Tide turns against Zuma
While the ‘official communists’ are now looking for a change of leadership, writes Peter Manson, they have no intention of championing working class independence
At last the South African Communist Party has succumbed to the pressure to join the bourgeois chorus and ditch the man it promoted to lead the African National Congress and replace Thabo Mbeki as president back in 2009.
True, SACP MPs, who are also ANC members, voted against the motion to impeach Jacob Zuma on April 5, but that was because it had been sponsored by two opposition parties: the rightwing Democratic Alliance and the left populist Economic Freedom Fighters. SACP members were among the 249 MPs in the 400-seat national assembly who saw off the motion by 90 votes. Rather, the SACP wants to retain as much influence for itself as possible by ensuring that Zuma is replaced from within the ANC, just as in 2009.
The issue that provoked the impeachment attempt was the ‘Nkandla scandal’. Vast sums of state cash have been spent on Zuma’s private residence, the Nkandla country estate, allegedly for ‘security’ reasons. But last week South Africa’s constitutional court ruled that the president had violated his terms of office by refusing to pay back R246 million (£13 million) of public funds spent on ‘upgrades’ that included a swimming pool, visitors centre and amphitheatre.
This scandal had been rumbling on since 2014, when the public protector’s office published a report laying out the state expenditure at Nkandla. But for two years Zuma denied he had done anything wrong - apparently the swimming pool’s main purpose was actually to stop fires, for instance - but in February 2016, he finally admitted he had not acted correctly, having received ‘bad legal advice’. And on April 1 the constitutional court upheld the applications of the opposition DA and EFF, and instructed the treasury to determine within two months the “reasonable costs” which Zuma will then have to repay within 45 days, in addition to legal fees.
The following day, Zuma appeared on television to issue a personal apology, claiming that the court’s “ground-breaking” judgement had in fact strengthened democracy. He had “never knowingly or deliberately set out to violate the constitution” when he approved the spending of those millions of state funds: “The intention was not in pursuit of corrupt ends or to use state resources to unduly benefit me and my family.” Not at all. And in fact, “The judgement has been very helpful” in ensuring that he makes no such further ‘mistake’.
You would not know from the SACP’s statement, issued on April 3, that the party now wants Zuma out (unless, of course, you read between the lines). It declared that the judgement and his public apology represented “important moments in the reaffirmation and consolidation of constitutionality and the rule of law in our still relatively young democracy”. The statement went on:
President Zuma’s acknowledgment that “with hindsight, there are many matters that could have been handled differently and which should never have been allowed to drag on this long” is correct. It lays the basis for a range of further lines of inquiry, reflection and, above all, corrective action ….
Thursday’s … judgement and the widespread positive public reaction to it provide an important opportunity for the ANC and the ANC-led movement to seriously embark on a collective process of decisive self-introspection and self-correction. Strict implementation of the remedial measures called for by the public protector on Nkandla will be a beginning, but self-correction must clearly go way beyond this.1
But the SACP’s idea of “remedial action” and “self-correction” is obvious from its reaction to the second public scandal that has been engulfing the president: his close but secretive relationship with a particular family of capitalist entrepreneurs.
The family in question consists mainly of three brothers: Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta, who emigrated from India in 1993. Today they have built up a business empire with interests in computing, mining, air travel, energy and the media. Their Sahara Group employs some 10,000 people in South Africa and has won several important state contracts.
But the Guptas’ influential relationship with Zuma has been an open secret. The president’s son, Duduzane, has common business interests with them - they have openly spoken of how they gave him a breakthrough when no-one else wanted to employ him back in 2005 and now he is a board member of at least six Gupta companies. But, incredibly, it seems that the Guptas have been so close to the president himself, they have sometimes ensured that senior ANC politicians have been awarded key government positions in return for favours. Recently deputy minister of finance Mcebisi Jonas claimed that members of the Gupta family “offered” him the top job in the finance ministry, while former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor has also said the Guptas once offered him a ministerial post.
Zuma’s relationship with the family was highlighted when in December 2015 he appointed two different finance ministers in four days - meaning that the post had three occupants within the space of a week. Share prices were hit and the rand took a tumble before the current finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, was given the job on December 14. The reappointment of a man who had previously occupied the post from 2009-14 was intended as a message to capital that the state’s finances were once again in safe hands. There had been no ‘state capture’ by a tiny clique.
During all this time the SACP had kept a discreet silence, claiming loyalty to the president. No surprise there, as the party never publicly criticised Mbeki, his predecessor, during the months when it was campaigning within the ANC for his recall. But on March 18 The Citizen newspaper reported the words of the party’s second deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila, who allegedly said the ANC should take action against Zuma for “crossing the line”. According to the paper, he declared: “If an ANC president can’t listen to the ANC, why should he lead the ANC?” Mapaila reportedly said that it was essential for the ANC to “discuss and resolve” the Gupta question. If Zuma does nothing, “The ANC will have no choice but to ask him to step down as president.”2
Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely, in view of the SACP’s record) the party made no official statement in response to this story - although it goes without saying that its failure to issue a denial was telling in itself. Within two days there were rumours that SACP ministers - namely, general secretary Blade Nzimande (higher education), Rob Davies (trade and industry), Ebrahim Patel (economic development) and minister in the presidency Jeff Radebe - were about to lose their posts in an impending reshuffle. But the presidency issued a denial and the four kept their jobs. However, the ANC has not acceded to the SACP call for an official commission of enquiry into the whole Gupta affair, instead announcing an internal investigation behind closed doors.
But, as I write, the lead item on the SACP website remains a link to a news report that is now two weeks old. This consists of film footage, which the party has headed: “SACP calls on Zuma to cut ties with Guptas”.3 It shows second deputy general secretary Mapaila addressing a trade union conference, in which he states: “If the president feels he can’t call for a commission of enquiry” - pregnant pause - “he must always keep in mind that the next president may do it.” Following another pause, he added: “… And there’ll always be consequences.”
We should not forget that it was the SACP that was the principal force in ensuring that Mbeki was recalled by the ANC and Zuma installed as the man best placed to lead the “national democratic revolution” - which, according to the party, is the “most direct route to socialism” in South Africa. This despite the fact that Zuma was under investigation in relation to numerous allegations of corruption because of his dubious relationships, and those of family members, with various businessmen and corporations.
True, all charges against Zuma were dropped just a month before he was elected president by the national assembly. But since then he has been continually accused of feathering his own nest - although it has to be said, it was not as though the SACP did not know what sort of man they had been promoting.
Interestingly, SACP thinking on the current state of South African capitalism in the light of the Gupta affair is revealed in a statement from the party’s Moses Mabhida provincial leadership on April 1. As this was issued several days after the provincial executive committee meeting that discussed the question, we can safely assume that this represents the views of the party’s central leadership. According to the statement,
What we are witnessing around the events of December 2015 and the recent revelations on Gupta influence on the ruling party and the government is in fact a clash between the two wings of the capitalist class in a declining economy.
On the one hand, there is a big business with dominance of the most profitable sectors of the South African economy. On the other hand is the small upstart capitalists, who are largely dependent on their closeness to high political office to make their profits ….
In this process of ever increasing looting of state resources, one state department after the other was captured. Obviously the prime enemies of this Gupta front project tend to be the established capital on the right and the SACP on the left ….
What we are witnessing therefore is the attempt by a certain wing of the capitalist class to wrest control of the treasury away from another section of their class.4
Irrespective of the accuracy or otherwise of this, it says a lot about the kind of regime that the SACP has consistently supported in the name of the “national democratic revolution”.
All this has somewhat overshadowed another big issue for the SACP - not to mention all partisans of the working class movement - and that is not just the party’s role within the ANC-led popular front, but its disgraceful behaviour within the trade union movement.
In November 2014, the SACP-dominated leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) expelled its largest affiliate, the 350,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Its crime? Numsa, having finally seen through the SACP nonsense about the ANC-led “national democratic revolution” leading directly to “socialism”, had withdrawn support from both the ANC and SACP, and called for the formation of a new working class party.
Numsa had garnered the support of several other Cosatu unions and in all of them there have been big factional battles, as SACP loyalists desperately struggle to keep control - and keep the federation firmly attached, along with the party itself, to the ANC-led alliance. The bureaucratic clampdown by the loyalists has resulted in several small breakaways.
The response of Numsa, with the support of former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, has been to announce the creation of a rival federation, to be launched on May 1. General secretary Irvin Jim, describing Numsa as a “Marxist-Leninist-inspired union”, which acknowledges the “fundamental contradiction between labour and capital”, insists that Numsa must sponsor a new formation rather than affiliate to one of the existing federations. Back in February Numsa issued a parallel call to “move with urgency to establish a new democratic workers’ party, which will stand for the complete socialist transformation of society”.
A group of “nine-plus” sympathising unions - some of them Cosatu affiliates - have stated their intention to come on board the new federation, provided their leaderships can win support from the members. But the problem in winning such support has been illustrated by the example of the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). On March 14 Samwu’s central executive committee announced it had “resolved to terminate the membership of the president, Pule Molalenyane, first deputy president John Dlamini and national treasurer Portia Lindi” for “conniving with the new federation” and “attending meetings in the dark corners without our mandate”. Allegedly these “former national office bearers were running the union like private property”.5 So Samwu will not be at the May 1 launch despite the intentions of its now deposed leaders. Meanwhile, the latter have called on members to leave Samwu and join a new union, the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa). No doubt Demawusa will be represented on May 1.
Also present, I suspect, will be the currently Cosatu-affiliated South African National Defence Union (Sandu), which represents members of the armed forces. Sandu was amongst those calling for Zuma’s head following the constitutional court judgement. In fact it appealed for “mass action” to force Zuma to resign.6
This provoked a furious reaction from Cosatu, which stated:
We also condemn Sandu for calling for the removal of the president and we strongly believe that their actions are treasonous and should be given the necessary attention by those in charge. We cannot have a situation where an army union is involved in calls for regime change.7
Yes, that’s right - Cosatu is demanding that the leaders of one of its affiliates be prosecuted for taking a political position in opposition to the president, whom the federation still (formally) supports. Apparently members of the armed forces must never come out against the country’s rulers or call for “mass action” against them, even though Sandu specified that such action must be “lawful”.
For his part, Vavi - who was dismissed from the Cosatu top post in 2014 for, like Numsa, wanting the unions to break with the ANC - has said he has held several talks with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which he hopes will join the new federation. Amcu is a sizable split from the National Union of Mineworkers - a reaction to the NUM’s connivance with mining bosses and failure to support militant action from the members because of its loyalty to the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance. But its leadership strikes me as having, shall we say, rather dubious politics.
On March 24 Cosatu issued a statement condemning the fact that its “unions, leaders and members” are being “enticed to attend the so-called workers’ summit convened as part of the process towards the formation of a divisive ‘new federation’”. It pointed out, correctly, that South Africa currently has “180 registered trade unions and 23 registered trade union federations” and commented that this is “a weakness because it leads to a splintering of the voice of workers, to the absolute delight of the bosses”.
But then it added: “Cosatu’s stance remains that of achieving our vision of ‘One country, one federation’, ‘One union, one industry’.”8 In that case, why did it expel Numsa over a (admittedly substantial) political difference?
That major difference can be seen in an article penned by Numsa leader Irvin Jim, in which he remarks of the Zuma-Gupta affair:
The SACP makes the fundamental error of seeing the deep crisis we are in today as caused just by corrupt individuals, families or companies, rather than a structural crisis of a bankrupt and equally corrupt capitalist system, led by white monopoly capitalism and its allies in the treasury ….
‘State capture’ has become the latest buzz-phrase, but what does it mean? …. It was not, however, the corrupt Guptas who initially captured the state, but those in the ‘Stock Exchange’ faction of ‘wealth’ - white monopoly capitalism - who have been and remain the dominant power behind and within the government ….
So why only now has the SACP expressed concern over something that was already happening in 2013 … ? The only answer can be that until very recently they have been silent about anything that might embarrass president Zuma ….
The real issue we must confront is that the SACP was willing to join the forces that dismissed Numsa, the voice of the working class, and who fragmented Cosatu, when we raised sharply this ‘state capture’ by neoliberal forces. The SACP leaders presented us as being anti-Jacob Zuma and his government - something they regarded as criminal then.9
Note, by the way, Jim’s characterisation of the current order as “white monopoly capitalism” - a characterisation he seems to share with the likes of the black nationalist EFF. Presumably the Guptas are some kind of ‘honorary whites’.
Meanwhile deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also Zuma’s number two in the ANC itself, has promised that the government will “spend billions” on what is called “broad-based black economic empowerment” (BBBEE) in the coming years. Obviously he is not talking about “economic empowerment” for the millions of unemployed and shack-dwellers. No, he aims to help “black business” to assert itself. According to the News 24 website, Ramaphosa said the time of “white business monopolies was over” and the government would make sure “blacks owned and managed the economy”.10
It has to be pointed out, however, that a substantial number of blacks have been doing rather well already - not least Ramaphosa himself. This former anti-apartheid militant and first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers is today one of South Africa’s richest men. Amongst the many companies in which he has been involved is Lonmin, the British-owned corporation which employed the 34 miners slaughtered by police at Marikana in August 2012.
Notoriously Ramaphosa emailed a senior manager of the company the day before the massacre, declaring that it was essential to get the minister of police to “act in a more pointed way”. The strike was “not a labour dispute”, he wrote. The mineworkers’ behaviour was “dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such”. So there must be “concomitant action to address the situation”. This is the man whom a faction of the ANC would like to see replace Zuma (it is unclear who the SACP will back at this stage).
Be that as it may, Ramaphosa’s views are not just held by the black bourgeoisie and aspiring petty bourgeois. Cosatu too seems to believe that the problem is not the system of exploitation, but the skin colour of those at the top and bottom. In a statement bemoaning the power of “racists”, it claimed:
The structure of the economy is in favour of white people and it still gives them power over black people. This is the source of power that allows even public personalities to boldly vocalise their racist feelings because they have nothing to lose.
We need to restructure the economy to ensure that black people are not only viewed as cheap labour in this country. The poverty wages that are still paid to the black majority have left many black workers being viewed and treated by some white people as nothing but glorified slaves. The fact that 60% of the employed workers who earn less than R5,000 a month are mostly black is proof enough that our economy remains rooted in apartheid and colonial capitalism.11
What it actually proves is that, in the absence of a programme based on the independence of the working class, the majority of those at the bottom have no means of making substantial improvements in their conditions of existence. True, thanks to BBBEE, thousands of well-connected blacks have been given a helping hand to join the ranks of the exploiters, whether corruptly or otherwise. But the SACP and Cosatu have no intention of breaking with the system of exploitation, despite all their fine words about “socialism”.
And unfortunately, while the likes of Irvin Jim may have seen the light over the SACP’s misleadership, they are still locked into the politics of the social democratic Freedom Charter, which they believe the SACP has betrayed. However, while it remains to be seen whether their “new democratic workers’ party” will get off the ground, it is very likely that the May 1 launch of the new union federation will go ahead.
But that will leave the union movement even more divided, as Cosatu states. In my view, working class oppositionists should strive to win over existing mass organisations whenever that remains a possibility. In other words, although Numsa could not prevent its own expulsion, in general such oppositionists should persist in attempting to win over the majority of both individual unions and the federation to which they are affiliated.
Similarly there is still a fight to be had within the SACP. For example, in several provinces members have reacted to corrupt and sometimes violent ANC bureaucrats with a call for the party to break with the alliance and contest elections independently. At last year’s special national conference of the SACP the leadership comprehensively defeated such calls, but at least it now admits that they are not illegitimate.
The fight for working class independence and genuine Marxism must, whenever possible, take place within existing mass organisations.
5. See www.iol.co.za/business/news/samwu-axes-leaders---again-1998101.
6. Statement, April 1: www.sandu.co.za.
8. Statement, March 24.