The Story of Edward Roux, Umsebenzi editor and founder of the Young Communist League and the Invisible Josiah Ngedlane
Edward Roux known as “Eddie Roux” was the editor of Umsbenzi,the newspaper of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). He was born to, what
could be considered, liberal parents, his father, an Afrikaner, was converted to Marxist socialism in 1910 when Roux was just seven years old. These circumstances later led to his own interest in the socialist movement and to being one of the people who founded the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1921.
Roux joined the CPSA (then mostly a party of White intellectuals and workers) in 1923. In 1924, after much internal dispute and rallying on the part of S.P. Bunting, the CPSA began their efforts of organising black youth and workers to join the party. In 1924 he became the honorary secretary of the CPSA where he worked closely with leaders of the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union of Africa (I.C.U.) when it was established in Johannesburg. He went to Cambridge on scholarship from 1926-29 serving, on occasion, on the Colonial Committee of the British Communist Party and in 1928 attended the Sixth Congress of the Communist in Moscow as a South African delegate.
Also, in 1928 the CPSA revived their publication, the Worker, on a completely new basis. It became a publication for the black population. It was renamed the South African Worker, more than half of the articles were printed in vernacular languages, Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. The editor then was Douglas Wolton who played a destructive role later as one of Jospeh Stalin’s local leaders.
Roux returned to South Africa in 1929, when he resumed his work with the CPSA. The production of the South African Worker was moved to Cape Town where he worked as its editor, printer, cartoonist and street salesman. The role that publications such as this played in South Africa’s liberation movement cannot be emphasised enough. Most if not all liberation movements had their own publications, the I.C.U. had the Worker’s Herald, the ANC, for a short while had the Abantu-Batho. However, the CPSA’s South African Worker remained the most widely read publication for the black population.
These newspapers, and any publication with the aim of educating, agitating and mobilising Black people, filled the immense gap left by mainstream and state-controlled, media. They gave first hand accounts of campaigns by the CPSA and other liberation movements. When new groups were formed, such as the Lekhotla la Bafo an organization that had formed in Basutoland who claimed to speak on behalf of the tribal peasants, they were given a platform by Umsebenzi in which to air their many grievances.
Communist newspapers, posters and pamphlets played a huge role in giving hope to the people. First-hand accounts of the 1930 campaign to burn pass books in Durban that ended in the killing of Johannes Nkosi, a leading member of the CPSA won many readers. Stories of hope and suffering were also brought to South Africans through these publications, particularly the Italian war against Ethiopia in the mid-1930s. Josiah Ngedlane a fellow communist from Cape Town assisted Roux in his editing, writing and translating forUmsebenzi. We know that Ngedlane was arrested many times for breaking pass laws, organising workers and together with Roux for publishing Umsebenzi. We know that like Roux, Ngedlane was expelled from the Communist Party in a purge by Stalinists in the late 1930s. We have no record of his roots, his desires, his family or his grave. Josiah Ngedlane like Eddie Roux was an intellectual, writer and organiser of the communist movment.
Communist efforts were made all the more difficult by various governments in power to prevent the education and organisation of the black people. The authorities used numerous laws to try and silence the CPSA’s freedom of expression and to remove their freedom of the press. This is where the courts played a huge role in protecting the limited rights of Black people to air their grievances and have their voices heard.
Authorities tried to obtain convictions through the Roman law crime of crimen laesae majestatisand the Hostility law, Clause 29 of the Native Administration Act. The Hostility law made it an offence for any person to act in any way with the intention to promote feelings of hostility between “Europeans and non-Europeans”. However, authorities found it very difficult to obtain convictions under the Hostility law because it had not been very well drafted. Courts tended to interpret the provisions quite narrowly, as even though there were quite a number of individuals charged under the Hostility law only a fraction resulted in actual convictions.
The courts set a high threshold for a conviction under the clause, it had to be shown that not only would the conduct likely result in hostility, or it in fact did, but that the person charged had the intention to create such feelings of hostility. Furthermore, the court’s held that the mere fact of speaking against the government’s action did not constitute an offence, as this would bar all legitimate protests against grievances.
The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) then the Appellate Division took a similar route when Eddie Roux and a fellow communist Josiah Ngedlane appealed a conviction that had been upheld by the Natal Provincial Division. They had been charged with crimen laesae majestatis (majestatis). Roux and Ngedlane had both been charged in their capacity as editors ofUmsebenzi, what the CPSA publication was now called. The paper had published an article calling for all non-Europeans to boycott King George’s segregated jubilee celebrations.
The authorities contended that the article was scandalous and dishonouring of the King and his government. Working on the assumption that such an offence existed in South African law the court cited numerous sources that held that merely criticising the government, or the monarchy, did not constitute majestatis, there had to be a seditious element to the speech or conduct. That is, the intention to incite people to rebel against the authority of the state or rebellion whereby the welfare of the King and the state is placed in jeopardy. In finding that the article did not constitute majestatis the court emphasised the importance of freedom of expression and the press in the context of modern civilisation and development. Such old Roman law principles could not operate in that context of political liberty and advancement. The court stressed the need to consider the words in their correct context because Black people had no voice or vote in the passing of laws and can only protest against what they believe to be their grievances.
The boldness of the court in protecting communist freedom of expression and the press illustrates the importance of these basic liberal and democratic principles. Tragically, the South African Communist Party fail to honour the traditions of Roux and Ngedlane in order to defend freedom of the press and the right to access information.
Zenande BooiTags: Articles, Communist Party of South Africa, Edward Roux, Peoples’ Law Journal