Loss of a revolutionary

Harry Gwala: born July 30 1920; died June 19 1995

HARRY GWALA, veteran leader of South Africa’s communists, died last week after a long battle against motor-neuron disease.

Uncompromising in his commitment to communism, he continued to put forward the workers’ viewpoint. While most leaders of the South African Communist Party were content to integrate themselves into the bourgeois establishment, fully supporting Mandela’s capitalist government, he was not afraid to speak out against them.

Born in KwaZulu-Natal, he qualified as a teacher and joined the Party at the age of 22. As a result of his trade union activities he was banned for much of the fifties and was eventually jailed for ‘terrorism’ for his role in the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. In 1976 he was sent to Robben Island for life, but was released in 1988 after his illness began to rob him of the use of his arms.

He rapidly reached the top leadership of both the ANC and the SACP, and was particularly venerated in his native Natal. Yet he never lost touch with the masses, paying great attention to local work. The chairperson of his local Dambuza branch of the ANC, Shakes Cele, told me: “There were not many leaders like him, able to go down to the masses on the ground and translate their feelings.”

He was a great teacher. As Tony Yengeni, SACP executive committee member, pointed out, “Working class theory and Party organisation are most advanced in Natal-Midlands, thanks largely to the influence of comrade Gwala. The youth are well read and well trained.”

He was among the leaders of resistance to the Party’s attempt to ditch even the term, Marxism-Leninism, and was uncompromising in his insistence that the Inkatha terrorists must be met with counter-violence: “Make no mistake - we kill Inkatha warlords,” he told a journalist.

Not surprisingly he became increasingly unpopular with both the ANC and Party bureaucracies. Nelson Mandela intervened personally in an unsuccessful attempt to remove him from the Natal ANC chairmanship, and last year his SACP membership was suspended after allegations were made that he was organising hit squads - not against Inkatha, but, ludicrously, against ANC and Party leaders.

Comrade Gwala gave an eloquent reply to this in an interview with the Weekly Worker: “I’ve been a member of the Communist Party since 1942. It would be very strange if, in my old age, when I’m just about to leave this world, I start organising hit squads. There have been sharp differences all along and they have been part of our culture” (August 11 1994).

But Harry Gwala never broke from the left centrism that characterised the SACP, even in its most revolutionary days, when it was calling for armed insurrection. During the present period of transition, he believed that the time was not yet right to organise against the ANC-led government. He himself was ANC chief whip in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial parliament, where Inkatha is the majority party.

At a time when Nelson Mandela was adopting openly anti-working class policies, he told us: “I don’t think we have reached the point of breaking with the government yet. We have built this bourgeois democracy around characters, around certain individuals. Until we destroy that myth, any criticism will appear to be against an individual and not against the system” (Weekly Worker February 23 1995).

Tony Yengeni told me that Harry was not afraid of speaking his mind: “He didn’t follow individuals, but policies. For him no individual was above criticism.” Unfortunately he made an exception in the case of Nelson Mandela.

In the last months of his life comrade Gwala became more and more outspoken in condemning the SACP leadership. In one of his last interviews he told the Weekly Worker: “The Party leadership has collapsed and is tailing behind the bourgeoisie and the national movement. It does not even seriously discuss socialism. It attacks the populace and praises the ‘transformation’. The SACP of the bureaucracy is dying - it is tied to the apron strings of the ANC. We must start a new road: we must go to the factories, to the youth - then the Party will not die” (April 27 1995).

As Shakes Cele points out, “When Harry made his criticisms, most would not agree completely. But within a short time events would often prove him right. In terms of his understanding of the present period, combined with his knowledge of Marxism-Leninism, we have suffered a great loss.”

That loss is felt far beyond the boundaries of South Africa.

Peter Manson