Communist Jews Overthrew White South African Rule

Tikkun, March, 2000, by David Biale


* Rivonia's Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa, by Glenn Frankel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

With the fall of Communism a decade ago, that specter which had haunted Europe (and elsewhere) for nearly a century and a half fell into seemingly permanent disrepute. To be sure, the crimes of Stalin, the repressions of basic freedoms, and the failure of the economic systems of most Eastern bloc countries had long discredited the movement. But the collapse of what had seemed a permanent part of the world's political order made it almost impossible to find anything that might be redeemed out of Communism.

Glenn Frankel has now undertaken this very task in his riveting tale of a group of white and (mostly) Jewish Communists from South Africa, who, virtually alone, risked everything to fight apartheid. In 1961 they made an alliance with the African National Congress and began planning for an uprising, including bombings of government institutions, from a rented farm on the outskirts of Johannesburg in a suburb called Rivonia. On July 11, 1963, the South African police raided Rivonia, imprisoning a group of activists, including Nelson Mandela. What followed became known as the Rivonia trial, which resulted in Mandela and his comrades being sentenced to life in prison. As is, of course, now well known, the first president of the new South Africa would languish in prison nearly thirty years before the famous negotiations with President F. W. de Klerk that freed him and set in motion the transformation of South Africa from apartheid to majority rule.

What has largely been forgotten in this heroic story is the key role of Mandela's white Communist allies. These were among the very few white South Africans who were willing to befriend black Africans and treat them as equals, which was also characteristic of the American Communist Party in its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Without apologizing for their often slavish and dogmatic adherence to the party line from Moscow, Frankel rescues for history their extraordinary courage and moral choices. Their ideology, however flawed, made it possible for them to risk all the privileges of whites in South Africa for a vision of racial equality and liberation. Because they had much more to lose than their black comrades and were much more likely to endure total social ostracism, the nature of their choices was different from those of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and other ANC activists.

That most of Frankel's main characters are Jewish is an issue he doesn't evade. The Jews came to South Africa primarily from a few towns in Lithuania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They formed a relatively homogeneous community that quickly came to identify more with the English-speaking rather than with the Afrikaner South Africans. As in many other places, many of them identified with the Left, but the reasons for this identification remain hotly debated. Certainly, most of the Jewish Communists did not identify as Jews--they were Isaac Deutscher's "non-Jewish Jews." But the fact that they were outsiders to the main elements of white South African society--British and Afrikaner--undoubtedly made them more likely to rebel against the existing order. It was the explosive combination of Communist ideology as a kind of substitute for religion and the Jews' marginal status that probably turned these Jews into such a prevalent presence on the South African left. The Communists were not, ho wever, exclusively Jews: one of the heroes of Frankel's account is Bram Fischer, a radical Afrikaner lawyer who was one of the main leaders of the Party and provided his comrades' defense at the Rivonia trial. Later, when the government tried to arrest him, he went underground, was finally caught, and died in prison after enduring terrible torment at the hands of his Afrikaner jailers: perceived as a heretic to Afrikanerdom, Fischer suffered even more than his Jewish comrades.


There are two further pages to this article not included here



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