SALIEM FAKIR reviews Crain Soudien’s book which he describes as ‘a valuable piece of historiography if you ever wanted to understand radical traditions outside of the dominance of the African National Congress legacy’.
The Cape Radicals: Intellectual and political thought of the New Era Fellowship: 1930s-1960s by Crain Soudien, Wits University Press (June 1, 2019)
I MUST have been around 19-years-old when I first encountered the ideas of the New Unity Movement (NUM), itself a product of the New Era Fellowship (NEF), and heard that word ‘Quisling’. It has been with me ever since. To be called a ‘Quisling’ was a disparaging act of name-calling against those viewed to be collaborating with the colonial ‘settlers’.
Quisling is a Norwegian word used to describe a politician and by extension an intellectual or political figure that works with the enemy.
Norway, during the Second World War, was occupied by the Nazis and the Norwegian literary figure Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), who won the Nobel Prize for his novel Hunger (1920), was later identified as a Nazi sympathiser. Hamsun penned many articles supporting the nominal government of Vidkun Quisling bringing to fore the role of writers and thinkers in the project of collaboration.
The slur Quisling has, in acts of sectarianism, often been weaponised in radical movements to settle interpersonal rifts.
The NEF produced anti-colonial knowledge and interpretations from lived experience to lift consciousness of the nature of oppression for subjects of colonialism and imperialism. As the French intellectual and philosopher Alain Badiou would say the universal effects and truths of colonialism and imperialism as they existed globally was digested through a variety of understandings, as living truths, manifested through the eyes and pain of local suffering and resistance.
If, one may borrow from Badiou further he would suggest the NEF was an ‘Event’ for its period. Badiou suggests that the dominant ideology and forces tend to obscure the presence of its counter culture and movement until it emerges suddenly from nowhere and in itself seeks to re-arrange the nature of dominance. The NEF arose during a turbulent time in world history. It described itself as a cultural and debating club. NEF’s ultimate goal: political enlightenment for the oppressed and to deracialise the struggle against colonialism.
The NEF was formed in 1937 in Cape Town. Its purpose was to strengthen radical politics amongst the working class, led largely by teachers pivoted around a dialectic on the nature of colonialism, imperialism, class consciousness and race. Different members of the NEF would read papers, articles or books and provide analysis or give talks. Sometimes guests, and visitors from elsewhere in the world, were invited to give lectures. A constellation of leading lights such as Ben Kies, Cissie Gool, Goolam Gool, I B Tabata, Richard Dudley and many others shaped the character and substance of the NEF and its offshoots.
The NEF was the precursor to the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), and later this tendency was revived by Richard Dudley as the New Unity Movement (NUM) in 1985. NEF and the NEUM saw their influence extend far and wide as a recent biography of Archie Mafeje by Bongani Nyoka (Wits University Press) so poignantly illustrates.
Kies was intellectually sharp and exerted a significant influence on the NEF. Kies’ most seminal lecture was Contribution of Non-European Peoples to World Civilization delivered in 1953. It was a political critique of European arrogance that knowledge and science as only the product of the western tradition.
The NEF was a hub which drew a network of intellectuals and formations into its ambit. Members came from the Communist Party, the National Liberation League (some of whom were elected on the Cape Town City Council), and given it was formed at the height of the rise of Trotskyism, the NEF was stridently anti-Stalinist. NEF also spawned the creation of the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA) which would play a significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle. The TLSA was a network of networks that was nourished by the anti-colonial and anti-settler project of the NEF.
Soudien was compelled to write the book as he notes, ‘because of the dominant historiographic presence of the Congress tradition… the history of South Africa has morphed into a history of the ANC.’
Two recently released books may reinforce that image. One is by Andre Odendaal, Dear Comrade President, which is the ANC’s history of the South African Constitutional process. The other is an intellectual biography of Mzala Nxumalo, The Lost Prince of the ANC, by Mandla Radebe.
Soudien sees the role of the NEF in producing a range of organic intellectuals – and sometimes a cantankerous lot who lived uneasily with each other – but who nonetheless made significant contributions to the political history of South Africa. Soudien goes so far as suggesting that the NEF and its networks of thinkers, organisations and anticolonial or anti-settler campaigns were early moments of the birth of socialist movements in South Africa.
Soudien’s scholarship draws us into the influence the NEF had on the creation of the Anti-CAD Movement, Non-European New Unity Movement (NUM) and others. The anti-CAD Movement, established in 1943, was led by Ben Kies and others as a direct response to the proposal of the then Jan Smuts government to establish a special Coloured Affairs Department (CAD). The anti-CAD movement as a result gave further impetus to the organising of a concerted non-European unified struggle against racial and segregationist policies.
The travel notes of Ralph Bunche, published under the title An African American in South Africa from September 1937-January 1938, provide an insightful complementary read as his travel notes further illuminate the political and social context that gave reason for the creation of the NEF. Bunche, An Afro-American political scientist, came to South Africa to investigate for himself the plight of non-Europeans. Interesting observations are made of the some of the key characters who constellate the history of the NEF and the intra-politics of leftist themselves.
For instance, Bunche had a close relation with Dr Abdullah Abdurahman and his daughter, Cissie Gool. Gool was far more radical than the accommodationist approaches of her father. Gool was also active in the NEF. She constantly harassed her father on the positions of the African Political Organization (APO) – also an anti-segregationist movement but one that took a conservative and accommodating approach to colonial and settler rule. Gool was one of the founders of a rival organisation, the more radical National Liberation League (NLL), which contested local government elections in the Cape.
Soudien’s work is a valuable contribution to ongoing scholarly work and what I would call black and non-European organic intellectualism pre-1994. As he notes in his closing chapter, ‘the NEF radicals evolved a theory of how people came to think as they do’; perhaps a theoretical framing that preceded Noam Chomsky’s work, Manufacturing Consent, which seeks to uncover how narrative and popular silence or distractions like mass entertainment entrenches the hegemony of the ruling elite.
The NEF’s legacy was in effect, even though it did not describe it as such, a way of cogitating a ‘Southern Theory’ of radical politics. Soudien’s book is a valuable piece of historiography if you ever wanted to understand radical traditions outside of the dominance of the Africn National Congress legacy.
- Saliem Fakir is the Executive Director of the African Climate Foundation.
This article was updated on April 21, 2022 to correct the spelling of Bongani Nyoka and Andre Odendaal.