30 July 2020
In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx asserts that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Harry Gwala lived his life and made history under circumstances existing already and not under self-selected circumstances. In one of his interviews with Tony Karonat, Mphephetwa said “my history is maybe interesting in its own way, you know. I grew up in an environment of poverty. I was staying with my mother’s people. They were very poor there – rural areas, New Hanover.” Later in the interview, he then says “That type of life left its own impression on my mind. But it was not until I went to Adams College that I met students who were discussing political questions, and I would listen to them with great amazement, because they knew things we didn’t know.”
It is therefore easy to notice that Harry Gwala made history under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
“Munt’omdala”, as he is also known, was a teacher and an activist till the end. His activism existed in all aspects of his life. Some of his students included known cadres of our movement, particularly the SACP, amongst them Moses “Mncane” Mabhida and Agrippa Ngcobo, whom he later recruited them to the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).
When Harry Gwala was a teacher, he recruited his students to become activists and subsequently members of the Communist Party, In 1954, When he was employed at the Edendale Hospital as a typist in a laboratory, he was dismissed after four years for recruiting hospital workers to become members of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and for organizing doctors to strike. It is also a known fact that when he was released from Robben Island for the first time, he was involved in collecting and delivering laundry and in between his work, he recruited for the people’s liberation army, uMkhonto we Sizwe.
In 1943, “Munt’omdala” attended his first Political Party School organized by the Communist party of South Africa (CPSA), now the SACP. The following year, Gwala was asked by the CPSA to quit his profession in teaching to pursue a career in trade unionism. He subsequently resigned from teaching in 1944 to dedicate his life to organizing workers into trade unions.
It is obvious that all these events happened in his twenties (23-24 years of age), and this therefore means that Harry Gwala was a young activist in the frontline of the struggle for the liberation of his people. He had his career and profession and was not active for the purpose of tenders and other corrupt activities evident in the movement today. He joined the movement for the purpose of advancing the struggle, and not narrow factional agendas which ordinarily subjects young people to defense brigades even at the expense of hurting the movement.
Like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Moses Kotane, Ruth First and others, he understood that his activism meant that he lived for the struggle and therefore resigned to do organizational work to advance the struggle of the working class and the poor.
In 1952, he was consequently listed under the Suppression of Communism Act, a law that the apartheid regime crafted specifically for Communist activists. Today, it is barely ever said that the activism of communists against the then oppressive racist regime subjected communists to a law that was only directed at them and none other but communists.
The overemphasis of political education in the historical records of Harry Gwala’s life serves a lesson to the modern-day challenges faced by the movement, particularly the Progressive Youth Alliance. It is the lack of political and ideological training that accounts for the misguided radicalism which in reality is lack of discipline amongst young people in the movement today. This reason equally accounts for the wrongfully uncompromised and praised subscription of young people to factions even at the expense of hurting the movement.
Yes, partially, the Young Communist League of South Africa is to be blamed for the lack of consciousness and ideological training amongst young people as it is our historical duty. We take full responsibility and accountability for the blame. However, it will be unfair to fully place the blame on us. Factions by their nature hates the consciousness of young people as it poses a reality of their rebellion against wrong things.
In his interview with Tony Karonat, “Munt’omdala” is quoted as saying “when I attended the Party school in 1943, we were encouraged to join the ANC and also participate in the trade Unions. But I didn’t have a clear idea of what trade unions were, and there was hardly ANC in Natal. It was a strange organization of chiefs. It was chiefs that were running the affairs there, and some clergy. But they were explaining to me the importance of a national movement, to participate together with the Party which was engaged in the class struggle, and the trade unions which were more concerned with shop-floor programmes. And it was when I had a better idea of why one should become a member of the national movement that I joined it in 1944.”
This therefore explains the purpose of the alliance and the joint revolutionary programme: The National Democratic Revolution. It equally demystifies the misunderstood notion half-baked with wrong ingredients which suggests that communists have no business in the ANC, or even a movement which locates communists outside itself. Every communist must be found in the revolutionary movement.
The interview that “Munt’omdala” had with Tony Karonat captures the history of the Progressive Youth Movement very well and locates it in its proper context of history. He speaks of the question of the ANC Youth League. When he attended the Party school in 1943, he found the comrades there discussing the problems of organizing the African Youth. “There was the Young Communist League, but the Indian comrades and white comrades were having a problem in getting to the townships in Johannesburg, in the Transvaal”. It is that meeting that discussed the importance and the best way to organize the African youth, to form an organization of young people among the Africans, who would liaise with the League, the Young Communist League. Ruth First was very active in the youth organization and part of the discussions.
It is not a myth that the formation of the ANC Youth League is a direct product of discussions within the Party of which the responsibility was delegated to the Young Communist League. It is for this reason that young communist should never allow the ANC Youth League to be weakened by factions within the movement or to be hijacked for the purpose of contestations for positions at the expense of its responsibility to mobilize and organize young people.
The time has come for the older generation within the Congress Movement to entrust young people to define their destiny and craft the future they want to inherit. Their role should be to advise and guide, and not hijack this process for the league or any youth or student movement to be renewed as some form of defense brigade of factional activities and corruption.
Harry Gwala spoke his mind and would have never distracted young people for the purpose of destroying the movement. After his second release from Robben Island, he is recorded in one of the rallies post the unbanning of the liberation movement agitating that “Stop apartheid or die”. We should equally agitate today, following on the legacy of “Munt’omdala”, that stop corruption or surrender the movement! And we shall never allow the movement to be surrendered.
It is important to note that there is a symbiotic relationship between corruption and factionalism. We should be intolerant towards corruption, money politics and factionalism.
May the legacy of Harry Themba Gwala live on!
Issued by the Young Communist League of South Africa [ufasimba]
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