South African progressives and the Suez Crisis of 1956

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On 29 October, 1956, the Suez Crisis began with an Israeli attack upon Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with the UK and France intervening the subsequent days to ‘protect’ the Suez Canal. Many historians have viewed these actions as the last major ‘roll of the dice’ for the British and French governments hoping to stem the decolonisation process in Africa and the Middle East, and the drawing of the postcolonial world into closer ties with the Soviet Bloc.

From South Africa, progressives watched as imperialist forces invaded one of its former colonies to prevent a programme of nationalisation, occurring amidst the wider decolonisation process across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. This worried the various progressive groups that still existed in South Africa in the mid-1950s. Eight years into Apartheid rule, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) had been banned in 1950 and its membership driven underground (its successor, the South African Communist Party (SACP), was not officially established until 1960). The African National Congress (ANC) was still a legal organisation, but a month later, most of its leadership would be arrested and put on trial for treason by the Strijdom government. The remnants of the CPSA that remained in South Africa were often also members of the ANC, while other former CPSA activists coalesced around organisations, such as the ex-servicemen group, the Springbok Legion.

The Suez Crisis, coming at the same time as the Soviet invasion of Hungary, shocked these progressives as a blatant imperialist reaction to the decolonisation process, and an affront to the sovereignty of these newly formed postcolonial nations. In their journal Liberation, the ANC called the action a ‘blatant aggression’ and stated:

British, French and Israeli troops have invaded Egypt and occupied Egyptian territory by force of arms; a wanton, premeditated act of aggression taken in defiance of solemn undertakings under the United Nations Charter.

The reason for this invasion, the ANC declared, was control of the Suez Canal and the revenue generated from this, with the Israeli invasion providing a pretext for seizing control. The journal continued:

[T]hat in fact is exactly what the English and French imperialists are out for – loot. They want to grab the Suez Canal. The Israeli attack was just a feeble excuse (no doubt it was fixed up in advance with the Israeli Government)…

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Meanwhile, the newspaper New Age, run by a number of ex-CPSA members, such as Ruth First, published on its front page a statement drawn up by several progressive organisations in South Africa, such as the ANC, the Indian National Congress, the Coloured People’s Association and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). The statement read:

The invasion by the Israeli army and the decision of the British and French Governments to re-occupy the Suez Canal zone constitute a serious act of aggression against Egypt which will have world-wide repercussions…

These acts are in total disregard of the territorial sovereignty of the Egyptian people and cannot be justified by any alleged provocations. Britain and France have used Israel as a spearhead to re-establish themselves as masters of the Suez Canal in order to maintain their domination over colonial countries in Africa and the Middle East.

This idea of Britain and France reasserting their imperial dominance over the postcolonial world was something that was also highlighted by the ANC. As well retaking the Suez Canal, the ANC suggested that the Anglo-French aims were ‘to overthrow the Nasser Government and re-occupy Egypt as a colony’ in the short term, and ‘to teach the peoples of the colonies and former colonies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East “a lesson”’ in the long term. At this time, the British were fighting anti-colonial movements in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya, while the French were fighting the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

However the actions of the British and French were not successful and both countries were chastised by the United Nations. Both the ANC and those attached to the New Age newspaper celebrated the fact that Egypt had not been defeated by the imperialist forces. Two weeks after the fighting stopped, the New Age newspaper wrote:

The force of world anger at the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt has led to a cease-fire and brought to a temporary halt the use of naked aggression to crush the Nasser government. This is a victory for the forces of progress, but it is by no means a final victory.

The ANC were just as celebratory, writing:

The plot to conquer Egypt has failed; the “lesson” has turned out to be the greatest fiasco in modern history. As we write, the aggressors’ armies are still in Egypt, but we cannot doubt that the massive reaction of the peace-loving people of the whole world will compel them to withdraw unconditionally, and to compensate the innocent Egyptian people for the damage and suffering that they have caused.

From this, both publications expressed solidarity between the progressive and anti-imperialist forces in South Africa and the Egyptian people as allies in the fight against imperialism and racialism. The ANC declared that the Suez Crisis had inspired ‘the awakening millions of Britain’s African empire’ and ‘[i[nstead of frightening the colonial world’, the Anglo-French-Israeli attack had:

raised against themselves a storm of mass solidarity, indignation and determination that can only hasten the doom of imperialism and colonialism through-out the world.

The aforementioned statement on the front page of the New Age finished with this expression of solidarity:

On behalf of all peace-loving South Africans we demand an end to force and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Egyptian territory. We express our sympathy with the Egyptian people and our support for their just claim to sovereignty in the own country.

In an editorial contained in the same issue, the links between progressives in South Africa and the Nasser government in Egypt were reiterated:

As an African country we are closely involved in this invasion of Africa. As members of the liberation movement we are closely involved in this attack on a liberation movement. As opponents of national oppression and colonialism we are involved in this oppressive and imperialist war…

We dare not remain quiet. Our voices must be heard in the call for an end to the war in Egypt – in the demand for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the territory of that country.

But while these various groups expressed solidarity in the face of imperialist attack, they did not all consider Colonel Nasser in the same light. Moses Kotane, the General Secretary of the CPSA and then the SACP, stated in New Age that Nasser was ‘no fascist’ as the Western media and politicians had described him, but was ‘an ardent nationalist whose main concern is the freedom, independence, progress and honour of Egypt and her 25 million inhabitants’. Kotane explained that Nasser played an important role in the worldwide anti-colonial movement, saying, ‘Colonel Nasser desires to see colonialism ended in Africa, Asia and the rest of the world.’ He concluded his outline of Nasser with this:

The South African people must clearly understand that the continued independence and progress of the Egyptian people means a lot to their own struggle against apartheid and injustices in this country.

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Lionel Bernstein, a comrade of Kotane in the CPSA/SACP and editor of the Springbok Legion’s Fighting Talk, was much more critical of Nasser and his government. The revolution that was led by Nasser and his fellow army generals was, according to Bernstein, simply passing Egypt ‘into the hands of the new dictatorship of the military junta, acting without consultation with the people, without elections, without any authority save the force they commanded’. Bernstein pointed to locking up of all political opponents, including Egypt’s communists, as a very negative aspect of the regime, but also pointed to positive changes, such as the creation of a ‘democratic’ constitution. However this constitution was deemed to be a constitution of the bourgeoisie – ‘the creation of the Nasser regime, of the middle-class revolutionaries representing the middle class of Egypt’. Teleologically it was moving the country ‘steadily away from military dictatorship towards bourgeois democracy’, but for Bernstein, the Nasser regime was not socialist.

On the other hand, Bernstein recognised Egypt’s commitment to anti-colonial solidarity:

It is a government of fighters against foreign subjection, taking the first steps against colonialism, against the backward heritage of imperialism. Let its enemies look to their own record in their own territory – in Kenya and Algeria, in Cyprus and in Malaya and Morocco and compare the record.

The Suez Crisis coincided with the Soviet invasion of Hungary and this led to a schism amongst communists, socialists and other progressives across the globe. Unlike other Communist Parties in the West, the fact that the CPSA had disbanded and gone underground meant similar open debates that occurred in the British, French and Italian parties could not happen, and in general, amongst South African progressives, the events in Hungary were seen as justified in comparison with the Anglo-French-Israeli actions in Egypt. In the New Age, it was pronounced that comparison between the two interventions was a ‘false analogy’, stating:

  • The Anglo-French aggression was directed against the Egyptian government; the Soviet [gave] assistance on the invitation of the Hungarian government.
  • The Anglo-French forces invaded Egypt. The Soviet forces were stationed in Hungary with the recognised responsibility of protecting Hungary’s independence and preventing her return to fascism.
  • Britain and France had no shred of legal right to invade; the Soviet armed forces were legally in Hungary in terms of the Warsaw pact.
  • Most important of all – the issue of Egypt is between imperialism and national liberation; the issue in Hungary is between socialism and reaction…

In the editorial of Liberation, the ANC made a similar case for the differences between Suez and Hungary:

we should not forget that the Soviet Union has not suddenly ‘invaded’ Hungary, as the British and French have invaded Egypt. Soviet troops have been in Hungary ever since the end of the second world war, and as a result of that war.

From these statements, it is evident that the progressive forces in South Africa were particularly concerned about other national liberation movements in Africa (and across the rest of the world) in their fight against imperialism and colonialism. Experiencing a severe racialist reaction against the decolonisation process in the form of Apartheid, South African progressives expressed solidarity with the Egyptian people and viewed the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion as part of a wider reaction by the global West against decolonisation. In the following years, southern Africa would be viewed as anomaly where the imperialist powers had not relinquished their stranglehold on these settler colonies, in the face of a generally decolonised African continent.

On the other hand, those progressives that were part of the SACP and ANC looked to the Soviet Union, as well as the Non-Aligned Movement (which had first met the previous year in Bandung) as guiding forces in the anti-colonial struggle. The ANC called the USSR ‘a great power openly and irrevocably hostile to imperialism’ that had ‘enabled the former colonies triumphantly to proclaim and consolidate their independence’. Criticism of the Soviets would come later on, but in 1956, there was little dissent amongst what the ANC and the underground SACP expressed towards the Soviet Union.

Like the putting down of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Suez Crisis showed South African progressives that the British were unwilling to give up control of some colonies that had strategic value to them, or where they felt that communists could potentially take power. Although Harold Macmillan would speak of ‘winds of change’ across Africa a few years later, the long struggle against Apartheid and imperialism in southern Africa was only just beginning.

 

 

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