Where next for the SACP?
As the ANC continues to lose support, Peter Manson looks at the dilemmas of the ‘official communists’
Readers will not need reminding of the central role of the South African Communist Party - both during the anti-apartheid struggle and in the current turmoil over the future of the African National Congress.
It is well known that the party was from the outset a major driving force within the ANC, and its cadre have occupied key positions both during the armed struggle and afterwards. For example, the SACP finally publicly acknowledged on the day of Nelson Mandela’s death in December 2013 that ‘Madiba’ had been a member of the SACP central committee until he was instructed to leave the party - probably at some time in the 1960s: it was felt that the leader of a ‘broad liberation movement’ should not be seen to be a communist, although Mandela “became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days”, according to the SACP statement. In fact a good number of other prominent ANC figures were, or had been, party members also.
Perhaps because it was leading an armed struggle, the SACP was most certainly among the most radical of all ‘official communist’ parties - and, as we shall see, the legacy of this radicalism survives today in the form of the party’s continuing revolutionary rhetoric, despite the downright reactionary role it has sometimes played within the ANC government.
For instance, this is what the 1989 SACP programme had to say about the forthcoming insurrection:
The seizure of power will only be assured if the revolutionary movement has already effectively prepared the necessary political and organisational forces with the capacity to launch an offensive for the seizure of power at the right moment ...
An insurrection, unlike a coup, is a mass revolutionary upsurge of the people in conditions which hold out the possibility of a seizure of power. It does not lend itself to blueprinting in the same way as a coup does. The call for an insurrection can only be placed on the immediate agenda of struggle if, and when, a specific revolutionary moment has emerged. However, the task of making adequate preparations for a possible insurrectionary ‘moment’ needs attention even during the phase when it is not yet imminent.
An insurrection is an act of revolutionary force. But, it is not always an armed uprising. An all-round civil uprising could lead to an insurrection even when the armed factor is absent or secondary. History has seen successful insurrections of both types.1
In other words, ‘Peacefully if we can, violently if we must’. And the programme went on to outline the factors that it believed needed to be present before such an insurrectionary seizure of power could occur:
… a combination of mass upsurge, in which working class action at the point of production will play a key role, mass defiance, escalating revolutionary combat activity, intensified international pressure, a situation of ungovernability ... and growing demoralisation, division, vacillation and confusion within the power bloc.
This was in fact a description of a revolutionary situation. The SACP continued:
The subjective forces - both political and military - must be built up so that when these seeds of revolution begin to germinate, the vanguard will be able to seize the historic moment. In this sense, all-round mass action, merging with organised and armed activity, led by a well-organised underground, and international pressure, are the keys to the build-up for the seizure of power.
The reference to “international pressure” is interesting. There is no doubt that for the SACP the role of the Soviet Union was the key - undoubtedly the party believed that a post-liberation South Africa would be part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Perhaps, despite all the talk of a flourishing post-apartheid democracy, the SACP hoped it would become the African equivalent of the likes of Czechoslovakia or Poland, operating a Stalinist version of ‘socialism’ under one-party rule. In reality, of course, almost before the ink was dry in the 1989 programme, the collapse of ‘bureaucratic socialism’ was underway - the USSR was no more by the time apartheid was negotiated out of existence.
Talking of negotiations, how did the SACP view their role? Its warnings were clear and accurate:
We should be on our guard against the clear objective of our ruling class and their imperialist allies, who see negotiation as a way of pre-empting a revolutionary transformation. The imperialists seek their own kind of transformation, which goes beyond the reform limits of the present regime, but which will at the same time frustrate the basic objectives of the struggling masses. And they hope to achieve this by pushing the liberation movement into negotiation before it is strong enough to back its basic demands with sufficient power on the ground.
Ironically, the negative outcome the SACP foresaw was what actually transpired. Just five years later apartheid had been replaced by a regime totally in tune with the requirements of South African capital and the international bourgeoisie.
In other words, the defeat of apartheid had two sides. Undoubtedly it represented, on the one hand, a heroic victory for all those who had sacrificed so much - often including their lives. Not only did it see the abolition of all formal restrictions based on race, but huge new opportunities for our class - the removal of a whole range of oppressive measures and practices, and their replacement by the freedom of the working class, alongside all progressive forces, to organise.
However, on the other hand, we have to accept that, from the point of view of the ruling class, apartheid could not continue indefinitely. Not only was there ongoing mass opposition and a developing revolutionary situation that could only be averted through the abolition of the old system. But apartheid was also acting as a fetter on the development and expansion of capital. Its hugely bureaucratic restrictions - on eligibility for certain jobs, for instance, and its oppressive pass laws meant that capital was often prevented from employing the workers it needed, who could not always easily move to areas where they were required. It is true that apartheid facilitated the ruthless exploitation of sections of the proletariat, but more and more it was holding back capital accumulation.
As late as 1987 Margaret Thatcher labelled the ANC “a terrorist organisation”, but she was very much out of tune with the requirements of imperialism by that time. The bourgeoisie - in South Africa and internationally - was looking for an end to apartheid and aimed to transform the ANC into an organisation that could help bring about a regime that would oversee a South Africa that was more secure from its point of view.
Hillel Ticktin once stated at the CPGB’s Communist University that capitalism, in and of itself, is “anti-racist”. By this he meant that what matters to capital is the exploitation of labour-power - fundamentally it is not interested in the ethnicity or gender of the bearers of that labour-power: they can be men, women - or children; they can be black or white.
Personally I think that ‘non-racist’ is the more accurate term. Capital may certainly use racism to divide us - apartheid was a prime example of that; but it can also use anti-racism towards the same end. For example, when the establishment in the UK proclaims its opposition to racism, one of its aims is to persuade us that what matters is our common Britishness: black and white, worker and capitalist - we all have a common, united interest. It is a way of diverting workers from effective independent organisation on a class basis.
So there was a ruling class interest in ending the old system and negotiating a smooth transition to the post-apartheid order. The SACP had warned against such an outcome, but in the end it went along with it.
Undoubtedly the ANC’s own programme - the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 - was drafted very much under the influence of the Communist Party: in fact it has the SACP written all over it.
I am not talking about the obviously correct calls to abolish all forms of racist discrimination and establish a range of democratic rights and freedoms, but in particular the demand for the central role of the state in overseeing a broad and wide-ranging nationalised sector. According to the charter,
The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.
However, the Freedom Charter was not a programme for the replacement of capitalism. For instance, it stipulated: “All who work shall be free to form trade unions, to elect their officers and to make wage agreements with their employers.” Its call was for a range of democratic and pro-worker measures under the existing order, some of which were highly ambitious, given the state of development in South Africa. For example:
- “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children.”
- “Rent and prices shall be lowered, food plentiful and no-one shall go hungry.”
- “A preventive health scheme shall be run by the state.”
- “The aged, the orphans, the disabled and the sick shall be cared for by the state.”
The question of how all this might be brought about in a single country - particularly one of such mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness - was not touched upon, but in my view it can best be summarised as a (highly ambitious) social democratic programme, to be implemented under capitalism. Of course, the SACP might have envisaged a rather different order before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but obviously that did not feature in the Freedom Charter.
In other words, there is a marked contrast between the party’s largely principled programme for revolution and what it publicly demanded of a post-revolutionary government. However, the constraints of the capitalist world order imposed a rather different reality, which meant that the new government, including its ‘official communist’ element, settled for something rather less ambitious.
It is true that the ANC’s 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) contained some of the Freedom Charter’s social democratic elements. For example, there was a mass housing programme, which aimed to provide something approaching a permanent home for the millions of shack-dwellers. Hundreds of thousands of tiny square blocks, known as ‘RDP houses’, were built. Eventually they were provided with access to running water and electricity (if you could afford to pay for it).
But within two years the RDP was ditched - by now the right-moving ANC leadership had been won over to the need to more closely embrace capital and its interests, and in 1996 it revealed what was proclaimed as a more ‘realistic’ alternative to social democracy in the shape of what can only be described as the neoliberal Growth, Employment and Development Programme (Gear). Far from fulfilling the Freedom Charter pledge for large elements of industry to be “transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole”, Gear spelled out a programme of widespread privatisation: ironically there had been a high proportion of state ownership under the apartheid regime - in mining, transport, telecommunications and postal services, for instance.
Linked to this programme of privatisation was what the ANC dubbed “black economic empowerment” (BEE). Unfortunately, however, it was not aimed at the impoverished millions. Its aim was to bring more blacks into positions of ownership and senior management in the private sector. For example, companies applying for state contracts had to demonstrate that they were not (entirely) white-owned and white-run. However, since there was hardly a huge number of black people who had either the wealth or experience to fill such positions, a system was devised whereby company shares were issued to certain blacks (those with the right contacts), to be paid for out of future profits.
A certain number of individuals lower down the social order were also affected. For example, I know a certain person who, for a very short time, benefited from BEE. Having left the family home, he lived in a shack for several years. However, although I knew him as a Christian evangelical, he joined both the ANC and SACP. As he had some experience in small-scale fishing, via his contacts he was given a modest grant to set up a fishing business. Apparently he used it not to buy a small boat and fishing equipment, but a four-by-four! Not that he was able to keep it for very long.
Rather obviously, however, most of those who benefited from BEE were a little higher up the social ladder. There is, for example, a certain Cyril Ramaphosa, who was the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982. Today, not only is he South Africa’s current president: he is also the country’s 12th richest man, thanks to the boost he was given by BEE - particularly in the private mining sector, as it turns out.
All this took place under the hegemony of the ‘triple alliance’ - the ANC, SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Clearly this alliance is largely based on working class organisations, especially since the ANC itself - originally driven by the SACP - still contains large numbers of party members, including at the very top. True, under the post-apartheid order, more and more rightwing elements came into their own, yet the ANC still had to defer partially to both the SACP and Cosatu - The Congress of South African Trade Unions - whose leaders were almost exclusively SACP. Many SACP and Cosatu comrades are, of course, also members of the ANC.
And the SACP has always featured prominently in post-apartheid governments - currently there are six SACP ministers, including Rob Davies, who has been trade and industry minister since 2009, and the party general secretary, Blade Nzimande, who has the transport portfolio. Interestingly another of the six is someone who is not listed by Wikipedia as an SACP man: Gwede Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources. Up until the end of last year Mantashe had been ANC general secretary, but, following the ANC’s internal elections of December 2017, he was named ANC national chair. While the South African media do not usually refer to his SACP membership, he remains a member of its central committee, according to the SACP’s own website.2
How many of the ANC’s 249 MPs are SACP members? This is not a widely publicised statistic and I have only seen two articles where a precise figure has been ventured. One stated that there are 17, while the other claimed the true figure was 80! Clearly the party itself is not exactly forthcoming with this information, but I would estimate that between 30 and 40 of the ANC’s MPs are party members.
The reality is that the SACP has continued to play a central political role - even though the ANC (on behalf of which its government members have operated) has been implementing a programme which has moved a very long way from the social democratic elements of the Freedom Charter.
How does the party justify all this? Well, it still insists that the ANC has been leading the “national democratic revolution” (NDR), whose aim has been to overcome “racialised inequality” and open the way to socialism. Of course, this has led to frequent accusations of stagism - a claim which the SACP vigorously denies: in fact the NDR is the “most direct route to socialism in South Africa”, according to numerous party documents. It is part of an uninterrupted process and a necessary prerequisite for socialism (in one country, of course).
So how has the NDR been progressing in reality? Well, out of a population of 56 million, there are approximately 10 million shack-dwellers and officially 5.9 million unemployed people of working age. That represents 27% of the population and, even so, is actually a considerable underestimate - especially when you consider that hundreds of thousands have simply given up looking for employment: they try to make ends meet as best as they can - by, for instance, buying and selling various commodities to passing motorists at road junctions.
So what of actual inequality? Well, according to the World Bank’s Dr Paul Noumba Um, more than 75% of South Africans “slipped into poverty” at least once between 2008 and 2015:
Half of South Africans during the 2008 to 2014-15 period were considered chronically poor or having average consumption below the upper-bound poverty line. At least 78% of South Africans were in poverty at least once during this period ... About 40% of South Africans lived below the lower-bound poverty line in 2015, up from 36.4% in 2011.3
In other words, inequality has substantially increased. The Gini coefficient - recognised as the best measure of economic inequality - stood at 0.65 in 2015, making South Africa officially the most unequal country in the world. And, while a small number of whites have themselves been dragged into poverty and a tiny minority of blacks have escaped it, I think it is safe to say that, as a result of the legacy of first colonialism and then apartheid, inequality remains “racialised”.
Unsurprisingly, recent years have seen increasing disillusionment in the ANC, whose election returns have been steadily declining. And the grip of the SACP over the trade union movement has gradually been weakening, as more and more longstanding members have begun to see through all its talk of the NDR being the “most direct route to socialism”.
A turning point came in August 2012 with the Marikana massacre, when 34 striking miners were shot dead by police armed with automatic weapons. The role of the current president Cyril Ramaphosa in the slaughter has been well chronicled. Ramaphosa - who had a substantial monetary interest in Lonmin, the British-owned company that employed the strikers - sent out several emails claiming that, far from being engaged in a simple industrial dispute, they were “dastardly criminals”; what was needed was unspecified “concomitant action”. The very next day the largely unarmed 34 miners were mowed down - many were shot in the back while trying to escape being killed.
Of course, the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu unions had been placing a large portion of the blame on the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu): if you rebel against SACP-led unions, you deserve everything that might come your way. The SACP position had been that there was violence on all sides, so let’s not rush to draw any conclusions - wait for the official enquiry (which, as expected, turned out to be a complete whitewash).
It was in these circumstances that former SACP loyalists began to see the light. In 2013 the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), under the leadership of former SACP stalwart Irvin Jim, decided that enough was enough. Its annual conference agreed to withdraw support from both the ANC and SACP, and work towards the formation of a new workers’ party. Despite the fact that Numsa is the largest South African union, with around 338,000 members, Cosatu responded by expelling it from the federation in 2014 - under the pretence that it had been ‘poaching’ other unions’ members.
Now Numsa has set up another union federation - the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), which claims 700,000 members, as opposed to Cosatu’s 1.8 million. Note that there were other, smaller federations already in existence and the country’s total union membership stands at some 3.4 million (compared to 5.9 million unemployed, remember).
So what has happened to the new workers’ party promised by Numsa and Irvin Jim? Well, not very much. On May Day this year Numsa announced that the “Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party” would be formed before the end of 2018 and in July, speaking at an event organised by the Socialist Workers Party here in Britain, Ronnie Kasrils - the former SACP member and ANC minister, who himself has become increasingly disillusioned - declared that the SRWP will be launched in October.
Since then the South African section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, called the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), has indicated that the launch will actually take place in December. But Wasp is less than fully supportive of such a new party. According to Sheri Hamilton, “Our attitude towards the SRWP is that if it wants to play a role in filling the working class political vacuum then it should be open, democratic and built on the basis of a federal structure, which unfortunately is not the case at the moment.”4
It is typical of the CWI that, whatever position on such matters is adopted in Britain must apply everywhere else. So, if anything, the SRWP will be too leftwing for Wasp - what South Africa needs most of all, according to the CWI, is the equivalent of the Labour Party, not a party proclaiming itself to be revolutionary.
But, in reality, while SACP leaders like comrade Jim use revolutionary and Marxist terminology, they actually yearn for the good old days of the Freedom Charter. They openly call for a return to the social democratic policies it espoused. And, while Numsa et al do not harp on too much about “racialised inequality”, they do identify the main problem as “white monopoly capitalism”. In response to this the SACP correctly asks whether ‘black monopoly capitalism’ would be any better.
So will the SRWP be formed in time to contest the 2019 general election? That remains to be seen. But we do know that the ANC’s overall majority could now be under threat. In the late 1990s it won two-thirds of the parliamentary seats - enough to be able to change the constitution. But in the 2016 local elections the ANC was down to 54% support - it lost control of several major cities as a result.
However, under South Africa’s completely proportional electoral system, whereby the percentage vote recorded for a given party is translated into the same proportion of MPs - and there is no artificial minimum threshold - even the smallest of parties has a chance of electoral success. There are 400 seats in parliament, which means that just 0.25% of the total vote is required for the election of any MP.
The largest opposition grouping is at present the Democratic Alliance, which polls at around 20%. The DA traces its roots to the founding of the (whites-only) liberal, anti-apartheid Progressive Party back in 1959. Now it boasts a black leader, but its main support still comes from the white population, as well as people of mixed race (still referred to using the apartheid-era label of ‘coloured’).
Then there is the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters, which refers to the SACP as the “so-called Communist Party”. But the EFF is in reality African-nationalist, despite the fact that its members sport red berets. While the EFF marks another sign of the disillusionment in the ANC, it is not at all progressive, as sections of the left claim, including the Socialist Workers Party. It has no organisational connection to the working class. But the EFF does not look any more likely than the DA to challenge the ANC as the country’s largest party.
However, the SACP itself has reacted to the loss of illusions in the ANC - especially with the rampant corruption that characterised the presidency of Jacob Zuma - with talk of a new “popular front”, and the need for a “reconfigured alliance” with the ANC. Such talk increased more and more towards the end of Zuma’s second term, with the SACP claiming that South Africa had fallen victim to “state capture” by capitalists, thanks to the influence in particular of the Gupta brothers, who were said to exert extraordinary influence over Zuma, allegedly dictating who should be appointed to head various ministries. In 2017 the SACP consistently called for Zuma to stand down.
As a result, while the ANC has been losing support, SACP membership has been shooting up. At its congress in July 2017 it announced a total membership of 284,000, organised in “over 100 branches” across the country. However, there is something not quite right about those two figures. They would mean that each branch has on average 2,840 members - rather a lot, don’t you think? The truth is that for the SACP - rather like the SWP here in Britain - a ‘member’ is someone who has done the equivalent of filling in an application form. In other words, the official membership figure does not accurately reflect the number of actual activists.
However, I have no reason to doubt that support for the SACP has been growing substantially - that official figure has more than doubled in the last few years. This has been driven by the same loss of faith that has seen the creation of the EFF and the moves towards the SRWP - despite the fact that the SACP has played an important role within the ANC, not least through ministers like Rob Davies.
But the SACP continues to employ revolutionary jargon, such as the slogan, ‘Socialism is the future - build it now’. It insists that now we need to move rapidly towards the “second, more radical phase of the national democratic revolution”.
It is now very likely that the SACP will contest the 2019 general election under its own name - the “reconfigured alliance” will be formed afterwards, between ANC and SACP MPs, if the leadership’s wishes come to fruition. And there will undoubtedly be SACP MPs elected, thanks to the party-list system of proportional representation.
In my view the fact that the SACP could stand under its own name is objectively positive - without wishing to exaggerate the situation, it is a (modest) move towards working class independence. And there is a certain parallel between the huge increase in its official membership and the pro-Corbyn movement here in Britain. Both are a reaction to the politics of the mainstream and the desire for a positive alternative. And both provide Marxists with a site for struggle.
While very few of those who have junked the SACP and called for a working class alternative - ie, those in Numsa and other unions - have anything approaching genuine Marxist politics, they are at least for the working class. The truth is, they should have remained in the SACP and fought within it. It is a milieu within which revolutionaries can work in order to fight - not only for working class independence, but for genuine Marxism.
But now there could be a second such milieu in the shape of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party - if it happens. There is no matter of principle that states we must work within one rather than the other - it is a question of judgement and individual circumstances.
One thing is for sure - the working class is in desperate need of a principled, internationalist, Marxist party, and the ground in South Africa is much more fertile for the formation of such a party on a mass basis than it is in Britain.
1. ‘The path to power’: www.sacp.org.za/main.php?ID=2638.