The Good Communist? Report on "Mayibuye: The Cartoons of Eddie Roux"

24 Dec 2018 - 11:30
Jeremy Cronin,Deirdre Pretorius and Steven Friedman at Exhibition Opening. Photo Courtesy of Deirdre Pretorius


Exhibition Opening 17 September 2018

JIAS, University of Johannesburg

Curated by Deirdre Pretorius. Associate Professor, Graphic Design Department, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg (UJ).

By Cynthia Kros

Eddie Roux is better remembered, especially by former left-wing Arts students who studied in the 1970s for what was then a rare alternative history text called, after a Jamaican adage, Time Longer than Rope. But for a very brief period in the early 1930s, before he was effectively disciplined by the Comintern for contesting its goal of a 'Native Republic', Roux was editor, typesetter, distributor and cartoonist for the official weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of South Africa, which he renamed Umsebenzi, leaving its original title 'The South African Worker' in a minor key, as it were, below the new one.

Roux used linocuts to make his cartoons (occasionally his wife Winifred contributed her own linocut, but it is now impossible to say which are hers). He maintained that the linocuts saved on the volume of typesetting necessary, which was, as Pretorius reminded us, very arduous in pre-digital days. Some of the cartoons that depict greedy mine-owners have a somewhat William Kentridgish air, while others, as Pretorius pointed out, borrow shamelessly with ironic reversals from the contemporaneous Tintin in the Congo. Yet others employ the iconography of 'Blood' River and 'savage' Zulu warriors in pursuit of the real villain – frequently the extreme right-wing Minister of Justice, Oswald Pirow  – as a way of attempting to mobilise stayaways.

Eddie Roux's cartoons are reminders of a moment in South African history when it seemed possible that a mass interracial workers' movement might arise, which would be capable of overthrowing capitalism. Pretorius, referencing Saul Dubow's work on the 1940s, talked about the 'different pathways' that existed before the victory of the National Party at the end of that decade. Her view was later echoed by Jeremy Cronin, member of the Central Committee of the present South African Communist Party, who was one of two guest speakers at the opening of the exhibition. Besides some engaging reflections on Roux as human being, lapsed Communist and botanist, Cronin commented somewhat acerbically, it seemed that, after all South African history could not be reduced to the story of a succession of ANC Presidents.

The other guest speaker, Steven Friedman who is a research professor in the Faculty of Humanities at UJ and a well-known columnist for Business Day, courageously embarked on the explication of his complicated thesis, partly addressed to the question of whether or not Eddie Roux was a good communist and partly to a more implicit one about how we see the past. What happens when we look back at Roux from the 1970s and '80s and from the present? Arguably, Friedman caricatured the infamous debate between Liberals and Radicals as being about Race-Class as if the Radicals/'Revisionists' were not also seeking to explain racial domination, in their case through a Marxist analysis of South African history, but blindly and dogmatically clung to some sort of belief that everything was about class. However by skilful and it is necessary to say – respectful - commentary on a review of Time Longer than Rope written by History Workshop researcher Luli Callinicos in the 1970s, Friedman alerted the audience to the danger of reading historical actors according to contemporary expectations. We should not expect Eddie Roux to have been an approved Marxist before the advent of the 'Revisionist' School or, as Friedman put it with delightful irreverence, the arrival of 'the Sussex Boys'. That last phrase begs a question. With the exception of the curator and the present author, the speakers and the audience were entirely male for reasons that were not evident.