OBITUARY : Professor Jack Simons

Writing about Professor Jack Simons, his mentor and political colleague of many decades, Albie Sachs [3 August] does not unfortunately acknowledge the complexity of the man, the teacher, the political thinker of South Africa, writes Paul Trewhela.

Simons's complexities as a political thinker are not adequately canvassed in Sachs's single reference to Simons's "association" with the party. Simons's lifelong advocacy of non-racialism was linked with an almost equally long, uncritical devotion to the Soviet Union. It is this combined heritage that is so problematical in the history of the SACP, the ANC, South Africa and in the life of Simons himself. Coming to the fore in Communist Party politics in Cape Town in the 1930s, he was one of a generation that was "thoroughly steeped in Stalinism".

When the party moved its headquarters to Cape Town in 1939, following a decade of ideological feuding and expulsions, Simons and Ray Alexander both became members of its central executive committee. He remained on the party executive from the Stalin-Hitler pact to the banning of the party in 1950, and until his death continued as the party's senior academic. The invasion of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 did not shake his thinking, or that of his party.

The victory of Cuban arms in Angola in 1975 allowed Simons to take charge of the ideological tuition of young ANC troops at Nova Katenga camp, in Angola, on much the same lines as in the "people's democracies". No substantial criticism of the internal character of the Soviet Union, or of its allied states, was permitted.

Simons was a chairman of the national consultative conference of the ANC at Kabwe, in Zambia, in June 1985, its first for 16 years. The calling of the conference had been a demand in the mutiny of ANC troops in Angola the previous year. No mention of the mutiny was permitted at conference, while leading participants continued to be held under gulag conditions in Angola.

Sachs states that "the Jack Simons method" has become "part of the dialogue and truth seeking of the whole South African nation". This may suggest some further problems in the new South Africa.