forge the broadest possible unity of the masses and of all strata of the people for the overthrow of the hated racist regime. In pursuance of this objective the Freedom Charter adopted at the Congress of the People in 1955 has become the immediate programme of the national liberation alliance and the short-term programme of our Party. At its augmented Central Committee meeting in 1979 the Party declared:

"Our Party is a vital component of the revolutionary alliance for national liberation headed by the African National Congress. As such it has no interests separate from any contingent of that alliance which we have always worked to strengthen. This approach does not stand in conflict with our belief that our Party has an independent role to play as a constituent part of the alliance, but also as the political vanguard of the proletariat whose special historical role as the grave-digger of capitalism and the builder of socialism we have always safeguarded."

In the formulation of our policies, and in their implementation, we have benefitted immeasurably from the guidance and assistance of the international communist movement, and are confident that in turn, through our own work and experience, we have contributed our share to the storehouse of international revolutionary theory and strengthened the cause of proletarian internationalism. At a time when the desperation of the imperialists and the adventurism of the Chinese hegemonists threaten the world with war and nuclear destruction, it is our unshakeable belief that it is the duty of every communist party to strengthen its ties with the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries and to consolidate the ranks of the international communist movement. In the words of our 1979 Central Committee resolution:

"There is no room for neutrals in the struggle to eliminate from the world the last vestiges of colonialism and racism, to win for all peoples the right to real freedom and independence, the right to live in peace and security from the cradle to the grave."

This book is not a history of the Communist Party in South Africa. Our publishing house, Inkululeko Publications, has already issued a number of works interpreting our past and present roles, and new contributions appear regularly in our journal The African Communist. What we present here is the raw material of our history - the statements, articles and speeches of leaders and members of our Party, the relevant sections of our past constitutions and programmes, the reports and resolutions of our conferences and Central Committee meetings, so that the present-day reader can see events, not with the sometimes biased or patronising wisdom of hindsight, but in the context in which our predecessors (and some of us at the time) viewed them. We do this, not with a view to passing judgment or making excuses, but to enable the reader to understand the reasoning and motives of our Party leaders and members in reaching the conclusions they did, what led them to formulate this policy or pass that resolution. Historians often err in assessing the past according to the standards and perspectives of today, without asking themselves whether the options which are open today were available at the time. We hope this collection of evidence will help to explain our history. To be able to listen to our Party spokesmen stating their case at the various crisis points of the past will, we hope, deepen appreciation of their efforts and achievements, their persistence and determination.

We Communists, being human, are fallible and often make mistakes, but one thing which can never be held against us is that we have failed to act in the spirit of the words of Marx inscribed on his grave:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."

We nave never ceased striving to change South Africa from the hell that it is today for the majority of our people groaning under the vicious burdens of apartheid, into a free society in which class and colour discrimination and exploitation will be abolished once and for all. At all times when our people have been faced with a challenge from the enemy backed by his brutal, trigger-happy armed forces, our Party responded to the challenge with the appropriate course of action decided upon after careful analysis of the objective conditions at the time. This is what led our Party in 1961 to allocate some of our members to join with their counterparts in the African National Congress in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, now grown into an effective liberation force striking ever more effective blows against the enemy's laager.

Looking back on our history, perhaps this can be reckoned the hallmark of our achievement - that, guided by the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, we have never ceased to organise the South African working class and lead them in the struggle for liberation. Confident in the justice of our cause, that we speak and act in the interests of the overwhelming majority of our people, we have always looked to the future with optimism. We are convinced that the record of our work contained in this book will justify the confidence placed in us by the South African working class and inspire greater efforts from all freedom fighters in the struggle for liberation.

1 Dr. Dadoo was invited to the special meeting of the Special Committee on the Day of Solidarity. He was unable to travel to New York and sent a written statement.

. 2 Introduction to South African Communists Speak:

Documents from the History of the South African Communist Party, 1915-1980. London: Inkululeko Publications, 1981.


© Liberation Archive 2004. Page generated at 11:14:33; 13 November 2004