JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Every Wednesday as the sun descends and thousands of workers make their way home, a group of serious young men meet here under the gaze of Karl Marx to discuss the history and the hope of communism.
They gather in the "workers library," a classroom-size office in a -- low-rise building downtown, for the weekly session conducted by the South African Communist Party.
Last Wednesday, as the Communist Party was being banned in its original capital, the group listened to a lecture by Jeremy Cronin, a leading light of the South African party, on the emergence of capitalism and its tendency to "squash the workers" in its pursuit of enormous profits for an elite class of bosses.
As most of the world turns away from communism and Soviet workers tear down statues of party heroes, South African Communists look hopefully to the future and toward a workers' paradise built on ideals espoused by Marx.
In fact, this vast country on Africa's southern tip may be the last spot on the globe where Communists still look forward to the day when they will show how society should be run rather than backward at a history of failures.
"As far as the majority of blacks are concerned, what's failed in this country is capitalism, not communism," said Joe Slovo, general secretary of the South African party and an influential figure in the anti-apartheid movement. "The miseries here come from capitalism, a special form of capitalism which emerged in this country."
The Communist Party, on the other hand, has a proud record in South Africa, he said. Having been banned for 40 years because of its opposition to the white-minority government and its abhorrent racial policies, the party emerged from the shadows last year as a champion of the masses and a strong ally of the African National Congress.
Most of its leaders are also leaders of the ANC, the most popular anti-apartheid group in South Africa, and their influence has spawned an ongoing debate over whether the ANC is actually a Communist-led organization. It is a charge denied by both organizations, which say their alliance is forged from a common goal of ridding South Africa of racist oppression.
Mr. Slovo says that the party has been in the forefront of that fight for decades and that that accounts for its popularity at a time when communism is being rejected elsewhere in the world.
"From the overwhelming thrust of what we were doing for the past 70 years, we have very little to be ashamed of," he said in an interview in his office at the ANC's new headquarters, a high-rise office building purchased from the Shell Oil Co. "I think it's that contribution which has provided a base for the popularity of the party, which surprises all kinds of people.
"We are in fact pioneers of political democracy in this country. We were the first in this country to have a non-racial political organization. We were the only non-racial political organization from 1921 until about 1985. This is our pedigree in this country, and people know it," said Mr. Slovo, a soft-spoken, congenial, white-haired man who for years was the government's Public Enemy No. 1.
While South African Communist leaders have no trouble explaining their popularity at home, they have some difficulty explaining why they think socialism can succeed here despite its failure everywhere else.
"What failed was a distorted version of socialism, not socialism," insists Mr. Slovo, a Lithuanian-born lawyer who left South Africa in the 1960s when most opposition groups were banned. But he cannot explain why socialism became distorted everywhere it was tried.
"I don't believe that it's inevitable that under socialism there should emerge the kind of Stalinist perversions which did emerge and infected every existing socialist country," he said, referring to the tyranny and bureaucracy of Communist countries.
He said the failure of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe could be traced to a lack of democracy in those countries and the refusal to allow market forces to work in the economy.
"In fact I think one of the basic reasons for the failure of socialism is the elimination of the market as a measure of economic viability," said Mr. Slovo, a former Stalinist who now says, "I'm thoroughly ashamed of my Stalinist past."
His sentiments are echoed by Chris Hani, one of the most popular leaders of the ANC and chief of its military wing, Spear of the Nation.
Mr. Hani, also a top Communist, said socialism as an ideology remained valid because it was committed to "the elimination of gross social inequities." The problem elsewhere was flaws in the implementation of socialism, he said. "We are against the view that you can use any means to implement socialism, including dictatorship, imprisonment and torture."
Mr. Hani said the Soviet Union had not solved the problem of social inequities, but neither had capitalism, which he said had -- glaring failures.
"Let's look at South Africa. Let us not forget that South Africa is a capitalist country. Racism is a product of capitalism. In my country, racism was institutionalized by capitalists. It was a source of cheap labor and excessive profits."
In the townships around South Africa, where the workers who provided that cheap labor are concentrated, the Communist vow to redress the imbalances of apartheid is a welcome refrain.
Though talk of nationalizing the banks and gold mines sends chills through businessmen, it is tremendously popular among many young blacks who refer to themselves as "comrades" and who await the promised redistribution of wealth.
"We are a very popular Communist Party by any standard," said Mr. Hani. "We exist in almost every corner of South Africa. We have substantial support among black workers, the youth, the black intelligentsia. We are certainly very popular in the ANC."
Critics say that the Communist Party is popular only because of its longtime link to the ANC and that the party could never survive long on its own or sell its theories if they were not tied to an anti-apartheid message. Although generally popular among young township people who associate it with the black struggle, the party has had trouble recruiting members and raising funds.
Mr. Hani was recently asked by the central committee to set aside his major ANC duties and devote his full time to building the party. The ANC has not yet responded.
Like Mr. Slovo, Mr. Hani's faith in the promise of communism is unshaken by its massive failures in the rest of the world. Both men insist it can work if only someone gets it right, and they believe South Africa's black masses will support them in their effort to get it right.