Under pressure to stand
While the SACP has finally agreed to contest elections independently, writes Peter Manson, its leadership is still fully committed to class collaboration
Following its July 10-15 congress, the South African Communist Party has finally confirmed that it is now prepared to contest elections under its own name - in opposition to the African National Congress.
Ever since the fall of apartheid SACP members have stood as ANC candidates locally and nationally - after the 2014 general election 17 of the 249 ANC MPs were party members - and, of course, the SACP has always accounted for a rather higher proportion of government ministers than its parliamentary representation might warrant.
The ministries its comrades head are by no means unimportant. While general secretary Blade Nzimande, as minister for higher education, has fronted the government’s assault on students and met mass opposition in 2015-16 in the shape of the ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement, other SACP members occupy even more important posts, crucial to the running of South African capitalism. For example, Rob Davies is trade and industry minister and Ebrahim Patel is minister for economic development, while Aaron Motsoaledi (health) and Senzeni Zokwana (agriculture) are also in significant positions. Although SACP deputy chair Thulas Nxesi is now sports minister‚ he was actually in charge of public works at the very time R246 million (£14.6 million) was being spent on improvements (that included a swimming pool and amphitheatre) to president Jacob Zuma’s private residence, allegedly for ‘security reasons’.
But recently a number of factors have placed the SACP firmly in the anti-Zuma camp. Not only were there allegations of corruption directed at the president, but the exposure of the huge influence exerted by individual capitalists - such as the brothers, Atay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta - over government appointments and decisions (referred to by the SACP as “state capture”). Added to this, the party membership has become more assertive, and, as a result of all those factors, the leadership publicly called on the president to resign earlier this year. Zuma was ‘uninvited’ to the congress - it was the first time since 2009 that he had not addressed such an SACP event.
However, the possibility of the party standing its own candidates - and, along with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), in effect abandoning the ANC-led alliance - has been under discussion in one form or another for many years. For example, the most recent version of the SACP programme, The South African road to socialism (2012), states:
The modalities of the SACP’s participation in elections are not a matter of timeless principle. As an independent political party, the SACP has every right to contest elections in its own right - should it so choose. Whether the party does this and how it does this are entirely subject to conjunctural realities and indeed to engagement with our strategic allies.1
And before last week’s congress the central committee issued a document, which included this sentence: “We absolutely cannot rule out the prospect of the SACP contesting elections in its own right.”2 So it came as no surprise when the leadership declared that the party had decided to do just that.
Pressure at top
The CC announced with great pride that 1,819 delegates had gathered for the congress in Ekurhuleni, just east of Johannesburg. According to the leadership, they were representing “over 7,000 branches” and no fewer than 284,554 individual members: “Five years ago, at our 13th National Congress, we proudly announced that our membership had grown massively to over 150,000. We have nearly doubled once again.”
Just over a decade ago the official membership figure was said to be 30,000, and it hit 50,000 in 2009. So, while no doubt the figures are exaggerated - especially when you consider that, as with the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, ‘members’ are required to do no more than fill in a form - it is clear that there has been a huge surge in support for the party.
This has coincided with the gradual falling away of electoral support for the ANC itself. At the 2014 general election its vote had dropped a little to 62.1%, but in the 2016 municipal elections it plummeted down to 53.9%. As a result the ANC lost control of several urban centres, including Johannesburg. Of course, everyone knows that the SACP has been closely associated with the entire apparatus, but its militant language and Marxist jargon have led many to believe that the party could force through radical change. Expectations have risen and the leadership has been forced to respond.
This pressure was reflected inside the congress hall. For example, one of the favourite songs sung by delegates included the refrain: “Have you heard the good news? They say Zuma is leaving.”3 Then there was the response to general secretary Nzimande’s rhetorical question relating to ‘state capture’ - “Do we have a state? What is to be done?” - during his address. “Contest elections!” came the rejoinder.4
The pressure had also been reflected in the run-up to congress in calls for Solly Mapaila, then the party’s second deputy general secretary, to replace Nzimande as SACP number one. Mapaila had been the most consistent amongst the leadership in insisting that the congress should decide to contest elections, and he had also been the most forthright in calling on Zuma to resign immediately. However, following the CC’s hostile reaction to this display of ‘disunity’ - at one stage during his address Nzimande was heckled by some delegates - comrade Mapaila said he would not stand for any leadership position.
But then, out of the blue, the first deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, announced he was stepping down. Cronin, who is deputy minister of public works in the government, has been relied upon to draw up key SACP statements and strategic documents. But he gave no real explanation for his decision and this, together with the fact that he has not resigned from the government, leads one to conclude that Cronin was not exactly happy with the new orientation.
This development led Mapaila to immediately reverse his earlier statement and announce his candidacy for deputy general secretary - he was elected unopposed to replace Cronin. As for Nzimande himself, he was hardly delighted either. Afterwards he said: “We are in a very difficult political situation in this country ... If I had my personal preference, I would be joining comrade Cronin and retire.”5
So where does all this leave us? Will the SACP oppose the ANC in 2019? According to the CC,
After considerable debate at Congress, we have resolved that, while the SACP will certainly contest elections, the exact modality in which we do so needs to be determined by way of a concrete analysis of the concrete reality and through the process of active engagement with worker and progressive formations.6
In fact, “The SACP remains committed to strengthening and consolidating our ANC alliance” (my emphasis). But that would now “require a significant reconfiguration” of that alliance. And the party admits it does not know if that is even possible: “Whether the ANC has the capacity to lead its own process of renewal, and whether it will be able to once more play the critical role of uniting itself and its alliance, remains uncertain.” But “the SACP will continue to play a leading role in consolidating a popular front of working class and progressive forces to advance, deepen and defend our democracy and our national sovereignty”.
But how could the SACP still be in “alliance” (however ‘reconfigured’) with the ANC, while at the same time opposing it at the next general election? Voting is based on the party list system and MPs are elected completely proportionally - each party is awarded one of the 400 MPs for each 0.25% of the national vote it wins. So there is no question of candidates agreeing to stand down in favour of an alliance partner. According to Nzimande, “It happens in many parts of the world that allied formations contest independently and decide to come together after elections.”7
However, things will not be quite that easy. In the words of the Morning Star’s John Haylett, the SACP “has pledged to consult its alliance partners and other progressive forces before standing separately” and - despite the headline to his article, which reads, “Communists widen split from ANC” - he reckons it is “unlikely to contest the 2019 general election”.8
The SACP in its post-congress declaration, while restating once again its opposition to “the deep threat of wanton parasitic looting of public resources associated with ‘state capture’”, reaffirmed its “strategic commitment to a radical second phase of the National Democratic Revolution as the most direct route to a socialist South Africa”.
However, having listed a number of proposals for anti-corruption, anti-monopoly, anti-discriminatory and pro-worker reforms, its pre-congress political report frankly admitted: “None of these measures in themselves, or in isolation, amount to socialism. All of them are open to being coopted into the capitalist system.”9 In fact the report also unwittingly pointed to the hopelessness of the SACP trajectory, when it stated: “Statistics SA’s most recent data indicate that in the first quarter of 2017 a further 48,000 jobs were lost, adding to the nine million unemployed. The narrow definition of unemployment is now 27.7%.” The so-called “national democratic revolution”, for which the SACP has been cheer-leading since 1994, is not quite pointing in the direction of a “socialist South Africa” just yet.
But now, states Business Day, “The SACP wants to create a broad front that will include progressive sectors of society to contest future polls.”10 And incredibly, according to Cronin, this was “part of the reason” why the newly created rival to the SACP-led Cosatu, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), was invited to attend the congress. I say “incredibly” because it was the SACP that was behind the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) - the country’s largest trade union - from Cosatu in 2014 and as a result Saftu was formed. Likewise its members were responsible for dismissing Zwelinzima Vavi from the post of Cosatu general secretary. What was the ‘crime’ of Numsa and Vavi? Why, calling for the workers’ movement to break with the ANC!
And then, in its political statement, the CC had the gall to write:
The formation of the latest union federation, Saftu, is unfortunately compounding the fragmentation of the labour movement at a time when we need to be working towards maximum unity and towards organising the millions of unorganised workers rather than cannibalising membership from each other.
On behalf of Saftu, its general secretary - none other than Vavi himself - responded by explaining “Why we are unable to honour the invitation to your Congress”. He wrote: “Only if, and when, the SACP decisively and publicly breaks with the politics of positioning, patronage and class collaboration will organisations like ours be able to accept an invitation to witness your deliberations.”11
Such “class collaboration” was epitomised by the SACP’s choice of ANC speaker to replace Zuma at the congress - a certain Cyril Ramaphosa. Sure, not only is Ramaphosa deputy president of both the ANC and South Africa: he has also been making noises in line with the party’s criticism of Zuma. But it was Ramaphosa, as one of the country’s richest capitalists who sent out several emails on the eve of the 2014 Marikana massacre demanding that firm action be taken against striking mineworkers - 34 of whom were shot dead by police the very next day.
But Ramaphosa has not forgotten the SACP jargon he learned back in the days when he was general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. At the congress, he spoke about “the need to weave together the revolutionary-democratic, socialist and trade union strands of the broad liberation movement into a tight alliance of formations that share a common approach towards the national democratic revolution and its objectives”.12 Well, one thing is for certain: those “objectives” have nothing whatsoever to do with working class interests.
The SACP, in part driven by the pressure from below, could indeed be heading for a break with the ANC. But it is still committed to a “popular front” along with wanton enemies of the working class like Ramaphosa. The question is, who in the SACP can lead a movement for a fundamental change of course?
3. Business Day July 11
6. ‘Declaration of the 14th Party Congress’, July 15.
8. Morning Star July 17.
10. Business Day July 12.