Despite retreats and prevarication, writes Peter Manson, the objective conditions for working class advance remain
The optimism on the South African left over two possible developments has unfortunately been very rapidly dissipating over the recent period.
The first relates to the South African Communist Party and the decision it took at its July 2017 congress to stand candidates under its own name in the 2019 general election. The SACP has, of course, been a key component of the cross-class alliance led by the African National Congress, and the decision to stand against the ANC was seen as at least a step towards working class independence.
The second cause for optimism was the announcement made on May Day by the country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. Numsa, which claims 340,000 members, declared that it would be launching the “Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party” as a rival to the SACP’s popular frontism “before the end of the year”.1
But it looks very much as though neither development will actually transpire. In the case of the new party, there has not been a single public update relating to the when, where and how, even though it is now over five months since the initial announcement and there are less than three months before “the end of the year”. What there have been, however, are persistent rumours of deep divisions and a bitter falling out between the two principal leaders - Irvin Jim, Numsa’s general secretary, and Zwelinzima Vavi, the expelled former general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
As for the SACP, following its July 2017 congress it announced that there needed to be a “significant reconfiguration” of the ANC-led alliance. Whereas SACP candidates have always stood as part of the ANC slate - and, of course, have occupied very senior positions within both the ANC and the government - as from next year’s general election (expected in July), the party declared it would stand its own slate of candidates and those elected would subsequently enter into a coalition with the ANC.
In South Africa 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 (there is no minimum threshold). So it is highly likely that a good number of SACP candidates would indeed be elected.
According to a post-congress internal bulletin issued to members only, the party had “decided that the SACP must actively contest state power through elections, and that this may or may not be within an umbrella of a reconfigured alliance”.2 True, there were all sorts of ifs and buts. According to a (public) central committee statement, for example,
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.3
More contradictory, however, was the claim that “The SACP remains committed to strengthening and consolidating our ANC alliance” (my emphasis) - provided it could be ‘reconfigured’. But whether “a significant reconfiguration” of the alliance was possible was open to question, the party admitted: “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 that, of course, was towards the end of Jacob Zuma’s second term as president, when the ANC was split between pro- and anti-Zuma camps, deeply divided over allegations of presidential corruption. However, now, on the surface at least, most of those divisions appear to have healed and the main components of both sides have united behind the new (viciously anti-working class) president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
But then, last month, there was another congress. Cosatu, the largest union federation in South Africa, has always been totally dominated by the SACP and so it was expected to rubber-stamp the new party line on elections.
However, a motion proposed by three unions was carried overwhelmingly:
Cosatu must encourage the SACP to finalise the modalities and also convene the party’s special national congress to firmly take a conclusive view on the state power. Once the SACP is firm and clear at what point would it contest state power through [the] electoral system, Cosatu should convene its [own] special national congress to determine its support to the SACP resolution.4
But the motion continued:
In the meantime, Cosatu should reaffirm its position to support the African National Congress (ANC) in 2019 national general elections, while working with the SACP in building a popular left movement through a joint programme to mobilise the working class around its resolution and theoretically clarify its revolutionary basis (my emphasis).
In other words, Cosatu’s position is based on the (presumably accurate) assumption that the SACP will not be contesting in July 2019 under its own name. So instead we have a plea to the ANC for a specific form of “reconfiguration”, whereby “all alliance partners are treated as equals”. Specifically, according to another successful motion, “Cosatu and the SACP should engage the ANC on establishing a minimum quota in its leadership structures for SACP and Cosatu cadres at all levels as a minimum requirement.”
So South Africa’s main political party, the ANC, together with the rather smaller SACP (despite its claimed membership of almost 300,000) and a trade union federation, should all be “treated as equals”, when it comes to political decision-making. Presumably Cosatu believes that such a “reconfiguration” - which the ANC right would never for a moment even consider - would transform it into a pro-working class formation. But why would the ANC’s rightwing, pro-capitalist leadership majority want to be part of such an alliance?
More importantly from our point of view, why should working class organisations seek to remain in alliance with a party that has, for more than a decade, been implementing a neoliberal programme of cuts and privatisation (with the active participation of SACP ministers)?
This programme has resulted in huge disillusionment among workers and the poor - to the extent that there is now a serious possibility that the ANC will lose its parliamentary majority next year. Of course, it is certain to remain the largest party, but there is no way its 62% return in 2014 will be replicated next year. For example, in the 2016 municipal elections it had dropped to 54%.
At least those like the Numsa leadership - which, until a few years ago was itself firmly under the SACP umbrella - have now realised that the party’s talk of completing the “national democratic revolution” under ANC leadership as “the most direct route to socialism in South Africa” is a pathetic daydream. But instead of looking for answers within the Marxism they claim to uphold, they yearn for the golden days of the ANC’s Freedom Charter, which they imagine would in and of itself produce some form of ‘socialism’.
Despite the twin causes of optimism being very likely dashed, the objective situation remains positive. There is huge popular support for the idea of working class power and socialism (however it is conceived), but, as elsewhere, the ability to provide this mass sentiment with principled organisational leadership has been sadly lacking.
Genuine Marxists should be prepared to work wherever they can relate to those masses - whether that is in the SACP, with its hugely increased membership and radicalised rank and file, or within a new formation that calls itself a Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party - if it happens!
2. ‘Reconfigure the alliance: drive the second, radical phase of the national democratic revolution’, internal bulletin, July 2017.
3. ‘Declaration of the 14th Party Congress’, July 15 2017.
4. The successful motion has not been published by Cosatu, it seems, although it has been reproduced on various pro-SACP email lists.