The history of communism in South Africa began with the formation in 1921 of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The party was entirely white, as was the majority of organized labor—its main constituency. The CPSA attempted to fight for equality of black and white workers, but white labor refused to desegregate, and the party’s support among Africans was practically nonexistent. In 1928, the Communist International (Comintern), of which the CPSA was a member, sent it an instruction to work for an “independent native republic.” This slogan helped the party to attract a black membership, but resulted in much infighting.
The CPSA’s position strengthened during World War II, but in 1950, after Afrikaner nationalists came to power, the party was banned. It re-emerged in 1953 as the underground South African Communist Party (SACP). Since then, the party has worked closely with the African National Congress (ANC). Many of its cadres were simultaneously ANC members. In 1955, communists helped to formulate the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s overarching program. In 1960, the SACP launched the armed struggle against apartheid. The ANC took the nascent liberation army under its wing in 1963. In the early 1960s, many party members, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested or forced into exile.
The party had a deep ideological influence on the ANC: from 1969, its ideas on South Africa as a colony of a special type and on the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) have become part of all ANC programs.
After the end of apartheid, communists occupied important positions in all ANC governments. Despite this, many in the SACP have been unhappy with the direction the ANC has taken. However, the party has not contested elections on its own, trying instead to influence ANC policies from inside. This has cost it its reputation as a militant revolutionary party.
With the passing of the Bantu Authorities Act in 1951, the apartheid set in motion the creation of ten bantustans, one of South Africa’s most infamous projects of racial ordering. Also known as “homelands” in official parlance, the bantustans were set up in an attempt to legitimize the apartheid project and to deprive black South Africans of their citizenship by creating ten parallel “countries”, corresponding to state designated ethnic group. The bantustan project was controversial and developed slowly, first by consolidating “native” reserve land and later by giving these territories increasing power for self-governance. By the 1980s there were four “independent” bantustans (Transkei, Ciskei, Venda, and Bophuthatswana) and six “self-governing” ones (Lebowa, Gazankulu, KwaNdebele, Qwaqwa, KaNgwane, and KwaZulu).
While a few bantustan leaders worked with the anti-apartheid liberation movements, the bantustans were largely rejected as political frauds governed by illegitimately installed chiefs. They acted as dumping grounds for surplus cheap African labor and allowed the apartheid government to justify large-scale forced removals from “white” farmlands and cities. But the bantustans were also incubators of a black middle class and bureaucratic elite. Despite the formal dissolution of the bantustans in 1994 and their reincorporation into a unitary democratic state, the rule of chiefs and the growth of this black middle class have a deep-rooted legacy in the post-1994 era. As several contemporary commentators have noted, South Africa has witnessed the “bantustan-ificaton” of the post-apartheid landscape.