EXTRACT | 'The Cape Radicals' by Crain Soudien

28 October 2019 - 10:26
'The Cape Radicals'.
'The Cape Radicals'.
Image: Wits University Press

In 1937 a group of young Capetonians, socialist intellectuals from the Workers' Party of SA and the Non-European Unity Movement, embarked on a remarkable public education and cultural project they called the New Era Fellowship (NEF).

Through public debates, lectures, study circles and events, a new cultural and political project was born in Cape Town.

Taking a position of non-collaboration and non-racialism, the NEF played a vital role in challenging society's responses to events ranging from the problem of taking up arms during the Second World War for an empire intent on stripping people of colour of their human rights, to the Hertzog Bills, which foreshadowed apartheid in all its ruthless effectiveness.

The group included some of the city's most talented scholar-activists, among them Isaac Tabata, Ben Kies, AC Jordan, Phyllis Ntantala, Mda Mda and members of the famed Gool and Abdurahman families.

Their aim was to disrupt and challenge not only prevailing political narratives but the very premises – class and race – on which they were based.

By the 1950s their ideas had spread to a second generation of talented individuals who would disseminate them in the high schools of Cape Town. In time, some would exert their influence on national politics beyond the confines of the Cape. Among these were former minister of justice Dullah Omar, academic Hosea Jaffe, educationist Neville Alexander and author Richard Rive.

This book is a testament to how the NEF was at the forefront of redefining the discourse of racialism and nationalism in South Africa.


In 1937 a small group of young Cape Town intellectual-activists made the decision to establish a cultural society for the purpose of, as they put it in their constitution, "spreading enlightenment".

They called the society the New Era Fellowship (NEF).

And so began an ambitious process of public education with the ordinary people of Cape Town. Their aim was to bring into being an organisation that would disrupt prevailing ruling class thinking which said that some people were naturally superior and others inferior.

Integral to this disruption was making available to people the best thinking and opinions on a range of issues and subjects. "We will discuss everything under the sun,", they announced to the people of Cape Town in 1937.

A variety of forums were put in place: study circles, debating societies and cultural initiatives. These in turn were catalysts for new political formations, civic organisations and formative social organisations.

Over about 25 years, the NEF introduced into the cultural life of Cape Town not only a sense of entitlement to dignity but also an awareness of new human possibility. In the process they made important contributions to the city on a local level. In rejecting out of hand the customs and practices of colonialism, a distinctive set of Cape cultural and political traditions, many of which live on into the present, were developed.

As innovative as the NEF was at the local level, on a much higher level it was groundbreaking. Its members were the first in South Africa’s political history to locate the wider global discussions about "race" and class in a larger discourse about the nature of domination.

They arrived at the understanding – and this constituted the core of their global contribution – that the primary framing upon which the modern world was constructed, namely, race, was false. They developed a programmatic understanding of how hegemony – which is the complete domination of one group or power over another – can be constituted as a political and ideological project. They showed how the idea of race can be deployed to capture the cognitive and sense-making faculties of oppressed people, resulting in mental slavery.

Not only did they seek to bring an end to mental slavery, they also committed themselves to building a new society in which all people could live with dignity. The means of effecting this, they came to understand, was education. As the ruling class used education to constitute the "subjected" subject, it would be necessary to use the same powerful tool to produce new liberated human beings. This was their "new era" vision.

Ultimately, the NEF did not become the mass movement its founders envisaged or hoped it would be. It did not produce the cultural revolution that would make every home, every school, every social and religious gathering, and every institution of the people a site and an opportunity for the formation of the new man (they had not yet come to the realisation that the term "man" was problematic).

It did not succeed in bringing the reproducers of hegemony – the institutions of the family, sites of learning, the ideological apparatuses of the courts, the police and the army, and places of worship – over to its side. But it was not for lack of trying. For some time, especially during the late 1940s and the 1950s, the NEF offered the people of Cape Town a vision of the ideal modern citizen. Leading by example, its leaders endeavoured to demonstrate the values, dispositions and attributes of a good citizen.

A good citizen embodied core values: consideration for the marginalised and the oppressed, modesty and sensibility in tastes and manners, a deep desire for learning and an awareness of the need for self-effacement. In taking this path, the NEF influenced, and in some cases defined, how one entered and became a member of the professions.

Firstly, and importantly, they looked to the teaching profession. It was teachers, they believed, who carried the responsibility of role-modelling the new liberated people.

Teachers were always to be available to the people but, simultaneously, they were to be the example of what it meant to be a citizen of a wider cosmopolitan world – humble, dignified, able to connect on a personal level, but never without a sense of their responsibility for breaking the shackles of oppression.

These imperatives carried over to all the professions. Few as there may have been, the NEF leaders worked hard to help those among them who were lawyers or doctors understand the attributes they should display.  The impact was profound, and can still be seen today. Significant numbers of people, from generation to generation, adopted the behaviour and subscribed to these standards. They carried these forward in their lives.