When thought was a crime: Neville Alexander and South Africa’s New Left – Fellows’ seminar by Allison Drew

13 October 2022

“My project is a study of the tiny National Liberation Front (NLF) and its precursor, the even tinier Yu Chi Chan Club, its name meaning ‘guerrilla struggle,’ after a pamphlet by Mao Zedong. I argue that the groups need to be understood as part of the transnational New Left of the long global 1960s, and I highlight Neville Alexander’s role as a transnational intellectual-activist in this South African New Left,” said Allison Drew, a professor emerita at the University of York.

STIAS Fellow Allison Drew

Drew pointed out that of all the small anti-apartheid groups charged in the early 1960s under South African state security laws, the NLF was the only known group whose members – mostly teachers and students – did not engage in armed activity. Yet they were imprisoned for five to ten years for conspiracy to overthrow the state.

“In marked contrast to other early 1960s groups, the NLF has been virtually ignored by historians of South Africa’s liberation movement,” she continued. “Yet the NLF trial shows more starkly than any other during those years the Orwellian concept of thoughtcrime in apartheid South Africa — when the state criminalised thought.”

“Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, depicted a bleak future where survival, mistrust and manipulation of language and thought led to acquiescence. In key respects it anticipated the evolution of apartheid.”

Drew sketched the history of a period in which the powerful apartheid state introduced increasingly repressive education policies and censorship including the 1953 Bantu Education Act, “which ensured there was no place for Africans above the level of labourer,” and the 1959 Extension of University Education Act, “which made it a crime for black students to enrol at historically white universities without a ministerial permit.”

“Things changed dramatically after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 with expansion of the security apparatus and more repressive laws including the 1961 General Law Amendment which allowed detention without trial; the 1962 Sabotage Act which, using a broad definition, made sabotage a capital crime; the 1963 General Law Amendment Act commonly known as the 90-Day Detention Law which increased time allowed for detention and solitary confinement; as well as censorship of films and the media via the 1963 Publications and Entertainment Act.”

Political opposition was forced further underground and in reaction Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, was established in 1961. “The state squeezed the public space available for opposition,” said Drew. “This spirit of fear and suspicion formed the background to the NLF.”

The NLF, launched in 1963, and its precursor the Yu Chi Chan Club formed in mid-1962, emerged from the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) tradition. The young Alexander had been a NEUM member and an activist in the Society of Young Africa (SOYA) established in 1951 by NEUM leader Isaac Bangani Tabata. SOYA was an intellectual vehicle that mobilised black youth and students. Drew indicated that Alexander was very close to Tabata – “and later described him as the greatest political influence of his life, saying ‘politically we all grew up at his feet’.”

Alexander entered the University of Cape Town in 1953 and soon joined the NEUM. In 1957 he founded the Cape Peninsula Students’ Union. In 1958 he went to West Germany on an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Tübingen. In Europe he met a range of socialists and radical students.

By the time Alexander returned to South Africa in 1961, many black youth and students in the NEUM were critical of its hesitant approach to politics and wanted open discussion of socialism. Alexander’s return accelerated the development of the NLF.

The NLF was primarily an underground study group including South Africans and Namibians. Membership was open to all, with no discrimination. The focus was on study, education and the development of new organisational forms via a non-hierarchical structure of cells and regional committees. It published Liberation, a monthly journal.

“By contrast, at the time, the South African Communist Party (SACP) was much more hierarchical, with women excluded from the top levels using the spurious rationale of the Immorality Act,” said Drew.

“Some of the NLF’s literature described it as a paramilitary organisation with political and military aims but its activities comprised thinking, reading, discussing, writing, fundraising to publish and disseminate articles, and the formation of study groups to compare guerrilla strategies.”

The NLF as New Left

Drew believes the NLF reflected the global New Left – a broad leftist political movement of the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that campaigned for a range of social and political issues, especially national liberation and civil rights. She pointed out that the New Left was based on a rejection of Stalinism as well as the bureaucratic tendencies of social democratic parties, describing it as “strongly generational with marked regional variations”.

Key to the movement’s ideas were the Algerian War of Independence (1954 – 1962) and the Cuban Revolution (1959). The influx of Asian and African students into Europe, especially West Germany where Alexander studied, was also crucial.

“The Cuban Revolution showed that the countryside could be the locale of revolutionary action in contrast to the classic urban focus – an idea that Alexander later tried to apply in South Africa,” she said. “Alexander also drew comparisons between France’s colonisation of Algeria and South Africa’s colonisation of South West Africa. He believed that the centre of world revolution had shifted to the colonies.”

Drew highlighted a pamphlet written at this time and later used as court evidence entitled The Conquest of Power in South Africa in which “Alexander argued that even during a revolutionary period the white army would never support the black masses. Instead, the rural masses would be the basis of a guerrilla army with guerrilla teachers to teach literacy and raise the cultural level.”

“The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 formally banned the Communist Party of South Africa. But the new underground SACP was still old left and pro-Soviet – very few South African communists had left the party even after the invasion of Hungary in 1956.”

“There were similarities and differences in how the NLF and SACP/MK envisioned guerrilla warfare. Nonetheless, both underestimated the power of the industrialised state which put them into prison.”

Ignored by history

Turning to her thoughts on why this group has been largely omitted from history, Drew pointed to the many silences and biases in the liberation movement’s history.

“Was it racism? Most of the NLF members were classified as Coloured and amongst many academics there was a greater focus on white radicals and the white left. Then there’s also the militaristic bias – with only groups who used bombs seen as worthy of attention.”

“There is also a conceptual problem of the relationship between the political centre and the margins. But can you really understand the centre in isolation from the margins, which are in a state of flux as individuals and groups move to and from the centre? The focus on organisations close to power means the SACP’s history has overshadowed the histories of other socialist tendencies in South Africa. But should proximity to power be the only means to assess history? There is a need to examine history through multiple dimensions.”

Her work will also focus on the trial itself in which the NLF members were found guilty of conspiracy despite the fact that they had never come close to performing any acts of violence. “The more famous Treason Trial (1956 – 1961), in which 156 people, including Mandela, were charged, collapsed when it became impossible to conclude that the ANC had a policy to overturn the state through violence. In that case, thinking about violence was not deemed a crime.” But several years later, the judge in the NLF trial stated that NLF members who were teachers could have used their intellectual position to influence others. “The typewriter was a key piece of evidence in the trial, showing the focus on intellectual work,” said Drew. “And the judgement was framed in the conditional tense of ‘could have’ and ‘would have’.”

“This raises future research questions, such as when does collective thinking become conspiracy, when do commitment and intent become conspiracy, and whether in the NLF trial there was evidence of conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.”

At the time of his death in 2012 Alexander was a STIAS fellow – read more about his STIAS work at https://stias.ac.za/?s=neville+alexander


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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