In July 1906, an unschooled 12-year-old Cape Town orphan named Jimmy La Guma was swept into radical politics by the few chaotic days of what the press described as “hooligan riots”: unemployment was rife in the post-Boer War depression, and businesses were looted across the city centre. The riots happened when mass meetings organised by the new multiracial Social Democratic Federation (SDF) degenerated into an “unruly tumult”, as Tom Lodge writes in his magisterial new history of communism in SA, Red Road to Freedom.  

The key player in the SDF was a charismatic carpenter, Wilfrid Harrison: he was “mortified” by the riots, writes Lodge, preferring “socialist education” to bring about change. Others disagreed. The journalist Abraham Needham exhorted the 6,000 people gathered at the Grand Parade to exert “EXTREME PRESSURE to make the rich disgorge the wealth that they have taken from the country and which has been given to them [by labourers and miners]”. They should “thieve and...

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