"I have seen the new Jerusalem": Revisiting and re-conceptualising Josiah T. Gumede and Jimmy La Guma’s USSR visit of 1927
Dr Raymond van Diemel
"After being a man of the world, I have discovered there is no Zulu, Xhosa, Mosotho or Coloured, but all are and must be known as Africans" – Josiah T. Gumede at a political rally in Cape Town in 1923, affirming that there is but one human race, thus rejecting any theory attempting to assert the existence of distinct human species."
It is against this background that I have set out to re-interpret the historiography around the so-called Black Republic thesis. It remains with South African historians to restore Gumede and La Guma to their rightful place in post-apartheid South African historiography. In November 1927 Josiah T. Gumede became the first ANC president to have been invited to visit the USSR. Gumede, a Zulu from Natal, along with Jimmy La Guma, a coloured Communist from Cape Town and Dan Colraine, a white Communist, proceed to Moscow to attend the Tenth Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. It is remarkable how little is known about Gumede and La Guma’s overseas missions at the beginning of 1927. These visits constituted a watershed in their political philosophy. They first traveled to Brussels in February for a Conference of the League Against Imperialism, convened by a German Communist, Willy Münzenberg. Here the two met influential Africans who influenced them politically. People like Lamine Senghor, a Senegalese expatriate in France, Messali Hadj-Ahmed and Hadjali Abdel Kader of Algeria, all members of the newly-formed Negro Commission who fiercely fought to liberate the Africans from colonialism.
Gumede joined the 917 official delegates from more than 40 countries who attended the three-day session of the World Congress of the Friends of the Soviet Union held at the Dom Soyusov (House of the Trade Unions) from 10-12 November 1927. Party members worked around the clock to ensure the success of the Congress. At the same time, non-Communists like Gumede were especially targeted to be imprinted with the successes of the Russian Revolution as well as teaching them the road along which their own independence could be attained. Harry Haywood, an Afro-American Communist who studied at the Lenin School during this period, recalled that Gumede "was a special friend of us Black students".
The communist and socialist teachings of the Conference were not lost on Gumede. He gave a stirring speech at one of the sessions. Striking an anti-colonialist theme, Gumede stated that: "In South Africa the African people had been deprived of their land and were labouring under discriminating and oppressive laws. The African people had no voice in the government of the country, which formerly belonged to them. Our position was that of serfs."
Gumede was eager to conclude a Political Alliance with the Communists. The highlight of Gumede’s visit was undoubtedly the opportunity he had to meet and speak to Stalin. Haywood described this historic occasion: "Tival, Stalin’s secretary informed us that we were invited to a party in the Kremlin. We walked the short distance across the square to the Kremlin. Once within the Kremlin walls, we were guided into one of the old palaces and then taken upstairs to a small hall. There were perhaps 50 people in the room. In the centre on one side was Stalin. He rose, shook our hands and after we were introduced, welcomed us."
Gumede proudly recalled his long conversation with Stalin and stated that the latter was full of sympathy for the oppressed throughout the world. Borkenau claims that in 1927 Stalin was totally uninformed about foreign colonies. For Gumede his trip to the Soviet Union was very important for the future trajectory of Black politics in South Africa.
In accordance with the decision taken at the Congress of the Friends of the Soviet Union, the foreign guests were taken on tours to other regions of the Soviet Union. Gumede chose to visit the Georgian Republic. Stalin was born in Georgia and one tends to think that this could well be one of the reasons for Gumede’s choice. A.F. Plate, later Professor in Chemistry at Moscow State University, had been appointed to accompany Gumede as an interpreter. Before embarking on their trip by rail to Tiflis, the capital which is presently known as Tbilisi, Gumede purchased a fur cap and coat. "The weather was rather unusual for the South African", claimed Plate.
The journey to Georgia was long. Gumede asked about the many places they were passing on their route. Gumede’s was fascinated by the history of the Georgian Soviet Republic, founded in February 1921. Since March 1922 the republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia formed the Trans-Caucasian Federation. Georgians formed two-thirds of the Georgian population. The rest were the Russians, Abhasians, Armenians, Azerbaijanians and many other nationalities. Although the Georgians were the majority in their republic, there were more Armenians than Georgians living the capital of Georgia (Tiflis). During the time of Tsarist Russia the discrimination with regard to privileges and inequalities between the ruling and subject races led to bloody wars, especially between the Armenians and Georgians. Gumede was informed that the Russian Revolution brought an end to those discriminatory practices, brought about a classless society with no trace of the former privileges and signaled the end of those bloody wars. Since the Russian Revolution, the Georgian Republic had become a wealthy region. Gumede was desperate to learn about this transformation.
In Tiflis, Gumede was given accommodation by the state in a fine hotel. He was struck by the Georgians’ hospitality. Foreign visitors claimed that the Georgians had lost little of their national character. "They are brave and hard working with great powers of endurance, bold cavaliers and eager for a fray. They are doughty warriors, lovers of arms. They are hospitable to guests and strangers. They change rapidly from a good mood to a bad one; are headstrong, ambitious and apt both to flatter and to take offence."
In Tiflis Gumede had various conversations with Georgian leaders and peasants. One of these meetings was held in the "House of the Peasant". Plate recalled that Gumede had asked the peasants about their way of life in great detail. Gumede was curious to see "how this folk lived in comparison with his own people". He also visited a number of Georgian villages to acquaint himself with the Georgian peasantry’s way of life. Plate claimed that the Georgians’ way of life differed from that of mid-Russian peasants: "In the Russian villages the lands of lords were also confiscated, the land belonged to the state and it was distributed among peasants taking into consideration the number of the members of their families."
Gumede was impressed with the impact of the Russian Revolution on the Georgian Republic, especially the manner in which the Georgian national problem was addressed. Gumede left Georgia with important new insights.
However, more importantly, La Guma and Gumede’s priority was to develop and clarify the Native South African Republic draft resolution with the Negro Commission. Harry Haywood, the Vice-Chairman, was impressed by the "revolutionary potential" of La Guma. Haywood argued that La Guma supplied specific details about the revolutionary nature of the Africans’ struggle for emancipation for inclusion in the draft resolution. The extended Native South African Republic resolution, which was to inform CPSA policy for a long time to come, starts with a definition of South Africa as "a British dominion of the colonial type" which included striking colonial features. On the impact of capitalism, the resolution states:
"British capital continues to occupy the principal economic positions in the country and ... the South African bourgeoisie is equally interested in the merciless exploitation of the negro population. On the basis of this growth of capitalism there is a growing tendency to expropriate the land of the negroes and from a certain section of the White farming population. The South African bourgeoisie is endeavouring also by legislative means to create a cheap market of labour power and a reserve army."
Gumede and La Guma knew very well that the new resolution would run into strong opposition from white Communists like Sydney Bunting, doyen of the SACP in the 1920s and his followers. The concept of a Black republic was according to Jack Simons "so removed from current ideologies and apparent realities, that veteran Communists doubted whether it was sound". At the December 1927 conference of the SACP, Bunting insisted that the South African revolution was a direct struggle for Socialism without any intermediary stages. To the slogan of a `Native South African Republic’, Bunting counterposed the slogan of a "Workers and Peasants’ Republic".
Equally, the white press set out to savage the new African Republic Resolution. The new resolution was made to signal the end of white supremacy in South Africa. Within the CPSA the majority of its white members, would have nothing to do with the 1927 resolution.
What was the significance of Gumede’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1927? Gumede realised that there were striking similarities between the struggles of the non-whites in South Africa and the struggles of the Russians before the 1917 Revolution. As to the extent that he was influenced by the struggle for A Black Republic, Gumede responded in a striking manner: "I have seen the new world to come, where it has already begun. I have been to the new Jerusalem. I have brought the key which would unlock the door to freedom."
Over the years Gumede’s famous quotation has been captured by many historians but its meaning is not always adequately explained. It is best to start with Plate’s observation about Gumede’s appraisal of the Russian Revolution: "Gumede considered one of the greatest achievements of our country that the Socialist Revolution managed to unite the people of different nationalities in their struggle for common ideals. He emphasised the significance of this experience for all nations struggling for their independence and considered that success in this struggle would highly depend on the unity of actions of all forces fighting against racism and colonialism."
Having expressed his loyalty towards the achievements of the Russian Revolution and securing the support of the Comintern, Gumede took upon himself a great responsibility to persuade his own organisation to join forces with the CPSA and other revolutionary forces. Needless to add, Gumede failed in persuading his conservative comrades to form an alliance with the CPSA. He lost the presidency of the ANC to Pixley Seme in 1930, mainly because of his pro-Communist views.
Undoubtedly, 1927 changed the face of protest politics in South Africa: it was the year in which the seed of the ANC-CPSA Alliance was planted; its slow and interrupted growing pains despite. At the Tenth Anniversary Celebrations of the Bolshevik Revolution in Moscow, Gumede joined Communists, left-wing socialists and radical nationalists in applauding the achievements of the Soviet state, in particular their success in forging unity between so many different ethnic groups. The lesson was not lost on Gumede. Ironically, the new Jerusalem which Gumede experienced in 1927 collapsed in the latter half of the 1980s. In SA the SACP remains an overwhelming black party.
This paper was presented to a conference in Moscow on 14 September 2001. Dr Raymond van Diemel is Research Director at the Dulcie Evon September Supportive Education Trust.