Lock up the thugs

Once more, the SACP finds itself on the wrong side of the class divide, writes Peter Manson

Again protests are sweeping South Africa’s universities. Students are waging a militant campaign against the African National Congress’s announcement of an above-inflation rise in tuition fees.

Following fierce clashes some dozen universities have been forced to close. Police have attacked student protestors using batons and rubber bullets, while in revenge buildings and vehicles have been set alight.

After last year’s moratorium forced on the ANC, when fees were held at the 2014 level, the department for higher education has come back with a hike, insisting on an eight percent rise in fees. As the students point out, fees are already unaffordable for the majority - and certainly an impossibility for the children of the unemployed and shack-dwellers. By European standards last year’s annual fees - ranging from R30,940 (£1,736) to R47,740 (£2,678) - seem rather modest. But for most South Africans such sums represent a fortune.

The protests have been led by the Fees Must Fall group - a name that has caused some misunderstanding, since the demand is not for a reduction, but for free tertiary education. In other words, fees must “fall” in the sense that they should be abolished. In response, the ANC states that things are just too tight - and the abolition of fees is certainly out of the question.

And in charge is the minister for higher education - a certain Blade Nzimande, who just happens to be general secretary of the South African Communist Party! Desperately trying to face both ways, Nzimande has expressed “sympathy” for struggling students, and promised a commission of inquiry into the “feasibility of free education”. However, he insisted: “Those throwing stones and burning libraries are nothing more than criminals. Let the rest of the students also take a firm stand and say, ‘No, not in our name!’” The message should be: “Do not destroy our universities; transform them and defend our democratic heritage”.

As for the protestors, whom Nzimande claimed were led by the “ultra-left” and the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters, “We also welcome the stance being taken by our magistrates to lock up suspected thugs for seven days, until they appear in court.”

Nzimande’s September 23 speech at the commemoration event for one of his antecedents - Moses Mabhida, the SACP general secretary from 1978 to 1986 - understandably focused on the current unrest. But not before he reminded the audience that, if we want to achieve socialism, what is now called for is a “second, radical phase” of the “national democratic revolution” (NDR).

Two enemies

Interestingly, Nzimande identified two class enemies which are apparently completely separate entities: the “parasitic bourgeoisie” and “monopoly capital”. And there is no doubt as to which of the two is the primary opponent at this time: the “looters” of the “parasitic bourgeoisie”, who are “building an empire of oligarchies by means of looting our state-owned enterprises through contracts and tenders”. If they succeed, they are “going to destroy the strategic capacity to face off with monopoly capital”.

So first we need to deal “a decisive blow to the parasitic bourgeoisie, the most dangerous class to the unity of our movement, but also to our revolution internally”. In fact, “There will be no second, radical phase of our democratic transition, should the corporate capturers and the parasitic bourgeoisie win the day.” In fact the SACP openly states that the NDR is led by a cross-class alliance that includes the representatives of capital - it seriously wants us to believe that, having helped defeat the corrupt “looters”, “monopoly capital” will continue to cooperate in the “second, radical phase”, even though this will eventually open the way for its own demise.

But, in the meantime, what about the workers - not to mention the students? According to Nzimande,

The call for free higher education for all is not inherently a revolutionary call - it could as well be a reactionary stance that is inconsiderate of the objective conditions, in particular to social relations of class inequality that we are yet to and must eliminate. What must happen after we have radically reduced or eradicated class inequality must not be confused for what must happen towards successfully realising the goal.

So the students will just have to pay up - although, just as he did last year in response to the protests, Nzimande has offered a substantial concession. He announced that the eight percent increase in fees would not apply to families with an annual income of less than R600,000 (£34,200) - in other words, “more than 70% of undergraduate students in our universities”.

This was not quite the position taken by another senior SACP figure: Gwede Mantashe, the former SACP national chair, who is now secretary general of the ANC. Mantashe’s reaction to the turmoil in the universities was: “I’m not the minister of education. Because if I was, my first reaction would be to close them for six months.” Incredibly Mantashe is still a member of the SACP central committee.

In fact, the SACP is now positioning itself well to the right of other ANC components. The ANC Youth League, for instance, issued a statement on September 20 which demanded another moratorium on all university fees “pending the outcome of the presidential commission on free education”. Two days later, the Young Communist League replied, claiming that the ANCYL statement was marked by “hypocrisy” and “lies”. It added: “It can’t be that we are expected as the working class to fund education for the rich.” Fees must not fall!

Meanwhile, there is increasing tension between the SACP and the organisation that it once completely dominated: the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali had criticised calls within the SACP for the party, as a response to the corruption at the very top of the ANC, to consider contesting the 2019 general election under its own name (up to now, SACP members have always stood as ANC candidates).

The two organisations met in a “two-day bilateral” last week and issued a statement afterwards, which reassured its supporters that “Our immediate tasks include strengthening our organisations, salvaging the African National Congress … , uniting the ANC-led alliance [to] ensure that it rigorously defines the basic content and strategic tasks of the second, radical phase of our democratic transition.” But no mention was made in the subsequent joint statement of the previous public disagreement.

What, for example, does the SACP think of Cosatu’s call for a “one-day national strike” on October 7 as part of “this year’s International Decent Work Day”? This general strike, however token, will, among other things, be “in defence of our jobs and against retrenchments”, to “protect our collective bargaining agreements”, for “compliance with occupational health and safety standards in all workplaces” and - last, but not least - to “demand the implementation of free education”!

No doubt this action has been called as a counter to the influence of a rival trade union federation that is due to be launched next year. The country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, was expelled from Cosatu in 2014 for having the audacity to break with the ANC and SACP, and has now gathered around it some three dozen unions, including several current Cosatu affiliates.

The crisis enveloping the ANC-SACP-Cosatu ‘triple alliance’ continues to deepen.